Apparently Persephone Week finished on Friday… but here at Stuck-in-a-Book we’re going to keep it going right until the end of the week. No Weekend Miscellany this weekend, then, but instead the final two Persephones will be proffered. (And maybe even a redux tomorrow). No, I didn’t manage to read six (though I’m quite pleased with four), but today you’re going to hear about Lettice Delmer by Susan Miles and, more excitingly, see the product of Our Vicar’s Wife’s interaction with Good Things in England by Florence White (which is also coming out in November as a Persephone Classic, with a really beautiful cover, below)
Right – Lettice Delmer, my first novel in verse, and the only one which Persephone have published. [Edit: Sorry, I forgot, Amours du Voyage by Arthur Hugh Clough is another one.] Not in rhyming verse, at least most of the time, but in blank verse. (If you need a brush up on what blank verse is, have a look here.) I bought this in a secondhand bookshop a while ago and, to be honest, I might not have bought it otherwise – like a lot of people, I suspect, the concept of a novel in verse was a little off-putting. Me more than most, since I’ve always struggled with reading poetry – probably because I read quite quickly, and poetry really needs to be read slowly, or even aloud.
But, nothing daunted, I gave Lettice Delmer (1958) a go for Persephone Reading Week. If I’m ever going to read it, thought I, now is the time. The Publisher’s Note writes that it is ‘a novel, i.e. narrative with plot, characterisation and psychological insight, where the verse form is readable, not too intrusive – but essential.’ Lettice Delmer is the privileged daughter of extremely charitable parents, who are always seeking to help others for the sake of Christ. She herself is uncertain at the welcome her parents give to Flora Tort and her young son Derrick. Flora was a patient at a Special Hospital (a euphemistic title) and her son is rather an unpredictable, savage creature – at first. The rest of this novel looks at the Delmer household; Lettice’s leaving of it, and her subsequent life of difficulties, weaknesses, loves, losses and spiritual journey. The secondary depiction of a Christian girl struggling to communicate with God, and seeking further depth in her relationship with Christ, was very honest, moving, and genuine.
The Persephone edition has a Plot Summary section at the end, giving summaries of each 10-20 pages – I occasionally flicked to it to clarify a point or two, but largely didn’t find I needed it. Its inclusion does speak volumes about an anticipated readerly response – you can’t imagine a plot summary at the end of a novel, can you? It is true that, now and then, I’d miss a pivotal event – perhaps because I read verse a little too fast, and the nature of its lay-out, with dialogue incorporated into stanzas alongside everything else, means that it’s trickier to make significant points stand out. But this didn’t happen very often, and in general, I didn’t find the verse format a problem.
I suppose that’s the central part of this review, in terms of whether or not I’ll convince others to give Lettice Delmer a try – was I able to read it? For the first thirty pages, I thought I wouldn’t be able to. It was tricky, I get stumbling, and realising I hadn’t taken in anything on the page – but then it clicked. Something suddenly worked – and, though every time I picked the novel up it would take a few lines before it clicked again, I was immersed more quickly each time.
But, of course, unobtrusive wouldn’t be good enough. If a verse format did nothing but disappear into the background, it would be pointless. Of course, Susan Miles uses it to much better effect. Difficult to pin down what the verse *does* achieve: it is more of an atmosphere than anything specific. A subtle beauty and poignancy is lent to the pages, an almost ethereal quality. The verse enables Miles to discuss hard-hitting topics such as death, suicide, abortion, and depression without this feeling at all like a gratuitously gritty novel – they are serious topics, dealt with seriously, but almost through a glass darkly.
The lines I really want to quote give away a big spoiler. So I’m going to post them in white, and you can decide whether or not to read them. Below that are two other quotations, little moments in Lettice Delmer which were illuminating examples of how the verse can be used to accurately reveal a character. The last shows just how well this book fits into the Persephone canon.
direct his footsteps to the sea-dashed brink.
Not till the waters close above his head
does any plea for mercy stir in him.
* * *
“It’s want of confidence, I truly think,
that keeps him so resentful.
I’ve watched poor Flora hold a stick – quite low –
and try to make him jump.
It seemed as if he were afraid to raise
both feet at once in case when they came down
the earth would not be there!”
* * *
For Lettice insists scratchily
that aching to be in the war is a whim that merits contempt.
“You are doing far better serving at home humbly
than seeking false glory, it seems to me, Hulbert,
out on the battlefield,
for unmarked, unpraised, wholly unheroic home service
is, to my mind, self-satisfying or not self-satisfying,
much more admirable than a soldier’s blatant offering.”
To conclude, I thought I’d find Lettice Delmer impossible to read – but I was pleasantly surprised. Though it won’t become one of my favourite Persephones, the novel has a lyrical beauty for which it is worth acclimatising yourself to the unusual form. Do have a step outside your comfort zone, and give this novel a try.
Onto the second Persephone title of the post:
Our Vicar’s Wife had a flick through Good Things in England, (in its Persephone Originals edition) trying to decide what to make – the first thing she found was something involving a pig’s head, and thought not. Which is nice for me, because I’m vegetarian. Instead, she opted for gingerbread. ‘Eliza Acton’s Gingerbread’, no less, appropriately enough a recipe submitted from a Rectory. Here Mum is, holding her offering (doesn’t she look nice?)