3

‘Of Cats and Elfins: Short Tales and Fantasies’ by Sylvia Townsend Warner ****

I received a copy of Sylvia Townsend Warner’s Of Cats and Elfins: Short Tales and Fantasies from a dear friend for Christmas. We studied Townsend Warner’s fantastic masterpiece of a novel, Lolly Willowes, together whilst postgraduate students, and have both retained a fondness for her inventive work. I was unaware that this collection, printed by Handheld Press, had been published, so it was a lovely surprise to open.

The pieces within Of Cats and Elfins are previously uncollected, and range from between 1927 and 1984, spanning Townsend Warner’s entire writing career. It is, says its blurb, a ‘forgotten collection of fantasy stories and folk tales about human bravery and dispassionate animals, written in the darkest days of wartime Britain’. It includes Townsend Warner’s 1927 essay, ‘Elfins’, and the entirety of her Cat’s Cradle book, which was originally published in the United States in 1940, and the United Kingdom in 1960. Of Cats and Elfins is intended as a companion volume to Kingdoms of Elfin, a collection of Townsend Warner’s fantasy stories, which were published by Handheld Press in 2018.

Of Cats and Elfins features a meticulous introduction by fantasy author Greer Gilman. She writes of the diversity collected here: ‘Fantasy ran underground with Warner, flashing out like a hidden river, each time in a new landscape: witchlore; myth; folktale; invisible kingdoms. What they share is Warner’s worldview, her inimitable voice.’ Greer goes on to give a lot of specific critique of the pieces collected here.

The first piece in this collection is ‘The Kingdom of Elfin’, which sets out Townsend Warner’s imagined fantasy world. Here, she writes: ‘It is a sad fact, but undeniable; the Kingdom of Elfin had a very poor opinion of humankind. I suppose we must seem to them shocking boors, uncouth, noisy, ill-bred and disgustingly oversized.’ There are several Elfin stories to be found here, all set in a vividly imagined and expansive land, which is redolent almost of that in The Lord of the Rings. Townsend Warner’s worldbuilding is faultless; there is such a thoroughness to it. I enjoyed this part of the collection to a point, but I did find it a little difficult at times to suspend my disbelief, and feel that I would have got more out of it if I had read Kingdoms of Elfin previously.

Townsend Warner’s wicked sense of humour is displayed throughout the Elfin stories, and can also be found at times in her animal stories. These tales have an almost Aesop’s Fables-style feel to them; some could be construed as moralistic. There are echoes of the fairytale here too, but Townsend Warner makes the genre something all her own. The unexpected lives in each of these stories, which follow many different animal species – magpies, foxes, phoenixes, a tiger who learns the meaning of ‘virtue’… In ‘Introduction’, as an example, the many cat characters can interact – in clever flourishes of speech, and witty asides – with the humans they live alongside. This piece is my favourite in the entirety of Of Cats and Elfins; I found it quite delightful.

Entwined throughout is the wonder of the natural world, something which feeds into each of these stories. Her descriptions are exquisite. In ‘Stay, Corydon, Thou Swain’, for instance, she crafts: ‘But in the shadow of the wood, where the sun had not penetrated, the thorn trees were at the perfection of their bloom. They were very old trees, gnarled, and tufted with greenish-grey moss, dry and dead-coloured. It did not seem possible that these angular boughs should have pit out the lacework of milky blossoms: each a blunt star, each with its little pointed pink star within it. It seemed rather as though light had rested upon the dead boughs and turned it into blossom.’ In ‘Introduction’, the first piece in the Cat’s Cradle collection, she writes: ‘The house was handsome too, its good looks sobered by age and usage – a seventeenth-century house with a long façade… It gave an impression of slenderness, of being worn smooth and thin like an old spoon… the general tint of the house was that of a ripening pear with streaks of vague rose and pale madder flushing its sallow skin.’

I must admit that I am not really a fan of fantasy, and it is a genre which I rarely – if ever – reach for. Townsend Warner is a firm favourite of mine, however, and I will gladly read all of her work. This sounded both intriguing and charming, and it was; there is a real otherworldly quality to it. It was a joy to reacquaint myself with Townsend Warner, and I was struck once again by her inventiveness, and the myriad ways in which she was well ahead of her time.

Of Cats and Elfins collects together a full bibliography of Townsend Warner’s published work; it reminded me both that I have hardly explored her oeuvre to date, and that a lot of her work is sadly very difficult to get hold of, particularly for an affordable price. This collection is wonderful to have; it provides such wonderful escapism, and I very much appreciated the lively unpredictability of her work.

