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Stories from the Home Front @PersephoneBooks #AllViragoAllAugust

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I imagine that most readers of the Ramblings are well aware of the wonderful Backlisted Podcast, hosted by Andy Miller and John Mitchinson. It’s a thing of great joy, a product of the pure love of books and reading; and I’m probably not the only listener whose book stacks have been swelled by recommendations from the chaps and their guests… They have a Patreon offshoot called Locklisted, which is also wonderful fun (and incorporates the excellent input of their producer Nicky Birch); and on one of these recent episodes listeners were treated to Andy reading a story from the recent Persephone Books collection, “English Climate: Wartime Stories” by Sylvia Townsend Warner. It was just fab…

Now, I love a beautiful Persephone book, but I don’t automatically buy every one which comes out; I haven’t got the shelf space, nor the time to read them all, frankly. And although I love STW’s writing, I already have a Virago collection of her short stories; so I imagined I might already have some (or all!) of these and hadn’t intended to urgently get a copy of the new book. However, the story Andy read (“My Shirt is in Mexico”) was just so good that I felt I needed to investigate further; which I did, only to discover that I don’t think I have *any* of these stories already, and also that some have never been reprinted since original magazine publication. Needless to say, I had to send for a copy…

And when it arrived, it occurred to me that it would be ideal to read for “All Virago/All August”, a challenge which we member of the LibraryThing Virago Modern Classics undertake annually. Yes, I know it’s not a Virago…. But we do allow other books of a similar ilk, so can include Persephones, Furrowed Middlebrow and the like books (and presumably the new British Library Women Writers too!) I do often try to include a translated Virago to mop up #WITMonth as well, but alas it was not to be this August. Anyway! On to the book…

… Mrs Campion was standing on her top step, staring vaguely at the sky and shaking a duster without energy. She had pale green eyes, pure as a kitten’s, and they looked so much at variance with her small, anxious, sallow face that one had the impression they must have been given her by some rich admirer with more connoisseurship than discretion.

“English Climate” collects together twenty-two of STW’s stories which were published between 1940 and 1946; they’re presented chronologically, which is an effective method because it allows us to watch the change in behaviours and attitudes as the war progressed. STW and her companion, Valentine Ackland, spent the war years in a cottage in Devon, and so were in prime position to observe many of the foibles of those in the country during the conflict; and indeed many of the stories have that kind of setting.

As with any collection of short stories, I sometimes find it hard to know quite how to write about it; so I’ll do what I usually do and pick out some particular stand-outs. “From Above” (1941) tells of a couple still living in London, and their contrasting feelings about the threat of their house being destroyed by a bomb; Mr and Mrs Campion react very differently, in ways which reveal their real feelings about their relationship and their life together. “Noah’s Ark” (1941) looks at a pair of misfit evacuee children and the effect of the new people they encounter on their coping mechanism. “Setteragic On” (1941) is a very clever story which takes as its subject the effect of specific privations and shortages on the general populace.

Then there’s “Scorched Earth Policy” (1942) which explores the burden of possession and the increasing fear of invasion which took over the British people as the War progressed. “England, Home and Beauty” (1942) is a short, sharp tale demonstrating the difference of the sexes and revealing that British women were quite prepared to take part in meeting any invasion attempts. And the title story, from 1943, was quite devastating for me (though not in any way you might expect); although I imagine what happens is meant to be symbolic of the destruction of culture by conflict.

In spring it is the duty of every village schoolmistress to foster a love of nature and kindness to animals. While encouraging the children to gather wild flowers for the Easter church decorations, she must remind them not to uproot primroses and violets, or tear up bluebells, or break off boughs from fruit trees, or trespass into the Manor woods after daffodils. In Spring too she must avail herself of young lambs and birds’ nests as the ideal means of approach to a reverent understanding of biological processes, and also prevent the children from stealing birds’ eggs, cutting the wings off fledglings, and throwing stones at valuable pedigree calves. For years Mrs Pitcher had hated spring.

