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The struggles of the ‘New Woman’ #SarahGrand

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The Yellow Leaf by Sarah Grand

One of the joys of belonging to the LibraryThing Virago Modern Classics group, and exploring that particular imprint, is the sheer range of women authors and the books to be encountered. One name I’ve been aware of for ages is the author Sarah Grand, known in Virago circles for her work “The Beth Book”. It’s a *long* book – over 500 pages – and I recall reactions on the group being mixed; so that, despite Grand being a pioneering feminist author, I’ve never had the courage to pick up a copy of the book. However, when Mike Walmer revealed recently he was releasing one of Grand’s shorter works, a novella called “The Yellow Leaf”, I realised this was the perfect way to explore her writing without having to commit to a chunkster… ;D

“The Yellow Leaf” was first published as a serial in 1893, and in book form a year later, and it tells the story of three young women and their different paths through life. As the book opens, our narrator (who is a rather unwordly person) is travelling by train on her own for the first time to visit an old school friend in the country. On the journey she encounter Adalesa, the cousin of her school friend, also on a visit to the same place. The two girls bond, and Adalesa’s forthright ways are in contrast to the more reserved nature of the narrator; and when the girls arrive at the country house of Lady Marsh they are met with a stifling, repressive atmosphere as well as some very conventional attitudes about how women should behave. Evangeline, the cousin and school friend, is charismatic, yet soon revealed as entirely self-centred and focused on obtaining a good marriage.

… They are not womanly pursuits. You will not be fit for the duties of a wife and mother by-the-by if you injure your constitution now.

Her mother Lady Marsh is infuriating, full of ridiculous ideas about women’s education and the detrimental effects on their brains – I confess I wanted to slap her most of the time. Initially, our narrator is charmed by Evangeline, but soon begins to have her doubts; feelings which have already been expressed by Adalesa. As the first part of the narrative comes to a climax, the three young women prepare to attend a ball, at which will be attending a young man who is of significance to one of them. To find out how things play out, you’ll just have to read the book….

Part two, the shorter of the sections, revisits the country house a good number of years later, when the women are no longer young. Travelling back to see the ageing Marshes, the narrator and Adalesa have moved on, forging lives and careers; but will they find Evangeline changed, and what effect will the reunion have on all of them?

When one is young, one is never satisfied. One looks back and lives those delights over again; but at the time we did not understand, and so lost the full flavour. Later one has realised how precious it is just to be alive; and then, I think, it is that one begins to live.

I shall say no more about the plot, but I have to say I did find the book fascinating. It’s fairly easy to recognise the narrator as representing Grand herself, with her “New Woman” viewpoint and her determination to make a career for herself writing. The contrast between the views of the older ladies and their resistance to change and advancement for their sex, as opposed to the views of the narrator and Adalesa, is striking; and if it represents the real attitudes of the time, it’s shocking to think of the battle all the pioneering women and Suffragettes had to gain recognition. Both the narrator and Adalesa have grown and matured as people, and the point is fairly heavily made that this is a healthy option for a woman, as opposed to the infantilisation of those who follow the ridiculous, old fashioned beliefs.

Sarah Grand by Hayman Seleg Mendelssohn / Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

I say heavily made, because I recognise that one of the criticisms of “The Beth Book” is that it does tend to be hampered by the didacticism in it; Grand is an author who was using her work to make a very necessary point about the status of women. However, in a shorter work like “The Yellow Leaf”, that didacticism is not overpowering, as Grand has to let her plot develop and has a limited space in which to do so. The result is a gripping read which explores the changing state of women on the eve of the twentieth century and the restricting attitudes with which they had to grapple, as well as the destructive effects of those attitudes on a woman’s development. It’s also a very dramatic tale and I didn’t quite foresee the climax!

So my first experience of reading Sarah Grand was a very positive one, and I’m glad I started with this one rather than “The Beth Book”! Grand had a fascinating and inspiring life, making her living from her writing and cutting her own path through life. “The Yellow Leaf” is an eye-opening glimpse of what it was like to be a New Woman and kudos to Mike Walmer for bringing it back into print.

“The Yellow Leaf” is from Mike Walmer’s Zephyr imprint, a series of classic short works in hardback (I’ve reviewed other entries in the series here and here). Many thanks to Mike for kindly providing a review copy

“Rome seemed an often-shaken kaleidoscope” #ATimeInRome #ElizabethBowen

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A Time in Rome by Elizabeth Bowen

It must be fairly obvious to anyone following me on social media that I’ve been on a bit of a Bowen Binge recently… I love the writing of Elizabeth Bowen, and I do have all of her novels plus the collected short stories. However, I was nudged in the direction of her non-fiction when I shared my Bowen shelf on Twitter; and I discovered that she was a prolific author of essays, reviews, broadcasts and all manner of works. Additionally, there was an enticing-sounding volume in the form of “A Time in Rome”; and I was fortunate enough to manage to procure a copy via the wonderful Hive website, so I could go vicariously travelling with Bowen for company…

I say travelling, by which I mean visiting Rome; however, there’s a certain amount of time travelling involved too, as this is no simple, straightforward narrative of a journey and the sights of the city. Instead, Bowen takes a perhaps unusual angle, and though anchoring her book in the city and her extended stay there in early spring 1958, she uses this as a launching pad to explore the city’s long and turbulent history, through its architecture and its people.

