Archive for the ‘Persephone’ Category

Searching about for something quick to read for this weekend’s mini Persephone readathon, I settled on How to Keep Your Home Without Help by Kay Smallshaw.  It’s been sitting unread on my shelves since late 2011 so this was the perfect excuse to delve into it.

Published in 1949, this detailed housekeeping guide is targeted at the young housewife so I couldn’t help but think of my grandmothers as I was reading it.  Born in 1920 and 1921, they were both married at the time this book was released, running their own homes, and carrying for small daughters (and presumably a little bit for large husbands).  And I can confidently say that if they had read this book they would have a) laughed heartily at it and then b) throw it against a wall.

In terms of actual cleaning tips, the book has plenty of helpful suggestions that still stand.  It assumes complete idiocy so if you grew up in a hovel and never saw someone vacuum a room you would be well served by it.  However, idiots from hovels are not actually the target audience.  Smallshaw has a very clear idea of her readers’ upbringing, as she makes clear with assumptions throughout the book as to how her readers grew up:

Mother was not so far wrong when she insisted that all the rooms must be “turned out” every week.  Mother, however, had regular help.  She did the cooking herself and she had a washer-woman in weekly so that she could concentrate on housework alone.

This, clearly, is where she would have lost my grandmothers (actually, the upholstery whisk mentioned as a key piece of equipment might have done that.  But if they’d made it past that, this would have done it).  My Canadian grandmother grew up on a dairy farm.  Her mother decidedly did not have regular help and the cleanliness of the house was secondary to the cleanliness of the dairy.  My Czech grandmother, on the other hand, grew up in middle class comfort, with a governess, a chauffeur, a cook, and a cleaner.  She was never taught to cook, never mind clean, on the assumption that she would always have staff to do it for her.  You needed to know how to set a menu, not cook it.   More importantly, she grew up with the assumption that she’d be going to university and then getting a job – something that clearly never troubled the mind of Smallshaw’s ideal reader.

Both my grandmothers ended up having very different lives than their mothers but both were united in one attitude: to be houseproud is a sin when there are so many more important things in life.  Whereas for Smallshaw, it seems that being houseproud is a woman’s entire raison d’etre.  (See Perfect Wives in Ideal Homes by Virgina Nicholson for a full portrait of this claustrophobic mindset.)

When Smallshaw sticks to cleaning basics, it’s not too contentious (except for her bold statement that it doesn’t matter if you dust or do the floors first.  This is madness – always dust first.  No arguments).  Her standards are insane and clearly meant to occupy a bored housewife by finding as many unnecessary things as possible for her to fill her day with.  Your home would in fact be sparkling but your mind would be screaming out for stimulation if you allowed yourself to be held captive by your possessions in this way.  She has helpful and deeply condescending tips to save yourself from the heavy work, such as “A clever wife induces the husband to regard the boiler as his special province!”  The exclamation point is a dagger to the heart.

While I trust her cleaning tips (but not the deranged schedule she recommends), I am less confident that following her cooking tips would yield good results.  Her idea to make efficient use of the steamers seems particularly unappetizing:

Use the bottom of the steamer for a light sponge pudding or batter.  The next compartment will take potatoes, and on the top, fillets of fish between two plates.

If my grandmothers had made it through the upholstery whisk, and miraculously through the assumptions about what their mothers had done, I know their contempt for Smallshaw would finally have peaked in the chapter on budgeting.  In “helpfully” guiding her simpleminded readers, Smallshaw advises:  You’ll be remarkably lucky if your estimated expenditure comes within your income!  At this stage, you and your husband will probably agree on the housekeeping allowance you can have…The idea that they would have let their husbands be involved in managing the money is the laughable one.  My Canadian grandmother broke free of the farm after high school and worked in a bank, where she eventually became assistant manager during the war.  Even without such formal training, it was the norm in many farming families for the wife to manage the money.  They usually had more education than their husbands (who often left school at the start of their teen years) and were more confident with numbers.  My other grandmother ended up in a dual-income house where, aside from doing the shopping and sometimes cooking Sunday lunch, households duties were pretty evenly shared.  The idea of him “letting” her have a portion of their shared income would not have gone over well – and I presume it would never even occurred to him.

