“…it is our job to search for the significance of life.” #allviragoallaugust #thecruelway # ellakmaillart


Before I set off on my travels earlier in the month, I read a slim Virago Traveller volume which I thought would be an excellent choice not only for All Virago/All August, but also for #WITmonth. Alas, I don’t think it actually counts for the latter as although the author, Ella K. Maillart, was Swiss, as far as I can tell she wrote this particular book in English. However, it was a fascinating read and so I’m very glad I was prompted to take it off the shelves!

Maillart was born in Geneva in 1903 to a Swiss father and Danish mother; an inveterate traveller, she’s described on Wikipedia as an adventurer, travel writer, photographer and sportswoman. Certainly, she had a lively life; as well as a number of sailing escapades when young, she competed in sailing at the 1924 Olympics and was an international skier. From the 1930s she travelled widely, exploring many of the Muslim republics of the USSR, as well as other parts of Asia, and although her early books were written in French, she later switched to English. The book I chose to read is “The Cruel Way”, and it was originally published in 1947.

“Cruel…” relates a journey Maillart undertook in 1939 from Geneva to Kabul, in the company of her friend Christina; by this point, Maillart (known as Kini), was a veteran traveller and was covering some territory she’d been through before. Kini is trying to escape from the madness of the Western world and the coming conflict in Europe, looking to Eastern beliefs and philosophies for some kind of understanding and meaning, a guide to how to live. However, there is also another purpose to the trip, as Christina is struggling with drug addiction and the aftermath of treatment for this; her need is to escape from herself in a way, and the turn of mind which is is driving her to the drugs. So the two women set off in Christina’s Ford to head for Afghanistan; the route will take them through Italy, Yugoslavia, Bulgaria, Turkey and Iran; and it will stretch them, as well as wreaking havoc with their poor car, forced through all sorts of difficult terrain!

Springtime and a road wide open ahead, when you are free to drive on for thousands of miles, free to camp or eat, to stop or change itinerary at will, can give a great exhilaration. Only leaving the harbour in one’s own boat could one be more deeply stirred, for at sea the whole immensity is offered – no roads to force the keel along given lines.

It’s worth noting that my Virago edition of this fascinating book was published by Virago in 1986, when Maillart was still alive, as presumably were family members of Christina; because that name is, of course, a pseudonym, and we now know that her real identity was Annemarie Schwarzenbach, a fellow Swiss author, who tragically died young. I imagine if there are more modern editions of the book they might give more background information about this, but I didn’t feel this was missing or that I needed it while I was journeying with the two women; it was enough to see the landscapes in which they were travelling through Kini’s eyes.

For indeed this really was an epic journey, with Kini and Christina making their way through regions where women rarely travelled, and not on their own; yet Kini’s experience and Christina’s androgynous looks somehow got them through, and the book gives a wonderful and no doubt historically important glimpse of worlds which probably have changed beyond belief. In fact, change is starting to be reflected in the pages of the book, with the two women encountering Western engineers struggling to bring ‘civilisation’ to countries which very likely don’t want or need it; underlying most of these changes is, of course, the chance for someone to make money…

I had been sufficiently shaped, too, by life on small ships to be wedded to the wind in a sailor’s way: caressing breezes or threatening squalls arouse in me feelings that no landlubber could imagine. I am glad I left home when I was young and followed in the wake of the subtle Ulysses, glad to have lived the sea and the desert instead of helping father to air the silky softness of the deep sealskins, to value the bunches of ruffle-tailed silver foxes or by trying on the latest modeles de Paris – glad I accomplished most of what I set out to do: once and for all I know how short-lived the joys of vanity are.

Maillairt herself decries this progress, as she discusses and explores her spiritual searches for a different way of life throughout the book. She tries to help Christina, whose negative thoughts on life and herself are drawing her back to drug use, and there are several lapses along the road. When the women part company in Kabul, Christina is ‘handed over’ to friends undertaking an archaeological dig; and they were only to meet once more before Christina’s early death.

“The Cruel Way” was an absolutely fascinating read which quite brilliantly captured a moment in time, and a world on the cusp of change. Not only would Europe be torn apart by WW2, but also the Eastern countries through which the women travelled would never be the same. Maillart’s writing is beautiful, sometimes complex, and she captures the landscapes and the peoples they encounter vividly. There are moments of humour, when they struggle with local customs, and frustration when dealing with the various bureaucrats along their route. The book has little maps at the back, which I found most useful as I read, as my geography is rubbish; and there is a plates section with some of the images captured along the way (when Maillart was allowed to use her camera, as local restrictions were often in place).

Some of my Virago Travellers….

