‘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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‘The Women’s Room’ by Marilyn French ***

When you run a book club with a feminist best friend, it is perhaps inevitable that seminal “girl power” texts such as Marilyn French’s The Women’s Room will creep onto your reading list.  This was a book which had been selected for our original list when we excitedly created it last year, and the sole choice which was carried across to our revised reading schedule.  Added bonuses came along with The Women’s Room: the copy pictured, which I was gifted for Christmas, is both a Virago and an entry upon the Virago Modern Classics list (number 437, no less), and the book also formed part of my Project Read My Own Books list.  Win win.

Let us begin with the high praise which The Women’s Room has garnered since its publication in 1977 (the USA) and 1978 (the UK).  Fay Weldon deems it ‘the kind of book that changes lives’; Linda Grant says ‘what an earthquake this book was.  It wasn’t the story of my generation of feminists, but it was the story of the generation that made everything possible for us’; and The Observer writes that ‘The Women’s Room took the lid off a seething mass of women’s frustrations, resentments and furies; it was about the need to change things from top to bottom; it was a declaration of independence’.9781860492822

Virago have printed an introduction by the author herself, which was written in 2006, three years before her death.  In it, she discusses the publication of The Women’s Room, and its effect upon readers: ‘reviewers responded in outrage.  That the book is now considered a classic, a given -known, digested, assimilated, no longer threatening – suggests that conditions have changed for women since 1977.  And this is true…  educated women in western countries can now choose their own lives; they are not forced into dependency on a man, as they had been for millennia.  In other parts of the glove, however, women’s situation has worsened’.

The novel opens in 1968, in a public bathroom at Harvard University, where we immediately meet one of our protagonists: ‘Mira was hiding in the ladies’ room.  She called it that, even though someone had scratched out the word ladies in the sign on the door, and written women’s underneath…  Here she was at the age of thirty-eight huddled for safety in a ticket booth in the basement of Sever Hall, gazing at, no, studying that word and others of the same genre, scrawled on the grey enameled door and walls’.  French immediately places emphasis on the male-dominated sphere in which Mira finds herself: ‘The school had been planned for men, and there were places, she had been told, where women were simply not permitted to go.  It was odd.  Why? she wondered.  Women were so unimportant anyway.  Why would anyone bother to keep them out?’


Marilyn French

The structure of The Women’s Room works incredibly well with the plot.  Each long chapter has been split into small bursts, many of which deal solely with a particular character, or a set scene.  There are character interactions, of course, but the only conversations of intelligence seem to occur only between women.  The male characters are shadowy at times, and the children are largely like bit-part actors; we know of them, but we only really get to know about them through their mothers.  It is rare that they are given a voice to do anything with but whinge.

The narrator of the piece was with Mira ‘and the others’ at Harvard in the aforementioned year.  In her particular present, she teaches at a ‘third-rate community college’ in Maine, where she feels ‘terribly alone.  I have enough room, but it’s empty’.  The plot circles around Mira; through her, we meet friends from her past, her husband, and her children.  Learning about the histories of each woman who has been given a place in the novel was interesting, and I felt as though French’s piecing together of pasts was the real strength here.  The Women’s Room references Mira’s past situation as akin to an ‘afternoon soap opera’; really, it is just like that.  So many things happen between different characters – some of them unrealistic, let’s face it – but even with the most terrible occurrences, there is a distinct lack of emotion.

The novel is filled to the veritable brim with domesticity.  Whilst this is clearly an important part of the plot, to demonstrate the ways in which women were “shackled” to their husbands, home, and offspring, and going hand in hand as it does with the overriding female feeling of being enslaved, it serves only to saturate the whole.  I feel as though French has certainly overdone it, and after a while it becomes rather trudging and repetitive.

Some of the quotes which I have pulled out and written in my book journal are powerful; this, for instance: ‘Women are capable of anything.  It doesn’t really matter.  Wife or what, women are the most scorned class in America.  You may hate niggers and PRs and geeks, but you’re a little frightened of them.  Women don’t get even the respect of fear’.  Despite this, I could not warm to French’s inclination to make broad, sweeping statements, some of which felt as though they could not possibly be true, or believed by the majority of her readers.  Chapter eleven, for instance, begins: ‘Young men like to say that young women want to be raped’.  Who are the young men?  When did they say this?  Where is the contextual evidence?  In the next paragraph, one of the characters, Val, describes the way in which she believes it is impossible for a woman to reach her ‘utmost in desire’ until her thirties.  Again, where is this substantiated?

