“…an agreeable promenade…” #onthepottlecombecornice #howardsturgis @spikenard65


I don’t know if it’s a reaction to reading the chunkster that was “Wolf Solent“, but I have been very much enjoying plunging into shorter works this month! Of course, it *is* Novellas in November time, so that’s even better, and today’s book is a recent arrival I was very keen to read (and in fact picked up as soon as it arrived) – “On the Pottlecombe Cornice” by Howard Sturgis.

The book is part of Michael Walmer’s Zephyr Books imprint, a series which brings classic short works back into print (although intriguingly, this title has never been released in book form before). I’ve read most of the titles he’s released so far and they really are a treat – handsome slim hardback editions, and some really interesting authors like Elizabeth Berridge, John Cowper Powys and Henry Handel Richardson, to name just a few. Sturgis is an author new to me, and apparently his masterpiece is “Belchamber” from 1904. On the basis of “Pottlecombe…” I may have to search it out…

This novella tells the story of Major Mark Hankisson who’s retired to Pottlecombe, a tiny village on the Devon coast. Here he lodges, and regularly goes for a daily promenade in the locality, including some recently developed streets. One of these is “the Cornice”, named by a celebrated local lady poetess. And during his daily walks, Major Mark (as he is known locally) gradually becomes aware of a local lady who also takes walks, although not with the regularity that he does. The times being what they are, however (the turn of the 20th century), the two do not speak and barely acknowledge each other. However, the Major finds his thoughts increasingly drawn towards the grey lady, as he thinks of her…

Eventually, he discovers that the lady’s name is Miss Agnes Lamb, who cares for a bedridden sister. Agnes seems a little frail, sometimes struggling to deal with the vagaries of the weather; and when the ladies go away for the winter, Major Mark realises how much he is affected by the grey lady. He is delighted when she returns from her absence and he manages to make tentative moves towards acquaintance – but, alas, all is not as it seems as he will sadly find out…

This is a short work (at 55 pages it straddles the line between short story and novella, really) but it’s so beautifully written and such a poignantly told tale. Despite its length, Sturgis conjures vivdly a small village and its gradual move into modernisation, the lonely lives of some of the inhabitants, and the slow recognition by Major Mark of his attraction to Miss Agnes. The end is genuinely affecting, and quite haunting – I hadn’t expected such a slim work to have such impact!

“On the Pottlecombe Cornice” can be read in one sitting, and I would probably recommend that; but it’s a book whose flavour and setting will linger; the story of Major Mark’s passion is a very moving one. A very worthy and welcome release from Mike Walmer, and one which definitely makes me want to read more of Sturgis’s work!

Review copy from the publisher, for which many thanks – you can find more details of Mike’s books here.

“… how infinitely hard to go on living.” #rosalindbrackenbury @spikenard65


As I hinted in my post about my Penguin Modern Stories project, I do often wonder why it is that some authors fall out of fashion, whereas others continue to be read long after they were first published. There doesn’t always seem to be any rhyme or reason to it, and that’s certainly the case with regard to the author I want to share with you today. Rosalind Brackenbury is a novelist who is still writing nowadays, but Mike Walmer has reprinted several of her early novels, including the first one “A Day to Remember to Forget”. Originally released in 1971, it’s set in the late 1960s and explores a day in the life of a young couple and the man’s family; it will an eventful day indeed, and the small domestic crises will build to dramatic effect while family (and local) secrets are revealed.

Lucy and Philip, described in the blurb as a ‘progressive young couple’, have found a house they want to buy and settle in; the fact that Philip is still at university and money is tight seems irrelevant, and having settled on their house they go to visit Philip’s conservative suburban family, the Ridgleys, for his mother’s 50th birthday. George, the father is a bit of a traditional patriarchal bully; Felicity, the mother an OCD nervous wreck; and elder brother Andrew is a conventional married man who has his wife and small child in tow. Felicity is in a state of agitation, juggling constant catering, anxiety about everyone’s needs, wanting to dote on her younger son and struggling to cope with her birthday. Philip is quarrelsome and prickly, and his main reason for visiting seems to be to announce that he and Lucy are going to get married and get his inheritance from his grandfather for the house. A visit to a next door neighbour, old Mrs. Fletcher, brings a little respite, but she has baggage of her own relating to her late husband, also called Philip. As the day progresses, the tensions expand and Lucy is left wondering whether she is making the right choices.

