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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

“”…frayed, ragged, blurred and indistinct.” #JohnCowperPowys #MichaelWalmer

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The Owl, The Duck and – Miss Rowe! Miss Rowe! by John Cowper Powys

I hate to have to confess this, but there are books on my TBR which have been there for literally decades… And in many cases, I really don’t want to get rid of them because I’ve come across absolute gems when I’ve finally got round to reading some of those pending books. A case in point is “The Mandarins” by Simone de Beauvoir, which I bought in the 1980s and finally read in the 2000s: it turned out to be a most wonderful book, which I love and would never part with. Hence, I suppose, my difficulty in getting rid of the things… ;D

Anyway, one particularly large pile is my collection of John Cowper Powys books – here they are:

The pile of Powys books is so big it threatens to eclipse Christmas… ;D

Yes, it’s a very large pile of very chunky books. Yes, I have two copies of “Wolf Solent” (the most recent edition came home with me because of the larger type). Yes, the little red book on top is his monograph about Dostoevsky. Yes, I really *should* get on with reading one of these books soon (I did get well into “Wolf Solent ” some years ago, pre-blog, but got distracted). I’m afraid I have to admit that, in typical fashion, I *have* read a John Cowper Powys book recently, but it wasn’t any of these. Instead, I spent some very happy book time with this lovely edition of an early and obscure and hard-to-get story by Powys: “The Owl, The Duck and – Miss Rowe! Miss Rowe!“, which has just been reissued by Michael Walmer – and what a treat it turned out to be!

Loving the cover of this edition! 😀

“Owl…” was first published in 1930 in a limited edition of 250 copies (and I think it’s been quite hard to get hold of since). It’s a short, quirky and extremely individual story; and bearing in mind it was published a year after “Wolf..” it’s probably not what his readers might have been expecting. The story is set in a small flat in 1920s New York, a place which is occupied by an old couple; retired circus performers, they live in fear of “the Authories” who seem determined to put them in a home. However, the old couple are not the only inhabitants of the flat; there are a number of inanimate objects who appear to have an existence, from a wise stuffed owl through an amorous china duck, a rude glass fish, some Eastern Gods, an emotionally charged doll and a crumbling wooden horse. All of these objects have their own opinions on life, the universe and everything, and are happy to voice them to each other. However, there is another layer of occupation which involves a pair of partially created characters from an unfinished novel of a long-gone tenant, and the filmy ghost of the kind old lady who lived in the flat before the old couple arrived.

They were not elves, or ghosts, or elementals, these Two Beings. They were not sylphs or salamanders or undines. That they should have existed in the Known World at all only proved that the philosophy of the Owl was correct when he made it clear to the Duck by irrefutable logic that at every known point in space thousands of unknown dimensions meet and overlap.

All of these different beings maintain a fragile co-existence on their different planes; however, the Authorities are imminent and the objects are incapable of preventing cataclysmic change. Is there anyone amongst them who can save the old couple from the horrors of a home?

The plot really does sound outlandish, but it actually is quite brilliant, and in 60 pages Powys manages to pack in humour, pathos and moments of real emotion. The writing is quirky and if you haven’t got the turn of mind which can accept the unlikely or impossible you may find the oddness a bridge too far. I, however, absolutely loved it; I was utterly gripped, whether listening to the objects debating their philosophies or sympathising with the poor doll’s desire for romance or empathising with the couple’s desire to simply be left along. It’s a fantastic tale, yes, but has roots in something deeper; it considers existence in all its different forms, concluding I think that people should be left alone to resolve their own lives.

But in the great clanging, marbly, brassy City, littered with sordid lives, strewn with wind-tost debris and bitter dust, exhaling mephitic stenches and corpse-chills, one resource, one issue, one last escape is left…

The end solution is signalled fairly early on, and is desperately moving; the book ends on a slight note of ambiguity, which is entirely suitable; and as soon as I’d finished reading I felt like going back and reading again to see if I’d missed any nuances. It’s unusual, perhaps, for such a short and idiosyncratic work to have such an effect; but “Owl…” really got under my skin, and as I’d finished it during my lunch-hour I felt completely unsuited for work for the rest of the day!

Even the inside is pretty!

