The Boat by L.P. Hartley

The Boat

When Rachel and I discussed trains and boats in novels in an episode of ‘Tea or Books?’ – you can hear the episode here – David had a few suggestions in the comment section, one of which was The Boat (1949) by L.P. Hartley. I was particularly pleased to see him mention it because it was on my shelves. John Murray kindly sent me all their L.P. Hartley reprints a few years ago, and I’ve been fully intending to get to them – better late than never, as The Boat is brilliant.

Timothy Casson makes his living writing articles, usually travel articles, and has spent happy, carefree years touring Italy and the like. But now he has been requested to write about England, to support the war effort, and it is partly this stricture that finds him renting a house in an English village – having chosen a house next to the river largely because of its boathouse. He has a passion for rowing and for boats, and has proudly brought his boat with him. But he discovers that the local gentry aren’t happy at the idea of disturbing the fishing, and the landowner – who also owns the river – has to decide whether or not to allow him his rowing.

Such is through-thread of this novel, which is over 450 pages long. Such, one might say, is the river running through it – at just the right moments, perfectly judged, Hartley returns us to this theme. A letter may be sent to the old lady whose decision it is, or Timothy might make a bold decision against his plan – it crops up just often enough to remind the reader that it is something of an impetus. And it pays off in a bold climax – but the novel is not really about climaxes. It is slow, observant, gradual – brilliantly paced, while not being remotely pacey.

I talked a bit about this in another podcast episode – it really is one of the most brilliantly structured books I’ve read. I had to read it slowly. It took months, and I read many other books at the same time, but that was how it worked – gradually finding my way through the hundreds of pages, letting this life ebb along beside me.

For it is mostly about Casson’s life – about his relationship with his maid and cook (who are hilarious; I loved every scene in which they appeared, particularly when they considered themselves affronted), about his gardener, about a fledgling romance, about confusing conversations with the vicar’s absent-minded wife, about failures to ingratiate himself with the local landowners. Most touchingly, about a pair of young boys who are briefly evacuated to his house. Hartley puts together a village world – but, unlike most rural novelists, we are not introduced to that world as a whole. We feel our way through it, alongside Timothy, learning more and more about it but feeling forever at a slight distance. He is nobody’s equal in this social hierarchy.

Lest this sound worthy but dull, I must emphasise that The Boat is an extremely funny – often, as I said, through Timothy’s baffled methods of living with servants, but also through Hartley’s dry tone. His observation often has the mildest of barbs, and the balance of his sentences makes them joyful. While this isn’t the most amusing part by any means, it’s a section I noted down as enjoyable…

Mr Kimball was a sweet-pea fancier, and knew more about them than Timothy knew of all of the rest of the world’s flora put together. Like most experts, he had an attitude towards his subject which no amateur could hope to enter into; the beauty of the flowers he took for granted; what interested him was their size, shape, colour, the difficulties attendant on rearing them, their habits of growth and above all their prize-winning capacities. But even this last was devoid of excitement for him; the thrill of the prize was subordinated to and almost lost in the various technical points necessary to secure it. The winning of the award was not so much a crowning glory as the logical outcome of having fulfilled all the conditions, and he expatiated at equal length on Mariposa which had taken several first prizes and on Wolverhampton Wonder which, owing to an exaggeration of certain qualities, attractive to the public but fatal to the true harmony and balance of the bloom, was never more than Highly Commended. Timothy listened, bored as one must be with an accumulation of details outside the grasp of one’s mind, but respectful, because he recognised in Mr Kimball’s dispassionate approach to his hobby the signs of an austere idealism which was lacking in his own art. From time to time Mrs Kimball supplied the personal touch that her husband had left out – “Mr Kimball stayed up until three o’clock the night he thought Bradford Belle had caught cold,” and so on, but he clearly deplored these womanly intrusions, and quickly elbowed them out of the conversation.

You see, perhaps, that Hartley does not rush. Mr and Mrs Kimball aren’t important characters, but nothing is hurried in Hartley’s prose – but it is a wonder to read each unhurried moment. And somehow the more eventful moments didn’t feel out of place, but almost earned by the mellow timbre of the rest of the writing. I could have done without the letters he writes and receives from two off-stage characters (who remain off-stage throughout); I suppose are there to help us work out Timothy’s personality, and give him opportunity to reveal himself in ways that he can’t to these neighbouring strangers. See, I even argue myself out of my criticisms.