The Women’s Room, as one might perhaps expect, holds some extremely negative views; it is a product of its time, certainly, but its particular brand of ardent feminism and the feeling of its treading down of every single male who has ever existed felt radical to me, and was consequently quite difficult to stomach: ‘And there are so much easier ways to destroy a woman.  You don’t have to rape or kill her; you don’t even have to beat her.  You can just marry her.  You don’t even have to do that.  You can just let her work in your office for thirty-five dollars a week’.

Throughout, I felt as though there was an overriding distancing with regard to all of the characters; French had placed some of her women on pedestals, and described them in detail, but there was still no depth to it in places.  Perhaps too much is said about them at times; their inner and outer conflicts are pressing, and I understand that, but I wish I had been able to make that emotional connection with either character or plot at least once during my reading.  No empathy was felt on my behalf, aside from at a couple of points to those characters on the periphery who were being unfairly put down by one or other of the female protagonists.  Many of the problems which French describes within the still heavily patriarchal society seem to be brought on, in part, by the women themselves; they were rarely blameless.  None of the women were likeable either, which should not be important in a work of fiction such as this, but probably would have helped to garner some compassion on my behalf.

Whilst The Women’s Room was rather interesting, and sometimes immersive, I cannot say that I particularly enjoyed French’s prose style.  Nothing in her descriptions really stood out to me, and some sections felt stodgy, underwhelming and lacklustre in consequence.  I am afraid to say that the novel did not have much of an impact upon me.  Perhaps if I had been younger and more impressionable, or had been reading it at a different time of life, or in a different decade, my feelings may have been different.

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One From the Archive: ‘Summer Half’ and ‘August Folly’ by Angela Thirkell ***

First published in May 2014.

Many of prolific author Angela Thirkell’s novels have been added to the Virago Modern Classics list of late, and May sees the addition of three more of her titles – Summer HalfAugust Folly and The Brandons.  The books have been adorned with Mick Higgins’ lovely cover designs, each of which suit their contents perfectly.

indexSummer Half was first published in 1937, and forms part of the extensive Barsetshire series, which is comprised of twenty nine novels in all.  The novel’s blurb states that Summer Half is ‘humorous, high-spirited and cleverly observed;, and heralds it ‘a comic delight’. The protagonist of the piece is Colin Keith, who decides, to the dismay of his parents, to quit his training for the Bar examinations and take up a post as a teacher at Southbridge School.  He was deemed to ‘have more of the necessary qualifications for the post of Junior Classical Master than any of the other candidates’.  He takes the job in order to be able to support himself after finishing his University studies, and so doing, finds himself ‘bursting with self-sacrifice’, something which nobody else in the Keith family seems to notice.  Thirkell tells us that Colin ‘still clung desperately to his conviction that young men of twenty-two should not be living on their parents, but if no one else shared his conviction, he was going to be a martyr to himself without any of the fun of martyrdom’.

Throughout, Thirkell is perceptive of her characters; she allows them room to develop in terms of their personalities, and creates believable personality arcs in consequence.  Her protagonists are well fleshed out, from Colin’s elder brother Richard, who relishes his role as ‘good older brother’, to his headstrong younger sister Lydia.  As many of her novels are, Summer Half is focused almost solely upon relations – familial ones within the Keith household, and also in a more professional manner with regard to the students Colin finds under his care.  Thirkell also places emphasis upon the ways in which young people are able to make their own ways in the world.  The novel is rather a quiet one in terms of plot; nothing overly groundbreaking occurs, but it is a great novel to unwind with.  The entirety is not at all taxing to read, but its style is intelligent, and it lends itself well to being picked up and read over a long weekend or during a holiday, for example.

August Folly, which first saw publication in 1936, has been deemed a ‘captivating’ and ‘delightful summertime’ comedy.  The novel tells of protagonist Richard Tebben, ‘just down from Oxford’, who is faced with the ‘gloomy prospect of a long summer in the parental home’.  August Folly takes place in the village of Worsted, ‘some sixty miles west of London’.  It is remote and takes a while to get to: ‘The valley is not really impassable, for a few hundred yards beyond the station the train enters the famous Worsted tunnel, whose brutal and unsolved murders have been the pride of the distrct since 1892’.  In her introductory paragraphs, Thirkell sets out the history of the village and its largely ‘intermarried’ inhabitants.