Well, I could go on. There isn’t a dud story among them, and what was particularly fascinating was the different angles STW took. Some of the stories are less directly war-related, simply exploring the psychology of people in extreme and unusual situations (so, of course, somewhat relevant to how 2020 has been for many of us…) She’s an acute observer of the subtleties of the relationships between men and women; and her commentary on the foibles of everyday life is sharp and often very funny.

So “English Climate” turned out to be the perfect read for All Virago/All August and thank goodness Backlisted nudged me into picking up this collection. Sylvia Townsend Warner was such a marvellous writer, and these stories capture so well the changing emotions and times of the War period. I can’t recommend the collection highly enough; and it makes me very happy to realise that I have plenty STW books on the shelves unread… ;D

“Soon after the fifth workman had fallen through the ceiling…” #janecarlyle #theaholme @persephone books

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There’s a lot to be said for escapism at the moment, and a good amount of my reading lately has been wallowing in classic crime (always so soothing). However, there are lots of other options for comforting reads, including a good deal of 20th century women’s fiction from publishers like Virago and Persephone. I haven’t read any of the latter’s books for a little while, although I love their subtle grey covers and their choice of authors; and in fact they publish one of my all-time favourite happy reads, “Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day”. Anyways, I was lucky enough to be gifted with a Persephone book token just before Christmas, thanks to lovely Cate at the Virago Modern Classics LibraryThing group; and it took me quite a while to decide which Persephone to pick as there are so many choices. In the end, I went for one which I’d been thinking about reading for an age, and I’m so glad I did. It was a wonderful, involving, distracting and, in the end, moving read: “The Carlyles at Home” by Thea Holme.

The history of the book itself is interesting; Holme was an actress, often in roles produced by her husband Stanford; and later in their marriage Stanford was curator of the Carlyles’ home in Cheyne Walk, where they both lived. Thomas Carlyle was, of course, the great essayist and author of the classic account of the French Revolution (which is still lurking in the stacks in all its bulk, shouting at me to read it); his wife Jane has perhaps been a somewhat neglected character, although is now regarded as a fine writer in her own right because of her prolific correspondence. Although both were born in Scotland, much of their life together was spent in the Cheyne Walk house and Holme’s book draws on her privileged knowledge to tell the story of the Carlyles’ time at that location, with much focus of Jane.

I have to declare up front that I was always going to be fairly partisan about this book: not only was I entrance by Virginia Woolf’s “Carlyle’s House” essay, but I’ve actually visited the house, with my BFF J. on one of our rambles round London. So I was particularly keen to read Holme’s account and learn more about Jane, a strong woman whose reputation seems to have been very much eclipsed by that of her husband.

The couple moved from Scotland to London when Jane was 33, and her role seems to have been to run the house smoothly and keep the noise of local fowl, dogs, building works or frankly anything else from disturbing her husband while he worked (and from Holme’s narrative, it sounds as if his writing was a constant trial and strain). As well as running the house, dealing with visitors, making clothes for her husband, having an ongoing issue with servants and dealing with her own ailments, Jane oversaw a constant stream of house improvements designed to reduce the strongest homeowner to a jelly. Alongside this she kept up the voluminous correspondence on which her reputation now rests, as well as maintaining a close friendship with the author Geraldine Jewsbury and meeting luminaries such as Dickens and Charlotte Bronte. Frankly, I think she was something of a superhero!

….Carlyle could not write, could not think, could not sleep or concentrate on anything except giving vent to his rage, if he heard certain sounds. He was selective: cocks and pianos were his chief enemies. A cock crowing in the small hours woke him instantly: he would thump his bed in his wrath, then jump up and pace the room, waiting furiously for the next crow, which would sometimes drive him out of the house, to walk about the streets till morning.

