Time To Tidy The Shelves…

LibraryThing and Viragoing for August has gone to my head I think. Have started trying to tidy bookshelves – not something I attempt all that often! Now have two rows of Viragos and Persephones, which may not look a lot, but they’re double stacked, so there’s a complete row of green Viragos behind the grey Persephones. (all my books are double stacked – no room otherwise). Who thinks I shuld put these in alphabetical order?

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Honey, Prisoners – and a King’s Speech!

During the war honey was popular, because sugar was
rationed. But Vere doesn’t tell us if her sweet gift was made
by a local beekeeper, or was a mass produced jar.

Feel much better this week. Very hot. A jar of honey has been given me. Very pleasant to receive. Able to get one whole pound of tomatoes without queuing for them – so Hitler is not having it all his own way.

So says Vere Hodgson in her diary entry for July 2nd, 1941 – and how luxurious that honey and the tomatoes must have seemed – sugar was rationed, so honey was much in demand, and beekeeping became much more popular. Even the cat was in luck that day, because Vere (I feel I know her, and really cannot continue calling her Hodgson, even if it is the correct way to name an author) managed to get some Kitcat, which was ‘wolfed down as if it were a banquet’. It’s hardly surprising the poor creature fell on this unexpected feast as if there were no tomorrow, because cats and dogs got no rations. At the outbreak of hostilities, the pet food industry was still in its infancy, and animals were usually fed on table scraps, unless owners cooked meat or fish for them. During WW2 there was barely enough food to go round for people, so there can’t have been much to spare for animals.
You can see I am progressing with my slow read of Few Eggs and No Oranges, even if I do have a tendency to get side-tracked along the way. I seem to have become thoroughly immersed in the period, and now have a stack of other WW2 books to read!
On  a more serious note, in this first entry for the second half  of the year, Vere mentions the war in Russia, but has little sympathy for people there since, she says, they have had plenty of time to prepare for the fight, and ‘if they are not ready, it is no one’s fault but their own’. Surprisingly, however, she is confident that Stalin is more than a match for Hitler –because he looks ‘such an unpleasant individual’! 

Three cheers for Winnie! Winston Churchill was one
of Vere Hodgson’s heroes.  

Additionally, she tells us about a book she’s read (a biography of Churchill), a radio programme she enjoyed (The Brains Trust) and the sweet-smelling honeysuckle and syringa in her office. This particular entry is a good example of Vere’s range of interest, and the way she jumps from the drama of the war to homely, seemingly unimportant things which mean such a lot to ordinary people.
During these last six months of year, undeterred by the worsening situation, she visits friends and family in various parts of the country, and continues to wander around London looking at the damage. Set against that are small joys, like those flowers I mentioned earlier, a sparrow eating out of a friend’s hand, a garden party, and eating tins of pineapple and prawns with her aunt. 

