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Penguin Modern Poets 6 – Jack Clemo, Edward Lucie-Smith, George MacBeth

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The sharp-eyed amongst you will have notice that once again I have got behind on my reading of the Penguin Modern Poets series. I plead in my defence that life has been getting in the way and also there have been a significant number of review books lately…. Be that as it may, I finally had a little gap recently in which to pick up volume 6 and so here are my thoughts on it.

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The three poets in this volume are Jack Clemo, Edward Lucie-Smith and George MacBeth. The former is a writer completely new to me; I’ve heard of the second; and I’m pretty sure I read the third at school. However, as that was a long, long time ago, I came to this book with no preconceptions at all, which is what I’ve been doing with many of these volumes, and it’s been stimulating to read the poems ‘cold’.

clemo

First up was Jack Clemo (11 March 1916 – 25 July 1994).  A Cornish poet inspired by the landscape of his country and by a strong religious belief inherited from his mother, he suffered from early loss of sight and hearing. I have to be very honest here and say I didn’t like his work at all. In fact, he’s probably the poet I’ve liked least of all I’ve read in this series so far. His poetry is dense and bleak, shot through with visions of clayey landscape and religious imagery to which I found it difficult to relate. There was little I could get a handle on, and in fact many of the motifs seemed to be repeated over and over again in a way that completely lost my interest. So I think Clemo’s poetry is definitely not for me, and I moved on swiftly to the next in the book.

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It’s possible I might have read Edward Lucie-Smith (born 27 February 1933) at school, as we studied a *lot* of poetry when I was in Grammar School – but as my reaction to him this time wasn’t particularly positive, I imagine I would have forgotten him fairly quickly. The poems are almost chronological, drawing from his early childhood in the tropics, through what are presumably school and college days with the attendant sports, to later poems which often drawn on artistic inspiration. I didn’t warm to these at all and once again moved on in hope!

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And the final poet, the Scottish George MacBeth (19 January 1932 – 16 February 1992), was one I enjoyed much, much more. His poems are memorable and quite dark – drawing on imagery of concentration camps, imprisonment and trials. I can’t recall which of his works we studied at school, but with the kind of education we were having, we did look quite deeply at this kind of literature, still being within fairly recent memory of WW2 and all its horrors. Interestingly, the poet provided a short coda at the end of the book in the form of notes to his poems, which was really interesting, clarifying his subject matter – and I think this is something that certainly the more dense poems of any writer could do with, as so often the subject and meaning can be obscure and the reader can get lost trying to untangle them!

I think it’s worth reminding myself at this point that the verse featured in these books isn’t necessarily representative of each poet’s work as a whole; in many cases they continued writing for a long time after publication of these volumes. However, had I encountered this book in my youth I think it might rather have put me off poetry a little… So choosing a favourite won’t be easy. The poem that spoke to me most was probably the chilling “Report to the Director”, in which a functionary reports on the efficiency of a centre for torture – it could be a concentration camp or a more modern site, that’s not made clear. The language is matter-of-fact, showing how the most horrible things can become ordinary – Hannah Arendt’s “The Banality of Evil”, maybe? I won’t quote it all here, but I’d recommend searching it out if you can.

So, not the most satisfying of Penguin Modern Poets collections this time. Hopefully, the next one will be a bit more enjoyable and stimulating…

Literature as a business

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New Grub Street by George Gissing

I suppose I’m not alone amongst readers and book bloggers in having a rather romantic view of the author, picturing them sitting in a beautiful study, pen in hand, waiting to be visited by the muse and then pour out wonderful words to enchant us. Or at least to type them onto the computer for the same effect. However, that’s rather naive of me really, as writing has always been a business, and a lovely new edition of George Gissing’s “New Grub Street” from OUP really hammers that home!

new-grub-street

George Gissing (1857 – 1903) was an English writer who produced quite a number of novels and short stories, a surprising amount of which appear to have been published posthumously. It’s clear from a quick glance at his biography that he struggled to make a living from his writing, supplementing his income with teaching, and so I approached this book expecting it to come from the heart.

