Cats, Books and Squares!

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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.

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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.

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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!

 

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A Monstrous Mother

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My Virago copy features Nahende, Rue des Belles Feuilles, by Felix Vallotton on the cover.

Today’s post is by way of being a tribute to Dorothy Canfield Fisher, who was born on this day in 1879, and is one of the Underappreciated Lady Authors being celebrated by Jane at Beyond Eden Rock – you’ll find her explanatory post here.

Mary Bascomb, the central character in Dorothy Canfield Fisher’s Her Son’s Wife calls to mind Evangeline in The Home-Maker. She must be one of literature’s most monstrous women. A widowed teacher with a grown-up son she is perfect at everything she does, at home and at work, and she keeps a tight hold on all those she comes into contact with – fellow teachers, pupils, their parents, and her son. Especially her son. She has his future all mapped out: she’s selected his future career (a lawyer, like his father before him) and has a suitable girl lined up to marry him… But Ralph throws a spanner in the works when he writes to say he has just got marrried, and is throwing up any idea of the law so he can get a job as soon as he graduates. To say she is devastated is an understatement; Ralph has been the centre of her universe for some 20 years or so, and the phrase ‘possessive mother’ doesn’t come anywhere near describing her relationship with him.

Now she felt a frightful limitless energy, felt that she could have risen from her chair, and walked forty times around the world, if that would unmarry Ralph and give him back to her as she had had him… as she had thought she had him.

But nothing could now give her back Ralph. The deadly certainty of this was what was being served to her as she sat there straight in her straight chair, her arms laid on her well-polished dining-room table.

She felt the deadly poison of this certainty filling her body. But she did not die. There she sat, Mary Bascomb, who must go on living. By nine o’clock the next morning she must have found have found some way of going on living.

Ralph has warned her: “Lottie’s not your kind, but she’s all right.” Lottie certainly isn’t Mrs Bascomb’s kind.

She stepped into her hall and saw hanging on her hatrack a bright green hat of an eccentric shape, made of very shiny, varnished, coarsely-braided straw, which she recognised as one of the cheap models of that season. Below it, leaning against the wall, stood a bright green cotton parasol, with a thick, bright green tassel hanging from the handle. Mrs Bascomb, gazing at it fixedly, saw that the fibers of the artificial silk had worn off in places and showed the rough jute thread of which it was made. The air was heavy with perfume… the sort of perfume that would go with that hat.

That hat, and the parasol, and the perfume, defines her opinion of her daughter-in-law before she even meets her, and Lottie does nothing to change her view. Poor Lottie has had few chances in life. Her mother died when she was young, she has been given little in the way of love and affection, and values people only for the material possessions she can get out of them. She’s badly educated, silly, flirtatious, and isn’t interested in cooking or cleaning. The reason for the hasty marriage soon becomes apparent, but Lottie is no better at looking after her baby daughter than she is at caring for house and husband – and he is no help because his mother has always done everything for him.

At one point, Mrs Bascomb moves away, leaving the couple to muddle through as best they can. Eventually she returns, determined to create a better life her grandaughter Dids and to ensure that the child doesn’t end up like Lottie.

Soon everythng in the house is running more or less smoothly, but Mrs Bascomb needs to do somethng about Lottie – and a visit from a quack doctor gives her the opening she needs. Plump, pretty Lottie is a bit of a hypochondriac and is persuads that bed rest will cure her ailments. In reality there is nothing wrong her that wouldn’t be cured by sensible shoes, diet and exercise, but its only a short step from bedrest to becoming a permanent invalid, and Mrs Bascomb softens the pill by ensuring that Lottie has the best everything – the latest books and magazines, the choicest morsels of food, the most fashionable dresses, and the softest slippers. With Lottie confined to her room, Mrs Bascomb has a free hand to bring up her grandaughter as she wants. She does everything in her power to make Lottie’s life pleasant and happy, and to ensure she won’t want to resume normal life. But she is not proud of her actions and stops wearing the locket that contains a photo of her husband.

Aas the book progresses Mrs Bascomb becomes more human and more compassionate. She rebuilds her relationship with her son, and comes to realise that she never let him make decisions for himself or stand on his own feet, and that he felt intimidated by her high expectations. She can say he is frustrated, stuck in a job he hates, and works subtly behind the scenes to help get him a job as a sports reporter – and he turns out to be cery good at it, because spot is his one big passion.

