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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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‘In My Own Time: Thoughts and Afterthoughts’ by Jane Miller ****

I had not heard of Jane Miller’s In My Own Time: Thoughts and Afterthoughts, but I could not resist picking up a brand new Virago hardcover online for just a couple of pounds when placing a remaindered books order in the late autumn of 2020. Imagine my surprise when I found that this lovely collection of articles, written by a British author for an American magazine, had just five ratings and two reviews on Goodreads! I felt that it would be a title of interest to a lot of my friends and fellow readers, and had no choice but to add my own review to the very small pool in existence.

In My Own Time follows Miller’s memoir Crazy Age, which Diana Athill commented came from ‘a mind so subtle and well furnished.’ Interestingly, Miller, who has worked for many years as a teacher and Professor in London, writes that she only became a journalist when she was almost eighty years old. The columns collected here were all first published in the Chicago-based proudly Socialist magazine entitled In These Times. They have been published together here for the first time, specifically for British readers. However, I feel that a lot of the topics which Miller writes about and comments upon are relatively universal, particularly within the Western world. There is, of course, a lot of emphasis upon Britain and its politics, but the subjects here are wide-ranging. In My Own Time surely has a great appeal for a wide range of readers.

The topics of Miller’s articles, of which she has full selective control, vary greatly. She writes, amongst other things, about ‘reading Tolstoy in Russian, on Syrian refugees, on the demise of the NHS and on struggles with technology.’ She discusses class, economic inequality, the monarchy, travelling, the media, the changing use of language, education, Charles Dickens, protests… Each subject is a surprise, and most of them wonderfully feel quite unrelated in content to those which they are sandwiched between. Interviews with historian Eric Hobsbawm and Labour politician Tony Benn, both of whom Miller was greatly fond of, have been included as appendages.

Miller carries rather a charming humility throughout. Of the span of twentieth century history, she comments: ‘We grandparents were there, witnesses to it all; yet I am shaky and uncertain when it comes to change itself and not much good at remembering moments when the world spun on its axis… But more often time is marked for me by the births of babies, the deaths of my elders or the day in 1985 when I stopped smoking.’

In her preface, Miller writes about the difficulties which she sometimes faces in selecting topics for her monthly articles. She says: ‘There is often far too much in the news or in my life, not all of it suitable, though on one or two occasions I could think of nothing at all.’ In her first column for the magazine, which is included here, she reflects: ‘it seems to me now that I was announcing – perhaps a little apologetically – who I was: confessing that I was middle-class, had attended a school where I didn’t learn much, was a bit of a technophobe or technofool, and that I was awash in memories of a sort which might seem dull or incomprehensible to an American readership.’

The pieces here range from May 2011 to the start of 2016, and are arranged chronologically, which I appreciated. It seems a logical way to arrange such a book, and I enjoyed being able to follow threads of idea from one article to another. Alongside recent occurrences, there are some marvellous anecdotes sprinkled through its pages; for instance, when, in 1875, Karl Marx helped Miller’s great aunt Clara with her German homework. There are some very personal troubles here, too; she writes quite candidly about her husband’s death from cancer, and the loss which is left after his passing: ‘When someone you know and love dies you are confronted by the unique, particular shape of the hole they leave, by the utter specificity of their absence. That strange, contradictory, complicated person will never exist again.’

Miller writes with truth, and honesty. On the monarchy, for example, she writes: ‘I wish I knew quite why I should want to watch these strange people at their play and in their hats and uniforms doing what they do. I don’t know them. We’ve got almost nothing in common. They spend their days doing things I’ve never done, just as I spend mine doing things they’ve probably never done.’ Miller is an author who is very to the point, which I admired.

Miller is wonderfully scathing about the Conservative government, their misleading comments, and their utter lack of transparency. She writes the following in a column entitled ‘Bad Language’: ‘We’ve had prime ministers recently “passionately believing” things, and entirely sure that something is “the right thing to do” and “the right ting for our country”. These are weasel words, which bypass the expectation that we might be told exactly why we have gone to war, why the National Health Service will be even better once it has been privatised and reduced, why bankers must be indulged and everyone else must take it on the chin, and so on.’

