Home

The price of love #ViragoAuthoroftheMonth

14 Comments

My Mortal Enemy by Willa Cather

At the beginning of the month, I wittered on about not known which Willa Cather book I should read from the rather imposing pile of books by her that I own. I received lots of lovely comments and suggestions, but as the month rolled on and its end became closer, I was getting no nearer to reading one. So I have to confess that the choice was eventually made in a terrible fashion – I went for the book that was slimmest…. :s

“My Mortal Enemy” was first published in 1926, and if I’m honest at 122 pages of biggish type it really should be classed as a novella. The book is narrated by the wonderfully named Nellie Birdseye, and she tells us the story of Myra Driscoll, later Henshawe, whom she meets at pivotal points in her life.

Their first encounter is when Myra makes a return visit to the (fictional) small town of Parthia. Myra grew up here, friends with Nellie’s aunt Lydia, and has become something of a scandalous figure since her elopement with Oswald Henshawe. Brought up by her great-uncle, Myra always has a wild streak and unfortunately her uncle disapproved violently of her beau. So Myra marries for love and by doing so loses the chance of a decent inheritance from her relative.

Nellie is fascinated by the idea of Myra and her dramatic love affair, and somewhat dazzled by the older, glamorous woman. She and her aunt Lydia are invited to New York to spend Christmas with the Henshawes, and the setting is still rather glittering and exciting to the provincial girl. However, Nellie becomes aware of cracks below the surface; Myra is a jealous woman, money is an issue, and Oswald seems to attract admiring women…

We (and Nellie) finally encounter Myra and Oswald some years later on the Californian coast. Nellie, now grown up (and possibly married?) is teaching and Myra is now a bedridden invalid. Tormented by noisy upstairs neighbours and looking for comfort in a return to her religion, Myra nevertheless still exerts a fascination on those around her. Oswald cares for her faithfully, despite still managing to attract the friendship of younger women, but Myra is a woman wracked with regrets – for having given in to love, cursing herself is a shallow person who should have instead stayed with the money she loved and needed. As her life comes to an end, she looks for fulfilment elsewhere and seems to find a kind of inner peace.

So I may have chosen my shortest Cather but it certainly isn’t a thin read! There are big themes here – whether love or money is most important; whether complete honesty is crucial to a marriage; whether what we receive in this world or the next is most important. I understand that Cather returned to her own religion too, and the comfort Myra draws from this at the end of her life is perhaps taken from her own life.

As to the mortal enemy of the title and to whom this refers, I actually felt that was rather nebulous. Some have taken it to mean her husband; some Myra herself; and some the whole process of love, what we’ll do for it and the havoc it can cause in our lives. Certainly, Myra has suffered for the decision she made, regretting the fact that she left behind a comfortable life with plenty of money; but she has always been victim to her passions and in many ways paid the price.

I sat down beside her, and we watched the sun dropping toward his final plunge into the Pacific. “I’d love to see this place at dawn,” Myra said suddenly. “That is always such a forgiving time. When that first cold, bright streak comes over the water, it’s as if all our sins were pardoned; as if the sky leaned over the earth and gave it absolution.

Cather’s writing is lovely throughout, and in such a short book she manages to paint nuanced portraits of all the characters. In particular, the relationship between the Henshawes is subtly rendered, and Cather captures brilliantly the delicate balancing act they go through to keep the marriage on track.

So my Willa Cather read for this month turned out to be a good choice in the end. “My Mortal Enemy”, despite its short length, is a thought-provoking and enjoyable read and if it’s any indication of the quality of Cather’s work, I’m definitely up for more! 🙂

Advertisements

Wisteria and Sunshine – #ViragoAuthoroftheMonth

33 Comments

The Enchanted April by Elizabeth von Arnim

Well, after all that fretting and trying to decide, I guess that it’s no surprise that I actually ended up choosing Elizabeth von Arnim’s “The Enchanted April” for my Virago Author of the Month read. The weather has been so cold and I was so fed up returning to work after the Easter break that something sunny and lovely was just what I felt like – and I certainly got that here!

Published in 1922, TEA is perhaps the best-known and most read of Arnim’s works and it’s often been adapted for stage, screen and other media. It’s not hard to see why as it’s a delight from start to finish, though I do wonder if the atmosphere and wonderful narrative voice would carry over from the book.

