Posted in 20thC, Short Stories, Virago

The Blush

DSCN7697Here we have another Virago (after all, LibraryThing’s All Virago All August is still running). The Blush, is a collection of 12 short stories by Elizabeth Taylor who, unlike Lisa St Aubin de Teran in my last post, could never, ever be accused of melodrama, although she can, on occasions, be much darker than you might expect.

Taylor is one of those wonderfully understated English authors whose work is notable as much for what it doesn’t say as for what it does. If you’re after thrills and spills and fast paced action then look elsewhere. Her novels and short stories are beautifully restrained observations on well-heeled, middle class life, failed relationships, disappointments and missed opportunities. And the 12 tales in The Blush are classic Taylor territory.

It’s a microcosm of the world she moved in, a world that even when she was first writing, in aftermath of WW2, must have seemed old-fashioned. With their home-counties settings, servants, and boarding schools they’re redolent of an earlier period of more gracious living. And, like people from that pre-war era (or, indeed, from the war itself) her characters know they must bear up, whatever the circumstances. They follow the unwritten rules of their social milieu, keeping up appearances and maintaining a stiff upper lip, unable to express strong passions or reveal their true feelings, even to their nearest and dearest, which is a kind of tragedy I think – but life goes on just as it always has.

And Taylor’s stories focus on the little things in life, the small things that seem unimportant to everyone else, but are everything to the people concerned, and the almost unnoticed moments on which a life can turn as a decision is made – or not made – and the future is mapped out.

I think my favourite in this collection is The Letter-Writers, where Emily and famous writer Edmund have been corresponding for 10 years, but have never met – until now. And both  know it is a risky step, because the reality may not match the picture each has built of the other. And, sure enough, nothing goes according to plan. Before his arrival Emily, who is unused to alcohol, drinks a  glass of sherry to steady her nerves, and the cat eats her carefully prepared lobster lunch. Over a makeshift meal of tinned sardines she runs out of small talk.

The silence was unendurable. If it continued, might he not suddenly  say. “You are so different from all I imagined”, or their eyes might meet and they would see in one another’s nakedness and loss.”

Then, just as you are thinking things can’t get any worse, local busybody Mrs Waterlow calls and refuses to budge. She’s never read any of his books, but she always reads the reviews in the Sunday papers (because, she says,  ‘we’re rather a booky family’). She even appropriates Emily’s encylopedia and looks up tapestry, which has pages of close print, to  (allegedly) settle a family argument.

The hot afternoon was a spell they had fallen under. A bluebottle zig-zagged about the room, hit the window-pane, then went suddenly out of the door. A petal dropped off a geranium on the window-sill – occasionally – but not often enough for Edmund – a page was turned, the thin paper rustling silkily over.”

Eventually, Edmund finds a novel way of forcing Mrs Waterlow to go, but the day is spoiled and his time with Emily curtailed. When he leaves, neither of them can speak about their feelings, or the events of the day.

She shrank from words, thinking of the scars they leave, which she would be left to tend when he had gone. If he spoke the truth she could not bear it, if he tried to muffle it with tenderness, she would look upon it as pity.He had made such efforts, she knew; but he could never have protected her from herself.

As he leaves she begs him: “If you write to me again, will you leave out today, and let it be as if you had not moved out of Rome?” And afterwards, with the last of the light, she sits down and starts writing him a letter… See what I mean about small things, and life carrying on the way it has always done. The life she writes about becomes more real (for for herself and her recipient) than real life and, unlike reality, it has no power to hurt her.

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The Ambush is particularly strong on Thames-side landscape, a landscape I recognise, because I was brought up in Egham, Surrey, not too far from Penn, in Buckinghamshire, where Elizabeth Taylor lived. I imagine the lock and weir in this story looking like the Bell Weir Lock of my childhood – and I was delighted to see from this picture in Wikipedia that it still looks much as I remember. ( Pic by Motmit – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https//commons.wikipemedia.org/w/Index.php?curld=4297316)

Then there is The Ambush, where Catherine is staying with Mrs Ingram, the mother of Noel, her dead fiance, in her riverside home. Mrs Ingram is one of those women who manages to arrange life to her own satisfaction, without seeming to lift a finger or exert her will on others.