There are splendid, uplifting stories (Vere likes the word splendid, and I can’t resist using it). In August there is news of the Home Guard catching a German ‘parashot’ who is promptly locked in the Tower. I think this is fascinating – I had no idea they did this in WW2! I was under the impression it was something that happened hundreds of years ago, which shows how much I know! Then, in September, when British bombers arrive in Oslo, residents take to the rooftops and cheer the ‘boys’ as the docks are bombed. In addition there is jubilation when five Free French fighters escape to England in canoes, and Vere enjoys the thought of them sharing champagne with Winston Churchill and his wife.
Were German prisoners really locked way in the
Tower of London during WW2?
In October she’s delighted when she acquires a ‘flatlet’ of her own, and friends and family rally round to help furnish it, which is not an easy task when everything is in such short supply. But she’s less happy when a friend describes life in the Isle of Man:
Full of internees who are doing themselves well. No rationing. Ample supplies from Ireland. His tales of tinned fruit and oceans of butter are galling to us hard-living folk.
Early in December, like everyone else in Britain, she’s stunned by the news from the Pacific (she gives few details but this is, of course, the Japanese assault on Pearl Harbour). And, she reflects, there is an upside to the tragedy, because it pushes America and Australia into the conflict. But things look grim. The British are losing Hong Kong, and everyone is still waiting to learn what is happening in Russia, where the Germans are being pushed back ‘into the snow’.
One of the surprising features of this period is the length of time it took for news to get through, the lack of information when it did, and the way rumours circulated and proliferated. With all our modern technology we are used to ‘instant’ news – we know about things as they happen, and there is such a wealth of data available it is hard not to be aware of what is going on the world. However, the situation was very different during the war. The immediacy of today’s news gathering process and the way it is spread around the world was simply not possible then, and I suppose some things were kept from the public on the grounds of national security, and perhaps there was an effort to keep people’s spirits up by not revealing every detail of what was happening.
The Christmas speech made by King George VI and
 broadcast on BBC Radio 
Anyway, however bleak the future may look, Vere remains upbeat about Life, the Universe and Everything, and she ends 1941 on a high, braving what she terms the ‘Ban on Travel’ to spend Christmas with her family in Birmingham.  Her journey is almost without adventure. Seven family and friends gather for Christmas dinner (a goose), and visitors from next door turn up (with the two airmen billeted on them) for the King’s Speech. More friends arrive during the afternoon and evening, and Vere tells us:

From the back of Elsie’s cupboard came plums and whipped cream. Then Neville poured some exciting looking liquid into glasses, and we did some toasts. Not until we were half-way through it did I discover that it was champagne… brought out specially. So kind.

A good time was had by all, and they shared what food they had – anything nice which could be stored was brought out for special occasions, and their festive fare over the Christmas period includes a tin of butter, and dried apricots, both gifts sent by relatives in South Africa.

Actually, among my stash of WW2 books I’ve got a couple on wartime cookery, and I’m thinking of trying out some of the recipes, to get an idea of what the food was like, but I’m not at all sure if the Man of the House will appreciate austerity in the kitchen – watch this space! 

War Messages: Endpapers in Persephone’s Few Eggs and No Oranges

are from a design called London Wall, printed from a fragment of
 rayon  headscarf produced by Jacqmar Ltd c.1942.

Short Story Sunday: A Flawed Treasure and a Good Mother

The Exile, by Betty Miller, is a little odd, and I didn’t really enjoy it, but it was interesting. Here we have the Moores, Edmund and Louis, and his young brother Arthur. They are middle class and well-off, leading comfortable, cosy lives but are made uneasy by the appearance of their new servant. Russian Irina is pale, effacing and reserved, with a ‘surprisingly deep and vibrant’ voice. On the face of it she is perfect. She’s an ‘exquisite’ cook, ‘adept and thorough’ at the housework, ‘incredibly willing’ and a ‘very hard’ worker. She is, as Lois tells everyone, a treasure. A real treasure.

So what is wrong with her you ask? For something must be wrong. And so it proves. Their Domestic Goddess isn’t a murderer, she doesn’t run away with Edmund or Arthur, she doesn’t steal, she’s not a political agitator (I might have preferred the story if it had gone down one of those routes). She doesn’t intrude, or disrupt, or take over, or turn their lives upside down. She simply makes them feel uncomfortable and, since they are not used to being made to feel uncomfortable, they do not like it. It transpires that Irina has a tragic past. She tells her tale, dispassionately, without emotion, unable to move on from what has happened and start living again. She calls to mind The French Lieutenant’s Woman and Sarah Woodruff’s determination to reject the chance of happiness and stick with misery. Personally I’ve always found Fowles’ ending thoroughly unsatisfactory, because it seems out of character – Sarah’s final choice of lifestyle (whichever ending you opt for) is at such a variance with her earlier character. Anyway, Irina could never be accused of lack of consistency.
…it became startlingly obvious that what remained of her life after that time had been blighted: consumed by the past, by those strange, tragic months. She was bound by that past situation: it claimed her, used her up. So that her life in the present was meaningless: she existed, imprisoned in our day-to-day sequence, imprisoned in Time. She was an exile, not only from a country (a geographical area can, after all, be reclaimed), but from her own real life. As a personality she was dead.
The house has never been so well run, but life means nothing to Irina, and her ‘deadly

Betty Miller.

negativeness’ destroys the family’s own joy and pleasure in life, undermining their values and drawing them close to the void. But they never actually fall. Irina is asked to leave, and I assume that they forget their frightening glimpse into the abyss, and their brush with thoughts of death, and that life proceeds as normal.

