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Virago Volumes: #2 – The Sleeping Beauty by Elizabeth Taylor

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(Note: There are SPOILERS in this review if you haven’t read the book yet!)

The lovely ladies (and gentlemen!) at the LibraryThing Virago Modern Classics group have been having a Centenary read-along of Elizabeth Taylor’s novels. I hadn’t read any of her work before stumbling across the group, and have now finished my sixth volume! It’s been a very enjoyable read-along and I’m looking forward to next month’s book “Angel”.

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However, on to “The Sleeping Beauty”, Elizabeth Taylor’s sixth novel, first published in 1958. The book begins with a funeral, of the husband of Isabella who has drowned in a boating accident, whilst their son Laurence has survived after heroically trying to save his father. Vinny, the book’s main character, who is an old friend of Isabella’s, arrives to provide emotional support and during his visit espies a local woman, Emily, walking on the beach. She is the ‘sleeping beauty’ and the story tells of Vinny’s attempts to meet and woo her.

But this being Elizabeth Taylor’s world means that there are bound to be complications. Emily has suffered a traumatic car crash and lives a reclusive life with her repressed sister Rose, caring for Rose’s daughter Philly who has learning difficulties. She has put up metaphorical walls around her, shut herself off from normal life, and it is these walls that Vinny has to break down to get to Emily.

The book also has the usual strong set of supporting characters, a feature of the Taylor novels I have read – Isabella’s best friend Evalie, Laurence’s friend Len,  the Tillotson family and their nursery nurse (who are staying at the boarding house run by Rose) and Rita, a dance teacher in a nearby town. Another strong character is Vinny’s mother, Mrs. Tumelty who also ends up staying in the boarding house.

The book has one immediate striking difference to the earlier novels I’ve read in that it has a male protagonist. Vinny is an unusual hero, middle aged, a little unprepossesing and with a life very much under control. He’s obviously been very repressed and has got nothing from the women in his life up until the time he meets Emily. His mother in particular is a dominating handful and without wishing to stereotype him, if you met him in real life you might suspect he wasn’t keen on women in a romantic way. So the fact that he is hit, whammy, in middle age by his first real passion does, I feel, excuse what follows during the story. He is a complex character and surprisingly strong-willed when it comes to getting what he wants i.e. Emily.

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Laura has comments on her excellent posts about the book that it is very strong in its portrayal of middle aged women, and they are wonderfully and sympathetically portrayed. Although Taylor is quite sharp in some places about them, you do feel that she has an empathy. Isabella and Evalie are having constant battles with life and its ageing processes, resorting to steam baths and face packs and diets in an attempt to stave off the inevitable. The writing is very funny and entertaining but many of us reading will have a wryly sympathetic smile on our faces!

What struck me strongly was the portrayal of the mothers in this novel – Mrs. Tumelty, Rose and Isabella all damage their children in one way or another. The relationship between Rose and Philly was particularly heartbreaking as Rose is totally repressed and almost seems to regard poor Philly as the result of some kind of sin. I found this part of the book one of the hardest to deal with, and as Philly was so attached to Emily I wondered what would happen as the book progressed but was glad that Philly found someone to care for, and to care for her.

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I think one pivotal point in this book in that sex is quite an issue. Not in an over-the-top way, as that wouldn’t be very ET, but she’s not the genteel lady writer she’s made out to be! There is so much repression going on, what with Rose and Isabella and Vinny and Laurence. I feel that Taylor is making the point that although Emily’s behaviour (past and present) is condemned by Rose, it’s probably healthier than how Rose ends up – a very damaged person with no capacity for affection and thus a daughter who is deprived of a normal loving relationship with her mother.

Isabella’s son Laurence is also interesting – the circumstances of his behaviour at the time of his father’s death are not really made that much of (in a typically Taylorian way – more of her ‘bombshell moments’ later) but perhaps are pivotal to his somewhat sullen behaviour in much of the book. He certainly blossoms a little as it goes on.  His relationship with Isabella his mother is well portrayed and it’s interesting how his attitude changes after he sees her and Len together.