She is still controlling people, but she has managed to find Ralph something that will make him happy, rather than something which makes her happy. And, surprisingly, it turns out that Lottie is perfectly satisfied with he life as an invalid, where she can be the centre of the attention and have all the pretty things she craves without having to lift a finger to get them. Like a small child, she enjoys being petted and fussed by her friends, is adored by her daugher, and likes having Mrs Bascombe to ‘mother’ her.

Even more surprising is the way she treats Dibs, providing love, encouragement and advice, but never imposing her own will on the girl. She has learned from her past mistakes, and the measure of her success is that at the end of the novel Dids is clever, intelligent, compassionate, caring and independent, and is able to set off for college with her friends, to make a life of her own, on her own terms.

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Dorothy Canfield Fisher.

I think I enjoyed this more than The Home-Maker, and it was interesting to see how a mother’s obsessive love for a child can be a destructive force that can wreck lives – but can also be used for good. There are themes of possessive love, emotional manipulation, and the need for people to find thir own place in the world, doing what they are good at and what makes them (and the people around them) happy. I think this last point was an ongoing concern for the author. And while the characters may not always be very likable, you can sympathise with them and see how they got to be as they are, and Dorothy Canfield Fisher is not afraid to let them grow and develop.

And a word about the cover, which features Nahende, Rue des Belles Feuilles, by Felix Vallotton, Nine times out of ten I think the pictures on those old green-spined books are well-chosen and fit the theme or the feel of the novel. But this is the tenth time, and while I don’t dislike the painting, I think the lady looks too plump and cosy. It needs someone taller and thinner, who makes you feel a little uncomfortable.

Making Conversation

I’ve been at my mother’s most of the week, and she has no internet, but there is an internet cafe nearby, so I put this half-written piece on a memory stick, intending to tidy it up and post it there for the Persephone Readathon being run by Jessie at Dwell in Possibility, but somewhere between Tamworth and Ledbury I lost the memory stick. Anyway, I’m back home now, and I’ve sorted it out, and tried to keep it brief. Well briefish (and if that’s not a word it should be)

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Making Conversation, by Christine Longford, was first published in 1931. The endpapers and bookmark are from a 1931 silk dress in a private collection.

Christine Longford (nee Trew) married Edward Packenham, the sixth Earl of Longford, and spent her weekends in an Irish castle. It was an unusual alliance because Christine came from a very different background – her mother, having been abandoned by her husband when Christine was only three, kept her head above water by taking in paying guests. And it was these early experiences that Christine drew on when writing her novel Making Conversation. The title forms a theme running through the book for young Martha Freke never quite masters the art of making conversation. We follow her through her childhood, her schooldays, and her ill-fated university adventures, and learn she’s inclined to say too much, or too little, and has a habit of agreeing with other people, which doesn’t make for good conversation (or good communication). And somehow she never quite understands what’s going on, failing to read the signs other people pick up, not realising what is really meant, or what the consequences might be.

She learns early that words have their dangers. As a young child she buys a brooch for Ellen, the cook-general, who was actually christened Beatrice, which is considered unsuitable, so she is called Ellen – the name on the jewellery, ‘in bright gold, written in a cursive hand, with a line below it and a full stop after it’. It will, says her mother, help Ellen remember her new name (it all strikes me as being very cruel – after all, one’s name is part of one’s identity, and other people shouldn’t come along and alter it just like that). However, what sticks in poor Martha’s mind is that she is chastised for revealing the cost of the gift. Ellen will not value it now, explains Mrs Freke, because ‘people like that never do’. There’s a whole lesson about social etiquette and the class system contained in just a few lines.

Miss Pilkington, their only permanent guest, tells Mrs Freke she should encurage Martha to talk more, or she will be at a disadvantage when she goes out into the world. Indeed, Martha is at a disadvantage when she goes out into the world, but I am not sure that talking more – or less – would help. Anyway, Miss Pilkington brings in a net profit of 10 or 15 shillings a week shillings a week, which was a lot of money in the days before the First World War, so no-one iwas going to argue with her. As a bit of background, Martha’s father, Major Freke, disappeared after signing too many cheques, which is why Mrs Freke is trying to make a living running a guest house. And Miss Pilkington appeared in response to the following magnificent advert which was ‘mostly’ true:

Board residence. Officer’s wife receives few guests in country home, Wessex. Delightful surroundings, fishing, tennis. Musical. Pukka sahib. Terms moderate, lower to permanency.

