One From the Archive: ‘The Happy Tree’ by Rosalind Murray *****

Rosalind Murray’s The Happy Tree, the 108th book on the Persephone list, was first published in 1926.  This beautiful novel has so many themes delicately threaded through its plot – family, politics, wartime, love, friendship, jealousy and, perhaps most importantly for its protagonist, the notion and hardships of growing up.

The storyline of The Happy Tree alone sounds like a perfect pick for the lovely Persephone list.  Our protagonist is Helen Woodruffe, a grown woman who is looking back on her life and the choices which she has made: ‘And this is all that has happened.  It does not seem very much.  It does not seem worth writing about.  I was happy when I was a child, and I married the wrong person, and some one I loved dearly was killed in the war… that was all.  And all those things must be true of thousands of people’.  In her childhood, she tells us in the novel’s opening chapter, she divided her time between her grandmother’s London house and her cousins’ home, a country estate named Yearsly: ‘There, sometimes under a special “Happy Tree”, she passes an idyllic childhood with Guy and Hugo Laurier’, hopelessly falling for the latter.  Of her cousins, Helen tells us, ‘they were and are to me all I could wish for anyone to be, and I cannot wish anything at all different about them’.

The opening of The Happy Tree draws one in immediately, and sets the tone for the rest of the novel: ‘Once I would have minded it so much, to live here, looking out at that laburnum tree, and that house opposite, that bow window, and the yellowish stone facings of the windows, and the lilac bush that has grown all crooked, and the pink hawthorn, and the laurels with patterned leaves; but now I do not mind.  Now I do not see these things or think about them at all; only tonight I am seeing them, because somehow I have come awake tonight, for a bit’.  The sense of place within the novel comes together marvellously through Murray’s carefully tuned descriptions.

Helen is the most wonderful narrator, and Murray is very aware of her as a distinct being, and of her persona, thoughts and feelings: ‘And my life up to now comes before me very clearly; the people and the places, and the choices and mistakes, and I seem to see it all in better proportion than before; less clouded and blurred across by the violent emotion of youth’.  She is very candid throughout, and lets us in to her secrets, as it were.  Of her mother’s seeming lack of care – one may even go as far as to say neglect – which allowed her to go and live with Cousin Delia, the mother of Guy and Hugo, after her father’s death, she says: ‘If she had kept me with her I don’t know what would have happened.  I don’t know how I could have grown up at all’.

The well-considered introduction to The Happy Tree has been penned by Charlotte Mitchell.  She writes of the way in which the novel resembles ‘many of her [Murray’s] other writings, fiction and non-fiction, in examining the world she was brought up in and the choices it had offered a woman like herself’.  She goes on to say that: ‘with all the usual caveats about treating fiction as autobiography, it is evident that the novel depicts Rosalind’s own situation pretty closely’.  The Happy Tree is a marvellous novel, filled with fluid characters, beautiful writing, and such consideration for every scene.

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Neglected Women Writers’ Month: Dorothy Canfield Fisher

Dorothy Canfield Fisher is published by both Persephone and Virago, but I have personally found her books rather difficult to get hold of thus far, and have therefore decided to include her as part of Neglected Women Writers’ Month.  She had an absolutely fascinating life, and did many admirable things, including her overseeing of the United States’ first adult education program, and serving as a judge on the Book of the Month’s selection committee between 1925 and 1951.
clfisher1.png__320x295_q85_subsampling-2Named after Dorothea in George Eliot’s Middlemarch, Dorothea Frances Canfield was born in Kansas in February 1879.  She earnt a doctoral degree from Columbia in 1904, and was the first woman to receive an honorary degree from Dartmouth College.  Dorothea Canfield married John Redwood Fisher in 1907, had two children, and spent all of her adult life in Vermont, which served as the setting for many of her books.  During the First World War, she travelled to France where her husband was stationed, raising her two young children in Paris, and working to establish a Braille press for soldiers who had been blinded.  Alongside her novels, Dorothy Canfield Fisher also published several short story collections, and a plethora of non-fiction works.

“… there are two ways to meet life; you may refuse to care until indifference becomes a habit, a defensive armor, and you are safe – but bored. Or you can care greatly, live greatly, until life breaks you on its wheel.”

Bibliography (Novels):

  • Gunhild (1907)
  • The Squirrel-Cage (1912)
  • The Bent Twig (1915)
  • The Real Motive (1916).
  • Fellow Captains (1916)
  • Understood Betsy (1917)
  • Home Fires in France (1918)
  • The Day of Glory (1919)
  • The Brimming Cup (1921)
  • Rough-Hewn (1922)
  • The Home-Maker (1924)
  • Her Son’s Wife (1926)
  • The Deepening Stream (1930)
  • Bonfire (1933)
  • Seasoned Timber (1939)


– The Dorothy Canfield Fisher Award, to praise young readers in Vermont, was set up in her honour.  Read about it here.
– The friendship of Dorothy Canfield Fisher and Willa Cather is fascinatingly analysed here.



