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“Now the truth would be told” #thepumpkineater #penelopemortimer

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As I’ve mentioned previously, the lovely LibraryThing Virago Modern Classics group is hosting this year a monthly themed reading project of books from our collections; I’ve managed to take part in a few of the themes so far, and June’s choice is books by Virago authors, but issued by a different publisher. That opens up all manner of possibilities, and as I hinted in my May round-up post, I was considering picking up “The Pumpkin Eater” by Penelope Mortimer. Reader, I have done so! and I find myself wondering just why it took me so long to read her, because on the basis of this book, I really need to search out some more! 😀

“The Pumpkin Eater” was published in 1962, and was Mortimer’s fifth published novel. Born in Wales, her upbringing was scarred by the sexual abuse of her father; and after a first marriage to Charles Dimont they divorced and she then married barrister and author John Mortimer, although this relationship eventually foundered. She produced journalism, biographies and novels, as well as having six children; and “Pumpkin…” may well be her best-known novel as it was made into a successful film with Ann Bancroft (who features on the cover of my edition).

The book opens with the narrator, known throughout only as Mrs. Armitage, visiting a male psychiatrist; to say he seems less than interested is an understatement. Her marrige to Jake, a successful screenwriter, is her fourth and it’s on the rocks. As the narrative continues, it becomes clear that he’s been having affairs; the couple’s time together is limited anyway by the demands made on the narrator by her children. Curiously, the number of children is never stated specificially, but simply reckoned to be an unusually large collection, by various husbands, and it does seem as if Mrs. Armitage is obsessed with maternity.

Gradually, the narrator becomes more and more unsettled, the sessions with the psychiatrist don’t help and things come to a head when Mrs. Armitage becomes pregnant yet again. Jake cannot cope – slightly reasonably, he points out that he had been hoping that as the younger children grew up, they could actually have more time on their own together – and Mrs. A. is persuaded to not only have an abortion, but also a sterilisation. She doesn’t cope with this well, either physically or mentally, particularly when another infidelity of Jake’s comes to light – and it’s touch and go as to whether she and her marriage will survive.

“Pumpkin…” is a fascinating read on a number of levels, and a particularly interesting book to come to straight after the Brackenbury. The fact that the narrator is only ever known as Mrs. Armitage is telling; she’s obviously a woman defined by her marriages and also by her children, that numerous and sprawling brood. The psychiatrist at one point wonders if she has an issue with sex and constantly bearing children is her way of justifying it; and although this is based on nothing I picked up in the book, I did wonder if Mortimer’s own childhood abuse informed this. The book was written at a time when, as I stated in my post on “A Day to Remember to Forget”, women’s lives were expected to be fulfilled by home and children; however, Mrs. Armitage is quite obviously neither happy nor fulfilled, and like Felicity Ridgley hasn’t got the options for which women would soon be fighting.

Only the three at boarding school remained apart, cut adrift, growing old under their old names… Slowly, little by little, almost imperceptibly, I let them drift until only our fingertups were touching, then reaching, then finding nothing. Our hands dropped and we turned away.

The book is also a vivid portrait of the mores of the time, as well as the sheer hatred that some men obviously felt for women. The circles Jake moves in are full of people having affairs, and the bitterness which follows is nasty; Conway, in particular, is a vile character, intent on making not only his own wife (who’s had a fling with Jake) suffer, but also Mrs. Armitage. The latter’s operations and subsequent physical issues are starkly portrayed (although not graphically) and little real understanding or consideration seems to come her away, apart from a brief reunion with one of her ex-husbands.

It’s fair to say that “Pumpkin…” can feel like a melancholy read at times; it covers complex issues of mental health, emotional breakdown, marriage difficulties and crises of self-identity. Yet the book does not end without hope, and although Mrs. Armitage may never have the perfect life a 1960s housewife was meant to, she does have a kind of resolution. And the children, flitting in and out of the narrative, are something of saviours, particularly one of the older ones, Dinah. A younger woman engaging with the changes happening in society around them, she perhaps represents a future for women different to the proscribed role her mother has had.

