Archive for the ‘Virago’ Category

One Fine DayHow very right it felt to start 2013 with One Fine Day by Mollie Panter-Downes.  Not only is it a beautifully and intelligently written book (I would expect nothing less from Panter-Downes) but it is also a story about making peace with the past and being thankful for what one has, lessons that seem especially appropriate at the start of a new year.

The book focuses on the Marshall family during one hot day in the summer of 1946.  They are a typical English middle-class family but, in the uncertainty of the post-world war, Laura and Stephen Marshall are still struggling to define what a typical middle-class existence now looks like.  Their beautiful pre-war garden has turned into a jungle in the absence of a dedicated gardener and Laura is overwhelmed by the cooking and cleaning that had once been the domain of servants; they both are realising that, though peace now reigns in Europe, things are never going to go back to the way they were before the war and their pre-war standard of living needs to be adjusted for the post-war labour market.  Over the course of one very normal day, we follow Laura through her daily tasks, glimpsing her thoughts as she contemplates her life, her family, and the brave new world she now finds herself in.

There is nothing exceptional about Laura, which is, of course, the point.  Nothing extraordinary has ever happened in her life, nor does she expect it to.  She accepts her situation resignedly but not unhappily: “I am a perfectly happy married woman, simply getting a little greyer, duller, more tired than I should be getting, because my easier sort of life has come to an end.”  She is a little bewildered by her role as homemaker, having relied on servants all her life for the running of the house, and is largely disinterested in it.  She loves her husband and her daughter Victoria but is beginning to realise that not every part of their old life needs to – or can – be replicated in the post-war environment.  But that realisation is not an easy one.  Her mother, a formidable woman who, having spent years in the outposts of the empire fighting to maintain an English way of life in alien environments, sees no reason for her or her daughter’s households to alter now that the war is over:

Her mother, she thought, had not adapted to things.  The war had flowed past her like a dark, strong river, never pulling her into its currents, simply washing to her feet the minor debris of evacuees who broke the statue’s fingers and spoiled a mattress, of food shortages, or worry over Laura who was close to bombs and worked too hard, and had tragically lost her fresh looks.  Now, said Mrs Herriot, think God it was over, and everything could get back to normal again.

Mrs Herriot, one realises, will get her way but her daughter, infinitely more sensitive to the changing world around her, will have to adapt.  But it is not easy to find your feet in a world so foreign, in many ways, to the one you grew up in.  Laura fumbles her way through housekeeping and when it comes to raising her daughter, she realises that Victoria might need very different skills than the ones Laura was taught:

…was she, Laura, ridiculous to have Victoria given all the little graces of the Herriot world, the light foot, the agile finger, the easy manner, when it seemed perfectly clear that she would have to work seriously for her living…?

Throughout the day, Laura ponders these questions and observes, as she makes her way through the village, the ways other people’s lives have also changed.  By the end of the day, both she and Stephen have come to realise what truly matters to them and that, despite the stresses and uncertainties inherent in post-war Britain, it is within their power to be truly happy.

I know a number of other readers feel very strongly about Laura, finding her incredibly sympathetic with her distaste for housework, absentmindedness in the kitchen, and ability to take pleasure in small things.  I did not dislike her but I cannot say that I ever became particularly fond of her.  Laura is a mild everywoman who I am sure many people can relate to but, for that reason, she is scarcely memorable as an individual.  Panter-Downes’ strength was not characterization but description and is it those descriptive powers that make this book so impressive.  There are plenty of stories about men and women who struggled to adjust to the post-war world but there are not many that are written this beautifully, with such rich descriptions and striking imagery.  The introduction of Wealding, the village where the Marshalls live, is a wonderful example of Panter-Downes’ skill:

Its perfect peace was, after all, a sham.  Coils of barbed wire still rustling among the sorrel were a reminder.  Sandbags pouring out sodden guts from the old strong-point among the bracken, the frizzy lily spikes pushing up in the deserted garden of the bombed cottage, spoke of days when the nearness of the sea had been no watch ticking comfortably in the pocket, but a loud brazen question striking constantly in the brain, When?  When?  The danger had passed.  Wealding, however, had been invaded.  Uneasiness made the charming, insanitary cottages seem unsubstantial as rose-painted canvas in an operetta; uncertainty floated on the air with the voice of the wireless, which had brought the worm of the world into the tight bud of Wealding.  It did not know, it could not tell what to think.

I think Panter-Downes was a better stylist than she was novelist and most of my pleasure in reading this came from the beautifully-composed sentences, intriguing overall structure, and, as mentioned above, vivid imagery.  As a glimpse of the struggling middle class in post-WWII Britain, this is fine, though I must admit a preference for domestic novels from the period that deal with these questions in greater detail (including, yes, my beloved Angela Thirkell – you had to have seen that coming).  But as a glimpse of Panter-Downes as a writer, as a keen observer of the world around her and masterful stylist, it is extraordinary.  This is my least favourite of the three Mollie Panter-Downes books I have now read (this, Good Evening, Mrs Craven, and London War Notes, 1939-1945) but that tells you more about the high standard of her writing than about the flaws of this novel.

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I can’t overstate how immensely useful Elizabeth von Arnim has been for one of the trickiest decades of A Century of Books, the 1900s.  She has been one of my favourite authors for ages but all of the books I’ve read this year for the project were new to me: The Benefactress (1901), The Princess Priscilla’s Fortnight (1905), Fräulein Schmidt and Mr Anstruther (1907), and now The Adventures of Elizabeth in Rügen (1904) and The Caravaners (1909).

adventuresofelizabethLike all of the Elizabeth books, The Adventures of Elizabeth in Rügen is exactly what you would expect it to be based on the title (much like Elizabeth and Her German Garden is about Elizabeth’s garden in Germany or The Solitary Summer is about, surprise, a summer spent in solitude).  Elizabeth, accompanied by her invaluable maid Gertrud, has decided to take a holiday to the German island of Rügen, leaving her husband and children behind.  Unencumbered by dependents, she is free to be the Elizabeth who indulges in long walks and light meals, able to think about the beauties of nature rather than the demands of her family.

