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‘Blaming’ by Elizabeth Taylor ****

Elizabeth Taylor has been one of my favourite authors for years, but I am trying to space out the few remaining books of her oeuvre which I’ve not yet got to. I selected one of her later novels, 1992’s Blaming, to purchase when placing a small secondhand book order, and it took only a matter of days before I picked it up and began to read.

The Virago edition which I read is introduced by the writer Jonathan Keates, and has a rather touching afterward written by Taylor’s daughter, Joanna Kingham. Keates quite rightly sings her praises throughout, noting that ‘… at her finest she has an unrivalled grasp of the complex workings of even the most banal emotion, highlighting the potential poignancy within the sometimes enormous space which lies between a feeling and an expression.’ He goes on to say that ‘Taylor was always more of a modernist than anyone gave her credit for, and the apparently boneless quality of many of her novels… seems designed to compel us to home in on those crises of apprehension and interpretation between characters which form the real focus of her creative interest.’

The protagonist of Blaming is ‘comfortable middle-aged, middle-class’ woman named Amy Henderson, who is left stranded in Istanbul when her husband unexpectedly dies during a cruise. A young American novelist named Martha Larkin tries to befriend her and takes charge, but upon their return to London, where both women live, ‘Amy is ungratefully reluctant to maintain their friendship’. She is aware that under normal circumstances, she and Martha would not be friends, and takes this as the main reason to be standoffish and aloof. However, warns the novel’s blurb, ‘guilt is a hard taskmaster and Martha has a way of getting under one’s skin…’.

At the outset of the novel, we met Amy and her husband Nick as they are visiting the Acropolis. They have visited several stops already on their cruise, which was booked to aid Nick in convalescing from surgery. We are given an immediate insight into their quite complex relationship. Taylor writes, as Nick fails to return to the tour bus on time: ‘Ordinarily, she would have nagged; now, she merely pointed out that their doctor would not have approved of his standing about so long and then having to make a mad dash… Always at the mention of his illness his expression was uneasy. He would look at her closely, as if she were behind a case in a museum; he examined her once carefully and then, as if he would come to no conclusion, would sigh and turn away.’

Nick passes away during the night. The next morning, Amy is found sitting by the purser’s office, ‘surrounded by luggage, waiting to be taken ashore, exposed to everyone who must file by her as they came aboard. The passengers hastened past her in a shocked silence. She sat very still and rigid, as if disapproving something, or offended. She wore a shady hat, sun-glasses, and – strangely – a pair of white cotton gloves. It was as if she were trying to cover as much of herself as possible.’

All of the characters within Blaming, but particularly the heroines of the piece, are complicated, and have been thoroughly explored. Taylor is impressively shrewd about relationships, many of which prove rather difficult ones.

As ever in Taylor’s work, Blaming is filled with so many well-observed details. When Amy arrives home, for instance, she shies away from human connection. Taylor writes: ‘So many tears, so many dabbings with soaking handkerchiefs, had made her face red and shiny. All the same she had a rather unsuitable glow about her from foreign sun.’ Taylor almost personifies Amy’s loneliness following her shift into widowhood, and recognises so many things which will forever be different now that her circumstances have changed.

There is a brooding atmosphere throughout Blaming, and it feels quintessentially Taylor. I must admit that although I am generally very taken with her protagonists, and root for them throughout, I did not warm to Amy, and do not feel as though I formed much of a connection with her. This is not at all to the detriment of the novel, though. Everything about it feels wholly realistic, and Taylor’s characters are wonderfully drawn.

Reading a Taylor novel for the first time is a real treat, and Blaming is no exception. This characteristically perceptive book does have an extra sadness to it; Taylor was aware that she had terminal cancer whilst she was writing what was to be her last novel, and passed away before it was published.

There is a great deal in the novel about reckoning with one’s own mortality, as well as the bereavement process; this is perhaps reflective of where Taylor was in her own life at this point. There are, though, some moments of amusement in Blaming, which do not balance the sadness of the whole, but provide a little light relief.

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One From the Archive: ‘An Academic Question’ by Barbara Pym ****

First published in 2012.

Virago have recently reprinted several of Barbara Pym’s novels, all with new introductions by a selection of different authors, all avid fans of her work.  The introduction of  An Academic Question, first published posthumously in 1986, has been written by novelist Kate Saunders, who believes the book to be ‘witty, sharp, light as a syllabub… and with a cast of typically Pym-like eccentrics’.  She goes on to say that ‘no other novelist has celebrated our national silliness with such exuberance’.

71ww2biwk9nlAn Academic Question is essentially an amalgamation of two different manuscripts which Pym wrote and was dissatisfied with.  The novel tells the story of Caroline Grimstone, a ‘dissatisfied faculty wife’.  Caro and Alan live in a neo-Georgian house in the ‘provincial’ university sprawled across a nameless town in which Alan lectures.  They have a four-year-old daughter named Kate and a rather flippant Swedish au pair named Inge, both of whom Caro believes ‘in name and appearance, seemed very suitable, I thought, for a modern couple like Alan and me’.

