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Virago: Ten Books from the Wishlist

Virago are currently celebrating their fortieth birthday, and along with a week-long celebration of their novels, I thought that it would be a good idea to select ten of the books on their wonderful Modern Classics list which I haven’t yet got to.  I did make a conscious effort for several years to choose books from this list, in order to try and get through it and discover some wonderful literature.  However, it has expanded considerably in recent years, along with my TBR list, and I have not got as far with the project as I would have liked.  I am hopeful that, by making this list, I will be able to seek out these particular Viragos and read them in the near future.

 

1396471. A Pin to See the Peepshow by F. Tennyson Jesse (#11)
A Pin to See the Peepshow is a fictionalized account of the life of Edith Thompson, one of the three main players in the “Ilford murder” case of 1922.

2. Joanna Godden by Sheila Kaye-Smith (#115)
Joanna Godden is a ‘damn fine women’, big and blue-eyed with a brown freckled face and a weakness for fancy clothes. On the death bed of her father all her neighbours expect her to marry, for someone (some man) must run Little Ansdore, the Sussex farm she inherits. But Joanna is a person of independent mind: she decides to run it herself. Her strength as a woman and a lover, as a sister and a farmer are all broken by her defiance of convention and the inexorable demands of the land itself. But nothing can finally defeat Joanna: she bounces off the page triumphant, one of the most ebullient, most attractive country heroines in literature.
3. The Skin Chairs by Barbara Comyns (#224) 2702636
Her father dies and the ten-year-old Frances, her mother and assorted siblings are taken under the wing of their horsey relations, led by bullying Aunt Lawrence. Their new home is small and they can’t afford a maid. Mother occasionally dabs at the furniture with a duster and sister Polly rules the kitchen. Living in patronised poverty isn’t much fun but Frances makes friends with Mrs. Alexander who has a collection of monkeys and a yellow motor car, and the young widow, Vanda, who is friendly if the Major isn’t due to call. But times do change and one day Aunt Lawrence gets her come-uppance and Frances goes to live in the house with “the skin chairs.”
4. In a Summer Season by Elizabeth Taylor (#112)
Kate Heron is a wealthy, charming widow who marries, much to the disapproval of friends and neighbours, a man ten years her junior: the attractive, feckless Dermot. Then comes the return of Kate’s old friend Charles – intelligent, kind and now widowed, with his beautiful young daughter. Kate watches happily as their two families are drawn together, finding his presence reassuringly familiar, but slowly she becomes aware of subtle undercurrents that begin to disturb the calm surface of their friendship. Before long, even she cannot ignore the gathering storm . . .
233532245. The Corner That Held Them by Sylvia Townsend Warner (#299)
In memory of the wife who had once dishonoured and always despised him, Brian de Retteville founded a 12th-century convent in Norfolk. Two centuries later, the Benedictine community is well established there and, as befits a convent whose origin had such ironic beginnings, the inhabitants are prey to the ambitions, squabbles, jealousies, and pleasures of less spiritual environments. An outbreak of the Black Death, the collapse of the convent spire, the Bishop’s visitation, and a nun’s disappearance are interwoven with the everyday life of the nuns, novices, and prioresses in this imagined history of a 14th-century nunnery.
6. Pirates at Play by Violet Trefusis (#416)
Published to coincide with a biography of Violet Trefusis, this romantic comedy set in the Twenties shows young aristocrat, Elizabeth Caracole being finished in Florence with the family of a Papal count – the dentist. All five brothers fall for her, but their sister, Vica, has plans of her own.
7. Plagued by the Nightingale by Kay Boyle (#47) 1188052
This extraordinary novel, first published in 1931, recounts the love story of the American girl Bridget and the young Frenchman Nicolas whom she marries. Bridget goes to live with his wealthy, close-knit family in their Breton village and finds there a group — mother, father, sisters, and brother-in-law — who love each other to the exclusion of the outside world.  But it is a love that festers, for the family is tainted with an inherited bone disease, a plague which, Bridget slowly discovers, can also infect the soul. Then Luc — young, handsome, healthy — arrives and Bridget is faced with a choice: confronting the Old World with the courage of the New she makes the bravest choice of all…  In subtle, rich and varied prose Kay Boyle echoes Henry James in a novel at once lyrical, delicate and shocking.
8. The World My Wilderness by Rose Macaulay (#104)
Banished by her mother to England, Barbara is thrown into the ordered formality of English life. Confused and unhappy, she discovers the wrecked and flowering wastes around St Paul’s, where she finds an echo of the wilderness of Provence and is forced to confront the wilderness within herself.
13430229. The Fire-Dwellers by Margaret Laurence (#304)
The Fire-Dwellers is an extraordinary novel about a woman who has four children, a hard-working but uncommunicative husband, a spinster sister, and an abiding conviction that life has more to offer her than the tedious routine of her days.  Margaret Laurence has given us another unforgettable heroine – human, compelling, full of poetry, irony and humour. In the telling of her life, Stacey rediscovers for us all the richness of the commonplace, the pain and beauty in being alive, and the secret music that dances in everyone’s soul.
10. I’m Not Complaining by Ruth Adam (#124)
Madge Brigson is a teacher in a Nottinghamshire Elementary school in the 1930s. Here, with her colleagues – ranging from the beautiful, “promiscuous” Jenny to the earnest communist Freda and kind, spinsterish Miss Jones – she battles with the trials and tribulations of that special world: nits in the hair, abusive parents, inspectors’ visits, eternal registers, malnutrition, staff quarrels and staff love affairs. To all of this Madge presents an uncompromisingly intelligent and commonsensical face: laughter is never far away as she copes with her pupils, with the harsh circumstances of life in the Depression, and with her own love affair. For Madge is a splendid heroine: determined, perceptive, warm-hearted, she deals with life, and love, unflinchingly and gets the most out of the best – and worst – of it.