Sometimes there are musical evenings, when Martha plays the piano as Miss Pilkington sings, and sometimes she recites poetry, but if guests or visitors speak to her she never managers to respond in the right way.

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Christine Longford

She attends the High School in nearby Adderbury, travelling in a hired wagonette (seeking cover under an oilcloth in bad weather). But the driver drops her at the station, so she has to walk along the High Street, arriving late and missing prayers and part of the first lesson. Mortifying though this may be, I should think it is infinitely preferable to arriving at the school gates in what is essentially an open wagon.Martha, who has been given a place on ‘special terms’ because of her mother’s ‘unfortunate circumstances, never quite fits in. For start there’s her brown stockings, shoes and galoshes (they should be black); her hair, which should be plaited, and the fact that her mother won’t let her stay late for netball. But it’s her lack of conversational skill which lets her down (or releases her, depending on your point of view) due partly to a misunderstanding about the meaning of the word adultery.

So she ends up at the Close School which, her mother claims, takes an ‘inferior type of child’. There, Martha is shocked to discover that it is the High School which is inferior, and that she has been very badly educated. However, she’s a bright girl, so she catches up and eventually gains a place at Oxford. At university studies take a bit of a back seat and she’s caught up in the excitement of dances and tea parties. But once again she is let down by her inability to say the right thing at the right time…

This doesn’t seem to be one of Persephone’s most popular novels, and I’ve seen a few less than enthusiastic reviews. I’m not sure if people didn’t like Longford’s style, or the fact that it doesn’t really lead anywhere, or if they thought the ending odd and unlikely. But I liked it, and I liked Martha. She’s always a bit of an outsider, never quite sure what’s the right thing to do or say, influenced by others and inclined to agree with what they say.

Her mother, for all her pettty snobbery, is also a bit of an outsider. We are told that but for her unfortunate circumsances she might have been considered county, but I don’t think that’s true. She’s a stronger character than Martha, and I think she’s a bit of a rebel at heart, who takes a certain pride in being slightly different, being looked at and talked about. Her guesthouse somehow seems slightly raffish and Bohemia and, as time goes on it acquires a reputation for being rather subversive, scandalous even, when villagers become suspicious of some of the paying guests. For their visitors include ‘a surplus pupil or two’ from the vicar, and the odd foreign students provided by Mrs Freke’s uncle who is (or was) something in the diplomatic service. Many of these young people are foreign, some are camp aesthetes, some are refugees, some are pacificists… none are welcomed by local people, but they are all very entrtaining.

The portrayal of life during the First World War was interesting – you hear a lot about battles, and politicians, but not a lot about the ‘home front’. In Making Conversation you get a glimpse of the fear and distrust for anyone different, and the difficulties caused by wartime shortages.

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House Husband and Working Wife

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Author Dorothy Canfield Fisher

Good things always come in threes, and that’s very much the case with American writer Dorothy Canfield Fisher, whose work can currently be celebrated on three different blogs, and I’m trying to join with all of them! To be honest, I’m cheating, because I’m re-posting a piece on The Home-Maker from way back in 2012, which is so long ago I’m sure everyone (including me) has forgotten what I said. I’ve reread it, enjoyed it as much as the first time, and was going to write a new review, but my thoughts are pretty much the same, which may indicate that wonderful though it is, it’s not the kind of the book where you find something different to focus on each time you read. Anyway, here goes…

 

When my brother and I were very young, my mother used to turn the dining room lino into a skating rink, or the frozen Arctic wastes, and we would slide across the floor… it was years later that I realised this not only kept us happy, but also got the linoleum polished with the minimum of effort! And it’s the kind of ploy that Lester Knapp would approve of, for Lester is a house-husband with a highly individual take on housework and childcare.