This book is not even my footnote to your guidebook; it is my scribblings on the margins of mine. I claim to be little help to anyone else.

“Time” is divided up into five long chapters, with titles ranging from “The Confusion” to “The Set Free”. In each of these, Bowen takes a particular element of her Rome and riffs on it; for example, “The Confusion” starts with her sense of disorientation on arrival, when she’s put in a hotel room which doesn’t work for her, and explores her attempts at grounding herself and finding her way around the city. She discusses the city’s architectural past, as well as its political history and the ever-changing rulers and regimes, and each angle is fascinating; her dismay at the complexity of the family relationships of some of the Roman Emperors is palpable! As she rambles, she constantly comes across the juxtaposition of old and new; Rome in the late 1950s is constantly changing, as it has over the centuries, and her explorations of the fate of many of what we regard as now fixed monuments reveals layers of history.

Gasworks, slaughter-houses, rubbish dumps, cattle markets, an abandoned shooting gallery, a defunct racecourse, duststorms of demolition, skeletal battles of construction, schools, asylums and hospitals, squatters’ villages, marble-works, and other relics of pleasure or signs of progress crop up according to where one goes. Each demands to be taken into the picture. Crazy or neat, no structure is out of use; if it has lapsed from one it has found another.

The changes Rome was undergoing in the post-WW2 period were obviously dramatic, and it has to be remembered that Bowen was visiting a place which had been through much during that conflict, switching sides halfway through and being bombed on a regular basis. So the city was, like so many in that period, going through yet another process of rebuilding and reinvention, and Bowen meets this on many of her travels, while musing on the city’s past and present.

But the core of the revolution is public transport – I know of no system more far-reaching than Rome’s, more energetic or more capacious: hilarious buses, electric road-railways zooming into the hills in ascending spirals, small eager trains darting from stop to stop across reclaimed marshlands or to the coast. One way or another, thousands hurl themselves forth…

The chapter entitled “The Smile” was a particularly powerful one, exploring subterranean Rome and then its gardens. This leads to an extented section on Livia, the wife of Emperor Augustus, with whom Bowen seemed to feel a strong connection. Her description of Livia’s life and achievements is an evocative and often powerful one, and this particular part of the book really struck me. It has to be said that Bowen’s writing is often exquisite; and in the passages on Livia, who comes to represent Rome’s ‘smile’, it soars to Woolfian heights.

However, Bowen is not without her lighter moments, and her dry wit often reveals itself – her short and punchy comment on a particular era made me laugh:

On the Middle Ages, I cannot find it too tempting to dwell at all. One could feel that they were endured by mankind in order that they might fascinate the historian…

And she posits a dizzying array of reasons for wanting to *leave* the wonderful city she’s visiting, which reflects the often turbulent political set up of the past:

Reasons for getting out are among the constants of Roman history – danger from personal enemies; an exposed conspiracy; civil disturbance; noxious weather; pestilence; persecution or pogrom; need to tone up in fresh air or reflect in calm; spleen; fashion; annoyance by barbarians; banishment; military or administrative duties; care of country estates; health; imminent scandal; financial crisis. A whole range, back through how many centuries, between desire and compulsion.

She also reveals her human side, confiding at times how tiring wandering round Rome can be, leaving the visitor with sore feet; and revealing her difficulty in adjusting to the idea of the midday siesta when everything comes to a halt.

Rome 1950 (via Flickr – Nathan Hughes Hamilton – https://www.flickr.com/photos/nat507/10370497245)

Reading “A Time in Rome” was a wonderfully involving and distracting experience; Bowen’s prose is beautiful, often impressionistic, and repays slow and thoughtful reading. The book’s heady mix of her thoughts on the city as she experiences it, together with her exploration of the past, is wonderful, and I’m not sure I’ve read another work like this. Up until now I’ve only read Elizabeth Bowen’s fiction, which I absolutely; but having encountered her non-fiction voice in this marvellous book, I really want to read more…

“…little pockets of competence always exist much further down the ladder…” #theharpolereport #JLCarr

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The Harpole Report by J.L. Carr

After darkness, light… I mused much, and drew much comfort really, from reading Barthes’ “Mourning Diary”; as I said, I wish I’d been aware of it before. However, I did feel the need for contrast after it, and I was also struggling to decide what to read next. When I was running my eyes over one of the many TBR piles (ahem) I noticed a slim book I picked up for a bargain 50p in a charity shop a while back; and it seemed like the perfect fit for what I wanted to read right now!

J.L. Carr probably needs no introduction here on the Ramblings; I’ve read, loved and reviewed both “A Month in the Country” and “How Steeple Sinderby Wanderers Won the FA Cup“, and I know many of my fellow bloggers rate his work too. Yet though the two books I just mentioned are Penguins and highly-regarded, his other works seem harder to find. “Harpole” was a Penguin once (my edition is an old one) but doesn’t seem to be now; and I wondered why? Interestingly, when I did a little digging, it seems that “Harpole…” was Carr’s third novel, originally published in 1972; and the Penguin edition came out in 1984, after the huge success of “A Month in the Country” in 1980. Anyway, onward and upward to the book itself!

“The Harpole Report” is the tale of the titular teacher, during the period when he undertakes the post of temporary head at St. Nicholas C of E Primary School. It’s told very clever through extracts from George Harpole’s journal, the official school log, letters to Harpole’s fiance Edith, letters by other members of the staff and a variety of other records. Stitching this together is an unnamed narrator who seems to have a sneaking sympathy for Harpole’s plight; because the education sector of the 1970s is not an easy place to negotiate!