But, of course, Elizabeth does not find the peace she had dreamt of.  Though her trip is a short one – only eleven days – she finds herself kept quite busy between her new acquaintances and her old ones.  The Harvey-Brownes, an English mother and son, she can just about handle, but an unexpected encounter with her unconventional cousin Charlotte proves a bit more frustrating.  A strident feminist and deeply annoying woman, Charlotte has abandoned her husband (an aged professor) and now lives and lectures in England.  Elizabeth cannot agree with her cousin’s extreme views, especially when Charlotte begins criticizing Elizabeth’s life, with her garden and babies.  When the professor appears, an irritatingly condescending and benignly amorous septuagenarian who has not seen his wife in more than a year, things get even more complicated.  His wife wants nothing to do with him while the Harvey-Brownes, great admirers of his work, won’t leave him alone.

As much as I enjoy Elizabeth’s (almost) solitary wanderings and musing on her surroundings, the book is funniest when she is the company of others.  Able to observe and comment on the Harvey-Brownes, Charlotte, and the Professor, we see once again that wit that makes von Arnim’s books so delightful.  The laughs are more gentle than in her other books and it did take me a while to ease into the story but it was still a solidly enjoyable read, just not the best example of von Arnim’s powers.

The CaravanersLike The Adventures of Elizabeth in Rügen, The Caravaners is also written in the form of a travel journal although this time the travels are in England and the author, instead of the delightful Elizabeth, is one of the most obnoxious characters von Arnim ever created.

When Baron Otto Von Ottringe and his wife Edelgard embark on a caravanning holiday in Southern England, neither they nor they companions know what they are getting themselves in to.  The indignities of life on the road are one thing – the economies of caravanning do not make up for the inconveniences, Otto quickly realises – but it is Otto’s interactions with his fellow travellers that truly sour the trip for everyone.  Except Otto, our pompous, chauvinistic, lazy narrator, has no idea.  What he does notice is how his wife rebels against his authority once they start out, talking back to him, dressing in the more modern style of their travel companions, and generally not behaving at all in the way of a proper German wife.  And goodness knows Otto has plenty to say on how a good German wife should behave:

…older and married women must take care to be at all times quiet.  Ejaculations of a poetic or ecstatic nature should not, as a rule, pass their lips.  They may ejaculate perhaps over a young baby (if it is their own) but that is the one exception; and there is a good reason for this one, the possession of a young baby implying as a general rule a corresponding youth in its mother.  I do not think however that it is nice when a woman ejaculates over, say, her tenth young baby.  The baby of course will still be sufficiently young for it is a fresh one, but it is not a fresh mother, and by that time she should have stiffened into stolidity, and apart from the hours devoted to instructing her servant, silence.  Indeed, the perfect woman does not talk at all.  Who want to hear her?  All that we ask of her is that she shall listen intelligently when we wish, for a change, to tell her about our own thoughts, and that she should be at hand when we want anything.  Surely this is not much to ask.

Otto is awful.  I completely recognize that.  Like those forced to travel with him, I would resent and then avoid him at all costs.  He has no manners, mistreating everyone he views as below his level, and views his wife as a being who neither requires nor desires his affection or respect.  While his courtly manners are deployed on the other women of his party, Edelgard is ignored: No woman (except of course my wife) shall ever be able to say I have not behaved to her as a gentleman should.  Otto is the ultimate portrait of the pompous, poorly educated, undiscerning, war-mongering and overbearing German man so often to be found in von Arnim’s books.  It is sharply but almost too viciously done and by the end I was more upset with von Arnim than I was with Otto.

This kind of humour, where the narrator unknowingly makes himself the object of ridicule, fills me with pity.  Once his companions’ contempt for him became clear, and Otto’s obliviousness remained intact, I spent the rest of the book blushing in embarrassment for him, even as his blunders gave them more and more reasons to avoid his company.  There was something very cruel about the scene at the dance, where everyone darted away as soon as Otto approached.  I know how and why I am supposed to find it amusing, I just don’t.  There is enough sense about Otto – he is particularly sympathetic when pointing out the absurdities of travelling by caravan and how ill-suited he and his upper-class companions are to roughing it – that he cannot be entirely dismissed as a fool.

It is a very humourous book and another wonderful example of von Arnim’s versatility but, for me, it was too uncomfortably cruel to really enjoy.

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For years, my favourite of Elizabeth von Arnim’s novels has been Elizabeth and her German Garden.  It is such a joyous, entertaining, and comforting book that I can go back to it again and again and always be delighted.  I have loved many of her other novels, of course – The Pastor’s Wife, Christopher and Columbus, and Introduction to Sally stand out in my mind – but none of them have had quite the same magic.  None, that is, except Fräulein Schmidt and Mr Anstruther, which has now overtaken Elizabeth and her German Garden as my favourite.

An epistolary novel first published in 1907, Fräulein Schmidt and Mr Anstruther has only the barest of plots, which exists only for form’s sake, providing structure and a reason for Rose-Marie Schmidt to be writing these entirely wonderful letters.  And they are wonderful, just as Rose-Marie is wonderful.  Part of what usually attracts me to von Arnim is her talent for writing unsympathetic characters and having great fun at their expense, but Rose-Marie is a heroine in the same mould as Elizabeth, one who the reader can not only love but admire for her intelligence, independence, and wonderful sense of humour.