All in all, this book was a wonderful read; as well as providing vicarious travel in time and place, it gave a real insight into what the world was like in 1939, the problems women travellers still faced and Maillart’s own search for meaning and purpose. I doubt I would have picked this particular book up without the prompting of the VMC group, but I’m really glad I did. Both Maillairt and Schwarzenbach were pioneering and inspirational women, and as both have works available in English, I may well have to explore further…🤣

July reading and August plans! #AllViragoAllAugust #WITMonth #TDiRS22


Without wanting to turn into a moany old bat, I have to say that July was not without its issues… The heat, for one thing, was phenomenal in my part of the UK, and I don’t deal with it well. There was ongoing stuff to do with the Aged Parent, work was screamingly busy and I was so tired all the time that I often strugged to read. What I did read was marvellous, though, and here it is – things picked up a little towards the end of the month, though I can only show here one of the latest chapbooks from Nightjar Press (the other was a digital copy), both of which were wonderfully unsettling! No duds as such, although I *was* slightly underwhelmed by one title!

I’m now on the summer break from work (hurrah!) and have found that my reading speed has picked up a little. Looking forward to this month’s plans, again I’ll be keeping things simple.

August has traditionally been a month which is designated by the LibraryThing Virago Modern Classics group as ‘All Virago/All August‘, where we try to focus on reading as many Virago and related books as possible (so Persephone, Furrowed Middlebrow etc). There is also our monthly Virago prompt, which for August is a book about a journey, whether factual or fictional. I have had a dig and have the following options, though it will very much depend on my mood!

Two of those are possibles also for the following event… 😊

August is also, of course, Women in Translation month. Now, I do read a fair amount of translated women already, but I shall definitely look to be reading some of those unread volumes on the stacks – here’s my initial heap of potentials!

There are some lovely titles there, though the risk is as always that I try to take on too much!!

Another August event is a Twitter readalong of Pushkin’s “Eugene Onegin”, which is very tempting… I have these two physical copies in the TBR:

and I think there’s a digital copy of the controversial Nabokov translation lurking somewhere too. Knowing me I will run out of time, especially as there’s also an Alkmatova readalong, and I just can’t decide. We shall see…

2022 has, of course, been a bit of a year of re-reading for me, and I think that tendency may be continuing! Annabel announced a few days ago that she’s hosting a monthly readalong of Susan Cooper’s ‘The Dark is Rising’ sequence, running from August to December;  and I’m most keen to join in!

I’ve meant to revisit these books so many times in recent years as there are often readalongs around Christmas time, usually spurred on by the enthusiasm of Robert Macfarlane! I always run out of time, but one book a month worked for me with the Narnia books and I’m sure it will with these! Here are my fragile old editions, dusted off and ready to go!

Apart from these, there’s one book I’m pretty sure I shall be picking up. I hope to be off on my travels for the first time since the pandemic began, visiting my Aged Parent and the Offspring, and I plan to take this one with me:

“Only one book???” I hear you cry? Well, it’s a chunky one (as are most of Victor Serge‘s books) and I suspect it will keep me company for most of my travels. And if I finish it – well, there are bookshops in Leicester, and I *will* have some e-books on the tablet if things get desperate!!

So simple plans for August, and I suspect there may be some incoming titles too! What reading plans do *you* have for the month??

“She grieved for all her lost possibilities…” #WITMonth #ChristaWolf @seagullbooks


My second read for #WITMonth is by an author I’ve read before, and one who’s been extensively published in Virago Modern Classics: Christa Wolf. I read her marvellous “The Quest for Christa T.” back in 2014, and I have a number of chunky (and not so chunky) Virago volumes by her on the shelves:

However, the book which called me recently was one I picked up not that long ago, and which was in one of my piles of possible reads for the month: “Eulogy for the Living”. Published by Seagull Books and translated by Katy Derbyshire, the book is an uncompleted fragment which looks back to her early years and it’s absolutely fascinating.

Wolf did, of course, have a very intriguing history; an East German writer, from the Cold War times when her country was split in two, she’s been a controversial figure over the years. Born in a city which would end up as Polish territory after the war, she and her family fled to East Germany where she lived out the Cold War until reunification. Much of her work seems to be to be involved with memory; “Quest…” certainly draws on the life and memories of two East German women who survived the war and made their way through a totalitarian regime; and “Patterns of Childhood” (published by Virago as “A Model Childhood”) apparently draws on its narrator’s past and memories. “Eulogy…” is described as a good companion piece, and as Wolf’s husband reveals in a short afterword, this is a book she had tried to write many times, to capture her early life and flight from her childhood home. The piece in this book is the longest version she managed to write before her death.

I wanted to know nothing of the wilderness that grew inside all people every night, for that was how I imagined it – a jungle inside every person, shooting up insanely every night, every morning newly broken, worn down, trampled. Friendliness and smiles by day, primeval jungle by night – it was all in the fairy tales.

“Euology…” is 126 pages long, and Wolf’s prose here is as layered and sometimes fragmentary as I found it in “Quest..”. As she tells her story, the narrator dips back to the time the family moved to the small town, built their shop and settled with their grandparents living on the top floor. She explores her school days and friendships, her relationship with her mother, father and brother, and her own moods and personality. These sections are juxtaposed with the urgent need to flee as the Russian Army is getting very close, and the contrast between the past, when all seemed right in the world and the Fuhrer was in charge, and the present where all the certainties are dissolving, is striking.