This is such a leisurely book, and also an extraordinary one. Thank you for prompting me to read it, David, and I hope that – in turn – I might have prompted some others to do so.

To Bed With Grand Music by Marghanita Laski

I read To Bed With Grand Music (1946) by Marghanita Laski for the excellent Undervalued British Women Writers conference I went to a while ago, but it’s been one of those titles I’ve had on my real or imagined tbr pile for a long time. It seems such an unusual novel – and so risky that Laski published it under the pseudonym Sarah Russell.

To BEd With Grand Music

It takes place during the Second World War, and our ‘heroine’ – in a fairly loose sense – is Deborah, whose husband has been called up to fight for King and Country. Before he leaves, he initiates a frank chat about what will happen whilst he’s gone. He can’t, he assures her, be expected to remain celibate. He is sure (he adds) that she will understand. Deborah isn’t happy about it…

But, once alone, she rather quickly falls into her own life of dalliances, kicking off with an American soldier named (of course) Joe. It’s rather more nuanced than that, but the reader can see it coming – she finds her scruples gradually worn down, and after the first, the scruples more or less don’t exist. We are taken on a rather dizzying whirl of the men she has relationships with in London – well, some are rather briefer than relationships – and Laski does a great job of delineating them and demonstrating what their appeal is to Deborah. Sometimes it is power, sometimes money, sometimes charm, sometimes looks. One of them, mais naturallement, is French.

Meanwhile, her son is left in the countryside (with the rather more affectionate and capable housekeeper), and Deborah feels only occasional pangs of guilt.

Deborah understood him. “You’re at least the third person,” she said, ” who has asked me if it mightn’t be better if I went home to my chee-ild. Well, darling, that’s just one of the things I’ve really thought out for myself and I know it’s better to be happy than unhappy, and not only for me but for my baby as well. I like this sort of life, in fact, I love it, and seeing as how I’m hurting no one and doing myself quite a lot of good, I rather think I’ll carry on with it. I’ve come to the confusion that conventional morals were invented by a lot of unattractive bitches to make themselves feel good.”

Laski balances two things well – a real investigation of what might confront a woman in Deborah’s position, and (I think I’m right in saying) some sort of satire. It feels like a parody of the Casanova type – there is a real treadmill of conquests – but the tone remains firmly realistic, never allowing hyperbole to creep in, or any laughter from the author. The mix works well, even if it ends up wrong-footing the reader a bit.

This isn’t as sophisticated as some of Laski’s novels, perhaps chiefly because it’s only really doing one thing. The plot, or even the scenario, is really the point of the novel – an exercise in examining one woman and her choices, rather than a more complex canvas. As such, it works very well at what it is trying to do, and shines a light on a part of the war that most 1940s fiction left in darkness, but it is not her most ambitious novel. But, for the parameters she sets, it is both very good and very intriguing.

 

Others who got Stuck into this Book:

“No matter where you stand on the issue of Deborah’s character, this is an absolutely fascinating, brilliantly written portrayal of a completely different side of wartime life” – Book Snob

“This is a very interesting book to compare to Laski’s other World War II title, Little Boy Lost.” – The Bookbinder’s Daughter

“And so I found another Marghanita Laski book that I could argue with while reading. She is so good at that!” – Fleur in Her World

 

A Wreath of Roses by Elizabeth Taylor

Roses

I recently went to a brilliant conference in Chichester called ‘Undervalued British Women Writers 1930-1960’. I mean, the only way this could have been more perfect for me is if they’d shifted those dates back to 1920-1950 – but I overlooked that, because there were papers on beloved authors including E.M. Delafield, Ivy Compton-Burnett, Barbara Comyns, Muriel Spark, Elizabeth Taylor, Marghanita Laski, and more. My paper was on Rachel Ferguson’s The Brontes Went to Woolworths, which was great fun to talk about.

Once the conference programme came out, I did a bit of homework – reading Laski’s To Bed With Grand Music (review forthcoming) and Taylor’s A Wreath of Roses. I didn’t quite finish A Wreath of Roses (1949) in time to hear the excellent paper about it on my panel, but I’ve finished it now and it’s excellent. It’s vying with At Mrs Lippincote’s for my all-time fave Taylor novel.

It certainly starts more dramatically than most Taylor novels. I’m not going to spoil what happens in the opening pages, because it came as a very effective shock to me, but it’s something that Camilla witnesses as she is about to go and visit her friend Liz and Liz’s old governess. The moment is dramatic, but Taylor cleverly leaves the details undeveloped and the effect unspoken – it just quietly haunts both Camilla and the reader for the rest of the novel.