Mike Walmer’s Zephyr imprint is a series of classic short works in hardback and I reviewed the first, by Gautier, back in 2017 (I have the second waiting to be read!) I think they’re an excellent collection so far, works that really deserve to be available, and there’s an added bonus in that they’re also very pretty! I absolutely loved “The Owl, The Duck and – Miss Rowe! Miss Rowe!”, and you never know – this might spur me on to actually *read* some of those Powys chunksters lurking on Mount TBR! 😀

(Review copy kind provided by Mike Walmer, for which many thanks!)

ETA: Helen has also read and loved this book, so do pop over to see her thoughts. We agree it’s a fab book to read but possibly difficult to write about without spoilers! 😀

Frantic jealousy and crimes of passion! #MichaelWalmer #MarieBellocLowndes

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Noted Murder Mysteries by Marie Belloc Lowndes

Classic crime of all types has been turning out to be a bit of a lifesaver here on the Ramblings lately. Whether it’s the time of year, the fact that Real Life is screamingly busy, or because trying to read “Berlin Alexanderplatz” was a bit of a disaster, I’ve just found myself looking backwards to Golden Age Crime; or in this case, some real life crime cases from the past!

Marie Belloc Lowndes is a name I’d come across before; I have her classic novel “The Lodger” sitting on the TBR, and I’ve meant to pick it up on several occasions. However, when Mike Walmer kindly offered me a review copy of Lowndes’ “Noted Murder Mysteries”, I just couldn’t resist. It’s the fifth release in his Belles-Lettres series (I’ve reviewed several titles from this in the past), and was a fascinating and thoroughly entertaining read.

“Noted…” contains eight essays by Lowndes on famous crimes of her era. Some cases were familiar to me, such as the Charles Bravo affair (I’ve read and reviewed a fascinating book about it on the Ramblings) and the Madeleine Smith case; others, like the murder of poor Hippolyte Menaldo, were completely new to be me. However, all were gripping, engrossing and often dark stories, and the book made compelling reading. Lowndes is a natural storyteller, relating the events as if they were exciting fiction rather that dull fact. And what adds so much to the book is the verve with which Lowndes tells her tale; she ramps up the tension and the drama while she relates these tragic stories, and she’s often partisan about the outcome.

It’s worth pointing out that Lowndes chooses to retell a particular type of crime story; all of these murders are what you would call crimes of passion, motivated by romantic emotions or sexual obsessions, and a significant number of them take place in France. Something as sordid as Jack the Ripper does not make an entry here; instead, she focuses on crimes of the domestic, of emotional betrayal, misplaced devotion and the consequences of social disgrace. Interestingly, though, her novel “The Lodger” (which I mentioned earlier in this post) was published a year before “Noted…” and drew on the Ripper case!

However, Lowndes obviously had a wonderful talent for storytelling; she had me very much invested in the characters and their fates, so much so that I regularly ended up heading online to see what the modern take was on some of the cases. Several have their own Wikipedia page, and on the whole it seems that Lowndes’ reading of the facts was often spot on. However, some of the names and crimes seem to have slipped into obscurity, so this is a welcome re-release which brings these stories back into circulation. And as the blurb says, some of these cases have remained mysteries to this day – I do love a good mystery, and “Notable…” does not disappoint on that front!

I don’t know how you could *not* want to race into a book that says this when you open the cover!! ;D

It’s perhaps a little odd that I should find relief from the darkness of Weimar Berlin in the darkness of crimes of passion; but maybe that last word is the clue here. All of Lowndes’ stories are about people consumed by emotions and passions, and those very human feelings are something to which I could really relate.

So my reading mojo returned strongly thanks to this book, which turned out to be the perfect antidote to the struggles I’d been experiencing. Marie Belloc Lowndes – who was interestingly the elder sister of Hilaire Belloc – was obviously a formidable talent in her own right and kudos to Michael Walmer for bringing this work of hers back into print – highly recommended! 😀

On My Book Table… 3 – an update!

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After the flurry of excitement and reading from 1930 for our recent Club Week, I thought it was about time I took stock and had a look at exactly what was on the Book Table; I frankly need to get a bit realistic about what I’m reading next, and there have also been some new arrivals at the Ramblings… So once I’d put away all the 1930 possibles, there was a bit more room to have a shuffle and a reorganise and a think about forthcoming reading; and after all that, I was left with these on the Table!

