Rereading, rambling & relishing – Part 2

This is the rambling & relishing part of the post (see Part 1 yesterday). The new Persephones arrived late last week & I’m looking forward to reading all three of them. Greengates by R C Sherriff, Gardeners’ Choice by Evelyn Dunbar & Charles Mahoney and Maman, what are we called now? by Jacqueline Mesnil-Amar. The new Biannually should be arriving any day now.

I’ve been a fan of Evelyn Dunbar’s work for a while, especially her WWII pictures. I have this lovely book by Gill Clarke on the tbr shelves & as I can’t get to either the Persephone shop, where they’re displaying some of Dunbar’s drawings, or the Pallant House Gallery in Chichester, the books will do very nicely.

Have I mentioned that Greyladies, another favourite publisher, have given their website an update? It looks terrific, they’ve added author photos & organised their titles by subject – school stories, mysteries, Scottish novels – which makes it easy to find what you’re looking for if you’re in the mood for a particular kind of book. I’m a fan of D E Stevenson & I’ve been really pleased that Greyladies have been reprinting not only the manuscripts found in the attic but also some of the previously out of print Stevensons. They began with Peter West and The English Air & early next year will be reprinting Five Windows, which I haven’t read but was enthusiastically reviewed by The Captive Reader here.

Does anyone else see a nice, round number as a challenge to be achieved? According to Library Thing, I have 2,995 books. Only five books to go to reach 3,000. Now, I have Claire Harman’s biography of Charlotte Brontë on the way & the new biography of Josephine Tey by Jennifer Henderson pre-ordered so that will arrive at the end of the month. There’ll be another Slightly Foxed edition at the beginning of December so that will take me up to 2,998. The dilemma is – do I buy two more books to make it to 3,000 by the end of the year when I’ve stopped buying books & haven’t ordered a single thing for a month? My plan was not to buy any books until at least the New Year & as I’m doing nothing but rereading at the moment, I’ve had no temptation to buy anything until I realised I was so close to the magic 3,000. At the moment, I feel that I won’t buy those two books, I’ll just wait until something (or two somethings) come along that I can’t resist.

Rereading books that I first read in the 1980s led me to go back through my reading lists to see what I was reading in 1985. Does anyone else keep lists of what they’ve read? I’ve done it since 1979. Until 2007, I just wrote my lists on paper, as you can see,

then I decided to use one of the many lovely notebooks I had received as presents over the years.

At this point, just as I was about to look at my 1985 list, Phoebe decided to sit on the lists & have a wash & then thought she’d have a snooze. Doesn’t she realise I’m in the middle of writing a post? Obviously not… When I was able to get to the lists (she’s now asleep on my lap), I find that I read 133 books that year. You won’t be surprised to learn that I read Jane Eyre (twice! & I see that I also read it in late 1984 as well), The Citadel by A J Cronin, Beginning the World by Karen Armstrong, several of M M Kaye’s Death in… series, some of the Brother Cadfael novels by Ellis Peters, Mary Renault’s Alexander trilogy, Lynne Reid Banks’ L-shaped Room trilogy, Victoria Holt, Cynthia Harrod-Eagles & Sarah Harrison’s A Flower that’s Free (sequel to The Flowers of the Field, a big soapy WWI saga that I loved), Love in a Cold Climate, Sylvia Plath, Emily Dickinson & Siegfried Sassoon. I was also studying English Literature at university so I read Madame Bovary, Women in Love & One Hundred Years of Solitude as well as Australian novels – Coonardoo by Katherine Susannah Prichard & Sugar Heaven by Jean Devanny. I’m more surprised by Frank Herbert’s Dune novels (I’ve never been a science fiction fan) & the books I have no memory of at all. What were these about? – A Splendid Defiance by Stella Riley & Nothing to Spare by Jan Carter (actually, I think this was a history of the Great Depression in Australia).

I’m surprised at how little my tastes have changed. I read fewer historical novels & sagas but I still read lots of narrative history, biography, 19th century classics & mysteries. However now I could add so many authors that I’ve discovered through Persephone, Virago, Greyladies & all the other reprint lists that have added to my tbr shelves over the last 10-15 years. I’d love to know if anyone else keeps lists & how far back your lists go. Have your reading tastes changed?

Rereading, rambling & relishing – Part 1

What’s your definition of rereading? I’ve been rereading a lot this year but the books I’m rereading are ones I haven’t read for over 30 years in most cases. So, do they count as rereads if I read them so long ago or can I count them as brand new reads (for the purposes of my Top 10 of the year list)?