I have a vote. Really, anyone would think that the emancipation of women had never happened…let us march together to our local headquarters and protest in no uncertain terms. Let us put forward our proposals, compile our facts, present our case, demand our rights. The men – they are logical, brave, humanitarian, creative, heroic – the men are sneering at us. How the insults fly. You hear what they are saying, as we run the gauntlet between womb and tomb? ‘Stop trying to be a man! Stop being such a bloody woman! You’re too strong! You’re too weak! Get out! Come back!…’ When we were young, we said the hell with it and used our breasts as shields. But the tears fall so easily when they take away love.

“The Pumpkin Eater” is a moving and provocative book, and I found it impossible to read without thinking it was informed by the author’s own experiences; even a cursory glance at the outlines of Mortimer’s life leads to the inevitable conclusion that the book is extremely autobiographical. I presumed that the use of only Mrs. Armitage for the narrator’s name was strongly symbolic, reflecting her only existing in relation to her husband, and it’s intriguing that she was given a name for the film. As I hinted above, I was inevitably drawn to make comparisons with the Brackenbury I read recently, and although nearly a decade separates them, the older women characters seem to have little choice or agency, whereas there is hope for the younger ones. Mortimer’s writing is excellent, capturing her narrator’s state of mind quite brilliantly, and there are some particularly lyrical passages involving the children. I’m really glad the VMC group decided on this month’s challenge, as Mortimer is an author I’ve meant to get to for ages. “The Pumpkin Eater” is a powerful portrait of a woman’s life and her identity crisis, and an unforgettable read.

For more thoughts on the book, you can check out HeavenAli’s lovely review here.

May – another swine of a month…

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Yes, I suppose that’s a bit of a clickbaity headline but May really *was* exhausting and stressful when it came to the day job… 🙁 I was up against a lot of horrible deadlines and struggled to get uninterrupted time to actually do my job; and as I work in a school, the emotional effect of the awful events in Texas was strong. As you can see from the pile of books I read, I deployed my usual coping mechanism…

So if nothing else, May really was a bumper reading month. There wasn’t a single dud amongst them – each book was marvellous in its own way, and my brain feels thoroughly stimulated and saturated with images and ideas and memorable tales. Not all of these are reviewed yet, and some will be up on Shiny New Books, so look out for reviews and links this month!

Heading into June, I am as usual making very limited plans (which certainly seems to work and keeps me reading what I want, when I want and loving it!) There will, of course, be the final book in the Narniathon, The Last Battle – this is the copy I’ll be reading:

I can’t say that I’m particularly fond of the cover, but my original version is MIA somewhere in the house. We are in the process of having a major declutter and re-organise of the Offspring’s old rooms and so I am hoping it will turn up to be reunited with its fellows, but in the meantime needs must…

The only other event I’m currently trying to follow is the LibraryThing Virago Modern Classics group with our monthly themed reads. I have failed to keep up with the last two months, but June’s choice is books by Virago authors but published by another imprint. I have this fragile old Penguin Penelope Mortimer and may try to get to it during June as she’s an author I keep meaning to read.

Apart from that, I’m intending to read these two titles next – the Poplavsky is coming out this month from Columbia University Press in their Russian Library series and looks to be a wonderful example of Russian emigre writing. The Brackenbury is a reissue from Michael Walmer and she’s been getting quite a bit of attention recently which reminded me I really should read her!

Apart from that I’ll be keeping things loose – where the reading whims take me, that’s where I shall go! What about you – do you have reading plans for June??

 

Rolling into April – and the #1954Club!! :D

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Despite the fact that March brings warmer days and lovely welcome signs of spring, it’s not always my favourite month; as I work in finance, the financial year end and planning for the year ahead always dominate, with lots of horrible pressure and deadlines. So I have to say that April, and the impending Easter break, are very welcome at the moment!!

So how did my reading go last month? Well, possibly a little slower than usual – I must admit to feeling more tired than usual and so my concentration wasn’t brilliant. However, these are the books I read and loved – and loved them I mostly did! Even “Marching Spain”, which was a book with a few issues, still had its plus points!

March 22 reads

I always hate to pick favourites, but with this month I feel it’s pretty much impossible! So many great books and great authors – some old favourites and some new discoveries. Much bookish enjoyment has been had.

