Home

The Ultimate Sacrifice – Virago Author of the Month

27 Comments

The Return of the Soldier by Rebecca West

Following on from the LibraryThing Virago group’s choice of Vita Sackville-West for January, our author of the month for February was the great Rebecca West. I struggled to get onto reading one of her books last month, finally picking it up right near the end; so a little belatedly, here is my review of her first  (and probably most well-known) work of fiction, “The Return of the Soldier”. Billed as a novel, at 160 pages with big type it’s a book you can read quickly; however, it gives much food for thought and I can see why it’s so highly regarded.

return-of-the-soldier

West is an author I’ve only read a little of (my review of her “The Harsh Voice” is here) but I have a large number of her books on the shelves. Had time been on my side I would have liked to spend time with one of her more substantial works – but then, this book has more substance to it than you might expect. “The Return of the Soldier” was written while the Great War was still taking place and published in 1918; narrated by a woman called Jenny, it tells the story of the return of her cousin Chris Baldry from the Front, back to his beautiful home on ‘the crest of Harrow-weald’ and the welcoming arms of his beautiful wife Kitty and of course Jenny (who appears to live with them).

As the book opens, the women are living in their gilded cage, relatively untouched by the War but surrounded by absence. As well as the fact that Chris is away fighting, they are also haunted by the loss of Chris and Kitty’s young son; the nursery has been left untouched and Kitty is often to be found in the room as if seeking comfort. The women have prepared an immaculate nest for their man and themselves, one that he was apparently sad to leave; it seems perfect, idyllic and slightly unreal, given what is happening in other parts of the world.

Strangeness had come into the house and everything was appalled by it, even time.

Crashing into this glittering facade comes a woman from the nearby town of Wealdstone; the place is described in stark terms as something of a blot on the picturesque local landscape, and Mrs. Grey is set forth in a cruel and patronising way. In fact, the reaction of Jenny and Kitty quite shocked me until I realised I was seeing her through the filter of their eyes; the descriptions of a working woman are harsh, representing her as a stereotype with cheap clothes and accessories, and worn face and hands, and I found their reaction hard to take.

Mrs. Grey has, somewhat surprisingly, come with news that Chris is ill. Why she should know and not his wife and cousin is not revealed at first, but as we read on we find that Margaret Grey, when she was a young innkeeper’s daughter, knew Chris Baldry very well. In fact, unlikely as it seems to Kitty and Jenny now, she was his first love and as he’s suffering from shell-shock and has blotted out the past 15 years, he’s pining to return to Margaret and the affection of his youth.

So Chris is brought home and despite the evidence before his eyes is unable to accept the reality of where and who he is. He cannot remember Kitty; Jenny is a childhood playmate; and to the astonishment of these sophisticated women, he has an instant bond with Margaret despite the coarsening effects upon her of age and a hard life. Chris is happy with Margaret and his life in the past; but can he be allowed to stay there or will the doctors brought in to treat him be able to bring him back to the present and the prospect of the return to battle?

For that her serenity, which a moment before had seemed as steady as the earth and as all-enveloping as the sky, should be so utterly dispelled made me aware that I had of late been underestimating the cruelty of the order of things. Lovers are frustrated; children are not begotten that should have had the loveliest life, the pale usurpers of their birth die young. Such a world will not suffer magic circles to endure.

“The Return of the Soldier” is a powerful first novel, and surprisingly complex for such a short work. West brilliantly builds up the initial setting, painting a picture of the lovely world created (mainly by Kitty) for Chris and initially as I read I accepted (with Jenny) that the house and location was wonderful and that all three were happy there. However, as I read on, the appalling snobbery of the women made it clear that this was a shallow, stale and worthless environment to live in, and the contrast of the superficial falsity of the controlled life Kitty had created, cold and barren, was made with the real, deep emotional life of Margaret. Jenny finds out the back-story from Margaret, and the relationship between her and Chris is touchingly revealed. The latter only seems to come properly alive when he’s with his first love, his attitude to Kitty (and all other beautiful women) seeming more as that of a man being very careful with a piece of fragile china. Little details, such as the fact that Chris had not even given his home address to the authorities when he enlisted, reveal how little attachment he had to his wife and home, and it’s clear that his life with them was meaningless.

