Long Live Great Bardfield : the autobiography of Tirzah Garwood

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One of the glories of the early Persephone Quarterlies (now Biannuals) were the woodcut illustrations by artists like Clare Leighton, John Nash, Winifred McKenzie & Tirzah Garwood. I’ve always loved the detail in woodcuts & the ones chosen by Nicola Beauman for those early Quarterlies came to epitomise Persephone for me. Tirzah Garwood’s autobiography is an incredibly readable account of her life, written for her future descendants, while she was undergoing cancer treatment. She died aged only 42, in 1951. Long Live Great Bardfield is not only the story of a woman’s life, it’s the story of an artist living in a group of artists & the compromises that she makes in the struggle between domesticity & her artistic life.

Born in 1908, Eileen Garwood (nicknamed Tirzah when she was a child) grew up in a happy family that recognized her artistic talent. She studied at art school & went to London to support herself with freelance work. This was the 1920s & post-war freedom meant that this wasn’t such an outrageous choice for a young woman to make. Tirzah’s family, however, still expected her to marry & for some time she dithered between Bob, a steady young man approved of by her parents, & Eric Ravilious, one of her teachers at the Eastbourne School of Art. Class was also important to Tirzah’s parents, & Eric’s working class origins didn’t recommend him to the Garwoods.

The resulting confusion was dreadful. I think if I’d been left alone I shouldn’t have married either of them. … much as I liked the idea of Bob as a comfortable pipe-smoking husband, I knew that if I did marry him I should always regret giving up my friendship with Eric and that I hadn’t gone on with my drawing. It was as though Bob stood for my family’s idea of life and Eric for my freedom and independence.

Tirzah & Eric did marry and, nine years later, they were living in rural Essex with two children. Eric & Tirzah discovered Great Bardfield when they were tired of living in Hammersmith & wanted to get out into the country. Fellow artist, Edward Bawden & his wife, Charlotte, also came to live in Great Bardfield. Tirzah had given up woodcuts after her marriage as domestic life & children took up her time. She did have a creative outlet as she took up marbling paper but, as is usually the case with women artists, their work isn’t taken as seriously as a man’s work is.

By the early 1930s, Tirzah’s marriage was in trouble. Eric had fallen in love with another woman & was away from home for weeks at a time. When he was home, he was criticizing her for being unadventurous & doing nothing but housework. Tirzah was pregnant with their third child & stoically concentrating on decorating Bank House, where they were now living,

I worked hard in decorating the house and wasn’t unduly miserable. I think i must have a cheerful constitution because I didn’t seem to be put out by misfortunes as much as most people. Possibly this is because I habitually am lucky enough to be completely absorbed in drawing or writing so that I become quite unconscious of people or time when I am working, so there is always that escape from reality.

The marriage limped on as war drew closer. Tirzah fell in love with John Aldridge but their affair was doomed as he was married. Tirzah discovered she had breast cancer & underwent a mastectomy in 1942. Eric had been commissioned as a war artist & was killed in a plane crash on the way to Iceland that same year. Tirzah later married Henry Swanzy, a producer for the BBC & began painting in oils. Cancer returned & Tirzah died in 1951.

Long Live Great Bardfield is an immensely engaging book. Tirzah’s style is quite matter of fact & unemotional even when she’s describing upsetting events. As she writes near the end,

I hope, dear reader, that you may be one of my descendants, but as I have only three children, my grandfather had six and as I write a German aeroplane has circled round above my head taking photographs of the damage that yesterday’s raiders have done, reminding me that there is no certainty of our survival.

That conversational tone & Tirzah’s honesty make the book so absorbing to read. I read it in just a few long sessions, led on from one chapter to the next. There is a lot of humour in the book as well. Aunts are nearly always eccentric & Tirzah’s are no exception. There are many amusing stories of her childhood with her parents & siblings. When Tirzah is in hospital she describes the other patients & the camaraderie they feel for each other. Her descriptions of childbirth & the treatment she had for breast cancer are very calmly related. Her emotional honesty is also remarkable. All through the misery of realising that Eric was having affairs, she kept trying to understand his point of view & just got on with things because she had no choice. She expressed no obvious regret for the loss of her career although I was boiling mad on her behalf as I thought of her wasted talent.