To a large extent I suspect my reaction to the tale is very similar to that of the Moores to Irina, and I wondered if Miller had, perhaps, banked on that, and wanted people to think about things they had rather not (does that make sense?)  She was the mother of Jonathan Miller, the doctor and director, which is interesting, but has no bearing on this story, and didn’t make feel more kindly about it. I gather that she wrote seven novels, as well as short stories, none of which I feel any desire to read, and a biography of Robert Browning, which sounds more tempting because I like his poetry.
I’ll tell you what, since I am feeling generous, I shall add in my thoughts about the next tale in The Persephone Book of Short Stories, because it is a very short short story, and although I loved it I don’t have a lot to say about it. Themes explored by Dorothy Canfield Fisher in The Rainy Day, the Good Mother and The Brown Suit will be instantly recognisable to anyone who has read The Home-Maker – and if you loved that you will love this.
Here the Good Mother has followed all the instructions in ‘The Happy Child is an Active Child’

Dorothy Canfield Fisher.

to keep her three children occupied on a rainy day, but they are unaware of what is required of them. Indeed, the only thing little Freddy wants is to wear his brown suit, which has been washed, and is still wet. A battle of wills ensues, and everyone is miserable until the mother’s young cousin arrives, tells a silly story, plays a silly imaginative game and discovers that what Freddy wants is not the brown suit itself, but its holster pocket where he can carry his pretend pistol. Easy peasy, says the student cousin (well, not quite in those words, after all, this was published in 1937). Let’s all sew pockets on our clothes. At which point he rushes off to catch his bus, and the Good Mother comes to the rescue with material so the children can sew ‘queer pockets’ in ‘queer places’ on their clothes. All is sweetness and light, and after lunch they give her the starring role in their play, because she was too busy to join in their earlier version.

Anyone who’s ever watched their offspring ignoring expensive and thoughtfully chose birthday and Christmas presents in favour of wrapping paper, ribbons and boxes, will recognise the truth of the picture drawn here, and sympathise with the harassed mother, who loves her children dearly, but does not always have the time to really listen to them, and cannot always see that you don’t need lots of posh or toys or complicated games, you just need some imagination.

A ‘Spendthrift’s Spreading’ of Marmalade!

Yay! The Great British Bake-Off is back, and promises to be every bit as good as the last series… And the One before that… And the one before that. Consequently, I am baking mode, and what better time to take a look at a cookbook. So here are my thoughts on a Persephone kitchen classic, Kitchen Essays, by Agnes Jekyll. And, before you ask, yes, she was related to gardener Gertrude Jekyll: her husband was Gertrude’s brother, and they lived quite close to each other, near Godalming, in Surrey. Agnes, who was made a Dame of the British Empire in recognition of her work for ‘good causes’, was a well known society hostess. Apparently, she was famous for the wit and wisdom of her imaginative housekeeping! I’m not sure if that’s an attribute which should be applauded, and it’s probably a whole lot easier if you have servants (which she did). Anyway, she wrote a cookery column for The Times, and her pieces were gathered together as a book in 1922, and she really is a very good writer, with the most original turn of phrase when it comes to describing food.
Before I go any further, I should warn you, this book is not intended for vegetarians (like myself) or those of a faint-hearted disposition. Even the staunchest carnivore will blanch and reach for the cooking sherry when reading the instructions for Consommé Fausse Tortue. I have no idea what the English translation of this dish is (my failed ‘O’ level French didn’t equip me to cope with the demands of French gastronomy) but it involves half a calf’s head.  And a lot of stewing and simmering (especially on the part of the cook I imagine). And the cooking sherry…
Actually, Jekyll does include a chapter on ‘meatless meals’, but this is ‘Lenten fare’ making use of fish and veal stock. However, there is a recipe for Oeufs Mollets in Sauce Fromage (soft boiled eggs in cheese sauce – even I can cope with that) which is jolly nice, especially if you tweak it around a bit. I like to add a bit of zing to this kind of dish with some English mustard and pinch of cayenne.
It’s not a recipe book in the conventional sense: Jekyll writes about food, including her

