The Past is Myself by Christabel Bielenberg

 

When we did the 1947 Club and the 1951 Club, I noticed in my own reading – and I think in the reading across the blogosphere – that the war was surprisingly absent. I say ‘surprisingly’. Perhaps there is nothing unsurprising about people wanting to put hell behind them for a few years, either unwilling or unable to face what had passed. It’s interesting, in my 1968 reading, that two strands have emerged – the bright, bold, intoxicating world of the ’60s emerging, and a more concentrated look back over the shoulder at the past. Few books could be more eye-opening than Christabel Bielenberg’s 1968 memoir The Past is Myself, reprinted a few years ago in a beautiful Slightly Foxed Edition.

Bielenberg’s surname sounds German – and, indeed, is – but she was raised English. (Or Irish… it seems to be conflated. After Greensleeves, is this becoming a 1968 pattern?) She married Peter Bielenberg during the interwar period, and adopted German citizenship in 1934 – Germany was her home and she seems to have been broadly accepted. Oddly, her Englishness doesn’t seem to have been much of an issue throughout the Second World War – at least it isn’t mentioned as being so in The Past is Myself – but her staunch resistance to Nazism was a constant threat to her life. It starts in 1932, sort of, but much of the book (unsurprisingly) focuses on the bulk of the war. But I did think this was great:

The history of the years between 1935 and 1938 in Germany could be summarised by a conversation overheard between two Hamburg dock-workers, sitting over their beer in a riverside pub (Hamburg dock-workers are not renowned for their garrulity). “Ja, ja, ja,” sighed the one, and again after a long pause, “ja, ja, ja”.” “Listen,” said his friend, gazing mournfully into his beer-mug, “can’t you, for one moment, stop discussing politics?”

This memoir tells of life in Germany for somebody who despised Hitler and his policies – for somebody who was ‘Aryan’, but violently opposed every step of the Nazis’ campaign. Like Mathilde Wolff-Monckeberg’s excellent On the Other Side, this gives an important perspective that helps us remember that an individual is not their country.

Bielenberg takes the reader painstakingly through the events of each month, each week, and for the first half the memoir it is a case of slowly escalating horror. We probably all know what happened – the Nuremberg laws and the gradual removal of the rights of Jewish people; the increase in political prisoners and Hitler-worship; the erosion of every public voice of dissent. Bielenberg expertly puts us into the world of somebody who hated Nazism but, after initial protest, realises that dissent means death – and then anybody could be an informant.

Just the same we knew that when meeting new people, they would probably play the game as we did. The conversation at first would be guarded and noncommittal. We knew that we were none of us Nazis, but were we all of us, drunk or sober, also discreet? Had we other mutual friends? Were they real friends or just names dropped to impress? I would find it hard to describe the wary approach, the half-finished sentence, the guarded reference which led at the time to mutual confidence, and to the realisation that the air had at last been cleared and all present could sit back and indulge in plain high treason. The procedure was a delicate one, one that had to be carefully learned if we valued our lives, and would trust our fellows sufficiently to put our lives in their hands.

Though published in 1968, Bielenberg delivers the narrative as she experienced it, day by day and moment by moment. She seldom, if ever, gives hints of what was to come for her own family and friends, nor does she include particularly detailed accounts of what later became widely known, in terms of concentration camps. So we don’t see the full scale of the horror that the Nazis implemented – though there are glimpses: a man she meets on a train who has been part of the SS extermination team, for instance, or the rumours of cattle trucks which come back to those in Berlin. Hers was not the worst experience of the war, of course. She was never sent to a concentration camp – though her husband spent time in dire conditions in a prison (through connections to those who organised the foiled plot to assassinate Hitler) and there is a significant section dealing with Christabel’s interrogation when trying to have him released.

It is revealing to read about somebody anti-Nazi, pro-Britain who also suffered at the hands of British and Allied bombers – caught between two enemies, in a way. She writes about the indiscriminate cruelty of bombing campaigns brilliantly:

There was no moon, and there were three air raids in the three nights that I was in Berlin. The bombs fell indiscriminately on Nazis and anti-Nazis, on women and children and works of art, on dogs and pet canaries. New and more ravaging bombs – blockbusters and incendiaries, and phosphorus bombs that burst and glowed green and emptied themselves down the walls and along the streets in flaming rivers of unquenchable flame, seeping down cellar stairs, and sealing the exits to the air-raid shelters.