One From the Archive: ‘Into the Whirlwind’ by Eugenia Ginzburg ****

‘Journey Into the Whirlwind’ by Eugenia Semyonovna Ginzburg

First published in April 2014.

Eugenia Ginzburg’s Into the Whirlwind is a ‘highly detailed first-hand account of one woman’s life and imprisonment in the Soviet Union during the rule of Stalin in the 1930s’.  It is the first of her two volumes of memoirs, which was smuggled out of Russia, and was ‘later sold in many different languages’.  It was not published in Ginzburg’s native Russia until 1990, and is about to be reprinted by Persephone, with a translation by Paul Stevenson and Manya Hararit.

Ginzburg was a history teacher, and belonged to the Communist Party. However, she was expelled from its membership in 1937, and was sent to a gulag in the far east of Russia, where she consequently lived as a prisoner for eighteen years.  In writing her memoirs, she felt that ‘it was her duty to bear witness and trained her extraordinary memory to record everything…  What comes across in reading Into the Whirlwind is not merely the senseless brutality and waste of the regime, but the overwhelming strength of the human spirit’.

Into the Whirlwind has been split into two parts and fifty seven chapters in all.  Ginzburg has opened her account with the murder of early Bolshevik leader Kirov.  She is summoned, along with around forty other workers, to go to factories around Russia and inform them of what has happened.  She is told that ‘the murderer was a communist’, which filled her with a ‘presentiment of terrible misfortune’.  It provides a foreshadowing of awful events to come for Ginzburg.  When a man whom she worked with, Elvov, is arrested by the party, a whirlwind of events begins to spiral for her: ‘I had not denounced Elvov as a purveyor of Trotskyist contraband…  I had not, even once, attacked him at a public meeting’.  She says: ‘1935 was a frightful year for me.  My nerves were at breaking point, and I was obsessed with thoughts of suicide’.  As their investigations into her progressed, Ginzburg writes: ‘The snowball was rolling downhill, growing disastrously and threatening to smother me’.

Throughout, Ginzburg presents herself as such a strong woman, writing that ‘in those days no power on earth could have made me join in the orgy of ‘confessions’ and ‘penitence’ which was just beginning’.  She writes, quite matter-of-factly, that ‘human beings can get used to anything, even the most frightful evils’.  From the very first page, her account is fascinating.  It is astonishing to think that this entire book was memorised, which is such an incredible feat.  Into the Whirlwind is such a brave book to have written, and reliving some of the things within it must have been nothing short of horrific – leaving her family for the last time, for example, after being arrested under the guise of the party wanting to question her about Elvov.  The entirety has such an honest feel to it, and it is certainly another fitting addition to the Persephone list.

Quite an extensive section of notes which explain who some of those affiliated with the party were, as well as political terms and party details, has been included, along with an informative afterword written by Sir Rodric Braithwaite.  Into the Whirlwind is such an important book, and one which should be read by everyone.

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One From the Archive: ‘Wilfred and Eileen’ by Jonathan Smith ****

Jonathan Smith’s first novel, Wilfred and Eileen, is quite a rarity among Persephone reprints, for two reasons; the first is that the novel was written by a man, and the second is that that man is still living.  Wilfred and Eileen was first published in 1976, and is the 107th book on the Persephone list.  It was made into a television mini-series in 1980, and the Persephone reprint contains an afterword written by Smith himself.  The book’s endpapers are from a design by Vanessa Bell.

Endpapers from ‘Wilfred and Eileen’ by Jonathan Smith

Wilfred and Eileen is based upon true events, telling the story as it does of the grandparents of one of Smith’s former pupils.  The novel begins in Cambridge in 1913, and describes the life of protagonist and Trinity College student Wilfred Willett and his fiancee Eileen, who met at the University’s annual May Ball.  Their consequent clandestine marriage is well set out, as is the way in which they hid it from their disapproving parents, neither of which thought that their child’s choice of partner was quite good enough.  We are told that ‘it is Wilfred’s survival after being wounded in battle that is at the heart of the book’.

