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One From the Archive: ‘The Virago Book of Women Travellers’, edited by Mary Morris and Larry O’Connor ****

9781860492129‘Some of the extraordinary women whose writings are including in this collection are observers of the world in which they wander; their prose rich in description, remarkable in detail. Mary McCarthy conveys the vitality of Florence while Willa Cather’s essay on Lavandou foreshadows her descriptions of the French countryside in later novels. Others are more active participants in the culture they are visiting, such as Leila Philip, as she harvests rice with chiding Japanese women, or Emily Carr, as she wins the respect and trust of the female chieftain of an Indian village in Northern Canada. Whether it is curiosity about the world, a thirst for adventure or escape from personal tragedy, all of these women are united in that they approached their journeys with wit, intelligence, compassion and empathy for the lives of those they encountered along the way. Features writing from Gertrude Bell, Edith Wharton, Isabella Bird, Kate O’Brien, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu and many others.’

I am an enormous fan of Virago, as anyone who knows even a little of my reading habits can probably discern.  To my delight, I spotted The Virago Book of Women Travellers online at a ridiculously low price, and decided to treat myself (another of my favourite things in life is travelling, after all!).  I had originally intended to read it over the Christmas holidays, but true to form at such busy times, I did not really get a chance to do so.  I thus picked it up in February, just before a wonderful trip to The Netherlands.

The selection of extracts here is extensive and varied, and encompasses an incredible scope of geographical locations.  Societally and historically it is most interesting, and some extracts – Beryl Markham’s about elephant hunting, for instance – are very of their time (thankfully so, in this case!).  Some of my favourite authors were collected here – Vita Sackville-West, and Rebecca West, as well as Rose Macaulay.  As ever with such collections, there were several entries which I did not quite enjoy as much as the rest, but each was undoubtedly fascinating in its own way.  I very much enjoyed the ‘can do’ attitude which every single one of the writers had, regardless of circumstance or destination, and very much liked the way in which this singular thread bound all of them together.  The chronological ordering made for a splendid reading experience.

The Virago Book of Women Travellers is a marvellous volume in which to dip here and there, to reconnect with old favourites, and to discover new writers to find, and new women to admire.  I adore the idea of thematic travelogues, and there is something really rather special and inspiring about this one.  It has brought some marvellous women, both in terms of personality and writing ablity, to my attention, and I can only conclude this review by saying that it is a joy for any women traveller to read.

Purchase from The Book Depository

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The Book Trail: From ‘The Lark’ to ‘Reuben Sachs’

I am using E. Nesbit’s quite charming novel, The Lark, which I recently reviewed on the blog, as my starting point for this edition of The Book Trail.  As ever, I am using the ‘Readers Also Enjoyed’ tool to generate this list.  Do let me know which of these books you have read, and if you are interested in reading any of them!

 

1. The Lark by E. Nesbit (1922) 9781911579458
‘It’s 1919 and Jane and her cousin Lucilla leave school to find that their guardian has gambled away their money, leaving them with only a small cottage in the English countryside. In an attempt to earn their living, the orphaned cousins embark on a series of misadventures – cutting flowers from their front garden and selling them to passers-by, inviting paying guests who disappear without paying – all the while endeavouring to stave off the attentions of male admirers, in a bid to secure their independence.’

 

17769932. One Fine Day by Mollie Panter-Downes (1947)
‘It’s a summer’s day in 1946. The English village of Wealding is no longer troubled by distant sirens, yet the rustling coils of barbed wire are a reminder that something, some quality of life, has evaporated. Together again after years of separation, Laura and Stephen Marshall and their daughter Victoria are forced to manage without “those anonymous caps and aprons who lived out of sight and pulled the strings.” Their rambling garden refuses to be tamed, the house seems perceptibly to crumble. But alone on a hillside, as evening falls, Laura comes to see what it would have meant if the war had been lost, and looks to the future with a new hope and optimism. First published in 1947, this subtle, finely wrought novel presents a memorable portrait of the aftermath of war, its effect upon a marriage, and the gradual but significant change in the nature of English middle-class life.’

