Persephone Post…

Hooray! The postman has been with parcels from those lovely people at Persephone:


And inside are these:


With their lovely bookmarks:


I am very excited about these, but a little sad because for the past six years my Younger Daughter lived in London so I was able to treat myself to spring and autumn trips to the shop while I was staying with her. Now she has moved to Newcastle (which is much further away, but she is looking out for bookshops for me) and I have been  forced to order online. Obviously, the books are the same, wherever I buy them, but I miss my Books, Cake and Walking Days. I used to pop in to the Wellcome Collection to browse the exhibitions and fortify myself with tea and cake, then walk up through Bloomsbury and the garden squares, past Great Ormond Street Hospital to Persephone. Then I usually managed to squeeze in a couple of second-hand book shops before ending the day with more tea and cake (for recuperation purposes), generally at the cafe in Foyles in Charing Cross Road.

So now I’m going to make myself a proper pot of tea (with loose tea), dip into the tin of ginger biscuits, and settle down to read, though I’m not sure where to start… !


It’s Emily Hilda Young Day!

The Critics Harold Harvey
I thought it would be nice to show the complete picture of The Critics, by Harold Harvey, rather than the cropped version which appears on the front cover of my Virago edition of EH Young’s William. It is apparently, in Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, so next time I’m there I’ll see if it is on display.

Today I am celebrating another of the Underappreciated Lady Authors gathered together by Jane at Beyond Eden Rock. Emily Hilda Young, was born on this day in 1880 and, like many of those old ‘green’ VMC authors, has had the misfortune to be forgotten not once, but twice. In her heyday, during the 1920s and 30s, she was enormously popular, but fell into obscurity after the war, when the public’s reading tastes changed. There was a brief renaissance when Virago published some of her novels in the 1980s, but it didn’t endure. More recently the tide seems to be turning, and once again there is an upsurge of interest in her work, so perhaps someone will republish the books – I certainly hope so.

EH Young Good Reads
Emily Hilda Young.

Between 1910 and 1947 Young wrote 11 novels, which are primarily domestic, and are very much of their time and place, mostly portraying life in Radstowe, a fictionalised version of Bristol, where she lived for many years. The plots are slight, the story-lines slow, and her writing very quiet, with subtle depictions of the delicate nuances of class and social structure, and the tension caused by the need for public proprietry balanced against private desires. Her observations of relationships are equally acute as she exposes the feelings between man and woman, parent and child, sister and sister. In some ways she’s quite subversive because she’s not afraid to question the moral values of her day.

I have to admit, that whilst running around doing bits and pieces for my mother I forgot about this anniversary, but I wanted to post something, because EH Young is one of my favourite authors, and Jane has gone to all the trouble of organising a ‘Birthday Book’, so fans of forgotten female authors ought to support her. So here are a few rather garbled thoughts on William, which I enjoyed immensely.

It focuses on the relationships within the Nesbitt family – shipping magnate William, his wife Kate, and their five grown-up children, Dora, Mabel, Lydia, Janet and Walter. On the face of it the Nesbitts are a happy, conventional family. Then Lydia leaves her husband for another man, and the scandal affects everyone in different ways (the novel was written in 1925 when such behaviour would have made Lydia a social outcast and brought censure on her family). And as the novel unfolds become cracks appear in other relationships.

There is Dora, miserably married to Herbert, who is a bully, but a wealthy bully, and she remains with him for the sake of the children and her luxurious lifestyle. And there is Mabel, something of an outsider in the family, who marries mean-minded, penny-pinching John and makes a virtue out of wearing ugly shoes. dowdy clothes, and running everywhere because she cannot afford a taxi. Then there is lonely, unhappy Janet, craving independence, but still living at home and in love with Lydia’s husband Oliver. And there is Lydia herself, who remains something of a cipher, seen through the eyes of others, her motives a mystery but, seemingly, no happier for leaving her husband than she was with him.