I’ve just finished listening to Dombey and Son, beautifully read by David Timson. I know I read this years ago because I have a battered old Penguin on the shelf. But, there was so much I’d forgotten. Dombey doesn’t seem to be one of Dickens’s best-known books. Looking at imdb, there was a TV series in 1983 with Julian Glover as Mr Dombey, Lysette Anthony as Florence & Zelah Clarke (my favourite Jane Eyre) as Susan Nipper. It’s on YouTube but the soundtrack is out of sync which is a shame (it seems to be the same on the Region 1 DVD I saw a clip of so must be a fault with the original). I loved the story but the characterisations are very black & white. All the good characters (Walter Gay, Sol Gills, Captain Cuttle, John & Harriet Carker) are so very good & all the bad characters, especially Mr Carker the Manager (his sharp white teeth make so many appearances) are so obviously villains from the beginning. Florence is another of Dickens’s unnaturally good girls & poor little Paul is doomed from the beginning with his “old-fashioned” ways. Edith Granger, the second Mrs Dombey, is a fascinating character. Brought up by a horrible, rapacious mother to entice men, any emotional life she might have had has been stunted from childhood & Mr Dombey deserves everything he gets when she refuses to be the compliant, grateful wife he expects. I didn’t believe that she would run away as she does, though. The comic characters, especially dear Mr Toots, with his kindness & his inarticulate worship of Florence (“it’s of no consequence”) & fierce Susan Nipper, are a joy.

I read the Introduction to my Penguin edition after I’d finished listening & there was a reference to Kathleen Tillotson’s book, Novels of the Eighteen-forties. Another book I remember reading years ago. I don’t have a copy but borrowed it from Open Library. Published in 1954, it’s still one of the freshest, most interesting works of literary criticism I’ve read. The first half of the book is a survey of the literary scene  of the 1840s & then Tillotson looks specifically at four novels – Dombey, Jane Eyre, Vanity Fair & Mary Barton as representing the different kinds of novels published in the decade. I especially enjoyed her discussion about why we shouldn’t lump all Victorian novels together. The novels of the 1840s couldn’t have been published in the 1860s or 1870s when incidents like Jane’s frank discussions with Rochester about his mistresses & Becky’s methods of advancing herself would have been banned from the circulating libraries. If you’re interested in Victorian fiction, I’d recommend this book. I was only going to read the chapter on Dombey but then I read the chapters on the other novels & then went back to the beginning & read the first half of the book. I’ve read Jane Eyre many times & Vanity Fair & Mary Barton once but now I really want to read Mary Barton again. More rereading.

I was also reminded of another classic book of Dickens criticism which I have not read, but was able to borrow from Open Library, The Dickens World by Humphry House.

Then, I was pushed forward from the 1840s to the 1940s by reading Mrs Miniver’s Daughter’s post on the 70th anniversary of Brief Encounter, one of my favourite movies. The mention of the Kate O’Brien novel Laura has just borrowed from Boots reminded me of Nicola Beauman’s book, A Very Great Profession (originally Virago, now Persephone). Nicola Beauman saw Brief Encounter & wondered what else Laura was reading & her research became AVGP. I watched the movie again last weekend (I tried to see which O’Brien it was – I decided it must be a mid-1930s O’Brien because that’s when the play was written, so The Ante-Room or Mary Lavelle – among other things but failed. Maybe if I saw it on the big screen…) & reread the book.

I also need to stop listening to podcasts (damn the BBC!). I’ve just listened to a Woman’s Hour special celebrating the life of Marguerite Patten, the cookery writer who was so closely associated with the Ministry of Food during WWII (you can listen to it here). She died recently aged 99 & they replayed an interview with her, which included cooking quail parcels & Eve’s pudding, from 2009. Well, that made me want to read about the Home Front which reminded me of an article I read recently about a new TV series in the UK called Home Fires, about the Women’s Institute during the war. It’s based on the book Jambusters by Julie Summers &, even though I have a whole shelf of books about WWII on the tbr shelves, this is the one I want to read. At least we have a couple of copies in my library’s collection but they’re both on loan – I should be glad our patrons have such excellent taste but I’m just irritated that they got in before me. So, I’ve downloaded the free Kindle sample & reserved the book.

This post is much too long & I have more rambling & relishing to do so come back tomorrow for Part 2.

Into the Whirlwind – Eugenia Ginzberg

This is one of those books that I find more horrifying than the scariest fiction. The word Kafkaesque describes Into the Whirlwind perfectly. It’s the story of a woman’s physical & mental endurance in circumstances that would & did crush many people.

Eugenia Ginzburg (known as Jenny) lived a comfortable life in the Soviet Union in the 1930s. She was a member of the Communist Party, married to the Mayor of Kazan. She had two children & was a teacher & writer, working on the journal, Red Tartary. When she is arrested, she assumes it’s a mistake. Her belief in the Party is absolute & she can’t believe that she can be arrested for something she hasn’t done. She’s accused of not reporting the seditious actions of a colleague & her interrogators refuse to believe that she didn’t know of his activities or recognize that they were seditious. This is the beginning of her personal nightmare & the beginning of the purge of intellectuals that was undertaken by Stalin in the 1930s. She was interrogated, imprisoned, thrown out of the Party, & spent the next seventeen years in jail or in prison camps in Siberia, separated from her family & reliant on her own strength to survive.

Her interrogations are almost surreal as she refuses to admit anything & refuses to sign the fabricated confessions she is offered. She has no idea what has become of her family &, as time goes on, she can only be grateful for the fact that her arrest came before the order allowing the torture of suspects was passed. Even so, at one stage she is sentenced to five days in complete darkness in a filthy cell far underground where she can hear rats.Her initial stint of solitary confinement is eased when overcrowding means that she shares her cell with Julia, a woman she knew from the outside. This companionship & the tapping code that enables the women to communicate with the prisoners in nearby cells alleviates the mental torment but the physical privations – lack of exercise, poor food & the heat or cold in inadequate clothing –  are difficult to bear.

