The Woman Novelist and Other Stories by Diana Gardner

The wonderful Persephone Books have issued a number of short story collections, but this was one that I had a particular interest in getting hold of. You see, many, many years ago (well, ok – in the 1980s) I was involved in running the Mervyn Peake Society, and early on in my tenure I was lucky enough to meet his widow Maeve Gilmore, shortly before her death. Myself and a group of friends were later invited to Maeve’s memorial service in London (an emotional affair that involved the four of us with one tissue between us…) and there we met Diana Gardner, who’d been a pupil of Mervyn’s and was a friend of the family.

I bought my copy from the Persephone shop - here's the haul! :)

I bought my copy from the Persephone shop – here’s the haul! 🙂

After the service, we trotted off to the nearby Royal Academy for some picture therapy, and bumped into Diana again. She recognised us from the memorial and we had a lovely chat. She was an inspiring woman, just off to spend the day painting, and so when I discovered there was a collection of her stories available I had to have it.

Gardner had a fascinating life, mixing painting and writing, as well as working in publishing. And according to the Persephone blurb, she also knew Leonard and Virginia Woolf. “The Woman Novelist” collects a number of her stories, all of which were in an earlier volume apart from the title story.

Short stories are often a difficult art to master, but Gardner certainly has, as this is a quite wonderful collection where each tale stands out distinctly in its own right. “The Land Girl” is possibly the best known, and it was her first story to be accepted for publication. It’s a clever, slightly acid tale, from the point of view of the girl of the title ( a city type sent to work on the farm) revealing the disruption she causes there. She’s a brilliantly unreliable narrator, and Gardner cleverly gives us the insight into a very selfish mind and a strong clash of cultures.

Then there’s “Miss Carmichael’s Bed”, which has a mystery to it with an unexpected solution; “The Summer Holiday “, a tale that shows how some people just bury their heads in the sand (not literally….); “In the Boathouse”, an evocative tale of love and war; “Crossing the Atlantic”, a story of mismatched sailors; and many more, all fabulous.

Portrait of Gardner by Peake, courtesy the Persephone Books site.

Portrait of Gardner by Peake, courtesy the Persephone Books site.

The title story is absolutely brilliant; narrated by the Woman Novelist, it takes us through the tasks of her day as she tries to juggle the needs of an extended family who not only depend on her financially, but also physically and emotionally. The main bond she has is with a loyal maid who understands her problems and supports her as much as she can so she can write. The tale articulates brilliantly the problem women artists of all types have had in balancing the needs of their art with the often selfish demands of those around them – a situation a male artist would never be expected to tolerate.

Gardner’s prose is excellent and I loved the way she played with the reader’s preconceptions. She’s brilliant at building up tension in a story only to twist the ending in a way you least expected. I’ve read many short story collections where the stories blur into one, but that doesn’t happen here – each tale is a distinct gem in its own right and there’s not a dud amongst them.

I loved “The Woman Novelist” much more than I expected to: Gardner’s writing is impressive, her stories fresh and original and memorable, and the twists marvellous. This is one of the most enjoyable short story collections I’ve read (which is saying something!) and I only wish there was more of Gardner’s work available. Another winner from Persephone! 🙂

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