Archive for the ‘Persephone’ Category

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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The days immediately after Christmas are dangerous ones.  Lounging about on holidays, intoxicated by a surplus of goodwill and boozy Christmas cake, I had far too much time to consider what books my shelves were lacking after the gift giving had concluded.  So I gave myself a little present: one day’s salary to spend on books.  It’s my money and I gave it to myself but that did nothing to lessen the giddiness I felt in spending it.  The first order I placed was, of course, for Persephone books and they arrived last week, all gorgeous and grey.  Here’s what I picked out: 

The Fortnight in September by RC Sherriff – I heard so many wonderful things about this over the summer and early fall (when it felt like an inordinate amount of people we’re talking about it) that I couldn’t not order it.  It sounds wonderful and cosy and I really don’t need anything more from a book.  Also, I completely adore the endpapers.

Doreen by Barbara Noble – Can I ever read enough about evacuees?  Some of my favourite books as a child were the volumes of Kit Pearson’s “Guests of War” trilogy, about a pair of English children evacuated to Canada during the war, and since then I’ve loved reading novels, histories, and memoirs on the topic.  This title, about a child torn between her mother and the family that takes her in, has appealed to me from the moment I first heard of it.

Bricks and Mortar by Helen Ashton – I’m intrigued by this one, for both its male protagonist and the glimpse it promises of his profession (architect), though I’ve read comparatively few reviews of it.

Family Roundabout by Richmal Crompton – this is the one I’m most excited to read.  I’ve never read anything by Crompton before (that’s right, William and I are complete strangers) but everything I’ve heard about this makes me certain that I will love it.

The Home-Maker by Dorothy Canfield Fisher – my library teased me for over a year with this title, showing it ‘on order’ in their catalogue.  At the end of November, it suddenly disappeared and I was left bereft.  But no more, now I have a copy of my own.

The rest of my books are still enroute (a few were pre-orders) so I may wait until they’ve all arrived before talking about them…or I may not.  But I simply couldn’t wait to show these beauties off.  As usual, Persephones take priority!

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I had consciously stayed away from Little Boy Lost by Marghanita Laski, having somehow got the idea into my head that it not at all something I’d like.  But it is one of the few Persephones my library owns so I decided that one must encourage such acquisitions by actually reading them.  I could not have been more surprised by how entertaining I found it.

The book opens at Christmas, 1943.  Hilary Wainwright, the most emotionally reserved poet I have ever come across, receives the news that his adored wife Lisa was killed a year before in occupied Paris and that his toddler son, John, is missing.  In 1945, after the peace, Hilary is finally able to return to France to attempt to track down his lost son, if indeed the boy is still alive, and it is that journey, both physical and emotional, that the book chronicles.

Pierre, an old friend of Lisa’s, has followed what he thinks is the most likely trail and discovered a boy at an orphanage outside of Paris who he very well thinks might be John.  Hilary goes to the town and, through daily visits with the child Jean, tries to discover if the small five-year old is the son Hilary only met once, the day after his birth.  Jean is an extremely adorable child, denied so much growing up in a war-ravaged country, thrilled by each little treat Hilary can bestow, be it a trip to see the trains pass by or a pair of mittens, and is delighted, most of all, just by getting to spend time with Hilary.  Jean’s surprising openness is harshly contrasted by Hilary’s absolute reserve.

Hilary’s reticence to claim the boy, his need for absolute certainty that this is his son, make this a unexpectedly tense novel.  Since his wife’s death, Hilary has been searching for someone to love while consciously denying himself any relationship where his tenderness would be appreciated.  He has flings with cheap, tawdry women and a respectable but unemotional attachment to a clever, professional woman in London.  It is very clear to the reader that he needs Jean’s love as much as Jean needs his, whatever their biological relationship may be, but it is not quite so easy for Hilary to accept that.  Hilary is struggling not just with the question of is Jean his son, but also if he wants a son, a family, at all, if he is ready to open himself again as he did with Lisa.

The story takes place in a France still shattered by the war and Laski takes great care to detail both the physical and moral struggles being faced.  The conditions at the orphanage where Jean lives horrify Hilary: the orphans don’t have enough to eat or wear, only those five and under get milk, tubercular children are kept in with the healthy ones and though the nuns may hate the situation, at least they know they aren’t facing the horrors of their German, Austrian, and Polish sisters.  To Hilary’s disgust, at the same time as children are going without milk and meat in the orphanage, across town the restaurants are covertly offering black market feasts at outrageous prices.