“A Day…” is a compelling and really wonderfully written book, it has to be said; Brackenbury is brilliant in capturing the essence of a day in September, with a summer coming to its end and all the family tensions simmering and coming to a head. People lash out verbally; there’s much eating, drinking and attempting to paper over the cracks; and both Philip and Lucy push against the conventions but find themselves struggling to identify what they really want. The story of Mrs. Fletcher and her past loves and losses, set against Philip and Lucy’s tale and Felicity’s younger experiences, build up a picture of women’s lives and loves over the decades; and although superficial things have changed, it does feel as if the underlying issues and conflicts are still there.

Noise, chaos, the misuse of property, her fears; she had in some measure passed them on to her sons. And the scheme of things, the safe plan and the ordered day, these were what took away the fear; she must love propriety, details. Tidy drawers of linen, pots of jam on the shelf, labelled.

Interestingly, although the book seems focused on Lucy and Philip, I couldn’t help feeling that much of the story was pointing towards the experiences of Felicity Ridgley. Maybe, like “Anna Karenina”, I would have found the young lovers’ story most compelling if I had read this book years ago. As it was, I found myself empathising with Felicity’s plight despite her smothering and intense behaviour. Lumbered with a husband who dominates and frightens her, one son for whom she has no real interest and a second who she dotes on to an unhealthy degree, she’s a person with no resources to fall back on when things go wrong. She’s very much the product of a class and period when women were supposed to find satisfaction in the home and family; but as has been proved time and time again, this really is not enough and women needs interests, careers and outside friends. As it is, it seems that at 50, her life is really pretty much over.

Life embraced the young, tolerated the middle-aged, did not want to know about the old.

For Felicity, it’s too late as she’ll never unlearn her conditioned upbringing; but for Lucy I couldn’t help but wonder if a new way of living would be possible for her. The lure of marriage and conventionality is there, and despite her and Philip’s protestations that things will be different for them, this particular reader was not entirely convinced – his behaviour is not always as progressive as he might want to believe. And as the book comes to a close, Lucy does seems to be seriously doubting if this is the future she wants. The couple’s vision of their life together is not a realistic one; it’s a chimera, really, with no actual detail of what they want their future to be or practical plan to achieve it. I must admit I ended the book fearing that whatever path they chose would not necessarily end well – they were both so very young (Lucy is 19) and had much growing up to do before deciding what they really wanted to do for the rest of their lives.

Once again, I can’t applaud Mike Walmer enough for reissuing a book; on the evidence of her first novel, Rosalind Brackenbury is a marvellous writer who definitely deserves wider exposure. Although commentators on this one have focused on the fact it is of its time, it does much more than just capture a point in the 20th century when lives and norms were transforming. “A Day…” explores memory, family dynamics, filial tensions, male/female relationships and a topic which seems to regularly turn up in my reading – how well we can ever really know another human being. Having loved my first experience of reading Brackenbury’s work, I’m pleased to note that I have more treats in store – Mike has reissued her second and third novel, and they might just be lurking on the TBR… ;D


Thanks must go to Mike Walmer for kindly sending a review copy and waiting so patiently for me to get to it! You can also read Helen’s excellent review of the book here.

“…does the moon always shine brightest in the place one loves best?” #northusshetlandclassics @spikenard65 #ReadIndies


Back in November 2021, I covered my first read in a new series of books from a favourite indie publisher; the book was “Broken Lights” by Basil Ramsay Anderson, the series Northus Shetland Classics and the publisher Michael Walmer. As I revealed at the time, after relocating to the Shetland Islands himself, Mike has now issued three titles in this newly inaugurated series, and today I want to explore the most recent release in this fascinating imprint: “Foula, Island West of the Sun” by Sheila Gear. It’s perhaps an unusual book for Mike in that it’s by a living author; Gear is a Foula resident still, I believe, having spent the bulk of her life living on the island. The book was originally published in 1983 and the reprint comes with an introduction by Jen Stout.

