Jane of Lantern Hill – L M Montgomery

Jane Victoria Stuart lives with her mother, Robin, in her grandmother’s house at 60 Gay Street, Toronto. Gay Street doesn’t live up to its name, & Jane (as she prefers to be called) is unhappy living with her formidable grandmother, Mrs Kennedy, who insists on calling her Victoria. Grandmother is a controlling, sarcastic woman, who can wither Jane’s spirits with a glance or a comment. Jane had been born on Prince Edward Island after her mother ran away with her father, Andrew Stuart. Mrs Kennedy had not approved of the marriage &, when Jane was three years old, invited her daughter & granddaughter home to Toronto for a visit. Robin had become disillusioned with her marriage. She was much younger than Andrew & Jane’s arrival had increased the tension. Robin was very young & dominated by her mother. Andrew’s sister, Irene, also did her utmost to separate the couple as she had wanted Andrew to marry a friend of hers.

Once Robin & Jane were back with Mrs Kennedy, she was convinced to stay. She wrote to Andrew saying she wouldn’t be going back & the next six years were spent in an empty round of social visits for Robin & misery for Jane as Grandmother disapproves of everything she says & does. Robin is even made to feel guilty of her love for Jane & they have to whisper together like thieves in the night. Jane’s only friend is orphaned Jody, who works in the kitchen of the boarding house next door. Jane spends her nights looking at the moon outside her window & making up stories about adventures there.

Jane has always imagined that her father is dead because his name is never spoken & Grandmother forbids Jane to ask her mother about him. So, when a letter comes from Andrew, asking that Jane spend the summer with him on Prince Edward Island, the shock is immense. Jane hates her father as she has only heard bad things about him & assumes that he didn’t want her so is very reluctant to go. However, a family conference decides that, if she doesn’t go, Andrew is within his rights to demand custody & so, she sets off reluctantly on the long journey to the Island.

Once Jane arrives, her life changes. She loves her father almost at first sight. She adores the Island & soon blossoms into a confident, capable girl who loves keeping house for her father & makes lots of friends. She soon adopts two cats & even tames a lion & finds herself on the front page of the Charlottetown papers two days running. The spirit that had been crushed by Grandmother & Gay Street, is liberated by the immediate sympathy between Jane & her father. There is a lot of Stuart in Jane which is possibly what her grandmother most disliked in her. The only fly in the ointment is Aunt Irene, who is as destructive to Jane’s spirits as Grandmother but covers her snide comments in patronising condescension.

Jane of Lantern Hill is a lovely fairy tale of a story. If, as Thomas at My Porch says, Nevil Shute is D E Stevenson for boys (& engineers), then L M Montgomery is D E Stevenson for little girls. I loved all the domestic details of Jane’s life on the Island (especially her experiments in cooking) & my heart just bled for her during the soul destroying months she spends in Toronto just counting the days until she can return to her father & the Island. As in all Montgomery’s writing about Prince Edward Island, her love & nostalgia for the place come through so strongly. The beautiful summers, even though there are storms & rain, are always contrasted with the miserable grey of Gay Street. It’s a greyness of the spirit as well as the climate & I think every reader will be crossing their fingers for a happy ending to Jane’s story.

I was sent a copy of Jane of Lantern Hill for review by Virago.

Rilla of Ingleside – L M Montgomery

I’ve only read the first book in the Green Gables series, Anne of Green Gables, & that was many years ago. I loved Lucy Maud Montgomery’s Journals, which I borrowed on Inter Library Loan as they were published over many years. Montgomery’s life was a far cry from the happy family life of Anne Shirley, the Cuthberts & Gilbert Blythe, who she eventually marries. I think her writing must have helped her to survive her difficult circumstances with a husband afflicted with mental illness & her sons so very unsatisfactory. Virago are reprinting some of Montgomery’s books & I was pleased to be offered Rilla of Ingleside & Jane of Lantern Hill for review. I was especially interested in Rilla of Ingleside because it deals with WWI & it was a very enjoyable as well as heartrending read.