Yes – there are indeed a few newbies in the pile, though in fairness a couple of these are from the library. I reserved a shedload of Thomas Bernhard and that’s the last one to arrive; and Brian Bilston’s “Diary of a Somebody” was a must after I recently finished his marvellous poetry collection – review of the latter to follow shortly! Binet and the Lighthouses (sounds like an indie band…) have both previously appeared, but there are in fact five new review copies which have snuck in. The Stella Benson and Marie Belloc Lowndes are from the lovely Michael Walmer, and I have several of his titles standing by to read and review – all sounding very, very interesting. “The Government Inspector” is a lovely new translation of Gogol’s famous play from Alma which is calling strongly. And there are two fascinating Penguins which I’ll be covering for Shiny New Books. Once again, choices, choices…

So only two of these are purchases, picked up at the weekend when browsing the charity shops with Eldest and Youngest Child (who came home for a flying visit). I know nothing about the Fitz-James O’Brien book apart from the fact that it apparently channels Poe (which has to be good)!  But the other find was a beautiful pristine Virago that I was pretty sure I didn’t already have – and I was right!

I own a number of Elizabeth von Arnim’s books already, and things weren’t helped by the fact that someone had donated several of them and I was trying to work out what I had and what I already had read. Anyway, I chose correctly and this is in lovely condition, so I was very happy to bring it home at a bargain price.

I’m currently actually reading a book on the pile – the lighthouses one, which is fascinating so far. However, perched on the top is this very slim story which I intend to get to soon:

As I’ve mentioned previously, this is a limited edition short work by M. John Harrison, and as it’s apparently a bit spooky we’re getting close to the right time of the year to read it!

So that’s what’s on the Book Table post-1930 Club! Hopefully I’ll be reading more than one of them soon! 😀

 

“I can remember a menu long after I’ve forgotten the hostess that accompanied it.” #saki #michaelwalmer

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The Chronicles of Clovis by Saki

I’ve written about the wonderfully witty Saki on the Ramblings before, back in my early days of blogging. His real name was Hector Hugh Munro, and he moved from foreign reporting to writing his witty tales as the first decade of the twentieth century came to an end. Saki’s first stories were about the escapades of one Reginald, a man about town with a witty tongue, and two volumes of his adventures made their appearance. In this, Saki’s third book, Clovis makes his entrance and has just as cynical an outlook on the world as his predecessor; in fact, it’s tempting of course to see them both as projections of their author!

It’s difficult, actually, to know quite how to write about Saki! These short stories mix the bizarre with the everyday in a way which is most beguiling. The humour can be refreshingly caustic which is ideal when you’re feeling a little disgruntled with the world and like to imagine taking your revenge on everyone! So, for example, we see Clovis assisting a gentleman having a mid-life crisis to have an un-rest cure with disastrous results; after he has wreaked havoc he simply rides off into the sunset, departing to prepare for dinner while leaving the house in a state of disarray:

That was the last they saw of Clovis; it was nearly seven o’clock, and his elderly relative liked him to dress for dinner. But, though he had left them forever, the lurking suggestion of his presence haunted the lower regions of the house during the long hours of the wakeful night, and every creak of the stairway, every rustle of wind through the shrubbery, was fraught with horrible meaning. At about seven next morning the gardener’s boy and the early postman finally convinced the watchers that the Twentieth Century was still unblotted.

He really is wicked!

That’s just one example, but each of the 28 stories here (some only a few pages long) is a real gem. How, for example, can you not love someone who titles a story “Filboid Sludge, the Story of a Mouse that Helped” (which is actually a story about a romance gone wrong!) “The Talking-Out of Tarrington” is also a hoot, where Clovis rescues an aunt from an unwanted encounter by spouting so much complete nonsense in the direction of the gentleman in question that he retreats, defeated. And “The Secret Sin of Septimus Brope” (Saki is just marvellous with names) opens with this wonderful exchange:

“Who and what is Mr. Brope?” demanded the aunt of Clovis suddenly.

Mrs. Riversedge, who had been snipping off the heads of defunct roses, and thinking of nothing in particular, sprang hurriedly to mental attention. She was one of those old-fashioned hostesses who consider that one ought to know something about one’s guests, and that the something ought to be to their credit.

“I believe he comes from Leighton Buzzard,” she observed by way of preliminary explanation.

“In these days of rapid and convenient travel,” said Clovis, who was dispersing a colony of green-fly with visitations of cigarette smoke, “to come from Leighton Buzzard does not necessarily denote any great strength of character. It might only mean mere restlessness. Now if he had left it under a cloud, or as a protest against the incurable and heartless frivolity of its inhabitants, that would tell us something about the man and his mission in life.”