The novel opens with the characters of Kitty Jeffreys and her middle-aged son Coco, both of whom left their home in the Caribbean ‘after the death of [Kitty’s] husband and, more importantly, the election of an all-black government’.  Coco, having been awarded a fellowship at the university, works alongside Caro’s husband Alan.  

Many secondary characters feature throughout the novel, the majority of them academics and lecturers at the university.  Certainly the two most interesting and eccentric characters are hedgehog fanatic and local bookshop owner Dolly Arborfield who spends large chunks of her pension money on brandy, and Crispin Maynard, an ardent collector of Africana.

Caroline’s first person perspective is used throughout.  The narrative voice works relatively well with the story but Caroline herself is not always a likeable character.  She is a rather self-pitying woman who feels ‘abandoned and neglected’.  She sees her young daughter as a burden and tries to palm her off onto the au pair as much as possible.  She is rather disgruntled with what life has afforded her but she essentially lacks drive to change the elements which she is displeased with.  The only thing which Caro does in order to give herself a sense of ‘self-worth’ is to begin to read to an elderly man named Reverend Stillingfleet, a resident at a local nursing home.  This arrangement seems rather too convenient, as Alan and his colleague Crispin Maynard have been wanting to read Reverend Stillingfleet’s manuscripts for some time but have thus far been unable to get hold of them.

The novel does tend to be rather dark in places.  The majority of the characters have secrets and shames which they try to keep from others, but it feels as though we, as readers, do not know the characters as well as we should.  Even Caroline as a first person narrator seems aloof and elusive.

Pym’s writing shines above the storyline and characters which she has created.  Throughout the novel, her descriptions are sometimes charming and always original.  For example, the wife of the university’s assistant librarian ‘seemed never to have recovered from the worries of card indexes and bibliographies in the days when she too had worked in a library’, and Coco and Kitty ‘always made a point of arriving last at everything, like royalty’.  Despite this, the prose does sometimes feel a little repetitive, which is a shame.

The writing style of the novel works well but there is little wit and amusement involved.  Whilst the two manuscripts have been merged together relatively well, it feels as though An Academic Question is lacking in something – whether a more likeable narrator, a slightly more in-depth storyline or an ending that does not feel so rushed, it is unclear.

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‘Spinster’ by Sylvia Ashton-Warner ***

There is a certain breed of reader who tries to spot the glorious forest green spines of Virago Modern Classics each time they enter a bookshop.  Reader, I am one of them.  I therefore quickly located a copy of Sylvia Ashton-Warner’s Spinster, a book which I had wanted to read for years, on a pre-Christmas trip to an Oxfam Bookshop, and picked it up immediately.

In Spinster, Ashton-Warner tells the story of Anna Vorontosov, ‘spinster and genius’, who works as a teacher for Maori children in a remote New Zealand town, in the North Island area of Hawke’s Bay.  Anna is described as a ‘passionate woman, uncertain and gauche in her relations with men’; rather racy, it seems, for a novel first published in 1958.  Anna is able to find peace ‘only in her schoolroom, her garden and the little back room where she struggles to create the works which will set her beloved children free.’5988868

The Virago Modern Classics edition features an introduction written by the poet Fleur Adcock.  She writes that Spinster is ‘a remarkable book: one could almost say a better book than it deserves to be…  Somehow the country school-teacher who wanted an audience for her ideas about the teaching of reading had almost accidentally created not just a bestseller but a work of art.’  She goes on to comment on the ‘fresh, lively writing’, as well as the ‘suspense of a kind which does not seem artificial, and… a warm, half-exasperated, half-amused love for the children on whom the whole depends.’  Adcock also points out that in Spinster, ‘Ashton-Warner continues to use a first-person narrator who is both herself and not herself.’  She calls her ‘a convincing fictional character’ who is ‘certainly rooted in her creator’s experience.’

I got a feel for Anna and her peculiarities quite quickly.  In just the second paragraph, Ashton-Warner creates a motif which is repeated at several points throughout the book: ‘But here is the spring again with its new life, and as I walked down my back steps ready for school in the morning I notice the delphiniums.  They make me think of men.  The way they bloom so hotly in the summer, then die right out of sight in the winter, only to push up mercilessly again when the growth starts, is like my memory of love.’  Anna lives frugally, and relies heavily upon a tumbler of brandy, which she drinks each morning before school.  Our narrator comments: ‘Yet I teach well enough on brandy.  Once it has lined my stomach and arteries I don’t feel Guilt.  It supplies me with a top layer to my mind so that I meet fifty Maori infants as people rather than as the origin of the Inspector’s displeasure…’.

Anna is rather cynical about her profession.  She comments: ‘No other job in the world could possibly dispossess one as completely as this job of teaching.  You could stand all day in a laundry, for instance, still in possession of your mind.  But this teaching utterly obliterates you.’  She is overwhelming proud, however, to be the custodian of her pupils, whom she calls ‘Little Ones’.  She says: ‘I am made of their thoughts and their feelings.  I am composed of sixty-odd different pieces of personality.  I don’t know what I have been saying or what I will say next, and little of what I am saying at the time.’