In My Own Time is an important reflection on the modern world, and an excellent work of social commentary, written by an author with a great deal of wisdom and wit. Miller is an erudite person, in touch with both the modern world and the twentieth-century history which has helped to shape much of it. She also has a marvellously warm sense of humour, and I found myself chuckling at points. The pieces within In My Own Time are relatively brief, covering an average of four pages each, but without exception, they have been so well executed. I am so surprised that this wonderful book has not had a larger readership, and can only hope that more readers come to it in the near future. I also hope that another book of this kind is forthcoming.

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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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‘Mrs Miniver’ by Jan Struther ****

Having wanted to read Jan Struther’s Mrs Miniver for such a long time, I was thrilled when I found a copy of it in the wonderful Oxfam Bookshop in St Albans just before Christmas.  First published in book form in 1939, Mrs Miniver is a collection of newspaper columns, originally published in The Times.  The columns, and then the book and Academy Award-winning film which followed, was ‘an enormous success on both sides of the Atlantic’.

hd_101302310_01In Mrs Miniver, Struther gives a ‘startlingly unsentimental view of the loss of England’s innocence in the early days of the war’.  Struther was asked to ‘create a character whose doings would enliven… an ordinary sort of woman who leads an ordinary sort of life’.  Thus, Mrs Caroline Miniver, married to a wealthy architect named Clem, and the mother of three children – Judy, Vin, and the ‘unfathomable’ Toby – who lives in a large house at a smart London address, was born.

The Virago edition which I read included an introduction by Valerie Grove.  She writes that Struther ‘was not a novelist; she was happier making keen and accurate observations from everyday life – on a character she had met in the park, on the mysterious fish served for lunch in trains, on how to charm a small child into going to a concert.’  She goes on to write about Struther’s protagonist, commenting ‘nobody would fail to be charmed by Mrs Miniver, who embraces domesticity, parenthood and social life alike with such positive enthusiasm.  Mundane things fill her with delight…’.

In Mrs Miniver, Struther is perceptive from the first.  She writes: ‘… Mrs. Miniver suddenly understood why she was enjoying the forties so much better than she had enjoyed the thirties; it was the difference between August and October, between the heaviness of late summer and the sparkle of early autumn, between the ending of an old phase and the beginning of a fresh one.’  Struther is highly understanding of her protagonist, and gives her all sorts of little quirks and foibles.  With regard to the days of the week, for instance, Mrs Miniver reflects: ‘Monday was definitely yellow, Thursday a dull indigo, Friday violet.  About the others she didn’t feel so strongly.’

In her columns, Struther does not tell the story of something from beginning to end.  Rather, she focuses upon snapshots and anecdotes; for instance, a weekend spent at the country house of rather more well-to-do friends, or a busy Christmas shopping trip in central London.  She writes about the grisly discussions about hunting around the dinner table during the first scenario, and the noise which Mrs Miniver’s windscreen wipers make when she is driving back from Oxford Street in the second.

The structure of Mrs Miniver is relatively linear, but in quite a loose manner; one thing does not necessarily lead to another.  Although not the main focus of the book at all, snippets of wartime life do creep in.  Speeches from both the Far Right and Far Left are overheard one Sunday afternoon on Hampstead Heath; we learn about the family’s experience of picking up their gas masks; and Mrs Miniver signs herself up as an ambulance driver, to name but three examples.

Mrs Miniver is far from ordinary.  Her family’s wealth means that as well as a main residence on a London square, they also have a large country residence named Starlings.  The war, although in its early stages during these columns, does not affect Mrs Miniver as it would have some.  Regardless, Mrs Miniver is amusing and to the point, often in a rather tongue-in-cheek manner.

Mrs Miniver feels like a fully-formed character very early on in the book; we get a real feel for who she is, what she thinks, and what she cares about.  Mrs Miniver has been so well written and considered.  In terms of plot, Mrs Miniver feels rather of its time, but the writing has quite a modern quality to it.  It is a wonderful entry on the Virago Modern Classics list, and one which I highly recommend.

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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.

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