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One From the Archive: ‘Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont’ by Elizabeth Taylor *****

‘Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont’

Mention Virago Modern Classics to many people, and they will wax lyrical about Elizabeth Taylor and her work.  It is with great pleasure that I am able to say that I can join this group, so impressed was I with her novel Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont.  I received the book for Christmas, along with two of her other books, and only waited two days before I eagerly dove into it.

I had heard only good things about this book, and know that many people regard Mrs Palfrey, the protagonist of the novel, as one of their favourite literary constructs.  I fully expected to love it, and I am so pleased to say that I adored every page.

Paul Bailey’s introduction to the newly pastel-jacketed Virago edition (a different cover to that pictured) is insightful and feels polished.  He sets the tone of Taylor’s writing well, and really built up my excitement to begin.

Mrs Laura Palfrey, an elderly woman, has moved into the Claremont Hotel in London to see out her retirement after her husband’s death. Mrs Palfrey is a marvellous protagonist, whose every action is both understandable and believable.  I was so very fond of her, and am longing to meet someone just like her in real life.

Taylor sets the scene marvellously from the very first page, and is sublime in establishing scenes and relationships between her characters.  It feels as though she is so understanding of the ageing process.  She treats each and every one of her characters, whether we as readers are supposed to like them or not, with such respect, forever reminding us how things – and, of course, people – can change so drastically as time goes by.  Each and every person who is considered in this novel is different, and even if they feature only marginally in the story, they are distinguishable as separate entities within the group.  The eccentricities which Taylor builds around them are so well done.

Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont is such an engrossing novel.  From the very start I knew that I was reading something special, and I was loath for the book to end.  I read it as slowly as I possibly could, in order to savour every word, and would urge every other person lucky enough to be coming to Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont for the first time to do the same.

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One From the Archive: ‘Pomfret Towers’ by Angela Thirkell ***

Angela Thirkell’s Pomfret Towers, first published in 1938, is the 589th book on the Virago Modern Classics list, and is the sixth novel in the Barsetshire Chronicles series.  In Pomfret Towers, the young female protagonist ‘finds adventure during a Friday-to-Monday at a grand country house in this classic, deliciously diverting 1930s romantic comedy’.  The Lady magazine calls it ‘a perfect balance of satirical observation and chocolate-box charm’.

‘Pomfret Towers’ by Angela Thirkell (Virago)

Pomfret Towers is the seat of the Earls of Pomfret in the fictionalised county of Barsetshire.  The blurb states that the Towers ‘makes a grand setting for a house party at which gamine Alice Barton and her brother Guy are honoured guests…  But of all the bright young things, whose hand will Mr Foster [Giles Foster, nephew and heir of the present Lord Pomfret] seek in marriage, and who will win Alice’s tender heart?’  At these very words, it is almost possible to hear fans of Virago-esque novels swooning.

Much of the novel takes place over a single weekend.  Thirkell sets her scene by opening the book with a history of ‘the most delightful town’ of Nutfield, which can be found on the Pomfret estate.  We are introduced to the Barton family, residents of the town, almost immediately.  Patriarch Mr Barton ‘was a passionate lover and faithful guardian’ of the Jacobean house in which his family live; his wife writes historical novels and consequently ‘sometimes found it difficult to remember where she was’; and their son Guy ‘had inherited his mother’s good looks, together with his father’s peaceful temperament, [and] found life a very straightforward, pleasant affair’.  The young girl of the family, Alice, is first referred to as ‘delicate’.  She longs to be an architect but, ‘failing this, she found solace in painting’.

Alice and Guy have been asked to Pomfret Towers to attend the party which is being thrown.  She is reluctant to spend time in unknown company, and is adamant that she will not go under any circumstances.  Rather predictably, her mind is changed only when friends of the siblings, Sally and Roddy, speak of their wish to be present at the gathering.  Still, her timidity is well outlined, and Thirkell describes the way in which she is frightened of almost everything: with dogs, she finds the ‘loud, indiscriminating hospitality [of dogs]… rather overpowering’, and at the thought of spending two whole days away from home with strangers, our omniscient narrator says, ‘if there were to be girls, Alice thought she had better die.  They would all have wonderful dresses and exquisite shoes, and be permanently waved and made up, and be frightfully clever and know all about people and theatres and films, and despise one, and why couldn’t Mother understand that girls of one’s own age were simply the most awful thing one could be asked to face’.  The urgency of her language and the way in which it runs on at such points within the novel is a great tool to exemplify Alice’s building fear.