Holme’s book is fascinating and structured in perhaps an unusual way. Instead of taking a linear look at the Carlyles’ lives, she instead divides her chapters up by subject – “Seven Maids”, “Neighbours and Nuisances” and “Clothes” are just some of the titles. Drawing on her access to Jane’s letters and diaries she gives a marvellous insight into life at the time. The amount of time spent dealing with bedbugs makes you shudder, but Jane was no wimp: at one point when Cheyne Walk was being plagued by burglars, Holme relates that Jane went to bed with a pair of loaded pistols beside her! It’s clear that the marriage was often volatile, with Jane finding it easier to get major jobs around the house done when she sent Thomas away on a vacation of a few months; and that latter fact has often yielded rewards in that there are letters between the two Carlyles upon which Holme can draw.

Jane Carlyle by Samuel Laurence (Public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

The letters and diaries quoted by Thea Holme reveal a woman who was lively, entertaining and often funny; Jane can take any kind of domestic drama and turn into something humourous, even the much-quoted tale of the housemaid who gave birth in a cupboard while Mr. Carlyle and Miss Jewsbury were taking tea, with only a thin wall between them! There were also some wonderful insights into Carlyle’s writing process and I hadn’t been aware that the manuscript of the first volume of “The French Revolution” had been burned by accident; that must have been some re-write…

Thea Holme brings the story of the Carlyles to life wonderfully; the domestic details, the descriptions of the country round Chelsea (because it *was* in the country at the time), the specifics about the daily chores of the time, all remind you quite how hard things were back then and how we do take our mod cons for granted. The various house alterations sound unbelievably stressful; and I must admit I was surprised to hear the house described as bright and cheerful at times. When we visited, I was astonished at how small it seemed for the household which lived there, with dark wood everywhere making it seem even more closed in…

But that’s by the by. “The Carlyles at Home” was a wonderful (and distracting when I needed it!) read; I became so involved in Jane Carlyle’s life that her death at a relatively young age was an emotional shock. Carlyle was apparently wracked with guilt and although he outlived her for a good number of years, he very much retired from society. The Cheyne Walk house is now owned by the National Trust (for whom Stanford Holme worked as curator) and you can visit it (when we are able to move about more freely again…) Thea Holme’s book was a fascinating read, a real delight from start to finish; I’m so glad I used my token for it, and I’m so glad that Persephone republished it! 😀

On My Book Table…6 – a bit of a shuffle!

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The world is a little bit scarier than usual at the moment, as we’re all quite aware, and so I’m trying personally to balance keeping my awareness of what’s happening at a sensible level and trying to keep myself on an even keel. Books have always been my go-to in times of stress and frankly are being a little bit of a lifeline right now. Anyway, after all the recent excitement of the #fitzcarraldofortnight, plus a number of new arrivals, I thought it was time to take stock and reorganise a little. Reading from one publisher is a lovely experience, but as I have so many other books lurking I wanted to try to clarify what I planned to pick up next. Of course, I never stick to reading plans, but it’s always fun to spend time shuffling books, as well as being very therapeutic… 😀

After spending some time digging among the stacks and moving books about, I ended up with a few piles I currently want to focus on and here’s the first:

This rather chunky pile has some of the weightier books (intellectually and literally!) that are calling right now. Some of these were in my last book table post, but some have snuck in when I wasn’t looking. There’s a lot of French writing there and both the Existentialist Cafe and Left Bank books sound excellent. Barthes is of course still hanging about in the wings even though I haven’t added him to the pile. I could go for a Barthes fortnight (or longer…) quite easily, but that might a bit brain-straining. Some of the volumes *are* reasonably slim so I might be able to slip them into my reading between bigger books – we shall see! 😀

Next up, some of the review books I have pending:

These are only *some* of the review books lurking, but if I put them all in a pile it looks scary and I panic, so I thought a modest selection would do. There are some beauties from the British Library Crime Classics and Science Fiction Classics range, as well as Camus and a classic Russian play and Frankenstein! They all sound so marvellous….

And this is the pile of recent finds or other titles I really want to read at the moment:

More French writing. The top two are books about French authors – I’ve read the start of each and they’re marvellous. The Queneau is short but essential (and another play! I’m reading more drama!!), the Hitchens and the Christiansen arrived recently, as did the beautiful Persephone (which I think I might well pick up soon). And the Makioka Sisters is there because there’s a readalong going on. I doubt I’ll get to it – I’ve failed every one so far this year, getting nowhere near either Proust or Musil. But it’s there just in case.