Of course, in a story set in a once occupied country, there is always the question of what people did during the war.  Most of the characters seem almost tired of the question of who collaborated, but they still certainly remember who did and how (details as benign as serving Germans the best wine rather than something less impressive).  What is more pressing here, creating current tensions and resentments in the town, are those who have extended the moral ambiguity of war into peace, those who cheat and swindle to get ahead of their fellow Frenchman.  That is no longer a means of survival, just a sign of greed and corruption.  As one character explains to Hilary:

 ‘To me, the most horrible thing is hearing everyone excusing themselves on the ground that deceit was started against the Germans and has now become a habit.  It would have been better to have been honest, even with Germans, than to end by deceiving each other and finally by deceiving ourselves.

I consumed this novel in one gulp, pausing only to say ‘go away!’ to people who would dare disturb me while I was reading.  Laski’s writing is gripping and entertaining.  I don’t think it is exceptional art – there’s a certain clumsiness to the plot and none of the characters are particularly developed or compelling – but Laski knows how to engage her audience and tell a story.  I am so glad I picked this up and I’m now eager to read Laski’s other books (one of which, The Village, I already own).

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I can’t believe it has taken me more than two months to review Lady Rose and Mrs Memmary by Ruby Ferguson.  I could not put it down once I started reading and from the first page to the last I was utterly enraptured by this very charming Scottish tale.  The Persephone description of it is absolutely spot-on, calling it “a fairy tale for grown-ups, but one ‘with an uneasy crash into social reality.’”

The novel begins in the early 1930s, with an English couple, the Dacres, and their American friend arriving at the gates of Keepsfield, Lady Rose’s once glorious now sadly vacant Scottish mansion.  The caretaker, Mrs Memmary, is happy to show them about and, as she does so, share stories with the captivated Mrs Dacre about the owner, Lady Victoria Elspeth Rose Grahame-Rooth.  Spanning from the 1860s to the 1930s, we see Lady Rose progress through the years, from her deliriously happy childhood at Keepsfield to her years away at school in England, from her debut in a whirl of music and dancing to her life as young wife and mother, through to the scandal that forced her to leave her beloved home.

Just like Mrs Dacre, I found it impossible not to love Lady Rose once I started learning about her.  That energetic six year old we meet first completely won me over and I remained loyally enraptured forever after.  Typical of her class and the era, her parents are distant figures in her life, seen rarely but loved nonetheless, though admired might be a more apt word than loved.  Lady Rose, as child and adult, is filled with love and happiness, even when those around her don’t necessarily reciprocate in kind, which is part of what makes her so sympathetic and appealing.  I did not pity her, she certainly did not pity herself, but I did always wish the best for her.

As the years pass, Lady Rose only endeared herself to me more, particularly through her letters to her mother during Rose’s years at school in England (in which, for example, she laments that they never learn any of the violence-filled Scottish ballads since “in English ballads people never seem to do anything but gather roses and go to the fair.”).  And the lengthy description of a teenage Rose’s attitude towards marriage had me smiling but, at the same time, sighing because there is only one way such naivety is ever answered in a novel:

Rose indulged in the most romantic dreams about marriage.  Of course they were all delightfully vague and abstract, and for all practical purposes they began and ended with white satin and pearls and sheaves of flowers at St George’s, and red carpet in front of Aunt Violet’s house in Belgrave Square, and tears, and hundreds of presents.  After that came a kind of ideal and undefined state in which you lived blissfully under a new name, and had your own carriage, and didn’t have to ask permission from mamma when you wanted to go out.  Floating airily through all of this, of course, was a man.  He was not like any man you had ever seen; they were just men.  This man – your husband, queer, mysterious word – was hardly human at all.  He was dreadfully handsome, and a little frightening, but of course you didn’t see very much of him.  When you did see him there were love scenes.  He always called you ‘my darling’ in a deep, tender voice; and he gave you jewels and flowers, and sometimes went down on his bended knees to kiss your hand.  All this came out of the books you had read.  Some day, almost any time after you were presented and began to go about with Mamma, you would suddenly meet this marvelous being.  You would be in love.  You would be married.  And that was the end, except that, of course, you would live happily ever after.

Trouble follows, of course, and Rose is eventually forced to choose between continuing with her comfortable, aristocratic life, lived well within the confines of Victorian society, and rebelling, abandoning all that she knows to seize the opportunity to finally love and be loved.  Honestly, it was this most romantic section of the novel that appealed the least to me.  I could not sympathize with Rose’s choice and did not understand the reasoning behind it or, more importantly, how she was prepared to forgo everything she would have had had she chosen differently.