At the start of the story, Wilfred is just finishing his degree: ‘Wilfred’s rooms would in a few months’ time be someone else’s.  Other pictures would be on the wall, a different Pater and Mater on the mantelpiece…  The basketwork armchair, the central throne of the castle, would belong to some insignificant young fellow’.  He is determined to become a great surgeon: ‘Despite being tied to his family by the allowance [which they gave him], he hoped Hospital would be a new context, a wider passage.  In his blood, in his stomach, he felt the steadiness of the past giving ground to an unsure, vigorous future’.  He is a much revered member of Trinity College, and is looked to by other students for both approval and assurance.

Eileen Stenhouse, on the other hand, is said to live ‘a life of ease and abundance’.  The two first get to know each other on a walk whilst they are sitting out the thirteenth dance of the evening, an event ‘made possible by a curious set of circumstances – the drink, a strange ethereal light and her superstition’. Eileen is a very determined character – ‘This most adaptable and sensitive girl was revealing the firmness which perhaps had attracted Wilfred that night in Cambridge’ – and she and Wilfred are both portrayed as strong and passionate beings.  The second chapter of the novel moves from Cambridge to London, where Wilfred and Eileen both live, and where Wilfred has begun to work at the London Hospital.

The novel has been intelligently written throughout, and Smith has a knack for deftly building scenes.  At the May Ball, for example, ‘soon all was bewitching music, tilted heads, glancing eyes and gliding feet’.  The third person perspective which the author has made use of works well, and allows the reader to see both Wilfred and Eileen, along with the development of their relationship: ‘She wanted him to go on talking in this lively way, for hours…  But she must not keep him from his work, she had no right to do that.  As she glanced at him a dark cloud of possession passed over her.  No, she must not think of him like that’.  Details of the period have been worked in well, from medical advances which were new at the time to the pressure which one felt to join up when war was declared, and from Suffragettes to the writing of wartime letters.

The entirety of Wilfred and Eileen has been very sensitively and believably wrought, and the story is well paced.  The novel is a deserving addition to the Persephone list, and it is certainly fascinating at times, and eminently readable throughout.  Smith has brilliantly exemplified courage in the face of wartime, and there is not a fan of Persephone’s prints who will not enjoy this novel.

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Classics Club #62: ‘Saplings’ by Noel Streatfeild *****

As with most of the books which I blog about, it seems, I have wanted to read Noel Streatfeild’s Saplings for a very long time indeed.  I have heard only excellent things about it, and the fact that it is published by Persephone was another huge selling point as far as I was concerned.  I rather adored Streatfeild’s Ballet Shoes when I read it a couple of years ago, and thought that Saplings would be the perfect summertime read.  (I can only apologise, therefore, that this post is going out in Autumn.)

Saplings, originally published in 1945, tells of the Wiltshires, a middle class London family whom, at the outset, are taking their annual summer holiday in Eastbourne.  As a unit, they are largely incredibly contented, and war seems like a proposition which is very far away.  Streatfeild thrusts us right into the heart of the family.  We meet the six almost simultaneously; parents Alex and Lena, and the four children – Laurel, Tony, Kim, and Thursday.  Streatfeild’s aim, says Dr Jeremy Holmes, the author of the book’s introduction, was to take a happy pre-war familial unit, and then track, ‘in miserable detail the disintegration and devastation which war brought to thousands of such families’.

The novel’s beginning captivated me entirely: ‘As the outgoing tide uncovered the little stretch of sand amongst the pebbles, the children took possession of it, marking it as their own with their spades, pails, shrimping nets and their mother’s camp stool’.  Throughout, one of Streatfeild’s many strengths is the way in which she captures emotions so deftly: ‘The cool air, the fresh smell of the sea, the knowledge that it was another lovely day and there were no lessons and few restrictions, filled the children with that sort of happiness that starts in the solar plexus and rises to the throat, and then, before it can reach the top of the head, has to be given an outlet: anything will do, violent action, shouting or just silliness’.  She is an incredibly perceptive author, particularly with regard to the portrayal of her younger protagonists: ‘Laurel, back on the raft, attempted some more backward dives.  Each month or two she tried to be first-class at something.  She had discovered that if you were admittedly good at something, it seemed to allow you to be just ordinary about everything else’.

To continue with this theme, Streatfeild views many of her scenes from every possible angle, taking into account the thoughts and feelings of all involved at any given time.  Of Laurel, for example, her father thinks the following: ‘It was in his mind to tell her how proud he was.  How he loved her comic small face and her fair pig-tails, and her earnestness, and her elder sister ways which were such an endearing part of the family set-up; but he held back his thoughts.  No good going in for a lot of chat, making her self-conscious’.  Turning to Lena, the matriarch, Streatfeild writes the following: ‘Lena could see herself, fair and slim, little Tuesday lolling against her and exquisite Kim playing around, and she knew what a picture she must look, and the thought amused rather than pleased her.  There was nothing she liked better than to be envied and admired…  The children were darlings, but she was not a family woman, she was utterly wife, and, if it came to that, a mistress too, and she meant to go on being just these things’.