And, of course, there are William and Kate, and the rift whiich opens between them when Lydia runs away. William is the chief protagonist, and we see things mainly from his point of view. Obviously a shrewd businessman, he’s a self-made man who has worked his way) up in the world, and is satisfied with his achievements (but never smug). Quiet and unassuming, he is, at heart, a family man who loves his wife and children, but is not blind to their faults, or his own – he’s very self-aware, always slightly detached and amused, but never judgemental. And although he wants his children to be happy he realises they must make their own decisions, and that those decisions may not always please him. And although he doesn’t want to interfere he is tempted, on occasions, to nudge things along in what he hopes is the right direction…

His wife Kate is no match for him intellectually, and is inclined to seek refuge in ill health when she thinks she is badly used by family and friends. Social position and doing the right thing are very important to her, and she has her own aspirations for the children, urging them to fall in with her wishes, and she doesn’t agree with William when he says: “I’ve told you, Kate, we can’t have them as we want them. We’re lucky to have them as they are.” She is devastated by Lydia;s behaviour, and is hurt and angry when he supports his favourite daughter. It would be easy to dislike Kate, but I felt sorry for her – I think there’s a bit of empty nest syndrome going on here, and she’s very much a woman of her time and class, with too much time on her hands, and not enough to do.

And while she’s not as self-aware as William, deep down she knows that the children are their own people, with their own dreams and desires, and she does not really understand them. Young tells us: “It had been different when they were all young and at school. She had felt then that they were her own, but perhaps she had been mistaken, perhaps she had not known their secret selves, and she remembered, for the first time for years, how she had once found Lydia crying in the nursery and had not been able to find out what her trouble was. It seemed to her that what she had missed then might be evading her still. She had given birth to five bodies and she would always be a stranger to their souls. This was a terrible thought and it would have been more terrible still if she had known that it was William’s too.”

The old Virago edition.

It’s very much a book about marriage and parenting, and how family life is not always happy, and how different people cope with the problems in different ways. The characters are beautifully drawn, and the relationships between them delicately and sensitively portrayed. And there are some wonderful moments exposing the snobbery and pretensions of middle-class life, and some very funny scenes (many of them involving poor Mabel and her three priggish sons) – the account of a family trip on William’s newest steamboat is absolutely hilarious.

Winter Reading

51h3We7+wILOver the winter months I’ve been reading Melissa Harrison’s Winter: An Anthology for the Changing Seasons, published in support of the Wildlife Trusts. I’m not normally a fan of ‘slow reading’ – I tend to rush through a book to find out what happens (I’ve even been known to sneak a peak at the end to see if all goes well), then re-read at leisure. But as I get older I find I’m slowing down, and this book is an ideal ‘slow read’, perfect for considering one, or possibly two, entries each day, usually last thing at night when I can savour the words and reflect on the thoughts expressed. Anyway, today is the Spring Equinox and, as planned, I’ve come to the end and am am now embarking on a similar journey with Harrison’s Spring, which I aim to finish on Midsummer Day.

It’s been quite interesting reading during the periods of snow. After all, as Harrison says in her introduction: “When we think of winter, we often think of snow: deep drifts of it, blanketing our rooftops and gardens, roofs, fields and lanes; white and silent and still.” But she is quick to point out that winter means much more than snow. And here she’s gathered extracts from a variety of authors who see winter in many different ways; man’s place in the natural world, and his reaction to it, comes under scrutiny, and there are pieces about the weather, the stars, birds, insects, animals, plants, landscapes and habitats. There are offerings from keen-eyed naturalists and conservationists, who not only record what they see and hear, but have the ability to relate it to their own lives, and to the world in general. Alongside their observations are poems and excerpts from novels, letters, essays, diaries, memoirs, newspaper articles and blogs. The collection spans some 400 years, and includes authors whose creations were printed in traditional books, as well as writers who use modern technology to display their work.

The book takes us from the tail end of autumn, through the depths of winter, to the point when we know spring is on the way. It opens with the late great Roger Deakin talking about a ‘sharp, sugaring frost’ and its effect on the leaves of the trees, and closes with a prose piece from poet Kathleen Jamie. “Every year in the third week of February, there is a day, or, more usually, a run of days, when one can say for sure that the light is back. Some juncture has been reached, and the light spills into the world from a sun suddenly higher in the sky,” she says, and adds: “The year has turned. Filaments and metallic ribbons of wind-blown light, just for an hour, but enough.”

