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Four Fabulous Finds – and my first Dial Press Virago!

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So, I have finally found 5 minutes to take snaps of the lovely finds from last week’s charity shop searches – truly, this is disastrous for the TBR, but still very satisfying. Three of these lovely books come from my favourite place, the Samaritans Charity Book shop. The staff are so lovely and helpful that they now look out for green Viragos for me, and told me last week that when they went to the central storage place to pick up more books they were trying to spot the green spines – isn’t that amazing?

Anyway, this week I came away with three nice volumes from this place – firstly:

english 1

“English Journey” by J.B. Priestley is a book I’ve wanted to read for a long time, and this nice hardback was reasonably priced and is quite an early edition – so it made its way into my shopping bag!

Next up was a green Virago by an author I’ve not read before:

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in very lovely condition and saved for me by the Samaritan shop people!

I was very chuffed with my third find – a black cover Dial Press Virago!

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“Mrs. Palfrey” is a book I already have, of course, but I thought it was about time I had a Dial Press Virago in my collection, and for £1this fitted the bill! Great finds at a great shop!

The other acquisition was from the Oxfam Book Shop:

wentworth I confess to being unable to remember whether I’ve actually read a Patricia Wentworth ‘Miss Silver’ but I read so many crime novels in my youth and twenties that I’m sure I must have. However, I can’t recall a single detail, so as these are classic crime stories, I’m picking them up when I come across them, hoping I will like them! So, some nice finds and now I should try to have a slight prune of the books I have but don’t really need to keep – just to free up a little more shelf space!!

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Fabulous Finds: Some pre-Christmas Virago Lovelies

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OK, I know it’s nearly Christmas and I shouldn’t be buying any books, just waiting to see what Santa brings – but a couple of new Viragos have made their way onto my shelves. It just couldn’t be helped!

The first up is this lovely Elizabeth Taylor:

Previously I only had a modern version of this title, but I was lucky enough to be picked out of the (digital) hat to win this thanks to Dee and her lovely posts on Laura’s site – thanks Dee! The cover is gorgeous and makes me want to read this book all over again.

The second is this:

Now I confess that Northanger Abbey is one of my favourite Austens, but the copy I have is an ancient, tatty cheap one – so this lovely volume, for £2 in the charity shop, was impossible to resist!

So, sorry Santa – but I promise I will be *very* excited if I get any books tomorrow 😉

Recent Reads: Bright Young People by D.J. Taylor

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The genesis of my reading of this book is a little convoluted, as it had its roots in a number of things. I suppose it could have started when I read an intriguing review of “Crazy Pavement” by Beverley Nichols on the 1900-1950 blog. But then, I’ve been gathering Nancy Mitford volumes for a little while, adding to the height of the tbr pile. Also, I picked up a copy of Frances Osborne’s “The Bolter” and many of the characters in this were ‘Bright Young People’. Finally, I succumbed to a copy of Michael Arlen’s “The Green Hat”, partly because the Capuchin Classic looked so lovely and partly because it sounded fun.

So, with a developing interest in the Bright Young People of the ’20s, I did a little online research which led me to an article extracted from this book, “Bright Young People” by D.J. Taylor. It sounded fascinating and I was lucky enough to pick up a copy in a charity bookstore in Leicester recently (a lot cheaper than Amazon, for once, and in lovely condition). I hadn’t read any non-fiction for a while, so it seemed a good book to start on my return from the Leicester visit.

“BYP” is a study of the lives and loves and partying that took place among a group of mostly very upper class people during the post-World War 1 1920s. Some of the participants I had heard of – Cecil Beaton, Nancy Mitford, Stephen Tennant, Evelyn Waugh; but some were not so well-known to me – Brian Howard, Elizabeth Ponsonby, Brenda Dean Paul, Gavin Henderson, Inez Holden. In the aftermath of the War, with a generation of men having been wiped out, the young of Britain were somewhat directionless. With the lack of structure and focus, and with all the old certainties swept away, the young began to party hard, gaining a media presence which was perhaps the first modern representation of the celebrity culture we see today. Taylor follows the group’s exploits through to the changes of the 1930s and war, even taking the story up to the present day and the eventual fate of most of the members.