Before you read any further, it might be worth you googling and having a look at just where Foula is; previously, the Shetland Islands were shown on a box insert on maps, so you had no real idea of where they sat in relation to Scotland. However a recent law was passed which means that the maps now have to show the islands exactly where the really are and it’s quite scary to look at this and realise the distance between the islands and the mainland. And if you zoom in to find Foula, you get a further shock seeing how exposed this island is, stuck out in the middle of the north sea and isolated from its fellow Shetland Islands. It’s useful to have this in mind when reading the book because that distance and the hardship it causes informs the book.

Sheila Gear is married to as islander and the biog describes her as “a keen crofter, breeding sheep and Shetland ponies”. She brought her children up on the island, and in her book explores the reality of living on an exposed, remote island with all the difficulties this can bring. We may all have dreamed of living in isolation on an island, away from the hustle and bustle and pressures of everyday life. However, as Gear is keen to show, life on Foula is no utopian vision; instead, it’s hard graft to scrape a living from the land, relying on nothing but your own physically demanding work to dig peats, gather the crops and farm your animals. If you fail to croft successfully, you could starve or feeze to death – life is that extreme out here on the margins.

Unfortunately, contrary to popular belief, we do not spend our time sitting in the sun plunking a guitar, or wandering through the hills crying “Dear peerie lamb” to our sheep. The same mad rush that pushes on the rest of the world is just as relentless towards us. Time and tide wait for no man, certainly not for an islander. Summer is short here and winter stretches for seven long months, so we must pack a seemingly endless list of jobs into a few months of reasonable weather.

Foula life is very much dictated by the seasons, and Gear takes us through these, describing the work the crofters have to do year round to ensure continuity. While she does this, she explores the history of the islands, meditates on the difficulties faced in receiving post or doing Christmas shopping via a rackety telephone line, and relates tragic tales of shipwrecks. The Shetland Islands themselves have the north sea on the east and the Atlantic on the west, so Foula is a place often battered by the elements. As Gear’s narrative makes clear, this is an extreme landscape where trees cannot survive and a living has to be carved out.

Perhaps a few summer visitors do no harm to an isolated island like this as they bring in new ideas and interests and get to know the island and its ways. Only when the numbers become too great to be absorbed and they become anonymous tourists do the islanders feel outnumbered and swamped. In a small island with a limited population the number that can be happily absorbed is small – a fact not often realised by the officials who advocate tourism for such places.

Gear is clear that she sets out to give a view of her island which is not romanticised; and her mockery of the tourists who visit is understandable, as they treat her and her fellow islanders as exhibits in a zoo. It needs to be remembered that this book was written in the 1980s, at a time when island living was in decline; the attractions of convenience and easier living was drawing younger people away from their place of birth, which was undersandable. Gear believes that a love of roots and community, living and working together, will be strong enough to hold a population to Foula (and indeed other islands). Certainly the number of people living there, which was 267 in 1881, dipped to 64 in 1961 and has bobbed up and down in the 30s since. It’s hard to hold onto the old ways, when the alternatives offer more than a subsistence level of living; yet Gear is adamant that the riches of living in a community like that of her island are worth all the work involved. And despite her avowed intent to avoid sentiment, she regularly waxes lyrical about her home, painting a striking and vivid picture of a landscape in which she’s completely rooted.

Snow came with the north-west wind. Not big soft flakes gently floating and twirling in the wind, covering the world in a blanket of white. No, a mad world, where snow is hurtled through the air on the fierce icy wind, barely stopping to touch the frozen ground as it passes. On and on, the snow was flung into the sea, where big dark breakers rolled by from the north. On and on, but the isle was swept bare by the storm.

