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Archive for the ‘Dorothy Canfield Fisher’ Category

I always have fun making this list but, for the first time, it was easy as well as fun.  There was no struggling over what belong in each spot and no angst-ridden hours spent juggling the merits of one book over another in deciding which deserved to make the list.  These are, without a doubt, the ten best books I read in 2012.  They have stuck in my mind since I read them and I cannot go a day without recommending at least one of them to friends, family members, other bloggers or people I randomly meet on the street (like the woman I met at the coffeeshop on Friday.  Such are the dangers of engaging me in conversation).  Without further ado, here are ten best books I read in 2012:

Best Books of 2012 - Part 1

10. The Home-Maker (1924) – Dorothy Canfield Fisher
This is, quite rightly, one of the best-loved Persephone titles among readers.  It is a wonderfully thoughtful book about gender roles, societal pressure, and personal fulfillment and treats all of its characters – adult or child – with respect for the everyday struggles they face.

9. Two-Part Invention (1988) – Madeleine L’Engle
This book was heartbreaking, beautiful, and, above all, surprising.  It is a portrait of L’Engle’s forty year marriage written during her husband’s final illness but it is also a reflection on her faith and what religion meant in her life.  It is a highly emotional and intelligent book and I cried more tears over this than anything else I read this year.

8. The Siren Years (1974) – Charles Ritchie
No matter how many times I read this (and I have lost count at this point), it remains the best wartime diary I have ever come across.   Ritchie’s diplomatic and social connections in London exposed him to an extraordinary variety of people, from political leaders and petty bureaucrats to authors and exiled royalty.  The joy of Ritchie’s diaries comes from the meld of political details and domestic ones.  I find it just as interesting to hear about how the Canadian High Commission handled refugee claims as I do to discover what Ritchie saw on his walk through London each day on the way to work or what he talked about at lunch with Nancy Mitford.     Best Books of 2012 - Part 2

7. Leningrad (2011) – Anna Reid
I still get chills thinking about this book, which looks at what happened to those trapped in Leningrad while it was under siege during the Second World War.  It is uncomfortable and upsetting to read but so very well done.

6. The Headmistress (1944) – Angela Thirkell
Possibly the most perfectly-formed of Thirkell’s Barsetshire novels, The Headmistress focuses on the experiences of the Belton family during the Second World War.  Mrs Belton, the middle-aged mother of three, is one of Thirkell’s best heroines.  Her struggles to understand her adult children and to live with her constant fear for her sons broke my heart.

5. The Laskett (2003) – Roy Strong
A gardening tome that even non-gardeners would love, this book describes the evolution of Strong’s garden at his country home, The Laskett.  Though there are plenty of details about the garden’s layout and plant choices, what makes this book special are the stories Strong shares about the friends and experiences that influenced the garden’s formation.  This is a garden that clearly reflects both Strong and his wife’s personalities and experiences and it is a book that acts as a tribute to their delightfully unique lives.  Best Books of 2012 - Part 3

4. Good Evening, Mrs Craven (1999) – Mollie Panter-Downes
A wonderfully varied collection of short stories about life in England during the Second World War.  Panter-Downes’ domestic focus exactly suits my tastes as does her interest in the quiet disappointments and muted struggles faced by her characters.  There is nothing sensational about the events in these stories, making them both relatable and, to me, touching.

3. It’s Too Late Now (1939) –  A.A. Milne
2012 was the year of Milne and as much as I loved his plays, his pieces for Punch, his passionate plea for pacifism, and his light verse, it was his autobiography that gave me the most pleasure.  Looking back on the first fifty-odd years of his life, Milne joyously recalls the happy days of his childhood and, later, his determined pursuit of a writing career.  It has nothing in common with gossipy tell-alls and that is part of what I loved about it.  It is a fun book to read and I suspect Milne had even more fun writing it.