This was a remarkably good read for a number of reasons. Firstly, I very much liked the structure of the book: instead of simply telling a linear tale, each chapter focuses on a particular aspect of the BYP – their parties, generational issues, gay issues, literature produced etc. This gives Taylor the opportunity to reflect in depth on their behaviour and achievements in a way that a more straightforward narrative would not have. Another strong point was the wealth of research material which had obviously been sourced. Taylor was blessed by several resources, one in particular standing out which was the diaries of the parents of Elizabeth Ponsonby. Both of her parents were inveterate recorders of their daily lives and thoughts, and the material from these painted a poignant picture of their relationship with Elizabeth, their attempts to help her find her way in life, their struggles with her debts and their despair at her lifestyle.

Another fascination for me was the connections the book uncovered with authors I’m already exploring. I recently read Cyril Connolly’s “The Rock Pool” and it turns out that the author had BYP connections and also that the  book was full of BYP in-jokes! Likewise, Anthony Powell’s autobiography is much quoted as a source in “BYP” as he was a friend and contemporary of Waugh and despite a more middle class background still mixed in the same circles. And Robert Byron, who I’ve been reading recently and knew as a travel writer and highly regarded Byzantinist, was surprisingly also a BYP. (I say surprisingly, but given the number of silly ass friends he has with him in “Europe in The Looking Glass”, it should have been obvious!)

A strong point of this book is its objectivity. I recoiled a lot from Frances Osborne’s “The Bolter” for many reasons, including the author’s obvious wish to justify her ancestor’s terrible behaviour and paint her as a victim (as well as its lack of real research and sources). Taylor is remarkably even-handed – although many of the BYP are not the sort who you’d like to spend a night with, he is neither judgemental or hagiographic. Instead, while relating the stories of these people’s lives, he is balanced and fair. It would be easy to condemn the BYP for shallowness and hedonism, but Taylor understands the reasons for their actions. He also very astutely realises that they have all the characteristics of any youth movement before and since – a rejection of previous standards, a refusal to conform to their parents’ wishes, a need to shock. And as with every such wave of rebellion, the participants (mostly) eventually grown up and conform in one way or another. In the case of the BYP, the advent of Nazism was enough to focus the minds of the majority of them on reality and indeed several members served their country in one way or another during WWII.

I felt one of the most apt paragraph came in the chapter dealing with BYP works of literature. Taylor states:

“Beneath… though, lies something much more disquieting. Unsurprisingly, the fundamental concerns of Bright Young People novels turn out to be those of the Bright Young People themselves: generational conflict; doubts about the value of human relationships; the resigned expectation of unpleasant things to come. The future, as conceived by a Powell, a Mitford, or a Waugh is never a rosy blur but something hard, sharp and ominous.”

This seems to me to highlight the frantic sense of desperation that underlay the period and its incessant drinking and partying. The end results were not pretty and many of the characters – Brenda Dean Paul, Elizabeth Ponsonby and Brian Howard in particular – suffered very sad ends. But the impact of the First World War cannot be understated – there had never been a War like it, and a whole generation emerged determined to break free of the kind of society that had allowed such destruction to take place. The tragedy is that in many cases they ended up destroying themselves.

Virago Volumes: The Wedding Group by Elizabeth Taylor

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As followers of the LibraryThing Virago Modern Classics group will know, we have been reading all 12 of Elizabeth Taylor’s novels to celebrate her centenary this year.

“The Wedding Group” is Elizabeth Taylor’s 10th novel and was published in 1968, towards the end of her career. The story contrasts two types of lifestyle, the first being that of Harry Bratton, a painter compared in the text to Augustus John. Henry presides at Quayne, a commune-like residence where he reigns supreme over his acolytes – wife Rachel, his three daughters and their wives, his grandchildren and even a tame priest, Fr. Daughtry (as the whole group is Catholic). The collective live a simple, rural life with home-made food and clothes, no modern technology or conveniences and what could be perceived as very much a hippie/back to nature approach.