I’ve seen Saki described as the person who invented trolling, and certainly Clovis seems a little darker in character than Reginald, who tended to float around being cutting for a lot of the time. Clovis, however, likes to subvert and tends to cause disruption wherever he goes. But the bottom line is that these stories are very, very witty and very, very funny (if you like that kind of humour – which I do!) and Clovis is a worthy successor to Reginald.

This edition of the “Chronicles” has been issues by Michael Walmer, who kindly provided a review copy; and it comes with an introduction by A.A. Milne (who was not averse to turning out a bit of wit himself!) Mike has also issued editions of “Reginald” and “Reginald in Russia”, all of which are great delights to read. I’m obviously a huge Saki fan; and if you like your humour more Wildean that slapstick, then Saki is definitely the author for you!

Part novel, part travelogue, totally delightful! #michaelwalmer #stellatennysonjesse

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Eve in Egypt by Stella Tennyson Jesse

I’ve mentioned in the past on the Ramblings (and elsewhere!) how highly I think of F. Tennyson Jesse’s remarkable novel “A Pin to see the Peepshow”; one of my favourite ever Virago books, it fictionalises the story of the Thompson-Bywaters murder case, turning it into compelling fiction as well as making a very strong case against capital punishment. So when Michael Walmer kindly offered me a review copy of FTJ’s sister Stella’s only novel, “Eve in Egypt” I was intrigued, to say the least…

Stella was the older of the two sisters, and made her name as a stage actress; notably appearing in plays by her brother-in-law H.M. Harwood (FTJ’s husband). “Eve..” was her only novel and it has an interesting genesis. Based on a trip up the Nile which Stella took in 1926/7 in the company of her sister, brother-in-law and a bachelor uncle, the book was apparently written as a result of a £10 bet between the Harwoods and Stella (or so Mike Walmer tells me!) Whatever caused the book to be written is an intriguing and enjoyable work, and I had a blast reading it.

Our titular heroine, Eve Wentworth, is young and beautiful and awash with suitors. Harold and Hubert have asked for her hand in marriage but tellingly she is incapable of deciding between them. While she havers about trying to make up her mind, her sister Serena and brother-in-law Hugh receive a timely invite for the three of them to join a family friend on a tour of the Nile. This is the perfect escape for Eve, but alas things are not so simple; the family friend is Jeremy, known to Eve since they were both young, and as the trip progresses Eve realises she has feelings about her erstwhile playmate. To complicate things further, whilst travelling the group encounter a rich American woman, Isobel Page, who seems to attract Jeremy’s attention; and Isobel’s brother Tony makes the plot even thicker! Is Eve about to have her heart broken? Will she be left to choose between the two Hs? Will the scenery and location be enough to distract her from her heartache? Or can we expect a happy ending? 🙂

By New York Public Library (Sphynx et la grande pyramide.) [No restrictions], via Wikimedia Commons

This could of course be just another frothy, enjoyable 1920s romance (which is no bad thing) with the usual misunderstandings, potentially broken hears, witty dialogue and hilarious camel rides (OK, that latter bit doesn’t usually turn up in this type of book, but it *was* very funny). However, what lifts the book above the norm is the clever way it blends travelogue and novel. There are many, many photographs featured throughout the book of the various locations described, all taken by Stella and they give a wonderful insight into the Egypt of that era. Of course, the country was very much in vogue at the time, following the discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb by Howard Carter in 1922, and it’s a place which had an endless fascination for the British during the first part of the twentieth century (Agatha Christie’s novels being a good case in point). I imagine that modern Egypt is a very different place from that of the 1920s so I really enjoyed the window on that world that the book gave. The book is laced with the history and mythology of the country and the Pharaohs, yet never in a way which feels out of place or burdensome, and I really sensed Stella’s love of the place.

I can’t think, to be honest, why this book has been out of print for so long. It’s an entertaining and enjoyable read, with the lovely added extra elements of the narrative which deal with the setting, and these give an extra frisson to the book. I have to be honest and say that of course it isn’t on the same level as FTJ’s great novel, but nevertheless “Eve in Egypt” is a work that deserves much more attention than it’s had; its lovely blending of fact and fiction make for an unusual and unexpected read, and kudos to Michael Walmer for republishing it!