Rose-Marie’s letters begin when Roger (Mr Anstruther), a young Englishman who has spent a year boarding with the Schmidts in the small town of Jena while he was there studying German, confesses his love for her just before his departure.  The first flurry of letters – written every day, of course – reveal Rose-Marie’s amazement and joy that her feelings for Roger are returned.  They are silly, doting love letters but already Rose-Marie has revealed herself as an unusually funny and perceptive correspondent.  Her home life is dull and unpromising and Roger’s declaration brings with it not only the joy of love returned but the promise of a future away from her sour stepmother.  Forced to sit through one of her stepmother’s speeches about Roger in the wake of his departure, one in which she congratulates her step-daughter on being too old and, damningly, ‘sensible’ to have attracted Roger’s attentions, Rose-Marie cannot help but bristle:

 ‘I fear, though, he is soft.  Still, he has steered safely through a year often dangerous to young men.  It is true his father could not have sent him to a safer place than my house.  You so sensible –‘ oh, Roger! – ‘Besides being arrived at an age when serious and practical thoughts replace the foolish sentimentalness of earlier years,’ – oh, Roger, I am twenty-five, and not a single one of my foolish sentimentalnesses has been replaced by anything at all.  Do you think there is hope for me?  Do you think it is very bad to feel exactly the same, just exactly as calf-like now as I did at fifteen? – ‘so that under my roof,’ went on my stepmother, ‘he has been perfectly safe.’

Rose-Marie may not be the sensible spinster her stepmother sees her as but she is an intelligent woman, who, though happy to be in love, cannot see the point in defying convention and families – as Roger, the sentimental fool, is inclined to do.  She has read widely and knows the romance of rebellious love, of Tristan and Isolde, of Romeo and Juliet, only works if the lovers die at just the right moment, at the very height of their passion.  Living on to face the inevitable denouement and consequences of their folly would not do at all:

My point is, that if you want to let yourself go to great emotions you ought to have the luck to die at an interesting moment.  The alternative makes such a dreary picture; and it is the picture I always see when I hear of love at defiance with the law.  The law wins; always, inevitably.

Rather soon after their correspondence begins, you realise that Roger is regretting the rashness of his declaration and it is not long before their engagement is broken off.  This is when things start to get fun.

After a brief break, their letters resume again.  Rose-Marie has been ill but is now “…busy reading Jane Austen and Fanny Burney and Maria Edgeworth – books foreordained from all time for the delight of persons getting well…” and is happy to mend her friendship with Roger in the wake of their break.  These are the letters that make the book so very wonderful.  Rose-Marie writes friendly letters full of details of her own life, her philosophical ponderings, and her deliciously frank assessments of Roger’s character and actions.  They are amazing: candid, playful, witty, and, above all, intelligent.  Another character complains about Rose-Marie by saying “…there is something indescribable about her manners – a becoming freedom, an almost immodest frankness, an almost naked naturalness, that is perilously near impertinence” but it is that freedom and that frankness that makes her so marvellous.

Rose-Marie is entirely unlike the other people in Jena, having nothing in common with the rural hausfraus and their daughters that make up the rest of her social circle.  There is one girl who is her particular friend – a young woman whose fiancé broke their engagement, leaving her family shamed and poorer after all the expenses they had incurred preparing for her wedding – but though Rose-Marie loves her they are far from intellectual equals.  Jena is a town that prizes conventionality and sober respectability – no one who reads these letters could think Rose-Marie conventional or sober.  She reads widely and, most importantly, thinks about what she had read.  She delights in the natural world while maintaining a healthy skepticism of those who romanticise it.  She faces all her struggles with a sense of humour that is sharp but never cruel.  And she, no matter how upsetting the situation, never indulges in dramatics or sympathizes with those who indulge in dramatics of their own.  She calmly states or reasons out her arguments and there is a steadiness about her, a calmness and maturity that is very attractive.  She knows who she is and is content with the woman she has become:

At twenty-six I cannot pretend to be what is known as a young girl, and I don’t want to.  Not for anything would I be seventeen or eighteen again.  I like to be a woman grown, to have entered into the full possession of whatever faculties I am to have, to know what I want, to look at things in their true proportions.  I don’t know that eighteen has anything that compensates for that.  It is such a rudderless sort of age.  It may be more charming to the beholder but it is not half so nice to the person herself.

The point of this book is to get to know Fräulein Schmidt – Mr Anstruther’s character is revealed early on and found wanting – and she is a woman well worth knowing.

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Coming Soon

The books won’t be out until November 22, but the cover images for the Virago Modern Classics editions of High Rising and Wild Strawberries by Angela Thirkell have been released and don’t they look gorgeous?  Wild Strawberries holds a particularly special place in my heart as it served as my introduction to both Thirkell and Barsetshire.

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My first few attempts at reading Elizabeth Taylor’s books did not go well.  I tried a handful during Virago Reading Week last year and never got past the first fifty pages in any of them.  But, given how enthusiastic so many of my favourite bloggers are about her, I wanted to give her another try.  So, a few weeks ago I found myself picking up At Mrs Lippincote’s by Elizabeth Taylor and I can now finally report that I have read, from start to finish, one of Taylor’s novels.  But I’m still not sure how I feel about her.