Actually, I’m jumping ahead, because when we first meet Lester, he’s not a house-husband at all. He’s working in the office of town’s big store, where he’s bored, unhappy and badly paid. A quiet, unassuming man, he’s a dreamer, who loves poetry and books, but hates his job, and is not very good at it. He and his wife Evangeline have three children, Helen, Henry and Stephen, and Evangeline is, as everyone is always telling us, ‘a wonder’ but wonders are not always easy to live with.

On the face of it she is the perfect wife and mother. Her house is always in apple-pie order, she produces lovely, healthy meals, runs up fashionable garments from old clothes and fabric offcuts, and even creates stylish furniture from old pieces. Make no mistake, Evangeline is a Domestic Goddess par excellence – but no-one is easy when she’s around. Members of the Ladies’ Guild are a little in awe of her ability, and are uncomfortable in her presence, while her down-trodden husband and children suffer from what used to be called ‘a nervous stomach’, and live on tenterhooks, always fearful of doing or saying the wrong thing, and worried about not living up to her high ideals.

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Persephone’s gorgeous ‘Classic’ edition.

And Evangeline is unhappy as her family. She has eczema, which never improves, and her hair is falling out in handfuls as she slaves away, obsessively cooking and cleaning to keep the house ‘nice’. The book opens with her scrubbing furiously at a line of grease spots which lead from the stove towards the door of the dining-room.

 

Henry had held the platter tilted as he carried the steak in yesterday. And yet if she had warned him once about that, she had a thousand times! Warned him, and begged of him, and implored him to be careful. The children simply paid no attention to what she said. None. She might as well talk to the wind. Hot grease too! That soaked into the wood so, She would never get it clean.”

You have to admit, it’s a pretty unusual start to a novel, and over the next few pages we see Evangelin’s iron will, and her feeling of resentment that no-one realises what she has to do. For her, the clock never says ‘tick-tick-tick-tick’ but always ‘So much to do! So much to do! So much to do’. The only person who stands up to Evangeline is Stephen her youngest son,who has a will as strong as her own, and is given to temper tantrums. He is generally regarded as a ‘problem’ by friends and neighbours, who are mystified by his behaviour because Evangeline is such a perfect mother.

Then everything changes. Lester loses his job and contemplates suicide because he can no longer support his family. He falls off a neighbour’s roof while extinguishing a fire and is confined to a wheelchair, unable to walk or work. The future looks bleak indeed. But Evangeline, who is a feisty sort of woman, applies for a job at the store, and the owner decides to take a chance on her. She is given a position in the ladies’ wear section and turns out to be a brilliant saleswoman. Not only can she sell well, she’s a quick learner, good at managing staff, the customers love her, and she’s full of innovative schemes to attract customers, increase sales and maximise profit.

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My ordinary silvery grey edition – these covers are much nicer in reality than they are in photographs!

While she works her way up to a key position at the store, Lester stays at home with the children and takes on the role of home-maker – where he is as innovative and successful as his wife is in her new role. His solution to the problem of cleaning dirt off the floor is to have it covered with newspaper each morning, and to clear it away each evening, before Evangeline returns home. It has the added bonus that Stephen can paint without making a mess. As Lester and his children tackle the difficulties of cooking and cleaning, they learn about love, responsibility, commitment, how to share things, and how to air their own opinions and make a contribution to family life. Gradually the children become confident as he tells them poems and stories, plays games, involves them in running the house, hugs them, and makes them feel loved and valued – and they, in return, adore him. 

 

The transformation of Stephen’s behaviour is especially touching. There is a key moment when Lester understands Stephen is petrified that Evangeline’s threat of washing his Teddy-bear will be carried out, and that his much-loved, dirty, old toy will be spoiled for ever. Lester has to convince his younger son that nothing will ever be done to teddy that he doesn’t want. And the final turning point comes when Stephen realises that when he goes to school his father will miss him. In one scene Lester, anxious to channel the little boy’s anger into some form of positive action, gives him a rotary egg whisk and asks him to beat a ‘pretend egg’ and turn a bowl of soapy water into froth. Stephen lacks the co-ordination and experience to know how to use the whisk, but he sticks at the task and eventually succeeds.