 

Are you a fan of Virago?  Have you read any of these books?  Which books from the Modern Classics list do you have on your TBR pile to read, and which are you wishing for?

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5

Neglected Women Writers’ Month: Sheila Kaye-Smith

Sheila Kaye-Smith was known for her many novels set in the borderlands of Sussex and Kent, the former in which she lived for the majority of her life.

NPG x90081; Sheila Kaye-Smith by Elliott & Fry

by Elliott & Fry, vintage print, 1920s

Born in Sussex in 1887, Sheila was a distant relative of M.M. Kaye, the author of The Far Pavilions.  In 1924, she married the Anglican clergyman Theodore Penrose Fry, and both converted to the Catholic Church in 1929.  They purchased land on which they built a Catholic chapel, dedicated to St Theresa of Lisieux.  Interestingly, their home, Little Doucegrove, was later owned by Rumer Godden.

Sheila’s 1923 novel, The End of the House of Alard, became a bestseller, and her books enjoyed worldwide sales.

“Pictures of my life stretch back into what must have been my very earliest childhood…  They are not movies, then, nor are they talkies, but they are quite distinctly feelies.”

Bibliography:

  • The Tramping Methodist (1908)
  • Three against the World (1909)
  • Spell Land: The Story of a Sussex Farm (1910)
  • Samuel Richardson (1911)
  • Isle of Thorns (1913)
  • Willow’s Forge and other poems (1914)
  • Sussex Gorse (1916)
  • John Galsworthy (1916)
  • The Challenge to Sirius (1917)
  • Little England (1918)
  • Tamarisk Town (1919)
  • Green Apple Harvest (1920)
  • Joanna Godden (1921)
  • Saints in Sussex (1923) poems
  • The End of the House of Alard (1923)
  • Starbrace (1923)
  • Anglo-Catholicism (1925)
  • The George and the Crown (1925)
  • The Mirror of the Months (1925)
  • Joanna Godden Married and other Stories (1926)
  • Iron and Smoke (1928)
  • A Wedding Morn (1928)
  • The Village Doctor (1929)
  • Shepherds in Sackcloth (1930)
  • Songs Late and Early (1931)
  • Susan Spray (1931)
  • The Children’s Summer (1932)
  • The Ploughman’s Progress (1933)
  • Superstition Corner (1934)
  • Gallybird (1934)
  • Selina is Older (1935)
  • Rose Deeprose (1936)
  • Three Ways Home (1937)
  • Faithful Stranger and Other Stories (1938)
  • The Valiant Woman (1939)
  • Ember Lane (1940)
  • Tambourine, Trumpet and Drum (1943)
  • Talking of Jane Austen (1943)
  • Kitchen Fugue (1945)
  • The Lardners and the Laurelwoods (1948)
  • The Happy Tree (1949)
  • The Treasures of the Snow (1949)
  • More Talk of Jane Austen (1950)
  • Mrs. Gailey (1951)
  • The Hidden Son (1953)
  • The Weald of Kent and Sussex (1953)
  • Quartet in Heaven (1953)
  • The View from the Parsonage (1954)
  • All the Books of My Life (1956)

Snippets:
– The National Portrait Gallery’s portraits of Sheila Kaye-Smith can be seen here.
– The Sheila Kaye-Smith society was formed in 1987; find out more about it here.