Like many Taylor heroines, Camilla is intelligent, literary, sensitive, and slightly wary of her way in the world. On the train, on the way to her friend, she meets Richard Elton – it is, she muses, the sort of name that an author would make up for a hero – and the meeting is not an immediate success. He is handsome and mysterious, but he also rebuffs her reference to Emily Bronte, and she ‘felt she had sacrificed Emily Bronte, throwing her in as a spur to conversation, uselessly’. There’s a great bit (not least for my conference paper) on how she and her childhood friend Liz had imaginary childhood tea parties for various literary luminaries – identified only as Emily, Charlotte, Jane, Ivy, and… Katie? Not sure who the last is.

When she arrives with Liz (and the slightly cranky ex-governess), she falls into trying to resurrect a friendship that has the significant obstacle of Liz having married a man (a vicar, no less) who Camilla intensely dislikes. He isn’t there, for the most part, but it colours their friendship – as does Liz’s baby boy, though that is a more nuanced obstacle, being chiefly a path down which Camilla cannot follow her friend. Oh, and the governess – Frances – is no stock character. I don’t think Taylor would know how to wrote one of those. She is a painter who, in her final years, is branching out into a whole new style of painting. In the midst of all this, two men arrive – one, a correspondent Frances has had for many years and never met; the other, Richard Elton back on the scene, darkly mysterious and intriguing.

There’s no author quite like Taylor for depending on my mood. Sometimes I love reading her beautiful writing; sometimes I find her writing impenetrable – and I think it must depend on how I’m feeling, rather than her writing. I’ll have to go back to A Wreath of Roses another time to see if I find it more of an obstacle then (though why would I put that to the test?) – this time, I was just able to soak in how good the prose was. Here’s the opening paragraph, to give you a flavour:

Afternoons seem unending on branch-line stations in England in summer time. The spiked shelter prints an unmoving shadow on the platform, geraniums blaze, whitewashed stones assault the eye. Such trains as come only add to the air of fantasy, to the idea of the scene being symbolic, or encountered at one level while suggesting another even more alienating. 

She is even better when she is writing about people. Time and again, Taylor shows everyday thoughts and moments in a nuanced, clear light. While A Wreath of Roses includes events that are much less ‘everyday’ than those in most of her other novels, and is certainly darker and more gothic, she still excels are crystallising the slippery truths behind friendships, enmities, uncertainties and identities.

I read bits of this in a graveyard next to a half-ruined priory, which was a pretty ideal place to read it – though the weather was warm and lovely, rather than hauntingly gothic. Context – my mood, the weather, font size, whatever – may have a lot to do with it – but I’m still going to say that this is one of the best Taylor novels I’ve read so far, and one I would certainly re-read.

 

Others who got Stuck into it:

“The characters are brilliantly observed, and this novel is a wonderful exploration of friendships.” – Heavenali

“It’s not all cozy rooms with lace curtains, plants in pots, ticking clocks, ornaments and coronation mugs, the wireless playing, and tabby cats waiting.” – Buried in Print

“One of the most moving and valuable studies of human isolation ever committed to print.” – Bentley Rumble

 

Evenfield by Rachel Ferguson

evenfieldFor some reason, despite quite a lot of reading time, I haven’t managed to finish more than one short book so far in 2017. What’s going on? Well, for now, here’s a Shiny New Books review of Evenfield (1942) by Rachel Ferguson – one of the new Furrowed Middlebrow reprints. It’s quite an extraordinary novel – in terms of what it’s trying to do and be. Below is the intro to my review, and you can read the whole thing here.

The launch of the Furrowed Middlebrow series from Dean Street Press, under the editorial eye of blogger and middlebrow expert Scott of Furrowed Middlebrow, is an occasion for much rejoicing. His knowledge of neglected writers from the twentieth century is second to none, and I very excited to see which names he picks for the ongoing series. But there was one name in the first tranche that particularly thrilled me: Rachel Ferguson.

Ferguson is known now, if at all, as the author of The Brontës Went to Woolworths and Alas, Poor Lady, which have been reprinted over the years, but the rest of her novels have remained neglected. Dean Street Press have now brought back A Harp in Lowndes Square, A Footman for the Peacock, and Evenfield, written between 1936 and 1942. The last and latest of these is the novel I’ve read for Shiny New Books, and it is a bizarre, enticing curio that could have come from no other pen.