And what of Evangeline all this time? She comes home from work each day tired, but fulfilled. She’s no longer bitter about the hand life has dealt her, and as she no longer has to do the housework she hates so much, she seems content to spend her evenings relaxing, or playing cards with her family. And, since she is earning good money, they are able to buy luxuries for the first time ever, and she even agrees to Henry having a dog and a bicycle. I may have made her sound unlikable, but she’s not. She’s warm, passionate, quick-witted, intelligent, and has this tremendous vitality, and an urge to do everything to the very best of her ability. I could understand her frustration with the monotony and drudgery of housework, and the fact that once everything is neat, and clean, tidy, people come along and mess it up, so you have to do it all over again… and again… and again. She loves her children – but can’t cope with being with them all the time. And the relationship between her and Lester is quite tender. I think they are such opposites that each is able to give the other what they lack.

But there is a cloud on the horizon for Lester recovers the use of his legs, and although he tells no-one, his wife discovers his secret, and both fear that they must return to their traditional roles – he as a wage earner, and she as a home-maker. Neither feel they can face the censure of small-town America by going against convention and continuing as they are, and in the end it is the doctor who finds a solution that will ensure the continued happiness of the Knapp family.

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The endpapers in the Persephone edition are from Galway, a silk velvet and terry fabric produced by Warner and exported to America in 1917.

I loved this novel, which is published by Persephone, but it must have seemed pretty outrageous when it was written in 1924, because it featured role reversal and progressive theories about education, both of which threatened the established order of things. More importantly, it highlights the importance of valuing people for themselves, whatever their age and sex, and shows how difficult it can be to stand up against the expectations and conventions of society, and to do what is right for you, rather than being pushed into a role that doesn’t suit you.

There was a certain amount of sentimentality, which is not always to modern taste, but it wasn’t obtrusive, and was in keeping with the characters. Overall, I liked the way it was written, especially the shifting viewpoints, which enable us to see things from the perspective of the various characters – even the children have a voice.

The Virago Group at LibraryThing have selected Dorothy Canfild Fisher as Author of the Month, while Jane at Beyond Eden Rock will be paying tribute on February 17, as part of a year-long Birthday Book of UnderAppreciated Lady Authors (you’ll find the introductory post here). Finally, Jessie at Dwell in Possibility is staging a Persephone Readathon (click here for details).

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Poor Cow

poor cowPoor Cow, by Nell Dunn, was one of those iconic ‘social reality’ books of the 1960s. Published in 1967, it passed me by at the time (I was probably too young), but later I remember seeing the film, starring Terence Stamp and Carol White. It was controversial, presenting a picture of East End life that many people didn’t know existed – it was more than 20 years since the war had ended, and 10 years since Harold Macmillan’s famous ‘we have never had it so good’ speech, so there was an assumption that ‘homes for heroes’ had been built and a new social order established. But Dunn revealed the world of the urban poor, with bad housing, inadequate education, ill-paid jobs and little opportunity for improvement, and I think this book still has relevance today, when the gulf between rich and poor seems greater than ever. But it’s not overtly political, and Dunn doesn’t judge or campaign. Dunn simply presents a slice of life, telling it like it is.

At the novel’s heart is Joy, 22 years old, with a baby son (Jonny), and a husband who is a thief. We see the world from her perspective – her thoughts, her dreams, her relationships, her friends, her jobs. She is, as Margaret Drabble points out in the introduction to my 1988 Virago edition, both immoral and amoral; but she’s also warm, loving, passionate and gutsy, getting by as best she can, just like everyone else, seizing life with both hands and embracing what fate offers, whether it’s good or bad. She’s a curious mix of street wise and innocent, but she makes her own decisions about her life, refusing to see herself as a victim and, since she never stops to think, the story has a vibrancy and immediacy.

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Carol White and Terence Stamp in the film version of Poor Cow.

“I’ve always been a daydreamer, me Joy – Joysy as my Auntie calls me, Daydreamed about – oh, loads of things – just to have something, to be something. I don’t want to be down and out all the time,” Joy tells us, which is kind of sad because you just know it’s never, ever going to happen. For a short time things start to look up and the couple get a luxury flat in Ruislip, financed by Tom’s ill-gotten gains. Joy doesn’t have a very high opinion of Ruislip. “The world was our oyster and we chose Ruislip,” she says. But they don’t stay long because he’s sent to prison and Joy moves in with her Auntie Emm, who lives in one room, ‘off National Assistance and pills’.