The novel begins as the Davenant family are moving into Mrs Lippincote’s house, which they’ve rented to be close to the RAF base (the book was published in 1945) where Roddy Davenant has recently been assigned.  Roddy has been in the area for a while but his family – wife Julia, son Oliver, and spinster cousin Eleanor – have just joined him.  From the opening pages, it is clear that there is something a little off with this family.  They do not relate to one another in the way you would expect and they certainly never seem relaxed in one another’s presence.  Each one seems wholly interested in his or her own affairs, never really coming together to exist as a family unit.  It makes for a chilly atmosphere and wife and mother Julia seems to be at the center of that.

Julia is an odd character and certainly not a particularly likeable one.   She seems very alone and very empty but not in a particularly sympathetic way.  She is quite emotionally detached from her family, though, in her way, she cares deeply for her seven-year-old son Oliver.  She is essentially disinterested in all the trappings of respectability that matter so much to the outwardly proper (but philandering) Roddy and she does things not just knowing that they will upset Roddy but because she knows they will upset him; there is an uncomfortable element of cruelty to her behaviour.  She seems barbed and brittle – an amusing woman to have a light conversation with, someone whose sharp comments (if not directed at you) can make you laugh, but also someone who is very fragile.  Julia happily performs a number of domestic duties but she brings no warmth into the home – but then neither does anyone else.  She is quick though, and I found her conversations fascinating as she deployed her wit to both charm and needle.  And when she does want to charm and amuse, as in her conversations with the Wing Commander, she always succeeds, presenting herself with an appealing blend of confidence and peculiarity.  Who but Julia would use a dinner party to instigate a fanciful conversation about food in literature?:

‘These baked apples are very good,’ said the Wing Commander.

‘I had the recipe from Villette. I like to get my recipes from good literature,’ Julia explained.

‘It takes a woman novelist to describe a dish of food.’

‘If we invert that, what a prodigious novelist Mrs Beeton would have been,’ said Roddy.

‘Oh, I agree,’ said Julia, ‘but it isn’t often true. Remember how often it is always mutton in Jane Austen. I can’t recall them eating anything else. Oh, gruel, of course.’

‘And don’t men describe food well?’ Mrs Mallory wondered. No one could remember. ‘One of the best meals I ever ate in my imagination was the Boeuf en daube in To the Lighthouse,’ said Julia. ‘I see it now and smell it – the great earthenware dish and its’ (she closed her eyes and breathed slowly) ‘“its confusion of savoury brown and yellow meats, and its bayleaves and its wine.”’

They laughed at her and she took up a spoon and was surprised that the taste was of fruit, not meat.

‘Virginia Woolf is a little too modern for me,’ said the Wing Commander. ‘She has not stood the test of time. She has not been approved by posterity.’

‘We have none of us been that,’ said Julia. ‘But we can still enjoy a meal.’

I was more intrigued by Eleanor, Roddy’s middle-aged cousin.  She is and always has been in love with him, and, because of that, is oblivious to his faults.  After a breakdown, she’s come to live with the Davenants, a source of both stress and amusement for Julia.  Eleanor has a romantic soul and finds herself caught up with a group of dramatic communists, more notable for their domestic arrangements than political convictions.  Still, there is life and energy in them, something not always to be found at Mrs Lippincote’s, and therefore all the more attractive.  Or, rather, Julia has energy but you never know to what end it will be turned.

Roddy is largely absent, which is part of the problem, but does nothing to endear himself to the reader or his family when he does appear.  He is very dull, desiring an entirely conventional, unexceptional home life with an obedient, worshiping wife and presentable, respectful son.  Julia is far from obedient and the precocious Oliver acts too oddly grown-up to ever feel like the seven-year old he is.  For the reader, though, Oliver is a delight.  A bookish boy who has perfected the art of being an invalid, he makes both his parents nervous with his ailments and his disinterest in typical childish behaviours.  He, until he befriends the boisterous Felicity, is perfectly happy to live in his books.  He is the only character who didn’t feel distant but, all the same, there was nothing about him that was particularly believable (how many seven-year-olds count Jane Eyre among their favourite books?).  Still, as a reader I couldn’t help but grow a bit attached to this kindred soul:

Oliver Davenant did not merely read books.  He snuffed them up, took breaths of them into his lungs, filled his eyes with the sight of the print and his head with the sound of the words.  Some emanation from the book itself poured into his bones, as if he were absorbing steady sunshine.  The pages had personality.  He was of the kind who cannot have a horrifying book in the room at night.  He would, in fine weather, lay it upon an outside sill and close the window.  Often Julia would see a book lying on his doormat.

I am definitely intrigued by Taylor’s style – I find her sharp wit and precise descriptions very appealing – but I was unimpressed by her handling of the characters and plot. For a relatively short book, there just seemed to be too much pointless activity (especially the scenes among Eleanor’s communist friends) and too many extraneous characters.  More importantly, all of the central characters felt artificial.  They may have had certain characteristics or behaviours that I could sympathize with but not one of them – Julia, Roddy, Eleanor, or Oliver – ever felt like a real person.  They expressed exactly what they needed to in order to get across the story and mood that Taylor desired but they were nothing more than that.  The overall effect was too mannered for my tastes.  I read so many positive reviews of At Mrs Lippincote’s both before and while I was reading it, and I did try very hard to try and understand what those bloggers loved about the book but I simply could not feel the same.  Still, there was enough here to interest me in trying more of Taylor’s works and I’ve just begun reading A View of the Harbour (which is the March readalong book for the Elizabeth Taylor Centenary celebrations).

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I began 2012 with Crewe Train by Rose Macaulay, a rather wonderful book with a strange and unique heroine.  I wasn’t particularly engaged by the plot or any of the characters but the style in which it is told, the bluntly humorous indictments of how ‘civilised’ people behave and the frustration experienced by the violently anti-social Denham Dobie in trying to mix with them, make it quite marvellously funny.  It also has novelty appeal in that it is the only book I’ve ever come across that takes place at least partially in Andorra.