“Foula” was a fascinating book on a number of levels, from its detailed look at the life of a crofter through its portrait of the wildlife of the island to the history of Shetland life. The book contains photos of the landscape and Gear’s family, and all the elements add up to a striking portrait of a way of like not many would probably choose nowadays. Yet the fulfilment that comes with being responsible for every element of your survival must be great, albeit I suspect many would prefer a more forgiving environment. Here, nature is red in tooth and claw, whether it’s one bird species preying on another, sheep falling down cliffs or getting buried under snowstorms, or just the fact that animals and birds and fish have to be farmed for the food and resources they bring, there’s no hiding the cruel reality of surviving on Foula.

Despite the relentless difficulties, “Foula” sparkled with lively events and characters, and its rich narrative painted unforgettable pictures. Although the modern island no doubt has more conveniences laid on than it did in 20th century, with modern technology probably bringing a little ease to communications with the mainland, I suspect much in the book is unchanged. Iif you want to read a vivid and memorable portrait of life on a Shetland island in all its harsh glory, I can highly recommend “Foula, Island West of the Sun”!

“And sad came the moan of the sea.” #northusshetlandclassics @spikenard65


Any regular reader of the Ramblings will know that I’ve covered many an interesting title by Michael Walmer; he republishes some fascinating books, from classic short works to forgotten fiction, belles lettres, poetry and classics – I do encourage you to check out his titles here. However, Mike relocated relatively recently from Australia to the Shetland Islands (now there’s a dramatic change of landscape!); and since his move he’s initiated a new range of releases, the Northus Shetland Classics. So far, there are three titles in the series and these are they – fiction, poetry and memoir.

Now, of course, I’m an exiled Scot (though not from so far north as these islands!) so I was very keen to read some of the titles, and Mike has kindly provided copies for me to explore. I was particularly interested in the release of the poetry of Basil Ramsay Anderson, as he’s a name new to me, and “Broken Lights” turned out to be a fascinating read.

Anderson had a short, yet productive life. Born in 1861 on Unst, the nothernmost inhabited point of the British Isles, his early years were tough; his father was drowned while fishing off the island, and the family were left to cope alone. As there were 6 children in the family, this can’t have been easy for his mother, to whom he was very attached. The family moved to Edinburgh when Anderson was in his teens, and here he fell in with the local group of exiled Shetlanders, who were very involved in the church and in radical politics. During his short life he published little, but after dying tragically young at the age of 26, his work became well known, mainly it seems thanks to the efforts of the Shetland novelist and poet, Jessie Saxby. She was asked by Anderson’s family to edit his work for publication, and the result was “Broken Lights”.

As well as collecting Anderson’s poetry, the book also gathered extracts from his letters, reminisences and tributes, and even included a useful glossary of Shetland terminology. A ground-breaking work, then, and one which is reproduced in full here, along with a new introduction by Robert Alan Jamieson, himself a Shetland poet.

I sigh for the Isles that are over the sea,
I sigh for the hearts of the North;
For I know that a welcome is waiting for me,
And I know what that welcome is worth.

The poetry itself is divided into two section: Poems in English and Scots, and Poems in the Shetland Dialect. They make fascinating, often moving, reading, with the English verses perhaps being more traditional. The ones using Scots were a little bit of a revelation for me; we moved down south when I was six, and so my exposure to Scots was limited and when I was quite young. Yet I found myself very much in tune with the Scots verse, with my understanding of Scots words coming back and this was a real joy. The Shetland poems dig deep too, drawing on the history of island life; the central poem of these is “Auld Maunsie’s Crü”, which is apparently Anderson’s best known work, and it’s striking and memorable.

The additional material, in the form of introductions by both Jamieson and Saxby, extracts from letters and the memories of those who knew Anderson, add to the poems and build up a picture of a fascinating and talented poet who died far too young. Interestingly, Jamieson’s introduction reveals that Anderson’s neice was Willa Muir, the esteemed novelist, essayist and translator – so there was obviously talent flowing in the family line.

When fall the shadows of the night,
    And quiet musings fill the breast,
We’ll think of one who, like the light,
    Has passed into the far, far west.