Then she gets together with Tom’s mate Dave, who is quite nice, but a bit dopey, and a very inept buglar. He arrives home one night with pockets full of necklaces, and relates how the ‘old girl’ wasn’t away after all, so was locked in the toilet while he and his friends took her jewellery. “I gave her a glass of water when we finished,” he tells Joy (but omits to say that one of them hit her over the head). The police are hard on his heels, and as they hammer on the door he tries to climb out of the window – until Joy begs him not to leave, at which point he returns and lets them in!

Soon Joy’s back with Antie Emm, working as a barmaid, doing some nude modelling (for £2 an hour, which seems like a fortune), and having lots of sex – she says she was never bothered before, but now she takes her pleasures when and where she can. and is hard-headed enough to get what she can out of the encounters, but she has her standards, and refuses to prostitute herself, maintaining that ‘you lose the pleasure of it if you turn professional’. She also writes long, ill-spelt letters to Dave, vowing eternal love, promising to wait for him, and giving him an (edited) acount of her life. Eventually Tom is released from jail and she resumes her wifely duties, and although he doesn’t seem to appreciate her efforts she remains optimistic about the future:

“Then sometimes, when he’s home, he’s good to me, that’s another thing. If he were rotten all the time I could go but sometimes for a week at a time he’s all over me. I can’t do no wromg – I’m a smashing wife – he even lets me wear me pony tail – and I feel a proper mum, I feel great. I go up the park with Jonny and buy daffodils for the table and put a red tulip in the toilet to make it smell nice and the place looks smashing and we’re happy again.”

The one constant in her life seems to be her fiercely protective love for her son (although I’m not sure she would be regarded as a good mother by today’s standards) and it’s hard to think of a similar lterary heroine – the nearest equivalent might be Babe Gordon in Mae West’s The Constant Sinner. But Joy is warm-hearted and much more human – basically, she just wants someone to love her. And Dunn is a better writer. Oddly, her writing probably has more in common with Virginia Woolf than Mae West: the life she portrays is a world away from the rarified atmosphere of Woolf’s world, with its well educated, well-heeled characters, but Poor Cow is written in a kind of up-dated stream of consciousness, using colloquial language. It moves between the author’s words, to Joy’s thoughts and her ill-written letters to her jailed lover Dave (her spelling is idiosynccratic), but it is always about her or from her point view, creating a very personal picture of a of a poor, ill-educated working class girl. According to Drabble the ‘elegance’ of the prose ‘conceals the craft’ but I don’t think elegance is the right word at all. Woolf may be elegant, Dunn is not. But there’s a freshness to the writing and the novel, which moves from episode to episode in an almost picaresque fashion, is actually quite tightly structured.

Dunn came from a ‘good’ background, but lived in Battersea, worked in local sweet factory for a time, and listened to local women talking about their lives. This, presumably, provided material for Poor Cow, and Up The Junction. Today she seems to be somewhat forgotten, but she deserves to be remembered as a pioneering author. She was one of the first novelists (male or female) to write a grittily realistic novel about working-class women in the 20th century, showing their relationships and sexual desires while exposing social issues.

This has been languishing among the TBRs for ages, and I thought it would make a nice start to the The Official 2018 TBR Pile Challenge, hosted by https://roofbeamreader.com/2017/11/07/announcing-the-official-2018-tbr-pile-challenge/ but I forgot to sign up while I was ill. So I;m having my own unofficial TBR Pile Challenge!

The Innocents

the-innocents-margery-sharp-001I have, as they say, been somewhat in the wars in recent weeks. First there was a bad tooth which got infected and the infection spread into my jaw and throat, then there was the lurgy (a bad cough and cold which wouldn’t clear up), then I slipped on an icy step, landed face down on concrete paving slabs, and ended up in casualty having a CT scan to check everything was OK. Fortunately there’s no serious injury, just severe bruising and a lot of pain, but I feel a little sorry for myself!

Anyway, today is Margery Sharp Day, the first anniversary in a year-long Birthday Book of Under-Appreciated Lady Authors being run by Jane over at Beyond Eden Rock. So I’m posting a hastily scrawled piece about The Innocents, which I have read before, but never written about. However, it’s well worth reading again. On the face of it, it’s a simple tale, but there’s a darker edge to this than some of Sharp’s other work, and the ambiguous ending leaves you wondering about the nature of innocence, and whether a bad act committed for a greater good can ever be sanctioned.