Angela Thirkell with her grandfather, Edward Burne-Jones (1893)

Many other characters come into the narrative as it progresses, from the lovely and kind, to the utterly indifferent.  Lord Pomfret himself is portrayed as rather a cold character from the outset, and for good reason: ‘His eyes were small and often looked very angry.  It was so long since his only son, Lord Mellings, had been killed in a frontier skirmish and his wife had decided to be an invalid, that very few people remembered what he used to like’.

During the party, Alice is taken under the wing of Phoebe Rivers, Lord Pomfret’s niece, who had ‘the most elegant legs, the thinnest stockings, and the highest heeled shoes imaginable’.  She attends the parties merely to get away from her novelist mother, Hermione.  Again, rather predictably, Alice rather quickly falls for Phoebe’s pompous and self-important artist brother, Julian.

Alice is such a sweet creature, and she learns an awful lot about herself as the novel progresses.  The situation of the party gives her confidence, and she begins to throw her inhibitions to the wind and flourish.  Her character arc particularly is so believable, and Thirkell treats her with the utmost love and kindness throughout.  The author is unfailingly witty and shrewd, and is as good at describing scenes and situations as she is her characters.  Pomfret Towers is an entertaining novel, which stands alone from the rest of the Barsetshire stories marvellously.

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One From the Archive: ‘A View of the Harbour’ by Elizabeth Taylor ****

Elizabeth Taylor’s A View of the Harbour is another of the gorgeous books which I received for Christmas.  I very much adored Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont, and heartily enjoyed A Game of Hide and Seek, and so it was only natural that I would have high hopes for the novel.  Sarah Waters’ introduction in this volume is clearly sympathetic towards the author, and is very nicely written.  It is always refreshing, I think, to have an author who is so enthused about the book which they are introducing, and for that vivacity to come across on the page. 

A View of the Harbour was first published in 1947, and was Taylor’s third novel.  The premise is most interesting, centering as it does around a small seaside town named Newby.  A delicious slice of small town life has been presented.  The plot is not grand and sweeping, but it is beautifully worked, and so nicely embroidered with the little details of mid-1940s post-war life in a community which, like thousands of others around the country, is trying to get back on its feet.

The characters in their entirety worked well as a cast.  Each one was so different from another, and every personality stood out for a different reason.  Rather than rely upon everyday conventions to describe her characters, whether protagonists or not, Taylor always seems to notice something refreshing about them, and she portrays these details in the most vivid of words.  Whilst each of the characters intrigued me, I became so fond of two in particular – Lily Wilson and Prudence Cazabon, whose name alone I found rather endearing.  Ridiculous as it may sound to those who have not yet encountered any of Taylor’s remarkable characters, they are built up so realistically that one often comes to believe that those like the aforementioned Lily and Prudence would make the most wonderful friends.

I greatly admire Taylor’s writing, and in this novel particularly, it is unfailingly beautiful.  Each scene is so vivid, and she is certainly one of the best authors on the Virago list.  With each and every book of hers which I read, I am further convinced that she deserves a place upon my treasured authors list.  Her writing and the overarching understanding which she weaves in at every chance never fails to amaze me.  Her turns of phrase are deft and marvellously utilised, and her stories are splendid in their quietude.

I shall leave you with one of the most striking and intriguing quotes within the novel:

“She [Maisie Bracey] knew what she wanted and in the end it was only two things: she wanted to get married and she wanted her mother to die.”

Next stop: re-reading Taylor’s short stories.

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One From the Archive: ‘The Clothes on Their Backs’ by Linda Grant ****

First published in April 2014.

I had wanted to read this novel for such a long time, and was so pleased to find a copy in my library.  Grant was a new author for me, and from reading the blurb, I was expecting a hybrid of the work of Andrea Ashworth and Natasha Solomons; dry, funny, shrewd, and intelligently written.  I was thrilled to discover that The Clothes on Their Backs was all of these things, and more.  It says in the blurb that it is ‘a wise and tender novel about the clothes we choose to wear, the personalities we dress ourselves in, and about how they define us all.’  I love the book’s premise too:

‘In a red-brick mansion block near the Marylebone Road, Vivien, a sensitive, bookish girl, grows up sealed off from both past and present by her timid refugee parents.  Then a glamorous uncle appears, in a mohair suit, with a diamond watch on his wrist and a girl in a leopard-skin hat on his arm.  Why is Uncle Sandor so violently unwelcome in her parents’ home?  Vivien wants to know.’