So many shouts and demands from her pupils have been included, in long and quite disorientating conversational exchanges.  There is always a real awareness of ‘… dozens of infants talking and working and playing and laughing and crying and embracing and quarrelling and singing and making.’  I found this quite jarring, if I am honest.  Ashton-Warner successfully conveys the clamour and chaos of a large group of small children, but I cannot say that I enjoyed reading this.  So many characters are introduced at once that it feels like a real assault on the senses.

Spinster is very much of its time, and a lot of the language used within it to denote different groups of people was thankfully outlawed long ago.  Anna is quite a complex character, and this becomes more apparent as the novel moves from one season to the next.  Anna’s complexity, to me, had the effect of confusing the narrative somewhat.  She oscillates back and forth between past and present relationships, and her feelings for a colleague.

Spinster was a novel which brought Ashton-Warner immediate fame; it was later turned into a feature film.  Time Magazine calls it a ‘major literary masterpiece’, and fellow Virago-published author Penelope Mortimer admired the ‘explosive passion of Ashton-Warner’s prose, and the ‘eruption of innocent sensuality which is quite remarkable.’

Spinster is readable and written well enough, but I did not personally find it a compelling novel.  The stream-of-consciousness style which Ashton-Warner adopts is something which I ordinarily love, but here, I found it difficult to connect with.  I feel, too, that an opportunity was missed; much of the action takes place inside, or in the confined space of Anna’s garden, so there is very little description included about the New Zealand setting.

Little happens in Spinster; it is a character study, and not an entirely scintillating or convincing one at that.  Like a lot of readers, I preferred the second half of the novel to the first, but I am doubtful as to whether I will remember much about it in years to come.  Parts of Spinster were interesting, but others felt overdone, or a touch repetitive.  The novel was not quite what I was expecting, and I do not feel compelled to read any of Ashton-Warner’s other books in future.

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‘Winter Sonata’ by Dorothy Edwards *****

Dorothy Edwards’ only novel, Winter Sonata, is the 205th book on the Virago Modern Classics list, and I was happy to be able to get my hands on one of the lovely green-spined copies.  First published in 1928, it tells of Arnold Nettle, a ‘shy young telegraph clerk, [who] arrives in a secluded English village as summer ends.’  Upon his arrival, he glimpses a beautiful woman named Olivia, and her ‘appearance seems to herald a new hope for his life.’  Spanning a single winter, ‘with the slow approach of spring we see Mr Nettle’s fragile hopes, just as gently, fade away.’

1758967Winter Sonata weaves in a major theme which was important to Edwards – ‘the loneliness of the human condition – with a subtle look at its consequences.’  David Garnett, one of Edwards’ contemporaries, calls the novel ‘a precise and perfect work of art’.  It was also acclaimed by the likes of Leonard Woolf and Raymond Mortimer, both highly influential in their day.  In her introduction to Winter Sonata, Elaine Morgan compares Edwards’ work to Chekhov’s, stating that ‘the events take place in a social backwater, the central characters have no specific tasks to occupy them, and they are thrown back on one another’s company.  There is a sense that they are waiting for something to happen, even if it is only the return of spring.’

Winter Sonata opens with an introduction to Arnold: ‘He had a long thin neck and looked rather delicate, and he was in fact ill and had come to work here so as to escape winter in the town.  He had arrived only the night before.  It had been cold and rainy and depressing, but now on the first day here it was beautiful, as if to welcome him.’  He is painfully shy, preferring to listen to a conversation than to participate directly in it.  I found him such an endearing protagonist, his quirks and peculiarities: ‘Sometimes, of course, he sat simply looking into the fire, and it seems that he was a little nervous even in his own society, because often he would begin to blush and smile shyly to himself.’

Sisters Olivia and Eleanor Neran live in one of the village’s grander houses with their ‘terse and literal-minded aunt and their cousin George’.  When the novel begins, Olivia ‘came down the hill in a white woollen dress.  As she came down between the bare grey trees and along the hard grey road it was difficult to tell whether the white figure was more like summer going sadly away from the earth or like winter stealing quietly upon it.’  At this moment, Arnold ‘turned his long thin neck to look at her, and when she had gone out of sight he sat down at his table again and blushed a little to himself.’  Edwards has such an awareness of Arnold, and the reticent way in which he inhabits the world.

Along with Eleanor and Olivia, we meet a cast of characters who live around Arnold in the village.  They feel highly realistic, and each has their own memorable mannerisms.  Of Pauline, the young woman who lives in the house Arnold rooms in, Edwards writes: ‘When she had cleared the ashes she began almost without knowing it to read the serial story in the newspaper with which she was supposed to be laying the new fire, and gradually she became more awake.  When her mother came in to lay Mr Nettle’s breakfast she was still reading.  She suddenly felt the paper snatched out of her hand and knocked against her head.  She looked up a little dazed and astonished, and then sulkily shrugged her shoulders.’

There is an unusual quality, both to the characters and prose, throughout Winter Sonata, and its tone is suffused with melancholy.  It is a short novel, but one which I could hardly bear to finish.  On the novel’s blurb, Edwards’ prose is called ‘atmospheric and delicate’.  I could not find wording more perfect to apply to this beautiful novel.  Edwards’ descriptions, particularly of the natural world, are glorious.  She writes, for example, ‘everywhere the trees were nearly bare, but a few golden leaves still clung to the black branches.  The black curving lines and the gold leaves looked as if they were painted on the pale grey sky.’  Edwards also deftly captures the passing of time: ‘Everything stood immovable; nothing could break the hard winter stillness.  The clock on the church tower struck off the hours, but the night seemed to stand still.  Then suddenly there were scraps of the red in the lighter sky, the sun came up behind grey clouds, and it was morning already.’

As an aside, Edwards herself sounds like a wonderful woman; she was brought up to be an ardent socialist, and was educated at the boys’ school her father taught at.  Some remember her as a ‘schoolgirl at left-wing rallies in Cardiff, thrillingly declaiming poems from William Morris.’ She tragically committed suicide at the age of 31.  Morgan writes much more about Edwards and her life’s experiences in her introduction, which I found both insightful and heartbreakingly sad.  Following her beloved father’s death, Edwards ‘was left to adjust to a world in which class distinctions and sexual divisions were as rigid as ever; and in adolescence it is rather late to learn to be a woman as womanhood was then understood.’  It is a great shame that Edwards only published one other book, a collection of short stories, for which she was acclaimed as ‘one of the three great writers of the year’.  Edwards had so much worth as a writer, and I will certainly be visiting this gloriously enchanting and perfectly pitched novel again.

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‘The World My Wilderness’ by Rose Macaulay ****

Rose Macaulay is an author whom I enjoy, but have read barely anything by.  I decided to purchase a copy of her 1950 novel, The World My Wilderness, late last year, and sat down to begin it on a drizzly spring afternoon.  This book, her first novel published in a decade, is revered as Macaulay’s ‘most sophisticated novel’, which ‘explores brilliantly the spiritual dilemmas of the post-war world.’  The green-spined Virago edition (not pictured) which I read contains a rather fantastic introduction by Penelope Fitzgerald, one of my favourite authors.

716iu-tbn5lThe World My Wilderness begins in 1946, a year after the end of the Second World War.  Our protagonist is seventeen-year-old Barbary Deniston, who has ‘grown up in the sunshine of Provence with her voluptuous, indolent but intelligent mother, allowed to run wild with the Maquis, experiencing collaboration, betrayal – and death.’  After little consideration, Barbary and her stepbrother Raoul are ‘banished’ to England by her mother.  Whilst Raoul goes to stay with an uncle, Barbary is consequently ‘thrown into the ordered formality of English life with her distinguished father and conventional stepmother.’  Barbary is profoundly unhappy with this turn of events, and wants nothing more than to return to her carefree existence in France.  When wandering in London one day, Barbary discovers ‘the wrecked and flowering wastes around St. Paul’s.  Here, in the bombed heart of London, she finds an echo of the wilderness of Provence and is forced to confront the wilderness within herself.’

The World My Wilderness is, in this manner, a coming-of-age novel.  Whilst Barbary does not have what could amount to a sexual awakening, she becomes far more aware of her self, and the sometimes limited power which she has in her life.  When she meets her estranged father for the first time in seven years, he sees her as something of a disappointment, thinking her a ‘queer elf’ and ‘the same little tramp’ as she appeared as a ten-year-old.  She is given her old bedroom in the London house, where she and her family lived before her mother fled with her to France, but it has changed immeasurably: ‘Engulfed and assaulted by the resurrecting past, Barbary sat on the new bed, tears pricking against her eyes; her face disintegrated into the quivering chaos of sorrow.’  Barbary is both determined and naïve; she is convinced that her parents, both separated for seven years, and both with young children by new partners, will get back together.

From the first page, in finely sculpted and rather sumptuous prose, Macaulay sets her scenes so deftly and vividly.  She introduces of Barbary’s home, The Villa Fraises, in the following way: ‘The villa… was strawberry pink, with green shutters shaped like leaves, and some green bogus windows and shutters, with painted ladies looking out of them, but most of the windows were real, and had balconies full of shrubs and blue pots and drying bathing suits and golden cucumbers in piles.  There was a flat terraced roof with vine trellises on it, and outside the villa stone steps climbed up to the roof.  The garden was crowded with shrubs and flowers and orange and lemon trees, and pomegranates and magnolias and bougainvilleas and vines.’

Macaulay presented me with a view of London I am entirely unfamiliar with, and which feels wonderfully alive, even in its desolation.  I very much appreciated the stark, uncompromising landscapes which she built, which are quite at odds with the grand and unspoilt buildings I know of around St. Paul’s Cathedral.  She writes of the roaming Barbary and Raoul do around London together, loath as they are to have to spend any more time with their respective families.  They spend a lot of time climbing into bombed and abandoned buildings, and meeting other drifters along the way.  Macaulay describes one of the spaces they claim as their own like so: ‘In the boards there was a gap large enough to squeeze through; they did so, and stood, with no roof but the sky, while pigeons whirred about them and the wind blew in their faces, on a small plateau, looking down over the wrecked city.’

Macaulay also captures her characters, and their movements, exceedingly well.  When Barbary goes to check on her sleeping baby brother at the beginning of the book, for instance, and is interrupted by her rather formidable mother, Macaulay writes: ‘Barbary slipped from the room, as quiet as a despondent breath.  She and Raoul had acquired movements almost noiseless, the slinking steps, the affected, furtive glide, the quick, wary glancing right and left, of jungle creatures.’  The conversations which the author captures between characters are involved and in depth, and really help to develop the family dynamics, which shift and mould over time.

Of The World My Wilderness, Fitzgerald writes: ‘The book disturbed [Macaulay’s] readers, because it was no what they expected.  The most successful of her early novels had been social satires…  The World My Wilderness sowed that the power of ridicule, after all, was not the most important gift she had.’  Fitzgerald goes on to highlight the similarities between Barbary’s life in the novel, and Macaulay’s own.  She is also perceptive about Macaulay’s heroine, whom the author herself described as ‘rather lost and strayed and derelict’.  Fitzgerald writes that ‘she is not a wanderer by nature, it is only that she needs a home that she can trust.’  In a searching paragraph close to the end of her introduction, she notes: ‘However faulty the main characters may be, there is one striking fact about them; their mistakes are not the result of caring nothing about each other, but of caring too much.’

In some ways, The World My Wilderness is rather a bleak novel, which has been so well situated both socially and historically.  I really enjoyed the discussions between characters, particularly with regard to the political situation in Britain and France, and the changing face of Europe.  The World My Wilderness, as well as being quite dark and sometimes maudlin, is a wise book; at times, it is almost profound.  I did not find the ending of the novel overly satisfying, but felt that it fitted in well with the story.  I am keen to seek out more of Macaulay’s fiction in the very near future, and look forward to meeting more of her wonderfully crafted characters.

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One From the Archive: ‘The Infernal World of Branwell Bronte’ by Daphne du Maurier ****

When my copy of Daphne du Maurier’s The Infernal World of Branwell Bronte arrived, I was pleased to note that it had originally been purchased from the Howarth Bronte shop and still bore a sticker proclaiming this in its bottom right hand corner. Of the du Mauriers which I had planned to read during my du Maurier December project, The Infernal World of Branwell Bronte was one of those which I was most intrigued by. Before beginning to read, I knew a little about Branwell Bronte, but only in the context of his sisters.  I was therefore so interested to learn what he was like as an entirely separate being.

In her introduction, du Maurier sets out her reasons for producing a biography of a figure who was largely overshadowed by the fame of his three surviving sisters, Charlotte, Emily and Anne: ‘One day the definitive biography of this tragic young man will be published.  Meanwhile, many years of interest in the subject, and much reading, have prompted the present writer to attempt a study of his life and work which may serve as an introduction to both’. 9781844080755

Branwell and his sisters spring to life immediately.  Their sad beginning – their mother dying when Branwell was tiny, and the consequent deaths of the eldest two Bronte sisters, Maria and Elizabeth, in 1825 – caused the four remaining siblings to mould themselves into an impenetrable group.  From the very beginning, du Maurier states that Charlotte, Emily and Anne were all greatly inspired
by their brother, particularly during their early childhood: ‘None of these novels [Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall] would have come into being had not their creators lived, during childhood, in this fantasy world, which was largely inspired and directed by their only brother, Patrick Branwell Bronte’.  She goes on to say that in their childhood, the four children wrote tiny books together in ‘a blend of Yorkshire, Greek and Latin which could only be spoken among the four of them, to the mystification of their elders’.  Branwell certainly comes across as an inventive child: ‘Imitative as a monkey, the boy was speaking in brogue on a Monday, broad Yorkshire on a Tuesday and back to the west country on the Wednesday’, and it is clear that du Maurier holds compassion for him.

Du Maurier discusses Branwell’s work throughout, often relating his creative output to the things which he was experiencing in life: ‘Although, on examination, Branwell’s manuscripts show that he did not possess the amazing talent of his famous sisters, they prove him to have had a boyhood and youth of almost incredibly productivity, so spending himself in the process of describing the lives and loves of his imaginary characters that invention was exhausted by the time he was twenty-one’.  His poetry particularly is often vivid:

“Backward I look upon my life,
And see one waste of storm and strife,
One wrack of sorrows, hopes and pain,
Vanishing to arise again!
That life has moved through evening, where
Continual shadows veiled my sphere;
From youth’s horizon upward rolled
To life’s meridian, dark and cold.”

The secondary materials included – a large bibliography, notes, sources, and a list of Branwell’s manuscripts – are extensive, and it is clear that du Maurier did an awful lot of research on and around her subject before putting pen to paper.  The Infernal World of Branwell Bronte includes quotes from Branwell’s letters, as well as his own prose.  Secondary documents of Charlotte’s have been taken into account, particularly when discussing Branwell’s illness and death.  Instances of literary criticism from a handful of different sources are also present.  Du Maurier marvellously weaves in the social history of the period – the death of kings and queens, for example.

Branwell’s painting of Charlotte, Emily and Anne

Whilst he is not always likeable, Branwell is an incredibly interesting subject for a biography, particularly for an author such as du Maurier to tackle.  She has demonstrated the many sides of his character, some of which were reserved particularly for certain people.  Du Maurier does continually talk of Charlotte, Emily and Anne, particularly during their childhoods, but one expects that it would be hard to write such a biography without taking them into account so often.  She does continually assert the place of Branwell in the Bronte family, however, and admirably, he is always her main focus.

Of the portrait of the Bronte sisters shown, du Maurier writes: ‘Close inspection of the group has lately shown that what was thought to be a pillar is, in reality, the painted-out head and shoulders of the artist himself.  The broad high forehead, the hair puffed at the sides, the line of coat and collar, all are there.  Perhaps Branwell did not consider that he had done his own face justice, and in a fit of irritation smudged himself into oblivion’.

The Infernal World of Branwell Bronte was first published in 1960, and remains an accessible and fresh portrait of a shadowy – and often overshadowed – character.  Du Maurier’s non-fiction is eloquent, and is written so beautifully.  She uses lush descriptions throughout, so much so that it occasionally feels as though you are actually reading a novel.  The Infernal World of Branwell Bronte is quite slim in terms of biography; it runs to just 231 pages in the Penguin edition. The Infernal World of Branwell Bronte does follow a largely chronological structure.  Interestingly, however, the book’s initial chapter deals with his death, and then loops back to his childhood.  Through du Maurier, one really gets an understanding of Branwell’s personality, as well as learning of his hopes and fears.

The Infernal World of Branwell Bronte is extremely well set out, and is easy to read.  The chapters are all rather short, and consequently it can be dipped in and out of, or read alongside other books.  Again, du Maurier’s wrork is thorough and well plotted, and provides an insightful and rewarding look into a relatively neglected part of the Bronte quartet.

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‘Fenny’ by Lettice Cooper ****

In a writing career which spanned over sixty years, it is a real shame that the majority of Lettice Cooper’s books are out of print, and that most prove quite difficult, or at least rather expensive, to procure.  She was awarded the Order of the British Empire in 1968, and had much praise bestowed on her for her services to literature.  Of her work, I had read only The New House, which I very much enjoyed, before finding an inexpensive copy of Fenny – the 264th title on the Virago Modern Classics list – online.  The green-spined edition features an introduction by Cooper’s peer, Francis King.  He notes the high quality of Cooper’s writing, which has ‘a consistency of style, of moral outlook’.

2330502First published in 1953, Fenny is a much later novel than 1937’s The New House.  As its predecessor, it enticed me from the very beginning.  It focuses on a young woman named Ellen Fenwick, who has worked at a school in her native Yorkshire for several years.  She is offered a summer post in Tuscany, in a secluded setting quite near to Florence, as the governess to an eight-year-old girl named Juliet Rivers, the granddaughter of a famous actress whom Ellen very much admires.  The entire situation thus presents a ‘dazzling prospect’ for her.  It seems ‘far removed from the fireside teas and prize-givings’ which her current job includes, and Italy promises a ‘dreamlike setting for the new life she anticipates’.

Accepting the post, Ellen soon finds herself journeying to Italy.  When she arrives at the Villa Meridiana, she finds freedom of a sort: ‘she tastes her first cocktail, cuts her hair, becomes “Fenny” – and falls in love.’  However, set as the novel is against rather a tumultuous period in history, she is ‘forced to come to terms with both emotional and political realities.’  The novel spans the period between 1933 and 1949, in which Ellen forges a new life for herself.  Throughout, Cooper charts her growth into a woman of middle age, and the circumstances which surround her, causing her to examine herself and adapt accordingly.  Ellen, throughout this, remains a believable character, constantly putting her own wellbeing behind that of those who surround her.  Of Ellen, King writes in his introduction: ‘That, in the years ahead, she should suffer so many disappointments and yet never become embittered, never lose her faith in life, never (most important of all) lose her faith in herself, is what makes her such an admirable and appealing character.’  Indeed, I liked Ellen from the first, and was so interested in the new life which she forged for herself, as well as learning about what she had left behind.

Through Ellen’s movement to mainland Europe, Cooper was able to explore one of her favourite tropes – the differences between North and South.  The North is mentioned only briefly in the novel, but it is Ellen’s assimilation into an entirely new culture and way of life which is interesting.  Added to this is the fact that before travelling to the Villa Meridiana, Ellen has never been abroad.  Far before she reaches the final stop on the train, her excitement is palpable; Cooper writes: ‘… she had been sitting on the edge of the seat, a starter poised for a race…’.  Upon arrival, Ellen is transfixed on her surroundings: ‘The strange city through which they drove was the scenery of a dream.  She saw tall, flat-fronted houses with shuttered windows, stone facades lit by street lamps.’  Throughout, Cooper’s observations of character, and descriptions of place, are perceptive and sumptuous respectively.  Italy has been used as a character in its own right here, its presence feeding into the relationships and decisions of each character within the novel.  Soon after Ellen’s arrival, Cooper describes one of the endless lovely scenes which unfold over her surroundings: ‘Every evening the sun set in splendour over the town of Florence, and as the red faded to rose and the last stain of rose died from a sky the colour of old turquoise, the sombre green cypresses became hard black shapes against the deepening blue and the appearing stars.’