Running through the book as a strong thread is the narrator’s relationship with her mother; as with all mother/daughter relationships, this is a complex one, and the two clash frequently, sharing the same stubborn characteristics. The narrator craves her mother’s love, yet rebels against her, is sometimes afraid of her, and recognises her mother’s frustration with the life she has – which is certainly not the one she would have chosen. There is a dramatic moment between them when the family start their journey to safety, and although the book is unfinished, it’s clear from things said earlier in the book that there was a resolution.

The day was grey. I saw next to nothing through my gap between the tarpaulins and the trailer behind us. I heard motion on the streets, carts, cars, shouts, but I saw none of it. I saw a tiny section of the road driving past, the houses at about the level of the first floors, sometimes the tips of a fence if it was tall enough, tree trunks close below the leaves, bushes. But it seems as though I had seen everything precisely, and I still see it now.

Wolf’s writing is never linear or straightforward, but it’s totally engrossing and hypnotic; and in “Eulogy…” it completely draws you in, allowing you to see events entirely through the very singular narrator’s gaze. It also allows you the point of view of a German citizen, living under the Nazi regime, and having an ordinary life whilst ruled by someone we regard now as an evil dictator. Just goes to show that perspective is all, and that it’s not always easy to recognise the kind of country in which you’re living…

So “Eulogy…” turned out to be a wonderful choice for #WITMonth, and I’m glad I got the nudge to pick this up right now. As I’ve said, Wolf can be a more difficult read than some, but her writing is always very rewarding; and having enjoyed this so much, hopefully I’ll feel impelled to pick up another of her books sooner rather than later… 😀

As well as counting this one for #WITMonth, I shall also count it for All Virago/All August as Wolf is a Virago author!

August – A further attempt at planning my reading… #WITMonth #AllViragoAllAugust


Ahem. Well, as I hinted earlier in the week, July has not seen me sticking that closely to the plans I made at the start of the month. I have managed one book for Spanish and Portuguese Lit Month and sort of one for Paris in July. In fact, here’s the month’s reading and although I’m very happy with the books I *did* read, I hadn’t really intended to encounter most of them.

I didn’t read *all* of the Paris poems, but did enjoy a substantial chunk of the book! 😀

What I did plan, though, and stuck to was my days of reading Rose Macaulay. I enjoyed her books very much, and hope it won’t be too long till I get to another of her works. As it is, however, I’m still playing catch-up on the reviews as you can see from the books in the pile which I haven’t written about yet. No duds in July, I’m happy to say!

As for August, this is always a busy reading month and one I try to enjoy as I’m not at work! There’s the Women in Translation reading event, created by Meytal Radzinski (you can find her here) and still growing in popularity – what a wonderful initiative it is. I love to take part in this one, and a cursory search of my unread books revealed a bountiful amount of books to choose from…

There are, this being me, a *lot* of Russian options in there and I’m tempted by any number of the titles. But “Frida’s Bed” is calling, as is “Artemesia” as is the book about Proust. And typically, after snapping this image, I went rummaging for my copy of Gerard de Nerval’s ‘Chimeras’ (more of which in a later post!) and I came across another pile of books which would be perfect for #WITMonth:

*Sigh* – so many choices! An Embarrassment of Riches!!!

The other August reading event I love to take part in is All Virago/All August, run by the LibraryThing Virago Modern Classics group. The event is very loose in that Persephones, Dean Street Press etc are allowed as being of similar type to the VMCs. I never stick to All Virago for the month, but I do have three possibles I’m eyeing up:

“Laughing Torso” is a book I’ve owned for decades; “Persuasion” would be a lovely re-read, and also fit in with Austen in August; and “Drawn from Life” was one I intended to read last year but ran out of time. Who knows what I’ll choose this year??

Apart from that, I’m keeping the plans loose. Stue is extending Spanish and Porgtuguese Lit month into August, which is nice if my mood takes me there. However, following my reading of Richard Holmes’ “Footsteps” I’m being drawn down all kinds of different paths, feeling as if I want to binge on RLS, Wollestonecraft, Shelley & Co, and Gerard de Nerval all at the same time – which is, of course, not possible. Then there are the Picador recent arrivals and the review books. A surfeit of reading matter is a bit of a first world problem I suppose – watch this space to see what I do read! Do you have any plans for August or do you just intend to do your own thing? ;D

Coming up in August – Women, Spain and Viragos! #WITMonth #AllViragoAllAugust #SpanishLitMonth


August is a busy time for reading challenges and events, and although I generally fight shy of these nowadays (as I mentioned in my post on Reading Challenges and Me), there are three that fall during this coming month in which I do like to take part. These are Women In Translation month, All Virago/All August and Spanish Lit Month (which seems to run for two months nowadays…); and of course these are all great excuses to grab books off the shelf and make lists and piles of books!