Smallshaw concludes the book with a bit of an about face.  After extolling the virtues of obsessive cleaning, she then concedes that her readers may eventually have children, at which point standards collapse entirely.  If the reader had made it through to the end, perhaps this would have given them some hope.  It is a welcome acknowledgement of reality after many pages of fantasy.

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Today marks the start of a Mini Persephone Readathon, hosted by the ever-enthusiastic Jessie, and I’m delighted to be taking part.  It’s just until Sunday – hence its “mini” status – so I thought I’d get started right away.

First published in 1946, To Bed with Grand Music by Marghanita Laski was published while the war was still fresh in everyone’s minds.  And that memory is important because already routines were beginning to be re-established and conventions once again adhered to, things that had briefly loosened during the topsy-turvy war years and provided undreamt-of freedom for so many.  Sometimes that freedom was productive – as for the men and women whose wartime experiences gave them careers their education or gender never prepared them for – and sometimes it was merely license to misbehave.  And wartime misbehaviour is Laski’s focus.

We meet Deborah Robertson just as her husband, Graham, is about to depart for Cairo.  Married for several years and parents to a young son, they are both upset at the idea of parting, trying to reassure one another of the strength of their passion.  Passion, rather than affection, is certainly the correct word and the shallowness of their relationship is made clear as Graham reassures his wife that he will “be missing you every hour of every day, thinking how bloody attractive you are.”  This is not a marriage of two minds, safe to say.

Before he leaves, Graham idiotically explains to his wife that the affairs he will have out East will only be with women he does not respect and so won’t mean anything and asks her to promise the same for her own affairs.  Deborah, claiming the moral high ground, asserts that she will be comforted by her love for him, will spend her time caring for their son, and will remain completely unchanged by their separation.

Subtlety is not Laski’s strong point (to be fair, she never attempts it) so, unsurprisingly, the rest of the book is about how unfaithful Deborah is and how much she changes.

Bored with her son and country life, Deborah soon seizes the chance to move to London on her own (leaving her son in the loving and much more capable hands of the housekeeper).  And even before she completes her move, she has her first affair.  It is a meaningless thing, done more out of a sense of inevitability than anything, but it sets her on a path that she soon finds impossible to give up.  Her attempts to abstain make her sour and petulant so, she decides, why not have fun.  To be twenty-four, beautiful and free in wartime London is a heady thing indeed.

One man leads to another, then another, and so on.  At first she can pretend love is involved but she soon realises that is not it.  Her relationships have nothing to do with her feelings about the men, except perhaps for what they can give her – beginning with nice meals out, stockings, perfume, small things.  But as she learns her new craft, her ambitions grow.  She looks at her friend Madeleine, far more used to this lifestyle than Deborah and able to attract what Deborah thinks of as “grown-ups”, and “longed to graduate into a class genuinely competitive with her, and yet had no notion of what qualities she lacked that consistently prevented her from doing so.”

Deborah figures out those qualities – with the not altogether willing assistance of a Frenchman whom she has poached from Madeleine – and from there her career as a tart is assured.  The men she sleeps with are barely people to her, only stepping stones on her path of self-improvement.  Her moral qualms disappear alarmingly quickly; it is much nicer to have a new bag or hat or piece of jewellery than anxieties.  And why shouldn’t she be happy rather than anxious or ashamed?  As she says:

“I know it’s better to be happy than unhappy, and not only for me but for my baby as well.  I like this sort of life, in fact, I love it, and seeing as how I’m hurting no one and doing myself quite a lot of good, I rather think I’ll carry on with it.  I’ve come to the conclusion that conventional morals were invented by a lot of unattractive bitches to make themselves feel good.”

Laski is extremely popular with Persephone readers and one of their best represented authors – they have reprinted five of her books now: Little Boy Lost, The Village, The Victorian Chaise-Longue, To Bed with Grand Music, and Tory Heaven.  And I can completely understand why.  She epitomizes the middle brow, writing about seemingly-serious topics in a titillating way with basic, extremely readable prose (Little Boy Lost is particularly difficult to put down).  Would I consider this a significant psychological portrait of a woman experiencing a moral crisis amidst a chaotic, collapsing social structure?  Hardly.  But, despite lacking nuance or depth, it is great fun.  Laski knew what people wanted: a bit of excitement and a touch of the taboo to keep them glued to the pages, confidently smug that they could never be as morally inept as Deborah.  It’s true but that is a very, very low bar to clear.

