…love, that high, romantic thing…” @BL_Publishing #WomenWriters #FarMoreThanFiction


Today on the Ramblings, I’m very happy to be taking part in a blog tour for one of the new releases in the British Library Woman Writers series – the book in question is “A Pin to See the Peepshow” by F. Tennyson Jesse and it actually plays a part in my embarking upon my blogging life! You see, back in the early 2010s I rediscovered Virago Modern Classics at the same time as I started reading book blogs. I had been a huge fan in the early years, but bringing up the three Offspring had kind of got in the way of books at times. However, as they flew the nest, I really got back into reading, and the Viragos led me to LibraryThing’s wonderful VMC group. It was here I finally got the impetus to start up my own blog, and nearly 10 years later am still here.

One of the VMCs I read pre-blog was, of course, “Pin…” and it was probably the most important title in drawing me back to the books and exploring much of the back catalogue I’d missed. Since then I believe the book has slipped out of print, despite its high profile in the 1970s particularly (when it was the subject of a BBC adaptation). But I’m giving this personal history here so you’ll understand how happy I am that “Pin” has been reissued by British Library Publishing; I think it’s a wonderful and enormously important book and thoroughly deserves to be widely read, and I’ll try to explain why; although inevitably there is the risk here of me giving away some plot details.

“Pin…”, originally published in 1934, draws its core material from the notorious Thompson/Bywaters case of the 1920s, a case Jesse would no doubt have been familiar with as she covered a number of high-profile trials during her writing career for “Notable British Crimes”. She was so fascinated by the subject that she also wrote a book analysing the motivations behind crimes; so when it came to writing “Pin..” she already had a proven track record in dealing with crime and murder.

The lovely new BL cover

Set in the early decades of the 20th century, the book’s protagonist is a young woman, Julia Almond, whose inflated sense of her own worth will lead to tragedy. Born into a dull suburban setting, she dreams of a more passionate, exciting life and her work in a fashionable clothes shop in London’s West End gives her an outlet for her fantasies. Desperate to get away from the stultifying atmosphere at her parents’ home she makes an ill-advised marriage to the older, tragically dull and recently widowed Herbert Starling. However, a chance meeting with the much younger Leonard Carr, whom she knew at school, will eventually lead to an affair, murder and a trial – as well as damning misogynistic judgements about her behaviour and way of life. As anyone who knows the story of the Thompson/Bywaters case will realise, things will not end well for Julia…

The floor of the box was covered with cotton-wool, and a frosting of sugar sprinkled over it. Light came into the box from the red-covered window at the far end, so that a rosy glow as of sunset lay over the sparkling snow. Here and there little brightly-coloured men and women, children and animals of cardboard, conversed or walked about. A cottage, flanked by a couple of fir trees, cut from an advertisement of some pine-derivative cough cure, which Julia saw every day in the newspaper, gave an extraordinary impression of reality and of distance.

It’s a little difficult to say a lot more about the plot without giving away too much, and in fact if you can go into this book knowing little about the case which inspired it I think the effect of reading it would be even stronger. Jesse writes quite brilliantly, for one thing, conjuring her heroine and the setting vividly. Julia is living in a world where things are changing for some and the old social mores are being thrown off; although as she will find, class is still a major issue and what the monied can get away with, she can’t. Trapped desperately in her affair, craving her lover yet afraid to leave her husband because of the security he offers, she has no real way out; in that era, women’s choices and opportunities were very limited. Then Leo takes dramatic action; yet Julia appears to be the one on trial. And here we get to another of the strongest strands of the book.

There is, inevitably, a horrible legal case. And although Julia would today be considered not culpable, she’s judged very much by the morals of the time and those morals have different standards for women, and particularly women of a lower class. Julia does not help herself – in many ways she’s not an especially likeable character, yet despite this, Jesse creates anger and sorrow on her behalf for her eventual fate. Julia Starling is, in the end, realistic in that she is human and fallible – and she certainly doesn’t deserve what happens to her.

My original Virago edition

“A Pin to see the Peepshow” is a memorable and sometimes chilling work which gets under the skin; and it’s also a brilliantly written and constructed novel, which is compelling reading. Jesse was obviously intent on making several points about society’s expectations of women and the double standards employed, and she makes those points well, though never to the detriment of her narrative which builds to a devastating (but not unexpected) climax. Her method is very much “show” rather than “tell”, which makes the book all the more effective. I was so engrossed in the story that even though I knew what was coming, I was willing the end to be different… By presenting the conclusion in the way that she does, Jesse conveys the reality of the consequences of murder at the time in a way that had me even more convinced than ever that the death penalty is not the solution – particularly in a case where the evidence and attitudes are so tainted…

So as far as I’m concerned, this is an essential re-issue from British Library Publishing in their Women Writer’s series, and a book I think should permanently be in print. As a piece of literature it’s compelling; as a portrait of the social mores of the time and the judgements meted out to women it’s outstanding; and as an argument against the death penalty it’s powerful and unforgettable. If you only ever pick up one book from this excellent series (and that would be your loss, because there are so many treasures!), I would urge you to read “A Pin to See the Peepshow”.


As with all of the British Library Women Writers series, “Pin” comes with excellent supporting material. There is a list of notable events of the 1930s, a short bio of Jesse and a foreword by Lucy Evans, Curator at the Printed Heritage Collections, British Library. The afterword by series consultant Simon Thomas gives an excellent overview of both the original case and its similarities to (or differences from!) “Pin”. Altogether, an essential release!

A welcome reissue from @BL_Publishing #BLWomenWriters #FarMoreThanFiction


Back in the very early days of the Ramblings, I wrote about a wonderful Virago Modern Classic – “The Love Child” by Edith Oliver. I was on a bit of a voyage of rediscovery with VMCs at the time, and this one had been highly recommended by Simon at Stuck in a Book. It’s been out of print for many years, but I’m very happy to see that Simon has managed to help it back into print via the British Library Women Writers series for which he’s series consultant- which is marvellous news!

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

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

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

My view of the book hasn’t changed over the years – it’s a beautifully written and evocative work, and I was happy to have the chance to revisit it. I commented in my original post that it was such a shame the book was out of print, so it’s wonderful to see it available again in a stunning BLWW edition.

Both editions are lovely in their own way!

The new release comes with the usual excellent supporting material of preface, 1920s facts and a mini biog of Olivier. And as well as an intriguing afterword by Simon, the book also includes some wonderful extracts from Olivier’s autobiography which add an extra level of interest to what is a marvellous book. “The Love Child” was Olivier’s first novel, and I suspect is still her best known, probably because Virago chose to focus on it. Like all of the BLWW books, as well as telling a compelling and moving story, “The Love Child” shines a light on women’s lives in the past, the choices available to them, society’s expectations and the emotional effect of these elements. This is a superb addition to the range and highly recommended from here! 😀

“… the disloyal message of her eyes and lips.” #FarMoreThanFiction #WomenWriters #BLWomenWriters @BL_Publishing


As I’ve mentioned before on the Ramblings, I don’t generally take part in blog tours, as many of the books I read are backlisted or translated or a bit obscure and the like. However, when British Library Publishing asked if I’d like to take part in a tour for their latest releases in the British Library Women Writers series, I was happy to be involved. I think British Library Publishing are doing sterling work with their beautiful imprints for crime fiction, horror and classic sci-fi, and the Women Writers range is a particular joy. Series consultant Simon Thomas of Stuck in a Book is of course a blogging pal, and co-host of our club weeks (which he devised) and I think he’s curated some wonderful titles so far for the series. The book I’m featuring today – “Mamma” by Diana Tutton – has a particular interest for me, as I will explain…

Back in 2012, Simon discovered and raved about Tutton’s novel “Guard Your Daughters“; a number of bloggers (including me!) were inspired to track down copies and read it; and the book was something of a sensation for a while. I loved it (and actually have two old copies somewhere in the house); and more recently it was reprinted by Persephone Books. Tutton only wrote three novels, and “Mamma” was her first, although “Guard Your Daughters” was the book which made it into print first. Her third and final novel, “The Young Ones” was first published in 1959 and is currently out of print. More on her general choice of subject matter later…

“Mamma” was published in 1956, and opens with 41 year-old Joanna Malling arriving at her new home in Tadwych. Widowed at 21 after a short marriage, she’s brought up her young daughter, Libby, single-handed; and before long Joanna finds that Libby is engaged, to Steven Pryde. At 35, Steven is a soldier and quite a lot older than his prospective wife; in fact, he’s obviously a lot closer in age to the woman who will be his mother-in-law. Nevertheless, the marriage goes ahead, despite the husband and mother-in-law not particularly liking or being comfortable with each other. And Joanna thinks that will be that.