When the uncivilised, almost primitive Denham (named for her mother’s favourite Buckinghamshire village) is ‘rescued’ from her carefree life in the Pyrenees after her father’s death by her London relations, the twenty-one year old is in for quite the culture shock.  Her relatives, the Greshams, are a clever, cultured lot, London sophisticates who see Denham as a backwards simpleton who needs their guidance in matters of grooming and education.  And, truly, Denham could not be more different than these charming, outgoing, intelligent relatives:

She was a long-legged, lounging, loosely-built young woman, brown-skinned, blunt-featured, with small dark eyes sunk deep under sulky black brows and a big mouth screwed up into a whistle.  She looked and was a loafer.  She was untidy; she was probably stupid; she might well be sullen.  From the immense quantity of bread and cheese she had just devoured you might infer her greedy.  She was obviously no lover of her kind; when she saw any one whom she knew approaching, she plunged aside off the path and lurked hidden until they were passed by.  If you had asked her why, she would have replied, ‘Dunno.  It’s a bother speaking to people when you’re out.’  And so, of course, it is.

Denham had thought people in Andorra were bad enough, always wanting to talk, particularly about themselves and the people they know, but, to her, these London relations seem even more stupid, living in the cramped, dirty city when they have beautiful homes in the country, always attending plays – no matter how awful -, never dining along when they could be at someone else’s home or hosting others in their own and, worst of all, obsessively reading all sorts of pointless books – even literary criticism:

Books were mostly dull enough, but criticisms of books were quite unreadable.  The Greshams all read them, but then they appeared to be so constituted as to be able to read anything.  It was nearly a disease with them.

Denham cannot see the point in any of it but she is fond in her own quite emotionally detached way of the Greshams and so does her best to fit in for their sakes and, once married to amiable Arnold, another mystifyingly bookish sort who not only helps to publish unreadable novels but also writes them, for his.  But she can only keep up the effort for so long and soon finds herself reverting to her normal, independent ways, to the despair of her conventional family.

Though the back cover of my Virago edition refers to Denham’s “moving story”, I can’t say that I found any of the characters or events particularly touching.  Denham is too much of an oddity, too concerned with herself and too oblivious to the feelings of those around her to elicit much sympathy.  In fact, if I formed an attachment to anyone, it was her deluded husband Arnold who, initially bemused by his wife’s quirks, is eventually left frustratingly confused, helpless to deal with this wife he cannot comprehend.  I was also very fond of Denham’s aunt, Evelyn Gresham, a chic, observant, gossiping woman who sees and knows (and imagines) more about those around than she would perhaps like.

But it is not at all necessary to like these characters in order to enjoy the book.  It is a comedy of manners and most of the fun comes at the characters’ expense, either directed at specific persons or society in general.  Some of Macaulay’s most wonderful passages were the most generalised ones, such as:

…English gentlewomen are hardy as to cold air, though hot air or close air routs them at once.  As to their mania for admitting cold air into rooms, it is shared by no one; even their brothers, English gentlemen know better than that.  Gentlemen know that fresh air should be kept in its proper place – out of doors – and that, God having given us indoors and out-of-doors, we should not attempt to do away with the distinction.  But ladies will have meals out and fresh air in, and generally confuse the universe.


Here is one of the points about this planet which should be remembered; into every penetrable corner of it, and into most of the impenetrable corners, the English will penetrate.  They are like that; born invaders.  They cannot stay at home.  So that even in the desert heat of hottest Africa you shall see little wigwams bearing the legend ‘Grand Hotel of London.  Five o’clock tea,’ and if you visit the Arctic regions, you shall find Esquimaux infants babbling broken Anglo-Saxon, and huts inscribed W.C.  Every train running over the globe is full of them, and the world’s roads, plains and mountains are dense with knapsacked British walkers, burnt brick-red by sun and air.

There is nothing awkward or laboured about Macaulay’s writing.  She gracefully and skilfully infuses each page with perfect satirical observations, making the novel both highly amusing and seamless to read.  Structurally, I did find the story a bit drawn out and my interest waning in the middle.  If I had formed an attachment to the characters perhaps I wouldn’t have felt this way and would have been more invested in their trials but, for me, the beauty of this novel is the style of its telling and that could have been even more effective if certain sections had been curtailed.  But even with that said, my pleasure in Macaulay’s witty observations and the clarity with which she expressed them, not to mention my amusement with the incomprehensible but entertaining Denham, made this a highly enjoyable book with which to start the new year.

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As we begin December, I’m trying to come to grips with the cold hard truth that I am not going to be able to review all of the books I want to, in the depth that I want to, before the end of the year.  So I’ve begun the process of prioritizing.  Which ones do I abandon entirely?  Which ones do I want to perhaps review in brief in an odds and ends review post?  And which ones deserve their own, dedicated posts?  At the top of that last list is Christopher and Columbus by Elizabeth von Arnim.  Simon and I read this around the same time (we were able to chat about it when we met up in London in September) but he was much more prompt with his review and loved it so much that it was added to his “50 Books You Must Read But May Not Have Heard About”.  And that, really, captures all you need to know about the excellence of this charming, slyly humourous novel.

Anna-Rose and Anna-Felicitas are seventeen year old German-English twins who, as the novel begins, are being shipped off to America by the English aunt and uncle they’ve been living with since they were orphaned.  Though both girls feel English, the influence of their beloved-English mother, their exteriors clearly announce their German origins:

Both were very German outside and very English inside.  Both had fair hair, and the sorts of chins Germans have, and eyes the colour of the sky in August along the shores of the Baltic.  Their noses were brief, and had been objected to in Germany, where, if you are a Junker’s daughter, you are expected to show it in your nose.