Almost worse than all these is the lack of books. Eventually they’re allowed to borrow books from the prison library but then have to contrive to stay awake all night to read them. There’s not enough light in the cell to read during the day but the guards leave the lights on all night as an additional torture. Jenny & Julia manage to sleep during the day by pretending to be reading & read at night by hiding the books under their blankets. All these contrivances are fascinating to read about & the triumph for the prisoners of outwitting the guards keeps their spirits up.

Nothing is simpler to explain the profound effect of books on a prisoner’s mind by the absence of outward stimulants. But this is not quite all there is to it. Isolation from everyday life and from its rat-race favours a kind of spiritual lucidity. Sitting in a cell, you don’t chase after the phantom of worldly success, you don’t play the diplomat or the hypocrite, you don’t compromise with your conscience. You can be wholly concerned with the highest problems of existence, and you approach them with a mind purified by suffering.

From Yaroslavl, Jenny is transferred to Kolyma & from there to the prison camps of the far east in Siberia where she is sent on to the camp at Kolyma where she almost died felling trees on a work gang. Each stage of the journey is worse than the one before & Jenny looks back to the previous stage almost with nostalgia as the conditions get worse with every change. As a political prisoner, charged with failing to disclose terrorist activities, she is very low in the hierarchy, looked down upon by other prisoners & derided for her bourgeois attitudes. Many times I wondered how Jenny kept going. The interminable train journey east to the camp in an overcrowded truck; the many times she almost died from exhaustion or disease but survived due to luck or the kindness of a stranger; the sheer inhumanity of the system that had imprisoned her in the first place which is outside the comprehension of any sane person. It’s a humbling experience to read a testimony like this & amazing to think that Jenny had the almost total recall she displays in setting down her experiences.

The Afterword to the Persephone edition is interesting in the perspective it brings to the book. Rodric Braithwaite is a former British ambassador to Moscow & he saw a play based on the book while he was in Russia. There have been those who disputed some of the details of Jenny’s account but I think it would be unbelievable if she didn’t get details wrong. A memoir like this is naturally subjective & others have thought that she had just too much good luck in the people she knew & the comparatively easy time she had. If Jenny’s imprisonment was easy, I would hate to read about a harsh imprisonment. Her incredible mental strength & her inner resources kept her going through the worst mental agony of not knowing the fate of her family. She was at least able to write to her mother some of the time & they worked out a code that would get past the censors so she did know a little about her children but her imprisonment & exile lasted for seventeen years & she never saw her eldest son, Alyosha, after her arrest. He died in the siege of Leningrad in 1941. Even after her initial sentence was over, she had to stay in Siberian exile for a further five years & wasn’t finally rehabilitated until 1955, after Stalin’s death. Into the Whirlwind is about the first few years of her sentence. Ginzburg wrote a sequel, Within the Whirlwind, which continues the story of her exile & was published after her death.

While I was reading Into the Whirlwind I was reminded of an extract from a book I read in a Reader’s Digest anthology over 30 years ago. My Dad collected the Reader’s Digest condensed books but this was slightly different, an anthology of short extracts from many books. It was bound in white with gold lettering & I only remember one piece, just a few pages long, which I must have read hundreds of times. It was the story of a woman (Edith?), imprisoned in Eastern Europe. She was in solitary confinement & passed the time by reciting all the poetry she could remember & by walking through Europe in her mind while pacing her cell to keep herself fit. She had worked out how many circuits of her cell added up to a mile & she recreated the journeys she had made when she was free. I would love to know what this book was if anyone can tell me.

Brook Evans – Susan Glaspell

Naomi Kellogg lives with her parents & younger siblings in a farming community in the United States. She’s in love with Joe Copeland, a neighbour who lives & farms with his mother. Neither family approves of Naomi & Joe’s relationship so they meet secretly by a brook near Naomi’s home. When Joe is killed in a farming accident, Naomi realises that she’s pregnant. Her parents are shocked & ashamed, worried about what the community & especially the Church will think. Joe’s mother also rejects Naomi, who had imagined that both families would welcome her child as a memory of Joe & as the result of their love. With no other choice, Naomi is married to Caleb Evans, an older man who is willing to take on another man’s child as he loves Naomi in spite of her indifference to him. Caleb has taken up land in Colorado & after the wedding, they leave for a new life.

Eighteen years later, Naomi’s daughter, Brook, named after the place where she was conceived & where her mother was happiest, is a lovely young woman about to finish school. She has been strictly brought up by Caleb although Naomi is determined that her daughter won’t suffer as she did for love. Naomi has never loved Caleb & her life is bitter & full of regrets. When Brook meets Tony Ross, Naomi does everything she can to encourage the relationship, against Caleb’s wishes. Naomi encourages Brook to go to a dance with Tony while Caleb is away, even though he had forbidden her to go.

Brook stood there, doubtful; indeed, disapproving. She herself might defy her father, deceive him, girls did that at times – then were sorry for it, of course; but for her mother to do it for her, in this matter-of-course way, this was a state of things in which she did not know how to move … Why was Brook not more grateful to her mother? She herself wondered why. Oh, she would go, all right, and yet she was on Father’s side. It wasn’t right to deceive him like that. Well, she would never do it again.