Sword of Bone by Anthony Rhodes

sword-of-boneI’ve read quite a few war memoirs, but I’ve not read one quite like Sword of Bone before – this is the first of my reviews at Shiny New Books’ latest edition that I’ll be pointing you towards. Here’s the opening of my review; you can read the rest here.

They’ve done it again! Slightly Foxed have brought out yet another fascinating, entertaining, and well-written memoir – and another one that I would never have heard of without their curated collection in Slightly Foxed Editions. This time, it’s the memoir of a billeting officer during the Second World War – with the added interest that it was originally published in 1942 when, of course, the war was far from over.

Black Bethlehem by Lettice Cooper #1947Club

the-1947-clubFirstly – sorry I’ve been a bit behind with adding links to the 1947 Club post, but do keep them coming! It’s great to see so many different books being covered – and you have until Sunday to finish reading and reviewing.

This one might be my last for the week, though, and it’s the one I’ve been reading most of the week: Black Bethlehem by Lettic Cooper, probably best known to most of us (if at all) for the novel The New House, which was both a Persephone title and a Virago Modern Classic.  That’s certainly why I bought it whenever I did buy it, which I think might have been almost a decade ago. It’s nice that I’ve been able to do all my 1947 reading from books I’ve had waiting on my shelves for years – though (and sorry to write what will probably be my final review for this club as a bit of a downer) I didn’t really like this one all that much…

The book is quite slim, but the font is tiny and I think it’s actually probably quite a long novel… or, indeed, ‘three long short stories’, as I discovered it was only towards the end of reading (from this not-super-positive contemporary review). Before that, I’d just got rather confused, trying to link the sections together – the only link, so far as I can tell, is the appearance of John Everyman in each part, and that is evidently a not-particularly-coded way of introducing an everyman throughout.

There is a brief Prologue in an air raid shelter in 1944 that wasn’t particularly promising – Cooper very much puts theoretical arguments in different characters’ mouths, without much attempt at verisimilitude. Thankfully it’s pretty brief, and then we’re into Part 1. This concerns Alan Marriott in the final months of the war, invalided out of fighting, and giving an account of his wartime experience as part of a radio broadcast. We then see his uncertainties about his future, how he’s trying to keep his family happy while still trying to understand his role in this bizarre new world – and he’s in the midst of something of a love triangle at the same time.

Part 1 was my favourite section. It’s quite odd to have a female writer describe the life of a soldier – particularly as so many writers were presumably available in 1947 who’d had firsthand experience; it’s in the third person, but very much trying to put across Alan’s views and memories. It’s that slight disjointedness that doesn’t quite ring true. Cooper is describing how she imagines soldiers lived and thought and reacted to the war – and she doesn’t quite hit authentic notes. I am a passionate believer that anybody should be allowed to write about pretty much anything, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it will be completely successful. BUT this is still the best part of Black Bethlehem – engrossing and detailed.

Part 2 was my least favourite… We hop back to 1941, and a first person narrator whom we eventually learn is called Lucy. I spent most of this centre chunk of the book trying to work out who she was and how she related to anybody else in the first section, and perhaps I’d have enjoyed it more if I’d known from the outset that there were no connections… Lucy’s work in an office was quite interesting, but mostly this part (in diary format) felt a bit tedious, and I didn’t care enough about the characters to get overly bothered when she found herself in a love triangle. Though there was the odd moment that will stick with me – such as this depiction of being in a house when a bomb hits:

After the second stick the raid seemed to shift farther off, and we all got rather drowsy sitting by the hot fire. Mrs. Everyman murmured something about taking the children back to bed. The baby was asleep. Muriel was half asleep, leaning against her mother’s knee. Marta sat smoking and staring into the fire. I began to tell Peter a story. Suddenly there was a whistle, not a very long one, and the floor heaved under our feet. I knew, – I don’t know how, – that it was a stick coming towards us. I jumped up and leaned over Peter in a futile attempt to keep him safe. We could never decide afterwards whether it is true or not that you don’t hear the whistle if the bomb lands very near you. I don’t think I did hear it. Mrs Everyman said she did. The whole room seemed to come up through my stomach. There was a loud explosion, and then a long crash of falling stone. The black-out blew in, the glass cracked, the lights went out. The room was full of smoke and choking dust.

The third part is much shorter – about a boy called Simon (of all things) and him coming to terms with the arrival of his baby brother, in 1935. It was pretty good, but quite different from the tone of the rest of Black Bethlehem, and by that point I was rather tired of the whole thing.