The story begins in a grey February London, where Lotty Wilkins is contemplating escape. Her marriage is a disappointment, her husband Mellersh being stiff and unresponsive, and she dreams of Italy. By chance she spots an advertisement offering a month’s rental of a castle in the country of her dreams; and it seems the ideal time to spend the nest-egg she’s been saving. And a chance encounter with a fellow member of her club, Rose Arbuthnot, sets things in motion.

Rose is also unhappy in her marriage; a pious vicar’s daughter, she has become estranged from her husband Frederick who spends most of his time away from home. Rose is unhappy that he earns a living writing biographies of famous courtesans, and throws herself into good works to compensate for this. However, she too is seduced by the advert and when Lotty realises this she sees a chance for them both to take the castle and have their month of freedom.

The cost, however, is an issue; and so the ladies recruit two others to help pay the bills, in the form of Lady Caroline Dester, a society woman famed for her beauty, and Mrs. Fisher, a grim old widow stuck in the past when she associated with such famous men as Ruskin and Carlyle. The four disparate characters finally manage to arrive in San Salvatore and it is here that the fun begins.

The place and its intense beauty have an immediate effect on Lotty, who perhaps wanted the holiday more than anyone. She positively blossoms, and her reaction to the place affects the others. Rose, too, is enchanted although troubled by the state of her marriage to Frederick. Lady Caroline (reverting to her nickname of Scrap) simply wants to be left alone – her beauty and position are a constant burden to her and she lives in terror of being ‘grabbed’ by everyone who wants her attention. As for Mrs. Fisher, it’s hard to see at first what motivates her although even she will be changed by the location.

Complexities occur in the form of husbands: Lotty invites hers to join them as she cannot bear to enjoy all this beauty without her partner to share it with. Rose wants to do the same but is tormented by the realisation that he finds her a bore. Scrap wants nothing to do with love, being sick of being fawned upon by every man she meets. And Mrs. Fisher thinks all this talk of husbands improper. However, thrown into the mix are the solitary Mr. Briggs, owner of San Salvatore, who turns up in pursuit of one woman only to be thrown off-balance. And who is this mysterious old friend of Scrap’s that suddenly appears?

Needless to say, the conclusion of the book is lovely and occasionally unexpected. I’m not going to reveal anything (although I have to say that I raced through the book, desperate to find out how things would be resolved), but I will say that each woman comes to Italy to escape from her current life, and each finds what she needs there.

“The Enchanted April” really lives up to its name – it *is* utterly enchanting. I loved each of the characters – from Lotty’s visionary dreaming through Rose’s moral crises, Scrap’s inability to appear anything but lovely and pleasant, and Mrs. Fisher’s testy reliance on the past, each is individual and wonderfully defined. Even the supporting characters are lovely, and the setting is of course glorious – Arnim’s descriptions of the scenery were delicious and wafted me away from cold every day England to a beautiful setting, dripping with my favourite wisteria. They were so vivid that I was filled with an urge to set of for Italy immediately myself.

It would be easy for a book like this to slip into romance territory, but fortunately it’s saved from becoming too saccharine by a number of elements. Firstly, there is Arnim’s trademark humour; the other books of hers I’ve read have been full of wonderful dry wit, and this is no exception. The description of Mellersh’s first encounter with Italian plumbing, for example, is just priceless.

Secondly, there is of course a more serious undercurrent to the book; the theme of loneliness is never far away from the surface. Lotty and Rose are both lonely within their marriage; Scrap has kept herself whirling around in a frantic haze of society simply to hide up the hollowness of her life; and Mrs. Fisher hides from the coldness and lack of love by burying herself in the past.

Arnim in 1920 courtesy elizabethvonarnim.wordpress.com

Arnim is particularly good on the reasons why a marriage can go wrong: from the grinding repetitiveness and the petty disagreements that flare up from living close to someone, to the growing apart and the becoming bored with the same person, it’s clear that she feels the women need something to revitalise their relationships. It turns out to be the change of scene and the break from the everyday that allows them to become themselves again, thereby jump starting their marriages. And in the case of Scrap, she’s allowed the space to think, to look at her life and to see what’s missing and what she really wants from it.