Tony’s family is Catholic, he has Italian & Native American blood & Caleb disapproves of him & his family.  Naomi tells Brook about her own past & about her love for Joe but, instead of bringing mother & daughter closer together, Brook is upset & embarrassed. She loves Caleb & considers him to be her father & she begins to shut Naomi out of her life. Naomi conspires with Tony in his pursuit of Brook, even though Brook feels compelled to obey her father & refuses to see him.

Here was the hour when she was on the one side or the other. The danger she had braved for herself – was she brave enough to encounter it for her child? Did she believe enough? “Anything that life can do to you is better than not having lived.” She spoke it as her creed. But she could no longer look into the large darkness. She went into the house to wait for her little girl to come home.

When Brook discovers her mother’s plan, she rejects Naomi completely, turning her back on her mother’s belief in the overriding importance of the emotional life.

Years later, Brook is living in France, a widow with a son she has named Evans. She was never reconciled with Naomi but now, in her late thirties, she finally begins to understand her mother & to regret her rejection. Brook is about to discover what her mother meant when she encouraged her to give in to love.

Why had there not been ease between her and her mother? From the very first, as far back as she could remember, she had known that here was a love that would do anything in the world for her – die for her, suffer, do wrong for her. She had soon come to know that her mother did not exist for herself, but existed for Brook. Why should this, of all things, exasperate one? Why was it so hard for her to show love in response to the completeness of this love? In any kind of emotional moment why would she be constrained, awkward, and finally resentful?

Brook Evans is a wonderful story about passionate love, for a lover & for a child. Naomi’s passion for Joe defines her whole life, poisoning any relationship she might have had with Caleb & ultimately making her life one of regrets & thwarted plans. Naomi never had a chance to have a real life with Joe & so she treasures her memories, a tattered photograph her only tangible memento – apart from Brook. Caleb is a good man who probably thought that once Naomi was away from her family & her memories she would forget Joe & learn to love him. Naomi never gives him a chance, she’s always repulsed by him, by his high, squeaky voice & his rigid religious beliefs. Brook has always been aware of something odd in her parents relationship but it isn’t until she discovers that Caleb isn’t really her father that she thinks she understands. Her love for Caleb is intensified & she goes out of her way to show him that she is his daughter in every way that matters, rejecting her mother’s creed, “Anything that life can do to you is better than not having lived.”.

I first read Brook Evans over 10 years ago when it was reprinted by Persephone Books. As I mentioned in a post a few weeks ago, I want to reread some of those early Persephones from my pre-blogging days & I so much enjoyed reading Brook Evans again. Susan Glaspell’s Fidelity was one of the very first Persephones I read & I thought it was an exceptional novel. I’ve read it several times since then but I’d never revisited Brook Evans. I’m so glad I did.

Sunday Poetry – Virginia Graham

Isn’t it odd how some ideas seem to be in the atmosphere? I spent a lovely afternoon last week rereading the early issues of the Persephone Quarterly & remembering those first Persephones & how much I enjoyed reading them & discovering new authors. Persephone Books have sent me off on so many reading trails & it’s thanks to them that authors like Dorothy Whipple & Marghanita Laski have been rediscovered. I decided to reread some of the Persephones that I enjoyed from my pre-blogging years & maybe make it one of my reading goals for the year. I try not to have too many of those because I inevitably fall behind. Then, on Friday, I read the latest Persephone Letter. The Persephone website was hacked just before Christmas & Nicola & her team have taken the opportunity to rethink the website as they put it all back together again. One of her ideas is a new section called Random Commentary (after Dorothy Whipple’s book about her life as a writer) which will highlight some of the lesser-known Persephones. This was exactly my idea. The first books I want to reread are Brook Evans by Susan Glaspell, Marjory Fleming by Oriel Malet & Reuben Sachs by Amy Levy. I remember enjoying them very much on first reading but it’s more than ten years since I read them & I think it’s time to revisit them.

What does this have to do with Sunday Poetry? Several poems from this collection, Consider the Years by Virginia Graham, were featured in those early Quarterlys so I thought, as I’m in a Persephone mood, I’d post a poem or two from the book. The years in question are 1938-1946 & the poems are witty, funny, often quite poignant. One of my favourites is Somewhere in England, published in 1939, full of the spirit of women doing their bit for the war effort on the Home Front.