It is 1916 and England is less than welcoming to Germans, even young girls who feel more English than German (however un-English their r’s may sound).  So off to neutral America they go.

A large and delightful portion of the novel is concerned with their voyage to America.  Anna-Felicitas displays an admiral talent for sea-sickness, Anna-Rose, a capable, managing sort, worries about how best to care for her and avoid the attention of their odious, German cabin-mates, and the remarkable Mr. Twist comes into their lives.  Mr. Twist is just the person any friendless young person would be lucky to meet, though his unimpressive appearance might not make that immediately obvious:

Mr Twist, who below the nose was nothing but kindliness and generosity, his slightly weak chin, his lavishly-lipped mouth, being all amiability and affection, above the nose was quite different.  In the middle came his nose, a nose that led him to improve himself, to read and meditate the poets, to be tenacious in following after the noble; and above were eyes in which simplicity sat side by side with appreciation; and above these was the forehead like a dome; and behind this forehead were inventions.

Mr Twist is an excellence blend of affection and intelligence, a motherly millionaire who has both the inclination and the means to be of help to our young heroines.  And of course he is immediately viewed as trust-worthy, as should anyone be who has made their fortune from the invention of a no-drip teapot (an incalculable service to mankind).

Once arrived on dry land, the twins’ plans begin to go awry.  When their contact in New York falls through, the twins, of course, call on the only friend they have in America: Mr Twist.  With him in tow, they set out for California, where things start out just as poorly as they had in New York until the trio embarks on a wonderful new project: the opening of a little cottage tea room, specialising in the English afternoon teas the girls love so much and were so shocked to not find in America.  The evolution of the endeavour is endlessly entertaining, introducing the babbling Mrs. Bilton (the tea room hostess/chaperone for the twins) whom the girls are always seeking to shake if only to get some silence and the talented but silent Chinese cook, Li Koo, with a genius for cakes.  Through it all, the girls are happily dreaming up grand fantasies of their success while Mr Twist unveils a stunning marketing campaign, trying to build anticipation among wealthy locals for the opening.  But at the same time, the locals are being to gossip about the millionaire and his mysterious teenage charges.

I adored the twins and how nicely they balanced each other.  Anna-Rose is more practical and focused than Anna-Felicitas but, at the same time, she is much more sensitive and her emotions and copious tears can prove a trial.  Anna-F is the more beautiful twin and can be a bit dreamy but has a will of iron and a very straight-forward way of looking at the world.  They have secrets and disagreements, like all sisters do, and they still have the ability to surprise each other.  They complement one another without being mirror images.

The convenient, romantic ending does let down the book a little but I’m not entirely sure how I would have preferred von Arnim conclude the story.  If nothing else, she allows us to glimpse a more confident Mr Twist, which only made me love him more.  Fond as I am of the twins, the wonderful Mr Twist was my favourite character in the novel.

With every von Arnim novel I read, I come away amazed by her range.  She can write stories that are quite dark and then she can write beautifully light tales like this, all with the same clever, cutting wit that keeps the dramatic tales from being too depressing, the light fantasies from being too saccharine.  The more I read of her, the more I am enthralled by her skill and also by the sheer entertainment and pleasure I get from reading her novels.

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When I started to read The Rector and The Doctor’s Family by Margaret Oliphant, the first two novels in Oliphant’s “Chronicles of Carlingford”, I didn’t know what to expect.  I’d never read anything by Oliphant before and had really heard very little about her.  I’d heard her work compared to that of Gaskell and Trollope and, with such praise, thought I’d best try her for myself.  After all, I love domestic novels about village life.  Surely she would be a perfect fit with my usual reading?  In theory: yes.  In practice: not quite.

The Rector is a rather somber, instructive little story (at less than 40 pages in the VMC edition, I can hardly call it a novel) whose style and occasional bursts of energy and humour made me very hopeful indeed that I could come to like Mrs. Oliphant.  Mr Proctor, the new rector, is a gentleman of fifty who has been cloistered in a university college for the past thirteen years and is singularly unsuited for the realities of his new position.  He is completely ill-at-ease with anyone other than his delightful old mother, a woman who has embarked on her second youth with great determination:

His mother was, let us say, a hundred years or so younger than the Rector…Mr Proctor was middle-aged, and preoccupied by right of his years; but his mother had long ago got over that stage of life.  She was at that point when some energetic natures, having got to the bottom of the hill, seem to make a fresh start and reascend.

To his credit, Mr Proctor took up the position of rector in order to provide his mother with company and a comfortable home in her final years.  Mrs Proctor is as socialable as her son is introverted, as forthright as he is timid.  What an excellent heroine she would have made!  The kind but inept Mr Proctor feels his shortcomings deeply and, miserable after his first true failure in his position (when he proves unable to counsel and comfort a dying woman and must step aside in favour of those who, apparently effortlessly, are able to succeed where he did not), he returns to his old college and the security it offers.  But, the narrator reveals, even there he is not happy, knowing that he is taking the coward’s way out of a difficult situation rather than facing his limitations and forcing himself to conquer them.  The ending is pathetically saccharine (I would have been so pleased if he had just disappeared into depressed obscurity) and far too neat and hopeful.  There is a strong and off-putting moralizing tone that emerges and I find it difficult to palate.