The local village is represented by David Little, a journalist, his divorced mother Midge, plus antique shop owners Toby and Alexia Moorhead (who are brother and sister). Other characters are David’s father Archie, his great-aunt Sylvie plus Mrs. Brindle, who ‘does’ for both groups. This world has experienced the coming of modernisation – televisions, Wimpy bars, fast cars, modern disposable clothes.

The bridge between these two words is Cressida, daughter of Harry’s daughter Rose and her husband Joe. Cressy declares casually at breakfast one day that she has lost her faith – a shocking revelation to her mother in particular, as the faith referred to is not only the Catholic one, but that of a belief in Quayne itself and its way of life. Cressy longs for the modern world with a very much a grass-is-greener attitude – possibly inherited from her father Joe, who has in effect abandoned all effort and succumbed to the Quayne way of life instead of continuing with his writing.

David writes an article on Quayne which brings him into the orbit of Cressy, who then breaks away by taking a job at the antique shop and then by actually leaving Quayne and living in the Moorheads’ attic. Despite an age gap, David and Cressy marry but the meeting of worlds is not necessarily a meeting of minds.

This is just a brief indication of the storyline because this is a remarkable rich and complex book. It tackles a surprising number of issues for such a short work – generational differences, the clash between modernisation and traditional values, the inherent sexism of the commune set-up, the dangers of isolating oneself from the real world, the difficulties of breaking away from parents – and more! The novel also focuses on a number of delicate and complex relationships – Alexia and Toby’s, which relies on solitude; David and Midge’s rather warped one which displays mutual dependence; Cressy and the commune then Cressy and the outside world, both of which she cannot really cope with; and Aunt Sylvie and Archie, stuck in a routine of pointless habit.

As usual with Taylor, there is a wonderful array of characters. As has been remarked elsewhere, some of her sub-plots and incidental scenes are good enough to stand on their own out of the novel! Mrs. Brindle, who takes gossip between the two groups, is a real hoot. The Moorheads too are an intriguing couple – children of a rector, so self-contained that they ought to be twins and finding it hard to cope with the interruption to their routine of having Cressy in the attic.

The Quayne collective are a perfect representation of communal life – a central figure surrounded by a collection of devotees, mainly female handmaids, who minister to the men’s every needs. This is taken to the furthest extreme by Leofric Welland, the crony of Harry who impregnates one of his grandchildren Pet. Pet’s pregnancy develops at the same time as the more orthodox, marital one of Cressy and it is interesting to see the differences between the two women. Pet is much calmer and more matter of fact, carrying on pretty much with her normal life, whereas Cressy craves, eats too much, has mood swings and cannot cope with the baby when it arrives. Whether this just reflects the difference in the two girls’ temperaments, or whether it is meant to represent the different environments in which they exist is perhaps unclear.

 

Midge and David are in many ways the mother and son from hell! Midge’s husband Archie left her many years ago, and if he is to be believed, she was a slovenly wife, unable to cook and harsh, unpleasant and sarcastic to be around. If this is true, she has given herself a complete makeover to keep her son tied to her apron strings, as she is now always immaculately groomed and an excellent cook. Maybe this is meant to represent the differing perceptions we can have of a person, or maybe it is literal – it doesn’t really matter in the end. But Midge is a lonely and needy person, terrified of being on her own and with a totally empty life. When David is away, she has no resources to draw upon, nothing to do to occupy herself and rattles round the house in a panic. Because she has invested so much of herself in her son, she is dangerous when threatened.

However, oddly enough, Midge does not immediately perceive Cressy as a threat. She semi-adopts the girl, somewhat like a new toy to play with, something to occupy herself while David is away. Midge attempts to educate Cressy in the ways of the world, teaching her to dance, how to dress, and cooking lovely meals for her. I don’t think she was quite expecting that David would marry Cressy but when he does, she is well prepared to keep Cressy close to her and therefore David also.