Somewhere there must be music, and great swags of flowers,
leisured meals lasting for hours,
and smooth green lawns and roses.
     Somewhere there must be dogs with velvet noses,
and people lounging in big chairs,
and bees buzzing in the pears.
     So short a while, and yet how long,
how long,
since I was idling golden days away,
shopping a little and going to the play!
     Somewhere the red leaves must be fluttering down,
but I am on my way to Kentish Town
in Mrs Brodie’s van,
which has no brakes and rattles like a can.
     To-morrow I shall go to Wanstead Flats
with bales of straw, or a cargo of tin-hats,
or ninety mattresses to aid
the nether portions of the Fire Brigade.
     Not for me a quiet stroll along the Mall,
I must be off to Woolwich Arsenal
with our Miss West;
and it seems I cannot rest,
there shall be no folding of my feet at all
till I have been to Islington Town Hall
with a buff envelope.
     Some day it is my tenderest dearest hope
to have my hair washed, and I
would love to buy
something – anything so long as I could stop
for a moment and look into the window of a shop.
     Somewhere there must be women reading books,
and talking of chicken-rissoles to their cooks;
but every time I try to read The Grapes of Wrath
I am sent forth
on some occupation
apparently immensely vital to the nation.
     To my disappointed cook I only say
I shan’t need any meals at all to-day.
     Somewhere I know they’re singing songs of praise
and going happily to matinées
and home to buttered toast,
but I at my post
shall bravely turn my thoughts from such enjoyment.
     Ah for the time when, blest with unemployment,
I lived a life of sweet content – 
leisured and smug and opulent!
     Fear not, Miss Tatham, I am ready as you see,
to go to Romford Hospital or Lea.
     Be not dismayed, I will not stray or roam,
Look how I fly to Brookwood Mental Home!
See with what patriotic speed I go
to Poplar, Ealing, Beckenham and Bow!

Wilfred and Eileen – Jonathan Smith

In 1913, Wilfred Willett is about to graduate from Cambridge & pursue his medical studies at the London Hospital. At a ball just before leaving Cambridge, he meets Eileen Stenhouse, & immediately feels an attraction for her. Eileen is beautiful, well-off but bored with her undemanding life & soon, Wilfred & Eileen are meeting to go for walks & attend galleries & exhibitions. Wilfred’s medical studies are absorbing but sometimes bewildering as he learns about hospital hierarchies & is shocked to realise that the patients’ welfare isn’t always the top priority.

Wilfred’s relationship with Eileen is frowned on by both families. Wilfred’s parents have never had much sympathy for their son. The descriptions of Wilfred’s meals with his parents are excruciating. They feel that Wilfred should concentrate on his studies &, as he relies on an allowance from his father, Wilfred is reluctant to jeopardise his career. Eileen’s family are snobbish about Wilfred’s prospects. The couple eventually marry in secret in December 1913 & meet for blissful afternoons in a hotel when they can. When war is declared in September 1914, Wilfred is determined to enlist & they’re forced to tell their families that they are married.

Forced into a rushed church wedding, Wilfred enlists in the London Rifles Brigade &, after training at Crowborough, is posted to the Front. His regiment is in Belgium, at Ploegsteert, & Wilfred throws himself into his duties as an officer just as he threw himself into his studies at the Hospital. In December 1914, as he helps to bring a wounded man back into the trenches, Wilfred is shot in the head by a sniper. Through a communication mixup, Eileen isn’t notified for some time &, when she is told of his condition, she decides to go out to France to bring him home.

Wilfred and Eileen is remarkable because it’s based on a true story. In an Afterword, the author tells how he first learnt of the story from a pupil of his at Tonbridge School in the 1970s. The pupil was Wilfred & Eileen’s grandson & this conversation led to Smith being entrusted by the family with Wilfred’s diaries & papers. He was encouraged to turn the story into a novel, which was published in 1976 & later adapted as a TV series with Christopher Guard & Judi Bowker.

The story is simply told, with a great economy of style. It’s a short novel, less than 200pp, & spans only a couple of years but there’s so much experience contained within this short time frame. I was especially drawn to Eileen as she seems to draw on reserves of strength that she doesn’t even realise she possesses. Defying her family in marrying Wilfred is one thing but when she has to go to the War Office to find out what has happened to Wilfred & then get a passport to go out to bring him home, she is transformed,

Something curious was happening to Eileen. She noticed it that night in her face. She was not by nature self-analytical and no one’s habits and instincts could have been further from narcissism; sometimes she dressed if anything rather too casually, people thought, without sufficient attention to detail and straightness of hemline – even safety pins had been seen in her dress. But as she looked into the mirror she was caught and held by something dignified, tenacious, almost wilful in the eyes. Her mouth was set. This most adaptable and sensitive girl was revealing the firmness which perhaps had attracted Wilfred that night in Cambridge.

It’s a measure of Smith’s skill that Eileen is such a fully-formed character when the book is based on Wilfred’s writings, especially as the early sections are more concerned with Wilfred’s medical training. There are some horrible scenes in the Hospital of the self-absorption of the godlike surgeons & the contempt of the students for the poor patients who go to them for help. Wilfred’s idealism about his work foreshadows the way he will react to the outbreak of war. He feels he must enlist, it’s a reversion to his training & class, even though Eileen doesn’t want him to. It does provide the catalyst for telling their families about their marriage which would have had to happen anyway but it still leaves them in limbo because they can’t really begin their lives together while Wilfred is in the Army. I don’t want to spoil the story by writing any more about the ending but it’s very satisfying. It was definitely a good idea to print Jonathan Smith’s essay as an Afterword rather than an Introduction (even though I never read the Introduction first). I knew from reviews that the novel was based on a true story but I only skimmed the reviews I did read because I didn’t want to know too much.

In this year of the centenary of the beginning of WWI, there will be many books published & reprinted. Wilfred and Eileen is a lovely novel with the added interest of being based on truth.

The Squire – Enid Bagnold

The new Persephones for Autumn/Winter have arrived & I’ve actually read both of them already. I read The Squire for Virago Reading Week a couple of years ago & here’s the review I wrote at the time. I can’t add much more to it but I do recommend this beautiful novel.