The school is staffed by a handful of teachers, from Mr. Pintle, one of the old guard who refuses to change his methods to keep up with the times, through to Mr. Croser, a young, arrogant new teacher. Then there’s Mrs. Grindle-Jones, married to the head of a rival school, who’s stuck in middle-class respectability; and poor Miss Tollemache who struggles with what we would now call the SEN children. Newly arrived is the somewhat alarming Miss Foxberrow, a feminist Cambridge graduate with *many* progressive ideas. Add in an uncooperative caretaker, a rule-bound Local Authority and its functionaries, a problem family with a large number of children, and Harpole’s own rather diffident personality, and you have a recipe for disaster! The book is a wonderfully funny read, as we watch Harpole attempt to negotiate the rules, regulations and bureacracy, as well as dealing with angry parents, recalcitrant staff, a child prodigy called Titus and his own uncertainties. Harpole is a man just about to settle into middle aged complacency, and little does he realise how his tenure as a temporary head will change his life – more I shall not say!

The kind of old-school Primary that was around in the 1960s/70s and very much how I imagine the setting of the book! (Paul Shreeve / Bawdeswell Primary School via Wikimedia Commons)

“The Harpole Report” was another joyous book from Carr, and is drawn from hard-won experience; for the author spent nearly 40 years as a Primary School Teacher, including 15 years as a Head, so he certainly knows what he’s talking about! And I have to declare an interest here; although I went to school at roughly the time of the book and recognise the setting, I also now work in a school; so much of the “Report…” resonated very strongly with me! As with “Steeple Sinderby…” Carr takes some wonderful snipes at petty bureacracy – obviously something with which he had to wrestle continuously. There *is* much in the book that’s un-PC and not acceptable nowadays (smacking the pupils! the descriptions used for the SEN pupils and the troublesome family!) so this dates it slightly. Nevertheless, I felt a continual familiarity creeping in from my own school experiences and also from my current employment! And I did laugh at the naming of the difficult family as the Widmerpools; if you’ve read Anthony Powell’s “Dance to the Music of Time” sequence, you’ll know that Widmerpool is one of the most individual characters in the books and I couldn’t help wondering if Carr’s choice of name was deliberate.

Based on my readings of his work so far, it does feel as if Carr was gradually building up to the depth of “A Month in the Country”; “Steeple Sinderby…” came out three years after “Harpole” in 1975, and I sensed darker, perhaps more philosophical elements in it than weren’t obvious from a surface reading of the book. Those elements are also there in “Harpole…”, although again not so obvious; but a lot of the fun in this book comes from recognising the stupidity of petty bureaucracy and the inability of the school system to deal with the individual approach. The book apparently has a cult status amongst teachers and I can understand why. In these days of a rigid (and yet constantly changing) National Curriculum, and a results-led system, it does seem that not much has changed…

“To each his own rhythm of suffering.” #rolandbarthes #mourningdiary @NottingHillEds

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Mourning Diary by Roland Barthes

I seem to have been lost in something of a Barthesian parallel universe of late; as well as reading his seminal book “Mythologies” back in January, he’s turned up in books about translation, collections of essays, and even cartoon anthologies! I’ve also nearly read some of his works at times (“A Lover’s Discourse” was a possible for the 1977 Club). However, my most recent reading of Barthes is a lovely, and possibly unexpected, work published in a beautiful version by Notting Hill Editions – one of their first, I believe.

Around 6 p.m.: The apartment is warm, clean, well-lit, pleasant. I make it that way, energetically, devotedly (enjoying it bitterly): henceforth and forever I am my own mother.

“The Mourning Diary” is, at first sight, a rather different book in many ways to his more philosophical works; but as I read on I soon began to wonder if it really was. Barthes lived for most of his life with his mother Henriette; her death in 1977 devastated him, and it could be argued that he never really recovered from that loss, dying in the aftermath of a car accident in 1980. “The Mourning Diary” is made up of notes he made on small slips of paper after her death, recording the process of grieving, which were finally collected and pubished in 2010. In it, the reader watches a great mind try to come to terms with loss, and it’s a moving and resonant work.

I now know that my mourning will be chaotic

Barthes’ father was killed in World War 1 when baby Roland was not even one, so he was raised by his mother (and grandmother); an upbringing which would by necessity create a close bond. The family moved to Paris when Barthes was 11, and he lived with his mother for the rest of his life. Part of me would argue that that isn’t necessarily healthy (I’ve seen in my own family-by-marriage the detrimental effect on one particular individual by not leaving the nest); but nevertheless, so it was for Barthes and who are we to judge another person’s way of living?

Sometimes, very briefly, a blank moment- a kind of numbness -which is not a moment of forgetfulness. This terrifies me.

So inevitably the death of Henriette was a catastrophe for Barthes, and an event with which he struggled to deal. He noted his thoughts, feelings and emotions on these little pieces of paper, in fragments which often read like poetry, and these meditations explore the effect of death and mourning, how we deal (or don’t deal) with the fact the loved one is no longer present, and in fact that gaping absence. This latter factor is one that shines through most strongly as Barthes attempts to understand the way he’s feeling; and the hollowness after a loss is one of the hardest parts, the fact that the person has gone missing from your life permanently.