Indeed, even without seeing the full evil of the concentration camps, I was still left afresh with the shock at how evil people can be. For how many thousands of Germans must have been coopted into targeting Jewish people, running death camps, being part of the cruel regime? The millions who felt helpless to prevent or oppose it – well, that I can understand. Particularly in the nationalistic, often xenophobic world we are seeing more and more of. People often talk about Trump and Hitler together, and say that Trump is no Hitler. I absolutely agree that he is not Hitler as Hitler was in, say, 1942. But the similarities between Hitler in 1933 and Trump in 2017 are many – targeting a faith group, playing on brash nationalism to do so, trying to quieten dissent from others and calling the unpatriotic if they do it. Reading this book brought home those similarities and dangers.

The Past is Myself (stupidly vague title aside) is in many ways a brilliant book, with an unstinting portrayal of what her life was like and, to the extent that she was able, what Germany was like. I’ve been very enthusiastic in this review. I can’t quite put my finger on why I don’t think it’s a brilliant book. Something in the writing style, or the structure? I don’t know. Usually I find it quite easy to pinpoint why I haven’t found a book worked perfectly, but there’s something elusive here. It’s still exceptionally valuable as a resource, and very good in doing what it does, but I probably wouldn’t rush to read anything Bielenberg wrote on any other topic.

Still, a sombre and poignant end to the 1968 Club for me.

 

Greensleeves by Eloise Jarvis McGraw

This is normally the time in our club weeks that I start to wind down, and maybe do a round up, but I’ve read so much for the 1968 club that I’m keeping going! Sorry that I’ve not been rounding up reviews quite as assiduously as I should have been, but it’s really exciting to see people join in – and I’ll put together a full list before too long. But still this review and another one to come before the end of the week!

Greensleeves by Eloise Jarvis McGraw is testament to the fact that I will eventually finish those books that I got halfway through and forgot about. I bought it after Jenny from Reading the End enthused about it somewhere… I thought it was on her blog, but her review was in 2008 and I bought it in 2015 so WHO KNOWS. Well, I read 150pp of it when it arrived, and somehow it fell down the pile of the books I was reading concurrently… it’s almost like I knew that the 1968 Club would come along and give me the proper moment to finish it.

Greensleeves was rescued from obscurity by (a) the aforementioned Jenny, and (b) Nancy Pearl, celebrity librarian – and the copy I have was published in her oddly-titled ‘Nancy Pearl Book Crush Rediscoveries’ series. The novel is about an eighteen-year-old girl, Shannon, who has never quite felt she belonged – and not just for the reasons that most people that age feel that way. She has been shunted between various parents and parental figures, between parts of America and Ireland and England (‘Ireland’ is several times called ‘Britain’, I think. Hmm, McGraw, hmm), and she has serious misgivings about her future.

So, sure, she ends up going undercover as a spy in a boarding house, trying to work out whether or not there are grounds to contest a weird will left by a Mrs Dunningham – she has bequeathed money for people to go skydiving or maintain a weed garden or study useless subjects, etc. A change is as good as a holiday. And Shannon is so used to being several different people that adding another doesn’t seem too big an obstacle – so she disguises her accent (and her intellect) and becomes Georgetta. She has a towering 60s bouffant, bright clothes, and half the brain Shannon has – but more confidence and charm in speaking with people. That’s the idea, anyway – the number of made-up relatives, and a certain awkwardness and uncertainty which she can’t quite hide, prove stumbling blocks occasionally. Shannon/Georgetta becomes a waitress at the local restaurant (or ‘luncheonette’) – a perfect vantage from which to question people.

Only she didn’t quite account for the presence of Sherry (male despite name; friendly, charming, and optimistic regular of the restaurant, who nicknames her Greensleeves) or Dave (rude, but sexy, 20-something occupant of the boarding house). She finds herself in something of a love triangle.

What makes this novel not annoying, though, is that the central issue isn’t Boy A vs Boy B, but Shannon trying to come to terms with her own personality. She does this through trying to understand others – whether that be Sherry and Dave, the other beneficiaries of the will, or the deceased Mrs D. It’s a very true portrayal of what it means to be on the cusp of adulthood when your background is too myriad to make your path obvious.

But mostly the book is great because it’s so energetic. There is pep. The characters are slightly quirky, Sherry is a real love, and there is a sense of optimism and kindness that pervades it, somehow even when people aren’t behaving kindly.

As for the 1968 Club – this feels very representative of a certain sort of 1960s America, because of fashion and dialect, but it also feels extremely modern in the way it’s written. Other 1960s novels carry something of there period in each paragraph, for better or worse, whereas Greensleeves could have been written this week – I would totally have believed it was a historical novel, if a gap of 50 years makes something historical.