It’s also clear that Arnim believes that our surroundings are vitally important to the people we are; and I suppose that was part of the charm of her “Elizabeth…” books, as the main character spent much time in her beautiful garden, so crucial to her peace of mind. Certainly, the book cleverly exposes the difference location makes to Lotty and Rose; initially they seem like two ordinary, dull married women, but once they are in San Salvatore and we see them through the eyes of the Italian servants, we have to adjust our perspectives as it’s clear that they are in fact beautiful young women.

There are no doubt criticisms that could be levelled at “The Enchanted April”: for a start, it’s not exactly feminist and Arnim seems to think that the love of a good man is the solution to everything. There’s never any idea that they can live a fulfilled life without that relationship, and in fact Rose’s constant attempt to make her own way by doing good work is rather mocked in the book. Also, the class element is unavoidable; even though Lotty and Rose are not rich, they certainly can afford servants and the distinction between the guests and those serving at the castle is clear.

Nevertheless, this was a joyous and uplifting read; Jacqui compared it to “Miss Pettigrew Lives For A Day” in her excellent review here, and it certainly has a similar fairy-tale quality to it. If I’m honest, and I had to choose, I think “Miss Pettigrew” might just pip “The Enchanted April” to the post (although the former has no wisteria, which is a disadvantage…) We don’t all have the luxury of a month away in the sun to discover or rediscover our real selves – but oh, wouldn’t it be wonderful!

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.

Dipping into Sylvia Townsend Warner’s short stories

24 Comments

“Dipping” is a word I’m trying to introduce into my reading vocabulary at the moment, as I seem to have got myself into a mindset of having to finish a book at a time, regardless of what it is. And when it comes to poetry and short stories, this isn’t necessarily the best way to read, so I’m going to attempt to be a little more flexible, picking up volumes of poems and shorter works when the mood takes me and not fretting about when I finish them. And I was gifted with some lovely volumes at Christmas, so this would be the ideal way to start exploring them.

A book I’ve been keen on getting for a long time is Sylvia Townsend Warner’s Selected Stories in a lovely Virago volume, and my Secret Santa Trish kindly came up trumps with this one. The stories are chosen by Susanna Pinney and William Maxwell, STW’s literary executors, and having only read one of her books before (“Mr. Fortune’s Maggot”) I was interested to see what her other work was like.

stw-stories

So far, I’ve read a few stories and they really are good. In particular, “The Love Match”, the first story in the collection, is a real gem and a wonderful way to open the book. Telling the story of Celia and Justin Tizard, a brother and sister who come to live in the little town of Hallowby, it initially seems that Mr Pilkington, who brings them there, might be the focus of the story or heavily involved. In fact, he plays a minor part, and STW twists and subverts your expectations with a dark little tale about a very strange relationship between the wars and how it plays out. I was left with a *lot* of questions about Celia and Justin, about what really *had* been going on in the town, and also thinking about what happens behind closed doors and beneath the surface.

I shall carry on dipping into this book whenever the fancy takes me, as it seems that I’m going to be guaranteed something interesting. Now I just have to get myself into this mindset as regards poetry: should I read chronologically? Open the book at random? Search for titles that are recommended or highly thought of? Any suggestions gratefully received…

Virago Volumes: A Stricken Field by Martha Gellhorn

15 Comments

What was I saying about being a trivial reader? That’s perhaps the wrong word – fickle might be a better word; for example, there are many, many books I’ve had on my shelves for 30 years and *never read*! I’m trying to rectify that at the moment (Proust being the main example); but Martha Gellhorn is another case in point. However, paradoxically, the book of hers I chose to pick up was this one, “A Stricken Field”, one of my more recent Virago acquisitions. I thought the subject matter (Prague in 1938) might fit better with my current mindset, and Gellhorn was on my mind from reading about her in Sybille Bedford’s “Pleasures and Landscapes”. So there you are – I’m following my random reading muse as usual!

stricken

Gellhorn, of course, is as fascinating a character as Bedford. A war correspondent from a young age, witnessing the Spanish Civil War amongst other things, she’s cursed with often being remembered only for having been married to Hemingway – although pleasingly Wikipedia put her other achievements first: Martha Ellis Gellhorn (November 8, 1908 – February 15, 1998) was an American novelist, travel writer, and journalist, considered by the London Daily Telegraph, among others, to be one of the greatest war correspondents of the 20th century. She reported on virtually every major world conflict that took place during her 60-year career. Gellhorn was also the third wife of American novelist Ernest Hemingway, from 1940 to 1945. At the age of 89, ill and almost completely blind, she committed suicide. The Martha Gellhorn Prize for Journalism is named after her.”