We don’t forget,
but something vacant settles in us.

You could argue that it’s impossible to rationalise this kind of human emotion; yet the intellectual in Barthes cannot help but try to make sense of his loss. It’s our way, I suppose; with anything, we try to understand it, yet with grief I don’t know that we ever can. So we witness Barthes drawing on the experience of Proust, when his beloved grandmother died; and finding himself soothed by the poetry of haiku (an increasing influence during his later life, as I discovered from “This Little Art“).

I am either lacerated or ill at ease and occasionally subject to gusts of life

I very much recognised Barthes’ need to understand his mourning from my own personal experience. I lost my father in 2015 – the first major close family death in my adult life – and frankly the shock was immense and I didn’t actually know how to deal with it. Nothing prepares you for the death of a parent, and I wish at the time I’d had this book to hand. Even if it didn’t necessarily bring comfort, as more saccharine works might try, it may have helped me to rationalise some of what I was feeling but couldn’t articulate.

A cold winter night. I’m warm enough, yet I’m alone. And I realise that I’ll have to get used to existing quite naturally within the solitude, functioning there, working there, accompanied by, fastened to the presence of the absence.

“Mourning Diary” is a powerful and emotional read, and a very different one from what I’ve encountered from Barthes the theorist. And yet, his study of a photograph of Henriette as a child led him to write one of his most famous works, “Camera Lucida”, which although ostensibly a study of the essence of photography, apparently also is something of a tribute to his mother. I have a copy of this work sitting on the TBR; the first Barthes I ever bought, I believe, after a recommendation by either Georges Perec or Italo Calvino, and it may have to come off the shelves soon. I have a feeling it’s going to be a Barthesian kind of year…

“So ask yourself now: Can you forgive her if she wants you to?” #EcadeQueirós

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The Yellow Sofa by Jose Maria Eca de Queirós
Translated by John Vetch

Bookish blogs are *definitely* a dangerous thing to follow when you’re as susceptible as I am to suggestion! A case in point is this book; I read about it on Tony’s Book World back in March and was intrigued – especially as the author was very highly regarded by Jose Saramago! I’ve read a little Portugese literature but not much; so needless to say, I sent off for a copy….

Interestingly, as the foreword by the author’s son explains, the novella was never published during the author’s lifetime and was almost lost. Luckily, the son discovered the father’s work in his papers and the book survived, which is a relief because it’s a very entertaining tale of domestic drama! Our hero is Alves, a bourgeois and successful businessman who seems eternally cheerful and lives a contented life. However, one day, as his business partner is off somewhere pursuing a love affair, Alves decides he will go home early to surprise his wife; as indeed he does, but the surprise is not what he expects. Shockingly, his wife is lolling about on the yellow sofa in a white negligee with another man! Three guesses as to who that man is…

What follows is a rapid series of events, as Alves, shocked to the core, tries to decide how to respond. Should he send his wife home to her father, or to a convent? Should he challenge his rival to a duel? Should he just commit suicide? A wave of conflicting emotions roll over him, and the friends he consults aren’t necessarily the most help. I shall say no more about the plot, because it’s a novella and I don’t want to spoil it; but poor Alves really does go through the emotional wringer.

“The Yellow Sofa” was a short and very entertaining read. Alves really does suffer, and he seems to be taken for a ride by most of the other characters. Despite his anger and grief, and his wish to undertake some dramatic act, at heart he’s simply a cuckolded man desperately wanting to get back to normal life. His friends talks about their affairs constantly, and yet Alves cannot comprehend this; as of course behind every affair there is a husband suffering like him. It’s an interesting take on the morals of the time, and the action moves quickly; as quickly as Alves’ changes of mood and mind!

Outdoors, the July day was sweltering, scorching the paving stones; but here in the office where the sun never penetrated, in the shadow of the high buildings opposite, there was a coolness; the green blinds were drawn, making it shady; and the varnish of the two desks – his own and his colleague’s – the rug that covered the floor, the well-brushed green repp of the armchairs, a gilt moulding which framed a view of Luanda, the glaze of a large wall map – everything had an air of tidiness, of orderliness, which made things restful and cooler.

I do enjoy reading a new author and Eca de Queirós is definitely one of whom I want to seek out more. His writing is very atmospheric, conjuring the mood and location beautifully, and there was plenty of sly humour in the book. So thank you to Tony for pointing me in the direction of “The Yellow Sofa” which I really enjoyed; a perfect short read while I was havering between chunky books! 😀

On My Book Table… 8 – what next?

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May has been an odd sort of reading month for me. I’ve read fewer books than I might have expected, given the amount of extra time I’ve got through not going out, paying visits to London and the like. I must admit to feeling a little bit twitchy after about 10 weeks of lockdown, with the only places I go to being the post office and the occasional nip into the local Co-op for veg. Browsing the local charity shops was one of my great pleasures and I’ve no idea when I’ll do that again. But I’m trying not to be too ungrateful, as I can work from home and safety is the main thing. Nevertheless, books *have* still made their way into the house, and I have been having a little bit of a shuffle of the book table, trying to decide what to read next – never an easy task for me… 😀 Here’s what’s been attracting my attention recently!

