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Today on the Ramblings, I’m very happy to be taking part in a blog tour for one of the new releases in the British Library Woman Writers series – the book in question is “A Pin to See the Peepshow” by F. Tennyson Jesse and it actually plays a part in my embarking upon my blogging life! You see, back in the early 2010s I rediscovered Virago Modern Classics at the same time as I started reading book blogs. I had been a huge fan in the early years, but bringing up the three Offspring had kind of got in the way of books at times. However, as they flew the nest, I really got back into reading, and the Viragos led me to LibraryThing’s wonderful VMC group. It was here I finally got the impetus to start up my own blog, and nearly 10 years later am still here.

One of the VMCs I read pre-blog was, of course, “Pin…” and it was probably the most important title in drawing me back to the books and exploring much of the back catalogue I’d missed. Since then I believe the book has slipped out of print, despite its high profile in the 1970s particularly (when it was the subject of a BBC adaptation). But I’m giving this personal history here so you’ll understand how happy I am that “Pin” has been reissued by British Library Publishing; I think it’s a wonderful and enormously important book and thoroughly deserves to be widely read, and I’ll try to explain why; although inevitably there is the risk here of me giving away some plot details.

“Pin…”, originally published in 1934, draws its core material from the notorious Thompson/Bywaters case of the 1920s, a case Jesse would no doubt have been familiar with as she covered a number of high-profile trials during her writing career for “Notable British Crimes”. She was so fascinated by the subject that she also wrote a book analysing the motivations behind crimes; so when it came to writing “Pin..” she already had a proven track record in dealing with crime and murder.

The lovely new BL cover

Set in the early decades of the 20th century, the book’s protagonist is a young woman, Julia Almond, whose inflated sense of her own worth will lead to tragedy. Born into a dull suburban setting, she dreams of a more passionate, exciting life and her work in a fashionable clothes shop in London’s West End gives her an outlet for her fantasies. Desperate to get away from the stultifying atmosphere at her parents’ home she makes an ill-advised marriage to the older, tragically dull and recently widowed Herbert Starling. However, a chance meeting with the much younger Leonard Carr, whom she knew at school, will eventually lead to an affair, murder and a trial – as well as damning misogynistic judgements about her behaviour and way of life. As anyone who knows the story of the Thompson/Bywaters case will realise, things will not end well for Julia…

The floor of the box was covered with cotton-wool, and a frosting of sugar sprinkled over it. Light came into the box from the red-covered window at the far end, so that a rosy glow as of sunset lay over the sparkling snow. Here and there little brightly-coloured men and women, children and animals of cardboard, conversed or walked about. A cottage, flanked by a couple of fir trees, cut from an advertisement of some pine-derivative cough cure, which Julia saw every day in the newspaper, gave an extraordinary impression of reality and of distance.

It’s a little difficult to say a lot more about the plot without giving away too much, and in fact if you can go into this book knowing little about the case which inspired it I think the effect of reading it would be even stronger. Jesse writes quite brilliantly, for one thing, conjuring her heroine and the setting vividly. Julia is living in a world where things are changing for some and the old social mores are being thrown off; although as she will find, class is still a major issue and what the monied can get away with, she can’t. Trapped desperately in her affair, craving her lover yet afraid to leave her husband because of the security he offers, she has no real way out; in that era, women’s choices and opportunities were very limited. Then Leo takes dramatic action; yet Julia appears to be the one on trial. And here we get to another of the strongest strands of the book.

There is, inevitably, a horrible legal case. And although Julia would today be considered not culpable, she’s judged very much by the morals of the time and those morals have different standards for women, and particularly women of a lower class. Julia does not help herself – in many ways she’s not an especially likeable character, yet despite this, Jesse creates anger and sorrow on her behalf for her eventual fate. Julia Starling is, in the end, realistic in that she is human and fallible – and she certainly doesn’t deserve what happens to her.

My original Virago edition

“A Pin to see the Peepshow” is a memorable and sometimes chilling work which gets under the skin; and it’s also a brilliantly written and constructed novel, which is compelling reading. Jesse was obviously intent on making several points about society’s expectations of women and the double standards employed, and she makes those points well, though never to the detriment of her narrative which builds to a devastating (but not unexpected) climax. Her method is very much “show” rather than “tell”, which makes the book all the more effective. I was so engrossed in the story that even though I knew what was coming, I was willing the end to be different… By presenting the conclusion in the way that she does, Jesse conveys the reality of the consequences of murder at the time in a way that had me even more convinced than ever that the death penalty is not the solution – particularly in a case where the evidence and attitudes are so tainted…

So as far as I’m concerned, this is an essential re-issue from British Library Publishing in their Women Writer’s series, and a book I think should permanently be in print. As a piece of literature it’s compelling; as a portrait of the social mores of the time and the judgements meted out to women it’s outstanding; and as an argument against the death penalty it’s powerful and unforgettable. If you only ever pick up one book from this excellent series (and that would be your loss, because there are so many treasures!), I would urge you to read “A Pin to See the Peepshow”.

*****

As with all of the British Library Women Writers series, “Pin” comes with excellent supporting material. There is a list of notable events of the 1930s, a short bio of Jesse and a foreword by Lucy Evans, Curator at the Printed Heritage Collections, British Library. The afterword by series consultant Simon Thomas gives an excellent overview of both the original case and its similarities to (or differences from!) “Pin”. Altogether, an essential release!

Pacing myself….

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Of late (or pretty much since I started blogging) I have been a single-book-at-a-time reader. I wasn’t like this back in the pre-blogging days, often having several books on the go simultaneously. However, I was starting to feel that that wasn’t working for me, and often books would end up unfinished and abandoned. Immersing myself in one title has been working recently, and I pretty much always finish what I started (except for the rare occasions I actually hate a book). However, with the amount of Big Books on the must-read pile, I’m thinking I might have to make some changes…

These are the aforementioned Big Books – and they *are* rather huge, aren’t they?? (Although very lovely!) All are review copies, two for the blog and two for Shiny New Books and tbh the prospect is perhaps a little daunting. I’ve been dithering away about which one to read first, whether to plunge into one and try to finish it, whether to read a bit of each and switch between them or what.

So far, I’ve read all the introductions, plus a reasonable chunk of the Chateaubriand and the Saltykov-Shchedrin (both of which are marvellous) and it could well be that I end up reading one of these first (even though the other two are calling to me strongly). I can’t help feeling that it might be worth taking a week’s sicky from work to get through some of them… Or alternatively, if I get *too* bogged down, I can always go for something short and pithy!!!!

I’ve been keen to read Hume and I have quite a few of the Penguin Great Ideas lurking in the house. So maybe alternating a slim-but-pithy with a big-and-absorbing is the way ahead…. 🙂

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