January…. In this Month, let not Blood, nor use physick, unless necessity constrain thee; beware of taking cold, for Rheums and Plegm do much increase this Moneth; it’s hurtful to fast long, to drink White Wine fasting is good, Use Meats that are moderately hot, for the best physick is warm diet, warm Cloathes, good Fires, and a merry, honest Wife.
Blood letting is no longer a recognised medical treatment, but winter colds are still as much a part of life today as they were when this was written in 1677, and many people still believe the old saying ‘feed a cold, starve a fever’. The passage is part of a slightly longer excerpt from The British Merlin, which opens One Woman’s Year, by Stella Martin Currey, which is a kind of diary, or yearbook, originally published in 1953, and recently re-issued by Persephone. Each month starts with a quote from The British Merlin, which was an Almanac (now known as Rider’s British Merlin), full of guidance on a variety of topics , including medicine, looking after your animals, wearing the correct clothes for the season, and planting crops and flowers. Currey’s book could also be considered a kind of almanac: it’s packed with sound advice on all sorts of things, from making sandwiches to getting children to write thank you letters, as well as the author’s thoughts on everyday life. There are excerpts from her favourite books and poems, recipes, and her thoughts on day to day life, whether it’s the first swim of the season, or a visit to the hairdresser, along with accounts of family excursions, children’s activities, and reflections on the ‘most ‘liked’ and ‘disliked’ jobs of the month. January’s hateful task – dealing with a burst pipe – struck a chord as, like Currey, we live in old house (only our’s is very small), with idiosyncratic plumbing, where the water and sewage systems are linked to neighbours, which can cause a lot of complications and misunderstanding when things go wrong.
Another piece which resonated with me was Currey’s description of books for children, and the joy she has found in reading to her two sons. My brother and I consider ourselves fortunate to have grown up in a house full of books, with parents who read to us, told us stories, and told us stories. Many of the books she mentions were (and still are) firm favourites with us – Alice in Wonderland, Wind in the Willows, Kidnapped, Treasure Island, Oliver Twist, A Christmas Carol, Swallows and Amazons, Tom Sawyer, and Huckleberry Finn, and a host of others…. The month also features a recipe for tuck box cake (she makes it to accompany her elder son to school); a day at the Tower of London, and a trip to the hairdresser, which she finds soothing. And there are lovely extracts from Jane Eyre, and Tea With Mr Rochester, by Frances Towers.
I never quite felt I knew the author – she keeps herself and her family at a slight distance from the reader, and while there is a lot of humour here it’s not laugh-out-loud funny like The Diary of a Provincial Lady. Currey, (1897-1994), was a journalist, novelist and playwright, and she writes well, but has a more serious and informative tone than EM Delafield. Having said that, I thought it was charming, and really enjoyed it. An added bonus is the beautiful collection of woodcuts – a large one at the start of each chapter, and dozens of smaller ones scattered throughout the pages, To start with I thought perhaps they were by Tirzah Garwood, because Currey dedicated the book to her (apparently the two women were friends), but they were created by Malcolm Ford, who taught alongside Currey’s husband. The eye-catching green and purple endpapers are from an early 1950s fabric design by Shelia Bownas.
***I have to say a huge thank you to Ledbury Books and Maps (one of the nicest bookshops I know), because I was going to order this from Persephone, then I realised it wouldn’t arrive before I went to Mum’s, so I rang the bookshop to see if they had it and would save it for me – and they ordered it specially! They can get single books for the next day, and are incredibly polite and helpful, and very knowledgeable about books, and don’t mind how long you sit on the floor reading.
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… !
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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:
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.
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!
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)
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.
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.
Jessie at Dwelling In Possibility is, as I’ve said before, hosting a Persephone Readathon from February 1 to 11, and has set up some daily prompts for people to use if they wish – but I thought it wold be nice to use them altogether, as a kind of meme, if that’s the right word.
Day 1, First Impressions Challenge: Tell us how you first discovered Persephone Books and/or the first Persephone book you read. I first discovered Persephone Books from Lynne at Dove Grey Reader or Simon at Stuck in a Book – or possibly both, at around the same time! I think the first one I read was Mollie Panter-Downes’ Good Evening, Mrs Craven – at any rate, it was the first one I reviewed on the blog, way back in December 2011.
