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A reading nook with a view.

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

  

I need a pipe to recover from this…

There I was, happily reading The Lyttelton Hart-Davis Letters (between former schoolmaster George Lyttelton and publisher Rupert Hart-Davis) and enjoying all the literary gossip when suddenly my favourite of all names popped up: A.A. Milne.  It was 1 February 1956 and Milne had died the day before.  Lyttelton, remembering Milne vaguely from their overlapping years at Cambridge, wondered if his younger publishing friend has ever encountered Milne – as he seemed to encounter everyone else – while sharing his own memories of the author:

Did you know A.A. Milne?  I met him twice at Cambridge half-a-century ago, but cannot remember his saying anything at all; he was extremely shy.  I liked his Punch things, though of course the lighthearted “Rabbits” belong to a long dead world, and all our John Wains and Amises would bury them deep in the lumber-room whose door bears the fatal damnation “Escapist”.

If you weren’t around during 2012, you may not know of my love for the Rabbits, a group of young people whose adventures Milne chronicled over the years as they caroused, married, and reproduced.  It is a deep and abiding love and if I ever go into publishing the first thing I will do is bring out a single volume collection of all the Rabbit stories. (Or, if you are in publishing already, feel free to steal this idea and save me a great deal of effort and expense.)  This is how much I love them.  Understandably, I was feeling quite well disposed towards Lyttelton after that (he being decidedly against the John Wains and Amises of the world, though that might not be clear in the above) and the book in general.

But then Hart-Davis replied:

I can’t say I knew A.A. Milne, though I met him sometimes at the house of his father-in-law, Martin de Selincourt, and saw him quite a lot at the Garrick.  Not a likeable man, I should say.  On top of great natural shyness he cultivated a deep grudge – against life, I suppose, though I can’t imagine why.  The combination rendered him pretty well unapproachable…

Gone was my trust in Hart-Davis.  To have found Milne unlikeable – particularly in later life when he was haunted by the success of his children’s books – was common enough but I had hoped Hart-Davis was more discerning than that.  From there on I read with narrowed eyes, skeptical of his every judgement.

Apparently, I can be a little over sensitive when it comes to my literary heroes!

badge-4Library Loot is a weekly event co-hosted by Claire from The Captive Reader and Linda from Silly Little Mischief that encourages bloggers to share the books they’ve checked out from the library. If you’d like to participate, just write up your post-feel free to steal the button-and link it using the Mr. Linky any time during the week. And of course check out what other participants are getting from their libraries.

At the Strangers’ Gate by Adam Gopnik – another one off my list of 2017 new releases I didn’t get to last year.  New York during the 1980s isn’t usually something I’d have much interest in but I am interested in Gopnik.

A Beggar in Purple by Rupert Hart-Davis – having just finished the first volume of Hart-Davis’ letters with George Lyttelton, I turn now to this selection of entries from his commonplace book.

Judgement Day by Penelope Lively – I have been so looking forward to reading more Lively for a Century of Books!  Thomas at Hogglestock read this last year and thought it was one of the best novels he read all year so it seemed like a perfect place to start.

Thank You, Nelson by Nancy Spain – I’ve had this on my TBR list since 2012 when I read Ann Thwaite’s excellent biography of A.A. Milne.  In 1945 he reviewed this book, an account of Spain’s time in the WRNS, very favourably for the Sunday Times.  Since I’d like to believe A.A.M. knew a good thing when he saw it, I thought I’d finally follow his advice and give it a try.

Lagom by Niki Brantmark – I can’t help it.  I love to flip through these craze books on how X country has figured out the secret to a happy life and congratulate all the people who are making money on them.  Well done publishers.  You will never get any of my money but you do have my admiration.

Any good week at the library involves pulling a lot of random books off the shelves and bringing them home with no really firm commitment to read them this time around.  Sometimes it’s just nice to have them close to hand in case a very, very specific reading mood hits.  I brought three such books home this week:

Dear Fahrenheit 451 by Annie Spence – as we know, I cannot resist a book about books.  Here, a librarian writes letters to the books in her life.

Sourdough by Robin Sloan – I was combing through old NPR book reviews and immediately after reading a loving review for this I found it on my library’s display shelf.  Kismet.

Living the Dream by Lauren Berry – I’ve had this on my radar since Sarra Manning recommended it last summer 

What did you pick up this week?

The Letters of Nancy Mitford and Evelyn Waugh edited by Charlotte Mosley is a doorstopper of a book.  And the five-hundred plus pages (first published in 1996) become even more daunting when you realise they cover less than thirty years of correspondence between the two novelists.  But rarely are any of the pages wasted.  Mitford and Waugh write to entertain one another and, it must be said, show off.  They want to share the best gossip, make the cleverest comment, and score points in the ongoing competition that is their friendship.  The results are fabulous.