Everything changes for the Wiltshires as soon as they return to their London home.  The children are split up, some going off to school, and others being sent to live with relatives in the country: ‘Laurel had alternated between tears and a kind of hectic pseudo-gaiety ever since the move to Gran’s and Grandfather’s was certain and her school uniform purchased.  She was scared. At eleven she understood what was going on around her. She had watched the hasty evacuation of other children.  She had heard scraps of conversation…  As a shield she made loud fun of all war precautions’.

Streatfeild’s descriptions are gorgeous, particularly in those instances where she takes the hopes, thoughts and feelings of her characters into account.  A particularly striking example of this is as follows: ‘Now and again, when the sky was blue, and the trees glittered, incredibly green, and the scent of young bracken filled his nostrils, he forgot everything except the glory of the day and the fun of being alive’.  Incredibly well crafted, and utterly beautiful, Saplings is a novel which really gets into the psychology of wartime, and demonstrates just how much of a knock-on affect it had from the beginning.

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Finding Reading Challenges… Well… Challenging!

I have been an awful reader of late.  Rather than getting through tomes at my usual pace, I have been rather busy, and have let my reading slide in consequence.  I was away for half of August, first in France and Belgium with my parents, and then in Oslo with my boyfriend – and reading was, understandably, not my main priority.

Perhaps predictably, then, I have failed with my 20 Books of Summer challenge.  I am also struggling to keep up with my Virago and Persephone lists; I had not set myself numeric goals to get through a prescribed number each month, but I have not been purchasing books, and have fallen behind somewhat.  The same can be said for mine and Yamini’s Fifty Women Challenge.  I have had to reschedule some old posts to keep up with the aforementioned, and there is no way that I will meet the target by the end of the year.  I am fully resigned to the fact that I probably will not meet my Classics Club target either, as University reading obviously has to take priority.

From now on, then, I am not going to be subscribing to any reading challenges.  Whilst I love creating the initial lists, and beginning to read from them, I never find that I am entirely satisfied with my reading pace.  I am going to be completing my Classics Club list, but may need more time in which to do so.  I will also be finishing my Virago and Persephone lists, but these are evidently longterm goals, rather than those which I will be able to complete soon.

Here ends this rather depressing post; I can only cross my fingers that my reading picks up a little in future.


One From the Archive: ‘Little Boy Lost’ by Marghanita Laski *****

With the exception of one book on the Persephone list (Heat Lightning by Helen Hull), I have very much enjoyed those which I have read so far.  I purchased Little Boy Lost just a week or two before I started reading it, and began it whilst on a trip to London.  I was so engrossed that I probably would have missed my stop, had King’s Cross not been the end of the line.

I cannot do the fabulous blurb of this book justice, so I have copied it below:

Hilary Wainwright, an English soldier, returns to a blasted and impoverished France during World War Two in order to trace a child lost five years before. But is this small, quiet boy in a grim orphanage really his son? And what if he is not? In this exquisitely crafted novel, we follow Hilary’s struggle to love in the midst of a devastating war.

“Facing him was a thin little boy in a black sateen overall. Its sleeves were too short and from them dangled red swollen hands too big for the frail wrists. Hilary looked from these painful hands to the little boy’s long thin grubby legs, to the crude coarse socks falling over shabby black boots that were surely several sizes too large. It’s a foreign child, he thought numbly . . .”

Little Boy Lost has many layers within it – grief, love, loss, the French Resistance movements, friendships, displacement – and everything has been so well balanced.  I do not wish to give too much away in my review, but the arc of the story is perfect, the characters – particularly the children – marvellously drawn, and the psychology believable.  It has been beautifully written, and Laski’s is a style which is incredibly easy to immerse oneself into.  I was on tenterhooks throughout, and this much adored novel ranks among my favourite Persephones so far.

Hilary Wainwright, an English soldier, returns to a blasted and impoverished France during World War Two in order to trace a child lost five years before. But is this small, quiet boy in a grim orphanage really his son? And what if he is not? In this exquisitely crafted novel, we follow Hilary’s struggle to love in the midst of a devastating war.

“Facing him was a thin little boy in a black sateen overall. Its sleeves were too short and from them dangled red swollen hands too big for the frail wrists. Hilary looked from these painful hands to the little boy’s long thin grubby legs, to the crude coarse socks falling over shabby black boots that were surely several sizes too large. It’s a foreign child, he thought numbly . . .”

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