Some beautiful Elizabeth Bowen titles…

I have been shouting a bit recently on social media about Elizabeth Bowen; and the random discovery that there were some enticing-looking editions from Edinburgh University Press, bringing together uncollected short stories, essays, broadcasts and the like, was just too much to resist. They arrived, together with two other, older collections, as well as a book of Bowen and Charles Ritchie’s love letters. As I’ve said, I really could go on a Bowen Binge right now.

Classics, chunky and slimmer…

I’m also a huge fan of classics (fairly obviously) and there are a lot vying for attention right now. Carlyle and Chateaubriand have been lurking for a while, with Huysmans and Barbellion more recent arrivals. However, Ruskin has been someone I’ve always intended to read (so I really *should* get round to it before I get any older). The little hardback about why Ruskin matters turned up somewhere in my online browsing, and so I picked up some selected writings of Ruskin himself while I was at it. A new copy of Woolf’s “The Waves” may have fallen into my basket at the same time – I quite fancy a re-read and my original copy (which is nearly 40 years old) is just too crumbly and fragile to be comfortable with.

Some slightly more sombre volumes

One thing I *have* been taking advantage of during these strange times is online bookish stuff; by which I mean mainly the festivals. The Charleston Festival moved online and there was a marvellous broadcast of an interview with Virago’s Lennie Goodings by Joan Bakewell – what a pair of inspirational women! However, one author has been very much in my sightline, from the Charleston Festival and also the Hay Online Festival, and that’s Philippe Sands. I’d previously read his short work on the city of Lvov/Lemberg and “East West Street” had been on my wishlist for ages; so stumbling across it just before lockdown in a charity shop was a treat. Sands is a notable human rights lawyer, and his most recent book “Ratline” deals with the life (and afterlife) of prominent Nazis. His talks for Charleston and Hay were sobering and fascinating, and had me gathering together a number of titles covering difficult WW2 and post-War topics. Arendt, West and Czapski are all authors who’ve considered the inhumanity of our race, and bearing in mind the fragile stage of many countries at the moment, any of these books could be timely reading. It’s ironic that I’ve never attended either festival in person, but this current crisis has given me the chance to…

Books about books and books about authors are always a good thing, and there are plenty lurking on the TBR. One of the Nabokovs I’ve had for a while, the other arrived recently; as did the Steiner. The Very Short Introduction to Russian Literature takes an intrguing angle, and might be well matched with Isaiah Berlin (and indeed Nabokov). This could be another wormhole…

Or, indeed, I could just go down a British Library Crime Classics wormhole!! This is quite a nice pile of their titles, though nowhere near as impressive as the one Simon from Stuck in a Book shared on Twitter! These are a mixture of review copies and ones procured by my dear friend J., who seems to come across them in charity shops more than I do. They’re such a wonderful comforting distraction to read – and there are two Lorac titles in there which are *very* tempting!

Random books…

Finally, a little random pile of various enticing titles! I have been dipping into Mollie Panter-Downes’ “London War Notes”, which has been distracting and surprisingly cathartic. Since I’m not likely to be at the beach any time soon, “A Fortnight in September” by R. C. Sherriff is also very appealing – I do love a Persephone. Bachelard is another book which have been lurking for a while, and since reading “Malicroix” I’m keener than ever to get to it. The two white cover Fitzcarraldos are the last two I have unread, and both appeal strongly. And last, but certainly not least, is a lovely collection of essays by Joseph Brodsky, into which I’ve also been dipping. They’re marvellous, but best read slowly with time to digest in between – such a good writer.

So – an *awful* lot of choices and I find myself very undecided about what to actually read next. Have you read any of these? Which would take *your* fancy?????

The eternal conflict of love and art… #myhusbandsimon @BL_Publishing

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My Husband Simon by Mollie Panter-Downes

Author Mollie Panter-Downes is probably best known nowadays for her remarkable novel “One Fine Day“, as well as her short stories and newspaper colums reporting from WW2 London, both of which have been collected in lovely Persephone volumes. However, long before publication of these she had become a popular success as a novelist, after the release of her first book “The Shoreless Sea” in 1923, written when she was just 16. Panter-Downes went on to publish three more novels, culminating in “My Husband Simon” in 1931, followed by a gap until OFD in 1947. She went on to disown her first four works, so it was a particuar treat to see her her last early novel republished as part of the first wave in the new series of British Library Women Writers.

There’s been a lot of buzz about this in bookish circles, and rightly so. The British Library’s publishing arm is doing sterling work with the Crime Classics and Science Fiction Classics, and so a range devoted to neglected women authors of the 20th century is going to appeal to lots of us. Excitingly, too, Simon Thomas from Stuck in a Book (my club co-host!) is consultant on the series, providing afterwords and commentary, and I can’t think of a better choice for the role! The fact that the books are very beautiful editions with French flaps is also a bonus!

Anyway, on to the book! As I mentioned, “My Husband Simon” was Panter-Downes’ fourth book and its focus is on the relationship between the young and sophisticated Nevis Falconer, a successful novelist, and her husband. As the book opens, Nevis is recalling a time four years ago when her life collided with that of Simon Quinn, who she meets at a weekend away visiting friends. Their attraction is instantaneous and physical, and before the weekend is over they’ve slept together and decided to marry. However, the pair have little in common; Nevis is an out-and-out intellectual, whereas Simon (who does something in the City about which Nevis is suitably vague) claims never to read and to be practically illiterate. Nevertheless, despite their obvious differences, the physical attraction is too strong to ignore and they marry.