Published in 1891, the title of the book refers back to Grub Street, an area in London previously known as the home of hack writers, poets and minor publishers; it was referred to by Samuel Johnson in his dictionary and the term came to denote writers and writings of no literary value. Gissing takes that concept and brings it into his modern world, telling us the story of a pair of writers who are diametrically opposed in their character and outlook.

Literature nowadays is a trade. Putting aside men of genius, who may succeed by mere cosmic force, your successful man of letters is your skilful tradesman. He thinks first and foremost of the markets.

We first meet Jasper Milvain, a somewhat cynical young man trying to make his way as a journalist and regarding writing as simply a career and the way to make money (although he isn’t doing that very successfully at the moment…). His friend Edwin Reardon is a novelist with talent; however, his books are not selling and he’s made an unsuitable marriage so things are not going well for him.

Circling these two are the extended friends and family: Milvain’s two sisters, as dependent on his widowed mother as Jasper is himself; and the Yule clan, including Amy (who has become Reardon’s wife), her cousin Marian, and their respective fathers. Jasper becomes entranced by Marian; Amy is regretting her marriage to Edwin. Alfred Yule, Marian’s father, is a writer of sorts himself, with a little influence in literary circles and with many ongoing feuds; his brother John, uncle to both girls, is completely anti-intellectual, preferring instead to rabidly promote sport and healthy outlets. Ironically, his love of the outdoors has rendered him an invalid.

So we watch the Milvains and the Yules attempt to navigate the world, the real one as well as the literary one; the action moves from the country to London, where the Milvain girls befriend Marian. Characters fall in and out of love, marriages break up and new alliances form, all against a background of literature in its highest and lowest forms. Money is seen to be the motivating factor in most of the relationships and though certain characters end up together, it’s never quite clear whether this is because of emotion or necessity.

“New Grub Street” was a fascinating read, if a little unsettling at times! I found myself quite shocked at the cynical attitude of many of the characters, particularly Jasper, who coldly discusses the selling of words for money, or the necessity of marrying a rich wife. In fact, Jasper wasn’t likeable in many respects, sponging off his mother’s small legacy and diminishing the amount she and his sisters had to live on to support his literary endeavours.

Gissing, sporting a jolly fine moustache...

Gissing, sporting a jolly fine moustache…

The book also catches women at a kind of cusp – as the author points out, the Milvain girls would have had much less education 20 years before and would have been satisfied with a simple life. As it is, they had been educated, which put them in a slightly different class from those with whom they were mixing , and they hadn’t yet reached the time of full emancipation. Despite their education, marriage ends up being the only long-term solution to their problems.

But the recurring theme of money *is* an important one, particularly for the struggling writer (and it’s one that Orwell picked up on later when he praised Gissing). To take that step into writing is to give up all chance of a regular income and any kind of living wage, unless you become a bestseller with all the compromises that implies. It’s a dichotomy that probably hasn’t changed since Gissing’s time, particularly in our modern era when publishing has become so much easier, but the flooded market means that picking out the good from the bad is increasingly complex.

“New Grub Street” made fascinating reading. Gissing’s style is eminently readable, and as usual with Oxford Classics the book is beautifully presented, with copious notes, an excellent introduction and supporting material. As the notes flag up, many of the experiences that Milvain and Reardon have reflect the issues that beset Gissing during his writing life, and it’s fascinating to consider whether either author (or maybe both!) is something of a pen self-portrait.

I’ve intended to read Gissing for some time, as his book “The Odd Women” has been lurking with the Viragos on Mount TBR for goodness knows how long. However, it took the push of this nice new edition to get me picking up his work and a very enjoyable and thought-provoking read it was – so hopefully it won’t be too long before I pick up another one of his works!

Review copy kindly provided by Oxford World Classics, for which many thanks!