The young Rebecca West

The young Rebecca West

Kitty herself is a clever and unpleasant creation; self-absorbed, controlling and ultimately selfish, she would rather Chris was made well to return to the battlefield and possible death, than stay in his happy world of 15 years ago with Margaret. As for the latter, she’s a fascinating creation; Jenny manages to recognise her worth, despite her prejudices, and she’s obviously a person of much more substance than the rich women. Her lot in life shows the difference that circumstances can make to a person because had she had the money and comforts Kitty and Jenny had, they would not have been able to make such harsh and hideous judgements about her.

Surely she must see that this was no place for beauty that has not been mellowed but lacerated by time, that no one accustomed to live here could help wincing at such external dinginess as hers…

The title of the book obviously has a double meaning; initially there is the physical return of Chris to his home, but there is also the eventual mental return from his place of safety to normality so he can tragically return to the fighting. Although the women are somewhat cut off from the War, they have their own kind of battle for Chris and it’s painful to watch. All of this is conveyed in beautiful, evocative prose and West’s writing is magnificent. To get so much into such a short book is a remarkable achievement, and reading “The Return of the Soldier” has really convinced me that I need to pick up more of those West books languishing on Mount TBR.

Advertisements

Exploring my Library – the Viragos!

58 Comments

I thought it was about time I shared a few more pictures of my very lovely library of books and this time I’ve decided on taking a look at my fairly extensive Virago collection! These have had to be photographed on the shelves and the picture quality isn’t going to be that brilliant as they were taken at a bit of an awkward angle and the lighting is not that great – so apologies for any fuzziness!

shelves-middle

As you can see, the Viragos *do* take up quite a lot of space in my library – spreading over several shelves and double stacked. And that’s after I had a little bit of a cull!

shelves-left

When I last had a bit of a tidy, I put all the books neatly in alphabetical order. That’s rather gone by-the-by thanks to the books that have come in since. And as you can see, the occasional non-Virago has slipped in when I had the book in a different edition or it’s a Virago author.

shelves-rights

More books from the right of the shelves – again plenty of overflow where new volumes have arrived, and all double stacked.

shelves-west-and-whartonThere are quite a few titles by Rebecca West and Edith Wharton, two wonderful and prolific writers. Needless to say, I’ve not read as many of these as I’d like to!

more-west-and-comps

The Wests have overflowed onto another shelf, where they’re joined by some Virago compilations.

taylorsAnd behind the Wests are some Rosamond Lehmanns and all my Elizabeth Taylors. I rather wish I had enough space to have all my books shelved in single rows because you do tend to forget what you have when it’s tucked behind other books.

I first started reading the Virago titles when the Modern Classics range began to take off in the late 1970s and possibly the first one I owned was Antonia White’s “Frost in May”, the very first VMC. Picking favourites is hard, but some of the earliest ones I read were these Steve Smiths:

smith

I loved these to bits but I haven’t read them for so long – the beautiful covers seem to really capture what’s best and most striking about VMC jacket design and I do wish they were still produced like this.

litvinov

Some more recent favourites are these books by Ivy Litvinov, a fascinating woman. Born in England, she married an exiled Russian revolutionary who ended up as a prominent Soviet diplomat. This collection of short stories and crime novel are marvellous!

peepshowAnd finally one of my favourite Viragos, a book that I read fairly recently when I started to rediscover the imprint after a bit of a gap – F. Tennyson Jesse’s “A Pin to see the Peepshow”. A fictionalised retelling of the Thompson/Bywaters murder case, it’s a wonderfully written piece of fiction which packs a huge emotional punch and brilliantly evokes the time and place it’s set in. If for nothing else than bringing back into to print this and other wonderful women’s writing, Virago would deserve a place in history. I’ve no doubt I shall always read Viragos and I hope you’ve enjoyed sharing some of my collection!