And then there is The Doctor’s Family, which is also rather gloomy but significantly longer and, with its put-upon, self-sacrificing heroine, rather explains why Oliphant must have appealed to Virago.  It begins in a promising, if stilted way, but greatly disappointed me in the end.  Doctor Edward Rider is sullenly putting up with his wastrel elder brother Fred imposing on his home and hospitality when Fred’s unheard of wife, three children, and sister-in-law suddenly appear, come out from Australia to track him down.  Mrs Fred is just as useless and resentful as her alcoholic husband and it is her younger, energetic sister Nettie who finds them lodgings nearby, who sees to it that there is food on the table, that the landlord is paid, that the children are respectably clothed.  Nettie’s entire life revolves around this useless, thankless family.  They are her life’s work and her sense of responsibility for them, and the sense of purpose they give her, is so great that she cannot imagine any life of her own.  She jealously and proudly guards her responsibilities, refusing Edward’s rather pathetically small attempts to help, and when she is suddenly no longer needed, she becomes completely lost:

The work she had meant to do was over.  Nettie’s occupation was gone.  With the next act of the domestic drama she had nothing to do.  For the first time in her life utterly vanquished, with silent promptitude she abdicated on the instant.  She seemed unable to strike a blow for the leadership thus snatched from her hands. 

The ending is shockingly unsatisfactory.  Nettie is a sad shadow of herself and the concluding events, so eagerly anticipated for much of the novel, seem manipulative and exploitative given Nettie’s weakened spirit.   

Between the two novels, there was really only one character I came away liking: Mrs Proctor, that charming, spry septuagenarian.  And when I can’t like the characters, I really do find it difficult to like the book (particularly when unworthy characters are rewarded with relatively happy endings).  I found Oliphant’s writing style unmemorable and uneven, with some quite clever passages followed by pages and pages of dull plodding stuff, and her tendency to moralize reminiscent of all those lesser Victorian novelists who rely on sentiment rather than skill.  Clearly, I was not won over.

Dear Readers, does she improve with other novels, does her style develop, her characterization gain depth?  There was enough of merit here that I couldn’t quite abandon this book as I was reading it, enough promise (never quite fulfilled) that made me hopeful.  If she is worth pursuing, if you can assure me there is still hope, then pursue her I shall.

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If there is one thing I have learned from Rachel and Carolyn’s Virago Reading Week it is that VMCs have many devoted fans.  However, after having thought about this for much of the week, I’m not certain I can consider myself one of them.  I appreciate that through them I can readily obtain some of Elizabeth von Arnim’s works and that I can always find a copy of The Diary of a Provincial Lady to give to a friend but I have to admit that even allowing for these virtues I have difficulty working up much enthusiasm over the VMCs that are so loved by many of my favourite book blogging friends.  Maybe if someone could start by explaining the appeal of the green spines?  I find them vile even as I accumulate more and more of them on my shelves.

According to their website, Virago Modern Classics is “dedicated to the celebration of women writers and to the rediscovery and reprinting of their works” and “to broaden the sometimes narrow definition of a ‘classic’, which has often led to the neglect of interesting books.”  An admirable aim, I’m sure we can all agree.  But you can hardly call Jane Austen, Louisa May Alcott, George Eliot or Daphne du Maurier authors who Virago rediscovered.  How much more I could have respected Virago if they had only stuck to promoting little-known authors who works were out of print as they’ve done with great success, exposing new generations to the talents of otherwise neglected authors like Rebecca West, Winifred Holtby, Antonia White, Barbara Comyns…the list goes on.  When you find a title by one these authors in a second-hand store it is invariably a Virago edition.  And that’s marvelous.  So why mix up such a clear brand identity by throwing in popular authors whose works were never abandoned by the reading public in the first place? 

I suppose I just don’t see the point of reprinting books that are still not only in print but widely read, certainly not given their mission statement.  Clearly, they’ve now chosen to concentrate more on the celebrating female authors rather than bringing attention to only the forgotten ones and the more exhaustive their catalogue becomes, the more exploitative it feels.  Rather than a celebration of female authors it seems an insult: recognizing the authors’ accomplishments not by virtue of their complimentary literary talents and chosen themes but by their coincidence of gender.    

So ends the rant.  I’m excited to continue discovering many of the authors and titles Virago publishes, including a number of the ones I’ve mentioned above – The Return of the Solider and South Riding have both been high on my TBR list for some time and, having seen both mentioned this week, I’m now even more eager to finally read them.  Just don’t expect me to fall in love with the green covers!

Notes on the week:

  • I started the week off with Willa Cather’s excellent The Song of the Lark, which has kept me pondering artistic devotion and sacrifice long after I read the final words.
  • The second VMC of the week was The Pastor’s Wife by Elizabeth von Arnim with the fantastically named heroine Ingeborg who, despite being a bit of a dolt, combines to be both entertaining and sympathetic.
  • And of course I had to revisit my favourite Elizabeth and Her German Garden, also by Elizabeth von Arnim, just to be able to openly declare my devotion to it and ensure that everyone who hasn’t read it yet is now tempted to do so.
  • I tried four different Elizabeth Taylor novels this week and they did not appeal at all.  She shall join fellow VMC author Rosamond Lehmann in being exiled from my shelves. 
  • I started Good Daughter by Mary Hocking, forced myself to read until page fifty in the hopes that it would improve and do something (anything!) to catch my attention.  No such luck.
  • I visited a used bookstore on Saturday to offload some old books and came away with two green VMCs: The Caravaners by Elizabeth von Arnim and Joanna Godden by Sheila Kaye-Smith.  Both were on my wish list so I’m pleased to have tracked them down!