Still, I was delighted by this book, even when I wasn’t fully in sympathy with Lady Rose’s decisions.  Her passion for her home (meaning both Keepsfield and Scotland) was a dominant theme and fiercely expressed – I’m not sure I’ve ever read a book with a character more endearingly proud of their nationality and their country’s history.  While the story clearly shows how Rose’s life is shaped by the strict social mores of the day, Rose is generally quite content with her lot in life, taking and creating happiness where she can, never sulking about, feeling miserable and unfulfilled as some tiresome heroines feel the need to do.  Initially, I was uncertain about the framing device of Mrs Memmary telling Mrs Dacre the stories about Lady Rose, but, in the end, I thought it worked surprisingly well, perhaps because I came to feel such kinship with Mrs Dacre, who, like me, only wanted to hear more and more of Rose’s story.  One of my favourite Persephone reading experiences so far.

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I really wanted to love Miss Buncle’s Book by D.E. Stevenson.  So many other bloggers had assured me I would and, after adoring my encounters with Stevenson’s Mrs Tim, I was certainly excited to finally meet Miss Barbara Buncle for myself.  But my excitement faded as I started reading.  Stevenson had impressed me before with both the warmth and wit of her characters and the humourous intelligence of her writing.  Very little of that was apparent here in this rambling, rather forgettable book.

The idea though is a charming one: Miss Barbara Buncle, a middle-aged spinster who is struggling to make ends meet, writes a fanciful novel featuring thinly veiled versions of her village neighbours and publishes it under a pseudonym.  Her portraits of them are unerringly accurate and when her book becomes a surprise hit, the outraged citizens who unwittingly served as inspiration – especially those whose negative traits were highlighted – set out to discover who the author is.  But who among them would suspect the dowdy, quiet, not particularly intelligent Miss Buncle?

It’s an excellent premise, isn’t it?  It vaguely reminded me of one of my favourite films, Theodora Goes Wild, about a woman (played by the excellent Irene Dunne) who writes a racy bestseller which has her conservative small town up in arms and her attempts to keep them from discovering that she wrote it.  And when have I ever turned down a book about an author or, more importantly, a book about village life?  But with meandering, plodding prose and lifeless characters, it was difficult to enjoy this book, hard as I tried.  It was fine, just not very good or memorable.

Mostly, I just kept wishing that some other, more skilled writer had taken up this story.  Stevenson took a half-hearted attempt at skewering the villagers but the result was neither affectionate nor amusing, just rather dull.  E.M. Delafield, Angela Thirkell, E.F. Benson…it was hard not to think of those excellent writers and what they have done so brilliantly when dealing with provincial life that Stevenson failed to do here.  Miss Buncle’s Book is diverting enough as a form of brief, light entertainment but there was nothing special in it, no moment that ever charmed or delighted me.  There was no grace to the storytelling and so many of the ideas and sentiments had me remembering other books and other authors who had phrased it much more cleverly or succinctly.  Still, the story is diverting and some of the characters are quite entertaining, however two-dimensional they may be.  It is a fine book to pass an afternoon with and I am sure I will be reading Miss Buncle Married sometime soon.

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When I start making my Christmas wish list each year, I should really be forced to surrender my credit card.  Because what inevitably happens is that I end up ordering half the items on the list for myself.  Since my family seems to have an unwritten rule that they will collectively never give me more than three books a year, I don’t feel too bad about stealing gift ideas but I am a little concerned that I got started so early this year.  Just think of how much of my list I might work through before December even starts!  And at least I had my priorities straight – one should always start by growing one’s collection of Persephone books:

How to Run Your Home Without Help by Kay Smallshaw – I adore any kind of cleaning or housekeeping guide book and actually have collected quite a few over the years.  This promises to be one of the best of that collection, based on a quick flip through.  

A London Child of 1870s by Molly Hughes – Adam Gopnik’s mention of this book in Through the Children’s Gate put it on my TBR list long before I’d ever heard of Persephone Books. 

The Village by Marghanita Laski – I still haven’t read anything by Laski but, of the four books by her that Persephone has published, this is the one that has intrigued me the most.  Also, the afterword is my much-adored Juliet Gardiner. 

Consider the Years by Virginia Graham – I’m not usually one for poetry but Persephone is slowly winning me over.  And as though I was ever going to be able to resist a wartime book, regardless of form. 

Hostages to Fortune by Elizabeth Cambridge – I read this over the summer and the more time that passed, the more I wished I had my own copy.  This copy has a slightly crunched spine (oh the joys of Book Depository’s soft shipping envelopes) but I can’t say I’m particularly bothered by it.

What do you think of my choices, fellow Persephone addicts?  I feel like I haven’t heard a lot about most of these, certainly not recently, so if you’ve read any of them, I’d love to hear what you thought.