memories and opinions, as well as literary quotes, and reflections on life in general. As far as the food goes, while some of her offerings still hold good today, many are not to modern tastes. In addition quantities, cooking times and temperatures are not nearly as precise as those in modern cookbooks and, of course, there are no pictures. But none of that matters, because Jekyll’s descriptions are so wonderful. For example, there’s her version of rice pudding (re-baptized Dundee) where she tells us:

Boil sufficient rice in milk until cooked rather firm, sweeten, and fill in therewith  a fireproof glass or nice-looking pie-dish, adding a spendthrift’s spreading of juicy home-made marmalade…
Don’t you just love that ‘spendthrift’s spreading’? It gives you such a clear idea of what you should be doing. And what about her recipe for orange jumbles which concludes by saying:
They should be the size of teacup rims, and should curl their crisp edges, faintly pink as the underneath of a young mushroom.
Anyone with an old-fashioned bone china tea service will know exactly how big these dainty morsels should be, and if you’ve ever looked at the gills of a young mushroom, when it’s just beyond that button stage and beginning to unfurl, they are indeed the faintest of pinks, so pale it’s almost not a pink at all. This recipe sounds so nice I was going to try it, but I’ve only got one orange, and the list of ingredients calls for two, so I got up early and baked a Victoria sponge instead, inspired by GBBO. Orange jumbles must wait for another day.
I have to admit that I didn’t want to sample many of Jekyll’s recipes, but I really enjoyed the book, and loved the glimpse it gave of a long-gone way of life. Here is a world of kitchen maids, cooks, shooting-parties, weekend guests, luncheons, and motor excursions. In fact, the essay on motor excursions is, to coin a phrase, an absolute hoot. No motorway service stations in those days! Instead travellers need a hay-box (for chunky hot soup), a Thermos full of mulled Claret (no breath tests either!), another full of coffee, as well as camp stools, a waterproof rug and furs! Then there’s the food, all home-made (by the cook, not the lady of the house). An ideal meal on the move included stuffed salmon rolls, a Winter Cake, ‘black and sticky with treacle, enlivened by whole white almonds’, and a ‘little selection’ of desserts and sweets.
There are 35 chapters, covering a variety of topics, including advice for the too thin (and the too fat) and tray food for invalids. There are sections on food for men, food for travellers, Food for the Punctual and the Unpunctual, and A Little Dinner Before the Play (followed by A Little Supper After the Play, which I’m delighted to say, involved cold dishes, or things which could be kept hot – the poor cook was not expected to wait up).  These days, of course, people are more likely to get a take-away on their way back from a night out, and a jolly good thing too if you ask me. Much less trouble!
I particularly liked the two chapters on breakfasts. Who would have imagined there was so much to say about this meal? Not me, that’s for sure! According to Jekyll:
Breakfast is the most difficult meal of the day, whether from its social or its culinary aspect.
She continues:
A cordonbleu cannot be at her best very early in the day; and as for the chef, he will unblushingly delegate his duties to his understudy. It is wise, therefore, to aim at implicity, but, within its limits, to strive after perfection. 
Agnes Jekyll
Above all things, she says, breakfast must be hot. No cornflakes for her then. Or left-over pizza scavenged from the fridge. She recommends use of a long metal food-warmer with spirit lamps known, so she assures, as the ‘Sluggard’s Delight’ upon which porridge, coffee and hot dishes can be kept palatable. In addition she urges us to:
Insist on a hot-water kettle of real efficiency, on a tea-caddy which will contain a delicate as well as a pungent blend of tea, more than one tea-pot, and a small saucepan over a spirit lamp for boiling eggs, with an hour-glass standing sentry nearby.
Then there’s the ‘fireproof jug of ample proportions’ with a ventilated top to keep the milk hot without boiling over, and toast, which demands ‘a glowing grate, a handy toasting fork, and a patient watcher’. There are recipes for brioche, frothy coffee, marmalade and home-cooked tongue, and all sorts of other suggestions, including this:
Try bananas, skinned and halved across, and again lengthwise, and served frizzling from a buttered sauté pan on fried toast, with perhaps a dash of orange juice added, an excellent and wholesome food for the young. 

