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‘Novel on Yellow Paper’ by Stevie Smith ***

‘But first, Reader, I will give you a word of warning. This is a foot-off-the-ground novel that came by the left hand. And the thoughts come and go and sometimes they do not quite come and I do not pursue them to embarrass them with formality to pursue them into a harsh captivity. And if you are a foot-off-the-ground person I make no bones to say that is how you will write and only how you will write. And if you are a foot-on-the-ground person, this book will be for you a desert of weariness and exasperation. So put it down. Leave it alone. It was a mistake that you made to get this book. You could not know.’

9780860681465The 27th entry on the Virago Modern Classics list, which has been reissued in the last few years, is Novel on Yellow Paper, ‘the bestselling debut novel that made Stevie Smith a star’, and which took her only ten weeks to write. Published for the first time in 1936, and the first of only three novels, Novel on Yellow Paper feels thoroughly modern in many ways. Art historian and writer Frances Spalding believes that ‘Virginia Woolf’s roving consciousness lies behind the prose… but the tone owes more to Dorothy Parker…’. Upon its publication, the book was ‘acclaimed by some critics and abhorred by others’.

The reprint features a new introduction by Rachel Cooke. She emphasises what Spalding says when she states that one literary figure of the period believed that this was the work of Woolf herself, published under the guise of a pseudonym. Originally a fan of Smith’s poetry – ‘it was her tone that really delighted me. Her irony, her wit, that slight edge of malice: these things spoke to a moody teenager. Her voice was irresistible, bending the world into a shape that was disorientatingly odd, even as it was instantly recognisable’ – Cooke was both amazed and awestruck by her prose. Of her writing, Cooke says that Smith ‘likened her fiction to the sea: on the surface bright and sunny, but seven miles down “black and cold”‘.

Our protagonist, Pompey Casmilus, is Stevie’s own alter-ego, ‘a more antic version of herself’. She is ‘young, in love and working as a secretary for the magnificent Sir Phoebus Ullwater’. Cooke writes that there is ‘a certainty about Pompey; like her creator, she has the courage of her (somewhat weird) convictions’. Between her office duties, she ‘scribbles down – on yellow office paper – her quirky thoughts’. These thoughts go off at random tangents, and ‘her flights of inspiration’ consequently cover ‘Euripedes, sex education, Nazi Germany and the Catholic Church, shattering conventions in their wake’.

Small strands of story and sharp observations wind their way through the novel – for example, ‘Yes, always someone dies, someone weeps, in tune with the laurels dripping, and the tap dripping, and the spout dripping into the water-butt, and the dim gas flickering greenly in the damp conservatory’. In this manner, one thought leads into another seemingly unconnected idea, and strange thoughts manifest and embed themselves. The sentence above, for example, is followed with this: ‘Like that flood that kid made in its cradle with that thar cunning cat sitting atop of it. And perhaps if the kid rode the flood o.k. that thar cat smothered it. For you can’t escape your fate. And I’ve known cats overlay babies. It was in the newspapers’. Smith surges from the present to the distant past and back again, placing Pompey’s present against the backdrop of the past. Due to this, at times, the plot – what little there is of it, really – can be rendered rather difficult to follow.

Smith’s prose style is incredibly interesting – that perhaps goes without saying. Her writing swirls and spirals; sometimes it is almost rhythmical, and at others it is though a barrage of thoughts, which will never cease, have been unleashed upon the reader. Novel on Yellow Paper is a reading experience and a half, and is certainly one of the most experimental titles on the Virago list which I have come across to date. It isn’t the easiest of books to get into, and Pompey is not the best of narrators for a handful of reasons. The most grating element which I found about her was the way in which she refers to herself using both the first and third person perspectives. Whilst one cannot say that she is wonderfully developed, or well rounded, she is certainly a thoroughly interesting being, however: ‘And often I think, I have a sword hanging over my head that must fall one day, because I am conscious of sin in my black heart and I think that God is saving up something that will carry Pompey away’. The entirety of the book is intense and rather erratic – quite like the impression one forms of its narrator, really.