However, there *is* another pile of interest lurking. Coming up in April, Simon and I will be hosting the #1920club, the next in our themed weeks of reading from a particular year. I’ve been thinking ahead about which books I’d like to spend time with, and there really are some wonderful titles from 1920. I always try to read from the stacks and a quick dig revealed I had these books on the shelves:

All of them are beautiful titles, and most of them would be re-reads – which is not really what I want to do with the reading clubs. I have another new title lurking digitally which I am definitely going to overcome my aversion to e-reading and get to; but with the re-reads I shall have to be picky so that I can perhaps focus on unread books. Though it *would* be nice just to spend the week re-reading Agatha, Virginia and Colette…

And of course, just after I had finished writing this post, a lovely collection of review books popped through the door looking like this:

There are some wonderfully exciting titles there, including a new Crime Classic from the British Library; two editions from their new imprint focusing on Women Writers (which is being curated by Simon – well done, that man!); and a fascinating book on Artemisia Gentileschi with an introduction by Susan Sontag – how timely!

So there we go. The state of the books at the moment. I have just finished reading Lennie Goodings’ wonderful book about her life in the book trade and with Virago which I will eventually get to reviewing (I’m very behind…) – I highly recommend it. And I confess to being unsure as to what I’ll pick up next, although it may have to be escapism in the form of Golden Age crime. As usual, watch this space! 😀

An amble around London – plus, of course, books…! @Foyles @PersephoneBooks @Glagoslav

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I often like to pop up to London near Christmas for a bit of shopping and browsing, so when the lovely Ali from HeavenAli suggested a meet up and a trip to the Persephone Shop, how could I resist? We settled on 1st December as that avoided hideous engineering work issues on the train for me (I’m still recovering from September’s issues) and another lovely friend, Claire from the LibraryThing Virago group, joined us too.

I do enjoy a train journey with a coffee and a book!

I got up to London ridiculously early thanks to having to get a train at silly o’clock to get a cheap fare. So it would have been rude not to pop over to the kikki.k shop in Covent Garden and indulge in a little sale stationery – I do love stationery, and their ridiculously cheap traveller’s notebook refills will fit beautifully in my Webster’s Pages organiser! 😁

Before meeting the others I popped into Any Amount of Books and Henry Pordes on the Charing Cross Road (they seem to be the last bastions of second-hand bookselling there) and might have come away with these…

The Flora Tristan Virago was essential as I have her London Journals but not this one; and the Leopardi intrigued me, although I know little about him.

And then it was onwards to Foyles and meeting up with the lovely ladies! There was a lot of browsing and temptation, but in the end I came away with only three slim volumes (one of which I cannot show here as it’s a Christmas gift!) The Lem was irresistible as was the small poetry collection – I have no willpower…

We lunched in a nearby Nero (which catered for all our dietary needs including my vegan requirements!) and here I developed a bag crisis, when the zip on my new backpack completely died. Memo to self – never trust a Primark backpack… 😡 Fortunately, I had the trusty KBR tote with me, but it’s not so huge, and although I had a paper kikki.k bag I didn’t trust it to last the day out. So it was back to Foyles to follow Ali’s example and purchase one of their lovely and very sturdy tote bags – as you can see it’s substantial and attractive so was the perfect solution!

After the bag drama, we headed off to the Persephone shop (with a dangerous detour to the Bloomsbury Oxfam – I escaped unscathed, although Ali and Claire didn’t!) The Persephone Shop is, of course, always a delight and Lambs Conduit Street looked lovely and festive as we arrived. Ali and Claire had both come with lists; I was being restrained however as I’d put the Persephones I want on Christmas lists, so I didn’t dare buy any books there (which was very difficult!) So I restricted myself to an art card and some endpapers from the books to use in crafty ways!

After shopping, we repaired to a local cafe for coffees and cakes (vegan) and a good old book gossip, which was just lovely, before wending our various ways home.