On that note I shall leave you. I’m exhausted just reading about the breakfast preparations. I need a rest. And something to eat…
The endpapers feature ‘Clusters of fruits,
flowers  and shell motifs’ designed by
George Sheringham and printed on silk
for Seftons in 1922.

Books by Post!

Woo hoo! Every day this week the postman has delivered a book (or books), thanks to my lovely Mother, who gave me some money when I was staying with her last week, and told me to treat myself – so I bought novels which, hopefully, will be a treat to read, and I shall have them to enjoy for ever!
The problem, of course, is what to buy. I’m never any good at making decisions and I don’t whether to buy titles I know I love because I’ve borrowed them from the library or from friends, or whether to opt for new volumes on the wish list. And I was really tempted to splurge on some brand new Persephones, or to browse round Waterstones in Birmingham, or visit some other bookish town for the day and just see what takes my fancy.
Sadly there is no book shop in Tamworth. Can you imagine that? Even The Works (which isn’t a proper bookshop at all, though you can pick up the occasional goodie if you search hard), closed down. So, on the rare occasions I’m let loose in a book store and have cash to spare I’m like a child in a sweet shop and indulge in what can only be described as the literary equivalent of a deprived dieter’s binge eating session . 

Anyway, as I generally do, I plumped for second-hand rather than new, because it means the books are cheaper, and you get more of them! Shallow, I know, but I’ve always been attracted by quantity rather than quality, but whittling down that extensive wish list was well-nigh impossible – and my purchases haven’t made any impact on it all. I spent an evening trawling through Amazon and AbeBooks to see what was available, and in the end based my choices on the fact that books must be published by Persephone or Virago, and they should be ‘paired’  in some way. Well, it narrowed the field a bit…

So, what have I got? There’s a lovely Virago Modern Classic selection of short stories by Sylvia Townsend-Warner, which is in fabulous condition, and looks as if it has never been read. And I bought Mr Fortune’s Maggot AND I’d already spotted an old VMC of After The Death of Don Juan (not pictured) which I haven’t read yet so, as you can see, I’ve developed a bit of a passion for STW’s work. And I really want a copy of the letters between her and William Maxwell, and a decent biography – can anyone out there recommend one? Please!
There’s a nice copy of Angela Thirkell’s Wild Strawberries, because I enjoyed High Rising and Cheerfulness Breaks In so much, and to go with that Greenery Street by her brother Denis McKail, because it sounds as if I would like it, and at the moment I seem to be hooked on novels from the 20s and 30s. Surprisingly, the McKail arrived with its bookmark intact, which was very pleasing.
 I’ve had my open for Agnes Jekyll’s Kitchen Essays for ages, and I’ve already had a quick look through, and it’s quite enchanting. I love cookery books and people’s thoughts about food and ingredients. I paired it with Few Eggs and No Oranges, the wartime diaries of Vere Hodgson, because both authors seem to write from a very personal point of view.
Finally, I snapped up Miss Buncle’s Book, by DE Stevenson, which has been at the top of my wanted catalogue since I read Mrs Tim, plus I’m part-way into Amberwell, which was another Oxfam buy.
I’m quite pleased with my selection. I know I’ve played safe by choosing things I’m fairly sure I will like, and perhaps I should have been more adventurous, but I can try out new things at the library, and books are meant o be enjoyed, so what’s the point in buying something by an author I don’t usually like, or in genre I don’t connect with?
And I didn’t spend all my money – I’m spreading it out, so I have something to look forward to over the next few months, and I can get half a dozen or so at a time. That means I can acquire my own copies of some Mollie Panter-Browne, along with more Tove Janssen, Virginia Woolf, Dorothy Whittle and Elizabeth Taylor. And I want to read Patience, Cheerful Weather for the Wedding, Miss Ranskill Comes Home, The Fortnight in September, and some adult work from Noel Streatfeald and Richmal Crompton and all sorts of other things… the list is endless.
And I can plan some days out, by train, because I get so het up about driving. First a return trip to Oxford, for a tour of the Bodleian and its Magical Books exhibition, and I can browse around the second-hand bookshops, and enjoy tea and cake somewhere. And I want to go to Worcester, because King John is buried there, and I was brought up in Egham, which is where Runnymede is, where Magna Carta was signed – and there must be book shops in Worcester. And there are places in Birmingham connected to JRR Tolkien, and the Johnson Birthplace in Lichfield, is always interesting, the museum at Nuneaton has a lot about Gorge Eliot.
I am such a lucky girl to be able to treat myself to books and trips, and I’ve sent Mum a copy of Pickwick Papers, as a small thank you, as she had to get rid of her hardback editions of Dickens when she moved because a) she didn’t have room for them, and b) the print was not easy to read. It may not sound much of a pressie, but she was pleased.
If any of you have any recommendations for books you think I might enjoy, please let me know – and the same goes if you know anywhere with good bookshops or literary links that’s near Birmingham and doesn’t involve me using the M42!  And I’d love to hear your ideas about the benefits of buying new or used books – I know some people have really strong views about wanting to support small independent bookstores.