So – what does April have in store, book-wise? There are a few reading events which I’m continuing to take part in. First up is the LibraryThing Virago group monthly themed read, and this month is books with a name in the title. A quick scour of the shelves reveals these as just a few of the possibles! Although I’m still playing catch up with March (my review of the book I read will turn up here soon), these are all very appealing!

I’ve managed to stick to the #Narniathon so far, and April’s book is the fifth in the series, “The Horse and His Boy”. This is definitely the Narnia book I’ve read least, for reasons which will no doubt become clear! However, I shall definitely revisit it this month!

And by a wonderful coincidence, “Horse…” was published in 1954 and therefore is perfect for the main event this month – the #1954Club reading week which I’ve very much looking forward to co-hosting with Simon from Stuck in a Book! I find it hard to believe this will be the 14th club week we’ve hosted – how time flies!

Some possibilities for 1954!

If you haven’t joined in with one of these events before, basically just read whatever you fancy from 1954 and share your thoughts on it on whatever platform  you use – a blog, Twitter, Instagram, Goodreads etc. There will be a dedicated page on my site for you to leave links and so we will very much look forward to hearing about the books you’re reading and loving!!

Apart from this (which *will* take up a good bit of my time in April) I shall continue to plough my own furrow and go where the mood takes me. These are a few current books clamouring for my attention and any of them would be wonderfully distracting right now – does anything take your fancy on the pile??

So I’m hoping for a good reading month in April; certainly having a break from work may well help me to relax and read a little more, and maybe even get out into any spring sunshine! What are your plans for April – will you be joining us for 1954??? ;D

February…. where did it go???? #ReadIndies

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February is a short month, and somehow when we’re doing a #ReadIndies it seems to disappear even more quickly than usual. It’s not been the happiest of months around the world either, with conflicts breaking out, and our Government making what I feel are really bad decisions about the way we handle the pandemic. As usual, books have been my refuge, although my reading has been slow this month. I’ve read some really good titles, though, and here they are:

Quite a varied selection for February and certainly no duds. Again, I always hate picking out favourites, but “The Investigator“, “The Undercurrents” and “Brainspotting” were particularly stunning reads!

February was blessed by half-term, but unfortunately March will be one of my busiest working times of the year. So I am keep plans light – we will of course continue with the #ReadIndies extension, which I’m very happy about. I’ll also plan to read the next book for the #Narniathon which is this one:

I remember – well, claustrophobia, really! So we’ll see what I make of it as an adult! The Virago monthly reads continue, with the theme being an author who only has one book in the publisher’s list. I’m rather tempted by either of these two, but we shall see!

Apart from that, I’ll try to dip into the #Dewithon and #ReadIreland events if I can.

With general reading, here are just some of the titles catching my eye at the moment – anything there you’ve read and enjoyed?

Most of all, I shall read what I fancy during March; when life is giving you lemons, I say avoid them and pick up a good book; and despite the horrors of real life I shall continue to share my love of books here – anything to help counteract negativity… 😦

On My Book Table… 3 – an update!

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After the flurry of excitement and reading from 1930 for our recent Club Week, I thought it was about time I took stock and had a look at exactly what was on the Book Table; I frankly need to get a bit realistic about what I’m reading next, and there have also been some new arrivals at the Ramblings… So once I’d put away all the 1930 possibles, there was a bit more room to have a shuffle and a reorganise and a think about forthcoming reading; and after all that, I was left with these on the Table!

Yes – there are indeed a few newbies in the pile, though in fairness a couple of these are from the library. I reserved a shedload of Thomas Bernhard and that’s the last one to arrive; and Brian Bilston’s “Diary of a Somebody” was a must after I recently finished his marvellous poetry collection – review of the latter to follow shortly! Binet and the Lighthouses (sounds like an indie band…) have both previously appeared, but there are in fact five new review copies which have snuck in. The Stella Benson and Marie Belloc Lowndes are from the lovely Michael Walmer, and I have several of his titles standing by to read and review – all sounding very, very interesting. “The Government Inspector” is a lovely new translation of Gogol’s famous play from Alma which is calling strongly. And there are two fascinating Penguins which I’ll be covering for Shiny New Books. Once again, choices, choices…

So only two of these are purchases, picked up at the weekend when browsing the charity shops with Eldest and Youngest Child (who came home for a flying visit). I know nothing about the Fitz-James O’Brien book apart from the fact that it apparently channels Poe (which has to be good)!  But the other find was a beautiful pristine Virago that I was pretty sure I didn’t already have – and I was right!