Memo to self……

22 Comments

….. don’t forget to check out the Pound shops for books – yes, really!

£1 books

I’ve tended to not bother in recent years, especially as I’m trying to be selective about the books coming into the house (and I’ve been donating weekly too). However, Grant at 1stReading mentioned a while back a find he’d had in Poundworld of all places, and I thought it was worth checking out – and there in the midst of celebrity memoirs and tales of footballers, was the Lessing! Bizarre, but to be snapped up instantly.

lessing

And whilst idling through Poundland (one of the three we now have locally……!!) I spotted the West biography, which was unexpected to say the least – plus there was only the one copy.

west

I’ve loads of Rebecca West on my shelves, but no biography so this sounded like an ideal place to start. And I read the introduction over a nice soy latte in Costa and it does read very well – what an intriguing woman West was.

So – two lovely hardbacks, albeit in not quite crisp condition, for £1 each. The moral of this tale is that bookish finds can happen in the most unlikely of places….

Leicester Comes Up Trumps Again!

35 Comments

Last weekend was a bit of a busy one, as we had to take Youngest Child back to Leicester for her final year at the university there. It’s always a bit of a dash, taking up most of Saturday (and weekends are precious when I’m back at work); but we knew we would see Eldest and Middle Child too, so that would be nice! I didn’t expect to be doing any bookshop haunting as time was so tight, and it was frustrating to know that the lovely Lorus Charity shop is not far away…

However, en route I got a call from Middle Child who was in the very same shop, and who proceeded to fire off a load of Virago titles at me to see if they were ones I wanted – and three of them were!

lorus

Left to right, we have a Mary Hocking (Indifferent Heroes), a Victoria Glendinning non-fiction Virago (A Suppressed Cry) and very excitingly, Infinite Riches, a collection of short stories. The latter is very existing and timely, as I was only reading about it on Buried In Print’s lovely blog the other day, and this particular copy is in amazingly good condition.  So huge thanks go to Middle Child, Ace Virago-Finder!

It was lovely to see all three offspring together, and we made such good time on the journey home that I had time to pop into town for some errands. And as I was dropped at the far end of town where I don’t normally venture, I decided to visit the Mind charity shop which I don’t often frequent (although they do have good books – I picked up a Slightly Foxed hardback last time!) Surprisingly enough, there were treats to be found here too:

mind

Yes, I *know* there are already two copies of “The Return of the Soldier” in the house; but this is a beautiful, first generation Virago in again amazingly good condition, and well worth 90p of anyone’s money. The Solzhenitsyn sounds fascinating – ’nuff said.

I guess going to the Oxfam was reckless – and when I got inside to find that they were having a 49p sale and that the sale table was plastered with old orange Penguins, green crime Penguins and blue Pelicans (amongst others), I did rather have the vapours. But I exercised strict restraint and only came home with these:

oxfam 49p

Well, you hardly ever see Aldiss in second hand shops. And I know something about Constant Lambert but I can’t remember what it is – no doubt all will become clear eventually.

So today’s Viragos are rather wonderful:

3 viragos

And the last couple of weeks has brought me 7 lovely Viragos in total:

7 viragos

The question is – what to read next???

Larkin About – plus the books just keep on coming….