Short Story Sunday

I have here a copy of The Persephone Book of Short Stories which I’ve been reading very slowly and haven’t yet finished, but now I’ve moved my Mother into her new home – a snug and comfy little ‘sheltered’ flat, close to the town centre, so she can get out and about again and be a bit more independent – life should settle down again, and I’ll have more time for reading. So, as part of my catch-up plan (I know, I keep saying I’m going to establish a regular reading/writing routine, and I haven’t succeeded yet, but I live in hope) I’ve pinched an idea from Danielle at A Work in Progress (I hope she doesn’t mind) and I’m aiming to post a weekly Short Story Sunday piece.
It’s a genre I’ve never really explored, until last year, when I had the pleasure of discovering short stories by Dorothy Whipple, Mollie Panter-Downes, Mary Norton and Alice Munro. Before that I think the only other collections I came across were the Penguin Books of Short Stories, Volumes 1 and 2, which I read when I was at school or college, so many years ago I can’t remember which. And, as you can tell from that, they obviously didn’t make any impression on me at all! Oh, and I nearly forgot, I also read ‘A World of Difference:  An Anthology of Short Stories from Five Continents’, as part of an Open University course I studied for a couple of years ago, before I ran out of cash, and I thought some of them were very odd indeed.
Anyway, I’ve just had a birthday, and consequently decided that over the next year I’ll try to try do at least one new, enjoyable thing each week, and I think being more adventurous with reading definitely falls into that category.
So, back to ‘The Persephone Book of Short Stories’, which was the 100thbook published and features two different endpapers – one, at the beginning, has a design with flowers and things that look like arrows but might be plant stems and leaves, all in shades of brown, taken from a roller-printed cotton twill weave manufactured in 1911 at the Arnold Press Print Works in North Adams, Massachussetts. It’s not at all the kind of thing I like – I think it looks very sombre and faintly sinister. However, the design on the inside of the back cover is fantastic. It’s a picture of a lovely screen-printed furnishing fabric, obviously based on a Mediterranean scene, with sun and sea and balconies and canopies and shutters and birds, all in vibrant colours and patterns. It was designed in 1983 by Susan Collier and Sarah Campbell for Fischbaker Ltd.  You could argue that none of that really matters, because the appearance of a book has no bearing on the contents and you would, of course, be quite right – but nevertheless, I have to disagree. Most of my books are cheap, tatty, old paperbacks, but I really enjoy   beautiful books – they are things of joy, to be loved and treasured, and personally I feel they add immeasurably to the reading experience, offering food for the soul as well as the mind. 
Anyway, I digress (again). The book contains 30 stories by 27 female authors, some of whom I have read and loved in the past. Others have produced work I failed to engage with, while a few are completely new to me, including Susan Glaspell, who wrote From A to Z, the first piece in the collection. Written in 1909, it tells of Miss Edna Willard, who has just finished her senior year at university and dreams of a job in publishing.
Her conception of her publishing house was finished about the same time as her day-class gown. She was to have a roll-top desk – probably of mahogany – and a big chair which whirled round like that in the office of the undergraduate dean. She was to have a little office all by herself, opening on to a bigger office – the little one marked ‘Private’. There were to be beautiful rugs – the general effect not unlike the University Club – books and pictures and cultivated gentlemen who spoke often of Greek tragedies and the Renaissance. She was a little uncertain as to her duties, but had a general idea about getting down between nine and ten, reading the morning paper, cutting the latest magazine, and then ‘writing something’.
The reality, of course, is very different (but, generally speaking, I find it always is). She obtains a position in a publishing house in Chicago, on run-down Dearborn Street. The company rents a penned-off space in a bleak, dirty building – the other side of the partition, which only extends part-way up the room, is a patent medicine company dealing with Dr Bunting’s Famous Kidney and Bladder Cure. It’s not only the location and surroundings which are all wrong, but the work itself, for she and her colleagues are engaged in the making of a dictionary, which involves poring through old dictionaries and modernising and expanding the definitions, whilst ensuring the copyright of the originals is not breached.
It’s not what she hoped for, but she works diligently and gradually falls in love with the older man at the next desk, who is ill and down on his luck, and has ‘the voice the prince used to have in long-ago dreams’. As they work on the dictionary they pen little notes to each other, based on definitions, which is all rather sweet and charming, but you know the burgeoning relationship is doomed, that dreams are dangerous things, and fairy tale princes do not exist in the real world.
Edna’s new-found friend realises he is on a crash-course to destruction, but cannot – or will not – grasp at the chance of redemption. For him, as the song says, happiness is just an illusion.  But he refuses to drag Edna down with him, and when they reach the end of the alphabet he bids her farewell. Distraught, she wanders the streets in the pouring rain, searching for him, but fate intervenes in the shape of Harold, the boy she liked most at university, who ‘rescues’ her and takes her home, whether she will or not.
Susan Glaspell
It’s a deceptively simple tale of lost love which stayed in my mind after I read it. I liked the way Glaspell built her characters, and her description of the cityscape, and the understated tone of the piece, and I found myself wondering about the people. What happened to Mr Clifford (the man at the next desk) to make him so bitter and disillusioned with life, and was he right to reject the chance of happiness? And if he had taken that chance, would he have continued on his downward trajectory, and would Edna have become equally dissatisfied as her dreams were shattered? And what about Harold, a bit part player, who appears on the scene by accident – how come he was in that place, at that time? And is he the hero, carrying Edna away to where she belongs – or a villain, blocking her escape to the place she longs to be? And what about Edna? Is she really in love? Or just in love with the idea of being in love, an image as unrealistic as her picture of what work would be like?
As I said earlier, Susan Glaspell is new to me, but according to the potted biography at the back of the book, she was an American ‘born of pioneer stock’ in 1876 and died 1948. She worked as a society and political reporter, and wrote plays and novels, two of which are published by Persephone, and I would like to read them.

A House-Husband and a Working Woman

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, in The Home-Maker, by Dorothy Canfield Fisher, 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 wonderful, 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.

However, 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 led 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.
The endpapers in the Persephone edition of The Home-Maker
 are from Galway, a silk velvet and terry fabric produced
by Warner and exported to America in 1917
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 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. 
Dorothy Canfield Fisher

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, and is the third in my ‘housework’ reading. 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. But 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.