First up, Women in Translation; this event was started in August 2014 by book blogger Meytal Radzinski, with the aim of celebrating and promoting women writers in translation, as well as their translators and publishers. It’s a wonderful and laudable event, in which I always try to take part; and frankly, with the amount of translated women on my TBR there’s plenty of choice. I have specifically not bought anything new for this challenge, but a quick cast around for what I have unread and easily locatable revealed this large pile:

That’s a substantial selection of works; many from the Russian and a mixture of fiction and non-fiction; and any would be fascinating right now. I’m particularly keen on getting to the Copenhagen Trilogy or a Petrushevskaya, but who knows? There is one book missing from these stacks which I’ve already read for #WITmonth – look out for my review tomorrow! And there was a late arrival on the scene when I succumbed to a purchase from the Folio Society summer sale – a new purchase yes, but not specifically for #WITmonth:

I wasn’t the only blogger who couldn’t resist this beautiful collection of Akhmatova’s poems… ;D

Next up is Spanish Lit Month, hosted by Stu at Winstonsdad’s Blog; he’s a stalwart of translated lit and an inspiration in how widely he reads. This is the pile of potentials I came up with:

A more modest pile, which contains works translated from the Spanish, Galician and Portugese. I had a minor panic at one point because, although Stu usually allows Portugese language books, I wasn’t sure if that was happening this year. Apparently it is, which is a great relief as if nothing else, there’s a Saramago I’m dying to read!

And finally All Virago/All August. This is an annual event on the LibraryThing Virago Modern Classics group; I never stick to reading only Viragos for a month but I try to read at least one (and Persephones are allowed too). In contrast to the above stacks, I currently have just one contender:

I read about “Drawn from Life”, Stella Bowen’s autobiography, on Lisa’s blog and felt I just had to read it, so managed to procure a copy (not so easy…) It sounds marvellous and I hope this will be the month I get to it!

So – sort-of plans for August, but what I actually stick to and read remains to be seen. I guess if I read one from each category I shall be happy with that achievement. Are you joining in with any of these reading events? 😀

Melodrama on’t moors….. #AllViragoAllAugust #VitaSackvilleWest


The Death of Noble Godavary by Vita Sackville-West

As is fairly obvious by my reactions here on the Ramblings and also on social media, I had a bit of a book hangover after finishing Victor Serge’s Notebooks. A big, immersive read like that always tends to have that effect, and it’s often so hard to decide what to read next. So I did my usual trick of flinging myself into the nearest book with wild abandon, and as it was one that I had actually *planned* (gasp!) to read this month that was a kind of bonus…

I’ve mentioned before on the Ramblings that I’m a member of the LibraryThing Virago Modern Classics group; they’re a lovely bunch of people and we discuss Virago (and similar reads) as well as having themed reads, occasional meet ups and even a wonderful Virago Secret Santa. Every August is designated All Virago/All August to try and get us all reading the Viragos (and Persephones and other similar books like the Furrowed Middlebrow imprint) which we have lurking on our shelves. I never restrict myself to only Viragos, as I’d just rebel – and there is of course competition from #WITMonth – but I do try to squeeze in at least one book, and the plan was this slim volume which Simon at Stuck in a Book highlighted during his 25 Books in 25 Days marathon. It sounded marvellous, and as he mentioned it in conjunction with Vita’s “The Heir” (which I absolutely loved), I had of course to procure a copy… Hey, I’ve got round to reading it fairly quickly, haven’t I? 😀

But to get to the book. At just over 100 pages, “Death…” is really a novella and it tells a dramatic and often dark tale of family inheritance. Our narrator is Gervase Godavary, and as the book opens he’s just learned of the death of his uncle Noble. He is therefore, by necessity, called back to the family home up north (The Grange), and it’s a place which inspires mixed emotions. Whereas “The Heir” told a tale of a man seduced by a house, Gervase (and the rest of the family) seem to be repelled by their home. It’s painted in dark tones, with damp, fog and dramatic moorland weather as the backdrop, and there is a kind of creeping feeling of – well, not exactly dread, but the place certainly seems to have a hold on the family that stays with them even when, like Gervase, they move away.

The Godavary family are a complex brood themselves, and the addition of Noble’s second wife (a volatile Italian women) and their daughter Paola, adds to the drama. In fact, the latter’s characterisation dominates much of the narrative, as does she the family; one member is utterly besotted with her, and even Gervase (who is not) acknowledges her power. There are all kinds of family tensions, the reading of the will and some final dramatic action which, as Simon says, is extremely memorable! I shan’t say more about the plot for fear of spoilers, but it certainly is a compelling read with some stunning imagery.