25 Comments

I have been trying very, *very* hard to restrict the incoming books recently – and I’m still weeding out and donating – but alas there have been new arrivals recently…

The weekend before last I deliberately only went to the Oxfam bookshop, and thought I was going to get away safely until I spotted a collection of Philip Larkin’s prose tucked away on a lower shelf:

larkin 1

Needless to say, it was quite essential that this came home with me and got added to the nice little pile of Larkins you can see behind it. In fact, here is the pile with the new Larkin integrated. Well, let’s face it, you can never have too much Larkin, can you?

larkin 2

The week’s post brought some nice new arrivals, too, mostly in the form of a big parcel from Middle Child containing the following:

middle child

What a sweetie she is! I was particularly pleased with the “Pepita” as it’s not a Virago I have, and the West is an upgrade. The two Raving Beauties poem collections look fascinating and the final book sounds very intriguing. I’ve heard of Nicole Ward Jouve before, I think in connection with a book about Colette, so that bodes well.

The postie also brought these two lovelies via RISI:

jims end

I have a fairly gnarled copy of “Howard’s End” and so was happy to upgrade. As for “Lucky Jim” – well, as there’s such a big Larkin connection I do feel I should read it!

Finally post-wise is this:

mew

I read about Mew recently in a little book called “Bloomsbury and the Poets” (review to follow) and thought she sounded a fascinating author and that her work definitely warranted investigation, so I sent off for a copy. The Virago volume collects together all her poetry and prose and having dipped in I’m looking forward to it.

Finally, to the most recent weekend’s finds. Again, I went to donate at the Samaritans, and I came out with this:

chateau

I’ve read a *lot* about Maxwell but never seen one of his books turn up before, and this one does sound good. And on to the Oxfam, where again I thought I would get out unscathed, until I thought I’d see on the off-chance if there was any Brian Aldiss – which there was….

aldiss interpreter

I very rarely see his books in the charity shops so I snapped up this one, with its wonderfully dated cover!

Needless to say, I’m not reading any of these at the moment. I’ve just finished a re-read of “Dead Souls” (oh my! what an amazing book) and I have a massive book hangover….

Margery Sharp Day – plus other bookish ramblings!

13 Comments

margery-sharp-day

Today is the 110th birthday of author Margery Sharp, and Jane at Fleur in her World has declared it “Margery Sharp Day” in celebration. Sharp is an author much-beloved in blogging circles, particularly those of us who congregate around the LibraryThing Virago group – and in fact the imprint has brought her book “The Eye of Love” back into the public eye, though sadly most of her adult work seems to be out of print.

A number of bloggers are featuring her work today, including Jane herself, as well as HeavenAli and Kirsty at the Literary Sisters. I’m sure there are going to be many, many more posts today, so keep an eye on Fleur in Her World to see what’s happening. Hopefully the following that Sharp has might interest a publisher enough to make them consider some reprints – we can but hope!

As for me, I own two Margery Sharp titles and here they are:

sharp

I had a minor crisis recently when I couldn’t find “The Nutmeg Tree” (not an uncommon occurrence, with the piles of books lying about the house) but it did turn up – a lovely old paperback I picked up from Claude Cox Books a while back. Alas, I am currently submerged in review books so I haven’t been able to read either of these titles – but I’m sure I will get to them eventually! In the meantime, happy birthday Margery!

*********

stack

Meanwhile, I almost felt like declaring yesterday Rebecca West day, thanks to some new arrivals!  A lovely LibraryThinger from Canada, Cathy, had sent me a copy of West’s “The Thinking Reed” some time ago; it’s one of her titles I’ve been keen to read and Cathy had a spare. It popped through the door yesterday and I’m very excited – and the cover, as with most original green Viragoes, is just lovely. The West theme continued when I discovered a pristine copy of “Cousin Rosamund” for £1 in the Sue Ryder Charity Shop. I already have quite a good version but was happy to upgrade!

west

Other new arrivals shown in the stack of books came from the Oxfam:

parade madrid

“Parade’s End” was there two weeks ago when I was last in, and I was strong and didn’t buy it, and then instantly regretted it. Fortunately, it was still there yesterday…. And the Mendoza title is from MacLehose/Quercus and so picking it up was a no-brainer.