2. Fräulein Schmidt and Mr Anstruther (1907) – Elizabeth von Arnim
It has been a long time since I’ve fallen as hard for a fictional character as I did for Fräulein Rose-Marie Schmidt.  These letters, written to her erstwhile suitor Roger Anstruther, reveal a woman who is both romantic and practical, youthful and mature.  She is clever and funny and resilient and I want to be her almost as much as I want to befriend her. the-element-of-lavishness

1. The Element of Lavishness: Letters of Sylvia Townsend Warner and William Maxwell  (2001) – edited by Michael Steinman
I read this in January and, honestly, no other book I read this year came even close to eclipsing it in my affections.  I had never read anything by either Warner or Maxwell before and knew very little about either of them but that made no difference.  Through their letters, I got to know both of them intimately and to witness the wonderful warmth and depth of their friendship as it evolved over the decades.  While both were extraordinary writers, it is Warner’s letters I remember the best now, almost a year after I read them.  She wrote beautifully about the domestic details of her life and the letters written between the death of her partner Valentine and her own death are as good a record of aging and loss as I have ever read.

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The Home-Maker by Dorothy Canfield Fisher is a stunning book, almost literally.  It left me reeling for days after I finished reading it, playing over scenes in my head, wondering about the consequences of certain actions, still caring so much for the Knapp family whose lives the book chronicles.  It took such a short time to read – I picked it up at lunch one day and was done well before dinner – but it has stayed with me.  It’s been more than a month since I read it but, sitting down to write this review, it has been so present in my mind that it seems like I put it down only a few days ago.

Published in 1924, the book opens by introducing us to the five quietly miserable members of the Knapp family.  Father Lester works unhappily in the accounts department at the local department store, daughter Helen timidly fades into the background, eldest son Henry suffers through frequent and painful bouts of illness, and youngest son Stephen lashes out angrily at everyone around him.  And bright, determined mother Eva, considered the perfect wife and mother by all her acquaintances for the efficiency and style with which she performs her domestic tasks, finds her roles as mother and housekeeper anything but fulfilling.  She sets extremely high standards for herself, which none of her family can live up to:

What was her life?  A hateful round of housework, which, hurry as she might, was never done.  How she loathed housework!  The sight of a dishpan full of dishes made her feel like screaming out.  And what else did she have?  Loneliness; never-ending monotony; blank, grey days, one after another, full of drudgery.  No rest from the constant friction over the children’s carelessness and forgetfulness and childishness!  How she hated childishness!  And she must try to endure it patiently or at least with the appearance of patience.  Sometimes, in black moments like this, it seemed to her that she had such strange children, not like other people’s, easy to understand and manage, strong, normal children.

When Lester loses his job and, after an accident, finds himself disabled and house-bound, the traditional gender roles are reversed: Eva must go out and find a way to support the family while Lester takes control of the house and the children.  It turns out to be the most wonderful change of circumstances for all involved.

Eva finds work at the store where Lester had been employed, arriving to answer the prayers of the energetic new owner.  Eva is just the kind of capable, determined, intelligent, sympathetic, and mature woman he’d been looking for, someone who will set the right tone in the store and be both trusted and respected by customers.  And Eva, stifled for years by hated housework, blossoms in her new work, so excited and energized by everything she is learning and doing.  She finally has something to feel passionate about and the change in her is extraordinary.  Eva blossoms at works, turning into an excited, happy, and generous woman, who brings that enthusiasm and joy home with her each night.  Lester is pleased to see the change in her but can’t help but feeling responsible for her earlier unhappiness when confined at home with the children:

His heart ached with remorse as he thought of the life to which he had condemned her.  Why, like Stephen, she had been buried alive in a shaft deep under the earth, and she had not even had Stephen’s poor passionate outlet of misdirected fury.  What she thought was her duty had held her bound fast in a death-like silence and passivity.  He remembered the sombre, taciturn, self-contained woman who had sat opposite him, year after year, at the supper-table.  Could that be the same Eva who now, evening after evening, made them all gay with her accounts of the humours of her profession; who could take off a fussy customer so to the life that even Stephen laughed; who could talk with such inspired animation of the variations of fashion that even he listened, deadly ad was his hatred for fashion and all that it stood for!  He had never even suspected that Eva had this jolly sense of humour!  Could it be the same Eva who so briskly dealt the cards around every evening and took up her hand with such interest?