Shetland literature obviously has much to offer, and so the bringing of such an important work back into print is to be lauded. I confess to often feeling drawn north to my homeland, and islands themselves are very appealing. So to be able to read these wonderful works from Shetland writers is a huge treat, and I loved discovering the writings of Basil Ramsay Anderson. Kudos to Mike Walmer for starting up this particular imprint – I shall really look forward to reading more of the works in the series!

“…all we creatures…should perish once and for all…” #johncowperpowys #upandout @spikenard65


Back in December 2019, just before the world descended into chaos, I reviewed a slim hardback volume released by Michael Walmer as part of his Zephyr imprint. It’s one of my favourites of the many series he publishes, focusing on classic short works, and I’ve loved and reviewed most of them. The book in question was “The Owl, The Duck and – Miss Rowe! Miss Rowe!” by John Cowper Powys – an unusual title, an unusual book, and yet it was quirky, beautifully written and ultimately very moving. So when Mike kindly offered me a review copy of another Powys in the Zephyr series I couldn’t resist!

The new work is “Up and Out” – and yes, that *is* a kind of giant slug on the cover, and yes it’s relevant to the story! If “The Owl…” was quirky, “Up…” is out and out strange – but nevertheless a fascinating and really thought provoking read! The book focuses on Gor Goginog and Rhitha, an intense young couple who find most of the world to be an unpleasant place. So when a giant atomic explosion destroys the world, they seem remarkably unfazed to find themselves floating through space on the last tiny green scrap of the world which has survived. Here they encounter Org, a creature created Frankenstein-like from the mad acts of vivisectionists, and his human partner Asm (ahem…) As the small piece of planet floats through space, the four survivors debate what has happened. They encounter a giant fork-tongued slug which is Time; pass into the Void; encounter mythical being and Greek Gods; and end up party to a debate on free will between God and the Devil. All the while, most of creation seems to have had enough of existence and is committing mass suicide wherever you look. Does God have the answer, or is oblivion best??

Why are we – answer me that, angel of my heart! – why are we debarred from deciding that this confounded creation of life, by this Grand Inquisitor and Master Vivisector we call God, this life which the greatest of all philosophers maintains appears by the eternal processes of matter – why, I say, are we debarred from deciding that it is the opposite of a praiseworthy thing, that it is in fact a wicked and abominable thing, to allow this life to go on?

If this sounds a bit bats, well it probably is – but it’s certainly an entertaining and fascinating read!! Powys is obviously drawing on Welsh myth and history in places, with Gor invoking all sorts of gods and mythologies at places. However, the discussions range far and wide over all kinds of beliefs and creeds, with the whole universe eventually coming to the conlusions that suicide is the best option as life is so horrible. Certainly, the early pages of the book deplore much of the progress of the time, with vivisection coming in for some bitter criticism (with which I wholeheartedly agree), and Powys does seem very disillusioned with life.

But it seemed to me that a world without free will, a world ruled by absolute determinism from the start, would be so dull and tedious an experiment as to be hardly worth making.

The book does eventually come to the crux of the matter, something which often features in arguments about religion. Free will is something we’ve apparently been granted by God, and so humans can be good or bad. At one point in “Up…” God does point out that he could easily create a new world, take away free will so that everyone behaves nicely and there is a lovely calm world – but as he says, this would be terribly boring… Perhaps God is coming to believe also that self-destruction and oblivion is the best option…

More than this I shall not say, but I would encourage you to read the book if you can as it’s very thought-provoking, full of ideas and quite intriguing! Powys writes in a melodramatic fashion, which adds to the entertainment, and he’s not afraid to explore all manner of concepts – which is very refreshing! Me, I’m a godless woman so I tend to think that you’re not here, then you are here, and then you’re not again, so you might as well enjoy the time inbetween the darkness. But I found reading “Up and Out” a fascinating, if sometimes strange, experience and so kudos to Mike for bringing this back into print – another worthy addition to the Zephyr series! 😀

“…such a store of energy still existed in her…” #ReadIndies #HenryHandelRichardson #MichaelWalmer


Choosing the books and publishers to focus upon during #ReadIndies month has actually been very difficult, as I’ve discovered that there are so many indie presses that I love! I think I could have continued to read indies for a couple of months (and I probably will read them over the whole year, if I’m honest). However, there’s one publisher I want to squeeze in to our extension, and that’s Michael Walmer, whose books have featured regularly on the Ramblings over the years.