Very weird-looking vegan pastry that actually tasted yummy!

So a lovely day out in the Big Smoke, with a little shopping, bookishness and good company – the perfect start to December, and thanks for your company, ladies! 😁

*****

Inevitably, however, there have been other bookish arrivals this week….

First up, a couple of images I shared on social media of some absolutely lovely volumes received from Glagoslav, an independent publisher specialising in Russian and Eastern European translated literature – so kind of the perfect publisher for me! I was so happy they reached out to me, and I can’t wait to get reading some of these books!

Additionally, I bagged this one from an online auction site because it sounded absolutely fascinating. I read about it on a page of recommendations on an AHRC site, of all places, and as I come from the North-East originally it was very appealing. It’s actually calling to me from the TBR right now.

And finally, this little lovely arrived as an unexpected treat from Annabel (she’s also one of the editors of the wonderful Shiny New Books). I love to share books around myself, and it’s such a nice treat to also be on the receiving end!

So – more books trickling into the house, but I *have* been getting rid of some! I sent four off to Liz this week, took two up to Ali and will be posting one off to Claire. Plus there’s a big box of donations building up in the hall. Is the ratio going in the right direction? Maybe….  But I still have an awful lot of books that are unread! 😀

A spirited polemic

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The Sack of Bath by Adam Fergusson

One of the joys of a trip to London is a visit to the very lovely Persephone shop; however, that visit always creates its own problem in the form of making the decision as to which Persephone title(s) to buy! I last dropped in there in November, when I met up with some lovely ladies from the LibraryThing Virago Group and before travelling I spent a little time going through the books on their site to come up with a shortlist. And a book which intrigued me, and which I ended up getting, was “The Sack of Bath” by Adam Fergusson.

sack-of-bath

On the surface of it, you might ask why a publisher which specialises in 20th century women’s fiction would bring out a book which looks at the wholesale destruction of a particular kind of architecture in that city. However, the city of Bath is a special one, and if for nothing else literary is remembered for its connection with Jane Austen. But as Fergusson’s book makes clear, the city had a rich cultural heritage, as well as an architectural one, and this short book is a passionate polemic aimed at those who were trying to destroy its individual character.

First published in 1973, “The Sack of Bath” was an attempt to bring the attention of the wider public (and indeed the world) to the fact that the authorities in Bath were undertaking a large-scale, wide-ranging demolition programme, bringing down buildings that although not Grade 1 listed, had immense historical significance. Much of the city itself had been built and developed in the Georgian style, and although the well-known and well-to-do streets were being preserved, the artisan dwellings and less prominent areas were being declared unfit and flattened to make way for large, incongruous Brutalist developments. The 1970s saw much of this kind of redevelopment, but in a city like Bath the new buildings sat very uncomfortably next to the old.

Beautiful endpaper design by John Piper

Beautiful endpaper design by John Piper

More to the point, the blind demolition of whole areas was altering the whole character of the city, which was losing its homogenous Georgian whole; and as Fergusson makes plain, much of this was development for development’s sake as it would have been just as cost-effective to upgrade the existing dwellings, therefore providing plenty of housing which was in the same style as the rest of Bath.

Fergusson is a strong and fierce champion of those who sprang up and formed local groups, trying to stop the destruction. And he makes a special case for the city being retained in its original form, pointing out that nothing is really irreparable, and that if you live in somewhere as special as Bath you have to take the consequences…

The point is that a damp house may have a damp course inserted; that an unfit house may be made fit; that those who live in and enjoy the beauties of an eighteenth-century town should not expect the amenities of Harlow New Town or Hemel Hempstead; and that if they want them that is where they must go and live.

Much of the problem seems to stem from the local authorities at the time having no real expertise or overview, and relying on a series of experts who really didn’t know what they were doing. And I have to say that Bath was not alone in having such changes made to it; I can recall the small town I lived in having its centre torn out and turned into a modern shopping centre, and the pictures of before and after are striking. However, this needs to be put in context; the post-WW2 years had seen a Britain that had been heavily bombarded with large areas destroyed or made difficult to live in. The country was striding into a brave new modern future, and the new kinds of architecture were part of that. I should declare here that I actually had something of a fondness for Brutalist structures and it’s ironic that so many of them are now being wiped out and replaced with modern buildings that look to me even more faceless and ugly.