Rilla is the youngest daughter of Anne & Gilbert Blythe. She’s 15 & living a peaceful life in Glen St Mary, a small town on Prince Edward Island. Rilla is a typical teenage girl, wanting to grow up as fast as possible & willing to push against her mother’s authority just a bit. Rilla is about to attend her first grown-up dance, at a lighthouse on Four Winds Point. Rilla hopes that Kenneth Ford will be there. He is & they dance together & spend an enchanted hour together on the beach. On the night of the party, war is declared between England & Germany, which means that Canada, as part of the Empire, is also at war.

Rilla’s brothers Jem & Walter, join up. Jem, with much enthusiasm, as soon as war is declared; Walter reluctantly, as he dreads fighting & is afraid that his courage will fail him at a crucial moment. Other young men in the district enlist &, gradually, Glen St Mary becomes a place for women, children & older men. The strain of being left behind, waiting for news, relying on the newspapers for information of the progress of the war, becomes greater as news of the death & wounding of the local boys drifts back from Europe.

Rilla is determined to help the war effort. She starts a chapter of the Junior Red Cross. She adopts a baby when she calls at a house for a donation & finds a young mother dead & a slovenly, drunk old woman left in charge of a baby boy. His father has gone to England to enlist & Rilla is determined not to leave the baby with the old woman or put him in an orphanage so she takes him home with her in a soup tureen, the only possible receptacle. Rilla begins to grow up as she takes responsibility for the little boy who she calls Jims. The same stubborn nature that led her to announce that she would wear the expensive green velvet hat that she bought, despite her mother’s advice, until peace came, also helps her to persevere in raising Jims with the help of a baby care manual & advice from Susan Baker, the family’s cook & housekeeper.

There are many amusing episodes in the story. Rilla has to eat humble pie & apologise to Irene Howard, a disagreeable, spiteful girl, when she desperately needs her to sing at a Red Cross concert. Unfortunately, Rilla was so worked up about her apology that she didn’t realise until she arrived at Irene’s house that she had odd shoes on. Irene spends the whole interview staring at Rilla’s feet & makes her grovel & almost lose her temper & walk out, before she agrees to help. Rilla organises a secret war wedding for Miranda Pryor when her pacifist father refuses permission for her to marry Joe Milgrave before he sails to Europe. Rilla, as bridesmaid, ends up having to hold Jims all through the ceremony when he has a tantrum & won’t stop crying & then Miranda’s overfed dog has a fit & Rilla has to try very hard to keep a straight face. It’s something her mother, Anne, would have done in the old Green Gables days.

There’s also a lot of poignancy in the story as is natural in a story set during the war. Not all the boys who enlist will come home & of those that do return, they will all be touched either physically or mentally by their experiences. Jem’s dog, called Dog Monday, refuses to leave the railway station until he returns & becomes a sad, mournful presence as he refuses all comforts. I admit that I was tearful more than once. Rilla regrets that her youth is passing in such worry & anxiety, not just about her brothers ( another brother, Shirley, becomes a pilot) but also about Kenneth, who left her with a kiss but no firm commitment. Only when the war is over will Rilla & her family be able to look to the future with confidence.

I enjoyed Rilla of Ingleside very much. The style is quite sentimental & I grew very tired of Susan calling Gilbert Dr dear & Anne Mrs Dr dear. It’s written in a very romantic style with noble speeches about patriotism & helping the mother country in fighting the Hun. However, it was published in 1921 & I suppose we’ve grown a little more cynical about such words as patriotism in the century since then. Montgomery writes beautifully of the landscape & the countryside of Prince Edward Island. I also enjoyed Gertrude Oliver, a schoolteacher who boards with the Blythes. She’s older & has had a hard life & is reluctant to believe in her present good fortune. She is engaged to a soldier & is prone to prophetic dreams & grand statements. Rilla, Anne & Gilbert, however, are at the heart of the story & their emotions always rang true.

Anglophilebooks.comThere’s a copy of Rilla of Ingleside, as well as many other books by L M Montgomery, available at Anglophile Books.

Bookish things

I always begin the New Year with the intention of not buying any books for a few months. I have so many unread books that it would take me years to read them all that it really shouldn’t need a new year’s resolution to motivate me to stop for a while. I’m usually quite disciplined &, apart from a few ebooks (which are just too easy to buy – at least they’re invisible), I stick to it, at least until autumn & the thought of long winter afternoons send me off to check my wishlists.