Many thanks to Carolyn and Rachel for organizing this week!  It’s been wonderful to have so many new reviews to read each day and to hear so many fond stories of first or most memorable experiences with VMCs.  My TBR list has grown ridiculously and that can never be a bad thing!

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I am always happy (out of doors be it understood, for indoors there are servants and furniture) but in quite different ways, and my spring happiness bears no resemblance to my summer or autumn happiness, though it is not more intense, and there were days last winter when I danced for sheer joy out in my frost-bound garden, in spite of my years and children. But I did it behind a bush, having a due regard for the decencies.

Whenever I try to compose a list of my favourite books, an almost impossible task, Elizabeth and Her German Garden by Elizabeth von Arnim invariably claims one of the first spots so, of course, I had to read it again for Carolyn and Rachel’s Virago Reading Week.  I have lost count of how many times I’ve read it, always picking it up at least once during the year, usually in the depths of winter when, like Elizabeth, I’m dreaming of spring plantings and June roses.  Like Elizabeth, I may be ignorant about gardening (her blunders seem more delightful than mine) but I am certainly enthusiastic.

After five years of marriage, all spent in urban gloom, and the births of three daughters, the April, May, and June babies as she refers to them, Elizabeth finally visits her husband’s Prussian estate and falls in love with it, despite its rather dilapidated state.  With her indulgent husband’s approval, she stays on to oversee improvements to both the house and the gardens, falling more in love with the place every day.  Delighted by her new life, full of light meals – the kind no proper German husband could ever approve of – taken casually in the garden, Elizabeth happily relinquishes her city life and devotes herself to the enjoyment of her beautiful surroundings.  Her family is not altogether pleased to have been so easily abandoned and forgotten: 

The first part of that time of blessedness was the most perfect, for I had not a thought of anything but the peace and beauty all round me. Then he appeared suddenly who has a right to appear when and how he will and rebuked me for never having written, and when I told him that I had been literally too happy to think of writing, he seemed to take it as a reflection on himself that I could be happy alone. I took him round the garden along the new paths I had had made, and showed him the acacia and lilac glories, and he said that it was the purest selfishness to enjoy myself when neither he nor the offspring were with me, and that the lilacs wanted thoroughly pruning. I tried to appease him by offering him the whole of my salad and toast supper which stood ready at the foot of the little verandah steps when we came back, but nothing appeased that Man of Wrath, and he said he would go straight back to the neglected family.      

Though the lure of the rural idyll is certainly a common enough basis for novels and memoirs now, with city folk happily running away from their hectic lives and demanding careers to pursue the good life, Elizabeth’s acquaintances are aghast at her decision to live in the country, demanding that her husband remove her to town for the winter and not keep her captive any longer.  None of them believe that she could really be happy in such obscurity and such isolation, though she is blissfully so:

What a happy woman I am living in a garden, with books, babies, birds, and flowers, and plenty of leisure to enjoy them!  Yet my town acquaintances look upon it as imprisonment, and burying, and I don’t know what else besides, and would rend the air with their shrieks if condemned to such a life.  Sometimes I feel as if I were blest above all my fellows in being able to find my happiness so easily.  (p. 26)

Indeed, Elizabeth enjoys her solitary lifestyle so well than the intrusions of neighbours and visitors provoke some of the most memorable lines of the books, perhaps because I so identify with her on this issue:

The passion for being forever with one’s fellows, and the fear of being left for a few hours alone, is to me wholly incomprehensible.  I can entertain myself quite well for weeks together, hardly aware, except for the pervading peace, that I have been alone at all.

But visitors, guest who stay and who can not be got rid of after a cup of tea or even a meal but who must be entertained for days at a time, are the bane of her existence, taking over her private places and giving advice where none is desired.  Being always a little resentful of those who disrupt my peace and who tear me away for the things I would much rather be doing, I can sympathize:

I have been much afflicted again lately by visitors – not stray callers to be got rid of after a due administration of tea and things you are sorry afterwards that you said, but people staying in the house and not to be got rid of at all.  All June was lost to me in this way, and it was from first to last a radiant month of heat and beauty; but a garden where you meet the people you saw at breakfast, and will see again at lunch and dinner, is not a place to be happy in.  Besides, they had a knack of finding out my favourite seats and lounging in them just when I longed to lounge myself; and they took books out of the library with them, and left them face downwards on the seats all night to get well drenched with dew, though they might have known that what is meat for roses is poison for books; and they gave me to understand that if they had had the arranging of the garden it would have been finished long ago – whereas I don’t believe a garden in every finished.

Reading this immediately after another of von Arnim’s novels (The Pastor’s Wife) I was struck by some of the similarities.  Here, our eccentric heroine seems to share Herr Dremmel’s passion for manure and von Arnim again displays her talent for humourous writing, though the tones of the novels are very different with Elizabeth and Her German Garden being infinitely warmer and less cynical:

The longer I live the great is my respect and affection for manure in all its forms, and already, though the year is so young, a considerable portion of its pin-money has been spent on artificial manure.  The Man of Wrath says he never met a young woman who spent her money that way before; I remarked that it must be nice to have an original wife; and he retorted that the word original hardly described me, and that the world eccentric was the one required.  Very well, I suppose I am eccentric, since even my husband says so; but if my eccentricities are of such a practical nature as to result later in the biggest cauliflowers and tenderest lettuce in Prussia, why then he ought to be the first to rise up and call me blessed.

Yes, as you can see, this ‘review’ was really just a chance to share some of my favourite passages from this delightfully quotable book.  Elizabeth is a charming, honest narrator who I love more and more on each rereading.  If you have not read it yet, please do, preferably before the planting season as it’s quite impossible not to be inspired by Elizabeth’s horticultural passions!

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