This post contains affiliate links from Book Depository, an online book retailer with free international shipping.  If you buy via these links it means I receive a small commission (at no extra cost to you). 

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For Jessie’s Persephone Readathon I wanted to share my favourite Persephones.  I’m not going to be quite as ambitious as Simon (who ranked all the Persephone books he has read) so here’s a list of my top ten favourites (so far):

10. House-Bound by Winifred Peck – It was a Persephone readathon back in 2011 that introduced me to this story of a Scottish housewife whose staid and settled life is shaken up during WWII as the rapidly changing world forces her to re-examine her life and her relationships with her family members.

9. Cheerful Weather for the Wedding by Julia Strachey – a deeply unsentimental black comedy that I read not once but twice – and loved both times.

8. It’s Hard to Be Hip Over Thirty by Judith Viorst – I am not a poetry lover but I adore this collection of deeply domestic poems.

7. Greenery Street by Denis Mackail – Who doesn’t love this charming comic novel about a young couple’s first year of married life? I love it so much that I put together an entire list of reading recommendations based on it.

6. Good Evening, Mrs Craven by Mollie Panter-Downes – I have never been a lover of short stories but Panter-Downes’ collection of World War Two stories is exceptional. She covers the full range of experiences – from earnest enthusiasm to petty but sympathetically-portrayed selfishness – with brevity, humour, and intelligence.

5. The Diary of a Provincial Lady by E.M. Delafield – I’m not really certain why Persephone chose to reissue this (it certainly wasn’t in danger of being out of print) but it’s as close to a flawless comic novel as the English language has created so I’m not going to complain!

4. The Home-Maker by Dorothy Canfield Fisher – A perennial favourite among Persephone fans – and with good reason! I was incredibly impressed when I read this stunning novel about gender roles, personal fulfillment, and the concept of face.

3. Hostages to Fortune by Elizabeth Cambridge – I love this thoughtful, well-written account of one family’s progression over two decades. It is particularly strong in portraying a mature marriage and the challenges of being a parent and realising the limits of your control. It makes an interesting contrast with the much inferior Princes in the Land.

2. Earth and High Heaven by Gwethalyn Graham – In 2011 when I first read this wonderful novel about a love affair between an Anglo journalist and a Jewish lawyer in 1940s Montreal, I described it as being Persephone-like in it’s tone, quality and themes. I’m so glad they agreed and published it!

1. London War Notes by Mollie Panter-Downes – if you want to know when my love for Persephone peaked, it was the day I heard they were reprinting this collection of Panter-Downes’ wartime journalism for the New Yorker. For me, it is “one of the finest, most perfectly observed portraits of wartime England I have ever read.”

Honourable mentions: The Shuttle, Family Roundabout, On the Other Side, Manja

Dishonourable mentions: Someone at a Distance, The Winds of Heaven, Miss Buncle’s Book, Midsummer Night in the Workhouse, The Making of a Marchioness, Guard Your Daughters

What are your favourite Persephones?

This post contains affiliate links from Book Depository, an online book retailer with free international shipping.  If you buy via these links it means I receive a small commission (at no extra cost to you).  

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It’s day five of Jessie’s Persephone Readathon and the suggested topic for the day is to recommend books based on Persephone titles.  Readers, there is nothing I enjoy more than making book lists.  So I decided to make three.  Humour me.

Greenery Street by Denis Mackail
One of my first Persephone reads and probably still among my favourites, Greenery Street tells the story of the first year of a marriage.  Ian and Felicity are young, optimistic, and, rare in novels (including many published by Persephone), happy.  Mackail tells their story affectionately and humorously and the end result is so delightful that P.G. Wodehouse described it as “simply terrific” and “the sort of book one wishes would go on for ever.”

So where to go from there?  The sequels – Tales from Greenery Street and Ian and Felicity – would seem the obvious choice but they are damnably difficult to track down.  Mackail’s light comedy Another Part of the Wood is easier to track down (at least in e-book form) but isn’t quite as delightful as the goings on of the Greenery Street crew.