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But that’s by the by; “The Sack of Bath” set out to do a specific job, and it certainly did that, bringing the fight for Bath’s heritage to national attention (and as an unexpected result making other parts of the country more aware of what was happening and inclined to take action to save buildings and areas). Bath itself was declared a World Heritage Site in 1987, though that in itself is not without problems and a quick look at the city’s Wikipedia page reveals that controversy about developments is still rumbling on.

The book itself is a short and fascinating read, capturing a moment in time when a call to action was made. It’s liberally illustrated with a large number of photographs, most notably several by Lord Snowdon, and these are an essential and integral part of the book, speaking just as eloquently as Fergusson’s prose. Although the book is slim and can be read in one sitting, it does make you think deeply about the bureaucracy and red tape in the country, the people we put in charge of making decisions and plans on our behalf, and also the constant trends in building and architecture. I do feel that there is a place for Brutalist architecture and but what’s quite certain is that Bath was not it!

Bookish post from the lovely Persephone Books!

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I’ve been trying to resist new book, I really have, and particularly the lovely Persephones as if I gave in, I’d want to purchase them all….

However, they came up with an offer I couldn’t refuse this week: to celebrate the birthday of author Mollie Panter-Downes, for one day only you could have one of her books free if you bought two other grey books! I gave in – and because I don’t have any MPD Persephones, I sent off for all three, and they arrived today:

mpd

Aren’t they gorgeous??? I’m very excited about the London War Diaries as I *really* want to read this one. Now all I have to do is resist the temptation to put down the big books and start on one of these…. !

AV/AA – An Exemplary Short Story Collection from Persephone

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The Woman Novelist and Other Stories by Diana Gardner

The wonderful Persephone Books have issued a number of short story collections, but this was one that I had a particular interest in getting hold of. You see, many, many years ago (well, ok – in the 1980s) I was involved in running the Mervyn Peake Society, and early on in my tenure I was lucky enough to meet his widow Maeve Gilmore, shortly before her death. Myself and a group of friends were later invited to Maeve’s memorial service in London (an emotional affair that involved the four of us with one tissue between us…) and there we met Diana Gardner, who’d been a pupil of Mervyn’s and was a friend of the family.

I bought my copy from the Persephone shop - here's the haul! :)

I bought my copy from the Persephone shop – here’s the haul! 🙂

After the service, we trotted off to the nearby Royal Academy for some picture therapy, and bumped into Diana again. She recognised us from the memorial and we had a lovely chat. She was an inspiring woman, just off to spend the day painting, and so when I discovered there was a collection of her stories available I had to have it.

Gardner had a fascinating life, mixing painting and writing, as well as working in publishing. And according to the Persephone blurb, she also knew Leonard and Virginia Woolf. “The Woman Novelist” collects a number of her stories, all of which were in an earlier volume apart from the title story.

Short stories are often a difficult art to master, but Gardner certainly has, as this is a quite wonderful collection where each tale stands out distinctly in its own right. “The Land Girl” is possibly the best known, and it was her first story to be accepted for publication. It’s a clever, slightly acid tale, from the point of view of the girl of the title ( a city type sent to work on the farm) revealing the disruption she causes there. She’s a brilliantly unreliable narrator, and Gardner cleverly gives us the insight into a very selfish mind and a strong clash of cultures.

Then there’s “Miss Carmichael’s Bed”, which has a mystery to it with an unexpected solution; “The Summer Holiday “, a tale that shows how some people just bury their heads in the sand (not literally….); “In the Boathouse”, an evocative tale of love and war; “Crossing the Atlantic”, a story of mismatched sailors; and many more, all fabulous.

Portrait of Gardner by Peake, courtesy the Persephone Books site.

Portrait of Gardner by Peake, courtesy the Persephone Books site.