The quote that kept recurring as I read this book was from one of Katherine Mansfield’s letters or journals about the expectation of her husband, John Middleton Murry, that she would be responsible for all the domestic chores, even if she was working, while he sat in the garden with his friends.

The house seems to take up so much time…  Well someone’s got to wash dishes and get food. Otherwise ‘there’s nothing in the house but eggs to eat’. And after you have gone I walk about with a mind full of ghosts of saucepans and primus stoves and ‘will there be enough to go around?’ And you calling, whatever I am doing, writing, ‘Tig, isn’t there going to be tea? It’s five o’clock.’

There are also many lovely descriptions of the Essex landscape in the book & of the houses they lived in & visited. The difficulties of country living – the infestations of insects or rodents, the problems of finding help in the house, the vagaries of landlords & the joy of discovering that the Great Bardfield butcher’s name is Mr Bones – as well as the friends they make are always interesting to read about. It’s not surprising that Tirzah had no time for art when housekeeping & child care took up so much time.

Tirzah’s daughter, Anne Ullmann, has edited the autobiography & used letters & Tirzah’s rough notes to fill in the final years of her life. Tirzah’s story is important, not just as the portrait of a group of artists in the interwar years, but also as a profoundly clear-eyed & honest description of the life of a woman artist with all its difficulties & disappointments as well as the satisfaction & the joy.

The Chalk Pit – Elly Griffiths

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Forensic archaeologist Dr Ruth Galloway is called in when bones are discovered during building works under the Guildhall in Norfolk. The bones are very white & smooth. Are they medieval, as Ruth expects, or more recent? Architect Quentin Swan just wants to get on with his project but forensic tests reveal that the bones could be less than 10 years old & they may have been boiled in a pot. Detective Chief Inspector Harry Nelson & his team – DS Judy Johnson, Dave Clough & Tanya Fuller – are investigating the bones but current cases take priority.

Barbara Murray, a homeless woman, has disappeared & her friend, Eddie (known unkindly as Aftershave Eddie), asks Nelson to find her. When Eddie & another homeless man, Bilbo, are murdered, stabbed while they slept, the search for Barbara takes on more urgency. Then, a young mother, Sam Foster-Jones, disappears from her home in the early evening, leaving her four children behind. When Dave Clough’s partner, Cassandra Blackstock, also disappears after a rehearsal of a play, an experimental version of Alice in Wonderland, the team begin to look for connections between the three missing women. A drop-in centre for the homeless, run by a born-again Christian & his wife, which also runs a mother’s group seems to connect all the victims & then there are rumours of an underground community, living in the tunnels under the city. Could the bones under the Guildhall, the murdered men & missing women be connected?

I love this series. Even more than the mystery plot, I love the characters. Ruth is a single mother in her 40s. Her daughter, Kate, the result of a brief affair with Nelson, is now six years old. I enjoy the detail of Ruth’s work at the University, the office politics of her slimy boss, Phil, & the wonder she feels at Kate, so confident, so different in personality from herself, as she grows up in their remote house on the Saltmarsh. Ruth still feels uncertain about her abilities as a mother, whether it’s at the school gate with the other parents or when Kate is offered a part in Cassandra’s play. There’s also a significant strand of the plot that takes Ruth back to her parents. Their evangelical beliefs alienated Ruth for years but the birth of Kate brought them closer. Ruth & Nelson’s relationship is still very tentative. His marriage survived their brief affair but his wife, Michelle, almost had an affair with one of his colleagues & their relationship has become distant & very careful. Nelson sees Kate regularly but he & Ruth try to keep a certain distance because of his marriage. Michelle knows about Kate but their daughters don’t & this is becoming difficult.

Judy Johnson’s relationship with Cathbad, lab assistant & Druid, has settled down & Cathbad is the main carer for their two children. Judy is a compassionate, strong woman & I loved her investigations into Barbara’s disappearance. Clough is as insensitive & judgmental as ever but his edges have been softened by his relationship with Cassandra & the birth of their son. Tanya is an ambitious young woman, eager to make her mark & the new boss, Superintendent Jo Archer, is the kind of career police officer that infuriates Nelson. He feels threatened by her emphasis on reports & efficiency & is offended to be sent on a speed awareness course, suspecting that Archer is looking for an excuse to push him into retirement or at least keep him chained to a desk & away from active investigating. The solution to the mystery is based on solid police work & a flash of inspiration from Ruth. The investigations into the homeless community, the stories of Barbara, Eddie & Bilbo, as well as the people who try to care for them, was fascinating. The book ends with a significant moment that hints at personal turmoil to come for Ruth & Nelson in the next book & I can hardly bear to wait another year to discover what happens!