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And There Was Much Rejoicing

Look what came today!  My Persephone Biannually arrived with the post this morning and, rather than descend upon it immediately (the major downside of working from home is temptations like this), I’ve saved it up to enjoy with my tea and a slice of cranberry cake this afternoon.  But I did just flip through it briefly first and was so excited to see that my review of House-Bound is quoted, the first time The Captive Reader has appeared in print.  Such a nice surprise!

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It’s been more than three months since I read Saplings by Noel Streatfeild and I think that tells you something about my feelings towards the book.  I enjoyed it but, the moment I put it down, I forgot all about it.  I was neither disappointed nor delighted by it, but it entertained me well enough while I was reading it for me to want to discuss it here.

Saplings chronicles the destruction of a once happy family as the Second World War intrudes and interrupts their contented existence.  The opening pages as the family vacations on the beach at Eastbourne in the summer of 1939 make for one of the most intriguing introductions I can remember.  You instantly known the characters of the four children (Laurel, Tony, Kim and Tuesday), their parents (Alex and Lena), and their caregivers (Nanny and the governess Ruth).  The children’s perspectives, their anxieties and fears, their joy in having their father with them instead of at work, all seemed perfectly expressed.  Briefly but brilliantly, Streatfeild made the reader familiar with all aspects of the Wiltshires’ inner lives.

And then, slowly at first, their happy lives start to fall apart.  The children are evacuated to their grandparents’ house when the war begins, separated from their parents and, when school begins and the eldest children go off to their boarding schools, from each other.  Their comfortable, safe lives suddenly have no center and the stresses and tragedies of war only cause each child to drift more and more from the happy, stable childhood they had enjoyed before the war and from the happy, stable people they had once seemed destined to become. 

But it is not just the children Streatfeild considers, though they are the focus.  Their mother, Lena, is, for me, the most intriguing character of the novel.  She loves her well-ordered, pre-war life, with the children neatly taken care of by others, allowing her plenty of time with Alex.  From the opening pages, it is clear that Lena has no intuitive mothering side to her:

Lena, without looking up from her magazine, felt Alex leave her side.  He would have gone to the tent to put on his things.  When they were first married, or even a few years ago, she would have gone with him.  She would no have missed those seconds in the hot tent, the flash of passion that would have come from the closeness of his cool, naked body.  But he had got so self-conscious, always worrying about what the children were thinking.  She had faced that.  He wanted to switch things.  He wanted to be a family man, bless him.  The children were darlings, but she was not a family woman, she was utterly wife, and, if it came to that, a mistress too, and she meant to go on being just those things.

But the war takes all that happiness from her, leaving her devastated and unable to cope.  Just when her children need her to be strong, she falls apart.  The widowed Lena turns to alcohol and affairs to fill the void left by Alex’s death and, for me, she was the most consistently well-written, believable character as her carefully assembled perfect world crumbles around her: 

Lena was in an overwrought state.  She had attained happiness.  It had been a delicate matter to so balance her life that it reached near perfection, but with skill she had managed it.  The war had no use for delicate adjustments, it had torn most of her happiness to pieces.

A number of other readers have remarked on how authentic the children’s voices were but I found them strangely simplified.  The children evolve into bundles of neuroses and psychological clichés, too anxious and too articulate in their anxieties to feel real.  It’s fascinating to read about such self-aware children but not particularly believable when their entire character seems to consist of nothing else but these fears. 

Saplings is a very episodic book, which becomes a bit trying as you go on, jumping from one event to the next without preamble.  I also found it wildly uneven in its attentions to the children.  The eldest children, Laurel and Tony, are more examined than their younger siblings but, even though the focus is on them, they never seem to mature emotionally or intellectually, though the novel spans at least five years. Laurel becomes the bizarre focus of the final part of the novel, accused by a hysterical aunt of having had an affair with her husband, whoLaurel had innocently befriended and cared for and received a girlish pearl necklace from while he was recovery from illness at home. Laurel, at sixteen, is stupid enough not to understand the accusation.     

All in all, a very interesting examination of the psychological impact of the war on those far removed from the fighting but whose worlds are nonetheless changed.  I love reading social histories and memoirs about life on the home front during the war and this is a perfect fictional companion to those books.  The children’s reactions here are extreme but still fascinating and Streatfeild’s writing style is incredibly compelling, pulling me along even when I found some of her choices unbelievable.

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I bought Someone at a Distance by Dorothy Whipple back in May 2010, infected by other bloggers’ enthusiasm for Whipple.  Since then, I’ve added The Priory and They Were Sisters to my Persephone collection but I’d never actually read a word Whipple had written.  Until now.