After reading Vita Sackville-West’s No Signposts in the Sea, about a man at the end of his life, I turned to Enid Bagnold’s The Squire, which is about the beginning of life. The squire of the title is a woman about to give birth to her fifth child. It’s summer, she lives in an English country house (not too grand) with her other children, her husband is a Bombay merchant, away on a trip to India & it’s the late 1930s. This is a book about women & children, the relationships between them. The only men are the doctor & the butler, Pratt. Neither is important. The doctor is almost superfluous, popping in & out for the odd visit. Pratt is a surly, untidy man. He has a love/hate relationship with the squire & a combative attitude to the other staff.

The core of the book is the squire, her thoughts, feelings, memories & sensations. She’s almost completely self-absorbed in the first part of the book as she waits for the baby’s birth. She’s withdrawn from the running of the household as much as she can (although when the cook leaves abruptly, she has to phone agencies & employ a temporary cook who turns out to be a mistake). She’s a loving mother, aware of her other children but for this little space in time, her new baby & the sensations of her own body are paramount. She’s detached from events outside herself. Her friend, Caroline, with her love affairs & her emotional upheavals, seems very far away although she lives virtually next door.

The squire’s most intense relationship is with her midwife who is due to arrive at any time. The midwife has been there for the births of all the other children & she will stay for a month after the birth to give mother & child a good start together. The squire & the midwife have a comfortable, friendly relationship. They talk about other women the midwife has attended & about the nursing home the midwife would love to run where she could create the perfect conditions for childbirth, calm & peaceful. The midwife is in a privileged, all-powerful position, at this moment of birth when a mother looks for reassurance & calm,

There were long silences and the curious medieval picture remained posed. The woman about to go into labour lay, clothed, but her belly exposed, thrilled, and silent, holding in her silence the very centre of a lively stage. The other actor, with her centuries of tradition, on her knees, listening with her slender hands for the creak of the gates that would open to let out her charge.

The baby is safely born & the squire spends a precious week bonding with the baby, the other children allowed in to visit briefly. Gradually, her total absorption in her new son recedes as she enters daily life again. She emerges from her room & takes up the reins of her life & the baby settles into his place in the family,

The squire took up a book at the breast-feed for the first time and began to read over the baby’s head. He stared at the shadow, and when he was older he learnt to kick it down, but from now on the milk came mechanically and the squire’s mind could range separately as it chose. From habit, as the days went by, like a cottage woman she grew bolder at her breast-feeds, and would walk from room to room, or give orders to Pratt over the baby’s working head. She nursed him in the morning-room or in the garden, the children were allowed with her, the baby watched them out of one eye as he fed. He was unpacked now from his mystery and put into his family life.

This is a book in which very little happens. It’s a very sensual book. The squire’s feelings & emotions are very close to the surface & the descriptions of labour & breast feeding are very intimate & immediate. The book was controversial for this reason when it was published in 1938. Maybe it was also controversial because the men are ineffectual or absent & the role of the mother is supreme. In some ways, it’s more a documentary or a slice of life than a novel. The squire & the midwife aren’t named & their relationship is the emotional centre of the book. Anne Sebba’s Preface fills in the background of Enid Bagnold. I only knew her as the author of National Velvet although I’ve also read her Diary Without Dates about her experience of nursing in WWI & I have another of her novels, The Happy Foreigner (VMC) on the tbr shelves. Enid Bagnold worked on the book for over 15 years as she had four children of her own. She was determined to express in fiction this most important side to a woman’s life.

This is a book completely centred on a woman’s life & I can see why it was such a natural fit for Virago & now Persephone with their emphasis on the importance of women’s experience.

Heat Lightning – Helen Hull

All the moments since she had come to Flemington had been working toward that decision, hadn’t they? Not a conclusion arrived at coldly, by balancing advantages; a necessity which was left after the agitation of the week had broken up her dull and apathetic surface. It was queer to feel more alive because of death and fear and hatred; perhaps intense feeling was a kind of electric disturbance in which old sluggishness and stupidity were consumed. Heat lightning, revealing flashes in a murky summer night.

Amy Norton returns to her childhood home in a small town in Michigan. She lives in New York with her husband, Geoffrey, & two children but she’s at a crossroads in her life & her marriage & she runs away, back to her family. The week that she spends in her parents’ house takes her away from her problems but also plunges her into the life she’s left behind. Her father, Alfred, runs the family business, a factory that is struggling to survive in these days of the Great Depression. Amy’s grandmother, Madam Westover, lives next door, presiding over the family, controlling & pulling the strings of her extended family. She has a few surprises to spring on them but is she as in control as she thinks? Amy’s uncle, Dewitt, is in financial trouble & expects Alfred to help out yet again, straining their relationship. Aunt Lora, long since divorced from her philandering husband, irritates her children, discontented Harriet, lazy Tom & Laurence, happily married to Emma & totally absorbed in their family life. Amy’s brother, Theodore & his French wife, Felice, are the most contented of all, more contented than sister Mary, who has just given birth to her fourth daughter & discontentedly grumbles about being left out of family life while her devoted but spineless husband, Henry, attempts to find a job. At the centre of the story is Amy’s calm, nurturing mother, Catherine.