I lay on my back and stared up at the copper beech tree. It rose in such a miraculous pyre of weaving branches and smooth bronze leaves, high, high, until it lost itself in darkness. Right at the core was a lozenge of blue sky. What was the use of trying to write? I could expend years of energy, gallons of ink, without conveying to anyone else exactly how this tree glowed with secret dark fire in the sunlight, how the trunk stretched out snaky limbs, strong and delicate and exact, just support the piled magnificence of the leaves. Piled magnificence – words, words! What was the good of them?

And this is where Nevis’s problems begin; because once married to Simon, she finds it harder and harder to write as her focus is all on her marriage and her husband. She loses interest and faith in her writing, and certainly Simon has no interest in it, treating it patronisingly as if it’s just a hobby; so the conflict between heart and art starts. Complications arises when Nevis’s American publisher Marcus Chard appears on the scene; unlike her husband, Marcus believes in Nevis’s writing and supports it, leading her to a situation where she may have to make a decision between her writing and her marriage – thus it ever was for women, I suppose!

“My Husband Simon” was an entertaining and enjoyable read; but also an intriguing snapshot of attitudes at the time. In some ways, it’s a little melodramatic, what with the intensity of the physical attraction between Nevis and Simon; and yet it explores a real issue and one which is still sadly with us. Why *is* it that women’s work and women’s writing is regarded so much less seriously than men’s??? Interestingly, Simon Thomas’s afterword picks up on another element in the book, which is the class difference between Nevis and Simon Quinn; and in Britain of the time, that could be a nebulous and hard to define thing. Nevis is obviously from a certain milieu and her viewpoint can be harsh and judgmental at times:

Slough is the station for Burnham Beeches. Even in a good temper I dislike Slough. That morning it seemed to me a town without a single excuse for itself; a foul industrial block spreading slowly over those pleasant fields towards Windsor. I wondered what kind of people could possibly wish to live in Slough, and pictured men with faces on which avarice and pettiness of soul were stamped like mean handwriting on cheap paper; women who made fumbling, ineffectual gestures and said “Pardon!” when they committed a social error. I wondered how many people in Slough had ever heard a Beethoven symphony or seen a Leonardo.

The couple’s differences are perhaps shown best in their attitudes towards the intellectual; Nevis is firmly bound to the cultural world, interested in everyting from Lady Chatterly to books by Vita Sackville-West. Her husband’s inability to relate to that gives them an intellectual gulf that the physical and the domestic cannot bridge for Nevis and we have to guess that there is very little future in her marriage to Simon Quinn.

Mollie Panter-Downes in the front of my old copy of “One Fine Day”

So the British Library Women Writers imprint has got off to a cracking start with this book; there are four titles already available, and many more planned to come. In some ways it seems as if the publisher is picking up the baton where Virago have left off, as these books are titles which would very probably have come under the purview of Virago Modern Classics in the past (and would also be possible Persephones). Although the book never scales the heights of “One Fine Day” (that would be hard to do), “My Husband Simon” is beautifully written, a fascinating read and an interesting exploration of the conflicts facing women to this day – highly recommended!

Review copy kindly provided by the publisher, for which many thanks!

High jinks in the Alps! #carolcarnac #crossedskis @BL_Publishing @medwardsbooks

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Crossed Skis by Carol Carnac

After finishing Esther Kinsky’s wonderful but rather melancholic “Grove”, I must admit that I did feel in need of a little contrast and perhaps something lighter. Enter another beautiful British Library Crime Classic, which was just the kind of escapism I needed. And after travelling to a somewhat muted Italy, this book took me off to the crisp clear snow of the Austrian Alps!

“Crossed Skis” by Carol Carnac is subtitled “An Alpine Mystery” and it was first published in 1952, since when it’s become extremely rare – so kudos to the BL for republishing it. And interestingly, it turns out that I’ve read Carnac (whose real name was Edith Caroline Rivett) before; she also published crime novels under the name of E.C.R. Lorac and several of those mysteries have also been reprinted as BLCCs! I read and loved “Murder by Matchlight” at the start of 2019, and her stories have also turned up on BL anthologies; fortunately, too, I have more Lorac titles on the TBR…

Anyway, back to Carol Carnac and the book in hand! “Crossed Skis” opens with a group of eight young women and eight young men setting off on a skiing jaunt to Austria at the start of January. The party has been assembled in a bit of a rush, with some last minute additions, and not all the members are actually known to each other. Bridget ‘Biddy’ Manners is the organiser, and somehow manages to corral her motley crew together to catch the boat train from Victoria. The journey is relatively uneventful, the group seem to gel quite well apart from a bit of ragging, and all are looking forward to escaping from the dull, damp British winter into a brighter, more exciting setting; understandable really, as it’s clear from the narrative that the things we moan about today are often the same things being moaned about nearly 70 years ago…

The reason we get into a mess in England during heavy snow falls is that we don’t cater for it. It always takes us unawares.

However, back in London, all is not well. A body has been discovered in a rented room in Bloomsbury, burnt to death; but it’s no accidental event. A brutal murder has been committed, and a sharp-eyed detective spots the mark of a ski stick left behind outside the house. Can the crime be connected to a group of skiiers? Who *is* the murder victim? Is there a criminal hidden in amongst the Austrian party? And will Chief Inspector Julian Rivers, himself a keen skier, be able to track down the murderer before it’s too late?