Day 2, Photogenic Persephones: Share a photo of your Persephone collection and/or your readathon TBR stack. The Persephones are double stacked, beneath three shelves of Viragos (also double stacked), and next to the last half shelf of Viragos. There are fewer of them, but I’ve had less time to accumulate them. Occasionally we get the odd Persephone in Oxfam, and sometimes I find them in other charity shops, but I think Persephone owners love their books too much to give them away! Luckily, my younger daughter lives in London, so I when I visit her I try to squeeze in a trip to the Persephone Shop and treat myself to a book or two. Currently I think there are 26, but it’s difficult to keep track because I have quite a few other titles from other publishers – green-spined Viragos, old hardbacks, and ebooks in other edition. Maybe I’ll gather these together and do another photo.
Day 3, Time Travel: Tell us which decade you are currently ‘visiting’ and share your favorite historical period(s). The 1940s – Miss Ranskill Comes Home, so it’s specifically about the war years, which I find interesting, especially the domestic detail. I’m not sure I have a favourite period, but I enjoy books set in the 1930s, the Edwardian era and the Victorian age.
Day 4, Author Shout-out: Shine a spotlight on a neglected woman writer you wish more people knew about. If we’re talking Persephone (and this is a Persephone Readathon), I’d probably say Dorothy Whipple. Or Rachel Ferguson. Or Mollie Panter-Downes. Or Winifred Holtby.. Widen it out and you could include almost any of the ‘old’ VMC authors – Nina Bawden, Violet Trefusis, Edith Olivier, Pamela Frankau, EH Young, Margaret Oliphant, Margaret Kennedy… Widen it out even further and what about Pamela Hansford Johnson… Oh, I’m no good at chosing favourites!
Day 5, Read This: Give a book recommendation/readalike based on a Persephone title. William, by EH Young. Strictly speaking it’s not a readalike, but I think it would appeal to anyone who enjoyed Dorothy Whipple’s Someone at a Distance. It explores family life, and the (in this case enduring) relationship between two very different people. I think if you enjoy Whipple’s writing you would enjoy EH Young.
Day 6, In Six Words: Describe your current Persephone read in 6 words. Miss Ranskill Comes Home, by Barbara Euphan Todd: “Shipwrecked woman returns to war-torn Britain.”
Day 7, Quote This: Share a quote from one of your readathon books. Here is the opening paragraphs from Christine Longford’s Making Conversation, which I have just read (a review will follow in a day or two). It’s a little long, but it made me laugh, and it sets the tone beautifully, and tells you a lot about Martha (the main character) and her mother, as well as the social mores of the day, and Martha’s difficulties in making conversation.
‘Here is a little present for you, Ellen,’ said Martha Freke. ‘We got in on the pier.’
Ellen, the cook-general, undid the wrapping, which revealed a small cardboard box, and in it, on a bed of cotton wool, a brooch, which said ‘Ellen,’ in bright gold, written in a cursive hand, with a lie below it and a full stop after it. ‘It will help her to remember,’ Mrs. Freke had said; for Ellen had been christened ‘Beatrice,’ which was an unsuitable name for a cook-general, and had to be dropped.
‘Yes, it’s real gold, too, and they were making them up in any name. And only sixpence each!’
Martha could not understand why her mother was frowning and shaking her fist behind Ellen’s back.
‘I’m sure I’m very much obliged,’ said Ellen, ‘no matter what it did cost,’ and went out.
‘You little idiot,’ said Mrs. Freke. ‘Now she won’t think anything of it. People like that don’t, if you tell them the price. Never do it again.’ This was the sort of thing that happened, thought Martha, after a really nice day. She had absorbed all the sights of Compton-on-Sea: shopping in the morning, lunch in the Geisha Cafe, where the mock-turtle soup had a taste unknown at home, and an afternoon on the pier, where they had listened to Braun’s Band. … Anyway, the day had been delightful, and there had been no need to make conversation; but as usual, as soon as she had opened her mouth unnecessarily, there had been a disaster.
Day 8, Page to Screen: Share the Persephone title you would most like to see adapted for the screen. Include your dream cast if you’d like. I’ll pass on this one – films of books so rarely live up to expectation. They never seem to get characters or places as I imagine they should be. And the tone is rarely right.
Day 9, Beautiful Endpapers: Show us a photo of your current book’s endpapers/your favorite Persephone endpapers/or design your own endpapers. You want me to choose? Those lovely Dahlias that I always think are sunflowers, from RC Sherriff’s The Fortnight in Sptember. But ask me tomorrow an I’ll say something completely different! So here’s a picture of three current favourites.
Day 10, Reader’s Request: Name a book or author you wish Persephone Books published. Mmm… Tricky… I would say Nina Bawden, because I love her work, but I think most of it is a little too dark to slot easily into the Persephone oevre, and the period isn’t right, but A Little Love, A Little Learning might fit the bill, and the period (Coronation Year) would be OK. A better choice, I think, would be EH Young – almost anything of her’s would fit the Persephone cannon, but William would be an excellent choice.
Day 11, Too Many Persephones: List the top three Persephone titles on your TBR/wish list. Unusually for me, the top three on the Wish List at the moment are all non-fiction – Long Live Great Bardfield, A London Child of the 1870, and The Carlyles at Home.
Barbara Buncle is a frumpy, middle-aged spinster who knows nothing of life outside the village of Silverstream. She lives quietly in the cottage where she was once once a small fat child in a basketwork pram, and her old nurse Dorcas is now cook, maid and parlour maid. But Miss Buncle has a secret which turns village life upside down – for she has written a book, peopled by her fellow residents, and they are not at all happy with her portrayal!
Miss Buncle’s Book, by DE Stevenson, is a warm, light-hearted satire on village life between the wars, with its round of tea parties, church services and other events, and its strict social hierarchy. Everyone knows their place, from the delivery boy to Mrs Featherstone Hogg, who is very conscious of her status in the communty, and makes sure the community is equally aware of her position and accords her the deference she thinks she deserves. The one thing that (mostly) unites them is a desire to know who wrote the book – and to seek restitution from the author for besmirching their good names!
I’m not going to try and describe the plot – there are too many characters (who are all exceedingly well drawn) and too many threads to follow, so you’ll just have to read it for yourself. However, I will say that much of the humour comes from the villagers’ efforts to track down the unknown author. The chief suspect is the doctor’s wife, and Barbara escapes exposure. It’s a kind of comedy of errors, as well as a comedy of manners.
The nature of Barbara’s novel – denounced by Mrs Featherstone Hogg as ‘the wickedest book that has ever been written’ – is never explained in great detail, but Mr Abbott (the publisher) thinks the book was written by ‘a very clever man writing with his tongue in his cheek, or else a very simple person writing in all good faith’. His nephew Sam believes it is penned by ‘a genius or imbelicile’. And we are told:
The first part of Chronicles of an English Village was a humdrum sort of affair – it was indeed a chronicle of life in an English Village. It might have been dull if the people had not been so well drawn, or if the writing had not been of that amazing simplicity which kept one wondering whether it was intended to be satirical or not. The second part was a sort of fantasy: a golden boy walked through the village playing on a reeed pipe, and his music roused the villagers to strang doings. It was queer, it was unusual, and it was provocative and, strangely enough, it was also extremely funny. Mr Abbott was aware, from personal experience, that you could not lay it down until the end.
And when Mr Abbott meets Miss Buncle he thinks she’s an unlikely sort of author (she’s certainly an unlikely sort of heroine).
She was obviously a simple sort of person – shabbily dressed in a coat and skirt of blue flannel. Her hair was dreadful, her face was pale and rather thin, with a pointed chin and a nondescript nose, but on the other hand her eyes were good – dark blue with long lashes – and they twinkled a little when she laughed. Her mouth was good too, and her teeth – if they were real – magnificent.
Meeting Miss Buncle in the street, Mr Abbott (who was rather a connoissseur of feminine charms) would not have looked twice at her. A thin, dowdy woman of forty he would have said (erring on the unkind in the matter of the age), and passed on to pastures new. But here, in his sanctuary, with the knowledge that she had written an amusing novel, he looked at her with different eyes.
And he is equally taken aback by her honesty when she admits she wrote the book in a bid to make money. because her dividends are so ‘wretched’. Initially she thought of other ways to generate an income, like keeping hens (but she doesn’t like hens), or taking in paying guests (but she doesn’t want to draw business away from an existing guest house). It was Dorcas who suggested the book, says Miss Buncle, and she wrote about people she knew because that was all she knew,and as she wrote she saw people differently, and fictional Copperfield became muddled with real-life Silverstream.
The book, re-named Disturber of the Peace, is a huge success, but its effect on the people of Silverstream is as disruptive as the appearance of the golden boy in Barbara’s book. Life is turned upside down as people do and say strange things. At times life begins to imitate fiction and it becomes apparent that for some residents the plot lines in the book provide the key to their future happiness, while others finally find their voice and stand up for themselves.
And the the fall-out following publication is as transformative for Barbara herself– like Winifred Watson’s Miss Pettigrew Lives For A Day, this is a Cinderella story, with the requisite happy ending (I do love a happy ending). So I’m not giving anything away when I tell you that neither Miss Buncle nor her life will never be the same again.
*First published in 1934, Miss Buncle’s Book has been reissued by Persephone and I think it’s charming – I really enjoyed reading it. I’m linking this to the Persephone Readathon being run by Jessie at Dwell in Possibility. And this is another unread book to be ticked off the list!
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.
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.
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.
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).
Almost exactly a year ago I mentioned RC Sherriff’s The Fortnight in September, which I started reading on a train home from London (after a visit to Younger Daughter which took in a trip to the Persephone Shop), and said I would do a proper review at a later stage. Then it all went very quiet… anyway, here I am a year later trying to pull some coherent thoughts from a mass of disparate observations. I LOVED this but, as I so often find with books I enjoy, there’s so much I want to say that it’s hard to know where to begin or what to include.
Written in 1931, it’s about a family’s two-week holiday in Bognor, which may not sound very promising but, believe me, it is absolutely wonderful, one of those quiet, reflective novels, full of little insights to the characters and their way of life, where anyone of a certain age (by which I mean my age or older) will make connections.
Every year Mr and Mrs Stevens, from Dulwich, spend the first two weeks of September at a boarding house in Bognor, together with their 19-year-old daughter Mary, and their sons Dick and Ernie, aged 17 and 10. It’s the highlight of their year, and as far as they’re concerned the anticipation and the journey are as thrilling and joyful as the holiday itself. Preparations have their own rituals, with duties allocated to each member of the family. Garden tools must be cleaned and greased; the shed locked; papers and tradesmen cancelled, and the canary left with a neighbour. Other neighbours will call each day to feed the cat, keep an eye on the house and garden, and send on any letters – in return they can gather runner beans and rhubarb. Mr Stevens gives everyone their ‘Marching Orders’ and as each task is accomplished he ticks it off on his master list.
The train journey, with its change at Clapham Junction (Mrs Stevens’ idea of hell) is planned down to the last minute, and I was enchanted to discover they have booked the ‘outside porter’ to trolley their luggage from home to station. This was well before the advent of wheeled cases when, presumably, taxis were expensive – but did porters really call at people’s homes to collect luggage?
I bought the book after reading Lynne’s review over at Dove Grey Reader. We are of an age, and both come from Surrey (not too far from Sherriff’s Esher home and within easy striking distance of the south coast) and, like her, I found it resonated with my 1950s childhood. In our house my mother made the lists and chivvied the rest of us along, and the preparations began well in advance. Just like the Stevens family we had a special meal the night before the holiday, and took sandwiches and a flask of tea to sustain us on the journey – as well as thick slices of Mum’s home-made fruit cake and fruit from the garden. We had at least two holidays in Bognor, but in caravans rather than boarding houses, though I do remember staying in a boarding house at Hastings. Sometimes we travelled on trains, but when I was very small my father had a motorbike and sidecar and I would be left with a neighbour while he ferried my mother and baby brother to our destination. Then he would come back for me and the luggage – and the process would be reversed on the journey home.
The journey and the holiday are extraordinary events that take the family outside their usual lives, freeing them to be other than they are, revealing the people they might have been (or, in the case of Mary and Dick the people they could be) had things been different. They abandon their familiar routine. Yet familiarity and routine are important to them – a kind of safety net or comfort zone perhaps – so each year they pick up the pattern of activities laid down on previous holidays. They swim in the sea, play games on the beach, soak up the sun while relaxing on deckchairs, go for walks, renew old acquaintances, and make make new friends. May and Dick get a brief taste of romance and adventure, while Ernie makes a nuisance of himself.
There are highs and lows. The worst day is a tea party from hell at the showy, soulless home of a wealthy and important customer at the firm where Mr Stevens works as a clerk – he just happens to live in the area. Set against that is their joy at daringly renting a beach hut for the first time, their pleasure heightened by anticipation, because by waiting a few days to take over they save five shillings which covers the cost of a trip to Arundel.
Everyone enjoys themselves, except Mrs Stevens, who is happy because the others are happy, but is scared of the sea, and doesn’t play games, and isn’t a great reader, and the sun gives her a headache. And she worries about all the awful things that might happen (they never do) and feels her family, engaged in such different pursuits, no longer belong to her.
They are a strong and united family unit. They are decent, honest, hard-working, kindly, caring people, disturbed by anything new or different, but their world is on the cusp of change and old values will be replaced. Already things are not as they were: their landlady, Mrs Huggett, is old and ailing, her establishment is shabby and run-down, and the Stevens are her only guests. Others have moved elsewhere, but Mr Stevens and his family stick with her out of loyalty and a sense of pity.
Everyday life makes them yearn for a break – but their time away ensures that they appreciate their own home even more. “It was good to have a home that called you: a home that made you feel unhappy when you went to sleep in a strange bed on the first night away – that lay restfully in the background of your holiday, then called you again when it was time to return,” Sherriff tells us.
There is so much here that I could focus on. Reading the early part of the novel made me think about journeys and expectations, and how they can become more more important than reaching a destination. And as I read on I found myself continuing to think about our expectations – in life, at work, in relationships – and what we do if those expectations remain unfulfilled, and how we set our hopes of happiness and improvements.
It would be easy to attribute the book’s appeal appeal to nostalgia, but it was hugely popular in its own time. It marked a change of style for Sherriff, whose career was somewhat in the doldrums. His inspiration came while he was on holiday in Bognor, watching people and imagining what their lives were like. The introduction to the Persephone edition is taken from Sherriff’s autobiography, and quotes his explanation: “Clearly the best way was to write about these people in the simple, uncomplicated words that they would use themselves to describe their feelings and adventures.”
He succeeded brilliantly, writing with warmth and gentle humour about a family we really believe in.
Oh joy! The latest Persephone Biannually has dropped through the letterbox, complete with a bookmark for The Journey Home by Malachi Whitaker, whom I have never read, but this edition includes her short story Smoke of the Tide, so I can give her a try! And there are all sorts of other articles, including one on Guard Your Daughters and its author Diana Tutton. Persephone remains one of my favourite publishers, and the bookshop in Lamb’s Conduit Street is always worth a visit, even if you don’t buy anything, though personally I don’t think it’s possible to come away empty-handed. On my last visit a few weeks ago I gave up all pretence of succumbing to temptation on the spur of the moment, and went armed with a list. But I was very restrained and only bought three titles – Minnie’s Room, Tea With Mr Rochester and Greengates. Then, when I was at my mother’s last week I found a copy of the Persephone edition of Someone at a Distance, by Dorothy Whipple, in a charity bookshop for just £1! I queried the price, because it’s worth more, and it’s in pristine condition although, alas, there is no bookmark… still, you can’t have everything. Anyway, I’m half-way through Someone at a Distance, which is very good indeed, and I’m planning a bit of a Persephone marathon at the moment fortified, as I always say, by tea and cake!
Ponderings of a retired Tasmanian, photographing, animal loving, book reading, travelling, motorbike riding penguin, growing old disgracefully, who still loves old Penguin books and sharing our world with others.
A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.