Amy discovers that her family is the same as when she was a girl but also different. Her grandmother is older but still indomitable, refusing to let age & the relentless summer heat stop her going about her usual routines. However, Dewitt’s demands for money & Tom’s reliance on his grandmother or any other member of the family bailing him out of trouble, are taking their toll. Amy is drawn in to everyone’s problems from Tom’s dalliance with her parent’s maid, Lulu, to Mary’s whining about Henry’s bad luck in job hunting & her father’s worries about the business (Mary reminded me so much of Mary Musgrove in Persuasion). Amy sees them all with an outsider’s eye, all the time wrestling with her own problems, her fears that Geoffrey is having an affair or has left her altogether. She discovers a new respect & love for her parents who have a  beautifully supportive & loving relationship, the most satisfactory relationship in the novel. I love the scene when Amy & her mother talk about what’s important in life,

“What is important?” Amy kept her arm around her mother’s shoulders; in her mother’s tone, in the acceleration of her speech, she felt a desire to communicate fully and quickly, as a fending off of approaching departure.
“To me, now, just two things. Your values alter so, as you grow older. You let go of lots of things you struggle at first to get…. Well -” she sighed, and swung open a secret door – “one is acting so I don’t feel ashamed of myself, so I feel comfortable with myself. Sometimes I’m driven into saying or doing things I know I’m going to be ashamed of. The other – that’s people. Loving them. Loving them enough, now, so you feel alive. Not a general vague love for everybody. That’s nonsense. But for your special ones.” The color lay bright on her cheekbones, her eyebrows lifted into the little triangle of concentration above her delicate nose. “I can’t explain any better.”
Amy was silent; words with rude breath might blur the surface of the treasure her mother exhibited so diffidently. With a shrug Catherine moved away from Amy’s arm, swinging fast shut the secret door.

This is such a wonderful novel. I don’t know how Persephone keep discovering books that are so essentially Persephone books. The latest Persephone Quarterly compares Heat Lightning to Dorothy Whipple’s novels & I would have to agree. Both authors write books that are unputdownable. This is a completely absorbing family saga. The cast of characters is large but they’re so well-developed & distinct that the helpful list of characters at the front of the book isn’t needed for very long. The atmosphere of small town life with all its gossipy lack of privacy is portrayed so exactly. You would think there would be no secrets left in this community but there are several surprises for the Westovers that leave them rethinking their relationships & their place in the world. The oppressive heat weighs everyone down, even a rainstorm can’t lighten the atmosphere for long. Amy’s week in Michigan reveals her family to her in a new light & she realises that her problems are no different & no more important than those of the rest of her family.

On a purely aesthetic note, Heat Lightning is such a beautifully presented book. I think we’ve all become a little blasé about the beauty of Persephone Books & we don’t always stop & notice their uniqueness in an age of cheap paperbacks & digital editions which may be convenient but don’t feed the booklover’s soul in quite the same way. I especially love the Persephones that reproduce the typeface of the original edition as this does. The endpapers (you can see them reproduced on the bookmark above) from a roller-printed silk fabric of 1929 have a feeling of heat haze about them. So, Heat Lightning is an absorbing novel in a beautiful package & I can’t recommend it too highly.

The Exiles Return – Elisabeth de Waal

The Exiles Return is a first for Persephone Books. It’s the first previously unpublished manuscript that they’ve published. The author, Elisabeth de Waal, wrote it when she herself was living in exile, in England, where she had lived with her family since leaving Austria in 1939.

The exiles of the title have all returned to Vienna in the early 1950s, having escaped before the war. Kuno Adler, a chemistry professor, has been living in America with his wife & daughters. He feels a longing for home that brings him back to a Vienna that he struggles to recognize. Theophil Kanakis has also lived in America & is now extremely rich. He returns to Vienna determined to recreate something of the glorious past by restoring an 18th century house & filling it with antiques. On his return he meets beautiful but shallow Prince Lorenzo Grein, known as Bimbo, & begins a relationship with him. Bimbo & his older sister, Nina, lost their parents to the Nazis & spent the war in hiding in the country. Nina is about 30, a serious young woman who has spent the war years looking out for Bimbo. Now, she’s working as an assistant in the laboratory where Kuno Adler also works. Marie-Theres Larsen was born in Vienna but left as a child in the mid 1930s when her parents emigrated to America. Marie-Theres, known as Resi, is now 18 & she has always felt out of place in America. Her younger siblings were born there & have grown up as Americans. Resi’s parents are concerned about her lack of interest in anything America has to offer so they send her to Vienna to stay with her aunts, her mother’s sisters.

The Exiles Return is a fascinating exploration of what home means to different people. I was particularly drawn to Kuno Adler’s story. The opening chapters of the book describe his journey homeward. His uncertainties about his decision are beautifully articulated by his thoughts as he sits in the train taking him closer to Vienna. He has become estranged from his wife, Melanie, who has embraced America & its opportunities. Melanie is sure he will be disillusioned & his return is certainly not easy. Although Adler is entitled to return to his previous job as a research scientist at the same level, he finds that his welcome isn’t assured. He is resented by the new head of the laboratory who stayed in Austria during the war & worked for the Nazis.

