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One From the Archive: ‘A Wreath of Roses’ by Elizabeth Taylor *****

First published in January 2019.

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

9781844087129

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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One From the Archive: ‘Our Spoons Came From Woolworths’ by Barbara Comyns ****

First published in July 2013.

Our Spoons Came From Woolworths was first published in 1950 and has been recently reissued by Virago, along with two of Comyns’ other novels.  The introduction to this new edition has been penned by author Maggie O’Farrell, who tells rather a lovely story about her discovery of Barbara Comyns in a secondhand bookshop.  She describes how,  ‘as I have a habit of buying up any Virago Modern Classics I don’t already own, I decided to… make the purchase.  It would prove to be the best fifty pence I ever spent.  I began to flick through the pages as I walked away from the shop.  Just five minutes later, I was so engrossed that I had to stop and sit down on a bench on the Cobb; I didn’t make it back to the holiday flat for some time’.  She believes that Our Spoons Came From Woolworths is a novel ‘in which you are never quite sure what will happen next’. 

The novel is told through the eyes of twenty one-year-old Sophia Fairclough, who is embarking on a new life as a married woman.  She begins with a striking passage: ‘I told Helen my story and she went home and cried.  In the evening her husband came to see me and brought some strawberries; he mended my bicycle, too, and was kind, but he needn’t have been, because it all happened eight years ago, and I’m not unhappy now’.  After such introductions to our protagonist have been made, the story quickly shifts back to her impending marriage, some time in the past.  She meets her partner, Charles, on a train journey and talks to him only because both are carrying portfolios.  They soon decide to marry in secret.  Despite this, the information leaks back to Charles’ relations, and she has to bear the wrath of them in all their beastly glory: ‘there was a great thumping at the door and when it opened in tumbled all Charles’s maternal relations.  I tried to run up the stairs, but they just fell on me like a swarm of angry hornets.  One woman in a stiff black hat gripped me by the arm…  She said I was an uncontrolled little beast and when was I expecting the baby…  Charles just looked very white and scared; he wasn’t very much help.’  Several weeks afterwards, Sophia and Charles find that they are going to become parents.  Whilst apprehensive about the news herself, Charles is incredibly negative and dismissing, stating ‘How I dislike the idea of being a Daddy and pushing a pram’, and telling his wife that ‘it was no use crying about something that was not going to happen for seven months, I might have a miscarriage before then’.

As a narrator, Sophia has a lightness of touch, and as such, the happy and sad elements of her life are delivered in the same chatty tone.  Rather than add frivolity to the text, this serves merely to make the unhappy events all the more poignant and memorable.  From the outset, she is a quirky heroine.  She does such things as taking her pet newt to dinner with her and letting it ‘swim in the water jug’, and she believes that the reason she does not see her brother is because ‘they thought I was a bit “arty” and odd, but expect they hoped now I was becoming a mother I would improve’.  She is also delightfully naive, which is the most endearing quality about her.  On her wedding day, she is made to sit in a pew with Charles’ father, and comments ‘I felt a bit scared in case they married me to him by mistake’.

Comyns’ style is engaging, and her writing matches the story perfectly.  Rather than portray a humdrum account of married life and early motherhood, she has made Sophia come to life on the first page.  As a result, Our Spoons Came From Woolworths is a difficult novel to put down.  She creates such sympathy for her protagonist, particularly during the scenes on the labour ward, where she goes to give birth to her son: ‘I longed to see the baby, but they said I couldn’t yet.  It had stopped crying and I was worried in case it was dead.  So I cried about that, too.’  Comyns illustrates the peaks and troughs of life as a parent and struggling to survive on uneven wages in bustling areas of London in the most marvellous manner.  Every lover of literary fiction is sure to find a memorable friend in Sophia Fairclough.

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Eight Great Short Story Collections

I have always been an enormous fan of short stories, admiring them for how much plot and emotion they often manage to pack into such a small amount of space. I have found, however, that I do not review many short story collections for one reason or another. I therefore wanted to gather together eight volumes of short stories which I have read of late, and very much enjoyed.

I have included works by a single author, as well as anthologies, to provide the greatest variety possible. I hope that there will be something here to entice every reader, whether you are a veteran of the shorter form, or a newcomer.

1. Wave Me Goodbye: Stories of the Second World War, edited by Anne Boston
Includes Elizabeth Bowen, Elizabeth Taylor, Barbara Pym, and Jean Rhys, amongst many others

‘This collection of short stories written by women when war was a way of life includes some of the finest women writers of that generation. War had traditionally been seen as a masculine occupation but these stories show how women were equal if different participants. Here, war is less about progress on the frontline of battle than about the daily struggle to keep homes, families and relationships alive; to snatch pleasure from danger, and strength from shared experience. The stories are about saying goodbye to husbands, lovers, brothers and sons — and sometimes years later trying to remake their lives anew. By turn comical, stoical, compassionate, angry and subversive these intensely individual voices bring a human dimension to the momentous events that reverberated around them and each opens a window on to a hidden landscape of war.’