An unexpected tale from Stefan Zweig

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Back in the summer of 2015 I was fortunate to stumble on a pair of lovely Pushkin Collection volumes of Stefan Zweig stories – “The Governess and other stories” and “Wondrak and other stories”. I read a story from each and then, typically for me, popped them on a shelf to read later. Roll on nearly 18 months, and I came across them whilst I was reshuffling a few books, and thought that I should at least give Zweig some reading time during German Literature Month!I recalled flipping through “The Governess…”, and the first story in that volume (“Did He Do It?”) is a really intriguing and unexpected one for a tale from Zweig; so I thought I would re-read it and see what I thought second time round.

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Unusually, the story is set in England, near Bath to be precise, and it’s narrated by a lady called Betsy. She opens her tale with the bald statement that she’s sure that “he” is the murderer – who “he” is and who was killed is left to be revealed as the story progresses, but it’s a dramatic opening guaranteed to ensnare the reader from the very start!

Betsy and her husband have retired to a little cottage in the area, near a canal, and are enjoying their rest. Their tranquillity is ruffled a little by the arrival of some neighbours, the Limpseys, who build a love nest nearby. The Limpseys have been married for some years, and it’s clear from early on that it’s the husband John who dominates. An overenthusiastic man with no restraint, he throws himself into situations and relationships, exhausting those around him with his over-the-top zeal – it’s clear he has an abundance of energy which needs an outlet! His poor wife is overwhelmed and in many ways secretly happy when he’s away at work.

The couple are childless and Betsy makes the mistake of procuring a pet dog for them, given the name of Ponto. Needless to say, Limpsey throws himself into pet ownership, so much so that before long it’s the dog that rules the roost in the household and the neighbours are actually quite happy that he has an aversion to them. However, life for the Limpseys takes another odd turn, one which will have a dramatic effect on Ponto and then tragic results for his owners themselves. More than that I cannot say without risking ruining the story for you.

What could be a straightforward, whodunnit-ish type of tale is transformed here in the hands of a master storyteller. This is less of a mystery than a psychological study – of the relationships between man and animal, of the dangers of unchecked behaviour and of the consequences of extreme emotions. The portrait of Ponto’s temperament, changing from devotion to dominance through abandonment and then malevolence is impressive, and he becomes the central character of the story.

Zweig with Lotte and neice Eva in Bath - 1940

Zweig with Lotte and niece Eva in Bath – 1940

I love Stefan Zweig’s writing, and this was something of a departure – but a fascinating one! In a short work he can pack in so much and his narrative voice, as a retired Englishwoman, was entirely convincing (apparently Zweig did live near Bath for a while). “Did He Do It?” was further evidence of Zweig’s talent (if that was needed!) and I constantly find myself wondering why he was ignored for so many years. If you haven’t yet read Zweig, I highly recommend you do – you have so many treats in store!

The comforting company of Beverley Nichols

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There are times when you just need a book that’s going to make you smile and get a warm reassuring glow – and certainly I needed this recently with all the madness that’s going on in the world.

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“Garden Open Tomorrow” is Late Beverley Nichols (1960s) and combines his traditional witty commentary and gardening knowledge, with more modern topics – a chapter where he relates how the Rachel Carson book “The Silent Spring” had made him rethink his use of pesticides was fascinating, and perhaps unexpected.

The book, of course, is a rambling joy – although ostensibly (and very much!) a gardening book, Nichols goes from the effects of cold on gardens, to cats and their ballet dancing, gardening for the elderly, how to deal with lime infested soil and which roses belong to which composers, while ranging over umpteen subjects on the way. My edition is a lovely book club one from the Readers Union which came with a wonderfully intact dustjacket, and has lovely illustrations by William McLaren – which *really* add to the joy of the book!

I could of course simply go on about how lovely the book is, but I thought instead I would share some of Nichols’ bon mots with you in the hope they will make you smile as well. I don’t know how well they will translate out of the context of the book, but they certainly made me happy!

On animals and music:

I have always believed that between animals and music there exists a strange affinity. The cobra coils to the lilt of the flute, the circus bear dances to the cruel rhythm of the drum, and I one had a long and intimate association with a thrush who used to accompany me outside the window of the music-room while I was wrestling – shadow-boxing would be a more accurate way of describing it – with the misty and intricate harmonies of Granados’s ‘Maiden and the Nightingale’.