Approximately the same age (Waugh was born in 1903, Mitford in 1904), the collection begins during the Second World War.  They had become friends during the 1920s when both were dashing about London as “Bright Young Things” and the friendship had endured.  It flourished though at a distance.  As Charlotte Mosley, the book’s editor (and Mitford’s niece by marriage), states:

Concealing their feelings behind a barrage of banter, they found it easier to conduct a friendship on paper rather than in person.  When they did meet, Evelyn’s bad temper and Nancy’s sharp tongue – qualities which enhance their correspondence – often led to quarrels.

It is easy to imagine.

Waugh is plagued by a hatred for mankind but is generally sort-of kind to Mitford.  There are very few people he admits to loving and even those, like Mitford’s sister Debo, future Duchess of Devonshire, are not immune from his criticisms:

I saw Debo at the ball & took up a great deal of her time.  She was in fine looks but lacking in elegance.  The same dress she wore at her own party last year and all her friends look like recently demobilized G.I.s.  Should not a girl with her beauty, wit and high position make a bit more of herself?  (6 August 1947)

And if he really didn’t like you, watch out.  He bullied Cecil Beaton all through their school days and continued loathing him all his life.  Hamish Hamilton, poor man, was also the target of Waugh’s ire – but for absolutely no reason, as Waugh admits: “Why do I dislike him?  I don’t know him at all & he has done me no injury, but I wish him boiled in oil” (25 May 1950).  Randolph Churchill is continually derided but, to be honest, Randolph always deserves at least a bit of it.  He was quite a mess of a human being.  However, he also provides some excellent comic highlights for Waugh’s wartime letters, when the two men worked closely together:

In the hope of keeping him quiet for a few hours Freddy & I have bet Randolph £20 that he cannot read the whole Bible in a fortnight.  It would have been worth it at the price.  Unhappily it has not had the result we hoped.  He has never read any of it before and is hideously excited; keeps reading quotations aloud ‘I say I bet you didn’t know this came in the Bible “bring down my grey hairs in sorrow to the grave”’ or merely slapping his side & chortling ‘God, isn’t God a shit!’ (12 November 1944)

And, speaking of a book he’d been reading:

The last [book] I had was an attempt to whitewash Bryan Guinness called Belchamber which I enjoyed enormously.  I lent it to Randolph who was so much moved that he said he could never commit adultery again – at any rate not with the same innocent delight. (25 December 1944)

Oh Randolph.

Waugh is also not terribly keen on his children (of which he had six living – a danger of Catholicism) and constantly complained about them in his letters to Mitford.  Mitford, having suffered several miscarriages and an ectopic pregnancy that necessitated a hysterectomy, would have loved children of her own but generally cloaked her sadness in her letters to Waugh with blithe dismissals:

Don’t be depressed about your children.  Childhood is a hateful age – no trailing clouds of glory – & children are generally either prigs or gangsters & always dull & generally ugly. (7 January 1946)

The letters cover the most productive years of both authors careers and cover their great successes:  both Brideshead Revisited and The Pursuit of Love were released in 1945.  And it is around this time that they pick very different paths.  Mitford, long estranged from her husband and in love with a French colonel, moves to France and begins to make a delightful life for herself:

I wish you were here.  The food is utterly delicious, all cooked in butter, & such meat that has never seen a Frigidaire, I’d forgotten the taste.  I go for huge walks, see beautiful dream houses to buy & have seldom been more contented.  Only I must write another book, to support life, & can’t think of one.  Trollope’s Autobiography is too much to bear – how could he write all those hours every day?  (21 August 1946)

Waugh, on the other hand, remains in bleak post-war England becoming more and more cantankerous as the years go by:

I’m bored here by lack of company.  If only country neighbours would talk like Jane Austen’s characters about gossip & hobbies.  Instead they all want to know about Molotov & de Gaulle. (16 October 1946)

The geographical separation was probably a very good thing for their relationship.  They are able to gossip continually about mutual friends (especially Diana and Duff Cooper and the extended members of Mitford’s family) and, in Waugh’s case at least, provide critical feedback on the other’s writings.  What they don’t do much of is share their souls or even updates on the meaningful things going on in their own lives.  Mitford keeps her hurt over her French colonel’s disinterest in commitment to herself and Waugh just becomes a misanthrope who wants to complain about everything:

Jolly decent of you to write.  No, I am not at all busy – just senile.  Since we last met (when?) I have become an old man, not diseased but enfeebled.  I read my letters & work at The Times crossword & never set foot out of doors.  I was mildly ill in Menton in February & so spoiled Laura’s hols.  I am making up for it by taking her to Spain in October.  I don’t like the food & can’t speak the lingo & don’t much look forward to it, especially as I must write an article at the end. (6 August 1964)

Yes, he’s a funny misanthrope but such a contrast from Mitford.  She manages to remain optimistic, to find happiness in a new dress she can’t afford or something terribly Parisian she’s just encountered or a ridiculous thing a member of her family has just done (so many to choose from).  She manages to continue living and taking pleasure in that long after Waugh has given up.  It does not come as much of a surprise then when the letters end with his death in 1966, age 62.

This was my first encounter with Waugh and I can’t say it did anything to make me warm to him.  But Mitford, on the other hand, her I love even more than before.  She could write devastatingly cruel things with incredible wit but these letters show what lay on the other side of that: the warmth and optimism that sustained her.

