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‘Selected Poems’ by Sylvia Townsend Warner ***

9780856355851I was delighted when I spotted Sylvia Townsend Warner’s Selected Poems on the shelves of my University library. I adore her prose, but had not previously ventured into her poetry, and was thus very excited to check the red-jacketed tome out. Claire Harman, Townsend Warner’s biographer, writes in her afterword that the poems here have been arranged thematically rather than chronologically, and span a fifty-year period.

There are many miniature stories to be found within the pages of Selected Poems. Whilst a nice enough collection, Selected Poems was nowhere near as varied as I was expecting it to be. I found that it lacked the sparkle and playful wit which I have come to expect from Townsend Warner’s books. There were no stanzas here which I liked enough to copy down, and there was a little too much written about religion for my personal liking. I shall have to sum up by saying that I found Selected Poems a little disappointing, and would have liked to see more about mythology and Medievalism in the collection.

I was thrilled, therefore, when I read about the New Collected Poems of Sylvia Townsend Warner whilst typing the above.  Its blurb reads as follows, and it is a tome which I certainly want to get my hands on to see how it compares:

The first “Collected Poems” of Sylvia Townsend Warner (1893-1978) was published by Carcanet in 1982. Since then, more of her work has come to light, including some of the most moving and personal poems she ever wrote. Claire Harman, the original editor and author of the prize-winning biography of the poet, has substantially revised the earlier edition, including over ninety previously uncollected and unpublished poems, with expanded notes, a chronology and an authoritative new introduction. When Harman’s Life was published, it restored Warner, one critic said, to her real place as ‘second only to Virginia Woolf among the women writers of our century’. With this collection, the extent of Warner’s achievement as a poet can be appreciated.

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Two Non-Fiction Reviews: ‘It’s Not Yet Dark’ and ‘The Diaries of Sylvia Townsend Warner’

It’s Not Yet Dark by Simon Fitzmaurice **** 22340465
The very fact that It’s Not Yet Dark exists is phenomenal, when one thinks about it; the entirety was written using an eye computer.  In his memoir, Simon Fitzmaurice charts his decline after being diagnosed with Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS), a rare form of neurological disease, which is also known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease, and Motor Neurone Disease.

Fitzmaurice’s writing is beautiful, and he goes back and forth in time throughout, creating a wonderfully lucid, and incredibly touching reflection of a life well lived.  Never does one get the impression that Fitzmaurice is pitying himself; rather, he demonstrates that he has so much to live for.  It’s Not Yet Dark is heartfelt and brave, and really makes you think about what it means to be alive.  A lovely, thoughtful, poignant, and achingly sad musing upon life, and how drastically it can change.

 

The Diaries of Sylvia Townsend Warner, edited by Claire Harman ****
9781853818851“One need not write in a diary what one is to remember for ever.” (22nd September 1930)

The Diaries of Sylvia Townsend Warner, edited by Claire Harman, has been pared down from 38 distinctive diaries found after Townsend Warner’s death.  I adore what I have read of Townsend Warner’s prose to date (Lolly Willowes is a firm favourite of mine), and hoped that I would feel just the same when reading about her own life.

The original diaries span a fifty-year period, beginning in 1927, and stretching to 1972; throughout, Townsend Warner unsurprisingly writes about an England which is dated and archaic, but still ultimately recognisable.  Her writing is sometimes quite matter-of-fact, but at others it is beautifully poetic.  It begins to almost sparkle when her enduring relationship with Valentine Ackland is at first revealed; it feels almost as though a new Townsend Warner has been revealed.  She talks less about her writing than I had anticipated; she mentions her work largely in passing, and not all that often.

The Diaries of Sylvia Townsend Warner is a lovely tome to dip in and out of.  Each entry is rich and deftly crafted.  There is a frankness here which seems surprising when one considers the dates in which the entries were written; in the late 1920s, for instance, Townsend Warner mentions masturbating, and ‘rollicking in bed’ with her female lover, Valentine.  Her diaries provide a lens into the life of a fascinating woman, who was really rather ahead of her time.