One of the strongest strands in the story is Midge’s rather sinister annexing of Cressy for her own uses. She pampers her and fattens her up, rather like the Snow Queen in the fairy tale, making the poor girl entirely dependent on her. When the baby is born, and Cressy is a nervous and incapable mother, Midge takes complete control and Cressy lapses back into her slothful way of life, eating tins of beans and watching TV while things crumble around her. It is quite clear that Cressy has no way of dealing with the modern world, approaching it wide-eyed, straightforward and therefore vulnerable. David is soon dissatisfied with his marriage, longing to break away from the bleakness of country life but unable to leave his mother or his wife. It is inevitable that he drifts into an affair with Nell, an acquaintance from London and for a while I wondered where the story was going to go.

However, the recurring theme of dependence gives us the answer – Archie has cared for Aunt Sylvie for so long that when she dies, he just fades away too, leaving David with money and a determination to move to London with Cressy and start a new life. However, I felt the book ended a little ambiguously, with Midge still caring for the baby while David is plotting to get away. Will he have the strength to break away or will Midge’s grip on them all be too tight? As Taylor comments, Cressy fought a battle with grandfather and won, but doesn’t even realise there is a fight with Midge, and her rebellion seems more from a wish to be left lazily alone than anything else.

Apparently the character of Harry Bratton was based on that of the artist Eric Gill, who lived near Taylor while she was growing up and for whom she is reputed to have posed. Certainly, her depiction of the artistic colony is masterly. I enjoyed “The Wedding Group” a lot more than I expected to. This is a dark book with a scope perhaps missing in some of Taylor’s other works. Using the two differing cultures to represent a wide clash that was taking place in society as she wrote, she portrays the collision of very incompatible worlds. The characters were not particularly loveable, but they were human and complex and interesting.

A Busy and Unusual week – plus a quick round up

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My weeks are normally quite straightforward nowadays – work Monday to Friday, shopping in the Big Town Saturdays and recovering Sundays. This week there were a couple of variations to the usual theme!


On Wednesday I had the great delight of a night out at the local Concert Venue to see one of my favourite 80s bands live in concert – Ultravox! It was a grand gig – two long sets of just Ultravox with an interval in the middle. The guys were on great form and played every Ultravox song you could possibly want to hear, including my favourite off the new album “Brilliant”. I missed them on the reunion tours a couple of years ago, so I was *very* pleased they decided to visit the Big Town on this tour. Needless to say, I spent a happy few hours dancing about at the front of the stage in a very undignified manner – and consoling myself with the fact that I was not the oldest, greyest or largest person there and that I was having a whale of a time!

Having tired myself out so that I was looking forward to a nice quiet weekend, Youngest Child decided with two days’ notice that we had to visit the Leicester University open day on Saturday – despite the fact that we have been to Leicester many times and that Middle Child has studied there. I suppose the fact she wants to take a different subject is relevant. So we were up at the crack of dawn on Saturday for a long day of train travelling and traipsing round. There were some good points though (as well as the fact that the visit was a success and Leicester Uni was very pleasing to YC) – I got a lot of reading time on the train and also got to visit my favourite Leicester charity bookshop and as well got to have lunch with Middle Child and her boyfriend! So it was an exhausting day, but a lovely one!

I managed to read the whole of Elizabeth Taylor’s “The Wedding Group” on the journey there (which gave me a good excuse to buy another book, as it was the only one I had brought with me!) and very much enjoyed it and will review when I can get my head together. Meanwhile, here are some thoughts on a couple of books I’ve read this week:

Simenon – The Sailors’ Rendezvous

This is an early Maigret title (1931 I think) and a very good one. A friend of the detective calls in a favour and so instead of his usual holiday destination, Maigret and his wife head north to Fecamp, on the English channel, where the skipper of a fishing trawler called the Ocean has been killed. There is an obvious suspect but no clear motive, and much dark muttering about the ship travelling under an evil eye, accidents and deaths on board and strange behaviour by the upper echelons of the crew. Maigret cannot get clear in his mind what has caused the murder and who did it, despite tracking down a female of suspect morals and her crony. The book’s strength is in a remarkable section at the end where Maigret sits on the vessel and literally *thinks* himself into the mentality of the various characters and works out the solution. A wonderful piece of psychological writing by Simenon and a very satisfying book.