Whilst the stream of consciousness style which has been used here is decidedly Woolfian, the same exhilaration and beauty cannot be found in Smith’s work. Novel on Yellow Paper does not read anywhere near as well as Virginia Woolf’s work does, in my opinion. Whilst it is clear that she was inspired by Woolf’s groundbreaking writing style, I do not feel that some elements here have been controlled as well as they could have been; or, indeed, explored and discussed as well as Woolf would have handled them. It is as though Smith saw the entirety of her novel merely as an experiment, rather than as an exercise to create a wondrously memorable work of fiction. Pompey herself writes that ‘this book is the talking voice that runs on, and the thoughts come, the way I said, and the people come too, and come and go, to illustrate the thoughts, to paint the moral, to adorn the tale’.

Novel on Yellow Paper is a melancholy work, breathy and almost exhausting to read in places. It is not a novel to be taken lightly; the whole is memorable and quite powerful in places. The novel’s sequel, Over the Frontier, has also been reissued by Virago, and is sure to be of interest to all of those who are drawn into Smith’s experimental style.

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‘Travel Light’ by Naomi Mitchison ***

Travel Light is the story of Halla, a girl born to a king but cast out onto the hills to die. She lives among bears; she lives among dragons. But the time of dragons is passing, and Odin All-Father offers Halla a choice: Will she stay dragonish and hoard wealth and possessions, or will she travel light?”(Amal El-Mohtar, NPR, You Must Read This). 

“From the dark ages to modern times, from the dragons of medieval forests to Constantinople, this is a fantastic and philosophical fairy-tale journey that will appeal to fans of Harry Potter, Diana Wynne Jones, and T. H. White’s The Sword in the Stone.”

9780860685623-us-300I borrowed Naomi Mitchison’s Travel Light from my University library for three reasons: firstly, I had never read any Mitchison and felt I should rectify that, particularly as she’s a Scottish author; secondly, its original Virago green spine stood out to me on the shelf; and thirdly, the storyline sounded both weird and wonderful.  I must admit that I don’t ordinarily read books with elements of magic to them (with the exception of Harry Potter, of course), but I read the first page whilst I should have been looking for thesis-applicable tomes, and felt that it sounded rather promising.

I had earmarked Travel Light to be an inclusion in the final Dewey’s 24-Hour Readathon which I will be taking part in (largely because when in the process of PhD studies, your entire life often feels like a readathon in itself), but ended up reading the first three chapters the night before because I was too intrigued to let it lie until morning.  From the outset, I was reminded both of the Icelandic sagas and C.S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia series; it’s a fun and slightly strange amalgamation of the two at times.  There are touches of the general fairytale to it too.

Travel Light is one of those books that continually keeps the reader guessing.  Nothing quite takes the direction you expect, and elements of the plot are therefore quite surprising.  I’m normally very put off with the presence of talking dragons in fiction, but here they just seemed to fit here.  Well written and well paced for the most part (I must admit that it did become a little dull toward the middle, but it did soon pick itself back up again), I have come away wondering why Mitchison’s books aren’t more widely read.   If Travel Light is anything to go by, I feel that they have a lot to offer, particularly for fans of the mythical and mystical.  A strange little book, but a memorable one, which I’m pleased I chose to borrow.

NB. Travel Light might be difficult to get hold of as it looks to not currently be in print, but if you’re after something a little different, it’s well worth the effort!

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‘The Vet’s Daughter’ by Barbara Comyns ****

9781844088386

The Vet’s Daughter, which has been turned into both a play and a musical, has just been reissued by Virago, along with two of Comyns’ other novels, Sisters by a River and Our Spoons Came From Woolworths. The novel was first published in 1959, and as well as featuring an introduction written by Comyns herself, this new edition contains an introduction by Jane Gardam, who sets the scene of both the author and her work very nicely indeed. Gardam calls this, Comyns’ fourth work, her ‘most startling novel… the first in which she shows mastery of the structures of a fast-moving narrative… [It] is not about “enchantment”, it is about evil, the evil that can exist in the most humdrum people’.