The majority of the novel is set in London in the 1970s, and it begins when Vivien is an adult, recently widowed.  She has returned to the city following the death of her Hungarian father.  Her story is absorbing from the very start.  The narrative voice which Grant has crafted is reminiscent of Kate Atkinson’s skill at seeming to effortlessly create believable protagonists with the very first stroke of a pen.  Each scene has clearly been given a lot of thought, and the novel is so vivid in consequence.  The Clothes on Their Backs is an incredibly enjoyable book, and I for one will certainly be reading more of Grant’s books in future.

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One From the Archive: ‘The Tortoise and The Hare’ by Elizabeth Jenkins ****

First published in March 2014.

As I am sure lovely readers of The Literary Sisters know by now, I am currently working through the Virago Modern Classics list.  A few years ago now, some beautiful ‘Designer Collection’ books were issued by the publishing house, and I just cannot resist them.  I can only hope that Virago choose to release more of them in the near future (hint, hint).

‘The Tortoise and The Hare’ by Elizabeth Jenkins

Without further ado, I chose to purchase the beautiful The Tortoise and The Hare last time I placed a book order, as Elizabeth Jenkins is an author whom I have wanted to read for a very long time.  The introduction to this novel has been written by Hilary Mantel; she states that it is ‘exquisitely written’ and goes on to say that ‘Jenkins has provided a thoughtful and astringent guide to the imperatives of sexual politics – and one of which is of more than historical interest’.  The novel has received some stunning reviews on the various book blogs which I hold in high esteem, and Jenkins is very well respected in terms of the stunning and perceptive books which she authored.

The Tortoise and The Hare is rather a quiet novel, as many of the Viragos tend to be, but that purely means that more focus is placed upon the beautiful writing and well drawn characters.

The novel’s blurb is quite intriguing:

“In affairs of the heart the race is not necessarily won by the swift or the fair.

Imogen, the beautiful and much younger wife of distinguished barrister Evelyn Gresham, is facing the greatest challenge of her married life. Their neighbour Blanche Silcox, competent, middle-aged and ungainly – the very opposite of Imogen – seems to be vying for Evelyn’s attention. And to Imogen’s increasing disbelief, she may be succeeding.”

It is a book about love and hate, about the very emotions which are liable to tear us, and the relationships which we have tried so very hard to build, apart.  In this respect, Jenkins has done a marvellous job, highlighting the ease with which facades can slip, and the way in which single actions can destroy what is so taken for granted.

Throughout, I found the majority of the characters so very intriguing.  I did not like many of them, as such, but I did become fond of Imogen towards the very end of the novel, and Tim Leeper, the young friend of Imogen and Evelyn’s son, was a real sweetheart.  It is clear that Jenkins respects her characters, and everything which she envisioned has been so well set to paper.

Whilst The Tortoise and The Hare is not my favourite on the Virago list, it is a thought-provoking novel, both intelligent and witty, which I will be sure to pick up again in the future, and which I will heartily recommend.

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One From the Archive: ‘Cliffs of Fall’ by Shirley Hazzard ****

First published in April 2014.

I had not read any of Hazzard’s books before, so I thought that this short story collection which I found in my library would give me a great feel for her writing style.  Ten tales in all make up Cliffs of Fall, and from the very first page, it is clear that Hazzard is an extremely perceptive writer.  She brings little details to the forefront of each scene, thus allowing her readers to focus on the elements which they may have otherwise overlooked. 

Each of the stories in Cliffs of Fall deals with human condition against a wealth of different, relatively ordinary settings and scenes – a party at a friend’s house, a couple sorting out a bookcase, an Italian man deciding to rent out rooms in his house, and so on.  Throughout, I was reminded of Alice Munro’s short stories.  Hazzard too is talented at presenting rather a quotidian occurrence and making it somehow immensely interesting.  Her characters are set against very distinct backgrounds, and the relationships which they have with one another play out accordingly.  Her descriptions, though sometimes a little few and far between, are sumptuous.

Hazzard is great at not stating the obvious; rather, she leaves some details up to the reader’s interpretation, and some of the stories are deliberately left ambiguous. As is often the case with short story collections, some of the tales here are more interesting than others, but I enjoyed them all.  I am now very much looking forward to reading her novels to see how they compare.

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One From the Archive: ‘The Tortoise and The Hare’ by Elizabeth Jenkins ****

As I am sure lovely readers of The Literary Sisters know by now, I am currently working through the Virago Modern Classics list.  A few years ago now, some beautiful ‘Designer Collection’ books were issued by the publishing house, and I just cannot resist them.  I can only hope that Virago choose to release more of them in the near future (hint, hint).