The end of the book was much more upbeat than I thought it would be. After persuading Emily to marry him, the already-married Vinny then commits bigamy after failing to persuade his wife to divorce him. When Isabella finds out and the secret is revealed, surprisingly Emily’s major concern is whether Vinny will go to prison. The book is left open-ended (another of Taylor’s traits) but in many ways it doesn’t matter whether he is gaoled or not – Emily still loves him and if necessary will wait for his return. I liked the unresolved nature of the ending, personally – my main concern was what Emily’s reaction to Vinny’s secret would be, as I perceived their relationship as a little fragile and beset with outside dangers. I was sure that Emily would disown him and it would all be horrible and sad, but the fact that she stuck by him so strongly was, well – unusual, based on what ET I have read so far. I imagine that sex might be rearing its head here again – Emily seems to have had a *fulfilled* life, shall we say, before her accident and has found in Vinny someone who loves her and finds her attractive and brings her to life. If that is the case, she would stick with him through thick and thin.

And I did feel sorry for Vinny. The society in which he and Rita lived in effect trapped them both into a marriage which was in name only and which he couldn’t get out of because of the archaic divorce laws. From our enlightened viewpoint the whole thing seems bizarre and I think this is why Vinny is probably a more sympathetic character to modern readers than he might have been to contemporary ones. Having said that, nowadays I think young people would ask why Vinny and Emily don’t just live together!

As Laura has mentioned on her postings, and as many other readers have picked up, Elizabeth Taylor is the queen of ‘bomshell moments’! There are some crackers here – early in the book, Vinny sends a postcard to his wife and then a few pages later on it is mentioned that he isn’t married – enough to stop you in your tracks with a “Whaaa???” and send you back to check. Similarly, the way she casually drops into the story the truth about Laurence’s farther’s death is masterly.

 Apparently Taylor’s American publishers found the characters uninteresting which surprises me (and maybe makes me think they were probably mainly men!!) Being a lady of a certain age I did identify with a lot of what the women were having to deal with. Having read Nicola Beauman’s excellent Elizabeth Taylor biography recently, I see she seems to think that the early novels are best but I found myself very satisfied with this one. And I can’t understand why people think Taylor is ‘just a woman novelist’ (and we should object to that kind of categorisation anyway) – she is quite hard edged in places, doesn’t shy away from difficult situations and gives her characters a hard time.  The more ET I’m reading, the more I’m finding that she actually has quite a bleak outlook on life and her characters are not straightforward. Highly recommended reading!

Virago Volumes: #1 – The Love-Child by Edith Olivier

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One of the things which set me off on the blogging trail was the lovely Virago Modern Classics group on LibraryThing, a very friendly bunch who share their love of all things Virago. I’ve been reading these since the first Virago Modern Classic, “Frost in May” by Antonia White, but there are still many, many that I haven’t come across. This book is one of them and it comes highly recommended by Simon at Stuck-in-a-Book and many others in the Virago group so I tracked down a pre-loved copy to see whether I agreed with them.

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The edition I have is an original style Virago, in the green we know and love, and with a very apt and evocative picture on the cover. The story concerns Agatha Bodenham, whose mother dies leaving her on her own, with no resources to fall back on as she has led a dull, lonely, reclusive life and has no close friends or nearby family. We see her unable to relate to her aunt at the beginning of the book and it is obvious she is unable to deal with people at all – we would probably described her as “emotionally damaged” nowadays. Agatha, in her loneliness, conjures back into life her make-believe childhood friend, Clarissa, who is everything that Agatha is not – spontaneous, lively, curious and mercurial. Initially, only Agatha can see Clarissa but gradually, as Agatha’s love suffuses her, Clarissa becomes real to everyone.