So – not a 1947 book I’d recommend, though also one that I suspect others would enjoy, going into it eyes open. Maybe I read it too quickly to get it finished this week. And I’m still not sure why it’s called Black Bethlehem. Oh well – it still adds to a perspective of the year, which we wouldn’t get if we only read the best books of the year!

The Blank Wall by Elisabeth Sanxay Holding

I’ve really enjoyed the serendipity (if that’s not too great a stretch) of finding 1947 books that have been on my shelves for ages, waiting to be read – and particularly glad when it happens to be a Persephone title. The Blank Wall has been on my radar since Persephone reprinted it in 2009 – and it was nice to finally read it.

Not the cover I had. Purloined from Book Snob.
Not the cover I had. Purloined from Book Snob.

The Blank Wall concerns Lucia Holley, left with her teenage daughter Bee, son David, and her father while her husband is away ‘somewhere in the Pacific’; left to manage the home and the emotional tangles of Bee, who fancies herself much mature than she is, and who is involved with an older man. (When I said ‘manage the home’, I should add that her maid Sibyl is also there – The Blank Wall is a fascinating depiction of the relationship between a white employer and a black maid in 1940s America; a loving and close relationship that is yet divided by the rules and restrictions of the period.)

After this, Lucia gets involved in some dodgy dealings – feeling out of her depth, she somehow manages to take control of the situation nonetheless. Despite a few rather doubtful moments, the novel does a good job of showing ordinary people experiencing extraordinary events – and, somehow, the power of that ordinariness overcoming everything. That is, Lucia always feels like she is experiencing real life – even when that life is far from normal reality. That shows an impressive strength in depiction of an everyday wife, mother, and daughter – who earns our affection along with our respect and our anxieties. In some ways, this is far more a domestic portrait than it is a thriller.

Oh, and the brief depiction of New York – where Lucia travels, from her lakeside rurality, to try to raise funds for blackmail (yes indeed!) – is equally interesting for its snapshot of the time and place.

I read it in its entirety on the plane back from Siena – well, probably with time sitting in the airport added on too – which gives you an indication of how quickly I was able to race through around 230 pages. It is certainly a page turner – maybe even a thriller, though there is nothing particularly tense or terrifying here. There is very little in the way of a mystery to solve (though the reader does wonder if the carpet will be pulled from under their feet). Raymond Chandler called her ‘the best character and suspense writer (for consistent but not large production)’ and particularly championed this one and – though his judgements are not always to my taste; he was no fan of A.A. Milne’s The Red House Mystery – but in this case he has picked a charming writer. Her strengths perhaps lie more in character than in suspense (though I suspect suspense has taken more of centre stage in the decades since he made that pronouncement), but The Blank Wall was certainly an extremely entertaining way to pass a flight.

The Museum of Cheats by Sylvia Townsend Warner #1947Club

In 2011, probably around the time I was writing my doctoral chapter on Sylvia Townsend Warner, I madly bought up all her collections of short stories. And, let me tell you, some of them are not easy to find affordably – but I wanted to stock up my shelves. Fast forward five years and I’ve read… none of these collections. And possibly none of the stories, thinking about it. So hearty cheers for the 1947 Club sending The Museum of Cheats up my tbr pile – it’s absolutely brilliant.

Warner tends towards the brief, with short stories, which is exactly how I like them – presumably because she had to fill certain spaces in the New Yorker, and anywhere else that housed these. The only exception is the title story – and I’m actually going to gloss over that one, as I found it much my least favourite story in the collection; it is on the model of The Corner That Held Them (a Warner novel I found intolerably dull, though it has many devoted fans), concentrating on the history of a building rather than the details of people’s everyday lives.

But, setting that one aside, Warner has an expertly observant eye. I was reminded a little of Katherine Mansfield – in terms of the searing through to the centre of a matter, and the potentially life-altering moments among the banal; indeed, how the banal can be life-changing. We see a hostess curious about the unkind caricature she finds on a notepad by the telephone; a woman show paintings to an uninterested visitor; a returning solider discover his books have been given away. The most striking story, perhaps, is ‘Step This Way’ – about abortion.

Warner opens each story with confident finesse, immediately taking the reader into her unusual view of the world. Here is the opening of ‘A Pigeon’:

The two large windows of the room on the first floor looked straight out into the trees of Lincoln’s Inn Fields. A pigeon was cooing among the greenery. Tears rushed into Irene’s eyes. She had a sentimental character, and how sad it was, really, a girl of her age, as innocent as that bird, and all by herself, sitting opposite a solicitor called Mr. Winander and having an interview about her divorce.