Telling us about the child, the narrator says: “I have spoken of her, describing our first encounter, as a baby. Antoinette was in fact three. At three, she should have been able to untie my shoe-laces quite easily. She should have not only uttered, but prattled. At three Antoinette had still no more language than – a baby.”

And she is as clumsy as baby, easily frightened, and when she is scared she is sick. But gradually Antoinette comes to trust her elderly carer, a relationship develops between the two of them, and the child is accepted by villagers who ‘do not blame her for being an innocent’. “Spoken to always quietly and slowly, Antoinette understood perfectly. All that was needed was patience,” says the unnamed narrator (I’m sure her name is never mentioned – if it is, I missed it). Later she tells us: “Antoinette slowly but surely developed from a small animal into a small child.”

However, that is all she will ever be – a small child. And a very odd small child at that. She spurns toys and games for things like rabbit droppings, and frogs and toads (alive and dead) and although she acquires some language (tureen, vermin, rucksack, pepper) she cannot communicate. The local doctor says she is retarded (a commonly used word when the book wa written in 1971), not autistic, and she needs lots of TLC – and that’s just what she gets with her aging protector. For the spinster, who has little or no experience of children, accepts Antoinette as she is and has no unrealistic expectations or ambitions for her. She loves the little girl, wants her to be happy, and is willing to let her set the pace.

But their idyll is threatened when the war ends and Cecilia, now widowed, returns to England. She aims to take’Tony’ back to America, and employ an army of specialists to turn her into a normal child – a transformation that, as everyone else realises, is simply not possible.

Antoinette is uprooted from her usual routine and environment to stay with Cecilia at the local hotel. Unable to understand what is happening she loses her joy in life, and retreats into dejected, passive acceptance. And as the day of leaving draws closer the narrator becomes more and more concerned that the future being mapped out for Antoinette is not in the child’s best interests, but there is nothing she can do to prevent it… Then, at the 11th hour fate steps in – or, possibly, is nudged in the right direction…

Margery Sharp

I loved this. It’s warm and sensitively written, hitting a balance between light-hearted humour, serious issues, and ethical dilemmas, while exploring the problems involved in caring for a child with special needs, a topic that still tends to be overlooked. Additionally, the characterisation is excellent Margery Sharp can establish a personality in very few words, and builds on the picture as the story progresses, with a word here, and a hint there, until the complete person emerges. Margery Sharp is also very good on descriptions, giving a real sense of place so you can build a picture of the locations, as well as the people.

 

We Have Always Lived in the Castle

51CoOZaAJML._SX340_BO1,204,203,200_This is another of those ‘the ones that got away’ posts’ This time I’m catching up Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle, which I raved about here when I was halfway through, because I was so surprised to discover how brilliant she is, and how much I liked this novel. I didn’t expect to enjoy it because I hated her short story The Lottery, and this slender novel is not my usual style at all. It’s bizarre, macabre, unsettling, disturbing – and utterly compelling. I was totally gripped from the opening paragraph to the last word. I just couldn’t put it down.

As I said in my previous post, Jackson writes like a dream, but the tale she tells has a nightmarish quality. Gothic horror doesn’t even begin to describe it and it’s impossible to categorise or find a comparable author. Angela Carter, Barbara Comyns, and Alice Thomas Ellis have all written strange, unconventional novels with a dark edge, and some of the short stories penned by Margaret Atwood, Sara Maitland and Sylvia Townsend Warner are very odd indeed, but I’m not sure any of them quite match Jackson when it comes to weirdly wonderful.

It’s well nigh impossible to write about We Have Always Lived in the Castle without giving the plot away, but it’s become something of a cult classic, and elements of the story seems to be so well known that perhaps spoilers don’t matter. If you don’t want to know what happens then stop reading!