Nobody spoke; the dalesman trod with their deliberate gait, better accustomed to a slope than to the level; the dogs with lowered noses followed mournfully to heel, each to each; man, dog; man, dog; man, dog. The dogs were like little hyphens, separating the men.

“The Death of Noble Godavary” seems to have languished in obscurity, which is a great shame because it contains some marvellous and atmospheric writing. It’s not without its flaws (as Simon says, the family relationships are a bit unclear at time) and in fact could probably have done with being expanded into something a bit longer and more fleshed out. But despite this it really is a great read – full of almost Gothic drama and oozing tension, I found myself glued to it and finshing it in one setting!

Later in the day the coffin was brought, and we could hear the men upstairs, nailing. Paola alone remained detached and serene; such things seemed to have no power to touch her. The others were taken up with their own preoccupations; Austen and Rachel with the devouring secret of their liaison, Michael with his hungry and tormented pursuit of Paola, Stephen with a general nervousness and a desire not to get in the way. And throughout it all beat the hammers nailing down the coffin.

I’m not enough of an expert on Vita’s writing to know how many shorter works she wrote and what are available or out of print; however, as this one has been unavailable for absolutely decades, a good case could be made for collecting her novellas (and any short stories?) into one volume. “The Death of Noble Godavary” ends on a slightly ambiguous note and I would have loved to see her taking the aftermath of the action a little further. But it’s an affecting story which ramps up the tension throughout and is thoroughly enjoyable. It also reminded me how good Sackville-West’s writing was and how I need to read more of her books (goodness knows, I own enough…)

[Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

My edition of “Death…” was published in 1932 as an Ernest Benn Ninepenny Novel (what fun!), but as Vita is a Virago author I’m allowed to count her for this month! And I’m very glad I chose to read this one, as it was such a vivid and wonderful experience – thanks for bringing it to my notice, Simon! 😀

“Change will not come from above” @ViragoBooks #GeneralStrike #JarrowMarch


Clash by Ellen Wilkinson

So…. I’ve managed quite well with #WITmonth during August I feel – three titles so far – but needless to say I am *not* sticking with my plans… I had wanted to read at least one Virago this month and had pencilled in “A Fine of Two Hundred Francs” by Elsa Triolet. Not only is it a book I’ve intended to read for ages, but it would have also fitted in with WITmonth and would have been ideal. However, the bookish serendipity I posted about the other day got in the way…

Was there another country in the world where the class barriers were so high as in England, and where it was so loudly proclaimed that none existed at all?

As I mentioned, I was so intrigued to stumble across Ellen Wilkinson’s “Clash”, particularly when I read about her fascinating background and impeccable left-wing views. She lived such an inspiring life, and it seems, from reading “Clash”, that much of the novel draws from her own experience. The books tell of the adventures of Joan Craig; like Wilkinson, she’s from a working-class background, fiercely left-wing and committed to working for the cause. Joan is a trade union organizer and the book is set in 1926, on the eve of the General Strike.

This was a strike that lasted for 9 days, when the country ground to a halt as workers from all industries came out in support of miners whose wages and working conditions were appalling. The strike in effect failed, as the Government were prepared and drafted in blacklegs from the middle classes; their organisation was better and they could hold out against the workers for longer, leaving the latter no option but to give in. However, the General Strike has gone down in to history as formidable display of working class solidarity, as well as contributing to an upsurge of support for the Labour Party.

Joan rose to put some more coal on the fire. She looked thoughtfully at the piece she held between the tongs. “Queer stuff, isn’t it?” she said. “All the hidden possibilities, the light and power and heat and scent and healing, all being squabbled over like a mangy bone some prehistoric cur has buried.”

“And wasted, as though the sole use of it was to grub it out of the ground as quick as possible and chuck it at any price to anyone who’ll have the stuff,” added Royd.

Against this background, an event and a time she lived through, Wilkinson tells her story and it’s gripping as well as perhaps more nuanced than you might think. Joan (like her author) is a fiery and committed women, experienced in rallying the troops at meetings and destined for a career in politics, perhaps even Parliament. However, her story is not straightforward; she has monied friends, like Mary Maud Meadowes, and a whole ‘Bloomsbury’ set. In these circles, she runs into author Anthony Dacre. A slightly older and more cynical character who’s still sympathetic to the workers’ cause, he falls head over heels in love with Joan; however, his cold and somewhat estranged society wife, Helen, is the one who wears the trousers in their marriage and so the prognosis is not good. Further complications arise in the form of Gerry Blain, a veteran of WW1 who has several chips on his shoulder and also suffers a lot from his wartime injuries. Like Dacre, he’s smitten with Joan; unlike Dacre, he is completely committed to the cause. But Joan loves Anthony, and so the romance is in for a rocky ride…

Excitement was rising. These men, Joan thought to herself, were in the centre of a crisis in which actually they, working men, were being consulted and had to give the final decision. In all the history of their class, wars had been decided for them. Their job was to fight and die. At the most they could but grumble under their breath. But now Cabinet Ministers were waiting to see what they would do, and whether their decision was war or peace.