I have just bought these four VMCs from World Of Books, a secondhand bookshop in the UK. They were £1 each so even with postage, they only cost $25AU which I thought was very reasonable. They’re in lovely condition & I’m looking forward to reading them. I had read a review of The Wild Geese by Bridget Boland somewhere & that’s what sent me off to Abebooks in search of a copy. It’s the story of an 18th century Irish family, told through letters. The Wild Geese are the young men of the family, rebels who risk their lives by returning from exile. I was also fascinated to read the Bridget Boland was a scriptwriter who had written the screenplays of several well-known films including Anne of the Thousand Days & the 1940 version of Gaslight. I couldn’t just buy one book though, could I? So, I found myself looking through the bookstore’s listings for VMCs & came across The Misses Mallett by E H Young, Company Parade by Storm Jameson & The Way Things Are by E M Delafield.

Does anyone remember Catherine Gaskin? I loved her novels when I was younger. She was born in Australia, but, like many artists of the mid 20th century, left Australia to live in the UK & US most of her life. She wrote novels of romantic suspense & could be compared with Mary Stewart. I especially enjoyed Sara Dane, set in early 19th century Australia, Falcon for a Queen, set in Scotland & The File on Devlin, a suspense novel. I came across the website dedicated to Gaskin (follow the link) through a link to an interview there with Linda Gillard, author of Cauldstane. I enjoyed my trip down memory lane & was pleased to discover that one of her books has been released as an ebook with hopefully more to come. The Property of a Gentleman is about a young woman working for a London antiques house who is sent to a remote country house in the Lake District, Thirlbeck, to assess the art collection. She finds romance, suspense & family secrets. I don’t remember reading this one but it sounded so intriguing that I bought it. Some of the book covers here look very familiar & I would love to read more of her books.

I also have a few books on preorder. I’m looking forward to the British Library Crime Classics. I couldn’t resist the gorgeously nostalgic covers of the books by John Bude & Mavis Doriel Hay so I’ve ordered all four of them. Martin Edwards has written the Introductions to the John Bude titles so that’s another reason to look forward to them. So many good things to look forward to!

More new arrivals

More lovely books have arrived in the last couple of weeks. Lots of preorders coming home to roost as well as some surprises that I had no intention of buying but I couldn’t resist such bargains. With Christmas just around the corner, I had to have this lovely anthology from Vintage, Round the Christmas Fire. There are some lovely treats such as ghost stories by Edith Wharton & M R James, diary entries from Francis Kilvert & Adrian Mole, extracts from Nancy Mitford’s Christmas Pudding & Jeeves & the Yuletide spirit by P G Wodehouse. I’ve decided to make it my Advent treat & read one story every day. A lot less fattening than chocolate.
Period Piece by Gwen Raverat is the latest memoir to get the gorgeous Slightly Foxed treatment & the binding is a beautifully Christmassy red. I love the Slightly Foxed Editions & have collected them all. I read Period Piece many years ago & loved it. Raverat was a member of the lovably eccentric Darwin family & this recollection of a Cambridge childhood is just glorious. Funny, witty & illustrated by the author. If you’ve never read it, you’re in for a treat, perfect Christmas holiday reading.

Virago have been adding to their Modern Classics with the Emily books by L M Montgomery. I’ve only read the first Anne book but these looked so lovely & many people prefer the Emily books to Anne so I’m looking forward to reading them.

Angela Thirkell is another new addition to the VMC list & I love the beautiful covers of these reprints. Pomfret Towers & Christmas at High Rising have just been published & there are three more to look forward to next year. Desperate Reader has devoured them already & you can read her enthusiastic reviews here & here.

Lucinda Hawksley’s new biography of Princess Louise, daughter of Queen Victoria, has received some press coverage due to the scandalous revelations of illegitimate births & love affairs. I’ve always been interested in Louise who seems to have been quite the rebel, an artist & sculptor who seems to have led a life far removed from that of most royal women. Lucinda Hawksley’s previous biographies of Lizzie Siddal & Katey Dickens were excellent & I can’t wait to read this one.