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Basically the narrator, Merricat (Mary Katherine Blackwood), and her sister Constance live with their Uncle Julian in a run-down family mansion. Six years ago the girls’ mother, father, aunt and brother all died when someone put arsenic in the sugar bowl. Uncle Julian survived, with his mind and body irreparably damaged; Merricat escaped poisoning because she had been sent to her room for a misdemeanour, and Constance never took sugar. However, she prepared the meal and washed the sugar bowl before the police arrived – there was a spider in it, she claimed. She is tried for murder and acquitted, though local people remain convinced of her guilt. It’s obvious that bad feeling between the Blackwoods and the villagers goes back a long away – well before the murders, but it’s never explained. Once a week Merricat runs the gauntlet of hostile, staring, jeering villagers to change library books and buy groceries, because her sister never ventures beyond the confines of house and garden.

Everything changes when Cousin Charles arrives, seeking the fortune he believes Mr Blackwood has left. He beguiles Constance – and Merricat, excluded from her sister’s new relationship, seeks a way to banish him and restore their usual way of life, but things don’t go according to plan. She sets fire to Charles’ bedroom in the hopes that leave, but the flames spread – and the fire brigade, having extinguished the blaze join the vrowd of villagers in systematically smashing the Blackwood home and possessions to piece. It’s every bit as terifying as the mob that stones a woman to death in The Lottery.

61UJ59drydL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_The girls clad themselves in table cloths and drapes (their clothes have been destroyed), and barricade themselves in the ruined house, while the villagers, ashamed of their actions, take to leaving gifts of food on the doorstep.

The past unfolds slowly, there is a feeling of unease from the outset, and the tension just keeps on rising, highlighted bythe juxtaposition of everyday normality with the weird. It’s told from Merricat’s perspective, her internal musings, which are frequently very unpleasant, but always entertaining, and it soon becomes apparent that she is not merely a little odd, but deeply, deeply disturbed, and that it is she, not Constance, who is the poisoner. Yet there are times when I wondered if the sisters were complicit in the murders, and it is strange that Constance tells the police her family deserved to die.

Merricat’s life is dominated by her protective charms and rituals – words that she mustn’t say, a buried doll, a book nailed to a tree – that go hand in had with her self-imposed rules on what she can and can’t do. It’s like some kind of instinctive sympathetic magic, but I think there’s more than that; it’s like some obsessive behavioural pattern taken to extremes.

220px-WeHaveAlwaysLivedInTheCastleThis all sounds very dark and chilling, and it is, but We Have Always Lived in the Castle also has one of the funniest scenes Ihave ever read in any novel, when an old friend of the sister’s dead mother comes to tea, accompanided by ‘little Mrs Wright’ whose avid curiosity about the murders overcomes her good manners – she can’t bring erself to drink tea or eat any of Constance’s cakes and sandwiches, but she takes a ghoulisjh interest in the details of the murder. And Uncle Julian rises to the occasion magnificently. He is a showman, displayimg his exhibits – the house, its inhabitants and their possessions, and he does it with outrageous charm, old-fashioned courtesy, and a wry sense of humour.

“Would you like to view the dining room?” he asked. “The fatal board? I did not give evidence at the trial, you understand; my health was not equal, then or now, to the rude questions of strangers.”

“Madam.” Uncle Julian contrived a bow fron his wheel chair, and Mrs Wright hurried to reach the door and open it for him. “Directly across the hall,” Uncle Julian said, and she followed. “I admire a decently curious woman, madam; I could see at ince that you were devoured with a passion to view the scene of the tragedy; it happened in this very room, and we still have our dinner in here every night.”

He continues with great relish:

“The sugar bowl on the sideboard, the heavy silver sugar bowl. It is a family heirloom; my brother prized it highly. You will be wondering about that sugar bowl, I imagine. Is it still in use? you are wondering; has it been cleaned you may very well ask; was it thoroughly washed I can reassure you at once. My niece Constance washed it before the doctor or police had come.”

28251249Amidst the horror and oddities everyday concerns loom large. Gardening, cooking, clothes are all important, as are good manners – at the end, despite everything that has happened, when villagers leave food Constance is concerned about what people would think of them if they sent the dish and cloth wrapping back dirty.

And nothing is ever explained. When terrible things happen, in fiction, as in life, we like to know why. We look for reasons, justifications, attributions of blame, anything that will make it easier to accept and understand. But Jackson offers no clues. We never know why the family were murdered ( in the afterword Joyce Carol Oates suggests Merricat is suffering from paranoid schizophrenia) or what has caused bad feeling between the Blackwoods and the villagers, but you can see how fear, rumour and suspicion feed prejudice in small town America.