The balance of that sentence and those clauses, ending on the word ‘divorce’, strikes me as so cleverly done. And she is not simply concerned with drama; I love the way Warner finds a gentle humour in the curious patterns of normal speech. This is in the same story:

“Mrs. Johnston, you must forgive me asking this. Are you quite sure that you wish to go forward with a divorce?”

“Oh yes, definitely. I never was one to stay where I wasn’t welcome.”

I suppose we have to acknowledge that these stories were probably written and published in 1946, at least some of them, but the collection certainly came out in 1947 – and, yes, the war looms large. I wasn’t expecting it to, actually. It seemed the sort of thing that would pass Warner by in her concentration on the minute. Having said that, she still looks at the war as it affects individual relationships and minds – nothing so dramatic as a world stage. This, from ‘To Come So Far’, is representative of the way Warner uses the war for her own quirky angle:

She was worn out with getting on her husband’s nerves, being alternately too strong or too weak – like tea. If he were a returned soldier, all this would be natural. Magazines were full of stories about manly nerves unable to face the return of civilian life or articles on How to Re-Acclimatise Your Man, and newspapers were full of accounts of murdered wives. But throughout the war Arnold had been an indispensable civilian, jamming enemy broadcasts, and throughout the war they had got on together perfectly, complaining of the discomforts of living and giving each other expensive presents because to-morrow we die. Now, in 1946, Arnold was mysteriously as indispensable as ever and they hadn’t died.

She has such a great turn of phrase. It’s there throughout Lolly Willowes and, twenty years later, her style remains unmistakably hers – and these sorts of unexpected stylistic quirks seem to me to be even more appropriate in a short story. It’s the sort of context that can carry the weight of something slightly bizarre, without it distorting a full-length character study. For example, in ‘Story of a Patron’ – all about the discovery of a ‘primitive artist’ – she includes this:

Mr. Haberdone asked to see more examples of Mr. Rump’s art, and Mr. Rump produced a portrait of Mrs. Rump. It was a remarkable likeness, quite as accurate as the portrait of the cactus but more dispassionate, as though Mrs. Rump had been grown by a rival seedsman.

One of my favourite stories in the collection was also one of the most curious – ‘The House with the Lilacs’. Most of the stories in The Museum of Cheats capture moments in ordinary lives, showing how extraordinary they can seem to the people experiencing them. In ‘The House with the Lilacs’, the reader is left uncertain – Mrs Finch reminds her family of a house they looked at when choosing where to live, and recalls it in perfect detail, but not where it was. The rest of the family know that neither they nor she have ever seen such a house. And that is more or less where we leave it. Even more intriguingly, in a letter Warner wrote to William Maxwell, she describes Mrs Finch as ‘my only essay at a self-portrait; her conversation and her ineffability’.

Sadly, The Museum of Cheats is pretty scarce – though more copies seem to be available in the US than in England; despite living in Dorset, Warner’s stories always found a more appreciative audience in New York. I can only imagine that her other stories would be equally rewardingly tracked down (if not as appropriate for the 1947 Club). I’ll certainly be making sure I read more from my Warner shelf before too long.

 

Chatterton Square by E.H. Young #1947Club

chatterton-squareI was really pleased when I heard that Chatterton Square by E.H. Young was a 1947 novel, as I’ve had it on my shelves to read since 2007. Since 21st December 2007, to be precise, which makes it a couple of months after I read Tara’s review of it at Books and Cooks. Tara sadly left the blogosphere many years ago, but this book and she have always been associated in my mind – and it is only now, looking back at her review, that I discover that she wasn’t quite as enamoured with Chatterton Square as my memory had suggested…

This was the first E.H. Young novel I bought, but it’s now actually the fourth one that I’ve read – Miss MoleWilliam, and The Misses Mallett being on my have-now-read list, with William finding its way to the 50 Books You Must Read But May Not Have Heard About list. How does Chatterton Square fare on my list?

It was E.H. Young’s final novel, and there is a great deal of maturity here. I would never have mistaken it for a young writer’s first effort – because the characters and their experiences are described so subtly, so gradually and with such sophistication. As usual, I am getting ahead of myself. Who are these characters?