As with Summer HalfAugust Folly is largely focused upon its characters. Richard, it is said, ‘had a deep contempt for the ways of his parents’ and ‘did not attempt to conceal his contempt under a mask of courtesy, a social virtue which he condemned as hypocritical snobbery’.  Mrs Tebben, Richard’s mother, strives to be an independent woman and does not allow her marriage to ‘interfere’ with her own plans.  Rather amusing aspects of her relationship with her husband are told to the reader fromrather early on in the book – for example, Mr Tebben, with his vast library of books ‘always knew where a given book should be found, but could not always summon the energy to dig it out from the back row.  Mrs Tebben,’ on the other hand, ‘rarely knew where any book she wanted was placed, but was willing to remove all the front rows, lay them with ready cheerfulness on the floor, and when she had found what she wanted, put them back in their own places’.

The main thread of August Folly comes when Mrs Palmer, a stalwart of the community and host to the ‘impossibly glamorous’ Dean family, becomes once again determined to put on yet another of her ‘disastrous’ annual plays, and to rope everyone from the village into helping her.  This year, it is the turn of ‘Hippolytus’ by Euripedes, and upon learning this, Mrs Tebben, whose son has been studying the Greats at University, ropes him in, going ‘into the trance of adoration which any thought of Richard always induced’.

In her style in this novel, Thirkell is not dissimilar to Nancy Mitford: there is the same mould of acerbic wit, similar and rather quiet plots, and the focus upon individuals and the way in which they interact with and relate to one another.  August Folly is not quite as engaging as Thirkell’s other work, but it is certainly funnier.  Her dialogue is tight and well constructed throughout, and the novel certainly provides a rather quaint and entertaining romp, which deserves its place upon the wonderful Virago Modern Classics list.

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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: ‘The Dark Horse’ by Rumer Godden ***

First published in April 2014.

Rumer Godden’s The Dark Horse has been published to celebrate the one year anniversary of the addition of children’s books to the marvellous Virago Modern Classics list. Godden was a prolific author and penned over sixty books during her successful career.  The Dark Horse was one of her later books, first published as it was in 1981. 

Dark Invader, a ‘beautifully bred racehorse’, is the dark horse of the novel’s title.  He is introduced marvellously in the prologue: ‘He was born in Ireland in the early thirties, a big foal even longer-legged than usual, legs that were slender but strong, already showing incipient power’.  After Dark Invader’s first racing season proves rather disappointing, he is sent from England to busy Calcutta, where he ‘wins the hearts of the people and becomes the firm favourite for India’s most famous race’.  Just before this race is scheduled to begin, however, Dark Invader goes missing.  The mystery element of the novel which ensues has been well plotted and gradually unfolds.

Many characters find their way into the novel’s pages.  In the first chapter, we meet, amongst many nods to other shadowy figures, the horse breeder John Quillan – ‘Most of John’s owners were businessmen, of whom the British were the elite’ – and Mother Morag, Resident Mother of the Sisters of Poverty.  Due to the introduction of many beings in just a short space of time, the novel does tend to become a little confusing as to who is who at times, and the nuns particularly become a little difficult to tell apart.

The first chaper of The Dark Horse opens in Calcutta, India, which Godden describes vividly: ‘In the cold weather there was mist, but it swirled above arid dust’.  She sets out the history of the city from the very first chapter, dropping in details here and there as the story gains momentum, and placing them alongside the story – based upon true events – which she has crafted.  She writes that ‘Calcutta never went to sleep…  Most important of all in that arid crowded city, there were trees, grass, above all space…  if there were any breeze, it was fresh’.  The use of native Indian words – ‘tikka gharries’, for example – and the explanation of the currency, food and customs help to ground the story further, whilst also rendering it rather an informative novel, particularly for younger readers.

As with all of Virago’s Godden reissues, the cover design is gorgeous, and it is sure to delight any child – or adult, for that matter.  Virago have recommended that The Dark Horse is suitable for children over the age of eleven.  This benchmark is certainly in accordance with the slightly more complicated writing style than books for younger children tend to have, but it is not simplified in any way, so that those wishing to read it as teenagers or adults are able to do so.  Despite the relatively modern period in which the novel was written, it feels delightfully quaint at times.  The short sections throughout which make up longer chapters make it accessible for even the busiest readers, allowing them to dip in and out whenever they have the time to.  The Dark Horse will certainly appeal to all of those who class themselves as lovers of horses, and those who enjoy books such as Black Beauty are sure to love it.

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One From the Archive: ‘The Ballad and The Source’ by Rosamond Lehmann ****

So far, Rosamond Lehmann’s books have been a little hit and miss for me.  I very much enjoyed Invitation to the Waltz, but its sequel, The Weather in The Streets, was nowhere near as enjoyable as I thought that it would be.  I had high hopes for The Ballad and The Source.  The novel was first published in 1944, and is part of the Virago Modern Classics list.

‘The Ballad and The Source’ (Virago)

The Ballad and The Source tells the story of a ten-year-old girl named Rebecca Landon, who is living in the country with her family when an ‘enigmatic and powerful old woman’ named Sibyl Jardine returns to the neighbourhood.  The premise of the novel intrigued me as soon as I read it: ‘The two families, once linked in the past, meet again, with Rebecca gradually becoming drawn into the strange complications of the old lady’s life’.

Sibyl Jardine has been called Lehmann’s ‘most formidable literary creation’, and it is certainly true that she has been fabulously created.  The elements of personality which she consists of are worked beautifully into the novel, and she is not a protagonist whom I will forget in a hurry.  The Ballad and The Source is beautifully written, and Rebecca’s narrative voice is spellbinding.  I did feel that it waned a little at the end of the book, but the rest of it was so very good that I feel unable to award it any less than four stars.

I really enjoyed Janet Watts’ introduction to this volume, but it did give rather a lot of the plot away (something which I have consciously tried not to do in this review), which was a shame.  The plot is so rich; layer upon layer has been added in order to create a very engaging and satisfying whole, and it is a novel which I will happily recommend to everyone.

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One From the Archive: ‘The Brandons’ by Angela Thirkell ***

First published in May 2014.

The Brandons is the 598th entry upon the Virago Modern Classics list.  The novel was first published in 1939, and the new reprint has been adorned with another of Mick Wiggins’ lovely cover designs.  The Brandons is part of Angela Thirkell’s Barsetshire Chronicles series, which is comprised of twenty nine novels in all.

As the title suggests, The Brandons focuses upon the family of the same, and focuses chiefly upon Lavinia Brandon, who is deemed ‘quite the loveliest widow in Barsetshire’.  She lives with her two ‘handsome’ grown-up children, Francis and Delia, in quiet comfort at Stories, the family home.  The central thread of the story is realised when cousin Hilary Grant comes to stay, and ‘promptly falls for his fragrant hostess’ Lavinia.  She, however, is more interested upon making ‘a match’ between the vicar and ‘gifted village helpmeet’ Miss Morris, whilst ‘elegantly deterring her [own] lovestruck suitors’.

Lavinia Brandon has been widowed for quite some time, and has no qualms about being harsh or unfeeling regarding her late husband.  She frequently refers to how cruel he was, and Thirkell says of him, ‘As for Mr Brandon’s merits, which consisted chiefly in having been an uninterested husband and father for some six or seven years and then dying and leaving his widow quite well off, no one thought of them’.  The novel is not overly plot-driven, really, and involves itself heavily with such things as hosting and attending dinner parties and having to marry off one’s children by a certain age, lest they amount to no more than spinsters.

Thirkell writes wonderfully, and sets out the lives of her characters against backgrounds in which they live.  Her trademark wit can be found throughout The Brandons, and one can see how she always picks up on the very smallest details which immediately set out the temperaments of her protagonists.  Young Francis, for example, who appears to have been rather an exuberant infant, was ‘wearing a green linen suit with a green linen feeder tied round his neck, and was covered with apricot jam from his large smiling mouth to the roots of his yellow hair’.  So many elements are considered with regard to actions, settings and conversations that it often feels that one is watching a play as the scenes unfold so vividly.

Stylistically, The Brandons is similar to the other Barsetshire novels, and it is rather quiet in terms of what happens within its pages, but it is entertaining and droll, and is sure to be a great addition to summer reading lists.

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