Here are some less obvious ideas of what to read next from authors who share Mackail’s gift for humour, generally cheerful opinion of marriage, and fondness for a strong narrative voice:

  • A.A. Milne: my favourite humourist of the 1910s and 1920s, Milne was very comfortable with the domestic humour and marital conversations that make Greenery Street so delightful. He wrote charming pieces for Punch on the topic (try Once a Week and The Day’s Play) and many of his best plays are also focused on marriages and what makes them work – or not (The Dover Road, Michael and Mary, and Mr Pim Passes By).
  • P.G. Wodehouse: Wodehouse was a good friend of Mackail’s – and a much better writer. They shared a similar sense of humour and whimsey in their writing though Wodehouse’s plots are significantly more madcap than Mackail’s domestic misadventures.  Still, it’s hard to imagine anyone who smiled through Greenery Street not enjoying Wodehouse classics like Joy in the Morning, Uncle Fred in the Springtime, or Psmith in the City.
  • Angela Thirkell: here’s a contentious choice! Mackail was not fond of Thirkell, his elder sister, and particularly of her much greater success as a writer.  Poor Denis.  However, I think her humour, although more caustic than her brother’s, would appeal to lovers of Greenery Street and her clear-sighted observations definitely echo the amused narrator’s view of Ian and Felicity’s goings on.  Wild Strawberries would be a particularly good place to start.
  • Dear Octopus by Dodie Smith: for a loving depiction of a lengthy and happy marriage you need look no further than Charles and Dora, around whose 50th wedding anniversary this excellent play unfolds.

On the Other Side by Mathilde Wolff-Mönckeberg
There are a handful of Persephones that I consider really important and this, a collection of letters written by a German mother to her adult children living abroad during World War Two, is one of them.  The social history of Germany (and the territories it occupied) during the war is one of the topics I’m most passionate about in my reading so, no surprise, I have lots of recommendations:

  • The Past is Myself by Christabel Bielenberg: like Wolff-Mönckeberg, Bielenberg was for years a resident of free-thinking Hamburg but with a difference: she was Anglo-Irish and had only become a German citizen upon her marriage in 1934. In this fascinating memoir she tells of her wartime experiences in Germany – experiences made particularly fraught by her husband’s friendship with those involved in the July 1944 plot to assassinate Hitler.  An intriguing look at wartime Germany from a not-quite-outsider’s perspective with a thriller-like climax.
  • A Woman in Berlin by Anonymous: one of the most moving documents of the war, this diary of life in Berlin as the Russians invaded is a powerful account of life in a hellish place. Starvation, rape, and the final breakdown of all remaining order are calmly and chillingly chronicled.
  • Frauen by Alison Owings: a fascinatingly varied collection of interviews with twenty-nine women about their experiences of life during the Third Reich.
  • The English Air by D.E. Stevenson: Moving on to fiction, this story (one of Stevenson’s best) deals with a young German man coming to visit distant family in England in 1938, forming deep bonds with them, and reassessing his own homeland from a distance. For a book published in 1940, it is extraordinarily sympathetic towards its German protagonist and rather refreshing.
  • I Was a Stranger by John Hackett: rescued by the Dutch resistance after being badly wounded during the Battle of Arnhem, Hackett’s memoir of his time recovering in the home of three elderly Dutch sisters is beautifully told. His affection and admiration for the resistance members is extreme, understanding the great danger they placed themselves in every day as they did their work surrounded by their German occupiers.

Few Eggs and No Oranges by Vere Hodgson
I’m currently reading this diary of life in wartime London and, no surprise, I’m enjoying it very much.  It’s not brilliant but it’s very good.  Here are some similar reads that are even better:

  • London War Notes by Mollie Panter-Downes: another Persephone and, like On the Other Side, one that I class as one of their “important” publications. Chronicling the war for the American readers of the New Yorker in her bi-weekly letters from London, Panter-Downes captures the ups, the downs, and the essential uncertainly of life in wartime Britain.  Her wartime short stories (Good Evening, Mrs Craven) should also not be missed.
  • The Headmistress by Angela Thirkell: Elizabeth Bowen praised Thirkell’s attention to contemporary detail by saying “If the social historian of the future does not refer to this writer’s novels, he will not know his business” and it is particularly true of this, the best of her wartime novels.
  • Wartime and The Blitz by Juliet Gardiner: Gardiner’s detailed and highly entertaining social histories cannot be beat.
  • The Siren Years by Charles Ritchie: my favourite of all wartime diaries. Ritchie, a Canadian diplomat posted in London during the war, was a stylish writer, brilliant observer, and energetic socializer.  Come for the anecdotes about lunch with Nancy Mitford and deposed European royalty, stay for the clear-sighted and decidedly unjingoistic commentary on the diplomats and politicians running the war.
  • These Wonderful Rumours! by May Smith: happy wartime diaries are always a nice change! A schoolteacher with an active romantic life and a worklife deeply inconvenienced by evacuees, Smith’s diaries are funny and remind us that life goes on.

