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.

Mini reviews, bits & pieces

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I’m doing lots of reading at the moment but not finding the time to write reviews so I thought I would just post quick reviews of a couple of books & mention a few other bits & pieces.

Terms and Conditions by Ysenda Maxtone Graham is the latest publication from Slightly Foxed. It’s a history of girls boarding schools in England from the 1930s to the 1970s. The reviews for this book have been glowing, emphasizing the humour & laughter but I found it quite a melancholy read. So many of the women interviewed had been profoundly affected by their experiences at boarding school. Many of them had been avid readers of boarding school fiction by Angela Brazil or Enid Blyton & their actual experiences of loneliness, physical privations (cold dormitories, terrible food) & emotional deprivation were distressing to read about. Maybe I’m not as stoic as many of the interviewees, many of whom were nonetheless still affected by their experiences decades later. The story of girls education in the 20th century is so bound up with the class system & the different expectations of girls & boys & what their futures would be. Maxtone Graham is horrified by this,

The keeping of the lid on their ambitions was, though, shameful: an unimaginative and backward-looking way of keeping women ‘in their place’ by ensuring that they arrived in adulthood safely under-qualified for anything except a brief secretarial job followed by marriage and keeping house. There was appalling frustration for women in those bad old days.

but, as a boarding school girl herself in the 70s, she’s more accepting of the limitations of the system than I can be. There are some very funny stories & the advantages of life-long friendships & an ability to cope with any setback that life can throw at you are emphasized by many of the interviewees. I just found myself pondering the sadness rather than the jolly hockey sticks aspects. There were too many unsympathetic, unqualified teachers & uninterested parents & I felt desperately sorry for the students & frustrated that their talents & strengths were so often ignored.

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Weatherland by Alexandra Harris is a survey of the way English artists & writers have described weather. Harris begins in Anglo-Saxon England with Beowulf & ends in the late 20th century. It’s a fascinating journey. Some of the highlights for me were the descriptions of medieval manuscripts where it always seems to be winter. Spring & summer are never described but there are lots of illustrations of people pulling off wet shoes & stockings in front of roaring fires. The frost fairs of the 17th century, the amount of mud that was just a part of everyday life before modern roads. The influence of Italian architecture that led to 18th century country houses modeled on Italian villas but without the balmy weather that made living in marble halls comfortable. The tinted glasses that 18th century tourists used to enhance the view (blue for a moonlight effect or yellow for autumnal views). The cult of sublimity that meant the “fine” weather wasn’t sunny & bright but gloomy & atmospheric. The symbolic importance of those hot, summers before the Great War as described in novels like L P Hartley’s The Go-Between.

Harris has written a biography of Virginia Woolf (& cites Woolf as her inspiration for Weatherland) & Woolf is quoted several times, especially Orlando, her novel of a very long-lived protagonist who begins as a 16th century man, changes sex in the 18th century & ends the book in the 1920s. Many of my favourite authors are discussed from Shakespeare & Surrey in the 16th century to Gilbert White, the Romantic poets, Thomas Hardy’s heaths, Dickens’s London fog, T S Eliot & Stevie Smith. This is  a fascinating exploration of the way that weather has influenced English thought over centuries, a thought-provoking read. I know I’ll be noticing the weather in my reading from now on.

In last week’s Persephone Post, Nicola Beauman featured Dorothy Canfield Fisher, author of The Homemaker, one of Persephone’s first titles. Persephone has always championed Canfield Fisher & they’re considering reprinting another of her books. They’re asking for recommendations & I’ve emailed to suggest The Deepening Stream, which I absolutely loved.

In the latest Persephone Letter is a link to a terrific article about Susan Glaspell, one of my favourite Persephone authors. I reread Brook Evans a couple of years ago but Fidelity is a remarkable novel, one of the first Persephones I bought & should be better known. I bought Canfield Fisher’s Letters last year but haven’t read them yet. They’re definitely coming off the tbr shelves soon.

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Finally, I don’t write about politics on the blog but this is so clever & so funny that I just can’t resist. If you’re on Twitter, have a look at Donaeld the Unready @donaeldunready. You may know that Ethelred the Unready’s sobriquet didn’t mean that he was always late, it meant Ill-advised. I leave you to make the connection.

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.

Dickens in December

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For me, December means Dickens. This year I have a treat, a new Naxos recording of Dickens’ Christmas stories.These are the stories Dickens published in the 1840s. The first of them was the perennially popular A Christmas Carol.

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I’ll be listening to Miriam Margolyes reading the Carol as I have for the last few years. This new recording is of the other four stories – The Chimes, The Cricket on the Hearth, The Battle of Life & The Haunted Man. Even better, they’re read by David Timson, one of my favourite narrators. I listened to his recording of Dombey & Son last year & it was wonderful. He’s also recorded the complete Decline & Fall of the Roman Empire by Gibbon which I’m nearly halfway through. I haven’t read these later Christmas Stories as often as A Christmas Carol – I can recite whole passages from the Carol – but these later stories have never been as popular. The Carol was a hard act to follow. However, I’m finding a lot to admire & enjoy in them. I think listening is the perfect way to experience them.

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I’ve also been catching up on back issues of The Dickensian, watching Ronald Colman (photo from here) in the 1935 movie of A Tale of Two Cities (which made me want to reread the book immediately) & reading this terrific interview with Jenny Hartley where she chooses her top 5 books on Dickens.

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Apart from Dickens, I’m also reading this anthology of Christmas stories. A mixture of old favourites & new discoveries. So far I’ve enjoyed rereading The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, The Necklace of Pearls by Dorothy L Sayers & discovering a very Golden Age story by Val McDermid called A Traditional Christmas. There are also stories by Ian Rankin, Ellis Peters, Ngaio Marsh & Margery Allingham. I bought the Kindle edition for only about $3 but it’s also available in paperback.

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I’ve also been tempted by bloggers to buy a couple of Christmassy books, the first books I’ve bought for nearly two months. Elaine’s review of Jeanette Winterson’s Christmas Days was so enticing that I ordered it straightaway.

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I was also intrigued by Heavenali’s mention of this anthology of Christmas Stories published by Everyman. I love these chunky little hardback anthologies of short stories. There are several more here that I’m tempted by.

I’ll just finish this ramble with a link to a blog I’ve just discovered. Emily Rhodes works at Daunt Books, organises their very popular Walking Book Club & is a freelance reviewer. She also blogs at EmilyBooks. I’ve been enjoying reading her archive as she is a fan of Persephone Books, Slightly Foxed, Ann Bridge, Penelope Fitzgerald & Elizabeth Von Arnim.

I was going to finish this ramble but Lynne at dovegreyreader has written about the centenary of Penelope Fitzgerald’s birth here & I like her idea of a Persephone January. There, that really is the end.