Mike originally started publishing from Australia, where he was based; however, he’s recently relocated to the wilds of Shetland and is continuing to issue fascinating books from ‘Oop North’! He releases works across a wide range of authors and genres, as you can see from the pile at the bottom of this post (many of which I have still to read – I do need to do some catching up…) There are classic authors like Saki and Max Beerbohm; neglected novelists like Stella Benson and Hugo Charteris; more recent writers like Rosalind Brackenbury; and well-known names like George Sand and Karel Capek. I’m particularly fond of Mike’s Zephyr series which has some intriguing short works by authors like John Cowper Powys and Elizabeth Berridge; and his series of essays and belles lettres has also revealed some wonderful and unjustly neglected works.

A recent Zephyr release is an intriguing novella by Henry Handel Richardson, a name familiar to me from my Virago Modern Classics edition of “The Getting of Wisdom”. Richardson, born Ethel, had a fascinating life, moving from Melbourne to Germany to pursue musical stidues, and finally ending up in London. As well as her autofictional novels, she’s also acclaimed for her trilogy “The Fortunes of Richard Mahoney”; and “The End of a Childhood” is a kind of coda to that, although it works well as a piece of fiction on its own.

In four short chapters, Richardson introduces us to Mary Mahoney and her children Cuffy and Luce. Widowed Mary is struggling to bring up her two children in a small Australian village where she works as the postmistress. However, Cuffy is growing up and will need to go away to school; and so Mary takes the fateful decision to travel to Melbourne to search for a scholarship for her son. However, an unforeseen accident will change everything and truly lead to the end of Cuffy’s childhood.

Richardson’s novella is only 76 pages long, but what a marvellous piece of writing it is. In four chapters she captures her location, her characters and their lives quite brilliantly; the atmosphere of the little village is alive, Mary’s determined character clear from the beginning, and the child’s eye viewpoint of Cuffy is vividly portrayed. Mary’s accident, seemingly trivial, in some ways reminded me of the minor slip which caused so much havoc in Tolstoy’s “The Death of Ivan Illych”; and there’s such a sense of sadness at how easily it could have been avoided. “The End…” is a very moving piece of writing, and my heart was breaking for Cuffy and Luce at points in the story.

Some of Mike’s releases…

I shall say no more about the plot; but I will say that I was mightily impressed with Richardson’s writing. It’s a long time since I’ve actually read her works, and I intend to keep my eye out for the Richard Mahoney books. “The End of a Childhood” is a powerful and evocative read and I applaud Mike Walmer for reissuing it! Do check out his website, as there are some fascinating books there to be discovered! 😀

“… all young readers are omnivorous…” #kennethgrahame #paganpapers


Pagan Papers by Kenneth Grahame

In much the same way that A.A. Milne‘s career was overshadowed by the success of Winnie the Pooh, the author Kenneth Grahame is nowadays only really remembered for his classic work “The Wind in the Willows” (1908). However as a recent re-release from Mike Walmer reveals, Grahame had an illustrious career as an esteemed essayist long before his hit with “Willows”…

Grahame was born in Edinburgh in 1859, but grew up in Berkshire, spending the majority of his working life at the Bank of England. He published essays and stories in literary journals, and three collections of these were issued between 1894 and 1898; this is the first volume from 1894 which established his name.

In book-buying you not infrequently condone an extravagance by the reflection that this particular purchase will be a good investment, sordidly considered: that you are not squandering income but sinking capital. But you know all the time that you are lying. Once possessed, books develop a personality: they take on a touch of warm human life that the links them in a manner with our kith and kin.