I stared Someone at a Distance last night and am now halfway through and loving it.  I was so terrified that I was going to be disappointed, as is always the case when I start reading a much-praised author, but that is absolutely not the case and I needed to share my relief and excitement with those who would understand it best.  And the best thing is knowing that, once I’ve finished this, I still have two more Whipple novels already waiting on my shelves.

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When I finished reading Hostages to Fortune by Elizabeth Cambridge at the end of August, one of the notes about it in my reading diary, sandwiched between passages of praise, reads ‘not necessarily the most memorable or impactful book.’  And in some ways that is true.  The characters no longer stand out in my mind, nor do I remember much of what limited plot there was.  But even a month and a half later, I’m still marveling at the thoughtful, well-written chronicle of one family’s progression over two decades. 

Cambridge gives us a very ordinary, unremarkable story about ordinary, unremarkable people, just trying to do their best as they move through the years.  The focus is primarily on Catherine, mother and wife, who begins as a not unusually selfish young woman, concerned with her writing aspirations and her husband and, eventually, her babies.  Once the children start arriving – first Audrey, then Adam, then Bill – they quickly take up all her time and the years fly by, full of little moments of happiness and lots of worries about money and the children themselves.

There have been various discussions in the book blogging community about how marriage is presented in books and which novels do the best job of accurately representing that state.  The young, dewy-eyed newlyweds of Greenery Street are perennial favourites but, showing a more mature marriage, I was incredibly impressed by the portrait of Catherine and William’s union through the years.  The novel begins during the First World War, with Catherine giving birth to Audrey while William is away.  When he returns, invalided out, they settle in the country and William begins his stressful work as the local doctor.  With William running about the countryside at all hours and Catherine struggling to manage at home with first one, then two, then three children, both spend the early years of their marriage frazzled, pressed for time, patience, and money.  They go through phases where they don’t particularly like one another, where they can’t even remember what they used to like about the other, where they question why they ever thought marriage was a good idea.  But, in the end, they are partners and, however distant they may have felt over the years, they shared the same vision and values.  They can respect the work the other has done over the years and, year by year, that brings them closer together, as in any strong marriage:

They had come to admire each other.  They had both hated their jobs, but they had stuck to them until miraculously, they had come not only to like them, but to be unable to do without them.  By the same process they had come to really need and like each other; somehow a real friendship a real need for each other had grown up behind their differences and disappointments.

But this is truly a novel about parenting, about the limits of control.  Catherine’s greatest struggle is learning that she cannot give her children everything she’d dreamed or planned for them.  That she must “not grab nor claim, nor try to insist on what they do and what they are.”  There comes a point where, if you’re going to keep them close and on good terms, you have to let go rather than attempt to orchestrate their lives for them.  And you have to resign yourself to the fact that the fates they chose for themselves will be different than the ones you planned for and that they will potentially achieve much less than what they’re capable of.  There is the example of Catherine’s sister and her children held up throughout the novel as what not to do – one that Catherine certainly learns from.  But even though Catherine knows what she must not do, that doesn’t make it easy for her when Audrey makes it clear that her mother’s guidance is no longer needed (also made clear in this passage is Cambridge’s passion for ellipses): 

‘Darling,’ she said. ‘I love you so much if you’d only leave me alone.’

Catherine thought…I always imagined I had…but she had the sense not to say it.  How right after all, how natural and salutary that Audrey should withdraw herself from the person who had combed her hair and trimmed her finger nails, cleaned her teeth and edited…in biting language…her table manners.  How right…and how disappointing. 

Hostages to Fortune is a thoughtful novel full of well drawn characters and relationships, presented with admirable simplicity.  I was so taken with it, was so easily able to relate to not just Catherine but also William and their children, that I’d say it is now probably one of my favourite Persephones.  I already slightly regret not picking up a copy of my own when I was in London last month but I had enough to bring back as it was

A note on the copy I did read: I borrowed a first edition from the university library and found several delightful things.  First, the book plate of the original owner: H.R. MacMillan.  MacMillan was a prominent British Columbian businessman, who made his fortune in the forestry industry but who is remembered for his philanthropic contributions (including the city’s space centre and the theological library at the university).  Several of the Angela Thirkells I’ve borrowed also came from him so, clearly, he was a man of excellent literary tastes:

Second, the book still had its card tucked into the back pocket.  I love knowing who checked out books before me (the electronic age has destroyed one of my main pleasures as a library user by getting rid of cards) but I really love knowing who checked the book out 60+ years ago:

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