Books. Tomes. Publications. Texts. And a marvellous festive treat from @BL_Publishing !

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It’s the usual story on the Ramblings: despite my best intentions, books *will* keep finding their way into the house… In fairness, I have bought very few of them, and I *have* piled on the floor in one of the Offspring’s ex-bedrooms at least 100 volumes to be sold or donated or passed on to friends. So the house rafters will hopefully survive for a little longer, and in the meantime I thought I should share some book pictures – because, let’s face it, we all get vicarious pleasure from seeing other people’s book hauls!

First up, the charity shops. I should just avoid them, I suppose, but *do* pop in every week – and mostly I’m good, reminding myself that I have plenty to read at home.

However, the previous weekend I couldn’t resist another Allingham (I kind of think I might have read this once, but I can’t remember) – it sounds good and was terribly cheap! The Capote short stories is a book I haven’t come across in my second-hand book searching, and I blame Ali – she’s reviewed Capote’s short stories glowingly, and although I’ve read his longer works I haven’t read this, so I had to pick it up.

The rather large volume that is “Middlemarch” is a Bookcrossing book – they have a little selection in my local Nero, and since I always have a coffee there on a Saturday I always check the books out. I have a very old and gnarled Penguin of the book, but the type is so small that it’s off-putting – so I figured this might spur me on to read it. It’s in almost new condition with decent size type and lovely white pages (as opposed to the brown and crispy ones of my old book) so that’s a bonus!

However, the bestest find (so to speak) of recent weeks is this lovely!! I’ve written about Anthony Berkeley’s works before on the blog – I love his Golden Age fictions, as he brings such a twist to the format, and in particular the British Library Crime Classics reprint of “The Poisoned Chocolates Case” was a really outstanding addition to their range. It seems the BL are not the only ones going in for classic crime reprints (although I would say they are leading the field), as this is a Collins reprint which seems to be part of a series of ‘Detective Club’ reissues. A lovely hardback in a dustjacket, for £2 not to be sneezed at. I can see myself picking this one up very soon!

Then there are the review books…. gulp. As you can see, a few have been making their way into the Ramblings – some rather substantial and imposing ones amongst them, particularly from the lovely OUP. The hardback Russians are calling to me, particularly “Crime and Punishment”, which is long overdue a re-read. Then there’s another edition of the quirky and entertaining Stella Benson from Mike Barker.

As for the Christmas paper… well, you’ve probably picked up on social media and the like that the British Library have a rather special volume planned as their Christmas Crime Classic this year, and this is what popped through my door, beautifully wrapped.

Early Christmas present – has to be good! This will be the 50th British Library Crime Classic, and it’s being released in a hardback with special extra material. Inside, it looks rather like this:

Isn’t it beautiful? The story itself sounds wonderful enough, but the book comes with an exclusive essay on the history of Christmas crime fiction, as well as an introduction, all by the marvellous Martin Edwards. And the book itself is beautifully produced, with the usual gorgeous cover image, plus a ribbon bookmark (I *love* books with a built in bookmark). What a treat! Part of me wants to devour it straight away, and part of me wants to wait until Christmas – what torture. Thank you, British Library!

So – some fascinating incoming books, I feel, and yet more difficult decisions to be made about what to read next. At least there’s not much risk of me running out of things to read…. 😉

A poignant encounter

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Odette by Ronald Firbank

I’ve written about author Ronald Firbank before on the Ramblings, covering two entertaining volumes brought out by independent publisher Michael Walmer – “Inclinations” and “Vainglory“. These witty and original works were Firbank’s first two novels, and now Mike has produced a lovely reprint of Firbank’s early, first published work – and a very different type of story it is too.

Subtitled “A Fairy Tale for Weary People”, “Odette” is a short story which tells of the titular character’s encounter with reality and how it changes her. Odette lives life in a kind of fairy-tale setting; comfortably settled with her widowed aunt, her nurse and an aged butler in an old château in France, she spends her times in dreaming of religious encounters with saints. The visits of the local Curé fuel her imagination and she becomes determined to emulate Bernadette, who saw the Virgin Mary in the mountains.

So Odette sneaks out of the house one night, setting off on what she hopes will be a holy adventure. However, what she encounters is as far from the Virgin Mary as you can get, and Odette’s meeting with reality will not only change her, but also have an effect on the real world.