“Pagan Papers” collects together 18 pieces and they really do make for entertaining reading. Grahame has a very individual voice, which shines through, and an interesting take on things. He considers roads, the romance of walking down them and wondering where they might lead or what adventure take you on. He ponders railways and although a little resistant to progress, recognises they have a romance of their own too. Grahame’s views on books and reading are bracing; he acknowledges what will be familiar to any bibliophile: the joy of possession and the hopeless inability to read all the books one owns. As someone basically self-taught, I was less in tune with his views in “Cheap Knowledge” where he eschews the idea of lending libraries and the access they allow everyone to learning. However, he *is* in favour of novel reading, so that’s something!

….blessed blank oblivion, happiest gift of the gods! For who, indeed, can say that the record of his life is not crowded with failure and mistake, stained with its petty cruelties of youth, its meannesses and follies of later years, all which storm and clamour incessantly at the gates of memory, refusing to be shut out?

Needless to say, Grahame’s paean to the pleasures of smoking is something which would be frowned upon nowadays, but is entertaining to read. And it’s quite surprising to see him obliquely referring to the pleasures of opium in the essay “The White Poppy” – though that might account for some of the stranger scenes in “Willows….”!!

All in all, this was a enjoyable, entertaining and, yes, quite thought-provoking collection of essays which definitely deserves to see the light of day again. Mike Walmer has released it in a nice paperback edition as part of his ‘Belles-Lettres’ series, and if you’re keen to read some classic essays (in elegant but slightly old-fashioned language, it has to be said!) I can highly recommend it to you!

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


A life wasted? Discovering the writing of #elizabethberridge


The Story of Stanley Brent by Elizabeth Berridge

Bookish Twitter is a regular source of distraction and inspiration for me; I reckon a good chunk of the books on Mount TBR are thanks to the lovely folks there recommending new authors and works to check out! Recently, there was a bit of a flurry around novelist Elizabeth Berridge and her name kept turning up and popping into my line of sight. So a little bit of serendipity came into play when Mike Walmer kindly offered me a copy of his reprint of Berridge’s first published work: a novella called “The Story of Stanley Brent”, from 1945.

Berridge (1919-2009) was known as a novelist and critic, publishing fourteen works between 1945 and 1995; yet her profile is not that high nowadays. Persephone have published a collection of her short stories under the title “Tell it to a Stranger”; but much of the Twitter flurry was around striking covers of Abacus paperback editions of her novels. Fellow bloggers have been rediscovering her work with interest, so I was keen to find out what her writing was actually like.

There was a name for everything, it made things less frightening, made you believe that you could be cured.

“Stanley…” is a novella of 75 pages (with very small type, it has to be said…) and it does indeed relate the life story of the titular Brent, opening in the year 1907 when the young man proposes marriage to Ada after a soaking in a rainstorm. They marry; encounter issues when Ada comes up against the realities of being a wife; have children; Stanley is promoted. And as they age, the world changes round them, with the First World War taking away family and friends; the country-like suburbs are absorbed into the cities and towns; and rumblings of events in Germany are darkening the horizon.

Throughout the youngest daughter’s childhood the country round the Brents was slowly swallowed up. Wooden blocks for roads now lay where once the wheat had burnt. Lorries passed continually, laden with bricks and returning with timber cut from the marked off building sites. Bonfires of blackberry bushes, gorse and hawthorn made the autumns mournful and spring a time of no regrowth. Asphalt hid the muddy paths to the station, and roads were made up, pavements laid at the expense of the older residents.

My summary makes the book sound a little simplistic, but it actually isn’t and Berridge is a remarkable skilful writer to fit as much as she does into such a short narrative. Stanley seems a fairly ordinary man, but there are undercurrents; he suffers from asthma which strikes him at times of stress; he often finds himself questioning the point of what he does; and he senses there is more to life than he experiences. As he ages and his health suffers, his marriage becomes very much a shell and it seems that there is little deep communion between the couple (something which was in fact signalled early in the book).

Stanley remembered this now, the shrug, the indifference. The crack entered his heart. The Frenchman seemed so alone – yet he had wife, children, a house, a trade he enjoyed. Wasn’t this enough, and if not why? Fear darkened Stanley’s clear blue, somewhat stupidly innocent blue eyes; shortened, for a moment, his breath. Something else, what was it?