I own a number of Elizabeth von Arnim’s books already, and things weren’t helped by the fact that someone had donated several of them and I was trying to work out what I had and what I already had read. Anyway, I chose correctly and this is in lovely condition, so I was very happy to bring it home at a bargain price.

I’m currently actually reading a book on the pile – the lighthouses one, which is fascinating so far. However, perched on the top is this very slim story which I intend to get to soon:

As I’ve mentioned previously, this is a limited edition short work by M. John Harrison, and as it’s apparently a bit spooky we’re getting close to the right time of the year to read it!

So that’s what’s on the Book Table post-1930 Club! Hopefully I’ll be reading more than one of them soon! 😀

 

Looking forward into 2019 – some bookish non-resolutions!

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The start of a new year is traditionally a time when we book bloggers start looking ahead and making plans and deciding what challenges to participate in and what projects to undertake. When I first began the Ramblings I was well into that kind of thing and used to fling myself into numerous commitments – usually to fail.. I think I know myself better as a reader nowadays, and for the last few years I’ve kept things light; I dip into challenges and projects as the mood takes me, and apart from our Club weeks I commit myself to pretty much nothing! This seems to work well and I can see no need to change things for 2019. 😀

Some post-Christmas book piles…. =:o

However, there are certainly a few aims I have for 2019, so time for some gratuitous book pictures and resolutions that probably will go very much awry!

LibraryThing Virago Modern Classics group reads

The lovely LT Virago group plan some wonderful group reads every year; most recently focusing on specific authors every month, and I did dip in last year. 2019 is to be dedicated to reading books written in, or set in, the 1940s, with a particular theme every month. January is ‘family’, and there are a number of books from either Virago or Persephone I could choose from, and as I already have several on the shelves it’ll be a choice from these if I decide the mood is right!


I must admit that “Dimanche” and the Attia Hosain are both calling strongly; I was late to Nemirovsky’s writing but do love it; and I read “Sunlight on a Broken Column” back in 2014 and was transfixed. Watch this space to see if I *do* actually join in!

Penguin Moderns

As I mentioned yesterday, I was very fortunate to receive this box set from my lovely Offspring on Mothers’ Day, and although I was happily reading my way through it I kind of got sidetracked towards the end of the year. Hopefully, I can climb back on the wagon soon…

Poetry

2018 was a year with an increasing amount of poetry in it, particularly Russian but latterly French. I’ve been loving dipping into big collections, and I need to keep myself in the mindset that I don’t need to read a collection in one go; I *can* just dip and enjoy as the mood takes me.

The rather large Elizabeth Bishop collection requires attention, as does the lovely French book I got for my birthday from Middle Child; and I really must finish Baudelaire…

Self-imposed Challenges!

I set myself up for failure, don’t I? I get all enthusiastic about something, put together a large pile of books on the subject, read one if I’m lucky and then instantly become distracted by another subject/author/shiny new book. The curse of the grasshopper mind, I fear.

There’s the French Revolution. There’s Utopia. There’s those lovely London area books Mr. Kaggsy got me. There’s two huge volumes of Sylvia Plath’s letters and all of Katherine Mansfield’s notebooks. Any of these would be project enough for a good few months, but will I stick to anything? Not very likely…

Clearing the decks and reading more

I think ultimately that’s my aim this year. I’m not going to impose a book buying ban, because I would fail instantly, but I *am* going to try not to amass quite so many books, and to pass on a book quickly after reading it unless it moves and shakes me, or I think I want to read it again at some point. I’ve been clearing out books I’ve had for decades and either not read or only read once. I’ve hung onto them out of some kind of sentimentality perhaps, but I’ve taken a long hard look and decided in many cases that I actually don’t want to read a particular book or two, and they will go. Which will make room for the recent incomings…

Plus I need to waste less time on YouTube and mindlessly looking at social media, and simply focus on reading more. I *will* continue to enjoy good documentaries when they turn up (as I mentioned yesterday, I’m very much looking forward to Richard Clay’s forthcoming prog on viral memes) but aside from these I want to give more of my time to reading. Currently, I’m deeply involved in this chunkster for a Shiny New Books review and it’s proving completely absorbing.