I was contacted by Michael Walmer, a publisher who is reprinting late Victorian/Edwardian books that have been overlooked by the other reprint houses. Simon at Stuck in a Book thought I might be interested as Michael is based in South Australia. Well, I was interested & Michael has kindly sent me two books for review, I Pose by Stella Benson, which Simon has been enjoying & The Twelfth Hour, Ada Leverson’s first novel. The books are POD but are excellent quality. The covers are attractive & the fonts look like the originals. I’m looking forward to reading them both.

Now, the books I couldn’t resist. My favourite remainders bookshop, Clouston & Hall, had a Special Selection of OUP World’s Classics. At about $8 each, I wasn’t going to refuse to look through the list, obviously. I’ve read the Willa Cathers before but it was many years ago & I’d like to reread them & I can’t do that if I don’t own copies, can I? I also bought The Paston Letters (I have Helen Castor’s book on the Pastons, Blood & Roses, on the tbr shelves so this is an essential companion read), The Italian by Ann Radcliffe, A Sentimental Journey by Laurence Sterne, Gwyn Jones’s History of the Vikings, Polidori’s The Vampyre, & Dickens’s Sketches of Young Gentlemen & Young Couples which is an early work reprinted last year for the Bicentenary. Luckily I’d read lots of the books on offer or I could have spent much more!

Fenny – Lettice Cooper

Ellen Fenwick is on her way to a villa outside Florence to take up a summer post as a governess. It’s 1933, Ellen is 26 & has been working as a teacher in a North of England school for several years while caring for her mother. Her mother’s illness prevented Ellen from taking a trip to America after she graduated from Oxford but now, her mother has died & she takes this opportunity to travel.

This first trip outside England is a revelation for Ellen. The Rivers family – Charles, Madeleine & their daughter, Juliet – are kind & the Villa Meridiana is like a dream to Ellen. Before long, she has become known as Fenny, has cut her hair & begun to release herself from her grey tweed past & embrace the warmer colours & textures of her Italian present. The summer that Fenny spends with the Rivers family changes her in other ways. She falls in love with Daniel, an English tutor living with a neighbouring family, the Warners. Mr Warner is an American now married to an Italian, Lucrezia. He has a son, Shand, from his first marriage & Lucrezia has a daughter, Donata. They have a daughter together, Blanche. Fenny soon realises that Shand is desperately unhappy in Italy & hates his stepmother who is brittle & artificial & has a string of admirers. Fenny’s relationship with Daniel is tentative & hampered by his moodiness. He grew up in a mining community & was the only one of his family to escape working in the pits. The betrayal that ends their relationship bursts the bubble of Fenny’s happiness & infatuation with Italy.

Four years later Fenny is now living with the Warners & teaching their daughters. She’s still part of the community of ex-pat English & Americans, living in another country villa & immune from the political changes of Italy in the late 1930s. Shand is now 16 & still desperate to go home to America & live with the aunts who cared for him when he was a baby after his mother died. Fenny dislikes Lucrezia Warner but loves Italy & finds herself drifting along in her comfortable life until a crisis sends her life in a new direction.

In 1938, Fenny is living in Florence & working in a travel agency. On a trip home to England just after the Munich crisis her family encourage her to return home for good lest she be trapped in Italy if war breaks out. Fenny thinks she is only returning to Italy for a few weeks, just to see how the political situation turns out. However, after a chance meeting with Professor Arturo Marelli, who she had met with his young wife, Graziella, a year before, Fenny’s life takes a new turn. Her involvement with Arturo & his circle enmesh her more deeply in Italy & when the war begins, she is unable to return home, even if she had wanted to. Her growing realization of the consequences of political opposition to Mussolini’s regime & her loyalty to her friends as well as her love for Arturo will leave a mark on the rest of her life.

This is such a wonderful book. Lettice Cooper’s descriptions of Italy are gorgeous & she really shows how Fenny responds to the warmth & beauty of Florence & the countryside from the moment she arrives. This is Italy before the hordes of tourists took over. It was a time when visitors could stroll along the streets of Florence, visiting empty churches & sitting at outdoor cafes almost as one of the locals. I discovered from reading the Introduction by Francis King (after I’d finished the book, of course) that Lettice Cooper had visited Italy frequently & based the Villa Meridiana on a villa she (& King) knew & had stayed in. The details of Fenny’s life are so beautifully described. The changes in her hair & clothing are representative of the changes in her emotional & spiritual life. The visit home to England shows her how much she has changed as she realises how little she has in common with her brother’s family as he worries about the coming war & tries to convince her to leave Italy. By this time, though, Fenny knows she will never leave golden Italy for grey, gloomy England.