“I love her, Catherine thought. I could never withstand her, no matter what she wanted of me.” Then she questions why such a thought came to her, and we consider what Mrs Ingram wants from Catherine. Does she want her to marry  Noel’s brother Esmé (who is so obviously not the marrying kind)? Does she want the daughter (or daughter-in-law) she never had? Or does she want a family to replace the sons she has lost – one dead, and the other about to return to his life abroad.  Eventually Catherine gives way to her grief, and cries for Noel and what might have been. And Mrs Ingram’s response is not so unexpected, because she has drawn Catherine into her orbit.

You see, I can’t stay, You do see? Her heart had been twice ambushed in this house and now she was desperate to escape. Yet did Mrs Ingram understand? She said nothing. She simply took Catherine in her arms and kissed her – but with a welcoming, gathering-in gesture as if to one who has come home at last rather than to someone preparing to go away.”

On the whole these are sad stories, about lonely, shy, diffident people who never fully engage with others, but it’s tempered with a lot of humour. Take The Blush, the story which gives its name to this collection. Mrs Allen receives a visit from Mr Lacey, husband of the woman who comes every day to the housework. Slackly corseted Mrs Lacey, with her orange hair and domestic difficulties, has revealed she is pregnant, and Mr Lacey has called to ask Mrs Allen not to employ his wife as a baby sitter while she and her husband attend cocktail parties, because it is too much for her in her condition. But the Allens have no children, and don’t go out much. Mrs Allen is much too embarrassed and polite to try and explain, and nothing more is said, but I began to wonder if it made her wonder about her husband’s late nights in his London office.

And there is Perhaps a Family Failing, where new bride Beryl, ‘provocative in chiffon’ is in a hotel room preparing herself for her wedding night – she’s read all the advice in women’s magazines. Her husband Geoff has not, alas, read the magazines, and consequently has no idea what is expected of him on this momentous occasion, so he spends the evening drinking in the hotel bar, forgets where he is or what day it is, and returns (very drunk) to his parents…

I could write about all the stories, but there simply isn’t room, and you really should

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Author Elizabeth Taylor.

read this yourself. But I will mention Summer Schools, which is the saddest of all.  Here sisters Melanie and Ursula (the Misses Rogers) are growing old in their childhood home, unhappy together, but unable to live apart. Then Ursula receives an invitation yo stay with an old schoolfriend, so out of spite Melanie books herself on a Summer Lecture Course about literature.  Neither enjoys their break – it merely highlights the emptiness of their lives. They are growing into the old ladies they must become, copies of elderly , spinster sisters they knew when they were young, laughably fussy, old-fashioned, unadventurous, set in their ways.

However, Ursula does have an adventure during her vacation, but it is not romantic, and she quickly brushes it from her mind. And Melanie invents a broken love affair with the lecturer in charge of the course (shades of Charlotte Bronte here I think). In reality she never really speaks to him, but I’m sure she convinces herself that they met, fell in love and parted in anguish because he is married. And somehow it is this that gives the sisters an interest and purpose in life. The fantasy will dictate their future and the way people perceive them, for Melanie will become Miss Rogers, whose life was blighted by a tragic love-affair, and Ursula can be the loving sister who gave up her life to care for her.

And, to finish, a brief comment about the lovely cover of this book, which is as delicate and restrained as Taylor’s writing. Sadly, I can’t tell you who painted this, because the book is very battered, and has an old sticker across the back, hiding the illustration attribution.

 

Posted in 20thC, Novels, Virago

A Virago for August!

“We are a photograph, the same photograph of every year with me a summer older, so a summer taller: lanky Joan, outgrowing the world around her. It is always Selsey Beach, a stretch of bare sand on the South Coast, and there are certain constants: myself, Granny, in her tight-bodiced dress, crocheting or gazing out to sea, and Mother with her green Antarctic eyes, cross-sectioned and sepiad by the camera. Mother, as beautiful as ever under her hat but with her cruel stare frightening even the seagulls off the beach. Or was it just empty? Out of season?”