Sandwiched between those two is a wealth of other goodies. In fact, the book is so jam-packed with wonderful things that it’s difficult (and unfair) to pick favourites, but I have to mention Charles Dickens’ matchless description of the mud, fog and rain of ‘implacable November weather’ and Virginia Woolf’s magical, mystical account of a frost fair (from Orlando, which I haven’t read, but I will now). I shan’t forget freed slave Olaudah Equiano’s first enounter with snow, or Henry Williamson’s description of a howling blizzard which made me feel chilled to the bone. But there were two entries which really stood out for me.

First there is a letter from poet and children’s author Anna Laetitia Barbauld, written in 1814, which could almost be describing some kind of seasonal affective disorder. She’s not exactly unhappy – indeed, she seems relish the warmth and comfort of her snug parlour, but she is certainly in the grip of a winter inertia which prevents her taking any kind of action or thought, and I’m sure many of us can empathise with her. She writes:

“There are animals that sleep all the winter; – I am, I believe, become one of them: they creep into holes during the same season; – I have confined myself to the fireside of a snug parlour. If, indeed, a warm sunshiney day occurs, they sometimes creep out of their holes; – so, now and then, have I. They exist in a state of torpor, – so have I done: the only difference being, that I have all the while continued the habit of eating and drinking, which, to their advantage, they can dispense with. But my mind has certainly been asleep all the while; and whenever I have attempted to employ it, I have felt an oppression in my head which has obliged me to desist.”

My second stand-out entry is Anita Sethi’s moving account of the garden she and her mother began creating at their Manchester home one winter. Looking back on her childhood Sethi, now a journalist, writer and critic, explains how it helped develop her sense of identity. She writes: “Cultivating our garden was also a process cultivating deeper and richer sense of self, a sense of calm in the self, of comfort to the skin, a greater understanding of a connection wit the earth, even here in the heart of the inner city.” I loved this, and they way Sethi sees winter as a time of renewal and growth, of connections, hope, light, new beginings and belonging. It was such a positive and uplifting story.

Harrison’s choices – and what the authors have to say – is sometimes unexpected, but they will all make you think. As with any anthology I found myself considering things I would have included, and there were a few I couldn’t engage with, but over all I found it an enchanting book, and enjoyed re-visiting old favourites and making the acquaintance of authors I hadn’t come across before, but definitely want to explore further (there are brief biographical details of contributors, but I’d advise keeping a pen and paper to hand, so you can note down titles and authors if you want to read more). Her aim, apparently, was to celebrate living landscapes, and to inspire people to get out and enjoy the countryside and wildlife. With all the terrible things happening in the world at the moment, this may seem small and unimportant, but I think she’s right. There is a need to conserve and preserve our wildlife, but apart from that, walking in the countryside can make you feel better, physically and mentally, and even in urban areas there are usually parks and green spaces, and however small they are, and whatever the season, you can always find something to look at – a bird, an insect, a flower in bloom. 

Happy Birthday Dorothy Whipple!

EPersephone’s Classic edition of Dorothy Whipple’s Someon At A Distance.

Dorothy Whipple famously – or perhaps infamously – was the novelist Virago refused to publish. Worse still, the company had a standard known as the ‘Whipple line’, below which they ‘would not sink’. Explaining her position in a Guardian article back in 2008, Virago founder Carmen Callil said: “Whipple was a popular novelist of the 1930s and 1940s whose prose and content absolutely defeated us.” Personally I think she was wrong, and it seems I’m not the only one, because Dorothy Whipple is now published by Persephone and has become their best-selling author. Even so, she still qualifies for a place in the Birthday Book of Underappreciated Lady Authors compiled by Jane at Beyond Eden Rock, and since today would have been her birthday (Whipple that is, not Jane), I’ve scribbled some thoughts on Someone at a Distance, which I really enjoyed.

It is a heart-breaking account of the breakdown of a marriage, written with restraint, style and gentle humour. Here we have Avery and Ellen North, blissfully married for 20 years. He is a successful publisher and she is a happy housewife (I would be a happy housewife if, like her, I had help from two ‘half-day’ women who work on alternate days). Anyway, the couple live in a spacious house in the country, with a large garden, and a paddock for their daughter Anne’s horse. Anne, aged 15, is at boarding school, while her brother, 18-year-old Hugh, is in the Army, doing his National Service. The family are devoted to one another – but their idyllic life is about to be torn apart.