Whether I can keep up this level of involvement when I go back to work remains to be seen, but I shall try! What reading plans do you have for 2019? 😉

Some booky and arty digressions! (or; drowning in books….)

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Those of you who follow me on Twitter might have picked up that I’ve been having a bit of a clear out recently – the pile of books on the landing, known locally as Death Row, has been severely pruned and there are now boxes in the hallway waiting for a local charity shop to collect. Unfortunately, the pruning process wasn’t as rigorous as I might have wished, as I ended up reprieving a fair number of books – but at least the landing is now passable without danger of falling over a pile of volumes…

Needless to say, however, this somehow spurred on a burst of buying (and I’ve managed to pick up a couple of things locally). So in the spirit of sharing gratuitous book pictures with those who love them, here are some lovelies! 🙂

They come from a variety of sources, new and used, and are all tempting me to pick them up straight away to read…

First up, a couple of finds in the local Samaritans Book Cave – and as I mentioned when I posted images of them on social media, I had only popped in to ask about donating…. But the Wharton is one I’ve never seen before and it sounds fascinating. I do of course have the Colette already, but it’s a very old, small Penguin with browning crumbly pages which I’m a bit scared to read again. And I *do* want to re-read the Cheri books, so of course want to start reading both of these at once.

These two are brand new, pay-day treats from an online source (ahem). I basically couldn’t resist Bergeners as I’ve heard such good things about it (and as I posted excitedly on Twitter, I now own a Seagull Books book!) The Patti Smith was essential, as I have just about everything else ever published by her (including old and rare poetry pamphlets from the 1970s). I just discovered she has an Instagram account you can follow – how exciting is that????

Finally in the new arrivals, a recent post by Liz reminded me that I had always wanted to own a book issued by the Left Book Club. A quick online search revealed that Orwells are prohibitively expensive; but I rather liked the look of this one about Rosa Luxemburg and so it was soon winging its way to me.

I could of course start reading any of these straight away (but which one?); though I am rather suffering from lots of books calling for my attention at once. There’s the lovely pile of British Library Crime Classics I featured a photo of recently, as well as other review books. Then there is this enticing pile featuring some books I’m keen on getting to soon:

I’ve already started the Chateaubriand and it’s excellent; long and full of beautiful prose. I want to read more RLS, and I’m very drawn to New Arabian Nights. Then there is poetry – perhaps I should have a couple of weeks of reading only verse???

Finally, here’s an author who’s been getting a lot of online love recently:

I was pretty sure that I’d read Jane Bowles, and I thought it was “Two Serious Ladies” that I’d read – but apparently not… The pretty Virago above is a fairly recently acquisition; the short story collection is a book I’ve had for decades (it has an old book-plate I used to use); and so I’ve obviously never read Bowles’ only novel. So tempting.

And there is, of course, this rather daunting volume – Dr. Richard Clay’s book on “Iconoclasm in revolutionary Paris”, which is currently sitting on my shelf glaring at me as if to say “Well, you went through all that angst to get me, so damn well read me!”

Here it is on the aforesaid shelf, and as you can see it has a new heavyweight companion…

The new arrival is another Big Book on iconoclasm which has just come out in paperback. It’s obvious I need to give up work and find some kind of employment that will pay me just to read…

So, I’m really not quite sure where to commit my reading energies at the moment: do I read review books or follow my whim? Or let myself by swayed by other people’s suggestions or go for a re-read? Or go for Difficult but Fascinating? Decisions, decisions…

The Arty Bit

This post is getting a bit long, but anyway. Ramblings readers will probably have picked up that I love a good art exhibition, but I pretty much always end up travelling to London for them as not much seems to happen locally. However, OH (that great enabler) noticed that the nearest Big Town had an art gallery and it was showing a collection of contemporary Chinese art, so I popped over during the recent half term break.