Fellow Virago author Storm Jameson called this ‘certainly Lettice Cooper’s finest novel’, and it is easy to see why.  Fenny is both introspective and evocative.  It believably charts the life of a single woman in circumstances which change, and cause her to change in consequence.  Cooper has such an understanding and an awareness of her protagonist, and the things which others around her cause her to feel.  In this manner, Fenny is a fascinating and insightful character study.    Whilst, of course, the focus is upon Ellen, we do learn about the Rivers family, their friends who live not too far away, and another tutor, amongst others who are introduced later on.  The third person perspective which has been used throughout works well, and Cooper’s prose is pitch perfect.  

I found the extended timeframe in which Ellen’s story is told to be effective, and so much of Cooper’s commentary pertinent and applicable to today: ‘Of course I am interested in politics,’ a lecturer tells Ellen.  ‘Life, it seems to me, is not divisible.  One cannot disassociate oneself, especially in these days, even if one does not take an active part in them.’  I very much enjoyed reading Fenny, and whilst I did not find the final section as transporting, nor as realistic, as the previous ones, it is still a Virago publication which I treasure.

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One From the Archive: ‘The Lady and the Unicorn’ by Rumer Godden ****

Rumer Godden’s The Lady and The Unicorn, which was first published in 1937, is the 630th entry upon the Virago Modern Classics list.  As with The River and The Villa Fiorita, both republished by Virago at the same time, The Lady and The Unicorn includes a well-crafted and rather fascinating introduction penned by Anita Desai.

After setting out the author’s childhood, lived largely in India, Desai goes on to write about the influences which drove Godden to write over sixty acclaimed works of fiction, for both children and adults.  Desai states that Godden ‘cannot be said to have been ignorant, or unmindful, of her society and its role in India. In no other book is this made as clear’ as it is in this one, a novel written ‘in the early, unhappy days of her first marriage’.  Desai then goes on to write that ‘the contact with her students [at the dance school which Godden opened in Calcutta], their families and her staff taught her a great deal about the unhappy situation of a community looked down upon both by the English and by Indians as “half-castes”‘.  The Lady and The Unicorn faced controversy upon its publication, with many English believing her ‘unfairly critical of English society’, and others viewing ‘her depiction of Eurasians’ as cruel.  Her publisher, Peter Davies, however, deemed the novel ‘a little masterpiece’.

The Lemarchant family are Godden’s focus here; ‘neither Indian nor English, they are accepted by no-one’.  They live in the small annex of a fading ‘memory-haunted’ mansion in Calcutta.  The widowed father of the family is helped only by ‘auntie’ and a servant of sorts named Boy, an arrangement which causes misery for all: ‘There were so many ways that father did not care to earn money that the girls had to be taken at school for charity and the rent was always owing…  No matter how badly he [father] behaved they [auntie and Boy] treated him as the honourable head of the house, and auntie complained that the children did not respect him as they ought’.  The way in which the family unit is perceived within the community is negative, and often veers upon the harsh: ‘The Lemarchants are not a nice family at all, they cannot even pay their rent’ is the idea which prevails.

The three daughters of the Lemarchant family could not be more different; twins Belle and Rosa are often at odds with one another, and the youngest, Blanche, is treated no better than an outcast.  Blanche is described as ‘the family shame, for she was dark.  Suddenly, after Belle and Rosa, had come this other baby like a little crow after twin doves.  Auntie said she was like their mother, and they hated to think of their mother who was dead and had been dark like Blanche.  Belle could not bear her, and even Rosa was ashamed to be her sister’.  Of the twins, Godden writes that Rosa, constantly overshadowed by her twin sister, ‘could never be quite truthful, she had always to distort, to embroider, to exaggerate, and if she were frightened, she lied’. The family in its entirety ‘were sure that Belle was not good, and yet at home she gave hardly any trouble; it was just that she was quite implacable, quite determined and almost fearless…  Belle did exactly as she chose.  When she was crossed she was more than unkind, she was shocking’.  The divisions within the family therefore echo those which prevail in society.

The sense of place is deftly built, particularly with regard to the house in which the Lemarchants live: ‘There was not a corner of the house that Blanche did not know and cherish, all of them loved it as if it were their own; that was peculiar to the Lemarchants, for the house did not like its tenants, it seemed to have some strange resentment’.  Of their surroundings, of which the girls know no different, Belle sneers the following, exemplifying her discontent: ‘We know a handful of people in Calcutta and most of them are nobodies too.  What is Calcutta?  It is not the world’.  There is not much by way of plot here, really, but the whole has been beautifully written, and the non-newsworthy aspects of the girls’ lives have been set out with such feeling and emotion.

The Lady and The Unicorn is a captivating novel, which captures adolescence, and the many problems which it throws up, beautifully.  Part love story and part coming-of-age novel, Godden is shrewd throughout at showing how powerful society can be, and how those within it often rally together to shun those ‘outsiders’ who have made it their home.