This post contains affiliate links from Book Depository, an online book retailer with free international shipping.  If you buy via these links it means I receive a small commission (at no extra cost to you).  

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Pretty as a Persephone

I have belatedly (thanks to Simon’s post yesterday) discovered there is a Persephone Readathon running from February 1st to 11th hosted by Jessie.  She has come up with a great list of day-by-day challenges and I thought I’d join for today’s theme: photogenic Persephones.  Because if there is one thing I’ve done with my Persephones, it is take photos of them (preferably flanked by colourful spring flowers).  Happy Friday, everyone!


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Back in 2011, I read Earth and High Heaven by Gwethalyn Graham and absolutely adored it.  In fact, I loved it so much that it made my Best Books of 2011 list.  And the first thing I thought when reading it was how perfect a choice it would be for Persephone Books.

Well, turns out they thought the same way.  Six years later, I am delighted to say that Persphone has just reissued the book and it is now readily available for all to enjoy!  Happy reading!

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hetty-dorvalMy first choice for this week’s 1947 Club was a patriotic one: Hetty Dorval by Ethel Wilson.  It has the honour of being the only Canadian novel so far to be reissued by Persephone books and has sat unread on my bookshelf for a shamefully long time.

The novella begins with the arrival of a beautiful and alluring young woman, Hetty Dorval, into the small town of Lytton, British Columbia, where twelve-year old Frances “Frankie” Burnaby lives on a nearby ranch with her parents.  For Frankie, Hetty is exotic – as is any new arrival in a small town – and endlessly fascinating.  When Hetty befriends her, it seems both wonderful to be acknowledged by such a person and uncomfortable, as Frankie is upset by Hetty’s request that she keep their visits a secret from everyone, including her parents, lest the locals view that as an invitation to come visit her too.  “Under a novel spell of beauty and singing and the excitement of a charm that was new”, Frankie agrees to keep the secret though, inevitably, it comes out.  And then her parents share with her the reason she cannot continue to see Hetty:

He found it difficult, I could see, to explain to me about ‘a woman of no reputation’. (‘Oh,’ I thought, sitting still and discreet like a bird that is alarmed, ‘I know, like Nella that went to stay with that rancher, and that woman with the funny hair!’ – we children just naturally heard and knew these things) and I learned that Hetty was ‘a woman of no reputation’.  Father stopped short there.  Apparently he could have said more.  In my own mind, seeing Hetty’s pure profile and her gentle smile, I said to myself that Father couldn’t have believed these things if he had seen her himself.  But a sick surprised feeling told me it might be true.

Frankie turns into quite the traveller as she ages, going first to a small boarding school in Vancouver (where her dorm room has a view across Stanley Park, which would be absolutely lovely), before crossing the Atlantic to attend school in England, followed by some time in Paris.  Across the years and the different settings, she and Hetty Dorval run into each other time and again and with each meeting – and with each learned piece of gossip helping Frankie to compose Hetty’s tawdry romantic back-story – Frankie’s view of the woman moves farther and farther away from her childhood infatuation.  By the story’s climax, when the widowed Hetty has wrapped herself around a dear friend of Frankie’s, Frankie can only see the shallow, manipulative woman who manoeuvres all situations to her advantage and cares nothing for the feelings of anyone but herself – an attitude which leads Hetty’s devoted nanny, who has cared for her and stayed with her since childhood, to a passionate and shocking outburst.

It is a very readable book, though I could do without some of the early descriptive passages about the scenery around Lytton.  Apparently, these appeal to many other readers.  Perhaps those readers have not had to wade through quite as much second-rate CanLit as we patriotically-obliged natives, where overly described scenery that adds very little to the story is de rigueur?  Regardless, it is a minor quibble.  Hetty Dorval is charmingly subtle and elegantly structured.  A very worthy first choice for the 1947 Club!


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