On the Albertine rose and its relationship to music:

Albertine. I associate this with Lehar because it is the epitome of an old-fashioned operetta. It is so pink and fluffy and feminine that when you see it clambering round the bedroom windows you almost expect a rather elderly (but still attractive) soprano to pop her head through the curtains and burst into song. Stranger things have happened.

On challenging established ideas such as the one that all babies are beautiful:

… a moment’s honest reflection must reveal the fact that… most babies, to the impartial eye, are of considerable hideousness, with bald pates and lunatic expressions. Though obviously to be treated with kindness, they should be removed from the view of all but their parents from the first few months of their lives and kept, if possible, behind screens.

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On describing some daffodils and his propensity to let his pen get carried away:

If you go to the Savill Gardens in the early spring one of the most ravishing spectacles is provided by the hosts of miniature daffodils shimmering in golden pools under the leafless trees, tumbling in a medley of yellow down the banks, or preening themselves by the side of a winding stream. As my pen is obviously straying very near to the purple ink-pot, let us hasten to check it….

On why people visit stately homes:

Lord Montagu of Beaulieu, for example, would be the first to admit that for every person who pays to see his daffodils at least two pay to see his Daimlers. These ancient horrors, these hideous precursors of the machine age, have an almost morbid attraction for the ton-up generation; to watch a bunch of youths staring at them, even attempting to fondle them is to be reminded of a group of stage-struck juveniles conjuring up erotic fantasies about elderly actresses. Again, when the turnstiles tinkle at the Duke of Bedford’s Woburn Abbey, the number of people who are eager to study the Canalettos is probably less than the number of people who are eager to study the duke.

On the photographic illustrations in an engineering prospectus:

… the only engineering prospectus I ever read was written in such purple prose that it was almost embarrassing. So were the photographs, portraying enormous square-shouldered engineers, standing by their bridges and their pylons, with their wives fluttering in the background. The engineers were gazing at their gaunt, skeletal creations with such obvious ecstasy that they seemed to be longing to commit some sort of mechanical adultery.

On John Betjeman:

One of the few reasons for hoping that the entire population of Britain is not nuts is the popularity of John Betjeman’s poetry.

Fun and books in London!

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When Liz (who I also know through LibraryThing) pointed out that although we’d known each other for ages we hadn’t actually met and wasn’t it about time that we did – well, what better excuse did we need to arrange a lovely meet-up in London? Fortunately, some other friends from the LibraryThing Virago group were able to come along too, so in the end there was Liz, Ali, Claire, Luci and I (plus a flying visit from Middle Child who was in London to see a show and was able to catch up with us for a while – which was lovely!)

The day started with a couple of detours: after a hideous wait to top up my Oyster Card at the mainline station (thanks Network Rail for having no ticket offices any more and inadequate machines), I popped through Covent Garden to pay a flying visit to the kikki.k stationery shop – which was very, very beautiful and resulted in a small amount of spending:

kikki-k

Well, I *did* have a 25% off voucher!

Then another flying visit, as I met up briefly with Simon from Stuck-in-a-Book to take a quick look at a very lovely Dufy exhibition in a private gallery – and on the way back to Charing Cross Road to meet the ladies, I may well have stumbled into Waterstones Piccadilly, and this may have happened:

jacobI feel no guilt about this one, as my original copy of “Jacob’s Room” from 35 years ago had such brown, crumbly pages when I took it out the other day that it would have fallen to bits had I attempted to actually read it. And I *do* want to re-read it, so there you are!

We lunched at Gaby’s, a rather wonderful deli at the bottom of Charing Cross Road, and then headed for the bookshops, but only after Liz and Luci had managed to increase my book stash a little:

from-liz

These two were from Liz – “Belinda”, because I’d expressed a keeness to read it and she had finished it; and the Laxness because she thinks it’s a little odd and that somehow I am an expert on odd European books! We shall see! 🙂

from-luci

Lovely Luci always comes to gatherings laden with books to give away or donate. It’s hard to restrain yourself in the face of such generosity, but I was very pleased to have a Nemirovsky I didn’t have, and also a novel by Mavis Gallant, about whom I’ve heard very good things.