Bowood House (credit: Simon Upton)

Keep your large, wood-paneled libraries. This colourful, light-filled room is the one for me.

I have a new book on my list of favourites and, much to my surprise, it’s by an author whose writing I had previously described as “a long-winded mess” and “a chore to work through to the finish”.  What is this delightful, joyful, life-changing (at least in my attitude towards its author) book you may ask?  The Flowering Thorn by Margery Sharp.

Published in 1933, the book begins several years earlier as twenty-nine-year old Lesley comes to a startling realisation after a dude of a date: she is not a woman that men fall in love with.  Yes, they flirt with her and try to get her into bed but when she meets a man she’d actually like to fall in love with – nothing.  No sparks whatsoever.  And if that is the case, she begins to wonder, what is the point of the whirlwind social life among artists and other bright young things, and the obsession with powdering, plucking, and painting herself into a modern beauty?

And so, in search of a purpose, she decides to adopt an orphaned four-year old boy (Pat) whom her aunt has unexpectedly been left in charge with.  In doing so, she realises she will have to leave her beloved London flat (no children allowed) and, at least for the next four years until he can be sent to boarding school, completely upend her well-ordered life.  It begins with a move to the country after having discovered she can’t afford anything suitable in town.  The suburbs, when suggested to her by estate agents, are completely out of the question:

Lesley listened incredulously: it was as though they advised her to try Australia.  There were the suburbs, of course, through which one occasionally passed in a car, and where people out of Punch borrowed each other’s mowers; but as for living there –

In the country, not surprisingly, everyone immediately assumes Pat is Lesley’s child.  She after all has all the markings of a frivolous, moral-less young thing likely to get herself into such a situation and then brazen it out.  It’s important to clarify the truth to a few people – the vicar and his wife, for instance, not because Lesley has taken up religion in any way but because they have four young children for Pat to play with which nicely occupies the bulk of his day – but after that Lesley couldn’t care less.  She is a practical young woman: what does it matter what the villagers think as she is only going to be there for four years?

But, inevitably as the years pass, Lesley finds herself being absorbed by country life.  She is on friendly terms with the neighbours but, most importantly, she makes a dear friend of Sir Philip, her landlord and an old school friend of her uncle’s.  Despite an awkward beginning (at their first meeting Sir Philip, a racy late Victorian at heart, was encouraged by her backless dress and painted beauty into a rather unwelcome advance) they become good friends able to speak very frankly to one another:

‘You are enjoying yourself,’ said Lesley.

Sir Philip grunted.

‘The modern woman,’ he said.  ‘Your grandmother, my dear, or even your mother, would at once have flown to my pillows.  Take some sherry.’

‘But your pillows are beautiful,’ protested Lesley, doing as she was told.  ‘Why should I come and disarrange them?’

‘Because I should like you to.  Because every man, when feeling a trifle uneasy, likes to believe that his women are feeling even more so.  It panders to our sense of superiority.’

Socially, that’s all Lesley requires.  Part of the joy of the book is that young Pat is relegated firmly to the background.  Lesley grows to care about him but, as other characters wonderingly remark, she doesn’t really love him or try to mother him.  She is simply there providing a modicum of adult supervision and, increasingly, fondness.  Lesley is much more interested in spending time with Sir Philip or making improvements to her awkward little cottage.  It is a life completely removed from the social whirlwind in which she used to exist and she blossoms.

But her London life does intrude every so often. Old friends descend on her cottage for a weekend, bringing with them noise, rudeness, and plenty of alcohol and cigarettes.  Her greatest London friend, Elissa, who “when given time to arrange her thighs, looked as thin as a toothpick”, soon forgets all about Lesley mouldering in the country and it is up to Lesley to keep up the friendship.  But encounters with her old crowd only serve to remind her how far she has drifted from them – and how happy she is to have done so.  She retains her love for London – for theatres and galleries and intellectual discussion – but is done with all the artifice of her former life.  She has figured out what matters to her and, as the book ends with Pat going off to school and Lesley regaining much of her freedom, she knows exactly how she plans to live.  And it seems her new life has room for that thing she had given up on only a few years before – love.

I adored this book.  Yes, the central message tends a little towards “reject modern womanhood and you will be healthier, happier, and more loveable” but it is so funny and so extraordinarily well written.  The completely lack of sentimentality is what really did it for me.  The premise – beautiful spinster adopts small boy – could be terrifyingly twee in another author’s hands but Sharp, who lives up to her name, wisely doesn’t try to turn Lesley into anything maternal.  In fact, Lesley almost immediately after taking charge of Pat wants to give him back.  They do not bond or say winsome things to one another, they merely get on in a spirit of peaceable companionship, each concerned with their own interests.  How wise!  I finished it completely delighted by its wit and heart and determined to read much, much more by Sharp.  Many thanks to Jane for organizing Margery Sharp Day (as part of her Birthday Book of Underappreciated Lady Authors), which gave me the impetus to read this.