“Odette” is an affecting little work which stays in the mind despite being only 44 pages long. Odette lives in a gilded cage, and her encounter with reality could have been much harsher than the one which Firbank gifts her. As it is, he seems to believe in the power of good to influence those who’ve gone astray, and there is a strong religious element; certainly, Odette’s innate goodness shines through, and although after her encounter there is a sense that she has grown up and her worldview has been forever changed, there is also the feeling that she will continue along a righteous path and try to bring happiness throughout her life.

Firbank drawn by Augustus John

Interestingly, according to Wikipedia, “Odette” was published when Firbank was just 19, just before he attended Cambridge, and his novels came some 10 years later – which would explain the dramatic difference in style! The book is beautifully produced – a hardback with lovely illustrations by Albert Buhrer which are in the style of Aubrey Beardsley, and the cover also features one of his images.

So another intriguing reissue from Mike Walmer, and one which shows Firbank in a very different light to his later more camp and snarky books. Ronald Firbank died young when he was just 40, of a lung disease which had dogged him most of his life; and I can’t help wishing that he’d lived longer and been able to write more. If you haven’t yet read any of his work, “Odette” certainly might be a gentler way to start with Ronald Firbank, who definitely deserves to be more widely read nowadays!

Many thanks to Mike Walmer for kindly providing the review copy – much appreciated!

“Her beauty and the moonlight overthrew you…”

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One of Cleopatra’s Nights by Theophile Gautier

I’ve written regularly on the Ramblings about the books produced by Michael Walmer, an independent publisher based down under in Australia. Mike’s books are lovely reprints of interesting lost works, ranging from Australian classics through essays and works of European literature. His newest imprint is one he’s titled Zephyr Books, with the aim to focus on classic novellas, and the first in the series is a gorgeous little story about a night in the life of the most beautiful yet deadly women in history…

French-born Gautier (1811-1872) was a novelist, poet, playwright and journalist, as well as penning art and literary criticism. His work is often bracketed with Romanticism, and was highly thought of by authors as wide-ranging as Pound, Proust, Eliot and Wilde. “One of Cleopatra’s Nights” was published as the title work in a collection of 1882 and at 77 pages probably straddles the line between short story and novella.

Those 77 pages, however, are utterly captivating. The story is, as you might suspect, about one night in the life of the famous Egyptian queen, and as it opens the regal one is suffering from ennui. Bored with the bleak arid landscape of her country, bored with her current lovers, she throws a somewhat petulant hissy fit, wishing for some kind of grand adventure. Little does Cleopatra know that she has an admirer: a lowly young man called Meiamoun, handsome yet poor and obscure, worships her from afar. He follows her around when he can, worshipping from a distance, and dreams only for his queen to know he exists. And on this magical night their trajectories will collide, although what will result remains to be seen.

The story is a simple one, but affectingly told, and much of the appeal comes from Gautier’s wonderfully lush prose. His writing is just gorgeous, vividly conjuring images of the Egyptian night and the hot bare landscape of that country. The story drips atmosphere, and although the style might seem a little overwrought, it actually works beautifully for this book. You can feel the stifling heat of the sandy country; sense the dark night where the temperature barely drops and there is no relief; and visualise the harsh landscape. It is this latter element that was one of the most fascinating to me as I read; I’d never really considered what it would be like to live somewhere with just sand and stone as far as you can see. I guess that living in a country that’s blessed with plenty of rain and greenery, you kind of take that sort of thing for granted…

The wonderfully flamboyant-looking author…

Reading a story of a slave meets a queen, especially when it’s a monarch as cruel and capricious as Cleo, you wouldn’t necessarily be expecting a happy ending. But the work has a kind of beauty in it, pointing out that perhaps a perfect night with the woman you love can be the only point of your life. Certainly this lovely little hardback edition is a thing of beauty in its own right, and an excellent introduction into the work of a intriguing-sounding author. Another winning volume from Mike Walmer!

(Many thanks to Mike for kindly providing a review copy – much appreciated!)