 

3. Fräulein Schmidt and Mr Anstruther by Elizabeth von Arnim (1907) 1140708
‘This enchanting novel tells the story of the love affair between Rose-Marie Schmidt and Roger Anstruther. A determined young woman of twenty-five, Rose-Marie is considered a spinster by the inhabitants of the small German town of Jena where she lives with her father, the Professor. To their homes comes Roger, an impoverished but well-born young Englishman who wishes to learn German: Rose-Marie and Roger fall in love. But the course of true love never did run smooth: distance, temperament and fortune divide them. We watch the ebb and flow of love between two very different people and see the witty and wonderful Rose-Marie get exactly what she wants.’

 

71337934. Illyrian Spring by Ann Bridge (1935)
Even though she is a renowned painter Lady Kilmichael is diffident and sad. her remote, brilliant husband has no time for her and she feels she only exasperates her delightful, headstrong daughter. So, telling no one where she is going. she embarks on a painting trip to the Dalmatian coast of Yugoslavia – in the Thirties a remote and exotic place. There she takes under her wing Nicholas, a bitterly unhappy young man, forbidden by his family to pursue the painting he loves and which Grace recognises as being of rare quality. Their adventures and searching discussions lead to something much deeper than simple friendship…  This beautiful novel, gloriously evoking the countryside and people of Illyria, has been a favourite since its publication in 1935, both as a sensitive travel book and as [an] unusual and touching love story.’

 

5. Miss Mole by E.H. Young (1930) 1983763
‘When Miss Mole returns to Radstowe, she wins the affection of Ethel and of her nervous sister Ruth and transforms the life of the vicarage. This book won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize in 1930.’

 

29218749._sx318_6. Greenbanks by Dorothy Whipple (1932)
‘Persephone Books’ bestselling author Dorothy Whipple’s third novel (1932) was the choice of the Book Society in the summer of that year. Hugh Walpole wrote: ‘To put it plainly, in Dorothy Whipple’s picture of a quite ordinary family before and after the war there is some of the best creation of living men and women that we have had for a number of years in the English novel. She is a novelist of true importance.”

 

7. Fidelity by Susan Glaspell (1915) 933516
‘Set in Iowa in 1900 and in 1913, this dramatic and deeply moral novel uses complex but subtle use of flashback to describe a girl named Ruth Holland, bored with her life at home, falling in love with a married man and running off with him; when she comes back more than a decade later we are shown how her actions have affected those around her. Ruth had taken another woman’s husband and as such ‘Freeport’ society thinks she is ‘a human being who selfishly – basely – took her own happiness, leaving misery for others. She outraged society as completely as a woman could outrage it… One who defies it – deceives it – must be shut out from it.’  But, like Emma Bovary, Edna Pontellier in ‘The Awakening’ and Nora in ‘A Doll’s House’ Ruth has ‘a diffused longing for an enlarged experience… Her energies having been shut off from the way they had wanted to go, she was all the more zestful for new things from life…’ It is these that are explored in Fidelity.’

 

27022868. Reuben Sachs by Amy Levy (1888)
‘Oscar Wilde wrote of this novel, “Its directness, its uncompromising truths, its depth of feeling, and above all, its absence of any single superfluous word, make Reuben Sachs, in some sort, a classic.” Reuben Sachs, the story of an extended Anglo-Jewish family in London, focuses on the relationship between two cousins, Reuben Sachs and Judith Quixano, and the tensions between their Jewish identities and English society. The novel’s complex and sometimes satirical portrait of Anglo-Jewish life, which was in part a reaction to George Eliot’s romanticized view of Victorian Jews in Daniel Deronda, caused controversy on its first publication.’

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Ten Really Underrated Books

I love perusing Goodreads lists, and although I have made one or two about highly underrated books before, I thought I would pick out another ten titles from this list, entitled ‘Really, Really Underrated Books’.  Each of the books on this list, which is compiled of fiction and non-fiction, has less than 100 ratings.  I have chosen titles which have piqued my interest, and which I’d like to read soon.