The opening line alone is intriguing: ‘A man with small eyes and a ginger moustache came and spoke to me when I was thinking of something else’. Our narrator, Alice Rowlands, lives in ‘a vet’s house with a lamp outside… It was my home and it smelt of animals’. Her father’s tyrannical cruelty is present from the first page. When describing her mother, Alice says, ‘She looked at me with her sad eyes… Her bones were small and her shoulders sloped; her teeth were not straight either; so if she had been a dog, my father would have destroyed her’. In fact, many of the similes throughout are related to animals – for example, ‘holding up her little hands like kitten’s paws’, and ‘her lifeless hair… was more like a donkey’s tail’. An unsettling sense of foreboding is built up almost immediately, and much of this too has some relation to the animals which fill the house and surgery: ‘Before the fireplace was a rug made from a skinned Great Dane dog, and on the curved mantelpiece there was a monkey’s skull with a double set of teeth’, and ‘The door was propped open by a horse’s hoof without a horse joined to it’.

Alice is seventeen years old, and her present life in ‘the hot, ugly streets of red and yellow houses’ in London is interspersed with memories of her mother’s upbringing on a secluded farm in Wales. Alice’s dreams, which far surpass her sad reality, consist of the following: ‘Some day I’ll have a baby with frilly pillows and men much grander than my father will open shop doors to me – both doors at once, perhaps’. Alice and her mother are both terrified of her father – her mother tells her daughter that ‘He was a great and clever young man, but I was always afraid of him’ – and his presence fills the novel even when he is away from home: ‘We heard Father leave the house and it became a peaceful evening, except that we had a mongoose in the kitchen’. The fact that her father is even mentioned in the book’s title demonstrates the level of control he has over her. To add to their troubles, Alice’s mother becomes ill. Desperate Alice laments somewhat over her fading life, telling us that, ‘I felt a great sorrow for her and knew that she would soon die’, and ‘Autumn came and Mother was still dying in her room’. Her father, as is to be expected, exhibits his usual cruelty when faced with the news; he sends a man in to measure his wife for her coffin whilst she is still alive.

Throughout, Alice is an incredibly honest narrator. One gets the sense that we as readers see her world exactly as she does, and that nothing has been altered before it reaches the page. All of the characters throughout feel so real, and Comyns has built them up steadily and believably. Their actions do not feel forced, which demonstrates Comyns’ deftness of touch. Whilst The Vet’s Daughter is a sad novel – well, a novella, really – what sadness there is is interspersed with humour and wit. The balance between the two has been met beautifully. For example, just after Alice’s mother’s death, Comyns describes the way in which ‘Already the parrot had been banished to the downstairs lavatory, and in its boredom had eaten huge holes in the floor’.

Tumultuous relationships between characters are portrayed with such clarity of the human condition throughout the book, and the story is both powerful and memorable in its tale and its telling. Alice faces more challenges than the average teenager, but her strength of mind and the way in which she always tries to make the best out of a bad situation endear her to the reader. Her honesty shines through, particularly as her story progresses: ‘I wrote a letter to Blinkers. Although it wasn’t very long, it took me two weeks to write because it was the first one I’d ever written – there had been no one to write to before’. The Vet’s Daughter is a beautifully and sympathetically written book, which takes many unexpected twists and turns, and presents the reader with a story which is likely to stay with them for an awfully long time.

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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.

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‘Sisters By a River’ by Barbara Comyns ****

Sisters by a River, Barbara Comyns’ first novel, was first published in 1947, and was originally serialised in Lilliput magazine. The (relatively) newly issued Virago edition contains an introduction by Barbara Trapido. She believes that the novel is ‘reminiscent of Nancy Mitford’s The Pursuit of Love, though darker and edgier’. She also states that in the book, the very notion of adults are ‘as arbitrary and dangerous as tigers’.