2. Collected Stories by Angela Huth

‘These are vignettes and epiphanies that bear all the hallmarks of Angela’s writing skills: her eye for description, her ear for dialogue, her understanding of the subtle intricacies of human relationships. In ‘Men Friends’, a funeral reveals the truth about an odd couple’s relationship; in ‘The Bull’, a rampaging animal provides the impetus for a woman to change her life; and in ‘Sudden Dancer’, a husband’s plan to surprise his wife ends up with him being surprised himself.’

3. Cornish Short Stories: A Collection of Contemporary Cornish Writing, edited by Emma Timpany

‘Ghosts walk in the open and infidelities are conducted in plain sight. Two teenagers walk along a perfect beach in the anticipation of a first kiss. Time stops for nothing – not even for death. Sometimes time cracks, disrupting a fragile equilibrium. The stories are peopled with locals and incomers, sailors and land dwellers; a diver searches the deep for what she has lost, and forbidden lovers meet in secret places. Throughout, the writers’ words reveal a love of the incomparable Cornish landscape. This bold and striking new anthology showcases Cornwall’s finest contemporary writers, combining established and new voices.’

4. Cat Stories, edited by Diana Secker Tesdell

‘Playful kittens and ruthless predators, beloved pets and witches’ familiars – cats of all kinds come alive in these pages. Maeve Brennan and Alice Adams movingly explore what cats can mean to their humans; Patricia Highsmith imagines the intriguingly alien feline point of view; Kipling celebrates the independence of cats in his timeless tale, ‘The Cat That Walked by Himself’. Cats flaunt their superiority in Angela Carter’s bawdy retelling of ‘Puss-in-Boots’ and Stephen Vincent Benét’s uncanny ‘The King of the Cats’, while humour abounds in stories by comic masters P.G. Wodehouse and Saki. The essential unknowableness of cats can inspire the most exotic flights of fancy: Italo Calvino’s secret city of cats in ‘The Garden of Stubborn Cats’; the disappearing animal in Ursula K. Le Guin’s brain-teasing ‘Schrodinger’s Cat’; the cartoon rodent and his cartoon nemesis in Steven Millhauser’s ‘Cat ‘n’ Mouse’. In these and other stories, this delightful anthology offers cat lovers a many-faceted tribute to the mysterious objects of their affection.’

5. The Beauties: Essential Stories by Anton Chekhov

‘Chekhov was without doubt one of the greatest observers of human nature in all its untidy complexity. His short stories, written throughout his life and newly translated for this essential collection, are exquisite masterpieces in miniature. Here are tales offering a glimpse of beauty, the memory of a mistaken kiss, daydreams of adultery, a lifetime of marital neglect, the frailty of life, the inevitability of death, and the hilarious pomposity of ordinary men and women. They range from the light­hearted comic tales of his early years to some of the most achingly profound stories ever composed.’

6. Smoke, and Other Early Stories by Djuna Barnes – my own review

Djuna Barnes’ short stories have proved to be very difficult to get hold of, so when I spotted this near pristine Virago edition in Skoob Books in London for just £4, I could not resist snapping it up. I adore Nightwood, and whilst this collection does not quite reach the same heady heights, it is still well worth seeking out. Barnes herself described this collection as juvenilia. A lot of the tales here – in fact, almost all of them – are very strange in terms of both plot and execution, but there is a wonderful, beguiling sense to them too. One can see the ideas which she adapted and carried into Nightwood. Inventive and absorbing, Smoke and Other Early Stories is just the collection which I was expecting from Barnes; startling and powerful.

7. Hieroglyphics and Other Stories by Anne Donovan

‘A beautiful collection—charming, witty, and touching—these stories give voice to a variety of different characters: from the little girl who wants to look “subtle” for her father’s funeral, a child who has an email pen pal on Jupiter, and an old lady who becomes a star through “zimmerobics.” Often writing in a vibrant Glaswegian vernacular, Donovan deftly gives her characters authenticity with a searing power, aided and abetted by tender subtlety.’

8. Games at Twilight and Other Stories by Anita Desai

‘Set in contemporary Bombay and other cities, these stories reflect the kaleidoscope of urban life – evoking the colour, sounds and white-hot heat of the city. Warm, perceptive, humorous and touched with sadness, Anita Desai’s stories are peopled with intensely individual characters – the man spiritually transformed by the surface texture of a melon; the American wife who, homesick for the verdant farmlands of Vermont, turns to the hippies in the Indian hills; the painter living in a slum who fills his canvasses with flowers, birds and landscapes he has never seen.’

Are you a fan of short stories? Which are your favourite collections?

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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.’