 

27963181. The Feminine Middlebrow Novel, 1920s to 1950s: Class, Domesticity, and Bohemianism by Nicola Humble
‘”Middlebrow” has always been a dirty word, used disparagingly since its coinage in the mid-1920s for the sort of literature thought to be too easy, insular and smug. Aiming to rehabilitate the feminine middlebrow, Nicola Humble argues that the novels of writers such as Rosamund Lehmann, Elizabeth Taylor, Stella Gibbons, Nancy Mitford, played a powerful role in establishing and consolidating, but also in resisting, new class and gender identities in this period of volatile change for both women and the middle classes.’

 

2. The Misses Mallett by E.H. Young 3875872
‘She sat there, vividly conscious of herself, and sometimes she saw the whole room as a picture and she was part of it; sometimes she saw only those three whose lives, she felt, were practically over, for even Aunt Rose was comparatively old. She pitied them because their romance was past, while hers waited for her outside; she wondered at their happiness, their interest in their appearance, their pleasure in parties; but she felt most sorry for Aunt Rose, midway between what should have been the resignation of her stepsisters and the glowing anticipation of her niece.’

 

1067212._sx318_3. East of the Sun: The Epic Conquest and Tragic History of Siberia by Benson Bobrick
‘In sweep, color & grandeur, the conquest & settlement of Siberia compares with the winning of the American West. It’s the greatest pioneering story in history, uniquely combining the heroic colonization of an intractable virgin land, the ghastly dangers & high adventure of Arctic exploration, & the grimmest saga of penal servitude. 400 years of continual human striving chart its course, a drama of unremitting extremes & elemental confrontations, pitting man against nature, & man against man. East of the Sun, a work of panoramic scope, is the 1st complete account of this strange & terrible story. To most Westerners, Siberia is a vast & mysterious place. The richest resource area on the face of the earth, its land mass covers 5 million square miles-7.5% of the total land surface of the globe. From the 1st foray in 1581 across the Ural Mountains by a band of Cossack outlaws to the fall of Gorbachev, East of the Sun is history on a grand scale. With vivid immediacy, Bobrick describes the often brutal subjugation of Siberia’s aboriginal tribes & the cultures that were destroyed; the great 18th-century explorations that defined Siberia’s borders & Russia’s attempt to “extend” Siberia further with settlements in Alaska, California & Hawaii; & the transformation of Siberia into a penal colony for criminal & political exiles, an experiment more terrible than Australia’s Botany Bay. There’s the building of the stupendous Trans-Siberian Railway across 7 time zones; Siberia’s key role in the bloody aftermath of the October Revolution in 1917; & Stalin’s dreaded Gulag, which corrupted its very soil. Today, Siberia is the hope of Russia’s future, now that all her appended republic have broken away. Its story has never been more timely.’

 

4. Death in Leamington by David Smith 23499091
Death in Leamington is more than a crime story; it is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma. Set in the genteel Regency town of Royal Leamington Spa, the murder of an elderly foreign visitor sets off an intricate chain of events, surprising literary encounters and one too many unexplained and gruesome deaths. Inspector Hunter and his new assistant DC Penny Dore race to solve the murders, but as the body count mounts and each new lead evaporates; Hunter becomes more and more convinced that there are darker forces involved.  Death in Leamington will appeal both to those who enjoy solving a crime mystery and those with an interest in history, art and music. The story is a celebration of the literary and folk heritage of this elegant Warwickshire town, incorporating many of the characters from its history, and a few literary ghosts from its past, including quotations from works as diverse as The Faerie Queene, The Scarlett Letter, Alice in Wonderland and even Shakespeare’s Queen Mab puts in an appearance.’

 

10418555. Out of the Woodshed: A Portrait of Stella Gibbons by Reggie Oliver
‘Born into an Irish family in Hampstead where she lived for most of her life, Stella Gibbons is probably best remembered for her book Cold Comfort Farm. Written by her nephew, this biography of the novelist and poet draws on her personal papers including two unpublished novels.’