Of Cats and Elfins is undoubtedly odd, but rather enchanting. It reminded me throughout of Scottish author Naomi Mitchison, whose work has so enchanted and – I admit – mildly confused me in the past. The collection is highly memorable, and whilst I was perhaps a little less enraptured by the Elfin stories than many readers will be, I will certainly be thinking about them in future. I would like to revisit this collection, particularly if I do pick up the Kingdoms of Elfin tales at some point – although unless I make a dramatic U-turn in my reading life and start enjoying fantasy novels, I’m not sure that this will be at the top of my to-read list.

Regardless, Of Cats and Elfins is highly recommended, whether you are a fan of fantasy, or just of Modernism. There is so much to admire here, and a great deal to consider. If you have never read Townsend Warner, and my comments here have enticed you to pick up one of her books, I would point you towards Lolly Willowes as a starting point. Of Cats and Elfins, though, would be a good choice to follow her most famous novel with.

17

Books for Summertime

I have always been a seasonal reader to an extent – particularly, it must be said, when it comes to Christmas-themed books – but I feel that my reading choices have been aligned more with the seasons in the last tumultuous year. Connecting my reading with the natural world around me has given me a sense of calm whilst the world has reached such a point of crisis, and picking up a seasonally themed book has become rather a soothing task. With this in mind, I wanted to collect together eight books which I feel will be perfect picks for summer, and which I hope you will want to include in your own reading journeys.

These books are best enjoyed with a deckchair in the shade, vivid wildflowers, and a tall glass of something cool

1. Let Us Now Praise Famous Gardens by Vita Sackville-West

‘In this unique gardening chronicle Vita Sackville-West weaves together simple, honest accounts of her horticultural experiences throughout the year with exquisite writing and poetic description. Whether singing the praises of sweet-briar, cyclamen, Indian pinks and the Strawberry grape, or giving practical advice on pruning roses, planting bulbs, overcoming frosts and making the most of a small space, her writings on the art of good gardening are both instructive and delightful. Generations of inhabitants have helped shape the English countryside – but it has profoundly shaped us too. It has provoked a huge variety of responses from artists, writers, musicians and people who live and work on the land – as well as those who are travelling through it.English Journeys celebrates this long tradition with a series of twenty books on all aspects of the countryside, from stargazey pie and country churches, to man’s relationship with nature and songs celebrating the patterns of the countryside (as well as ghosts and love-struck soldiers).’

2. A Midsummer Night’s Dream by William Shakespeare

‘A raucous comedy that thrusts a quartet of reckless young lovers headfirst into a world of magic and fantasy, William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream is edited by Stanley Wells with an introduction by Helen Hackett in Penguin Shakespeare. ‘Lovers and madmen have such seething brains, Such shaping fantasies, that apprehend More than cool reason ever comprehends’ Lovers Lysander and Hermia flee Athens to escape the authority of their parents, only to be pursued by Hermia’s betrothed Demetrius, and her friend Helena. Unwittingly, all four find themselves in an enchanted forest where Oberon, the king of the fairies, and Titania, his queen, soon take an interest in human affairs, dispensing magical love potions and casting mischievous spells. In this dazzling comedy, confusion ends in harmony, as love is transformed, misplaced, and – ultimately – restored.’

3. The Forgotten Garden by Kate Morton

‘A foundling, an old book of dark fairy tales, a secret garden, an aristocratic family, a love denied, and a mystery. The Forgotten Garden is a captivating, atmospheric and compulsively readable story of the past, secrets, family and memory from the international best-selling author Kate Morton. Cassandra is lost, alone and grieving. Her much loved grandmother, Nell, has just died and Cassandra, her life already shaken by a tragic accident ten years ago, feels like she has lost everything dear to her. But an unexpected and mysterious bequest from Nell turns Cassandra’s life upside down and ends up challenging everything she thought she knew about herself and her family. Inheriting a book of dark and intriguing fairytales written by Eliza Makepeace—the Victorian authoress who disappeared mysteriously in the early twentieth century—Cassandra takes her courage in both hands to follow in the footsteps of Nell on a quest to find out the truth about their history, their family and their past; little knowing that in the process, she will also discover a new life for herself.’

4. Summer and Smoke by Tennessee Williams

‘The play is a simple love story of a somewhat puritanical Southern girl and an unpuritanical young doctor. Each is basically attracted to the other but because of their divergent attitudes toward life, each over the course of years is driven away from the other. Not until toward the end does the doctor realize that the girl’s high idealism is basically right, and while she is still in love with him, it turns out that neither time nor circumstances will allow the two ultimately to come together.’

5. The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame

‘Meet little Mole, willful Ratty, Badger the perennial bachelor, and petulant Toad. In the almost one hundred years since their first appearance in 1908, they’ve become emblematic archetypes of eccentricity, folly, and friendship. And their misadventures-in gypsy caravans, stolen sports cars, and their Wild Wood-continue to capture readers’ imaginations and warm their hearts long after they grow up. Begun as a series of letters from Kenneth Grahame to his son, The Wind in the Willows is a timeless tale of animal cunning and human camaraderie.’