David Garnett – Lady Into Fox/The Man in the Zoo

After reading Simon’s piece on”The Man in the Zoo”  here, I decided to dig my copy of Lady into Fox out for a read – and discovered that alas I must have disposed of it on an ill-advised clear out of books – not good….. So Amazon came to the rescue with a nice little Evergreen Books edition that also contained The Man in The Zoo. I read both short novellas in one sitting and was most impressed – possibly more so with The Man in the Zoo. As a vegetarian (and therefore somewhat anti-hunting) I found the trauma of the poor hero of Lady Into Fox whilst trying to protect his transformed wife from the hounds almost unbearable. But both books were interesting examinations of what makes us human and keeps animals as beasts, and seeing how the zoo specimens reacted to the human member of their community was intriguing. Very clever little stories and most enjoyable!

As mentioned, I hope to post about “The Wedding Group” soon – I thought it was remarkable and one of the Taylors I’ve enjoyed most!

Elizabeth Taylor Centenary: In A Summer Season – Week 4 – Art Imitating Life (or Vice Versa)

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It’s week four of our read-along of “In a Summer Season” by Elizabeth Taylor, and hopefully everyone is getting along well with the book. This week I would like to consider a slightly controversial aspect of the novel as highlighted in Nicola Beaman’s biography of the writer. I suppose I should nail my colours to the mast here and state that I rate the biography very highly. I think Beauman did a remarkable job of presenting a balanced and fair book, straying on the side of discretion and handling the objections of the family as best she could. I accept that for some reason Taylor’s son and daughter objected to the book, but bearing in mind that Taylor’s husband had given his permission, I cannot see why. It’s not as if Beauman was portraying Taylor as a mad axe-murdered or child-abuser, after all, and it can’t be said that her behaviour resembled that of the narrator of “The Aspern Papers”! However, accepting that there are differing opinions, if you aren’t happy with the elements of the Beauman biog it may be best to look away now!

According to Beauman, in the mid 1950s while the Taylor family were living in Penn Cottage, they were friendly with the Blakely family. The son, David, is best known nowadays as having been killed by Ruth Ellis, the last woman to be hanged in Britain. This is not the place to debate the rights and wrongs of the case or the hanging – I would simply refer you to the case of Edith Thompson and advise a reading of F. Tennyson Jesse’s “A Pin to See The Peepshow” (incidentally one of the best books I have ever read). But David was a friend of the Taylor family, had spent time with Elizabeth’s son Renny while he was ill, and Beauman asserts that the character of Dermot is based on David Blakely. Taylor’s daughter disputes this, but whatever the truth, Beauman quotes a letter from Taylor to Ivy Compton-Burnett admitting that she had been attracted to David and much of IASS is concerned with the aspect of the attractions of a younger man for an older woman. David Blakely was no young innocent (Wikipedia describes him as a hard-drinking racer, and he is reported to have beaten his girlfriend) and Dermot in IASS has some traits in common with him, with his fast cars and constant need for the nearest pub or bottle of whisky. Indeed, Dermot’s fecklessness and bad behaviour is portrayed as attractive and indulged at the start of the book but becomes dangerous and even fatal by the climax.

The milieu the characters occupy is that in which Taylor and her friends and family moved, and it is hard not to feel that Taylor is using her life and her surroundings in her art. Nicola Beauman considers this to be one of Taylor’s strongest books owing to the fact that she was writing about characters and places she knew well. I tend to agree with this view and I actually felt that this is the best Taylor I have read so far. But it is a common tendency in readers to conflate the writer and his/her characters and so it is hard to actually quantify how much of her own life Taylor put into her books.

So many of the Virago books we read could be described as presenting everyday life as art, and it occurs to me that this might be a particularly female type of writing.  Of course, I do feel that all authors use their lives in their work to a varying degree, and because of the limitations and constrictions of women’s lives in the past, their experience would be largely domestic. What do other readers think?