That’s a simplistic summary of what is a very clever and niftily constructed work, as Carnac dexterously runs the two separate strands of her plot alongside for a large part of the book. Alternating chapters and sections watch the group of 16 arrive in Lech am Arlberg, settle into their lodgings and take to the slopes. The bright clear landscape, the plentiful food and the chance to escape from everyday cares is a striking contrast to what’s happening back at home; although cracks do start to appear with some odd happenings taking place.

It was a disgusting evening, pondered Rivers, as he left the lights of St Albans behind and accelerated on the first long straight stretches of the Barnet Road. Wet snow drove depressingly against the windscreen and slush flew out in dirty cascades from the wheels, while mist tended to settle in the hollows. Into Rivers’ mind there flashed a visualisation of crisp, dry shining snow on the Scheidegg-Wengen slopes, hot sun and the hiss of skis flying on a delectable unbroken surface of glittering whiteness. He swore softly as a huge northbound lorry threw a small avalanche of dirty slush right over his own car. Snow?- heaven save the word!

Meanwhile, back in the coldest and dampest British January you could imagine, the detectives of the CID are following up the few hints they have about the murder victim. Negotiating a still bomb-damaged city, they have little to go on, and can’t even really identify the corpse properly. However, the detectives are not only skiiers themselves, but also gifted with imagination; and a recent crime has points which hint towards the involvement of a criminal with particular skills. Gradually, they build up a picture of the kind of person they’re looking for, which points them in one direction only.

Leland Griggs / Public domain (via Wikimedia Commons)

The book’s title is apt for a number of reasons: crossed skis are bad luck, which they certainly will be for some of the party. And it’s also a good metaphor for the narrative itself, as the two straight lines of the parallel plot strand finally dovetail beautifully at the end, where there’s a very exciting and dramatic climax! It’s wonderfully inventive and certainly keeps you guessing right up until the finishing line; there were any number of suspects at the start, and although one (maybe two) characters came to the fore as the most likely, Carnac avoided the obvious.

Once again Kate realised that there was an element of terror in this mountain loveliness: the massive clouds and the snow slopes made the wooden houses seem puny. Only the gaunt stone church standing abrupt on its little plateau seem to have any quality of strength, as though, if the village were submerged, the stone tower and steep roof of the angular Gothic building might survive above it all.

Pleasingly, too, not all characters bright young things; Catherine (Kate) Reid and Frank Harris are more mature members of the party, and Martin Edwards opines in his excellent introduction that Kate is most probably a representation of Carol Carnac, herself a keen skier. If I had to make any criticism it would be that the minor members of the skiing party are perhaps a little lightly sketched in, so that some of them blended together a touch. But that’s only a minor quibble. The detectives are a lively lot, too, and I had to laugh at Carnac’s description of their reading matter at one point in their travels:

Rivers had taken with him The Way of All Flesh and Erewhon, by Samuel Butler, and two Anthony Trollopes, and he read his way uncomplaining across Europe. Lancing had bought six Penguin detective novels, from which he derived much entertainment: he left them all in the train at Langen, ”as propaganda”, he said to Rivers.

So “Crossed Skis” was a pure delight. As a mystery, it’s thoroughly enjoyable and entertaining and it certainly transported me away from lockdown for a few hours of pure escapism and puzzlement. Carnac writes beautifully, capturing her locations vividly, and that element of the book is one which really hit home with me. The book was published and set in the early 1950s, an era we don’t always connect directly with the Second World War. Yet as the vignettes of life in London make clear, this was a city which was still in many ways a bombsite; for example, the house where the murder takes place is one of a few surviving in a row, still standing in the middle of piles of rubble, where the owner scratches out a living taking in lodgers. Carnac’s prose captures strikingly the sense of being in a cold, damp, miserable post-War London with rationing and no cheer at all. No wonder the skiing party was keen to get away! “Crossed Skis” is yet another winner from the British Library Crime Classics imprint, and I really hope more of Carol Carnac’s titles will see the light of day.

Review copy kindly provided by the publisher, for which many thanks!

“The leaden heart grew entwined…” @FitzcarraldoEds #estherkinsky #grove

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Grove by Esther Kinsky
Translated by Caroline Schmidt

Grief takes many forms, especially after the loss of a parent or a partner. Some bottle up the emotions, some let them all out, and others try to find other ways to cope with, and make meaning of, that loss. There are many forms of catharsis, travel being one and writing another; and these two strands come together in a new book from Fitzcarraldo Editions, “Grove” by Esther Kinsky.

It’s been a few months since I read one of this marvellous publisher’s books; in fact, I haven’t picked one up since Lizzy and I co-hosted our Fitzcarraldo Editions Fortnight (which was such fun). I read mostly non-fiction for our event, so it was nice to turn to one of their fiction titles, and Kinsky is an author they’ve published before (her “River” has glowing reviews). So I approached this with interest!

Esther Kinsky was born in Germany and grew up near the Rhine; for a dozen years she lived in London; and she’s also a poet and translator. As “Grove” opens, Kinsky’s unnamed narrator travels to Olevano, a small village to the southeast of Rome. She’s recently bereaved and has taken herself south during the winter months, settling in a temporary dwelling between the village and the cemetery. With this base, she explores the area whilst attempting to come to terms with her loss. Her heart is heavy, her focus intense, and she obviously feels the loss of M., her partner, deeply.