Entertaining essays and more from an independent publisher

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Picking up the theme from my post about the Bulgakov Collection, another independent publisher I follow with interest is Michael Walmer. Based in Australia, Mike has a history in publishing (having worked for the legendary Marion Boyars) and he specialises in bringing back into print neglected works over a wide rage of genres and time periods. I’ve read several books from his imprint and a fascinating lot they are – I was particularly taken with Stella Benson, whom I might not have read had it not been for his promotion of her.

walmer-belles-lettres

I wanted to focus on one particular strand of books Mike publishes, and that’s his Belles Lettres series. Comprising so far four volumes, it really is an interesting collection, and the titles to date are:

Letters to a Friend by Winifred Holtby
Letters of Lord Byron
Letters to the Sphinx by Oscar Wilde
The Sins of Society by Ouida

I own three of the books (as you can see from the picture!) and I’ve read one in full so far in the form of the Wilde, and you can read my thoughts here. It was a lovely book, and I spent some time over the Christmas break dipping into the others.

The Holtby volume is fascinating; she’s an author I know of course from her novels published by Virago, and I have a number of these on my shelf. Best known for “South Riding”, Holtby died tragically young but left behind quite a legacy and these letters are to her lifelong friend Jean McWilliam. Holtby and McWilliam met towards the end of WW1 in a WAAC camp, and the letters range from 1920 to 1935, the year of Winifred’s death. This a lovely, varied book, and the letters make fascinating reading, featuring poems and fragments of poems, thoughts on books, little drawings and the like. What also makes the book stand out is the picture it paints of the lives of women in the 1920s and 1930s, and even if you have no particular interest in or knowledge of Holtby, I can still highly recommend it as an excellent read.

Ouida is an author who’s been on the periphery of my vision for decades – possibly since I read “Literary Women” back in the 1980s, or maybe from my first reading of Dorothy Richardson’s “Pilgrimage” where she’s mentioned as being vaguely scandalous. I knew she wrote fiction but I wasn’t aware she wrote essays, and this lovely little collection Mike has issued was a surprising treat and great to dip into. Dating from the late 1800s, Ouida’s essays range over subjects like the vulgarity of her modern world and the stupidity of politics (nothing changes, then…) I was particularly taken with the piece entitled “Gardens” where she bemoans the trend of regimented gardens, designed in straight lines and all neat and tidy, with no individuality. I was also with her when she expressed her views on cut flowers – I can’t bear seeing flowers massacred for the sake of home decoration, and would rather have them growing wild than hothoused, cut and wired and then wilting after a day.

In the great world, and in the rich world, flowers are wasted with painful prodigality. The thousands and tens of thousands of flowers which die to decorate a single ball or reception are a sad sight to those who love them. ‘The rooms look well tonight,’ is the utmost that is ever said after all this waste of blossom and fragrance. It is waste, because scarcely a glance is bestowed on them, and the myriad of roses which cover the walls do not effectively make more impression on the eye than the original silk or satin wall-hanging which they momentarily replace… the ballroom in the morning is as melancholy a parable of the brevity of pleasure as any moralist could desire.

spring-of-joy

Finally, I’ve had an unexpected pleasure in the form of another non-fiction book from Mike Walmer. Not a part of the Belles Lettres series, “The Spring of Joy” by Mary Webb is subtitled “A Little Book of Healing”. Webb, of course, is best known as the author of such books as “Precious Bane”, and that’s a book that divides readers, particularly in the LibraryThing Virago group! As the book features large chunks of dialect, it tends to be something of a Marmite experience, and it was roundly satirised by Stella Gibbons in “Cold Comfort Farm”. I read the latter and loved it, but I never felt able to read Webb, so taking on a non-fiction book by her was a bit of a leap. However, I needn’t have worried; Webb’s book collects together a series of essays on aspects of nature to bring Joy, Laughter and Beauty. Nowadays, the idea of nature as a balm for the soul is not new, but I wonder how prevalent that was in Webb’s day? Nevertheless, her writing is lyrical and lovely, and I really enjoyed her thoughts on the natural world.

Insects are the artists of fragrance; they have a genius for it; there seems to be some affinity between the tenuity of their being and this most refined of the sense-impressions. Ghostly calls summon them to their banquets… Moths call each other by scent; so do bees; and probably the smallest ephemera follow the same law. These calls and answers cross the world continually like a web of fine threads, most of them too slight for our comprehension.

I’ve spent some happy times over recent weeks with all these books, and if you have an interest in essays, letters and nature writing these could well be volumes you would enjoy too. Michael Walmer’s catalogue is full of interesting books and so I’d encourage you to search out his website (there’s a link on my sidebar) and have a browse, especially if you’re bored with insubstantial modern writing! I must admit I often find the older books are the best!

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