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It’s Virago time! Library Thing is running its traditional ‘All Viragos, All August’, so my first offering is Joanna, by Lisa St Aubin de Teran, which I loved – it had me hooked from that first paragraph.There are moments when this novel feels overly melodramatic – positively gothic in some ways – and it explores some disturbing issues, including child abuse, mental illness, and what happens when the relationship between mother and daughter is damaged or twisted beyond repair. But it is a powerful story, beautifully written, and not easily forgotten.

It’s the story (actually, stories would be more accurate) of Amazonian red-haired Joan, her tiny, fragile mother Kitty, and her grandmother, Florence, and it’s written in four sections, with each member of the family telling her own tale (starting and ending with Joan), so you view them from three perspectives – as they perceive themselves, and as each of the other two see them.

I’m not sure this necessarily makes them more rounded, and I wonder whether any of the trio are reliable witnesses of the past, but they each tell the truth as they see it, and while parts of the narratives overlap, there are some discrepancies in the accounts, but together they build a picture of the events and circumstances which have gone to make the women what, and who, they are.

Florence and Kitty have been raised in luxury on the island of Jersey – Florence in the closing decades of the 19th century, and Kitty in the early years of the 20th century. But by the end of the First World War their charmed life comes to an end. Florence, newly widowed, discovers her husband has gambled the family fortune away, so her home and possessions must be sold to pay the debts, leaving her with what is described as a ‘pittance’. At the same time pregnant Kitty (who is obviously suffering from some kind of mental health issue) abandons her husband of just a few months and returns home. So mother and daughter move to London, where they live in self-imposed exile, and where Joan is born.

Towering over everyone else (in character, if not in stature) is diminutive Kitty with her glittering green eyes, her spite, her rages, her cruelty, her psychic ability to foretell a death – and her psychotic hatred of her daughter. It is a wonder that Joan is born at all, and nothing short of a miracle that she survives and thrives, despite Kitty’s violence towards her. Kitty is a monster. She has to be just about the worst mother you are ever likely to find. Her attitude towards her daughter goes way beyond dislike, or fear, or lack of bonding – she seems to see her as an abomination. She attacks Joan with her fists, and anything else that comes to hand – a broken, jagged-edged record and, finally, a carving knife. On that occasion (the incident which finally forces Joan to leave home), she tells the girl: “Red is the colour of the Devil.  You are red inside and out.” And when she tells the story of her life she refers to her daughter as ‘it’.

As time passes Kitty’s behaviour worsens, and to protect the girl from her mother’s uncontrolled rages Florence packs her off, first to a Catholic boarding school run by French nuns, and then to another, run by German nuns who support Hitler.

There is a brief respite when Kitty marries again, but we know the marriage is doomed to failure and she cannot sustain the relationship.

Throughout everything Florence continues to protect Kitty – from herself, and from the world around her – fearing that if people realise her daughter is mad she will be shut away in an asylum. As I read this book, I kept wondering whether Kitty was always ill, or whether it was her traumatic marriage that tipped her over the edge, or the pressure of living up to the fact that she looked exactly like her mother’s adored, sweet-natured, beautiful sister, who died young.

And how culpable is Florence for covering up Kitty’s behaviour, and keeping quiet about her abuse of the child? And how much does her silence affect what happens to Kitty and Joan and shape their future lives? Is she doing the best for them – or for herself? “I have always been needed, and that has made my life seem full,” she tells us. She has always known her daughter is not like other people. “Kitty was a victim of circumstance, a beautiful flower transplanted into the wrong soil,” she says.

 

Posted in 20thC, Novels, Virago

Troy Chimneys

Troy ChimneysSince I am still in catching-up mode I am trying to cobble together a hasty review on Margaret Kennedy’s Troy Chimneys, so I can take part in Margaret Kennedy Day over at Jane’s blog, Beyond Eden Rock. I must admit I know nothing about Margaret Kennedy, and I’ve never read anything by her, although this has been languishing on the bookshelves for years. I bought it it because:

a) It is a green-spined Virago, and you know how much I love them.

b) I liked the cover. It is, apparently, a detail from Captain Robert Orme, painted by Joshua Reynolds in 1756, and is held by the National Gallery in London. For some reason it made think of DK Broster’s Flight of the Heron, and I guess I’m not far out in that, because the Jacobite Rebellion was just 11 years earlier.