The final books in the pile are from the library:

library

Both the Fitzgerald and the Modiano are books I want to read – but whether I shall get round to them is another matter! 🙂

1-virginia-woolf-1882-1941-granger

And last, but not least (as they say) – today is also the birthday of the wonderful Virginia Woolf, one of my favourite writers ever. Nobody uses words like Woolf.

Each has his past shut in him like the leaves of a book known to him by his heart, and his friends can only read the title.
Happy birthday Virginia!

A book-buying Jaunt to Leicester!

20 Comments

It has been a little manic here lately at the Ramblings – in fact, it’s been a bit of year with family ill-health and changes in personal life, culminating in the tension waiting for Youngest Child’s A level results to see if she has got a university place. So it was rather lovely to take a few days out recently to visit Middle Child in Leicester – which obviously involved a little book hunting also, as the city does seem to be spoiled with charity shops! We also got the opportunity to visit the Aged Parents, who live half an hour from Leicester by train, so that was rather nice too. I took Eldest Child and Youngest Child with me so it was quite a reunion!

Another fun extra from this trip was visiting the local art gallery in New Walk and seeing some amazing Lyonel Feininger paintings. And the Richard III dig was close by so we had a quick look at this and the exhibition about the excavations – fascinating!

Oddly enough, I noticed this visit how lacking Leicester is in traditional bookshops – or indeed dedicated second-hand bookstores. This seems a little strange, as it’s a university city, yet it has one Waterstones (not that big a branch although the staff were very helpful and knowledgeable). Apart from that, I found one actual second-hand book shop in The Lanes, and that was it apart from the charity shops. Middle Child reckons that people mainly order online because students can’t afford new stuff – a sad tendency but one I can identify with :s

While in Leicester I did have a little bit of a reading crisis, as I had foolishly only taken one book with me to read – Olivia Manning’s “The Spoilt City”, which I finished quite early in the visit (review to follow). I had reckoned on finding a new book or two in Leicester – which I did, but for reasons below, I couldn’t read any of them! This caused much angst as there was nothing on Middle Child’s shelves I hadn’t already read, so I ended up with Christie’s “The ABC Murders” (which I love very much, but didn’t take me long to get through) and then survived on an anniversary edition of New Statesman and Sherlock Holmes stories on MC’s K****e! I was *very* glad to get back to my books!

On to newbies! I was hoping for Viragos as I usually find them in the Loros Charity Bookshop but in fact MC found the first for me in the Age Concern shop for £1.25:

nymphMargaret Kennedy has passed across my radar quite a bit lately so I was delighted to find a copy of her most famous book. It’s been previously well-loved, obviously, but is all intact so I’m happy to give it a new home!

whiteObviously I am a bit of a Virago collector, and for a long time I’ve been trying to get the three Antonia White books that follow on from Frost in May, the first ever Virago. These were the last two I needed and so coming across them in the Age Concern bookshop for £1.75 each in great nick was a delight! I’ve had to update my wish list on LibraryThing following this trip to Leicester…

westThese were my last finds – “The Edwardians” and “Cousin Rosamund” in wonderful condition, for £2 each in the actual secondhand bookshop (which worryingly had a lot less stock than my last visit) I enjoyed my recent read of West a lot so this was a great find!

The observant among you might wonder why I couldn’t read one of these when I was having my book crisis – well the Whites and West are later books in a series, and I just didn’t fancy starting one of the others because in truth I was in the mood to read some Graham Greene for SavidgeReads‘ Greene for Gran event. I have now started “No Man’s Land”, a lovely little Hesperus Greene which I am enjoying immensely.

As a postscript, on my return a package was awaiting me with a new (old) book via the wonderful ReadItSwapIt – another one from my wish list:

strickenSo August has proved to be a good month for Virago hunting!

(and as another postscript, Youngest Child passed with flying colours and has got the university place she wanted – yay!)

Older Entries

%d bloggers like this: