It is, as I’m sure you will all agree, a terrible thing for a book lover to live in a town where there is no Proper Book Shop. We do have The Works (which closed down some years back, then re-opened) but, without wishing to be rude, it is not what I would call a Proper Book Shop. Consequently, when I go anywhere that does possess one I’m like a child let loose in a sweet shop – and one of my favourite places is Ledbury, where my mother lives, which boasts two excellent independent stores, just a few yards away from each other, and they both seem to be thriving. I find it amazing that Tamworth, with a population of around 70,000, has no book shop, while Ledbury (population 9,636 in the 2011 Census) should have two.
Generally my book buying revolves around second-hand shops, but I like to support independent book stores when I can, and the years since my parents retired to Ledbury I’ve spent many happy hours browsing (and buying) in both shops, and when my daughters were young they would spend hours curled up on the floor in each shop, immersed in books they couldn’t put down.
First port of call as I turn into the High Street is always Ledbury Books and Maps which, as the name indicates, sells books and maps (all new). They stock a good selection of poetry, ‘literary’ fiction and classics, as well as a range of popular non-fiction, and they have a brilliant section for children. There is classical music playing gently in the background, and the staff are friendly, polite, very knowledgeable about books, and incredibly helpful – and books I’ve ordered from them have usually arrived at the shop the following day, or the day after that, which is pretty impressive. And, of course, they also sell maps, and a lot of books about this corner of Herefordshire, neighbouring Worcestershire and Gloucestershire, and the Welsh Marches, many of them written by local authors.
A little further along the road is the Three Counties Book Shop, where the staff are equally pleasant and helpful. The stock is broadly similar, without the maps, but with a very nice area for children, and there is an excellent art department with paints, brushes, sketchbooks and so on (where my mother always used to get her supplies). At the rear (the shop goes back quite a way) are shelves stacked with ‘sale books’ on every subject imaginable – art, sewing, gardening, cookery, history. And if that makes it sound a bit like a discount store, be assured it isn’t, because most of these volumes are a step up from those on offer at ‘cheap’ book stores.
Does anyone else have a favourite book shop? And if so where?
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).
Poor 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.
“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.
I 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…
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.