I stood at the window for hours as if inside a bell jar which had covered me and displaced me to my childhood, when in the afternoons and evenings I often felt incapable of doing anything but look out the window. Save that now beneath my hands on the window ledge I could feel M.’s hands. I didn’t see them like I had that morning, only felt them and wondered if this was what had taught me to forget my own hands

The second section of the book opens with death of the narrator’s father, and as she travels home for his funeral, this triggers more memories. Once again, these are of Italy and the narrator explores past family trips to the country, memories dominated by her father’s personality. He often appears to have been a lost man, both psychologically and literally, and there is an emotional distance between them. The narrative slips between past and present; fragmented images of Communist party gatherings, driving through the Italian landscape and his research into the Etruscan past build up a picture of her younger life. In the final part, the narrator visits the north of Italy at a later date, in search of the location of the garden of Finzi-Contini family (from Giorgio Bassani’s classic novel). However, the garden is not to be discovered, although perhaps the search for it has given the narrator comfort.

The garden of the Finzi-Continis remained a space that was shaped and reshaped by memory and interpretation, an area of loss that refused to be found… It was a place that could be found only by sensing its absence, by recalling what was lost…

“Grove” is a stunning piece of writing; Kinsky is a lyrical author, and her prose explores and captures the landscapes through which she wanders beautifully. Inevitably, the book is a melancholy read because of the subject matter and there is a sense that the narrator is seeking comfort or meaning in the lands she visits. However, she so often encounters bleakness or disintegration, in the form of half-built areas or landscapes being destroyed for modern constructions, that it does make you wonder what solace she found in her travels. She so often seems a displaced person, unable to find where she fits in the world like so many of the refugees she encounters as she journeys through Italy.

Esther Kinsky in 2016 via Wikimedia Commons [Heike Huslage-Koch / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D

There’s also a sense of the fluidity of time throughout the narrative, as the author explores her past and present; and there’s also a feeling of continuity, with her father’s intense search for the Etruscan necropoli mirrored by the narrator’s focus on, and regular visits to, the many cemeteries she seems to encounter.

Like other works I’ve read from Fitzcarraldo which are published in their blue ‘fiction’ livery, it’s hard not to see this book as some kind of autofiction; the narrator refers to her departed partner as M., and of course Kinsky was married to the literary translator Martin Chalmers, who sadly died quite young in 2014. Although the book is described firmly as a novel, it’s impossible not to see it as very much informed by Kinsky’s own life experiences. However, that’s by the by. Whether novel, autofiction or disguised autobiography, “Grove” is a mesmerising, beautiful and melancholy piece of writing. Her writing is compelling and poetic, and having loved this book I may well have to search out her earlier work, “River”!

Review copy kindly provided by the publisher, for which many thanks. There is an interesting piece on the book and its locations on their blog here.

 

“…a community of sentient, expressive beings.” #peterreason #sarahgillespie

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On Presence: Essays / Drawings
by Peter Reason and Sarah Gillespie

The danger of having a fairly extensive TBR like mine (ahem!) is that those volumes enthusiastically ordered eventually come into the house, disappear into the stacks and can so easily get overlooked. This is why I’m finding it particularly useful to have regular reshuffles of the piles – it does reveal some marvellous treasures! A case in point is this slim work which I sent off for after reading an enthusiastic review on Annabel’s site here – I do love a good essay…

Peter Reason is actually a fellow reviewer for Shiny New Books, and he’s covered a number of interesting works; so it may be worth your checking him out there too, once Annabel has everything up and running again. “On Presence” is a 30 page, limited edition, book of words and images which makes thoughtful, contemplative reading, and it certainly lived up to my expectations.

Reason and Gillespie are uncle and neice, and “On Presence” contains words from the elder set against beautiful illustrations from the younger. Both formats address the natural world, the home we human beings seem dead set on destroying; and Gillespie’s illustrations, worked in monochrome, bring that world to life but with a changed perspective. So Reason meditates on his orchard; an abandoned birds nest; and the differing silences we can experience whilst out in the world. The two artists discuss their work processes and point of art in our modern times; and as a short note at the back says, this is a continuation in printed form of many discussions they’ve had over the years.

“On Prescence” is a wonderful initiative; hopefully one of many more to follow. The essays are beautifully written and very evocative, particularly when set against Gillespie’s art. Reason writes simply yet eloquently about the natural world, and I see he’s written books about ecological pilgrimages he’s made, which sound fascinating. This work had a particular resonance at the moment, reading it as I did in the middle of our necessary isolation which for many of us is meaning we lose direct contact with the natural world. As humans who are part of a living nature, we need to remember our connections while all this is going on.

It is the stories we tell ourselves, the metaphors we draw on, that create our world. The mess we are in reflects the stories that have dominated Western culture: stories of human supremacy, stories that separate humans from Nature, but emphasize economic growth at the expense of human and ecological wellbeing.

So this was a timely work to pull out of the tbr at the moment, and reading it did bring a little comfort. I do hope going forward we foolish humans will learn to acknowledge just how much a part of the world and its nature we are, something we seem to have forgotten recently. Though slim, “On Presence” *has* a presence and an impact, and I hope more of the joint work of Peter Reason and Sarah Gillespie will see the light of day.

Peter’s website is here

Sarah’s artwork can be found on her site here

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