‘The Tortoise and The Hare’ by Elizabeth Jenkins

Without further ado, I chose to purchase the beautiful The Tortoise and The Hare last time I placed a book order, as Elizabeth Jenkins is an author whom I have wanted to read for a very long time.  The introduction to this novel has been written by Hilary Mantel; she states that it is ‘exquisitely written’ and goes on to say that ‘Jenkins has provided a thoughtful and astringent guide to the imperatives of sexual politics – and one of which is of more than historical interest’.  The novel has received some stunning reviews on the various book blogs which I hold in high esteem, and Jenkins is very well respected in terms of the stunning and perceptive books which she authored.

The Tortoise and The Hare is rather a quiet novel, as many of the Viragos tend to be, but that purely means that more focus is placed upon the beautiful writing and well drawn characters.

The novel’s blurb is quite intriguing:

“In affairs of the heart the race is not necessarily won by the swift or the fair.

Imogen, the beautiful and much younger wife of distinguished barrister Evelyn Gresham, is facing the greatest challenge of her married life. Their neighbour Blanche Silcox, competent, middle-aged and ungainly – the very opposite of Imogen – seems to be vying for Evelyn’s attention. And to Imogen’s increasing disbelief, she may be succeeding.”

It is a book about love and hate, about the very emotions which are liable to tear us, and the relationships which we have tried so very hard to build, apart.  In this respect, Jenkins has done a marvellous job, highlighting the ease with which facades can slip, and the way in which single actions can destroy what is so taken for granted.

Throughout, I found the majority of the characters so very intriguing.  I did not like many of them, as such, but I did become fond of Imogen towards the very end of the novel, and Tim Leeper, the young friend of Imogen and Evelyn’s son, was a real sweetheart.  It is clear that Jenkins respects her characters, and everything which she envisioned has been so well set to paper.

Whilst The Tortoise and The Hare is not my favourite on the Virago list, it is a thought-provoking novel, both intelligent and witty, which I will be sure to pick up again in the future, and which I will heartily recommend.

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One From the Archive: ‘Angel’ by Elizabeth Taylor *****

‘Angel’ by Elizabeth Taylor (Virago)

Hilary Mantel, who introduces the newest Virago edition of Elizabeth Taylor’s Angel, calls it ‘quietly and devastatingly amusing’.  The introduction which she crafts is witty, and interspersed with a lovely anecdote about her experience of the novel.  ‘For any writer,’ she says, ‘good, bad or – as we mostly are – an ever-changing mixture of both, Angel provides a series of sharp lessons in humility’.  I love the way in which Mantel compares Elizabeth Taylor to her protagonist, Angelica, and the vast differences which she highlights between the two.

Angel was first published in 1957, and is number 135 on the Virago Modern Classics list.  The more I read of Taylor’s work – almost all of which is collected upon the aforementioned list – the more deeply I fall in love with it.  She is such a wonderful author, whose deft touch creates protagonists who feel marvellously real, and scenes which please every single one of the senses.

The novel begins in 1901 in the fictional brewery town of Norley, ‘a mean district with its warehouses and factories’.  The small details which Taylor weaves in vividly set the social history, interspersed as they are with the story – ‘the organ-grinder with his monkey’, ‘lardy-cake’, learning things by rote at school, exercise programmes within the classroom, leaving school before the age of sixteen if one had a ‘situation’ to go to, paying for things with florins, and so on.

In Angel, we are introduced to fifteen-year-old Angelica Deverell – Angel for short, though this nickname feels like rather an ironic one – who believes that she is ‘destined to become a feted author and the owner of great riches.  Surely her first novel confirms this – it is a masterpiece, she thinks’.  She is vividly described from the first, and is striking in appearance; ‘forbiddingly aquiline’, as Taylor puts it.  Angel is ‘lax and torpid’, and relies heavily upon her imagination to dim the world around her.  She is lazy and self-important, always relying on her busy mother – a widow who owns a small grocery shop which she and Angel live over – to do things for her, when she is perfectly capable of performing such acts herself.  Angel is both unpopular and rather judgemental.  Taylor writes that ‘she longed for a different life: to be quite grown-up and beautiful and rich; to have power over many different kinds of men.’