Nearby lives Avery’s wealthy, widowed, cantankerous mother who decides to employs Louise, a young Frenchwoman, as her companion. Louise has just been dumped by her lover (he married a woman with money and position), and is desperate to escape the boredom of the provincial town where her parents run a shop. Her favourite book is Madam Bovary, and we are told: “The sight of other people’s happiness irritated her. Happy people were so boring. It was unintelligent to be happy, Louise considered.” Louise is certainly not happy. It’s difficult at times to decide what she feels – anger, resentment, loneliness perhaps. She is beautiful, rather like a Modigliani painting I think.

Her face was as smooth as ivory and the same colour, her dark eyes slanted up a little at the outer corners. Her dark shining hair was parted in the middle and drawn into a knot on her slender neck. Her lips were made up, even for breakfast, in a magenta colour, which nevertheless became her and matched the varnish on the nails of her narrow hands.

But despite that – or perhaps because of it – people don’t like her. Her parents love

The endpapers are from a 1940s textile design attributed to Ashley Havinden.

her, but are scared of her; most men in the town where she lives kep their distance, and she has no female friends. In England she alienates almost everyone she meets, but old Mrs North likes her – and Avery obviously finds her attractive (despite the fact she is making eyes at his son). Cocooned in her cosy world, Ellen fails to see the danger, but is relieved when Louise returns to France. However, shortly after this, old Mrs North dies, leaving a sum of money to Louise, along with her furs and jewellery, so Louise returns to claim her inheritance – and Avery finally succumbs to her charms.

Divorce follows and Ellen, devastated, sets about finding herself a job and somewhere to live, for the house must be sold. She is appointed as assistant manager at Somerton Manor, a local establishment where elderly ‘gentlefolk’ live out their days, which also operates as a restaurant. There she turns the old stable block into a home for herself and children and begins to rebuild her life. She proves to be surprisingly independent. She refuses to accept alimony. although she lets Avery pay for Anne’s schooling and the upkeep of the horse. She doesn’t see why he should have to support her, and is determined to make it on her own. But she never stops loving Avery.

For his part, Avery realises immediately that he doesn’t love Louise, but has no intention of trying to patch things up with his wife and children because he cannot bear to think they see him as flawed. Life with Louise is disastrous; he drinks too much, she spends his dwindling fortune and will not loose her grip on him. They visit France, where she hopes everyone will be impressed by his her luck in catching such handsome, wealthy man. But her parents, appalled that their daughter has broken up a happy home, warn that they will never see her again as long as she remains with Avery. Outside in the street is her old lover Paul, and Whipple tells us:

He had never heard of the Norths, far away in England. He would have been amazed at the suggestion that he, at such a distance, could have had anything to do with the breaking-up of that family. He had no idea that it was, in great measure, because of him that the man he had seen on the pavement in front of the Hotel de l’Ecu that afternoon had lost everything he cared about.

It’s like a tragic game of consequences, in which everything that happens can be traced back to this one man and his dalliance with Louise. Avery, of course, is unaware of this, but there is a kind of connection between him and is family and Paul.

I liked the way the story alternated between England and France, showing us events in both places, and helping to build a picture of Louise and what has happened to her in the past. Whipple is good at describing a character’s appearance and creating a portrait of their personality. Take Mrs Beard, the bad-tempered but good-hearted manager of Somerton Manor:

Mrs. Beard was a middle-aged Gibson girl, built-up hair, large busy, curved hips and that thrown-forward look which may have been due to her stays or to the fact that she wore high-heeled court shoes which tired her and made her cross, but which she thought necessary to her appearance.

Mrs Beard has had a tough time herself, and thinks Ellen should take whatever money she can get from Avery. The novel was published in 1953, when divorce was less common, when women had fewer opportunities to train for a career than they do today, and when they were still expected to give up work when they got married. But their options were far greater than those facing women like Ellen and Mrs Beard, left on their own after 20 years of marriage with few resources and skills.