6. Florida by Lauren Groff

‘The stories in this collection span characters, towns, decades, even centuries, but Florida—its landscape, climate, history, and state of mind—becomes its gravitational center: an energy, a mood, as much as a place of residence. Groff transports the reader, then jolts us alert with a crackle of wit, a wave of sadness, a flash of cruelty, as she writes about loneliness, rage, family, and the passage of time. With shocking accuracy and effect, she pinpoints the moments and decisions and connections behind human pleasure and pain, hope and despair, love and fury—the moments that make us alive.’

7. The Summer Book by Tove Jansson

‘An elderly artist and her six-year-old granddaughter while away a summer together on a tiny island in the gulf of Finland. Gradually, the two learn to adjust to each other’s fears, whims and yearnings for independence, and a fierce yet understated love emerges – one that encompasses not only the summer inhabitants but the island itself, with its mossy rocks, windswept firs and unpredictable seas. Full of brusque humour and wisdom, The Summer Book is a profoundly life-affirming story. Tove Jansson captured much of her own experience and spirit in the book, which was her favourite of the novels she wrote for adults. This new edition sees the return of a European literary gem – fresh, authentic and deeply humane.’

8. Summer Will Show by Sylvia Townsend Warner

‘Sophia Willoughby, a young Englishwoman from an aristocratic family and a person of strong opinions and even stronger will, has packed her cheating husband off to Paris. He can have his tawdry mistress. She intends to devote herself to the serious business of raising her two children in proper Tory fashion. Then tragedy strikes: the children die, and Sophia, in despair, finds her way to Paris, arriving just in time for the revolution of 1848. Before long she has formed the unlikeliest of close relations with Minna, her husband’s sometime mistress, whose dramatic recitations, based on her hair-raising childhood in czarist Russia, electrify audiences in drawing rooms and on the street alike. Minna, “magnanimous and unscrupulous, fickle, ardent, and interfering,” leads Sophia on a wild adventure through bohemian and revolutionary Paris, in a story that reaches an unforgettable conclusion amidst the bullets, bloodshed, and hope of the barricades. Sylvia Townsend Warner was one of the most original and inventive of twentieth-century English novelists. At once an adventure story, a love story, and a novel of ideas, Summer Will Show is a brilliant reimagining of the possibilities of historical fiction.’

Please stay tuned for subsequent autumn and winter recommendation posts, which will be published at the beginning of each new season. Also, let me know if you have any seasonal reads to recommend!

0

The Book Trail: From ‘Fair Play’ to ‘The Queen of Persia’

I am beginning this edition of The Book Trail with a short novel by one of my favourite authors of all time.  As ever, I have used the ‘Readers Also Enjoyed’ tool on Goodreads in order to generate this list.

1. Fair Play by Tove Jansson 8915857
Fair Play is the type of love story that is rarely told, a revelatory depiction of contentment, hard-won and exhilarating.  Mari is a writer and Jonna is an artist, and they live at opposite ends of a big apartment building, their studios connected by a long attic passageway. They have argued, worked, and laughed together for decades. Yet they’ve never really stopped taking each other by surprise. Fair Play shows us Mari and Jona’s intertwined lives as they watch Fassbinder films and Westerns, critique each other’s work, spend time on a solitary island (recognizable to readers of Jansson’s The Summer Book), travel through the American Southwest, and turn life into nothing less than art. ‘

 

2. Summer Will Show by Sylvia Townsend Warner
‘Sophia Willoughby, a young Englishwoman from an aristocratic family and a person of strong opinions and even stronger will, has packed her cheating husband off to Paris. He can have his tawdry mistress. She intends to devote herself to the serious business of raising her two children in proper Tory fashion.  Then tragedy strikes: the children die, and Sophia, in despair, finds her way to Paris, arriving just in time for the revolution of 1848. Before long she has formed the unlikeliest of close relations with Minna, her husband’s sometime mistress, whose dramatic recitations, based on her hair-raising childhood in czarist Russia, electrify audiences in drawing rooms and on the street alike. Minna, “magnanimous and unscrupulous, fickle, ardent, and interfering,” leads Sophia on a wild adventure through bohemian and revolutionary Paris, in a story that reaches an unforgettable conclusion amidst the bullets, bloodshed, and hope of the barricades.  Sylvia Townsend Warner was one of the most original and inventive of twentieth-century English novelists. At once an adventure story, a love story, and a novel of ideas, Summer Will Show is a brilliant reimagining of the possibilities of historical fiction.’