I can’t believe this book is out of print. Persephone have reprinted another of Lettice Cooper’s novels, The New House, one of my favourite Persephones) & Bloomsbury have a couple more available as ebooks but Fenny would surely be popular with anyone who’s read Elizabeth Von Arnim’s Enchanted April. On a purely aesthetic note, isn’t the cover of this Virago edition gorgeous? The painting is Sewing by Harold Knight & reminds me of how much more evocative the old Virago covers were than most of the current designs (the recent Winifred Holtby & Angela Thirkell covers are exceptions).

The Rector and The Doctor’s Family – Margaret Oliphant

A couple of years ago Desperate Reader read all of Margaret Oliphant’s Chronicles of Carlingford &, ever since, I’ve been collecting copies of them which have, naturally, never left the tbr shelves. Eventually, I moved the first book in the series, The Rector and The Doctor’s Family, from the tbr shelves to the tbr pile & now, at long last, I’ve read it.

This first volume is actually a short story & a novella & it sets up all the themes for the Chronicles to come. In The Rector, we’re introduced to the small town of Carlingford. The new Rector is about to arrive & everyone is curious about him. Will he be Low Church like the last Rector (who scandalised polite society by preaching to the bargemen at the canal) or will he be High Church? More importantly, will he be single? There are several unmarried ladies in Carlingford & the marital status of any new arrival is of paramount importance.

Morley Proctor has been a fellow of All Souls for the last fifteen years and, if it had been left to him, he would be a Fellow of All Souls still. However, he has an elderly mother & he feels it his duty to provide a home for her so he has accepted the living at Carlingford. Mr Proctor soon discovers that he is not suited to the duties of a parochial clergyman. His sermons are stiff, but, more importantly, he doesn’t know how to talk to people. He is shy and finds it difficult to relate to his parishioners. When he is called in to comfort a dying woman, he has no idea what to say & watches in embarrassed mortification as young Mr Wentworth, the curate of St Roque’s, rescues the situation with practiced ease & real feeling.

Mr Proctor is also aware that he is seen as a matrimonial prize & his mother is urging him to marry. Mr Wodehouses’s two daughters, the elder known only as Miss Woodhouse, is nearly forty, mild & kind. Her young half-sister, Lucy, is beautiful & wilful, & seems to have young Mr Wentworth at her feet. Mr Proctor is dazzled by her beauty but also aware that he is as much out of his depth with Lucy as he is in every other aspect of his life in Carlingford.

As The Rector sets up the ecclesiastical themes of the series, The Doctor’s Family introduces us to another part of Carlingford society. Dr Edward Rider is a newcomer who lives in a less fashionable part of town. He can’t rival old Dr Marjoribanks who has an iron grip on the leaders of Carlingford society so he sets up his practice at the other end of town. Dr Rider is a dissatisfied man as he has a burden, an albatross around his neck – his slovenly, drunken brother, Fred. Fred occupies an upstairs room & is a blight on the doctor’s life. He has returned from Australia, with no money & no prospects. He has also neglected to tell Edward that he left behind a wife & three children. When Fred’s wife, Susan, arrives in the care of her very capable sister, Nettie, Edward’s first thought is horror. To have Fred around his neck is one thing but a sister-in-law & three children to provide for is just too much.

Nettie, however, has other ideas. She has a little money of her own & has spent her life looking after Susan, who is a peevish, spiteful woman. Nettie takes lodgings near St Roque’s for the family & spends her life looking after the children, trying to keep up Susan’s spirits & bullying Fred into better behavior. Edward is fascinated by Nettie & begins visiting, even though it means he must also see his brother & his family. Edward falls in love with Nettie but she realises that if they married, Fred & family would have to come along as well. She knows that Edward would never be able to tolerate this. He’s a dissatisfied, grouchy man who is quick to take offence & jump to the wrong conclusions. Seeing Nettie walking with Mr Wentworth sends him into a paroxysm of bad temper although he has no claim on her & no right to be upset by her friendship with another man.