Anyway, the novel tells the story of Miles Lufton, who is, as the blurb on the back explains, a self-made politician in Regency England. His father is a clergyman, and his mother is generally regarded as an Angel. The couple have learning, taste and high moral principles  – but no money. They are poor relations of the great family at the nearby Park. However Miles is brought up alongside his cousin Ned (heir to the house and fortune), learns to ride, hunt and shoot, and acquires a taste for luxury that is way above his station, though he does not realise this at the time. It must be said that Miles has a very high opinion of himself.

“There was not a single activity in which I could not count myself superior to Ned,” he tells us. “I could out-ride him, out-shoot him, bowl him at cricket and beat him at cards. That I rode his ponies, and shot his fathers coverts did not occur to either of us. For Ned admired me almost as much as I admired myself.”

His education enforces that sense of superiority, for he is sent to Winchester, by the good offices of an altruistic gentleman who admires his mother at church … such things happen in novels, especially in the early 18th century. At school he learns that however clever and good-looking he may be, without money and position he is no-one, and will never get on in society.  So he sets out to make himself charming and amenable to the people who matter. He’s a very honest narrator, and makes no effort to dissemble, or disguise his behaviour and motives.

“… I worked and played, cultivated popularity, studied the foibles of the masters, and strove to recommend myself myself in that quarter where the most powerful influence was likely to be felt.”

At Oxford he is just as canny, and his friendship with the rather peculiar Ludovic (more correctly known as Lord Chalfont) provides a springboard for him to launch himself into society. With his charm, wit, intelligence and , with pleasing manners, he becomes the darling of the fashionable and wealthy – but the class distinction is always maintained. He is never their equal: he may flirt with their daughters, but marriage would never be allowed, and he knows this. He becomes what we would call a gofer, running errands for his new ‘friends’. Nothing is ever too much trouble and he’s always willing to arrange something, or fill an empty seat at the theatre or a dinner party. He is, basically, enjoying the good life by sponging off people. But he remains very clear-sighted about himself.

“I liked to stay with people who had nothing to do save amuse themselves. I liked that kind of life very well. I had no wish to be rich; I only wanted enough money to dress well, travel post, and purchase civility from the servants. Had I possessed an income of a thousand pounds per annum I don’t believe that I should have sought any profession. But I had not a hundred pounds, and it was clear I must do something.”

That something turns out to be politics. His friends help him find him a place in Parliament and, as an MP, he has ample opportunity to sybaritic lifestyle and promote his own self-interest.

Somewhere along the line he has acquired the nickname Pronto (after a character in a play, we are told) and develops a kind of split personality, in which Miles stands for decency and goodness, the opposite of his alter ego Pronto. He talks about himself largely in the third person (or perhaps I should say third people), almost as if he doesn’t exist, and he is telling a story about someone else. And as Pronto, the created character,  begins to take over he is very aware of what is happening to him, though he tends to blame others for the changes which bring out aspects of his character which always been there, but to a lesser degree. Talking about his society friends, he says:

“They liked me for my interesting poverty, my sensibility, my freshness, my innocence. They were therefore in great haste to destroy in me every quality which they had praised and found delightful, to corrupt Miles and conjure up Pronto in his stead.”

He is unable to let one or the other take over completely, and equally unable to merge the two halves of his personality into a complete whole. He cannot decide who, or what, he wants to be be, or what kind of life he wants to lead. And because of this, I think, he never fulfills his potential, and never achieves his goals. Late in the novel he meets up with Caroline Audley, who he knew years before. In those days, we learn:

“Her good graces might be valuable to Pronto, and he set himself to secure them. He paid her a good deal of attention, – not so great as to arouse expectations, he was too sharp for that, – but he certainly took more notice of her than other people did (… ). He may have indicated a little more admiration than he felt; most women expect that and like it. And he had a genuine regard for her, so that Miles was not entirely banished from the scene…”

But his regard is not great enough for a proposal of marriage. When they meet again he falls in love. He is haunted by Caroline, and dreams of making her his wife, so they can together at  Troy Chimneys, the beautiful house in the country which he has bought, but never lived in. However, the dream is unattainable, because he hurt Caroline so badly in the past.