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The Book Trail: Albert Nobbs to The Pastor’s Wife

Another Book Trail is upon us.  This begins with an underrated novella which I read back in August and very much enjoyed, and takes us through a wealth of fascinating Virago-esque books.

1. Albert Nobbs by George Moore
‘Long out of print, George Moore’s classic novella returns just in time for the major motion picture starring Glenn Close as a woman disguised as a man in nineteenth-century Ireland.Set in a posh hotel in nineteenth-century Dublin, Albert Nobbs is the story of an unassuming waiter hiding a shocking secret. Forced one night to share his bed with an out-of-town laborer, Albert Nobbs’ carefully constructed facade nearly implodes when the stranger disovers his true identity-that he’s actually a woman. Forced by this revelation to look himself in the mirror, Albert sets off in a desperate pursuit of companionship and love, a search he’s unwilling to abandon so long as he’s able to preserve his fragile persona at the same time. A tale of longing and romance, Albert Nobbs is a moving and startlingly frank gender-bending tale about the risks of being true to oneself.’

2. The Friendly Young Ladies by Mary Renault 9781844089529
‘Set in 1937, The Friendly Young Ladies is a romantic comedy of off-Bloomsbury bohemia. Sheltered, naïve, and just eighteen, Elsie leaves the stifling environment of her parents’ home in Cornwall to seek out her sister, Leo, who had run away nine years earlier. She finds Leo sharing a houseboat, and a bed, with the beautiful, fair-haired Helen. While Elsie’s arrival seems innocent enough, it is the first of a series of events that will turn Helen and Leo’s contented life inside out. Soon a randy young doctor is chasing after all three women at once, a neighborly friendship begins to show an erotic tinge, and long-quiet ghosts from Leo’s past begin to surface. Before long, no one is sure just who feels what for whom.’

3. Olivia by Dorothy Strachey
‘Considered one of the most subtle and beautifully written lesbian novels of the century, this 1949 classic returns to print in a Cleis Press edition. Dorothy Strachey’s classic Olivia captures the awakening passions of an English adolescent sent away for a year to a small finishing school outside Paris. The innocent but watchful Olivia develops an infatuation for her headmistress, Mlle. Julie, and through this screen of love observes the tense romance between Mlle. Julie and the other head of the school, Mlle. Cara, in its final months.’

97808606834074. The World My Wilderness by Rose Macaulay
‘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.’

5. The Corner That Held Them by Sylvia Townsend Warner
‘In memory of the wife who had once dishonored 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 marvelous imagined history of a 14th-century nunnery.’

6. The Lost Traveller by Antonia White 9781844083695
‘When Clara returns home from the convent of her childhood to begin life at a local girls’ school, she is at a loss: although she has comparative freedom, she misses the discipline the nuns imposed and worries about keeping her faith in a secular world. Against the background of the First World War, Clara experiences the confusions of adolescence – its promise, its threat of change. She longs for love, yet fears it, and wonders what the future will hold. Then tragedy strikes and her childhood haltingly comes to an end as she realises that neither parents nor her faith can help her.’

7. Cousin Rosamund by Rebecca West
‘Rich in period detail, lyrical in its evocation of the Thames, a novel that reveals both the problems of marriage and the ecstasies of sexual love’

97818440828038. The Pastor’s Wife by Elizabeth von Arnim
‘Ingeborg Bullivant decides spontaneously to join a tour to Lucerne-and returns engaged. Yet her new life as a rural Prussian pastor’s wife restricts her as much as her old; and when the dashing artist Ingram appears, musing about wondrous Italy, wanderlust tempts her a second time. Von Arnim’s accomplished and comic novel is based on her own first marriage and life in provincial Germany at the turn of the century.’

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One From the Archive: ‘Summer Will Show’ by Sylvia Townsend Warner ***

I read and very much enjoyed Sylvia Townsend Warner’s Lolly Willowes, or The Loving Huntsman earlier this year as part of my now defunct online book group’s reading schedule.  I hoped that Summer Will Show would be just as enjoyable, but alas, I was rather disappointed with it overall.