D’you know how hard money is to come by for women like us?” said Mrs Beard. “We’re not the new sort of women, with University degrees in Economics, like those women who speak on the Radio nowadays, girls who can do anything. We’re ordinary women, who married too young to get a training, and we’ve spent the best years of our lives keeping house for our husbands, Not that we didn’t enjoy it, but now you’re out on your ear like me at over forty. My husband died and didn’t leave me a cent, so I had to work But yours is living and is bound by law to provide for you.

Author Dorothy Whipple.

In fact, I’m surprised at how many single women feature in the novel, all dealing with life in different ways. They may be minor characters, but they are there. The teachers at Anne’s school, educated, caring, kind but firm, seem to be happy and fulfilled preparing of girls for life in the modern world. Then there’s Miss Daley, old Mrs North’s housekeeper, and all the elderly ladies at Somerton (who all have a tale to tell), and Miss Beasley, one of Ellen’s ‘half-day’ dailies, who turns out to have been abandoned by her husband 30 years earlier, and proudly announces that she’s ‘not done too bad’. It’s an epithet that could be applied to all the single women in the book. Spinsters, widows, abandoned wives, they’ve all set to and made the best of life on their own, which is a tremendous achievement.

It’s easy to be dismissive of writers like Whittle who focused on small-scale domestic issues, but it’s those everyday dramas that are so important in people’s lives, and she portrays feelings and emotions that we can all relate to. And there are bigger issues there about women’s roles in society.

A Forgotten Children’s Classic



“When this story begins, Elizabeth Ann, who is the heroine of it, was a little girl of nine, who lived with her Great-aunt Harriet in a medium-sized city in a medium-sized state in the middle of this country, and that’s all you need to know about the place, for it’s not the important thing in this story; and anyhow you know all about it because it was probably very much like the place you live in yourself.”

The opening of Dorothy Canfield Fisher’s Understood Betsy hooked me in, and I just wanted to keep reading – and when I’d finished I just wanted to go back to the beginning and start all over again. I wish I’d come across it as a child (it is a children’s book, if you haven’t already guessed), but it doesn’t seem to be well-known in the UK, although it may be more popular in America – after all, Canfield Fisher was an American writer. In places it reminded me of The Secret Garden, while the kindly, amused authorial voice is reminiscent of Edith Nesbit, and the description of life in Vermont in the early 20th century is as fascinating and delightful as anything written by Laura Ingalls Wilder. I think its a forgotten children’s classic, and it really does deserve to be up there with  authors like Edith Nesbit, Frances Hodgson Burnett, LM Montgomery and Laura Ingalls Wilder – if you like them I’m sure you will love this.

Anyway, in addition to Great-aunt Harriet (who is ‘not very rich and not very poor’), Elizabeth Ann’s household also includes her great-aunt’s daughter Aunt Frances, who gives piano lessons to little girls, and Grace, their ‘girl’, who is nearer 50 than 40, suffers badly asthma, and does all the cooking and housework. They are all very small and very thin, even though get plenty to eat, and Elizabeth Ann has a pale face, with frightened, wistful eyes. Delicate and nervous, she’s cared for by timid Aunt Frances, a spinster who has read all the books on child rearing and wants to give Elizabeth Ann every advantage. But much as she loves the child she only succeeds in passing on her own fears and anxieties. She proudly tells everyone that Elizabeth Ann tells her everything, and so she does – but there are signs that she may not be quite as meek and mild as she appears, because when there is nothing significant to tell she makes things up to keep her aunt happy.

Then Great-aunt Harriet falls ill and Elizabeth Ann ends up a thousand miles away, on a farm in Vermont, with her unknown Putney relatives, about whom she has never heard a good word. She is nervous about meeting them because she remembers being told that they showed ‘such lack of sympathy, such perfect indifference to the sacred sensitivities of child-life, such a starving of the child-heart’. But Uncle Henry, Aunt Abigail and Cousin Ann know exactly how to treat a child like Elizabeth Ann – and it’s not by molly coddling her and wrapping her in cotton wool. They are kind, loving, and wise, but too busy to run around after her and pander to whims and frightened fancies. They encourage, but expect her to look after herself and help around the house and farm – and that’s just what she does. The fact that the Putneys are so casual and off-hand in their belief that she can do things gives her the confidence to do them.

Girl9 (2)
If Betsy wore a ‘middy’ blouse it might have looked something like this, and the hair tied back with a bow is probably right, but I think the skirt would have been fuller, or perhaps pleated.