Nettie is such an interesting character. She is a good young woman who is very sure of herself & bears her responsibilities with fortitude. The fact that her family are less than grateful for all she does for them bothers her not at all. She tries hard to discipline & educate the unruly children & treats Fred like a hopeless invalid which he resents. Edward is grateful that she has taken the family off his hands but also feels guilty that he doesn’t do more to help. Nettie’s sense of herself is bound up with her sister & her family & she only begins to resent her position when her own happiness looks threatened. Mild Miss Wodehouse had tried to warn Nettie to think of herself more, but had been ignored.

But now the time predicted by Miss Wodehouse had arrived. Nettie’s personal happiness had come to be at stake and had been unhesitatingly given up. But the knowledge of that renunciation dwelt with Nettie. Not all the natural generosity of her mind – not that still stronger argument which she used so often, the mere necessity and inevitableness of the case – could blind her eyes to the fact that she had given up her own happiness; and bitter flashes of thought would intervene, notwithstanding the self-contempt and reproach with which she became aware of them.

As Desperate Reader says, these books can be compared with Trollope’s Barsetshire series as the themes of Church & society are common to both. The Rector and The Doctor’s Family can be compared with The Warden & Barsetshire Towers in the way they set up the themes & characters of the whole series. However, Margaret Oliphant brings her own sensibility to the stories she tells. Penelope Fitzgerald wrote the Introductions to the Virago reprints in the 1980s & these are well worth reading to get an idea of the context of the novels. The essays have been reprinted in A House of Air, a wonderful collection of essays & reviews by Penelope Fitzgerald which I’d recommend to anyone who loves reading about books.

Margaret Oliphant wrote for a living. She worked to support her husband, sons, brothers & other assorted family members. I couldn’t help seeing quite a lot of Oliphant in Nettie & maybe Oliphant had experienced that selfish ingratitude from her own family that Nettie experiences. Sometimes I couldn’t help having a little sympathy with Fred as Nettie bullies & bosses him but, where would Fred be without her? Although as Margaret Oliphant wrote in her Autobiography, she often wondered if she did the wrong thing propping her family up all the time. Would they have saved themselves if she hadn’t been there to do it for them? I had that same thought about Nettie as Edward Rider did when he tries to persuade Nettie to leave them & marry him.  It’s a question that Margaret Oliphant struggled with & maybe tried to work through in her fiction. As Penelope Fitzgerald writes,

Mrs Oliphant creates a moral atmosphere of her own – warm, rueful, based on hard experience, tolerant just where we may not expect it. One might call it the Mrs Oliphant effect. In part it is the ‘uncomprehended, unexplainable impulse to take the side of the opposition’ which she recognized in herself and Jane Carlyle. It is the form that her wit takes, a sympathetic relish for contradictions.

I’m looking forward to reading more of the Chronicles of Carlingford.  

Anglophilebooks.comThere’s a copy of The Rector and The Doctor’s Family available at Anglophile Books. 

Collecting but not reading

I have a habit of collecting books by an author but not actually reading any of them. It’s on the rainy day principle. If a long out of print author is suddenly in print again, I rush to buy their books because they may not stay in print very long & I’d hate to miss out on that little window of opportunity when they’re available. Elizabeth Goudge is the latest author that I’m stockpiling against the day when I’m in the mood for one of her books.

I remember reading several of her books when I was much younger. I especially remember The White Witch, set during the English Civil War. Capuchin began by reprinting Green Dolphin Country a few years ago & now Hendrickson in the US have started reprinting her books, including The Scent of Water, of which I read an enticing review here,

and the Eliot Family trilogy, also known as the Damerosehay series. So far they’ve reprinted Volumes 1 & 2 so no 3 can’t be far away.

Then there’s Angela Thirkell who has many devoted fans in the blogosphere. Since Virago reprinted High Rising & Wild Strawberries (with Pomfret Towers to come later this year), there have been many appreciative reviews of her work. I have the Virago reprints as well as an omnibus I bought in a secondhand bookshop years ago which contains The Brandons, Cheerfulness Breaks In & Before Lunch.

I have read some Somerset Maugham – The Razor’s Edge, some of the short stories – but it was many years ago.

I’m afraid I can always be seduced by a beautiful cover & these Vintage editions are gorgeous.

I’ve also just bought these two lovely Vintage US editions of Up At The Villa & The Painted Veil (now I can’t decide which of the Vintage covers I like best…) from my favourite remainders bookshop, Clouston & Hall in Canberra. I’ve been buying books from them by mail order for over 30 years now. I must have bought hundreds of books from them over that time & they have the most wonderful bargains. Most of my collection of Wodehouse came from them when the Arrow reprints were remaindered. The links are to reviews of the Maugham books by Simon at Stuck In A Book & Dani at A Work in Progress.

Maybe one day, when I actually get around to reading their books, I’ll be inspired to join the Elizabeth Goudge Society & the Angela Thirkell Society (there doesn’t seem to be a Maugham Society). If anyone is a passionate advocate of any of these books, let me know in the comments. I just need a gentle shove in the right direction, I’m sure, & I’ll be off!

Mary, Winifred & Stella

Can you tell by the title of this post that it’s going to be about middlebrow women writers? Well, it is. Not a review but an enticement of lovely treats to come. As promised, here are the gorgeous new Mary Stewart reprints I’ve bought in anticipation of a reread one day soon.

I love the Vogue-style covers & I’ve been dipping in as they’ve arrived, trying to decide which one to read first. As it will probably be a winter Sunday afternoon read, should I go for the contrast of one of the stories set in hot places like Crete (Moonspinners) or Israel (Gabriel Hounds) or should I go for the Scottish coolness of Stormy Petrel? Decisions, decisions.


I was very excited to read on Dani’s blog, A Work in Progress, the other day that Virago are reprinting three more Winifred Holtby novels on the strength of the success of South Riding. Here’s a link to the Virago announcement, from where I also got the photo above. I love the covers, all based on railway or tramway advertisements of the 30s.

Speaking of beautiful cover art, the covers of the new reprints of Stella Gibbons by Vintage Classics have been revealed (pictures from The Book Depository). Am I shallow to be swayed by such beauty? I don’t think so! Conference at Cold Comfort Farm, Westwood & Starlight will be published in August, Christmas at Cold Comfort Farm, which is a volume of short stories, just before Christmas.

Virago Reading Week – the pictures

I’m afraid my entry for the Virago photo competition can’t compete with the delightful photos of Viragos with cat models at Rochester Reader or the delightful pinny-wearing dog with Viragos at Roses Over a Cottage Door. I’m afraid Abby isn’t really amenable to posing on a pile of books. She’s asleep in the shrubbery at the moment, anyway. So, I’m going to pinch a couple of photos from an earlier post I wrote about Virago Modern Classics back in November.

It was a post about my love for the original green Viragos & the gorgeous artwork they used. The photo at the top of the post shows the Viragos I still have on the tbr shelves. As I’ve read a couple of Viragos this week, thanks to Rachel & Carolyn, the pile has been lessened by two! I have no idea which Virago will be next. I love the look of Mary Lavelle by Kate O’Brien or one of the Daphne Du Mauriers or Rose Macaulay’s The World My Wilderness.I want to read them all at once but, apart from being greedy – & impossible – it would leave me nothing to anticipate. I love knowing that I have a handy little cache of Viragos ready when I read an enthusiastic review or someone in my online book group says Have you read…? I can say, Yes, it’s on the tbr & race over to find it. That’s what my tbr shelves are for, after all.

The Squire – Enid Bagnold

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.

Like No Signposts in the Sea, 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 Introduction 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 with their emphasis on the importance of women’s experience. I read The Squire as part of Virago Reading Week, kindly hosted by Rachel at BookSnob & Carolyn at A Few of my Favourite Books. I’ve loved being a part of VRW, it’s been a great chance to read Viragos & visit other blogs, reading reviews of other Viragos I want to read & reliving fond memories of favourite VMCs like South Riding & the Elizabeth Von Arnims, Elizabeth Taylors & all the fascinating stories of how fellow Virago lovers first discovered the imprint. Lives have been changed by these little green books. There are a lot of Virago lovers out there!