Claire Harman’s introduction to the lovingly produced NYRB edition of Summer Will Show is wonderful.  I liked the way in which she set out the social context of the story, and of Townsend Warner’s own life in respect to it.  Let us begin with the aforementioned social elements, then.  Sophia Willoughby, Townsend Warner’s protagonist, is a modern woman in many respects, particularly with regard to when this story is set and when it was written.  She has decided to separate from her husband, who quickly moves to Paris, run a household complete with staff, bring her children up almost single-handedly, look after her Uncle Julius’ illegitimate son, and going out on male dominated hunts, for example.

'Summer Will Show' by Sylvia Townsend Warner

‘Summer Will Show’ by Sylvia Townsend Warner

Despite her strength and independence, Sophia is difficult to like, or to feel sympathy for.  She is an interesting character on many levels, but her lack of compassion and overriding coldness, particularly at the more pivotal points in the novel, is difficult for a modern reader – at least, this modern reader – to stomach.

I write about descriptions a lot in my reviews, but Townsend Warner’s are truly sublime.  The sense of place she crafts is always so well realised, and this, for me, was the real strength of the novel.  I loved the monologue at the start of Part II as well, due to the beautiful writing and the amount of contrasts and comparisons which Townsend Warner inserted.  The majority of the similes and metaphors in this monologue are lovely and inventive – for example, the similarities she draws between a cluster of dark fir trees and Hebrew lettering.

The first part of Summer Will Show, despite the darkness it included, was wonderful, but it did tail off a little afterwards.  The middle of the novel particularly dragged, and in consequence I didn’t enjoy it as much as I thought I would.

Suggested accompanying playlist:
– ‘Please Please Please, Let Me Get What I Want’ by The Smiths
– ‘Lightness’ by Death Cab for Cutie
– ‘Hospital’ by Tellison

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One From the Archive: Five Favourite Authors

First published in July 2013.

1. Elizabeth McCracken
I read the marvellous The Giant’s House whilst I was still a teenager, and have read it many more times since.  McCracken’s writing is truly lovely, and the characters she crafts stay with the reader long after the last page has been read.

Tove Jansson

Tove Jansson

2. Tove Jansson
Jansson is best known as the creator of The Moomins, but her adult fiction is just as wonderful.  To fit the season, I would recommend The Summer Book, which is a glorious musing on life on a tiny Scandinavian island.

3. Jon McGregor
I first read McGregor a good few years ago, when my Dad recommended the stunning If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things to me.  It is a novel which challenges your perceptions, and its storyline and characters, whilst not named, are so very memorable.

4. Sylvia Townsend Warner
Despite only having read one of her novels (Lolly Willowes, or the Loving Huntsman) and one of her short story collections (The Doll’s House and Other Stories), Townsend Warner is one of my favourite authors on the Virago list.  She creates such atmosphere, and her characters are wonderfully crafted.  The majority of her stories contain unexpected twists, and her writing is very lovely indeed.  I would recommend beginning with either of the titles listed above in order to get a real sense of her style.

Stella Benson

Stella Benson

5. Stella Benson
For some reason unbeknownst to me, Stella Benson is rather a neglected twentieth century author.  Her writing is glorious, and the way in which she uses magical realism against the ordinary aspects of the lives of her characters is marvellous.  I would recommend the lovely Living Alone, set during the First World War.  Who cannot fail to be charmed by the following author introduction?

This is not a real book. It does not deal with real people, nor should it be read by real people. But there are in the world so many real books already written for the benefit of real people, and there are still so many to be written, that I cannot believe that a little alien book such as this, written for the magically-inclined minority, can be considered too assertive a trespasser.

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Short Story Series: Part One

I adore reading short stories, and don’t see many reviews of collections on blogs in comparison to novels and the like.  I thought that I would make a weekly series to showcase short stories, and point interested readers in the direction of some of my favourite collections.  Rather than ramble in adoration for every single book, I have decided to copy their official blurb.  I have linked my blog reviews where appropriate.

1. Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams by Sylvia Plath
‘This collection of short stories, essays, and diary excerpts highlights her fierce concentration on craft, the vitality of her intelligence, and the yearnings of her imagination. Featuring an introduction by Plath’s husband, the late British poet Ted Hughes, these writings also reflect themes and images she would fully realize in her poetry. “Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams” truly showcases the talent and genius of Sylvia Plath.’

2. Vampires in the Lemon Grove by Karen Russell
‘An awkward teen with a terrible haircut has a reversal of fortune when he finds artefacts from the future lining a seagulls’ nest. In a godforsaken barn, Presidents Eisenhower, John Adams and Rutherford B. Hayes are bemused to find themselves reincarnated as horses. Clyde and Magreb – he a traditional capes-and-coffins vampire, she the more progressive variety – settle in an Italian lemon grove in the hope that its ripe fruit will keep their thirst for blood at bay.’

3. Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters by J.D. Salinger
‘First published in “The New Yorker” in the 1950s, “Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters and Seymour: an Introduction” are two novellas narrated by Buddy Glass, a character often said to be a portrait of Salinger himself. In the first, Buddy has taken leave from the army during World War II to attend the wedding of the eldest Glass brother, Seymour, and an atmosphere of portentous suspense sets the scene for the tragedy that will follow. In the second, Buddy reminisces about Seymour and the novella unfolds into a deep and far-reaching exploration of a complex and sad character which displays all the tenderness and subtlety which distinguish the best of Salinger’s writing.’

4. Collected Stories by Carol Shields
‘In the Collected Stories we bring together Carol Shields’ original short-story volumes, Various Miracles, The Orange Fish and Dressing Up for the Carnival, as well as many stories not previously published in the UK, including ‘Segue’, her last work. In these stories the author combines the dazzling virtuosity and wise maturity that won so many readers to her prize-winning novels such as The Stone Diaries and Unless.’

5. The Whole Story and Other Stories by Ali Smith
‘This is a brilliant new collection of stories from a much loved and highly praised author. It presents stories for people who’ve grown up being told time is running out and don’t want it to. How do you ever know the whole story? How do you ever know even part of the story? How do you find meaning when chance and coincidence could, after all, just be chance and coincidence? In a celebration of connections and missed connections, an inquiry into everything from flies and trees and books to sex, art, drunkenness and love, Smith rewrites the year’s cycle into a very modern calendar.’

6. Belated by Elisabeth Russell Taylor
‘From award-winning writer Elisabeth Russell Taylor comes a dazzling new collection of short stories. Whether examining the unspoken deals brokered in every marriage, the inherent menace of daily exchanges or the secret lives of the unattached, each of these sixteen stories sparkles with Russell Taylor’s extraordinary talent. ‘The Contract’ brilliantly reimagines Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin; ‘Supporting Roles’ reverses the client-therapist relationship; ‘Charlotte’ looks at the life of a Jewish immigrant in postwar London; ‘Les Amants’ is a lyrical paean to love and loss in rural France; ‘Take Care’ sees the visitors getting too comfortable in a house that’s not theirs; ‘The Inquest’ is a whimsical feat of magical realism; while ‘Who She?’ and ‘Carter’ explore the mysteries and complications of identity. Here is a writer unafraid to probe the dark corners of character, who sharpens her teeth on the casual cruelties, subtle ironies and alarming contradictions of everyday life.’

My review can be found here.

7. New York Stories, edited by Diana Secker Tesdell
‘An irresistible anthology of classic tales of New York in the tradition of “Christmas Stories, Love Stories, “and “Stories of the Sea. ” Writers have always been enthralled and inspired by New York City, and their vibrant and varied stories provide a kaleidoscopic vision of the city’s high life, low life, nightlife, and everything in between. From the wisecracking Broadway guys and dolls of Damon Runyon to the glittering ballrooms of Edith Wharton, from the jazz- soaked nightspots of Jack Kerouac and James Baldwin to the starry- eyed tourists in John Cheever and Shirley Jackson to the ambitious immigrants conjured by Edwidge Danticat and Junot Diaz– this is New York in all its grittiness and glamour. Here is the hectic, dazzling chaos of Times Square and the elegant calm of galleries in the Met; we meet Yiddish matchmakers in the Bronx, Haitian nannies in Central Park, starving artists, and hedonistic yuppies–a host of vivid characters nursing their dreams in the tiny apartments, the lonely cafes, and the bustling streets of the city that never sleeps.’