That description perhaps makes this work sound a little trivial, but frankly it’s anything but. The backdrop to the personal story is actually as gripping and involving as anything else in the book. We witness the excitement and tension of those organizing the strike; the difficulties of pulling together multiple trades unions, all with differing agendas; the complexities of deciding where your loyalties lie; the disappointments when things don’t go as planned; and the temptations which can draw a person away from their beliefs and commitments.

The scene at the Memorial Hall reminded Joan of a beehive. Men were pouring in, while others were pushing themselves out. Communists, single-taxers, credit-reformers, were trying to push their papers on the delegates. Unemployed sandwich-men paraded in front of the hall. Press photographers tried to lure the big-wigs to pose. The inevitable mild -middle-class lady gave out leaflets on birth-control. A little apart from the hubbub a typical group of London workers looked on with their usual air of cheerful detachment. A taxi-man, wearing his union button, surveyed the scene with immense benevolence.

Importantly, Wilkinson uses her story to embrace some very important and relevant issues for women. With remarkable foresight, she shows the personal and political as being inextricably linked; I was reminded of the slogan “The Personal is Political” which came to the fore during the second wave of feminism, and it’s clear that Wilkinson believes that you can’t behave in your personal life in a way that contradicts your political beliefs. Joan is a woman with a major dilemma: she loves Tony, but he wavers constantly, wanting her to be his mistress at one point and then when he finally commits to the idea of a divorce, insisting that she would have to give up her work. Gerry, on the other hand, would be the perfect work companion but Joan’s feelings for him don’t have the passion that she feels for Tony. Joan eventually reaches a resolution although, according to the introduction to the Virago edition by Wilkinson’s biographer Betty D. Vernon, Ellen herself never did.

London, Parliament, the folks that make laws and regulations, are afraid of the miners and the steel-workers and the other manual workers. They must be kept poor, or they mightn’t stick at their jobs, they must be kept ignorant of their bodies or they mightn’t produce enough cheap labour, they must be kept overcrowded when slums could be swept away in five years, because, oh why – because we must have some one to look down on, just as we won’t give them enough State hospitals for fear we shan’t be able to give ourselves the luxury of feeling charitable.

These are not the only relationships affected by the Strike, however. That action ends halfway through the book, but Wilkinson goes on to show the aftermath: workers being exploited as the try to go back to work, fund-raising efforts, women in small industrial towns who don’t know the first thing about birth control and struggle with multiple children, and the yawning gap between the haves and the have-nots (plus ça change…) The effects of the Strike on relationships in all classes is profound, and Wilkinson’s characterisation is not black and white; Mary Maud is rich but with a heart that is in the right place and wants to help; Helen Dacre is upper class and initially nasty but becomes more human when her side of things is given; gossip columnist Palma is initially snooty but revealed to have left-wing sympathies. This nuanced approach allows Wilkinson to produce a riveting story that embraces left-wing politics, feminism and the struggle to balance work and love.

Mary Maud was a wealthy bachelor woman, an intimate of an exclusive Bloomsbury circle who bestowed fame on themselves by writing reviews of each other’s books. As each slender work appeared it was greeted as a new Tchehov, a more sensitive Dostoievsky, a respringing of the fountain of Shelley’s genius.

The book also has a strong message about the need to be vigilant; Wilkinson obviously felt that there should be no compromises and warns against the dangers of being seduced by comfort and drawn away from the struggle; Joan is tempted by the possibility of a different life that would blunt the edges of her combativeness and wish to fight for her cause, and I got very tense waiting to see what the resolution would be.

Ellen Wilkinson with Jarrow marchers, by Unidentified photographer for Fox Photo Ltd [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Wilkinson’s only political novel (“The Division Bell Mystery” is a crime story, and the politics are nothing like this from what I’ve read so far) is a real winner. It’s exciting, emotional and gives an eye-witness view of a time when working people came together to try and fight for a fairer world. That attempt failed, mainly it seems because the strikers had a desperate need for proper organisation and a more sweeping overview; and in some ways, with the ridiculous in-fighting plaguing the left today, that still seems worryingly relevant. Little changes, and I was vaguely depressed to see one miner character comment about the closing down of the press: “That’ll larn the “Daily Mail” – it seems that particular rag was a problem back in 1926… “Clash” never hides its politics, but those politics give the book an importance and stimulation for discussion which so many works lack. It was definitely a worthy choice for Virago to republish in 1989, sixty years on from its original publication date; and it’s definitely worth tracking down today if you want a novel that will stimulate, engender debate and make you wonder how much we’ve moved on in what is nearly a century since that great coming together of the working class. You’ll notice a lot of quotes in this post, and I could have pulled out so many more; this is a book that’s really had an effect on me and it’s one of the most important Viragos I’ve read.