I read The Chalk Pit thanks to a review copy from NetGalley.

The Communion of Saints – John Barlow

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John Ray’s thick dark hair was just the same, a little too long and wilfully unkempt. He was dressed just as she remembered: loose black suit with a white shirt open at the neck. Yet as they emerged into the chill of the late afternoon, she detected a difference in him, something subtle but undeniable. He still looked as if he’d just walked out of a casino at six in the morning. But the easy swagger was gone; it was as if he’d walked out of the casino because he’s lost everything.

Whenever John Ray’s name is mentioned, he’s described as “son of Tony Ray, the well-known local crime boss”. A year after witnessing his father’s murder, John is still coming to terms with the grief & the guilt. He’s working as a teaching assistant in Accountancy at Leeds City University, living in an apartment that’s fast becoming a rubbish dump, drinking & gambling too much, a functional alcoholic living alone. When Detective Chief Superintendent Shirley Kirk of the West Yorkshire police asks John to informally investigate historic abuse allegations being made about St Olaf’s boys home, he’s intrigued. He’s also very attracted to Shirley & their night together leads to complications for her professional life when a gossip website features them on its front page the next morning.

The abuse allegations have surfaced on an internet forum for St Olaf’s old boys. The target of the allegations is Colin Marsden, former St Olaf’s boy who made a fortune from a chain of sports stores after famously starting off sweeping floors in a supermarket. Colin had returned to the Home after leaving, supporting Father Dardenne & organising sporting activities for the boys. Marsden’s personal life has spun out of control after an affair with a young woman & his wife is divorcing him. His business also looks to be in trouble as someone seems to be manipulating the share market. Shirley & John both have a personal connection to St Olaf’s but she wants John to investigate informally because of the potential for scandal.

John’s investigations are complicated by his notoriety. When Father Dardenne is found dead, poisoned, after John had visited him, the local police are only too happy to take him in for questioning. Another suspect is Warren Clegg, a former St Olaf’s boy who has been active on the internet forum & was also seen at Father Dardenne’s home on the day of his death. A second suspicious death sends the investigation in yet another direction & John must navigate through a tangle of blackmail & lies to get to the truth.

The Communion of Saints is the third book in the LS9 series. I really enjoyed the first two books, Hope Road & Father and Son, & have been waiting impatiently for the third book. I love a crime series which is based on compelling characters & John Ray is one of the most compelling, ambiguous characters in crime fiction. The ambiguity of his character & his actions is always intriguing. He takes Shirley out for a very expensive meal but how does he afford that on a teaching assistant’s salary? John had handed over his family’s second hand car business to a distant cousin, Connie Garcia, spends a lot of money at the casino & buys very expensive alcohol. Where does his money come from? Shirley instigates an investigation into this as she’s not sure how far she can trust John. He trained as an accountant, trying to escape his family’s criminal empire, but could he be using those skills to fund his lifestyle?

I also loved Shirley Kirk. A woman in her fifties who has risen in the ranks of a chauvinistic profession. Close to retirement but not sure she wants to make that decision. The exposure of her relationship with John does her no favours & the office politics are fascinating. Who tipped off the gossip website? The timing could hardly be worse with the job of Assistant Chief Constable about to become available – a job that Shirley is well-qualified for. Shirley’s past & her links to St Olaf’s have an influence on the investigation & she’s not afraid to play both sides of the game – using her relationship with John (& investigating his finances) as well as calling in favours from her colleagues when necessary. She’s a confident woman & her attraction to John doesn’t get too much in the way of her duty. The minor characters are also fully formed, from the sympathetic Father Dardenne to Connie (loved catching up with her again. There’s a great scene between Connie & Shirley that was so tense as the two women sized each other up) & Warren who becomes entangled in something much too complicated for him to grasp.

The Communion of Saints is a page-turner. I’m sure I missed some of the clues because I was reading so fast. I certainly didn’t put it all together until the very end. The series is a little more hardboiled than most of the mysteries I read but the descriptions of violence are never gratuitous & easy to skip if you’re as squeamish as I am. I love character-driven stories & John Ray is definitely the driver of these books. Attractive, vulnerable but exuding a confidence that is attractive to women even as it irritates those who would love to see him take a fall. I’m really looking forward to the next novel in this compelling series.