The rest of the day was spent happily mooching in bookshops – Any Amount of Books, Henry Pordes (who have dramatically cut down their stock of paperbacks, alas), Bloomsbury Oxfam, LRB Bookshop and then finally onto the Persephone shop as the light was fading – and here we are!

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Needless to say, we didn’t get out of the shop without some serious spending – and I would guess it’s a toss-up between Liz and Ali as to who was the winner in the book-buying stakes! Apart from Jacob’s Room I only actually *bought* these:

bought-booksThe Persephone is “The Sack of Bath” by Adam Fergusson; the Duras and the book about Angela Carter were from Any Amount of Books; and the Sitwell from the Bloomsbury Oxfam.

After repairing to a nearby pub for a sit down, a drink and the use of the facilities, it was time to head home. It was a lovely day and a real pleasure to spend it with some wonderful friends – let’s hope it won’t be too long before we can have another bookish day-trip to the capital! 🙂

Hard-boiled gangsters – from the Ukraine!

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Odessa Stories by Isaac Babel
Translated by Boris Dralyuk

By now, the Ramblings has probably become known as the haunt of some nutty woman who loves to go on about dead Russian authors (or at least so my OH would have you believe!) I wouldn’t necessarily dispute that (well, the bit about Russian authors, anyway) but looking back through my posts I’m surprised to see that I don’t appear to have written anything about Isaac Babel, apart from one short story and a report of a find of a huge collected book of his work. And bearing in mind what a highly regarded writer he is, I really should have read more of him that I have. So when I heard that the lovely Pushkin Press were bringing out a collection of his entitled “Odessa Stories” I was, of course, very interested.

odessaThe new volume brings together all of the stories Babel set in Odessa, the city of the author’s birth, and a wonderful selection they are too. Babel was a Jewish man living in a Ukrainian city and writing in Russian, and that cosmopolitan set up reflects the place itself. Set in the early part of the twentieth century, the stories capture a unique world and way of life which is now long gone. “Odessa Stories” was originally a shorter collection published in 1931, with the stories telling of the life of fictional Jewish mob boss, Benya Krik, and his gang. This expanded volume includes all Babel’s other stories and pieces covering his time in Odessa and the resulting book makes fascinating reading.

“Odessa Stories” is divided into three sections, and the first (entitled ‘Gangsters and Other “Old Odessans”‘) focuses on the ‘gangster’ stories of Benya Krik and his associates and enemies. Basically, the city seems to have been run at the time by the Jewish gangster community, and they have a morality all of their own. We hear of their battles, their loves and their hates, all told in a brilliant and lively voice. The stories read in a remarkably modern, almost colloquial way which works really well with the subject matter. Babel’s been described as a modernist, and certainly these tales are remarkably fresh.

The second section, ‘Childhood and Youth’, contains a group of semi-autobiographical stories (which translator Boris Dralyuk warns us against accepting too literally). The Babel-like narrator revisits his younger days, recalling his coming of age; the outstanding story is “The Story of My Dovecote”, which poignantly recalls the tragic effects of a pogrom that took place around the time of the 1905 Russian uprising. It’s visceral and moving, as the young man mourns the loss of an uncle and his precious doves, almost incapable of really grasping what’s going on around him. It is in these stories that the thread of anti-semitism becomes more clear, as the pogrom is seen through the eyes of a young boy who doesn’t really understand what’s happening; although we as more wise readers can mourn the horror of hatred and intolerance.

Finally, a third part called ‘Loose Leaves and Apocrypha’ rounds up fragments – an essay on Odessa, a short story taking place on the day of Lenin’s funeral and a story which is a recent find and has been attributed to Babel, but probably isn’t by him.

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This is a wonderful collection of stories, and Babel certainly seems to have found the perfect translator in the form of Dralyuk, who also provides an excellent introduction and notes. What’s fascinating about the stories is how they shatter the stereotype of the old-style Jewish family showing instead the modern, gutsy, lively folk of Babel’s Odessa. As the author says at one point:

Here it must be said that my people weren’t exactly your typical Jewish family. Our clan had its share of drunks, we seduced generals’ daughters and abandoned them at the border, and our grandfather forged signatures and composed blackmailing letters for deserted wives.