Without wanting to give too much of the plot away, the rest of the book revolves around Agatha and Clarissa’s intense love for each other, the destructive effect of the incursion of outsiders, and a very poignant but not unexpected ending. The book is beautifully written, very readable and surprisingly complex. Clarissa represents in some ways Agatha’s repressed maternal love, an outlet for the emotion that she has never been able to express. She also in some ways is the person Agatha might have been, had she been brought up in a different environment and allowed to blossom instead of having her growth stunted.

This is a remarkably good book and Olivier’s handling of the various emotions between the two main characters and those who circulate around them is masterly. She’s very good at conveying the intense feelings they have and the differences (and also similarities) between Clarissa and Agatha. In different ways, each only exists because of the other and so any exterior influence is bound to destroy the bond between them with catastrophic effect.

I believe this book is no longer in print, which is a great shame as it deserves to be. Pre-loved copies are available and I highly recommend tracking one down. Thanks to all those in the Virago group who pointed me at this!

Persephone Pleasures: #2 – The Victorian Chaise-longue By Marghanita Laski

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I’m very fortunate to live in an area which has a library well-stocked with Persephone titles, particularly as I have rather exceeded my book buying budget recently! Having read a lot of great reviews of this book I was eager to have a look and so booked it out at the weekend, thinking that at under 100 pages I could read through it quickly and not feel guilty about ignoring my ever-increasing tbr pile.

The plot seems relatively straightforward – Melanie, a 1950s rather spoiled young mum, is confined to bed suffering from TB and has barely seen her small baby. A visit from the doctor and her doting husband start the book off and Mel is told she is well enough to be moved to another room for a change of scene. That change of scene is the hideous chaise-longue of the title, purchased by our heroine on the day she was diagnosed with her disease.

There are early hints here that something is not quite right as Mel has a kind of flashback to a previous event on the chaise-longue, but she buys it anyway and this is the first chance she gets to make use of it. After falling asleep, our heroine wakes up to find herself still on the chaise-longue but apparently having travelled back to Victorian times, with a slightly different name, a worse version of her disease and a horrid sister. The plot continues with Melly/Milly trying to make sense of what has happened to her and find a way to get back to her own place and time.
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Well, I read this book quickly, over two evenings, and I did have high hopes about it as the reviews were so glowing and told how scary and well-written it was. Unfortunately, I actually found the story quite disappointing. I didn’t find it remotely scary and ended up wondering quite what all the fuss was about. The book was  well-written and there were passages, when the lines between the two characters apparently inhabiting the same body blurred, which were very effective. However, far too much of the story involved Melly/Milly pontificating about religion and punishment for her bad behaviour (whatever it has been). The 1850s version of our heroine has obviously committed some unnamed sin and if a larger part of the book had been developed to show a stronger contrast between expectations of women’s behaviour 100 years apart, the story might have had a little more impact. There were clever hints of parallel sexual misconduct in both eras (the two different doctors, the Curate and the Husband) and an undertone of jealousy that was never really went anywhere. The denouement seemed a little rushed to me and there was a lack of a final resolution.
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Maybe I expected a little too much, but it is possible to tell a gripping tale in 100 pages (as the many Hesperus Press volumes testify!) My first Persephone was Every Eye by Isobel English, an equally brief volume, and I found that unputdownable and extremely enoyable and well told, with a killer last line. It may be that if Laski had produced The Victorian Chaise-Longue as a longer novel, with more exploration of the characters, their foibles and their surroundings, a full length tale would have had much more impact. But you can’t like every book ever written and so maybe my next Persephone will be more satisfying!

Lucky Finds: #1 – Illyrian Spring by Ann Bridge

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I’ve recently been gathering in more green Virago Modern Classics than my bookshelves can really take – a tendency encouraged by joining the LibraryThing Virago Modern Classics group! I started reading them from the very beginning, my first purchase being their first book, Antonia White’s Frost in May. They do publish some amazing books and I’ve read through some wonderful volumes recently, courtesy of Virago.

However, this volume:

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had so far managed to escape me. I believe it is quite hard to come by in Virago form, so much so that Daunt Books have recently republished it. A quick look on eBay, Amazon and Abebooks confirmed this – the prices were £20, £30, £40 upwards for only acceptable copies. So I settled for an orange Penguin version, although I still rather coveted the Virago.

Imagine my delight the other day, then, whilst doing a regular book browse online to come across a copy listed for 65p plus postage on Abebooks. To say I did a double-take is an understatement. Although there was nothing listed about the condition, I snapped it up and waited for the book’s arrival.

It came today and has to be in the best nick of all the Viragos I’ve bought recently – absolutely amazing! I’m more chuffed than I’d like to admit – I know it’s silly, but I am a bit particular about the editions I read.

Yay the Internet!

Persephone Pleasures: #1 – Miss Pettigrew Lives For A Day

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I’m almost ashamed to admit that I only recently became aware of the great joys provided by Persephone Books, although they have been publishing for many years. Fortunately, the very lovely LibraryThing Virago Group sent me in the direction of the Persephone Group there and I have been happily discovering many new works there. Partly this was prompted by the Elizabeth Taylor Centenary read-alongs and the need to read Nicola Beauman’s rather wonderful biography of Elizabeth Taylor. But a quick visit to the Persephone site soon convinced me that here were some wonderful, forgotten and not-so-forgotten books waiting to be rediscovered and enjoyed. The presentation and care that has gone into the production of these volumes is alone enough to recommend them, let alone the contents!

So, onto “Miss Pettigrew”. This isn’t the first Persephone I’ve read, but I was lucky enough to pick up a second hand ‘classic’ copy in my local Oxfam bookshop – which was shock enough on its own, as you don’t expect to find people parting with their Persephones! So I snapped it up, but have only just read it. I confess that I wasn’t sure at first if I’d like it – the write-ups I read gave the impression that it might be a little lightweight or fanciful. Well, how wrong could they be!

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The book was written and is set in the 1930s. The plot concerns Miss Guinevere Pettigrew, erstwhile governess, who is on her uppers. She doesn’t enjoy her job, is desperately looking for a new position (or else she will face the workhouse) and is mistakenly sent by a disinterested employment agency to the flat of a glamorous nightclub singer who is looking for a maid. At this point the story sets off into a glorious sequence of events set over one day in Miss Pettigrew’s life where she blossoms from caterpillar to butterfly. A lively array of characters – Delysia LaFosse, the singer, her friend Edythe Dubarry, a variety of cads and gentlemen – aid and abet her transformation and the book is illustrated with some beautiful line drawings.

I have to say that this book was a wonderful, compulsive read. The dialogue and repartee between the characters is rapid-fire and witty, the descriptions and atmosphere excellent and this has to be one of the most joyous books I’ve read for a long time. I literally grinned with delight most of the way through, actually laughing out loud with delight in places. The description of the book as something like a Fred Astaire film is not unjust, as there is the atmosphere of an old screwball comedy. But the book is surprisingly subversive – Miss Pettigrew goes from being a repressed, curate’s daughter to acting with a surprising amount of abandon by the end of the book and all her morals go out of the window. I imagine this may have been quite shocking when the book came out!

I alternated between wanting to finish the book quickly to find out what happened, and wanting to make it last because I was enjoying it so much – rather like a large box of chocolates! The ending was convincing and excellently handled and all-in-all it was a heart-warming and uplifting read.

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There is also a lovely introduction with the story of how the book came to be republished and some interview snippets with the author, Winifred Watson. Apparently this was the favourite of her six books and it’s lovely to think that she knew it had been republished and was being enjoyed by new generations.

Persephone are to be congratulated for bringing books like this back into the public arena – heartily recommended to anyone who wants a book that will make them smile.

On The Fear of Re-Reading

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During my early twenties I hit my first major book buying/reading binge. I’d always read lots, but from a fairly limited range – Agatha Christie, Tolkien and the Beats, a somewhat odd combination! A gift of Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast books for my 19th birthday were eye-opening but I often didn’t have the courage to step outside the box and read more widely.

But when I hit 20 or so, I met a new group of friends who had been to university and told me that should read whatever I wanted! This coincided with my my discovery of feminism and women writers generally and so I started to read voraciously – Virginia Woolf, Colette, the Brontes, George Eliot, Sylvia Plath, Simone de Beauvoir, Jean-Paul Sartre, Jean Cocteau, Camus – and many of their books that I bought at the time are still on my shelves, having travelled with me for more years than I would care to acknowledge.

However, I am left with a dilemma! I haven’t actually read a lot of these books for over 20 years and would love to re-read – but, oh! the fear of going back to a much-loved book and discovering that it isn’t actually as good as I thought it was/remembered it! Luckily I have returned to Colette and found her not only as good, but much improved as if my increasing age(!) and experience have made me read her differently. I suppose this is the crux of the matter – as we grow older and have more life experiences to draw on, our perceptions change and our worldview is different.

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So – re-reading. One of the books I loved in my early twenties splurge was “If On A Winter’s Night A Traveller” by Italo Calvino. It was recommended by a friend of a friend because I “like books about books”! I remember reading and loving it, totally knocked out by the concept. Truth be told, I was absolutely obsessed with Calvino and his work. I devoured all his books and still have them on my shelves.

Wikipedia describes it thus:

“The narrative is about a reader trying to read a book called If on a winter’s night a traveler. Every odd-numbered chapter is in the second person, and tells the reader what he is doing in preparation for reading the next chapter. The even-numbered chapters are all single chapters from whichever book the reader is trying to read.”

It was the concept of several books within books that fascinated me – which story was the real story, where was the narrator taking us, and were we in fact part of the book. The blurring of the lines between author and reader were intriguing and I remember feeling that this book was like no other I had read. It was the first Calvino I read and I always thought of it as the best.

But the great risk on re-reading will be if I find it is not as wonderful as I remember it. That’s the dilemma – do I live with that memory or take the giant leap of a re-read after 30 years and ruin my feelings for the book?

Recent Reads: #2 – Three Crimes – Simenon

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I’ve been a lover of Simenon’s Maigret books for longer than I can remember – particularly as they tick the box for two of my great passions, crime novels and French books! So when I read about this little Hesperus book, which appears to be no longer in print, I thought I should track down a second hand copy.

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And it certainly is an unusual one, quite different from the Maigret stories. Three Crimes tells an autobiographical tale of Simenon’s early life in Belgium during and just after the First World War/occupation by the German Army. It’s very dark in places – the compromises and horrors of dealing with an occupying force are made clear – but it is a fascinating read. Simenon tell of friends of his who murdered, cheated, blackmailed and lived a very dissolute life, and he seems to be asking why they turned to the path of crime and he did not.  Was there just one thing in their lives that pushed them along that particular road while he became a writer? The answer seems to be that we’ll never know – but my view is that Simenon’s talent for writing and need to write carried him out of the circle of crime and into being a writer who chronicled it.

The characters are a nasty bunch – a paedophile blackmailer, a crooked journalist, a fake Fakir, two smugglers plus a variety of misfits and con men who all hang around the periphery of Liege society. They display a considerable amount of hypocrisy in their attitudes (particularly the paedophile bookseller, who is very quick to judge and condemn others, and who seems to think he is some kind of poet). There is a constant threat of violence and aggression – you would want to meet any of these people down a dark alley one night!

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I do recommend this book – it’s not an easy read in places but I feel it illuminates Simenon’s work and gives reasons why he was so drawn to write about the milieu he did. Worth tracking down a copy if you are at all interested in the genesis of this great writer!

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