 

6. The Family Mashber by Der Nister 2376113
The Family Mashber is a protean work: a tale of a divided family and divided souls, a panoramic picture of an Eastern European town, a social satire, a kabbalistic allegory, an innovative fusion of modernist art and traditional storytelling, a tale of weird humor and mounting tragic power, embellished with a host of uncanny and fantastical figures drawn from daily life and the depths of the unconscious. Above all, the book is an account of a world in crisis (in Hebrew, mashber means crisis), torn between the competing claims of family, community, business, politics, the individual conscience, and an elusive God.  At the center of the book are three brothers: the businessman Moshe, at the height of his fortunes as the story begins, but whose luck takes a permanent turn for the worse; the religious seeker Luzi, who, for all his otherworldliness, finds himself ever more caught up in worldly affairs; and the idiot-savant Alter, whose reclusive existence is tortured by fear and sexual desire. The novel is also haunted by the enigmatic figure of Sruli Gol, a drunk, a profaner of sacred things, an outcast, who nonetheless finds his way through every door and may well hold the key to the brothers’ destinies.’

 

932597. Carson McCullers: A Life by Josyane Savigneau
‘In Carson McCullers: A Life, Josyane Savigneau gives us at last a truly popular biography of one of America’s greatest women novelists. Carson McCullers’s life story rivals the plot of any of her novels. A brilliant, sensitive artist who had a painful small-town childhood in the South and early international success, she was crippled by a mysterious disease in early adulthood. A woman who composed the most romantic of letters, she struggled to find lasting happiness with her husband, Reeves, whom she married twice. Carson wrote often of the loneliness of the human condiiton, and yet she surrounded herself with a constellation of witty, always entertaining celebrities: Tennessee Williams, Truman Capote, Katherine Anne Porter, Richard Wright, John Huston, and Edward Albee, among others.  The first biographer to have the full cooperation of the McCullers esate, Josyane Savigneau has uncovered the private Carson McCullers, a woman who never really grew up yet was always seductive, a woman whose candor and immense emotional needs sometimes overshadowed her great charm, generosity, loyalty, humor, and deep intelligence. Above all, Carson was a life force, a person who needed to write and who did so despite great physical pain, up until the very end. Published to rave reviews in France’

 

9780140050301-us8. A Place Apart by Dervla Murphy
‘At the height of The Troubles, Dervla Murphy cycled to Northern Ireland to try to understand the situation by speaking to people on either side of the divide. She also sought to interrogate her own opinions and emotions. As an Irishwoman and traveller who had only ever spent thirty-six hours of her forty-four years over the border to the north, why had she been so reluctant to engage with the issues? Despite her own family connections to the IRA, she travelled north largely unfettered by sectarian loyalties. Armed instead with an indefatigable curiosity, a fine ear for anecdote, an ability to stand her own at the bar and a penetrating intelligence, she navigated her way through horrifying situations, and sometimes found herself among people stiff with hate and grief. But equally, she discovered an unquenchable thirst for life and peace, a spirit that refused to die.’

 

25473286._sy475_9. My Buried Life by Doreen Finn
‘What happens when you no longer recognise the person you have become?   Eva has managed to spend her twenties successfully hiding from herself in New York.   Attempting to write, but really only writing her epitaph, she returns to Ireland to confront the past that has made her what she is.   In prose that is hauntingly beautiful and delicate, Doreen Finn explores a truly complex and fascinating character with deft style and unflinching honesty.’

 

10. Queen’s Folly by Elswyth Thane 8783728
‘When Queen Elizabeth I rewards an ardent courtier with an old priory in the Cotswolds for his services, it has a profound effect on him and his male descendants as they transfer their devotion to their home in this unusual and romantic novel. Follows this family from the 16th to the 20th century.’

Which of these books have you read?  Which are your favourite underrated books?

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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.

Purchase from The Book Depository

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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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