The working conditions & equipment can’t compare with what he had in America. The younger staff see him as a dinosaur & everyone is apprehensive as to what attitude he will take. Will he expect to take over? Only the old caretaker, Grasboeck, greets him with pleasure. Nina Grein quietly begins helping him with his private research although he barely notices her. Professor Adler’s loneliness is increased as he realises that he doesn’t know his old friends any more. Those who stayed in Austria during the war, were they collaborators or cowards?  Did they take advantage of those who had fled or been imprisoned? He begins taking long walks in the suburbs & countryside to try & reacquaint himself with his home.

Resi first goes to stay with her aunt, Countess Lensveldt, at her schloss in the country. Aunt Franzi is welcoming & Resi enjoys the slow life, talking to her cousin, Hanni. She also meets Lucas, a student lawyer whose family have been servants of the Lensveldts for generations. he has an ambivalent relationship with the family. He grew up playing with Hanni & her brother, Franz, but he’s not on the same social level. Lucas is immediately attracted to Resi & pursues her without much success. When summer ends, Hanni goes to Vienna to work as a secretary & Resi goes with her to attend classes at the university. The girls stay with their aunt Fini, a widowed Baroness who lives in a tiny flat with a single servant.

Kanakis creates a salon in his 18th century palais. He likes being surrounded by young people & Resi, Hanni & her fiance, Georg are invited to parties there through Hanni’s friendship with Bimbo. Resi becomes infatuated with Bimbo although he shows no interest in her & Lucas continues to pursue her. The tragedy described in the Prologue is inevitably drawing closer as the naïve Resi becomes more involved with Kanakis & his circle.

I enjoyed The Exiles Return very much. I found some characters more sympathetic than others & Professor Adler’s story in particular seemed to me to be closest to the author’s heart. Maybe because we experience so much of his life in Vienna through his thoughts & reactions. He was such a complex character, self-absorbed, lonely, trying to recreate something of his pre-war life while trying to adjust to the changes war has brought to his home. I also enjoyed the scenes at Schloss Wald as the Lensveldts continue to live the country life they’ve always known, secure in their social position & privilege. Lucas is a symbol of the changes to come with his assumption of equality with Hanni & Franz & his socialist politics. The time in which the novel is set is also crucial. This is the moment, ten years after the war has ended, when the Occupying Powers are about to leave & Austria will have a chance to rebuild. The first post-war generation are about to take up the reins & move the country into the future.

The Preface by Elisabeth’s grandson, Edmund de Waal, gives a portrait of Elisabeth & the determination she had to write whether her novels were published or not (she wrote five novels, none of them published in her lifetime). There is something of Elisabeth in all the characters of The Exiles Return, particularly Resi & Professor Adler. So many of her experiences of exile & return are explored in this fascinating novel. I’m so pleased to have had the chance to read it.

Midsummer Night in the Workhouse – Diana Athill

Diana Athill has become well known for her memoirs & her work as an editor which she wrote about in Stet (a book I’m very keen to read now & it’s sitting on my desk at the moment). However, in the 1960s, she also wrote short stories. A collection was published in 1962 in the US & more appeared in magazines but they’ve never been reprinted until this collection from Persephone Books was published a couple of years ago.

Athill describes the beginning of her life as a writer  as “being hit by my first story one January morning in 1958.” As an editor she had always seen herself as one who helps others write rather than as a writer herself. The stories often have an autobiographical element or are about the people Athill knew or the social circles she moved in. They are beautifully written, funny, poignant & very readable.

A Weekend in the Country is the story of Elizabeth, a young woman who has fallen in love with Richard, a man she knew when she was a child but they’ve recently met again in London. Elizabeth is an artist, sharing a flat with a friend. She’s moved a long way from her country childhood in her attitudes about society, class & politics. Richard, however, loves his country life in his ancestral family home with his conservative politics & comfortable opinions.

I am making too much of it, she thought. I am inventing the gulf between us out of some kind of vanity. It is only that they live in the country and I live in London; that they have capital and land, while I have no money but my earnings. Our circumstances are different but we are not creatures of a different kind, there is no need to go into disguise.

However, Elizabeth does feel that she’s in disguise. Making polite conversation with people whose class assumptions & political opinions appall her. Realising how stifled she would feel living in the country again after the freedom of her life in London with her friends & her work. When Richard takes her to an island on his estate for a picnic, she knows that she is in love with him but she also knows that their relationship will never work. No matter how much she longs for him physically & emotionally, she knows they are so fundamentally different that love wouldn’t be enough.

‘I really couldn’t go on voting in the accepted way and going to church in the accepted way and dismissing people in the accepted way because they spoke with a different accent or wore funny clothes, without ever questioning it. My ideas are much more different from yours than you think.’
‘But we get on very well, don’t we?’ he asked, looking distressed.
‘Yes, we get on.’ The arrogance of adding ‘but only because I have kept most of myself shut off from you’ was impossible, so instead she reached for the Sunday paper they had brought with them and said, ‘Let’s see what’s new.’

The crisis comes when Richard tells Elizabeth that he loves her & she has to try to make him see the impossibility of it.

I enjoyed this collection very much. It is a very Persephone book, highlighting women’s experiences, the domestic life but always the emotional life of the protagonists.