Thank you to John for sending me a review copy. More information about John & the series can be found on his website.

The Uninvited – Dorothy Macardle

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Roddy Fitzgerald is a writer & critic, living in London with his sister, Pamela, who has been nursing their father & is mentally & physically worn out. The Fitzgeralds are tired of London life & are on the lookout for a place in the country. On a road trip, they discover Cliff End, a remote, slightly dilapidated but beautiful Georgian house on the coast in Devon. Pamela falls in love immediately & can see the possibilities while Roddy doesn’t think they can afford to buy it. Surprisingly, the owner, Commander Brooke, agrees to sell it for a nominal price, leaving the Fitzgeralds to pay for renovations. The Commander, a gruff man, seems uneasy about the house but says little about its history. He lives with his orphaned granddaughter, Stella, who has led a sheltered life at boarding school. Stella lived at Cliff End as a young child until the tragic death of her mother, Mary, who fell from the cliff. Her father, the artist Llewellyn Meredith, left England & the Commander cared for Stella with the help of Mary’s friend, Miss Holloway. Mary’s death combined with the scandal of Meredith’s relationship with his Spanish model, Carmel, may account for the Commander’s dislike of the house but local rumour whispers of the house being haunted.

Pamela begins the renovations with local help & Roddy winds up their London life. He plans to write a book but soon begins a play. Lizzie Flynn, the Fitzgerald’s Irish housekeeper, completes the household. Lizzie soon picks up the local gossip & her cat, Whiskey, refuses to go upstairs.  Stella is fascinated with the house & the Fitzgeralds are keen to invite her but her grandfather refuses absolutely, without reason, to allow the friendship to develop. Stella does visit the house & the manifestations seem to be stimulated by her presence. Stella’s reveres the mother she can barely remember but the spirit in the house seems to be both loving & vengeful. Is it trying to protect Stella or harm her? However much Roddy & Pamela love the house, there’s an unpleasant atmosphere in some of the rooms. Sobbing in the night & patches of intense cold lead to more frightening manifestations.

My hand groped, trembling, for the light switch; I turned it on and ran bare-foot downstairs. everything was as we had left it: a white cloth, thrown over the laden table, made it like a bier; the nursery was empty, the curtains closed; face powder strewed the dressing table; the scent of mimosa lingered, potent still.

I leaned against the wall, waiting for my heart to recover its natural beat, but a cold shivering had taken me and I longed for my own room. I turned the lights out and tried to go upstairs.

I could not do it; I trembled at the knees and shuddered convulsively, sick with the chill that seemed to shrink the flesh on my bones and wrinkle my skin.My breast was hollow and a breath blew over my heart. If I had not clung to the newel-post, fighting, I would have panicked; I would have shouted for Max or pulled the front door open and torn out of the house. I thought something was coming down the stairs.

The Uninvited is a genuinely creepy tale of ghosts & the influence that the past can have on the present. The familiar tropes of the ghost story – the remote, abandoned house, the noises in the night, patches of unexplained cold, the cat who refuses to go into certain rooms – are there but very much grounded in a domestic story of renovating a house, making a home. Roddy’s growing love for Stella is protective but his desire to rescue her from whatever is haunting the house is combined with a recognition that she is her own person. She has been stifled by her grandfather & by the image of the saintly Mary, encouraged by the sinister Miss Holloway (whose obsession with Mary reminded me of Mrs Danvers) as well as the locals. The Commander’s desire to root out any influence from Stella’s artistic, immoral father is almost pathological.

“She is her father’s daughter. She remembers him; that is the trouble. … She resembles him physically. The influence of that strain in her is so potent that it has been my life’s aim to break it down. God knows, I’ve left nothing undone! When Mary died I retired from the navy and dedicated myself to that purpose – to make Mary’s child the woman Mary would have wished her to be. I paid an exorbitant salary to Mary’s confidential nurse; I surrounded Stella with Mary’s pictures, gave her Mary’s books, sent her to the same school. It was a sacrifice: I missed her. But when she returned home a year ago I was pleased. She would always be without her mother’s grace, charm, beauty, but she was good. She was serious; she carried out her duties conscientiously; she continued her studies under my direction. I planned to take her abroad.”

To combat this stifling atmosphere becomes the goal of both Roddy & Pamela. In the course of this struggle for Stella’s future happiness, they are fighting not only her stubborn grandfather but also the uninvited inhabitants of Cliff End. Their determination to win through & release Stella from the ties of the past leads to a truly exciting climax.

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The Uninvited was made into what is considered one of the best supernatural movies ever made, one of the first to treat ghosts seriously & not just as comic relief. Starring Ray Milland, Ruth Hussey, Donald Crisp (one of my favourite character actors) & Gail Russell as Stella, it has a screenplay by Dodie Smith (of I Capture the Castle & Look Back with Love fame). I watched the movie first & it was very close to the book. The friends who visit the Fitzgeralds, Roddy’s play writing & most of the locals are left out but that just heightens the solitary atmosphere of the house & the supernatural manifestations. The Irishness is also almost completely removed. Macardle was an Irish writer, very active in the Republican movement, & much is made of the Irishness of the Fitzgeralds in the book. Lizzie’s Catholicism is very potent & more than just peasant superstition (which it tends to be in the movie) & the local priest, Father Anson, has a greater role.

The lovely new edition I read is part of Irish publisher Tramp Press‘s Recovered Voices series (I reviewed the first of the series, A Struggle for Fame by Charlotte Riddell, a couple of years ago). It’s a beautifully produced book with French flaps & an informative introduction by Luke Gibbons.

Because of the Lockwoods – Dorothy Whipple

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Harriet Evans, in her Preface to this edition of Because of the Lockwoods, writes of the “readability factor” in Dorothy Whipple’s work & speculates that she is not better known & valued as a novelist because her books are just so satisfying to read that critics think she can’t be writing “real literature“. Well, I can testify to the unputdownability of her work. It was a very hot day last Saturday & I sat down at about 11am with a glass of iced tea & Because of the Lockwoods . I was at about p130 & I finished the book that evening. Apart from necessary breaks for more iced tea, lunch & opening the door to the cats & trying to convince them that they should stay inside, I read over 300pp in a day. I can’t remember the last time I did that. I kept planning to stop but then “I’ll read just one more chapter. I must find out how Thea gets on at the Pensionnat or whether Martin will accept the dress clothes from Mr Lockwood or will Oliver’s plans for Molly work out?”. In the end I just forgot about the heat & anything else I should have been doing & raced on to the end of a very satisfying novel.

The Hunters & the Lockwoods are neighbours. Richard Hunter’s early death leaves his widow at a loss, emotionally & financially, & she eagerly clutches at the idea that William Lockwood will step in & help her with her finances even though he does this with a very bad grace. Money is going to be tight & Mrs Hunter has three children to bring up so they must sell their house on the pleasant outskirts of Aldworth, a Northern manufacturing town. The house they buy in Byron Place is cramped & inconvenient. The neighbourhood is not what the Hunters have been used to & Mrs Hunter struggles on, trying to make ends meet, keeping her distance from the neighbours. The Hunters are patronised by the Lockwoods, expected to be grateful for invitations to Christmas parties. Mrs Hunter is an ineffectual woman, pathetically grateful for Mrs Lockwood’s cast-off clothing & completely unable to reassess her circumstances & pull herself out of the slump she went into at her husband’s death.

Molly & Martin Hunter are forced to leave school early. Mrs Lockwood finds work for Molly as a governess & Martin, who longs to be a doctor, ends up as a bank clerk. Neither are suited for these jobs but they seem unable to change their circumstances. Thea, the youngest of the Hunter children is a different proposition altogether. Thea resents the Lockwoods & their unwilling patronage. She endured humiliating visits to Mr Lockwood’s office as a child, watched his contemptuous dismissal of her mother & suffered through the torments of social occasions with the monstrously self-satisfied twins Bea & Muriel Lockwood. She manages to stay on at school, convinces her mother to allow her to go to France as an au pair for a year (unfortunately to the same pensionnat as the Lockwoods) &, when that ends disastrously, is the catalyst for the turn around in the family fortunes that comes after much heartache & misery.

Her mother, Molly and Martin wrote every week, mostly to say they really had no news. Their letters seemed to be both wistful and flat. Now that she was at a distance from her family, with only their letters to represent them, she noticed a factor common to all three: a lack of interest in what they were doing, in the way they had to spend their lives. Her mother wasn’t interested in housework, Molly wasn’t interested in governessing, Martin wasn’t interested in the bank. Thea was shocked to make this discovery. Not only was it a waste of life, but she wondered, too, if it was a fault inherent in the family. With anxiety, she examined herself to see if it was in her as well. But though she had to admit to frequent dissatisfaction, resentment, indignation, she didn’t think she could be accused of lack of interest.

Thea is the life force in the Hunter family but it’s Oliver Reade who really makes change a reality through sheer energy & will. When the Reades move into Byron Place they see it as a step up from Gas Street where they had lived in poverty. Oliver’s hard work has taken his mother & sister to a respectable home. The difference in the two families is as simple as their attitude to Byron Place. For the Hunters, it’s a humiliating drop in social status & Mrs Hunter’s pretensions to gentility prevent her from becoming part of the neighbourhood. She’s lonely & her children are unhappy in their uncongenial jobs. For the Reades, it’s an upward move. Oliver pursues Thea & is undeterred by her cold indifference. His attempts to become friends are rejected but he gradually becomes a friend of the family, helping Molly & Martin to eventually break free of the inertia they seem unable to overcome. His attempts to better himself, attending night school & taking elocution lessons are endearing rather than comic & his steadfast love for Thea is very touching. Oliver is successful despite his origins & the Hunter’s superior social class is no help to them without the money to keep up the lifestyle they once had. Eventually Oliver is the catalyst for the tremendous & very satisfying conclusion to the novel when the Lockwoods & the Hunters get their just desserts.

I loved everything about this book. The first sentences set the tone for the relationship between the two families. “Mrs Lockwood decided to invite Mrs Hunter and her children to Oakfield for New Year’s Eve. It would be one way of getting the food eaten up. There was always so much of it during Christmas week, thought Mrs Lockwood with a sense of repletion.” Mrs Lockwood is skewered in those few sentences – her condescension, her canny thrift, her self-satisfaction in her own charity. Who are these Hunters who are to be condescended to? Immediately the reader wants to know & the New Year’s Eve party is so awful that we can’t wait to discover how the Hunters (whose side we’re immediately on) found themselves in such a position. We know from the beginning that Mr Lockwood has indulged in a shady bit of subterfuge to get hold of a paddock adjoining the Hunter’s house that he has always coveted. Part of the reason why we race through the novel is to see just how that dishonesty will be revealed & in what circumstances. Along the way though, we lose sight of it because we’re so involved in Thea’s romance with a young man in Villeneuve, a provincial French town where manners haven’t changed since the 19th century; Martin being taken up by the Lockwoods as a presentable young man to squire the girls around & then secretly falling in love with the youngest daughter, Clare; Molly blossoming when she finds work that suits her; Angela Harvey, a friend of the Lockwoods, defying convention by planning a career on the stage.

Thank goodness Persephone Books have reprinted nearly all Whipple’s novels & short stories. The rediscovery of Dorothy Whipple is emblematic of everything that Nicola Beauman has tried to do since Persephone was founded in 1999. Whipple’s Someone at a Distance was one of the first three Persephones & I can still remember the sheer joy I felt when I realised that there were authors like Whipple, Susan Glaspell, Dorothy Canfield Fisher & Marghanita Laski that I had never heard of but could now read. The beauty of the books as objects just added to my excitement. Harriet Evans’ Preface to this edition of Because of the Lockwoods is a passionate rallying cry for Dorothy Whipple & her place in 20th century fiction. Evans wants Whipple to be up there with Barbara Pym & Georgette Heyer as rediscovered & reclaimed authors now taken seriously by critics as well as fans. The same Preface could be written for all the authors I mentioned above & many others who have been reprinted by Persephone to the delight of lovers of absorbing novels, short stories, memoirs & diaries. I’m so pleased that this was the first book I finished this year. It’s a wonderful start to my year of reading from my tbr shelves & getting back to the books, the authors & the imprints that I’ve neglected over the past few years.

Bewildering Cares – Winifred Peck

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Camilla Lacely & her husband Arthur, an Anglican vicar live in Stampfield, near Manchester, a manufacturing town with an inconveniently large vicarage & a Victorian Gothic church. Bewildering Cares is the diary of a week in Camilla’s life in the first months of WWII & encapsulates the drudgery, troubles & sometimes unconscious humour of her role as a clergy wife.

The war is already impinging on Camilla’s life as her son, Dick, is training with his regiment & seems to be taking a romantic interest in Ida Weekes, daughter of her husband’s Church Warden. Mrs Weekes is one of those irritating women who loftily tells Camilla that her life would run more smoothly if only she had more Method. Dick’s happy-go-lucky, irreverent outlook on life often pops into Camilla’s mind at the most inopportune moments. The major drama of the week is caused by Arthur’s curate, Mr Strang, who gives a pacifist sermon (which Camilla unfortunately sleeps through), outraging the entire parish. Mr Strang is a highly-principled but, unfortunately, not very sympathetic man who rubs everyone up the wrong way. Arthur is put in the impossible position of having to support a colleague while also being expected to denounce him from the pulpit. Only a life-threatening illness seems likely to resolve the situation.

Camilla has domestic as well as parish problems. Her maid, Kate, is an uninspired cook who takes advantage of her boyfriend’s imminent departure to France to pop out & see him as often as she can get away with as well as inviting him in to share the Lacely’s frugal meals. Camilla knows she’s lucky to have domestic help at all & accommodates Kate in the hope of keeping her. She knows that she would be unable to carry out all the unpaid parish work she’s just expected to do without domestic help & there’s certainly enough of that, mostly endless committee meetings with the same group of elderly women now that all the younger people have joined the war effort. Camilla, as the vicar’s wife, is often called on to adjudicate in disputes among the members of rival sewing parties,

An earth-shaking schism seemed imminent, and was only prevented by the decision to adopt my casual suggestion of holding two parties weekly, Comforts for Converts on Monday, and Warmth for Warriors on Thursday. There are not really enough members to make this worth while, especially as since our unhappy division no Monday worker will knit on Thursday, and no Thursday knitter will button-hole pyjamas on Monday.

Shopping for a hat is difficult when Camilla feels she should not be seen to be extravagant but knows her old hat is about to fall to pieces. Then, amongst all the trivialities, the constant phone calls & visitors dropping in for help, Camilla feels really useful, as when she’s able to help Mrs Strang in her husband’s illness or comforts an old friend on her deathbed. However, the underlying humour & exasperation is never far away. Maybe the greatest trial of Camilla’s week is the Quiet Day, a retreat for clergy wives led by a celibate priest who no doubt finds it easy to empty his mind of trivialities & concentrate on God.

Again I pulled myself up and tried to meditate, but by this time the text on which we were to concentrate had wholly eluded me, and by fumbling in a prayer-book I only hit on the Psalm which, as a clerical correspondent to The Times so wittily pointed out, would just coincide with meat-rationing: “They run hither and thither for meat and are not satisfied.” No other woman present, I am quite sure, could have sunk to such a low level of inward debate between the respective merits of point steak and neck of mutton for a household of three, when we all rose and trooped back to the drawing-room.

I loved the humour of Camilla’s efforts to keep everyone as happy as possible, especially as she fails as often as she succeeds. One of her easier tasks is making sure Arthur eats enough as he worries about the “luxury” of their frugal meals.Only by keeping him talking about some knotty parish problem or by reading at meals will Arthur become so absorbed that he forgets his scruples.

Arthur came in looking so exhausted that I went to the book-shelf and took out Mr Mulliner Speaks. I propped this against the water-jug for him, and Wild Strawberries by Angela Thirkell, which I have read thirty times already and will probably read thirty more, against the loaf for myself. There is nothing so good for worried people as to read at their meals, and funny books if possible; for laughter grows so rusty in war time.

Any writer who references Wodehouse & Thirkell as well as E M Delafield, Winifred Holtby & Dorothy Whipple, is going to be sympathetic to a lover of the middlebrow & is obviously why Winifred Peck is such a perfect choice for the new Furrowed Middlebrow imprint from Dean Street Press. Camilla is a kind woman, as sympathetic to the thought of a budding romance in the parish as she is alarmed by the very real prospect of Dick being posted overseas. Her irritation over the constant interruptions, Kate’s fecklessness & the petty squabbles of the various parish factions never overwhelm her knowledge that the work she & Arthur are doing is valuable. Above all, she & Arthur maintain their sense of humour through it all which makes Bewildering Cares a delight to read. Winifred Peck grew up in a clerical household & knew the life intimately. She brings all her knowledge & understanding to this charming story of the early days of WWII.