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‘A Wreath of Roses’ by Elizabeth Taylor *****

I originally purchased Elizabeth Taylor’s A Wreath of Roses in order to participate in a group read, but was unable to wait, and started it almost as soon as I received a copy.  I adore Elizabeth Taylor; she is one of my favourite authors, and without Virago’s republication of her novels and short stories, it may well have taken me far longer to discover her.  A Wreath of Roses is number 392 on the Virago Modern Classics list, and was first published in 1949.

Of her writing, fellow Virago-published author Rosamond Lehmann said it is 9781844087129‘sophisticated, sensitive and brilliantly amusing, with a kind of stripped, piercing feminine wit.’  The Daily Telegraph calls her a ‘fearsome writer, ruthless in her examination of solitude, and a sparkling chronicler of ordinary lives.’  Kingsley Amis regarded her as ‘one of the best English novelists born in this century.

The Virago edition which I read included a warm introduction written by Helen Dunmore.  She writes that A Wreath of Roses has been ‘called Elizabeth Taylor’s darkest novel, dealing as it does with murder, loneliness, terror and suicide.’  She goes on to make a comparison between Taylor and Virginia Woolf.  She writes: ‘Like Woolf, Taylor is fearless in her handling of tragedy and mental suffering’.

The protagonist of A Wreath of Roses is a young woman named Camilla Hill.  Each year, she spends the summer in the countryside with two women who are very dear to her.  ‘But this year,’ notes the novel’s blurb, ‘their private absorptions – Frances with her painting and Liz with her baby – seem to exclude her from the gossipy intimacies of previous holidays.  Feeling lonely, and that life and love are passing her by, Camilla steps into an unlikely liaison with Richard Elton, handsome, assured – and a dangerous liar.’  The novel is set in the aftermath of the Second World War, and takes place in a small village named Abingford somewhere in England, within ‘the blazing heart of an English summer.’  This village, writes Dunmore, is ‘hypnotically beautiful, but never idyllic.’  She deems this an ‘unflinching novel, which probes deep into the self-deceptions that grow up in order to soften life, and end up by choking it like so many weeds.’

A Wreath of Roses begins at the train station of this small English village, where Camilla spots a man on the platform.  Taylor’s description of their staunch British behaviour is demonstrated thus:  ‘Once the train which had left them on the platform had drawn out,’ writes Taylor, ‘the man and woman trod separately up and down, read time-tables in turn, were conscious of one another in the way that strangers are, when thrown together without a reason for conversation.  A word or two would have put them at ease, but there were no words to say.  The heat of the afternoon was beyond comment and could not draw them together as hailstones might have done.’

It is not long afterwards that Camilla sees a ‘shabby man’ throw himself from the train bridge, and Taylor comments upon how this event drastically impacts upon Camilla: ‘This happening broke the afternoon in two.  The feeling of eternity had vanished.  What had been timeless and silent became chaotic and disorganised, with feet running along the echoing boards, voices staccato, and the afternoon darkening with the vultures of disaster, who felt the presence of death and arrived from the village to savour it and to explain the happening to one another.’

Taylor’s novels are beautiful, and full of depth.  She is an author who is so perceptive of the tiny things which make up a life.  A Wreath of Roses is no different in this respect.  Dunmore believes that ‘she writes with a sensuous richness of language that draws the reader down the most shadowy paths.’  She goes on to further describe Taylor’s writing style, pointing out that she ‘has a way of seeming to be one kind of writer, and then revealing herself to be quite another, or, perhaps, to be a writer who is capable of inhabiting many selves at the same time.’  Dunmore beautifully comments upon the essence of her art, when she writes that ‘Taylor makes the living moment present, touchable, disturbing, enchanting.’  The imagery which she creates is rich, and often quite lovely.  For instance, Taylor writes of an English summer night in the following way: ‘Trees and the hedgerows were as dark as blackberries against the starry sky; a little owl took off from a telegraph-post, floating down noiselessly across a field of stubble.’

Taylor seems to effortlessly capture real, human feelings, and the way in which relationships can shift and change so quickly.  She is perhaps most understanding of protagonist Camilla’s altered position, both in life and in Abingford: she ‘felt as if the day had been a dream, that she would come out of it soon, lifting fold after fold of muffling web; for this could not be real – meeting Liz again after eleven months and finding herself so alienated from her that she would show off to her about a man.’  Throughout, the reader is given hints about Richard’s sinister edge, but these are hidden from Camilla.  In this way, we are forced to watch the somewhat dark consequences of the relationship which she embarks upon with him.  Through these characters, Taylor explores in great deal how the expectations which we have of someone, and the effects which they have upon us, can be so terribly damaging.  The tenseness within the novel builds, and is masterfully put in place until it feels almost claustrophobic.

I could hardly bear to put A Wreath of Roses down.  Taylor has a style all of her own, and whilst this novel is in some ways quite different to the rest of her oeuvre, it is characteristically hers.  I was surprised by the twists which this story takes, and the ending completely surprised me.  A Wreath of Roses is a masterful novel, which shows an author at the peak of her power.

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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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