Despite Angel’s uglier characteristics – and let us face it, there are so many of them that she practically feels as though she has been built of unsavoury traits – she is still somehow ultimately endearing.  Taylor allows her readers real understanding for her protagonist.  Whilst she is difficult, we do come to see why as the novel gains momentum.  Angel finds a kind of solace from what she views as the cruelty of the world around her, and writes fantastically exaggerated tales.  Her mother takes the change of plan, so different from the goals which she had originally held for her daughter, in a most interesting manner: ‘It [her writing] seemed to her [Angel’s mother] such a strange indulgence, peculiar, suspect.  There had never been any of it in the family before, not even on her husband’s side where there had been one or two unhinged characters’.

Angel’s ultimate naivety is really quite sweet – for example, she sends her novel to Oxford University Press because she finds their address in one of her schoolbooks.  Taylor demonstrates her protagonist’s determination so well throughout.  The plot twists come out of nowhere and delighted me entirely, piquing my interest in the novel even further.  Angel is a stunning novel, and one which I would highly recommend to everyone.

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

First published in June 2012.

Virago have recently reprinted several of Barbara Pym’s novels with new introductions by a selection of different authors, all of whom are 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’. 

An 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.

Caro’s first person perspective is used throughout. The narrative voice works relatively well with the story but Caro 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.

Whilst the writing style of the novel works well, the wit and amusement involved seems sparse and uncharacteristic of the author. 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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20 Books of Summer: ‘Sunflower’ by Rebecca West ****

I very much enjoy Rebecca West’s work (The Return of the Soldier ranks amongst my absolute favourites), and was so looking forward to beginning Sunflower.  It is the 362nd book upon the marvellous Virago Modern Classics list, and the novel itself is also part of both my Classics Club and 20 Books of Summer lists.  Rebecca West forms an entry upon mine and Yamini’s Fifty Women Project too, so Sunflower was a marvellous investment, which made me feel temporarily ahead in the seas of lists which I am essentially drowning in.

The ‘Sunflower’ of the novel’s title is a rich and famous actress, originally known by the name of Sybil Fassendyll, who is ‘mistress to the ageing Lord Essington.  She has the world at her feet, except that Society shuns her as it shuns all women who transgress its codes.  Though the tyrannical Essington is destroying her self-esteem, she fears the loss of his protection – until she meets the millionaire politician Francis Pitt, vulgar, ugly and utterly captivating.  Oblivious to all his faults, Sunflower pins her hopes on this new relationship.  Essington’s love is dead; Pitt’s has yet to be conquered’.

Upon her wishes, portraying as it does her tumultuous relationship with H.G. Wells, Sunflower was not published during West’s lifetime, and first reached the public eye in 1986.  Throughout, West – sometimes heartbreakingly – writes of some of the aspects of their intense liaison, which would have been, one imagines, incredibly difficult to recount in such detail: ‘It was all right.  There was really no reason at all why she should not go.  It was simply that she was so unused to liberty, so seldom free of the leash that jerked her back to heel whenever she was doing anything she enjoyed, that she felt at a loss when she was on her own’.  West demonstrates the complex cruelties of Essington from the very beginning, ensuring in consequence that he is fully-developed as a protagonist in just the first few pages of the story alone: ‘Though he behaved to her much of the time as if she were his most alienated enemy, he could simultaneously behave to her as if he were an ardent lover in the first and most sensitive days of courtship, so far as the ready harbouring of tender grievances was concerned on the ground that she did not love him as much as he loved her, that she had missed some fine shade of his devotion, he would hate her malevolently for a week’.

Throughout, West is incredibly assertive, and aware of the depths of human feeling and emotion: ‘Indeed, she [Sunflower] contained within herself two of the great legendary figures that man has invented everywhere and in all times: Venus and Cinderella.  And they were not – he bade her remember – invented idly.  They fed desires that must be fed if man is not to lose heart and die.  For Venus promises him that there shall be absolute beauty in this world, that the universe shall bring forth perfection which shall make its imperfection a little thing, lightly to be borne; and Cinderella promises him that this harsh order of things which is life may be only temporary and subject to reversal at any time, so that the mighty may be put down from their seats and those of low degree exalted’.  Another such instance of this is as follows: ‘But if a man says you are beautiful and you are not, then it is a proof that he loves you.  The alchemy of loyalty is working on him, he is not separate from you…  Decidedly there are other fair seasons than the spring, other conditions than beauty for making people live kindly’.

As ever, I also very much admired how original West’s character descriptions are: ‘He paused and looked at her out of queer grey eyes which were the colour of bad weather, with extreme appreciation and utter lack of interest’.  Sunflower is a rich and vivid novel, packed with equal measures of introspection and heartache.  It is one which I would heartily recommend.

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