 

899153. Eustace and Hilda by L.P. Hartley
‘The three books gathered together as Eustace and Hilda explore a brother and sister’s lifelong relationship. Hilda, the older child, is both self-sacrificing and domineering, as puritanical as she is gorgeous; Eustace is a gentle, dreamy, pleasure-loving boy: the two siblings could hardly be more different, but they are also deeply devoted. And yet as Eustace and Hilda grow up and seek to go their separate ways in a world of power and position, money and love, their relationship is marked by increasing pain.  L. P. Hartley’s much-loved novel, the magnum opus of one of twentieth-century England’s best writers, is a complex and spellbinding work: a comedy of upper-class manners; a study in the subtlest nuances of feeling; a poignant reckoning with the ironies of character and fate. Above all, it is about two people who cannot live together or apart, about the ties that bind—and break.’

 

4. The Mirador: Dreamed Memories of Irene Nemirovsky by Her Daughter by Elisabeth Gille
‘Élisabeth Gille was only five when the Gestapo arrested her mother, and she grew up remembering next to nothing of her. Her mother was a figure, a name, Irène Némirovsky, a once popular novelist, a Russian émigré from an immensely rich family, a Jew who didn’t consider herself one and who even contributed to collaborationist periodicals, and a woman who died in Auschwitz because she was a Jew. To her daughter she was a tragic enigma and a stranger.  It was to come to terms with that stranger that Gille wrote, in The Mirador, her mother’s memoirs. The first part of the book, dated 1929, the year David Golder made Némirovsky famous, takes us back to her difficult childhood in Kiev and St. Petersburg. Her father is doting, her mother a beautiful monster, while Irene herself is bookish and self-absorbed. There are pogroms and riots, parties and excursions, then revolution, from which the family flees to France, a country of “moderation, freedom, and generosity,” where at last she is happy.  Some thirteen years later Irène picks up her pen again. Everything has changed. Abandoned by friends and colleagues, she lives in the countryside and waits for the knock on the door. Written a decade before the publication of Suite Française made Irène Némirovsky famous once more (something Gille did not live to see), The Mirador is a haunted and a haunting book, an unflinching reckoning with the tragic past, and a triumph not only of the imagination but of love.’

 

5. The World As I Found It by Bruce Duffy 776609
‘This novel centers around Ludwig Wittgenstein, one of the most powerfully magnetic philosophers of our time–brilliant, tortured, mercurial, forging his own solitary path while leaving a permanent mark on all around him.’

 

6. Indian Summer by William Dean Howells
‘One of the most charming and memorable romantic comedies in American literature, William Dean Howells’s Indian Summer tells of a season in the life of Theodore Colville. Colville, just turned forty, has spent years as a successful midwestern newspaper publisher. Now he sells his business and heads for Italy, where as a young man he had dreamed of a career as an architect and fallen hopelessly in love. In Florence, Colville runs into Lina Bowen, sometime best friend of the woman who jilted him and the vivacious survivor of an unhappy marriage. He also meets her young visitor, twenty-year-old Imogene Graham—lovely, earnest to a fault, and brimming with the excitement of her first encounter with the great world.  The drama that plays out among these three gifted and well-meaning people against the backdrop of Florence, the brilliance of their repartee, and the accumulating burden of their mutual misunderstandings make for a comedy of errors that is as winning as it is wise.’

 

18508567. Testing the Current by William McPherson
‘Growing up in a small upper Midwestern town in the late 1930s, young Tommy MacAllister is scarcely aware of the Depression, much less the rumblings of war in Europe. For his parents and their set, life seems to revolve around dinners and dancing at the country club, tennis dates and rounds of golf, holiday parties, summers on The Island, and the many sparkling occasions full of people and drinks and food and laughter. With his curiosity and impatience to grow up, however, Tommy will soon come to glimpse something darker beneath the genteel complacency: the embarrassment of poor relations; the subtle (and not so subtle) slighting of the black or American Indian “help”; the discovery that not everybody in the club was Episcopalian; the mockery of President Roosevelt; the messy mechanics of sex and death; and “the commandment they talked least about in Sunday school,” adultery.  In this remarkable 1984 debut novel, the Pulitzer Prize–winning book critic William McPherson subtly leavens his wide-eyed protagonist’s perspective with mature reflection and wry humor and surrounds him with a sizable cast of vibrant characters, creating a scrupulously observed, kaleidoscopic portrait that will shimmer in readers’ minds long after the final page is turned.’

 

8. During the Reign of the Queen of Persia by Joan Chase
‘A story of 20th-century womanhood, of Gram, the Queen of Persia herself, who rules a house where five daughters and four granddaughters spin out the tragedies and triumphs of rural life in the 1950s.’

 

Have you read any of these books?  Which have piqued your interest?

Purchase from The Book Depository

4

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?

Purchase from The Book Depository

0

‘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.

Purchase from The Book Depository

0

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.

Purchase from The Book Depository

0

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.’

Purchase from The Book Depository

0

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

0

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.

4

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.’

Purchase from The Book Depository