They call her Betsy, a new name for her new life, and she learns to dress and undress herself, and to do her own her hair (tied back at the nape of the neck with a ribbon, a style she has always admired). She makes butter, apple sauce and maple syrup, lays the table, and learns to sew. For the first time she plays and laughs with other children and forms friendships. And she starts to think for herself, to solve problems, to notice what is happening in the world around her, and to care for others – a kitten, the family dog, a smaller child who needs a friend. She fills out, growing strong and sturdy, acquires a suntan, and loses the nightmares and delicate digestion that have always plagued her. There’s a heart-stopping moment when Aunt Frances writes to say she is coming to take Elizabeth Ann home, but this is a kind of fairy tale so, naturally, there is a happy ending (and, as I’ve said before, I’m a sucker for a happy ending, and this is such a happy, transformative story).

I suspect that the book very much reflects Canfield Fisher’s own views on child rearing and education, but she doesn’t preach. I knew she was a supporter of the methods pioneered by Maria Montessori, which involved the development of a child’s physical, social, emotional and cognitive well-being. But until I looked it up I had no idea how new this must have been in 1916 when Understood Betsy was published (the book is also set in that year). So I was surprised to find the small village school so child-centred, with each child assessed in each subject so work can be set according to their needs – Betsy, as we must now call her, is in the seventh grade for reading, the third for spelling, and the second for arithmetic. And the work carried out in school is part and parcel of Betsy’s growth at the farm. I wondered if it was a device used by the author, or if small village schools really did work like that.

A surrey carriage must have been quite posh if Uncle Henry used it to collect Aunt Frances from the station, but it must have been pretty scary bouncing up and down in that as it was pulled along by horses, with no walls or doors around you. This one is in North East Teas Rural Heritage Museum. Pic courtesy of Wikipedia.

There’s some nice domestic detail, especially the descriptions of rooms and furniture, and I was intrigued to find Aunt Frances is collected from the station in surrey which, it turns out, is more than a song in a musical – it’s actually a doorless four-wheeled carriage. And there’s a splendid account of Aunt Frances ‘looking ever so dressed up and citified, with a fluffy ostrich feather boa and kid gloves and a white veil over her face and a big blue one floating from her gay flowered velvet hat’. What was that all about? Why two veils? Was one of them the kind of thing that women wore to protect their faces when they wen motoring? And, as befits the occasion, Betsy puts on her new wine-coloured cashmere that Cousin Ann had made her, with a soft white collar of delicate old embroidery that Aunt Abigail had given her out of one of the trunks in the attic. I’d imagined Betsy and the other girls clad in frills, with a white petticoat over the top, but on her first night at the farm we’re told that the kitten plays with the necktie on her ‘middy’ blouse, which is more like a loose sailor top, worn hanging over a skirt.

This is my final book for the Virago Group’s February monthly read over at LibraryThing, which has been focussing on the work of Dorothy Canfield Fisher. It’s not a Virago book, but she is a Virago author, and I read it on the Kindle.

A Typing Ghost…


The Comforters, by Muriel Spark, is probably the only novel to feature a talking typewriter. It ‘belongs’ to Caroline Rose, who is writing a book about the 20th century novel – Form in the Modern Novel, we are told. But she’s having difficulty with the chapter on realism… Which is hardly surprising when you consider that she now believes herself to be a character in a book and her life is turned upside down by Typing Ghost. Not only does she hear the ghostly tap-tappity-tapping of typewriter keys, she also hears a voice (or voices) reciting her every thought, word and action. It is, as I’m sure you’ll agree, most unnerving. Here is her first encounter with the Typing Ghost:

“Just then she heard the sound of a typewriter. It seemed to come through the wall on her left. It stopped, and was followed by a voice remarking her own thoughts. It said: On the whole she did not think there would be any problem with Helena.

There seemed, then, to have been more than one voice: it was a recitative, a chanting in unison. It was something like a concurrent series of echoes.”