9781844088379The novel is set on the banks of the River Avon, and the entirety is told in rather a childish narrative voice in a stream of consciousness style. It begins in the following way: ‘It was in the middle of a snowstorm I was born, Palmer’s brother’s wedding night… he had to bury my packing under the wallnut tree, he always had to do this when we were born – six times in all, and none of us died…’, which gives the reader a feel for the rest of the book. To further emphasise the way in which the story is seen through the eyes of a young narrator, Barbara, a lot of the words throughout have alternative spellings. On the first page alone, we come across ‘wallnut’, ‘Fortnham & Mason’, ‘interfeer’, and ‘conspiricy’. Rather than irritate the reader, these misspellings are really quite endearing. They serve as a clever literary tool, with which Comyns has built up a wealth sympathy for Barbara and her sisters.

The sisters are really rather different, and Comyns sets out their often conflicting personalities as soon as she introduces them. Mary, the eldest, ‘was the plainest in the family, but she made up for it by being so bossy’; indeed, she controls everything, down to the colour of the clothes her siblings are allowed to wear – ‘beastly brown’ – and none of them are able to read any of the books which she has enjoyed. Barbara goes on to say that, ‘Next to Mary in our family was a child I shall never mention in this book, because I know they would hate to appear in it’. Then comes Beatrix, ‘quite unlike the rest of us both in appearance and nature… her hair was straight and didn’t have bits of twig and knots in it like ours’. Kathleen is barely mentioned at first, but when she is twelve, Barbara describes the way in which she begins to take on the mannerisms of an owl. The youngest, Chloe, whom the older girls ‘didn’t like’ very much is described as follows: ‘she was rather large and had a fat mauve face and cried dreadfully’. Having so many children has taken a toll on their mother too: ‘After she had six babies at eighteen monthly intervals Mammy suddenly went deaf, perhaps her subconscious mind just couldn’t bear the noise of babies crying any more’.

The story has been split into a series of short chapters, the majority of which have rather intriguing titles. These range from ‘Being Born’ and ‘God in the Billiard Room’ to ‘The Aunt With the Square Face’ and ‘As if she had no Ears at All’. Rather than leading on from one another, these chapters are a series of vignettes, and an amalgamation of memories of times long past. Through Barbara’s eyes, we enter a world of governesses, boarding schools, the great outdoors, hand-me-down garments, superstitions, maids, servants and rituals of running away from home. The entirety of the book has been historically grounded with a wealth of details. Examples of this include when the girls’ grandmother ‘was a child Queen Victoria saw her riding in the Row’ and the same grandmother undertaking ‘no housework or cooking, all that was left to some little overworked skivvy, who never had an evening off because she was so scared of Jack the Ripper’.

Sisters by a River does not present a commonplace childhood by any means. The narrator wakes as a child to find her parents trying to push her grandmother out of the window – ‘it really was a mercy her hips were so wide and the window rather narrow’. The cruelty of the girls’ father is included at points: ‘We would suddenly hear an angry trumpeting noise and he would grab as many of us as he could and bang our heads together’, and ‘Once when Beatrix was a baby he got so furious because of her crying he threw her down the stairs’ are stand-out examples. The following elements have also been included: the tyrannical wrath of Mary, hitting daytrippers who have found themselves in trouble in the river with shovels instead of rescuing them or calling for help, and burning books and toys which Chloe was particularly fond of. As well as these bad memories and nightmare-like scenes, cheerful elements have been woven in too – for example, playing in the river, and wading through the yearly floodwaters on homemade stilts.

The childish comparisons throughout are just lovely. Barbara tells us the way in which a governess ‘wore a hat of very corse straw, like a giant biscuit’, and how ‘the furniture was made of some shiny black wood with short bow legs, rather like mine’. Comyns captures family relationships incredibly well, particularly the more fractured and unstable ones. Comyns has presented a marvellous slice of family history, allowing the modern reader a glimpse of a world which has altered considerably. Despite its cruelties, it is a difficult book not to be charmed by, and Comyns deserves a place on the bookshelves of each and every reader.

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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 ****

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’.

9781844087235An 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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