The title story is absolutely brilliant; narrated by the Woman Novelist, it takes us through the tasks of her day as she tries to juggle the needs of an extended family who not only depend on her financially, but also physically and emotionally. The main bond she has is with a loyal maid who understands her problems and supports her as much as she can so she can write. The tale articulates brilliantly the problem women artists of all types have had in balancing the needs of their art with the often selfish demands of those around them – a situation a male artist would never be expected to tolerate.

Gardner’s prose is excellent and I loved the way she played with the reader’s preconceptions. She’s brilliant at building up tension in a story only to twist the ending in a way you least expected. I’ve read many short story collections where the stories blur into one, but that doesn’t happen here – each tale is a distinct gem in its own right and there’s not a dud amongst them.

I loved “The Woman Novelist” much more than I expected to: Gardner’s writing is impressive, her stories fresh and original and memorable, and the twists marvellous. This is one of the most enjoyable short story collections I’ve read (which is saying something!) and I only wish there was more of Gardner’s work available. Another winner from Persephone! 🙂

Persephone Pleasures: The Hopkins Manuscript by R.C. Sherriff

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It’s been a little while since I indulged in one of the Persephone Books volumes on Mount TBR, but I recently felt drawn to this one, and picked it up after finishing “Merry Hall” because I really didn’t quite know what to read yet – and I wanted to try to stop myself sending off for every Beverley Nichols book I could find!

220px-R._C._Sherriff

“The Hopkins Manuscript” is one of the few books published by Persephone which is written by a man, and Wikipedia says: Robert Cedric Sherriff (6 June 1896 – 13 November 1975) was an English writer best known for his play Journey’s End, which was based on his experiences as a captain in World War I. He wrote several plays, novels, and screenplays, and was nominated for an Academy award and two BAFTA awards.

His works seem quite varied (his other Persephone, “The Fortnight in September”, sounds much gentler than THM!) and the Persephone site describes the book thus: The author of Journey’s End, the iconic play about WWI, was also a novelist and in 1939 he imagined what might happen if the moon crashed into the earth: the events leading up to the cataclysm are seen through the eyes of a retired schoolmaster who lives in a small Hampshire village.

So, sounds intriguing, no? In fact, I think this book will end up being one of my reads of the year because I should state up front that I absolutely loved it! The story opens with a Foreword by the Imperial Research Press of Addis Ababa, describing what follows as the only surviving document by an ordinary man about what turns out to be the fall of Western civilization. Edgar Hopkins is a middle-aged former schoolmaster, who lives in the little village of Beadle in Hampshire. He is a somewhat reclusive, slightly private man, a bit pernickity and obsessed with raising and showing chickens at a variety of local shows – his prize hen being called Broodie! Hopkins has a side interest in amateur astronomy and becomes an associate member of the British Lunar Society. He enjoys his regular trips up to London to attend meetings, and it is this interest that lets him become privy to a devastating secret – it has been discovered that the moon is gradually travelling closer to the Earth and in the following May it will collide with our planet.

The news is initially kept secret to allow the governments of the world to make plans – under the guise of anticipating a future war, dugouts are built and local committees set up to make preparations. In the meantime, poor Hopkins tries to carry on as normal, all the time carrying his secret knowledge with him. As the moon becomes so large in the sky that the truth can no longer be hidden, the Beadle villagers are marshalled by Sapper Evans, a Welsh soldier assigned to co-ordinate the survival plans. Meanwhile, Hopkins has befriended Colonel Parker who lives nearby, and his nephew and niece Robin and Pat; the young people bring a breath of new life to the repressed schoolteacher and the characters all try to clutch at some happiness before the cataclysm. As the fateful day approaches, the characters (and the reader!) are on tenterhooks – what will happen?

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Of course, I’m being a little disingenuous here – because the book opens with Edgar in Notting Hill, living in wretched circumstances and trying to survive long enough to tell his tale, it is obvious that the Earth won’t be destroyed – some humans will survive, and our interest is in how, who and also what will happen in the post-cataclysm world.