Meanwhile, at home Eva’s rigid standard of housekeeping has been considerably relaxed and everyone is happier for it.  Lester, getting around in a wheelchair, is able to give his children the attention and affection that Eva, with all her practical concern for their physical needs, never managed to provide.  He responds to Stephen’s wildness with patience and respect, discovers how much Henry needs a companion (and provides him with one in the welcome form of a puppy), and forms a very close bond with his daughter Helen, an intelligent, sensitive child so like her father.  The children, in their turn, develop wonderfully: Stephen learns to trust and love, losing his terrifying anger, Henry throws off his nervous ailments and become a healthy, normal boy, and Helen gains much needed confidence in herself and her intelligence.  Lester loves his new role as home-maker just as much as he despised his clerical duties at the store, enjoying all the time he has now to think and to read and, most importantly, to help and watch his children develop.  For the first time, the entire family is happy.

But then everyone starts to think about what will happen if Lester gets better.  When it was necessary, friend and neighbours could understand why Eva had to work and Lester stay home.  But what would they think if Eva and Lester chose those roles once he was recovered?  The whole family, without ever openly talking about it, is horrified by the idea of things going back to the miserable way they were, with everyone ill and stressed all of the time.   But what other options are there?  Lester knows his family would become a public joke if he was known to prefer home-making to supporting his family with a miserably-earned salary.  He could bear the gossip and ridicule but knows how difficult it would be for Eva and the children.  For Lester, the realization of how little ‘women’s work’ is valued, when to him the raising of children seems like the most important work that can be done, is a shocking revelation:

Why the fanatic feminists were right, after all.  Under its greasy camouflage of chivalry, society is really based on a contempt for women’s work in the home.  The only women who were paid, either in human respect or in money, were women who gave up their traditional job of creating harmony out of human relationships and did something really useful, bought or sold or created material objects.  As for any man’s giving his personality to the woman’s work of trying to draw out of children the best there might be in them…fiddling foolishness!  Leave it to the squaws!  He was sure that he was the only man who had ever conceived even the possibility of such a lapse from virile self-respect as to do what all women are supposed to do.  He knew well enough that other men would feel for such a conception on his part a stupefaction only equalled by their red-blooded scorn.

The ending, after much anxiety and very interesting discussions on gender roles, personal fulfilment and the concept of face, is very satisfying (if morally dubious).

As soon as I finished The Home-Maker, I immediately wanted to pass it on to both my mother and father.  Eva reminds me so much of my mother.  At times it was eerie, especially as I finished the last page and my mother burst into the house, bubbling over with excitement and new ideas after having spent the day in meetings.  No imagination is necessary to picture Eva’s enthusiastic dinner-time descriptions of her busy day as they’ve been a constant feature at home all my life.

Equally, my father has a lot of Lester in him.  He has always been the parent I’m most likely to confide in and is certainly the only one ever to be found willingly cooking.  I found the relationship between Helen and Lester particularly touching because, right down to testing new recipes alongside one another in the kitchen, it reminded me so much of how I was with my father at that age:

She came to feel that talking to Father, when they were alone together, was almost like thinking aloud, only better, because there was somebody to help you figure things out when you got yourself all balled up.  Before this Helen had spent a great deal of time trying to figure things out by herself, and getting to tangled that she didn’t know where she had begun nor how to stop the wild whirl racing around in her head.  But now, with Father to hang on to, she could unravel those twisted skeins of thought and wind them into balls where she could get at them.

The genius of The Home-Maker, aside from being so well and simply told, is how sympathetically all the characters are portrayed.  I cared as much for Lester’s happiness as I did for Eva’s, able to sympathize both with his love of domestic duties and her enthusiasm for the variety and challenges presented at the store.  This balanced approach makes it an amazingly powerful and thoughtful book.  I finally now understand why Nicola was so eager to get it back in print and why so many readers name it as their favourite Persephone title; it is certainly in my top five.

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