However, circumstances (and the forces!) conspire to post Steven to Tadwych and inevitably Joanna’s daughter and son-in-law end up sharing a house with her. As the young couple grapple with the difficulties of married life, trying to understand each other’s needs and temperaments, it seems that in fact Steven has a lot more in common with Joanna than might initially have been thought; and Joanna finds herself struggling with emotions she thought long suppressed . Things are not helped by the fact that her daughter is young, inexperienced and stubborn, bent on moulding her older husband in ways he doesn’t appreciate or want. But any kind of intimacy between the two older characters would be catastrophic – so how with Joanna resolve the clash between loyalty and love?

Well – Tutton really liked to tackle intriguing subjects and there are a *lot* being explored here! There is, of course, the possibility of what would, at the time, have been considered a transgressive relationship. Aside from Joanna’s loyalty to her daughter, it was obviously more acceptable in the 1950s for a man to be 15 years older than his wife than for a wife to be 6 years older than her husband. Even though the latter two would have much more in common, it was still taboo (and probably still is nowadays, to a certain extent – older women being mostly written off as old bags). It’s slightly shocking to see that at 41 Joanna is pretty much considered past it (and at some points thinks that way of herself); but it was ever thus and until attitudes change dramatically will still be the case.

What’s interesting, though, is how subtly Tutton explores this attraction; neither Joanna or Steven are particularly interested in each other to start with. However, as they get to know each other better, they bond over poetry and it’s clear that there is a deep intellectual link developing which cannot exist between Steven and the much younger Libby. It takes a dramatic family event to reveal the truth to them, but even after that there is the fight to suppress their impulses; and a dangerous point where Libby suspects the truth.

Aside from this element, there are a number of side-plots which look at different kinds of relationship. There is Mrs. Holmes, who “does” for Joanna, and has something of a reputation, as well as a number of children who don’t look that alike plus a handsome husband. And Steven’s mother, Mrs. Pryde, is a somewhat bizarre character who attracts speculation about a friendship she has with a young woman. There’s Libby’s best friend, Janet Mortimer, who has all sorts of rational ideas about sex and marriage, plus her ghastly family. It’s fascinating how Tutton uses these supporting characters to explore the types of relationship which can exist; and it’s clear she believes there’s no ‘one size fits all’ solution.

I was intrigued, also, to find out how frank Tutton was in places about matters physical. There are mentions of losing virginity, hints of sex perhaps being not quite as all-consuming as a newly married girl would expect, musings on whether the husband is actually satisfied, and a particularly insensitive (on one character’s part!) discussion of whether sexual frustration makes you go loopy. There’s nothing at all graphic, but I did wonder if this was particularly usual for a novel of the time, and it signaled to me that Tutton was not afraid of tackling difficult subjects. I did perhaps find her working class characters slightly stereotyped, but she was obviously using them to explore the class divide which still existed at the time. Women like Libby and Janet can discuss birth control, taking this into their own hands as best possible (as the Pill would not be in more common use until the 1960s); whereas Mrs. Holmes has presumably less choice in these matters and is turning out children left, right and centre…

As for difficult matters – Tutton may only have written three novels, but each touched on a thorny subject. “Guard Your Daughters” featured a very dysfunctional family, seriously affected by one member with mental health issues and turned out to be quite a dark read in the end. “Mamma” takes on two taboos – an older woman and a younger man, and falling for your son-in-law. “The Young Ones” is apparently about brother-sister incest; so I do wonder if that one will ever make it back into print. Certainly, Tutton was a very interesting novelist!

Anyway, I thoroughly enjoyed reading “Mamma”; Tutton’s writing is excellent, her characterisation quite brilliant and the book was engrossing from start to finish – I couldn’t put it down and ended up staying up far too late to finish it! Diana Tutton’s work has been ignored for too long; “Mamma” is a wonderful and fascinating read and a worthy addition to the Women Writers series; and kudos to British Library Publishing for bringing it back into print!

(Review copy kindly provided by the publisher, for which many thanks! As with all of the British Library Women Writers book, there’s a lot of supporting material in the form of facts about the 1950s, a foreword and an interesting afterword by Simon. Lots of lovely bloggers are taking part in the tours for “Mamma” and also “Tension” by E.M. Delafied, as you can see from the graphic above – do go and check them out!)

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


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!

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