The Price of Love #WITMonth #AllViragoAllAugust


The Captive by Colette
Translated by Antonia White

I always enjoy taking part in Women in Translation month during August; I read a lot of translated literature anyway, and likewise a lot of women authors, so in some ways it’s a bit of a case of the month being what I already do. However, I haven’t managed to get on to so many titles this year because of “War and Peace”; but having picked up a lovely edition of Colette’s “The Captive” on my recent travels, I decided this would be an ideal re-read, particularly as she’s a Virago author too (and translated by another Virago author!).

I first read Colette in the early 1980s, and this was one of the titles I had, so it’s been over 35 years since I read this particular book (gulp!). I’ve returned to certain of her works over and over again (particularly “Break of Day”) but I’m pretty sure I’ve never re-read “The Captive” so I was very eager to see what I made of it after all this time.

Published in 1913, “The Captive” is narrated by Colette’s alter ego, Renée Néré, who featured in a number of the author’s works, most notably “The Vagabond”. In the latter story she was a music hall artist, travelling the country, living out of a trunk and performing wherever fate took her. In “The Captive”, Néré has retired from music hall after receiving a legacy and is frankly at a loose end. We first encounter her living in a hotel in Nice and basically wasting her time hanging around with Jean and May, a pair of young lovers with a destructive relationship, and the rather entertaining Masseau, an opium addict who serves as light relief! Renée is alternately bored and amused with her companions and often seems to wish she could be on her own, communing with nature and relishing her solitude.

Nice in the 1900s

However, Renée is not as straightforward as she seems, and despite her age still has her attractions. Inevitably, Jean is drawn to the older, more experienced woman and despite her attempts to escape him by running off to Geneva, they begin an affair which is characterised from the start by a simple physical connection rather than anything deeper. However, this relationship is nothing if not complex and we follow its twists and turns until it reaches a perhaps unexpected conclusion…

A simple sounding tale, perhaps, but in the hands of an author like Colette it’s anything but. Renée herself is a complex mix, attempting to resist the allure of the younger man yet unable to; despite her avowed independence, she craves love, and also to be reassured that she’s still attractive. As for Jean, for much of the book he’s unreadable and it’s only towards the end of the story that we see a little more of his personality emerge. All the nuances and complexities of an affair between man and woman are laid bare here: the little lies and compromises, the obsession and the disillusionment, the arguments and the bliss. In many ways Renée is trying to keep herself detached during the affair; she tries to convince herself that it’s simply a physical thing between them, but the longer the relationship goes on, the harder it is to really believe that. The title has been translated before as “The Shackle”, perhaps to indicate that love is such a thing and that Renée has been captured by the emotion. However, I believe the literal translation of the original French “L’Entrave” is ‘obstacle’, and Renée certainly encounters one in her quest for freedom.

You pretend to love me; this means that all day long I must bear the burden of your anxiety, your watch-dog vigilance, your suspicion. Tonight I am not off the chain, but it has slipped from your hand and trails behind me so that I do not feel the pull of it.

There are elements of the story which might sit uncomfortably with modern readers: the casual violence between Jean and May; the constant smoking; and the fact that a woman is considered past it at the ripe old age of 36… (heavens!) This latter is particularly striking, as modern attitudes would consider 36 to be in the prime of life; but Renée/Colette makes constant reference to her increasing age, the need to keep up certain barriers between the lovers, a certain heaviness of age – most odd! Much of the plot is concerned with the power balance within the relationship, which shifts as the story develops, and a to modern eyes the sacrifices Renée makes might be unacceptable; although I would wager that things have not changed as much as we might think they have… And it’s worth remembering that she is in a position of having basically no occupation: she misses the music hall (and a visit to her old colleague Brague makes that pain even worse), has no need to make a living and is at a loose end, so ripe for an emotional intrigue. There is a hint at one point that she is attempting a career as a writer, but this is never stated outright, and Renée seems very much a woman at a transitional period of her life.

Colette in the 1900s by Henri Manuel – this is rather how I image Renée…

The story itself is fascinating and involving; and I felt it very much reflected Colette’s view at the time, as she was a woman who certainly needed love. Yet there are other elements creeping in, those which became more prominent in her later books: her profound love of nature is evident, as well as her wonderful powers of observation and her ability to capture a place or person in a few lines. As I read I really felt as if I was *in* the South of France, or Paris, or Geneva, so vivid are the pictures she paints.

I’m never sure how widely known Colette is nowadays; in my feminist youth, she was someone we turned to readily as a pioneering woman who carved out her own life and lived it on her own terms, while writing wonderful books along the way. Returning to her writing with this book I felt, as I always do, not only what wonderful prose she wrote but what a wonderfully adventurous life she must have had. I loved my re-read of “The Captive” and if you haven’t read anything by the marvellous Colette I would strongly urge you to – a remarkable woman and a remarkable writer.