So Gellhorn was obviously no ordinary woman and had no ordinary life – in fact, I imagine that a biography would be a really good read! However, apart from her reporting she also wrote fiction, and this book is her first full-length novel, published in 1940 when war was beginning to tear Europe apart; and also after years of conflicts on that continent, in Spain, and also in Germany, where the Nazi regime had been gradually developing an iron grip. The novel opens with Mary Douglas, an American journalist, flying into Prague in 1938. Munich pact etc. Mary is young, but she’s not naive, having seen the Spanish Civil War, and she knows that the creeping menace of the Nazis threatens the countries and people she loves. She’s hoping to find her friend Rita, a left-wing German who’s fled to Prague in search of safety, and they do indeed meet up early in the story. Rita lost her brother to the enemy’s brutality, and works for the resistance in Prague, trying to help fellow refugees survive. She has also found a fragile kind of happiness with a fellow worker, Peter; but they are living on a knife-edge, like every other enemy of Fascism at large in a country now being dominated by the jackboot. All the refugees are being forcibly repatriated to places where they will be tortured, put in concentration camps, and most probably die horribly. Can Mary and her journalist friends do anything to help – or is the impending cataclysm too much for any humanitarian efforts?

ASF is a remarkably powerful and moving novel; to be frank, it’s gut-wrenching, both in the emotional sense (as we ache for the suffering of the refugees) and the literal sense (there are references to torture, and one particularly awful interrogation scene). If I’m honest, the book as a novel is not particularly accomplished – the regular shifts in perspective are clumsy at times and hard to follow; the character of Mary never really develops much; and the group of journalists are just that, a fairly amorphous band who don’t take on much of an individual form. However, the book’s strength is in its reportage. It’s recording a piece of history, a shocking and horrible time, but one that needs not to be forgotten. The story of Rita and her lover Peter stands for any number of stories, for the thousands of people who suffered under oppression (and indeed those who still do). Gellhorn captures haunting images: Rita staggering down dark streets in Prague, not knowing where she’s going or why; the bundled up humans at the railway station being forced into trains taking them to their doom; those who cannot cope with the thought of leaving and take another way out…

“She thought: there will have to be a terrible justice, blowing over the world, to avenge all the needless suffering. Thus far, she had seen the innocent punished and insulted, pursued and destroyed; and when they tried to protect themselves, their enemies were swift, unanimous and relentless. Simple men were ignorant enough still to fight against each other instead of fighting side by side. She had seen only the triumph of the lie and the victory of the liars. It will take a long time to change this, she thought, we learn very little, we learn very slowly. She was afraid she would be reporting disaster and defeat her whole life.”

gellhorn

It’s a stark story of a stark time; Mary tries at one point to involve some politicians in her attempts to help the refugees, but even they are powerless to make any difference. There are many shocks in this book, not the least the contrast between the privileges Mary enjoys because she holds an American passport, and the lack of everything – food, money, security, a chance at life – that the expelled refugees have. But what shocked me most of all was when this book was written and published. Gellhorn wrote the book in 1939, based on her real visits to Prague, and published it in 1940. In the 1938 of this book, the concentration camps and the treatment of Jews and Socialists is common knowledge – the reporters have become almost indifferent to it. I somehow had the impression that the revelations about Nazi camps after the war came as a shock to the world, but it seems that the facts were already well-known. Which leaves me thinking about man’s inhumanity to man, and how this vicious cruelty was allowed to carry on by all the so-called civilised nations. And thus it ever was and thus it ever will be – the bigwigs make their strategies and move little models around on a plan (or nowadays a digital simulation) but these represent real people, and it’s the latter who always pay the price for conflict – a look at the news reports nowadays proves that nothing’s changed.

It was a painful experience, but I *am* glad I read this book. As Gellhorn says in her afterword “Novels don’t decide the course of history or change it but they can show what history is like for people who have no choice except to live through it or die from it. I remembered for them.” She certainly did that, and this book should continue to be read so that we never forget.

%d bloggers like this: