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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.

Purchase from the Book Depository

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One From the Archive: ‘Christmas at High Rising’ by Angela Thirkell ****

‘Christmas at High Rising’ by Angela Thirkell (Virago)

The tales collected in Virago’s beautiful Christmas at High Rising are hailed as ‘warm and witty wintertime stories’.  The blurb describes the feel of the stories as ‘charming, irreverent and full of mischievous humour’, and states that ‘they offer the utmost entertainment in any season of the year’.

Indeed, only two of these stories relate to Christmas in any way, and one of them can only be said to rather loosely.  The eight tales in this collection – originally published between the 1920s and 1940s and collected together here for the first time – have titles which range from ‘Pantomime’ and ‘Christmas at Mulberry Lodge’ to ‘The Great Art of Riding’ and ‘Shakespeare Did Not Dine Out’.

Christmas at High Rising is one of the almost thirty volumes which make up Thirkell’s beloved Barsetshire sequence of novels.  It stands alone marvellously, and does not have to be slotted into the series in any particular order.  Each page feels remarkably witty and fresh, and is not at all dated.

Thirkell’s depicts individuals so well, and her characters and their foibles are set out immediately.  In ‘Pantomime’, we meet a man named George Knox, who ‘suddenly felt that as a grandfather he ought to take a large family party to the theatre’, and who, filled with his own importance, has ‘already begun to dramatise himself as Famous Author Loves to Gather Little Ones Round Him’.  Later, he is described as dressing himself ‘in a large hat and muffler as Famous Author Takes Country Walk’.  Her characters are also not at all afraid to speak their minds.  When George Knox tells a female acquaintance named Laura that he wishes to take her and her son, along with two of his friends, to a pantomime, she responds with a, ‘Now, George…  this is an awful treat that you want to give us, but I suppose we shall have to give in’.

The children which Thirkell creates are particularly vivid.  Each and every one is shrewd and rather hilarious.  Tony, one of the recurring child characters who appears in the majority of the stories, says such things as: ‘Mother, did you hear me laughing at the funny parts [in the pantomime]?  I have a good kind of laugh and I expect the actors liked it’.  There is a real sense of Thirkell’s understanding of her young charges throughout, and she clearly takes into account the disparities which just one or two years can make within childhood.  The young brother and sister in ‘Christmas at Mulberry Lodge’, for example, ‘lived in London (which Mary knew was the capital of England but William was too little to know about capitals)’.

Do not be put off by the specific seasonal title, as Christmas at High Rising is just as appropriate to read over a summer holiday as it is the festive season.  Here, Virago have printed a great little collection of stories, which provides a great introduction to Angela Thirkell’s wealth of work.

Purchase from The Book Depository

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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.

Purchase from The Book Depository

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‘Charms For The Easy Life’ by Kaye Gibbons

What a neat story this is! I am hit and miss with Kaye Gibbons, but this is a story I thoroughly enjoyed. It has elements that I am drawn to: a very Southern Gothic sense, a family of women striving to get through life as a family, and the individual strengths of each woman.

Margaret is the narrator, living with her mother and grandmother in the old family home. The grandmother is called Charley Kate, a name of her own choice and she is the ” healer”. She is a legendary medicinal practitioner, who sees herself as correcting all the wrongs of the professional Doctors. The mother is Sophia, a woman used to more glamour than her mother, and bound and determined to find a man who deserves her. Margaret is in the midst of these two women, and is strong in her own right.

The plot is not necessarily set in stone here. Instead, there are many stories, past and present, of the three women. The setting is North Carolina, and the sense of place is written wonderfully. Gibbons is an expert in local dialect and customs in each of her books, but this one struck me as the least dramatic, written in a the manner that family stories are usually handed down orally . It is a nice quick read for a weekend or filler between more involved books.

Rating: 4 stars

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‘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.

Purchase from the Book Depository

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‘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.

Purchase from the Book Depository

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Flash Reviews (25th October 2013)

Isis by Douglas Clegg ***
I very much enjoy reading novellas, and Douglas Clegg’s Isis sounded like one which I thought I would really like.  The setting, Cornwall, along with its folklore and superstitions were outlined marvellously, as was the Gothic atmosphere of the old English house which the family inhabited.  A real sense of place was built up rather quickly in consequence.  I liked the first person perspective used throughout, and felt that it was well written.  Clegg tells the tale believably within the guise of a young girl.  The illustrations in the volume are truly gorgeous, and reminded me of Sir John Tenniel’s Alice pictures.  The story was both unexpected and unpredictable, and aside from the rushed ending, I found it rather an enjoyable read.

Another Time, Another Place by Jessie Kesson **
I had been looking forward to reading this book particularly when I spotted it on the Virago Modern Classics list and read its blurb: ‘In 1944 Italian prisoners of war are billeted in a tiny village in the far northeast of Scotland’.  The novel – well, the novella really – even features a character named Kirsty, which I was rather pleased about.  It did not quite live up to my expectations, however.  At times, particularly at the outset of the book, it was not always clear who was speaking, and the way in which the text is split into small, separate scenes also adds to this confusion.  Kesson’s descriptions are occasionally lovely, but I found her dialogue lacking and the fragments of songs placed in at random times rather tiresome after a while.  I believed that the novella would focus more upon the assimilation of the Italians and the mixing of both cultures present, but it turned out to be a small book about mediocre people in a tiny – and rather dull – town.  As a consequence to reading this wholly disappointing story, I have decided to strike the rest of Kesson’s books from the Virago Modern Classics list which I am working my way through, simply because I cannot bear to read anything else like Another Time, Another Place.

All the Dogs of My Life by Elizabeth von Arnim ***
Whilst I am rather frightened of dogs and would not ordinarily choose to read a book focused upon them, I decided to read All the Dogs of My Life for two reasons.  The first of these is that I have read and enjoyed many of Elizabeth von Arnim’s novels, and the second is that it was an entry on the Virago Modern Classics list, which I am determined to read the majority of, whether the subject matter of a particular book appeals to me or not.  As I have already mentioned, I had no real interest in the non-fiction which was presented here, but it was nicely written on the whole.  Sadly, however, the Kindle version which I purchased has not been well edited (if it has been edited at all!) and is riddled with mistakes.