I confess that I know little about Chinese art (probably more about Japanese art, tbh) but this was fascinating. The works are remarkable varied, some drawing on traditional Chinese methods and others embracing more Western techniques. I took quick snaps of a few favourites (I’m never sure if you’re allowed to take photos in galleries, though phone cameras seem to be acceptable).

It really is an eye-opener of an exhibition, and even had free postcards!

What was disappointing, however, was how quiet the gallery was in the middle of a half term week. I do feel that perhaps they need to give themselves a higher profile; I wasn’t sure I even knew there was a gallery there, although I now find myself questioning that because of a very strange incident. I was on my up the stairs in the gallery to the upper mezzanine level, and halfway up there is a big list on the wall of supporters and past volunteers. I was a bit surprised to notice, therefore, that Middle Child’s name was featured…. Especially as when I quizzed her about it she claimed to have no idea why it’s up there!

She is, however, the arty one of the family, and I suspect may have been involved in something there when she was at college doing art. But obviously having a bad memory run in the family.

Well. I’m sorry – this is a really long post (but then I do like to live up to my name and ramble….) Now I just need to focus and decide what to read next…

A reading update – and forthcoming plans!

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I can’t believe that it’s actually June already – where the time goes, I don’t know, but to suddenly find myself halfway through the year is a bit of a shock!

May was a reasonable reading month, although I didn’t make it through as many books as I intended; things started well but then I found myself involved in a very looooong review book which took up the back-end of the month! Now I’m through that and trying to decide what to read next…

This month’s Virago author is Margaret Laurence and the choice of which I could read is going to difficult:

These are the only two Laurences I own, and I believe they’re both part of a sequence and not the first part! I’m trying not to buy books at the moment, but I may have to make an exception here if I want to read something by this intriguing-sounding author in June…

Speaking of buying books, I have purchased just one volume recently, thanks to a hint from a certain sci-fi blogger who’s aware I have an interest in Soviet sci-fi written by women (You Know Who You Are….)

This one took a little bit of tracking down, and I eventually had to procure an ex-library copy from the USA – but it’s in really good condition, and I don’t mind it being ex-library. I get a little sentimental about old-school library cards and trappings in this kind of book and I like to give books like this a good home. Pleasingly, as well as the story by Olga Larionova, whose work I rate highly, there is also one by Kirill Bulychev who I also rave about regularly. So a good find!

And there was a good bookish find of another kind recently! Youngest Child and Middle Child paid a flying visit at the end of May, which was absolutely lovely, and while they were here did a bit of room clearing (as we still have so much of their junk stuff in the house). Whilst rooting about in her room, Youngest Child found she had two of my books hidden away on her shelves, one of which in particular I was very pleased to have back:

I’ve had the Emily Dickinson book since I was a teenager and was most aggrieved that I couldn’t find it. So at least it is now back on my shelves with my other poetry books – result!

Continuing with my plan to have no plans, I don’t have any idea what I’m going to read in June and as I’m feeling a bit undirected reading-wise at the moment, I may well be lurching into more classic crime – well, you can’t go wrong there, can you? 🙂

#ViragoAuthorOfTheMonth – an even wider choice…. !

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If I thought it was difficult choosing which book to read for April’s Virago author, Elizabeth von Arnim, the one for May is going to make things even harder…

The writer in question is Willa Cather, and a quick examination of the stacks revealed that I own a significant number of her books….

However, what it also revealed was how few of her works I’ve actually read. If I’m honest, I think the only one I can be sure of is the short story “Come, Aphrodite” – which is pretty terrible when you consider how many of her books I have in the house.

I’ve picked most of these up when I happened to come across them in charity and second-hand book shops, although I did specifically search out “One of Us” for a Virago group read along – which I never actually ended up taking part in…. Typical me!

The beautiful edition of “My Antonia” came thanks to a giveaway by the lovely HeavenAli and I should be ashamed that I haven’t read it yet. But the others are so appealing as well – “Alexander’s Bridge” comes highly recommended, and “A Lost Lady” sounds fascinating.

So the question is, which to read in May? There are some lovely editions there, and some very highly regarded works and deciding will be difficult. Any suggestions, please???? 🙂

Wisteria and Sunshine – #ViragoAuthoroftheMonth

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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!

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