What’s also fascinating is watching the changes that take place in Odessa as the way of life evolves; towards the end of the stories, when the Revolution has happened and the Bolsheviks are taking over, the old guard of gangsters lose control of the city and the iron grip of the Soviets begins to take hold.

Really, I can’t recommend this book highly enough: it’s lively and entertaining, wonderfully written and gives a captivating yet poignant glimpse of a lost world. Plus it’s a beautifully produced Pushkin edition – so what more could you want? Babel’s life was tragically cut short by Stalin’s secret police when he was shot in January 1940; fortunately he left behind him a large body of work and you could find no better place to start reading him than with this lovely volume.

Exploring the odd world of Christina Stead’s Puzzleheaded Girl

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This week is, of course, Christina Stead Reading Week, hosted by Lisa at the ANZ LitLovers blog. Stead is an author I’ve intended to read for ages, and as I mentioned earlier in the week, I do own several of her works. However, time has been against me recently, as well as a hideous cold, so I ended up reading a short work from her collection “The Puzzleheaded Girl” – in the form of the title story.

puzzleheaded

The book I finally went for!

The puzzleheaded girl herself is called Honor Lawrence – or so she says when she drifts into the firm run by Augustus Debrett with his partners Good, Zero and Scott, looking for a job. She claims to be nearly 18 and her very strangeness seems to attract the sympathies of the partners, particularly Debrett. Honor is given a job as a filing clerk, a job she carries out tolerably, but she certainly doesn’t fit into the firm. It soon becomes clear that she has no idea of the social norms and niceties – her clothes are second-hand and mismatched, she reacts violently if anyone attempts to come near or touch her, and she professes to despise the financial world in which she’s working, instead lauding artistic endeavours.

As the story progresses, Honor’s background is gradually revealed and it seems that a controlled and restricted upbringing by a dysfunctional father plus the lack of a mother’s guidance have made her into a complete misfit and someone who finds it hard to function on a normal, everyday level. Her brother has apparently escaped into the world of art – it is claimed several times that he’s quite well-known although evidence is limited – and her father takes all of her money and locks her out of the house when he’s not there.

Honor is drawn to the partners’ wives in an attempt to get some kind of assistance, but they struggle to understand her, and in the end she cannot be helped. Her neediness comes across as being demanding, yet she is painfully naive, a quality which protects her for much of the book. As time progresses she leaves the firm and disappears for periods, becoming almost symbolic figure, reappearing mystically in the partners’ lives at intervals. Despite her attempts at survival, her fate is sealed as she drifts through the world and gradually ages, leaving behind her failed marriages and even a child.

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I wasn’t quite sure what to make of “The Puzzleheaded Girl” at first, and I possibly still don’t, but it’s certainly made me think! I found myself actually doubting a lot of what appears in the narrative, particularly when it relates to Honor herself, as the stories and impressions of her from the various characters often contradict each other. The writing starts off relatively straightforwardly, and you think it’s just going to be a story of a misfit at large in the world, but as the narrative develops it takes on a strange, dreamlike quality; and in the end the characters (and the reader!) are not quite sure if Honor existed and who she actually was.

The name, too, is probably significant – a recurring thread is the girl’s purity and innocence, and it transpires that Honor is not her real name but one she adopted. A symbol of rejecting her past? Maybe – but also reflecting the fact that her lack of a mother has given her no knowledge of relations between women and men, and she seems incapable of dealing with life on a normal, everyday level.

In the end, I found my first experience of reading Stead fascinating and a little unsettling. I’m still thinking over the point of the story – wondering whether Honor represents the drifting unfocused modern girl of the 1960s (the decade in which the novella was published), or simply a free spirit, or how women would be if they weren’t hidebound by conformity and society’s expectations. Whatever I eventually conclude, I’ve certainly enjoyed reading Christina Stead and thanks to Lisa and her reading week for prompting me to do so!

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