I loved the way Margaret Kennedy writes, her portrayal of the characters, the delicate balance of their relationships, and the snippets of period detail.I had no idea what to expect, but I really enjoyed this book, and liked the structure, which had an early 19th century feel to it, very much in keeping with the period in which it is set, and epistolary novels were very popular. It opens with letters written some 50 years later, by which time Miles/Pronto has become a skeleton in the family cupboard, and is never spoken of. Then his memoirs come to light, and it is these that form the main part of the novel. Part diary, part reflection on life, they reveal his inner conflict, his hopes and fears, his desire to be something more than he is, and his bitterness that man of ability should be considered nothing and nobody if he has no money or position. At the end are more letters, in which you find out what eventually happened to Lufton.

Actually, he is much more likable than I’ve made him sound. He does have some very unattractive traits, but I ended up feeling sorry for him. In her introduction Anita Brookner gives the impression that he is a gifted man, from a loving family, who through some fatal flaw in his character wastes his talents and cannot push anything through to its conclusion. However, I’m not sure I agree with that, because he does seem to be so self-aware, and there are moments when he knowingly makes decisions which could have gone the other way. And I keep wondering whether the duality in his nature was always there, or whether it was something he created.

The obvious comparison, from a psychological viewpoint, would be Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, but I think it would be more interesting to look at Margaret Kennedy’s novel alongside something like Edith Olivier’s The Love Child, or Frank Baker’s Miss Hargreaves, where imaginary people become real and take on a life of their own. Miles’ alter ego is like that, but within himself, rather than an external manifestation.

Now I’ve finished I’m not at all sure that I’ve done justice to this novel – there are so many aspects I haven’t mentioned, and other people will probably take issue with some of the things I have commented on, and really I should go through it again and whittle it down, but I’m going to leave it as it is.

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Posted in Virago

Virago Ventures

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Various Viragos bought in charity shops over the last few weeks.

Viragos  are addictive. I’m talking (mainly) about the old green-spined VMCs with reproductions of paintings on the front covers. They are so alluring I cannot resist them, and wherever I go I end up scouring second-hand book stores and charity shops in search of treasures. Fortunately, the Man of the House is never averse to browsing book shelves, but he occasionally wonders if I should work my way through a list of Viragos I Haven’t Got, ordering them online, possibly on a weekly basis. I do order online, when there’s a title I’m desperate to read, but it’s the thrill of the hunt I love, and the random nature of the finds.

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I’m really pleased with these two Miles Franklins. I’ve got a more recent edition of My Brilliant Career, which is one of my favourite books, but I prefer the cover on this. That’s the danger with becoming obsessive about Viragos: you end up buying books that you already have.

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And you end up buying books that you’ve read but didn’t really like. Precious Bane is an example. The words ‘purple prose’ spring to mind when I think of Mary Webb, and I’ve always found it difficult to understand why she was so popular. But I’m happy to give her another go. Edith Wharton’s style is as far from Mary Webb as you could get, but both these novels centre on women on the margins of society.

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Virago produced quite of lot of themed anthologies, with excerpts from women writers. The ones on gardening and travellers are brilliant, and the one on convent girls is interesting, so I got these.

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This one I have never come across before. It is, apparently, the story of Vita Sackville-West’smother and grandmother.  Her grandmother, Josefa (known as Pepita), was the half-gypsy daughter of a Spanish pedlar who sold old clothes and became the mistress of an English nobleman. Her illegitimate daughter Victoria was something of a social outcast, but married her cousin and was in charge of one of the great houses in England. It sounds as if the lives of both women were as colourful and unconventional as Vita’s own life, and I’m really looking forward to reading it.

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Then there’s these two, which fell off the stack and aren’t in the main photo. Ena Chamberlain’s 29 Inman Road is another book I’ve never encountered before. It’s an autobiography of her childhood in London during the 1920s, and it interests me because my father grew up in London during the same period. I’ve already got several novels by Kate O’Brien but, I am ashamed to admit, haven’t read any of them, and I feel very guilty. To be honest, if I didn’t buy any more books, and I only read Viragos, they would keep me going for months and months.

Has anyone read any of these? And does anyone else find themselves collecting books, even if they already have that book, or don’t like the author?