Well, yes – humans do survive, and those remaining start to rebuild life in England. The world after the moon’s arrival is perhaps a little unexpected, and people pull together and make plans and start to regain a little normality. Alas, this does not last for a long time – we know it will not from the foreword – and the peril comes from within and without…

“The approaching moon had been so remotely beyond human control that it drew humanity together in a bond of ennobling courage. But what thrill was there in the menace that stalked us now? – the menace of human greed and suspicion? The thin, brittle crust of prosperity that we had built over the ruins of the cataclysm would never stand the weight of human strife. Under the strain of war it must collapse in unspeakable chaos and misery. I feared my fellow creatures far more than I ever feared the moon.”

This really is a remarkable book on a number of levels – the quality of its writing, clarity of its vision and the fact it isn’t better known – which is quite shocking and plaudits must go to Persephone for bringing it back into print. It would be too easy and simplistic to label THM as just a piece of Wellsian sci-fi, because it’s not – it’s much more than that; a deep, thought-provoking work about human beings and how they will behave in a given set of circumstances. It’s also a gripping story, full of characters you come to know, love and care about. The settings and events are vivid and memorable, and I found myself unable to put the book down. I hadn’t actually noticed I was reading a chunkster – the book is 400 pages long! – but the length and pace is necessary for the gradual unfolding of the story. We are given time to watch the relationships develop, the progress of the moon to become public knowledge, the different characters reacting in their own way. The book would not have the same impact if it was rushed – as it is, I became completely absorbed, living the last poignant days of earth alongside the characters.

And absorbed is the right word – I found myself reading long into the night to find out what happened next. Sherriff is remarkably perceptive in his understanding and portrayal of people – from Robin and Pat, young people with their lives still ahead of them, bravely confronting the tragedies they meet; the drunken landlord of the local pub going into decline when the news breaks; the simpler villagers who either don’t understand or don’t believe; and the unpleasant survivors who start to come to the fore once regeneration has begun. Edgar Hopkins himself is a wonderfully engaging character. All too human, with his frailties and vanities, his preoccupation with his chicken breeding and local status, we can identify with him completely and empathise with his horror at the approaching catastrophe. He epitomizes the human spirit, finding the resolve to survive despite not being a natural hero; and we cheer him on in his small triumphs and share in his joys at finding moments of peace and companionship, even though we might laugh at his foibles.

“I thought of this wonderful year that was drawing to its close: this year of striding progress – the peace and gathering prosperity of Europe. All the bitterness and hostility, all the suspicions and racial hatreds that had threatened and darkened the closing years of the old world had gone forever. The nations of Europe had arisen from the ruins of the cataclysm, cleansed of greed, drawn into harmony by a common disaster; determined to build a new world in friendship and mutual respect. The cataclysm had almost destroyed us, but from the ashes had arisen the United States of Europe.”

Sci fi falls into a number of categories and this is the type I like – what might be more accurately titled visionary fiction – fantastic events happening in a familiar, believable landscape; Margaret Atwood and J.G. Ballard’s fiction often falls into this genre. What is excellent about this kind of writing is the freedom it gives the author to make a point. The word “allegory” becomes inevitable because of the context of THM. Written in the late 1930s and published in 1939, it is hard not to see the impending cataclysm of the moon as representing the storm clouds of war which were gathering over Britain. And the resourcefulness of the Beadle villagers and their indomitable survival and attempts at recovery eerily foreshadows the spirit of the Blitz and post-war reconstruction. The book focuses at points on the state of the British Empire and its redundancy is clear – Hopkins rejoices in the new egalitarian state that develops among humans, where class divides disappear and all mix happily together, working alongside one another for the common good. The afterword of the book discusses whether what Sherriff wrote would be possible, but to be honest I thought that whether the science is accurate or not is in some ways an irrelevancy; it is the human side of things the book is about. However, Hopkins/Sherriff is quite vocal about humanity’s greed and the lack of care we take of our planet in a way that anticipates ecological concerns.

This is a deep, rich, rewarding and eminently readable book which I can’t recommended enough – I have a serious book hangover now!

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