Is what she hears real or illusory, she wonders. Is she going mad? Being haunted? Imagining things? Spark famously described how the Typing Ghost was inspired by her own hallucinatory experiences whilst taking Dexedrine. In her case letters formed and re-formed on the page, a phenomenon that couldn’t be replicated on a printed page. And talking about her craft in the early 1960s she explained: “Fiction to me is a kind of parable. You have got to make up your mind it’s not true. Some kind of truth emerges from it.” I think that needs to be borne in mind when reading The Comforters.

the comforters
The Comforters, by Muriel Spark.

Published in 1957, it was Spark’s first novel, but she was already a very accomplished writer. Her trade mark pared-back prose is already there, and the theme of religious belief, that blurring of boundaries, the mix of reality and unreality, sanity and madness, goodness and evil. The novel poses philosophical questions about life, art, belief and creation, revealing layer upon layer of meaning. It’s difficult to establish what is fact and what is fiction, because this is a book about someone writing a book who is herself a character in a book. I loved this – Spark’s witty, elegant prose is second to none, and she’s very funny, but also very malicious, and a bit of an iconoclast, knocking down societal institutions and behavioural norms. And, as always with spark, there is a dark edge to the humour.

It dodges about in time and place as the perspective shifts from character to character, and the various threads of the plot twist, and pull apart, and twine together again, taking in smuggling, bigamy and blackmail, with passing references to the possibility of a Russian spy ring and black magic. The characters (presented with superb ironic detachment) fail to connect with each other in any meaningful way, although they all seem, somehow, to be linked. And they are, on the whole, self-consciously self-obsessed.

Muriel Spark. (Pic from Wikipedia)

There is Caroline herself, recovering from a mental illness and converting to Catholicism, which appears to bring her little joy or comfort – her three days at the Pilgrim Centre of St Philumena are unforgettably awful. Then there is her boyfriend Laurence Manders, who finds diamonds in his grandmother’s bread and wants to know about the strange men who keep calling on her. Who are they, and what do they want? And what about sinister Georgina Hogg, who is the kind of Christian who gets Christians a bad name. A former employee of Laurence’s charitable mother, she is now catering warden at St Philumena’s, but pops up elsewhere when least expected, revealing an uncanny ability to winkle out secrets best left undisturbed.

*This is my first contribution to the year-long celebration of Muriel Spark being held by HeavenAli to mark the centenary of the author’s birth. It’s dead easy to join in and you don’t have to struggle with one of those link thingies – read her introductory post here

Cats, Books and Squares!

Gimli in a bag
Cat in a bag… This is Gimli, who has a passion for bags and boxes!

Another bookshop post I’m afraid… because I’ve been staying in London for a few days looking after my younger daughter’s cat while she and her boyfriend went ‘Up North’ to see his family, and London is full of bookshops, so my ‘No New Books’ resolution has gone by the board! But London is full of all sorts of other things as well, and I had a lovely time wandering around looking at people, and buildings and parks, and thinking about the history beneath my feet. This is, I think, known as flaneusing, as described in a recent post by Karen at Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings, where she reviews Flaneuse by Lauren Elkin. A flaneur is a man who saunters around observing society and flaneuse, obviously, is the female equivalent. I find the word and the concept quite fascinating, and really must get hold of the book at some point.

Anyway, I digress (but maybe that is all part of flaneusing). No trip to London is complete without a visit to the Persephone Bookshop, and the nicest way to get there is to walk from Euston Station, taking in the Wellcome Collection and some of the Bloomsbury garden squares. The Wellcome Collection is fabulous and houses the most wonderful collection of medical exhibits collected by pharmaceutical company founder Henry Wellcome (1853-1936). It’s like a cabinet of curiosities on a grand scale, with some really bizarre things, so alongside blood-letting equipment and old surgical saws are magical amulets and a shrunken head – all sorts of objects from all sorts of places and all sorts of time periods, all designed to make people better, though I’m not at all sure how efficacious some of them would have been. Modern medicine is one of the things that convinces me progress is a Good Thing, especially when it comes to childbirth – avoid this display if you’re of nervous disposition! The Wellcome also has an interesting programme of touring exhibitions. The current one is ‘Ayurvedic Man: Encounters with Indian Medicine’, but I’m saving that for my next trip! In addition there’s an excellent cafe and a small branch of Blackwell’s Books, where I succumbed to this, because it is such fun – a kind of alternative art activity book.