#AllVirago/All August – The Genius of Margaret Atwood


Murder in the Dark by Margaret Atwood

August is traditionally the month where we on the LibraryThing Virago Group read as many Viragos (and Persephones too, as they often share the same ethos and type of author) as we can. I never commit to reading only these books, although some do, but I know I would fail if I did so – particularly as I’m balancing this with my “War and Peace” read and I want to fit in some translated women for “Women in Translation” month too. And the first book I picked up was a very slim volume by an author I adore but haven’t read for far too long and wanted to get back to – Margaret Atwood.

Atwood needs no introduction from me, and her name is currently to the fore even more than usual because of the current political situation and the recent (and very relevant) adaptation of her great work, “The Handmaid’s Tale”. I have a shelf stacked with her books, and back in the 1980s when I discovered her writing I read most of the novels that were available then, and kept on reading as they came out. I want to revisit them, particularly “Alias Grace” and “The Blind Assassin”, which I remember being particular favorites; however, this time my hand went to a small volume of short pieces entitled “Murder in the Dark” which looked very intriguing. And what a powerful read it was for so small a book.

“Murder in the Dark” is 110 pages of short pieces varying in length from a page to around 7 or 8, and the subject matter is variable and intriguing. The back of the book declares that the work is fiction, yet it appears to straddle a number of genres, reading at times like memoir, at others like short essays on reading and writing, but always with Atwood’s distinctive voice and fierce intellect at play.

I no longer want to read about anything sad. Anything violent, anything disturbing, anything like that. No funerals at the end, though there can be some in the middle. If there must be deaths, let there be resurrections, or at least a Heaven so we know where we are. Depression and squalor are for those under twenty-five, they can take it, they even like it, they still have enough time left. But real life is bad for you, hold it in your hand long enough and you’ll get pimples and become feeble-minded. You’ll go blind.

The title work, for example, was a particular favourite which compared the act of authorship with the game of Murder in the Dark; and in another piece Atwood lays out possible plots for women’s novels, only to come to a devastating conclusion at the end. She discussed the page before us, whether happy endings are essential, how our perceptions change when our imagination takes hold, and riffs on the importance of who does the cooking and how it can affect the whole of society.

Then there are short fragments, almost prose poems, that conjure up brilliantly a situation or event or character in just a couple of paragraphs, leaving you completely involved and wanting more, yet knowing that what Atwood has written is enough to tell you all you need to know. One of the longer pieces, “Raw Materials”, was quite brilliant in its portrayal of claustrophobic locations and made me, as someone who doesn’t like being closed in, feel very jittery.

Have you never seen the look of gratitude, the look of joy, on the faces of those who have managed to return from the page? Despite their faintness, their loss of blood, they fall on their knees, they push their hands into the earth, they clasp the bodies of those they love, or, in a pinch, any bodies they can get, with an urgency unknown to those who have never experienced the full horror of a journey into the page.

Had I forgotten just what a genius of a writer Atwood is? No – I always think of her as that; but not having read anything by her for a little while, it was an exhilarating shock to the system to re-encounter her wonderful prose. Surreal, thought-provoking, unusual and very, very memorable, this slim book showcases just what a wonderful author Margaret Atwood is – and I really must read more of her soon.

So – where on earth did the summer go?


I’ve reached the start of September, and I suppose autumn, without actually noticing it (until I had to go back to work, of course!) And I don’t know quite where the summer went. I kind of feel as if I didn’t read a huge amount of books, though when I look at the little spreadsheet I keep I did get through quite a few. I think the fact that three of them were Dorothy Richardsons perhaps is a little misleading!

hudson river

August is, of course, All Virago/All August and though I didn’t stick exclusively to those, I did read several this year. Of course, I caught up on my Dorothy Richardson “Pilgrimage” read and I’m feeling more confident of sticking to it. Then there was the very wonderful “Hudson River Bracketed” by Edith Wharton which I *really* enjoyed and it’s made me keen to read more of her writing.

lifted veil

Perhaps I shouldn’t mentioned my other Virago read – “The Lifted Veil” by George Eliot… I know many Viragoites dislike it, but I found it most enjoyable and I’m glad I chose to pick it up this month.


I also reconnected with Virginia Woolf in a big way, enjoying the excellent “Orlando” and also getting very emotional about “Recollections of Virginia Woolf”.


Alas, I only managed one title for Women in Translation month, Irmgard Keun’s “The Artificial Silk Girl” which was another great book by this German author. Hopefully I’ll do better next August…

So, a bit of a mixed month. As for what I have lined up for September – well, I’ve read a couple of interesting titles and there are reviews scheduled. One is a Kingsley Amis, one is a Russian, and one is a wonderful little short story collection. I have a couple of interesting-looking review books to read, there’s Jean Rhys Reading Week coming up, and I’d like to get ahead on some of the titles for the 1947 Club, which Simon at Stuck in a Book and I will be hosting in October. So plenty of good things to come, and let’s hope I can get into more of a rhythm with reading in September! 🙂

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