Perhaps Stanley stands for each ordinary man living an everyday life but yearning for more; certainly, at one point he feels a strong bond with his stepfather-in-law, a French musician in exile whose unfinished violin playing perhaps symbolises the lost opportunities in both men’s lives; and who says rather crytpically at one crucial point in the narrative:

“Each man must dance to his own measure.

For a small book, “The Story of Stanley Berridge” is surprisingly affecting. The underlying element of melancholy comes to the fore regularly throughout the book; and Berridge is adept at capturing emotions and events in just a few words. For example, Stanley doesn’t fight in WW1 (he is “turned down”, presumably because of his health) and in passing the narrative comments “A few women gave Stanley white feathers”, imparting so much about that conflict and the emotions which went with it, as well as conveying how Stanley was judged and how he might have felt about not fighting.

I wasn’t sure what to expect when I started reading this book, but I don’t know that I’d anticipated quite such a memorable read. Berridge writes so well, capturing the little nuances in daily life, the subtle interactions between characters, and also how the world changed during the period of Stanley’s life. “The Story of Stanley Brent” is a novella you can easily read in one sitting, but I think its title character and his life will stay with you afterwards. And if this is any kind of indication of Berridge’s writing, I’m definitely keen to read more!

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

“There is no war, not bred of wars, that was not nursed on lies!” #hughlofting #victoryfortheslain


Victory for the Slain by Hugh Lofting

As a vegan, I’ve always loved the concept of being able to talk to animals; I thoroughly approve, therefore, of the character of Dr. Doolittle, created by author Hugh Lofting. However, until Mike Walmer approached me to see if I’d like to review one of his recent books, I had no idea that Lofting had written anything else – and particularly not a long pacifist verse!

“Victory for the Slain” is the latest release in Mike’s poetry series, which so far has featured volumes from James Montgomery and Katherine Mansfield (I reviewed the latter here). A striking, red-covered hardback of 61 pages, it contains Lofting’s only work for adults, and was published in 1942 – only in the UK. Bearing in mind this was slap bang in the middle of WW2, I’m surprised it managed to get into print at all!

Lofting fought in the First World War, witnessing the horrors of that conflict personally; so it’s perhaps no surprise that a second major global battle filled him with dismay. He became a pacifist after the Great War, campaigning for peace and building his philosophy into his children’s books. “Victory for the Slain” is, therefore, a real cry from the heart, and one which resonates today.

“These banners and standards, tattered, hung;
The trophies of battle on alien soil.
Sole prizes of courage and suffering toil,
For these
How many in their graves are lain?
In war the only victors are the slain.”

The poem is divided up into seven sections and follows the narrator as he encounters a veteran soldier who’s lost his hand, visits a church or cathedral where he has an emotional reverie on past and present, as well as seeking solace from his surroundings. However, the bombs constantly raining down destroy any chance of peace, and the narrator despairs of human folly and our race’s inability to live in any kind of harmony. In the end, he reaches some kind of equilibrium with the hope that the memory of the ‘victorious slain’ will lead humanity towards a better future.

Hugh Lofting when young (Public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

Apparently, the poem was not a success when it was first published. Lofting was living in California at the time, and it appeared in print just after the main part of the London Blitz. I can imagine at the time that readers didn’t want to particularly hear this kind of attitude, particularly from someone not in the thick of it; which is a shame, because it obviously reflects Lofting’s life-long, strongly held views.

“Wars to end wars? – War again!
Must Mankind forever kill and kill,
Thwarting every decent dictate
Of the human will?”

“Victory…” is a compelling and moving piece of writing, and not what you might necessarily expect from someone who’s a well-known children’s author. Although a slim book, it’s remarkably powerful, full of vivid imagery, heart-wrenching soul-searching and often real despair for the future of the world, as well as a hope that we can learn. At a time when our world seems to be falling apart once again, that’s something to hang onto. Highly recommended.

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

The struggles of the ‘New Woman’ #SarahGrand


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

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