Fortified by tea and cake in the Wellcome I walked up through the gardens in Gordon Square, Woburn Square and Russell Square, which I always think of as being little green oases in the busy city, though at the moment they are so muddy I’m not sure the word ‘green’ is totally appropriate, but even so daffodils and crocuses were blooming in Russell Square Gardens – the first I’ve seen this year.

A daffodil in Russell Square.

These three squares were developed by the Dukes of Bedford, who owned a lot of land in the area, and were named for family connections. The 6th Duke’s second wife was Lady Georgiana Gordon, daughter of Alexander Gordon, 4th Duke of Gordon; Woburn, as I expect you’re all aware, is the family estate, and Russell was (and, presumably, still is) the family surname.

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Georgian terraced homes Woburn Square.

The four sides of each square are lined largely with terraced houses – but don’t let that word ‘terraced’ fool you. These are not cramped Victorian homes for the working classes, but elegant Georgian establishments for well-heeled middle class professionals and businessmen who could afford servants to look after the children and do the cooking and cleaning. The central gardens were created for the residents, and surrounded by iron railings to keep the hoi polloi out. I guess garden squares like this must have inspired Mortimer Square, in Rumer Godden’s An Episode of Sparrows, with its ‘gracious and imposing’ houses, and the central gardens fenced off with high wooden palings because the iron railings had been taken for the war effort (it’s set in the aftermath of WW2).

Anyway, I digress. Again. Today these three garden squares are open to the public, and boast a surprising amount of plants and wildlife – on a good day you can see birds, squirrels and a huge variety of insects. New railings have been errected to replace the ones removed during the war, and there are paths, water features, information boards, pieces of public art, and refreshment kiosks. On a sunny day you can sit and read, or just watch the world go by, and if you’re feeling energetic you can hunt for blue plaques or track down unmarked links to the past. When they were young author Virginia Woolf and her artist sister Vanessa Bell lived in Gordon Square (at number 46).

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Queen Square.

From Russell Square you head for Queen Square (and another garden). This was once called Queen Anne’s Square because a statue there was believed to be a memorial to her, but it is now thought to represent Queen Charlotte, wife of King George III, who was treated for mental illness at one of the houses in the square.

Then it’s on to Great Ormond Street where you walk alongside the hospital, the first to provide beds for sick children, founded in 1852 by Dr Charles West, who was a friend of Charles Dickens. There I encountered a small boy in a wheelchair, with a tube in his nose, laughing and waving delightedly, and when I wave back he got even more excited, and his mother smiled and waved as well. Was he one of the young patients I wondered, for a breath of fresh air? Great Ormond Street takes you to Lamb’s Conduit Street, and the Persephone Bookshop where I bought these:

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I love the colours of this crochet blanket against the dove grey books.

Long Live Great Bardfield, by Tirzah Garwood and A London Childhood of the 1970s, by Molly Hughes were both on my Wish List, and I was going to get The Carlyles at Home, by Thea Holme, but at the last moment I changed my mind and got Richmal Crompton’s Family Roundabout instead. The shop is such a treat to visit, very calm and restrained, with shelves full of dove grey books, classical music playing softly in the background, and low lighting. There was even a vase of daphne scenting the air with its glorious perfume. The staff are there to help if you need them, but are happy to let you browse uninterrupted, and it’s all a bit like walking into someone’s book-filled sitting room. By the way, if you’ve lost any of those lovely Persephone bookmarks, they sell spares for 50p each.

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The Persephone shop is such a treat!

The building, apparently, was built in 1702-3, and has a basement which remains almost unchanged. The street was developed by Nicholas Barbon, who is thought to have been the first person to sell fire insurance to householders (during the reconstruction period after the Great Fire of London, so I imagine he must have done rather well for himself). He rejoiced in what must be one of the most unusual middle names ever ‘If-Christ-had-not-died-for-thee-thou-hadst-been-damned’ bestowed upon him by his father, the Puritan Praise-God Barebone (remember the Civil War, and the Interregnum, and the Barebone’s Parliament?).

Lamb’s Conduit Street gets its name from a water conduit installed or restored by William Lamb in the 16thC, which channelled water from a tributary of the Fleet River into open wooden pipes, allowing it to run down into the city. He also provided 120 pails for poor women so, presumably, they had something to carry the water in!