The novel concerns two families living next to each other on Chatterton Square in Upper Radstowe – Young’s fictionalised version of Clifton in Bristol. The families are the Blacketts and the Frasers, and the time is shortly before the Second World War – though obviously the characters cannot know that it is coming. They cannot know, but some are pretty sure – and some are adamant that it will not; I think this sort of dramatic irony might be something we see a lot of in the 1947 Club.

Mr and Mrs Blackett have an unhappy marriage, but only Mrs Blackett knows it. Mr Blackett is an astonishingly real creation: a monster who is never openly cruel or even vindictive. He domineers and ruins the lives of those in his family simply by expecting his needs to be more important than theirs, and respectability to be more important than freedom. He rules with a rod of iron – but one which manifests itself in hurt disbelief if anybody should ever disobey him, and genuine wonderment that anybody could wish to. Their three daughters – Flora, Rhoda, and Mary – deal with this in different ways. Flora is a copy of her father, though has grown increasingly sick of him; Rhoda is a copy of her mother (as they begin to realise as the novel progresses), and Mary – well, she’s not really anything, and could probably have been left out altogether.

Mrs Blackett has tolerated her misery by pretending to be happy, and mocking her husband to herself. This charade is what keeps her sane, and also what brings her amusement. If there is cruelty in her methods, it is because it is a question of survival. The way Young draws this marriage is truly astonishing – in the minutely observed ways each behaves, and the vividly real dynamic that emerges. It seeps into the reader’s mind and won’t go away.

She is also unafraid to show parents who don’t idolise their children. Mr Blackett is frustrated and confused by Rhoda, but Bertha Blackett actively dislikes her daughter Flora – while still loving her. But it is touching to see Rhode and Bertha come together as Chatterton Square progresses (and it begins when Rhoda sees her mother give her father a look which contained ‘a concentration of emotions which she could not analyse and which half frightened her. There was a cold anger in it, but she thought there was a kind of pleasure in it too’.)

This family transfixed me, and is the triumph of the novel in my opinion, but we should turn our attention to the other family. Rosamund Fraser heads up the family of five children – her husband is believed by some to be dead, but actually she is separated from him. The family is happier, freer spirits, gravely looked down on by Mr Blackett – but appealing to almost all the other Blacketts (sometimes specifically – Flora fancies herself in love with one of the sons – but more as a unit to be envied.)

Living with them is Miss Spanner – a spinster and friend of Rosamund, who suffers still from the memories and affects of an unhappy childhood. She and Rosamund have a close friendship that yet retains many barriers – not least a one-way emotional dependence. Miss Spanner, in turn, starts to become friendly with Rhoda, who sneaks over illicitly to borrow books.

Young has created such a complex and believable web of relationships between these two houses, and it is an engrossing novel. There is less levity than some of her others (no character leaps off the page like the lovable Miss Mole), and it perhaps requires more commitment from a reader than some. It is not one for speed-reading – but there is an awful lot to appreciate, and slow, attentive reading is rewarded.

And as I said, the threat of war looms. Mr Blackett is sure that it won’t happen, and considers predictions of war to be irresponsible and unpatriotic; Rosamund and Miss Spanner are sure it is around the corner. Miss Spanner has this wonderful moment of musing how war could be:

War was horrible, but there were worse things. Indeed, in conditions of her own choosing, Miss Spanner would not have shrunk from it. The age for combatants, if she had the making of the conventions of war, would start at about forty-five and there would be no limit at the other end. All but the halt and the blind would be in it and she saw this army of her creation, with grey hairs and wrinkles under the helmets, floundering through the mud, swimming rivers, trying to run, gasping for breath, falling out exhausted or deciding it was time for a truce and a nice cup of tea.

In our previous chosen year, war was around the corner but could only be guessed at. Some of the books we read paid no attention to the looming at all; some of the authors probably agreed with Mr Blackett that it would never happen. What I’m intrigued to discover this time around (and this is partly why 1947 was chosen) is – will any of the books ignore the war? Could they? And how differently will they all write about?

Roger Fry: A Biography by Virginia Woolf

I’m a bit behind with reviewing, to put it mildly, but I did read Roger Fry (1940) for the biography phase of Heavenali’s Woolfalong. She suggested a biography of Woolf, or Orlando or Flush, but I piped up with this one – the only actual biography that Woolf wrote, as opposed to those novels she tagged ‘a biography’ onto the end of. Sorry that it’s come so long after the months in question, but I promise I read it during the relevant period!

roger-fryIt feels quite odd, to read a biography by a woman who has been so very biographied – particularly one that was published only a year before she died. How would she write about someone? What precedent would she leave for those who would write about her? Well, it wasn’t quite what I expected. And I’m not quite sure how to write about it.