8. The Doll’s House and Other Stories by Sylvia Townsend Warner
‘Recently discovered in the New York Public Library archives, these four short stories by Sylvia Townsend Warner are as sharply insightful and observant as all her writing. They are published for the first time exclusively in ebook format alongside the new editions of her celebrated novels The Corner that Held Them and Lolly Willowes, which have brand new introductions by Philip Hensher and Sarah Waters.’

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More Abandoned Books

The three novels which I will be talking about in this abandoned books post were all surprises to me.  I expected to adore Their Eyes Were Watching God, and to very much enjoy Mr Fortune’s Maggot.  I was also anticipating great things from Anna Quindlen’s fiction after reading her lovely introduction to my beautiful Madeline compendium.

Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston

‘Their Eyes Were Watching God’ by Zora Neale Hurston

I decided not to read the foreword or introduction to this book lest it give too much away.  I knew virtually nothing about what was likely to happen, and preferred to be swept away with the plot rather than to know about it all beforehand.  Their Eyes Were Watching God tells the story of Janie, a child of rape.  Throughout, the scene was set well and I was surprised at how easy the dialect of the characters was to get used to.  I did find that the dialect was incredibly overdone however, and some sections had to be waded through in consequence.  Hurston’s writing was beautiful at first, but I did not find that it was consistent throughout.

I fully expected to love Their Eyes Were Watching God, but honestly, I didn’t even enjoy it very much.  The plot was not in depth enough to suit a book of its length, and I could not muster enough interest in its storyline or its characters to read the novel in its entirety.  So far, I definitely prefer Hurston’s non-fiction to her fiction, and have in consequence crossed off the other novel of hers which appears on the Virago Modern Classics list.

Rise and Shine by Anna Quindlen
It seems that very few positive reviews exist for this novel.  I knew nothing about its storyline before beginning, so I read some of the random thoughts which had been posted about it on Amazon to gain an overview, and then wished I hadn’t.  I saw words and phrases like ‘dumbed down’, ‘unintelligent’ and ‘tedious’, which really put me off beginning to read.  It started incredibly slowly and was incredibly monotonous.  I had no interest in any of the characters, and did not even make it to the fifty page mark.  I would like to read more of Quindlen’s fiction as she does still seem to be a firm favourite with a lot of readers, but I will look for those novels of hers which have more positive reviews.

Mr Fortune’s Maggot by Sylvia Townsend Warner
I really enjoy Townsend Warner’s writing, but I was a little disappointed with Summer Will Show when I read it a few months ago.  I was hoping that I would enjoy Mr Fortune’s Maggot as much as I did Lolly Willowes.  The preface to the NYRB edition of this book is lovely, detailing as it does Townsend Warner’s reasons for writing, and her inspiration for this particular novel.  Mr Fortune’s Maggot tells the story of Reverend Timothy Fortune, who has spent three years as a missionary on the island of Fanua somewhere in the Pacific, but has ‘made but one convert’.  This storyline did not appeal to me personally, but as it was on the Virago Modern Classics list which I am working through, I began it regardless.

Townsend Warner crafts her stories so beautifully, and her writing works well, particularly with regard to her descriptions of people and places.  This was my favourite element of the novel.  I was not overly enamoured with the storyline or the protagonists.  The entirety just seemed a little flat to me, and quite drawn out in terms of the little that happened throughout.  I did not like Mr Fortune at all – he was rather cruel at times, and did not show much ‘Christian charity’, as he was supposed to in his position.  I was unable to muster any real interest within the story by around a fifth of the way through, and so I gave up.