Elizabeth Taylor Centenary: In A Summer Season – Week 3 – The Review!

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Time for the review of “In A Summer Season”, and if you haven’t yet finished the book, there will be SPOILERS! so look away now.

“In a Summer Season” takes place over one summer in the life of Kate Heron and her family and friends. Kate is a ‘middle aged’ woman, by which we place her in her forties, married to a second husband, Dermot, who is some years her junior. Kate has two grown up children, Tom and Louise, and the household is made up of a maiden aunt, Ethel, plus cook Mrs. Meacock. Kate and Dermot’s marriage is looked upon askance by most of the locals who were friends of Kate and her late husband Alan, and the extended family (including Dermot’s mother Edwina). Then there are Charles Thornton and his wife Araminta who only join the book fully in the second section, entitled “The Return of the Thorntons”. Add to this the peripheral characters of Fr. Blizzard and Vicar, Kate’s father-in-law (from her first marriage) Sir Alfred, Ethel’s friend Gertrude, a gaggle of local ladies doing good works for the church and even Kate’s London hairdresser, and you have the usual finely-drawn set of characters you can expect from an Elizabeth Taylor novel. There are also the absent ones – the late Alan, and Dorothea, who was Kate’s best friend and Charles’s wife. From the very start of the book, we get the sense of loss that Kate feels having lost Dorothea. We never learn how Alan and Dorothea died, but they are a constant presence in the existence of those who have carried on living.

The first section of the book starts at the beginning of the summer, with Kate visiting her mother-in-law Edwina. From the discussions between them it does not take long to establish Dermot’s character and as the book progresses it is clear that the marriage is a troubled one. Although Kate and Dermot clearly love each other and have a good sexual relationship, there is no great depth portrayed. Their interests are different (as Taylor shows well in several scenes) and their mutual attraction is not enough to build a marriage on. Meanwhile, Kate’s children struggle with their own issues – Lou, with her passion for the curate Father Blizzard (what a wonderful name!) and Tom with his humiliating employment in the lower rungs of his grandfather’s firm. Meanwhile, Mrs. Meacock the cook, who is a wonderfully rounded character in her own right, wrestles with menopausal symptoms and produces a quaint array of American style dishes for the family

Everything is turned upside down, however, by the return of the Thorntons. Araminta has grown up into a very strange young woman, sexually attractive to Tom, Dermot and seemingly every other man she meets. Charles is safe and ordinary and much as Kate had remembered him. It is obvious that he has much more in common with Kate than Dermot and their conversation instantly becomes exclusive, covering interests they share and people they know, cutting Dermot out of the loop. Tom pursues Araminta who is so detached it’s quite ridiculous and she also meets up with Dermot on her return from her days in London modelling.

Kate and Dermot’s relationship begins to unravel and as I neared the end of the book I did wonder how Taylor was going to wrap it up. The resolution is a dramatic one, and in choosing to kill off her two most sexually motivated characters, Taylor may be meting out some kind of divine retribution for their fickleness and disloyalty.

This is a rich and complex novel which can hardly be done justice in a short review, and I think it’s possibly the Elizabeth Taylor book I’ve enjoyed the most so far. Her portrayal of the characters and scenes is masterly, and they’re so well drawn they become real. The dinner party scene, with its shifting viewpoints, is a positive joy. In contrast to some of her novels, which I feel have had a central, dominant female character with the rest of the lesser ones orbiting her, this book was much more rounded. All of the main players had fully developed characters and existed in their own right.

The novel is also an interesting jump into the current world, in contrast to “Angel” which came before it. Televisions, teddy boy haircuts, sports cars and the trappings of modern life are creeping into the book. Taylor contrasts the attitudes of the older generation, still stuck in their rigid way of life, with the younger characters who are starting to kick against this. If “Angel” was set in the no-man’s-land of the historical novel, “IASS” starts to confront the changes that were happening in society at the time Taylor was writing. I rate this book very highly and I’d be interested to hear what other readers think.

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