Firstly – who was Roger Fry? In some ways, he would have made an excellent character in a Woolf novel. He was a painter whose paintings never quite lived up to his hopes – and certainly never got the acclaim he sought. On the other hand, he was an art critic of great repute, whose writings of criticism were popular and respected by many – while also being castigated with horror by the old guard. Indeed, Kenneth Clark said that Fry was ‘incomparably the greatest influence on taste since Ruskin … In so far as taste can be changed by one man, it was changed by Roger Fry’. Alongside this, his personal life was fraught. His wife Helen became mentally ill not long into their marriage, and moved to an asylum for the rest of her life. Fry had affairs with several women, including Virginia Woolf’s sister, but Woolf does not spend much time on these – perhaps unsurprisingly. He was a kind, damaged man, not content with his lot or his achievements – but seems to have been warmer, less difficult to love, than some of the Bloomsbury Group.

My favourite section, I think, was the chapter on the Post-Impressionists. This was mostly fun in the oh-so-subtle pleasure Woolf takes in showing the people who railed against the ‘Manet and the Post-Impressionists’ exhibition that Fry organised in 1910 (it is argued that Woolf’s famous words ‘on or about December 1910 human character changed’ refers, at least in part, to this exhibition). Fry apparently coined the term post-impressionist, and he was the first to introduce Manet, Matisse, Van Gogh, Gauguin, and more to the British public – and most of them did not take well to it. It is astonishing, reading this chapter, to see how much vitriol there was in the press, in essays, even in letters to Fry; it damaged his standing in academic circles. It is difficult to imagine anybody caring that much about art today. But even by the time Woolf was writing, in 1940, these artists had become accepted parts of the European artistic landscape.

I went into the book expecting him to appear as something like a character in a Woolf novel, built up piece by piece, description by description, until the complex composite appeared. It wasn’t quite like that. She is fairly linear in her depiction of Fry, concentrating chiefly (in his later life) on his professional successes and failures, but Woolf does describe some of the less concrete elements of Fry’s life. I think what surprised me was her style in doing so. Here, for example, she is writing about Helen’s illness:

The end of his work in America coincided with a far more terrible conclusion. When, three years before, Sir George Savage had told him that in his opinion Helen Fry’s illness was hopeless, he had refused to believe him. He had gone from doctor to doctor; he had tried every method that held out the least chance of success. It is a splendid record of courage, patience and devotion. In the hope that his wife could still live with him he had built a house from his own design near Guildford. In 1910 the house was ready, and he brought her there. But the illness increased, and in that year he was forced, for the children’s sake, to give up the battle. It had lasted, with intervals of rare happiness, since 1898. “You have certainly fought hard to help your wife, and shown a devotion I have never seen equalled”, Dr Head wrote to him in November 1910. “Unfortunately the disease has beaten us.”

She is not quite the impersonal biographer, but she is very far from the novelist here. You can’t imagine a sentence as prosaic as ‘In 1910 the house was ready, and he brought her there’ appearing in her fiction. Yet you can’t imagine ‘It is a splendid record of courage, patience and devotion’ being found in the work of a modern day biographer. Throughout Roger Fry, Woolf’s writing falls a little between two stools. It is never bad writing, of course – she would be incapable of that – but it feels rather held back. Woolf wears the hat of the biographer a little uneasily, if she is not aping or exaggerating it in her fiction.

Woolf also makes no mention of her personal relationship with Fry. Stranger still, she refers to Leonard Woolf and Vanessa Bell throughout without acknowledging her connection with them – and at one point even refers to ‘Virginia Woolf’ as though it were a different person. She is trying on a persona which cannot find its reflection in the cast of characters she is depicting – awkwardly, when those characters are real and include herself.

So, is this a good biography? Yes – rich and informative and sensitive. And normally I don’t much care about the style of the biographer – indeed, I don’t want it to intrude on the reading experience, or get in the way of the subject. But any reader of Roger Fry today is likely to be more interested in Woolf than Fry, and this is a strange piece of that jigsaw puzzle. Yes, a good biography – but not quite what one expects from Woolf, and disconcerting to see her talent hide in the shadows of her own book. A fascinating read, and a curious footnote to my understanding of Woolf’s life and style.