I imagine this novel would mean much more if one read it as a teenager – do press it upon any teenage readers who might enjoy it – but it’s still great fun to read as an adult, and has one of the few will-they-won’t-they narratives that made me actually care.

Thanks Jenny for bringing it to my attention initially, and thanks 1968 Club for making me finally finish it!

The Wedding Group by Elizabeth Taylor – #1968Club

When I was going through the 1968 titles I had for the 1968 Club, I spotted that there was an Elizabeth Taylor there that I don’t hear all that much about. And that’s probably going to change this week, of course! But The Wedding Group – one of her final novels – is one that I knew nothing at all about. I must have read a review or two occasionally, but it hadn’t stuck. And I thought – why not?

I don’t consider myself an Elizabeth Taylor superfan, though her writing is impeccable, and I truly love some of her novels. And yet, despite no superfan status, I seem to have read almost all of her novels. Spoilers for how I feel about this one: it’s not her best, but it’s good. My early sense is that it’s not going to remain with me in the way that others have done. But I read it on a plane, and that’s never an ideal reading scenario, so… take this review with a pinch of salt??

It starts with a description of a many-layered family in Quayne that we don’t end up seeing that much of – it’s more of a restrictive, mistrustful background to illustrate the world that Cressy has come from. It’s an artistic world – the blurb to my Virago edition tells me that the grandfather of the clan is based on Augustus John (though Chris’s post mentions other potentials) – but it’s one that is instinctively wary of elite intellectual sets, modern life, and everything that Cressy longs to explore. Mostly, she wants to escape her oppressive mother Rose. And the vision of what she wants to experience is very 1968:

It was to that world beyond the beech woods that Cressy was looking. She dreamed of Wimpy Bars and a young man with a sports car, of cheap and fashionable clothes that would fall apart before she tired of them. In that world she might find a place for herself.

She rebels and gets a job in an antiques shop – which isn’t exactly the quintessence of teenage rebellion in 1968, but is, on the other hand, very Elizabeth Taylor. There she (re-)meets David, a journalist in his 30s who has previously visited Quayne and written about the family with some superior mild distaste. Indeed, he has wrongly labelled her in a photograph, and received a letter from her putting him right – he obviously thinks she is self-conscious, silly, and odd. What he doesn’t realise is that he is all those things too, in a slightly different way.

The strength of the novel, I think, is in the drawing of David’s mother Midge. As the novel starts, he lives with her – only later does he move (though no further than next door), and grows to question her influence on him. He feels that he cannot go to London, as he dreams of doing, because she is scared to be on her own – his father lives not too far away, oblivious and indifferent to the pain his selfishness has caused the family.

As with The Soul of Kindness, where Taylor shows us the real imprisoning agony of being a hypochondriac, in Midge we see a compassionate depiction of a woman whose terror of being alone is real – while still exasperating to those around her. In one scene, Midge believes she is about to be burgled – she leaves her jewellery on the stairs, and cowers in fear upstairs. It’s very moving, and shows that nothing is one-sided – for Midge is also a restrictive force when it comes to her son, though without the intentional stifling of Quayne. Rather, it is her need of him that has kept him tied to her apron strings. This is the fascinating relationship of the novel.

Oh, incidentally, I love when Taylor allows her own authorial comments to seep through. This is rather brilliant – I quote both paragraphs because it shows Taylor’s observational powers, and the way she makes the ordinary seem bizarrely profound – as well as the disjoint between what people are doing and the thoughts they vocalise:

The sandwiches they had ordered were now put in front of them, and Nell lifted a corner of one of hers and peered short-sightedly inside – hard-boiled egg, sliced, with dark rings round the yolk, a scattering of cress, black seeds as well.

“The reason, they say, that women novelists can’t write about men, is because they don’t know what they’re like when they’re alone together, what they talk about and so on. But I can’t think why they don’t know. I seem to hear them booming away all the time. Just listen to this lot, next to me.”

So, there is a lot to admire and appreciate in The Wedding Group, and it’s possible that I’d be raving about it if I’d never read another Taylor novel. But I almost take her writing talent and perceptiveness for granted – and this novel has too many scenes (and, dare I say, characters) that don’t quite go anywhere, and don’t leave much of a mark. Or perhaps it’s just because I read most of it on a plane, who knows. Unfair to judge her by her own standard, perhaps, but I don’t think 1968 was quite Taylor’s year – though, equally, she is incapable of writing a bad novel.

Another Part of the Wood by Beryl Bainbridge – #1968Club

So much of my 1968 Club reading has been non-fiction about the first half of the 20th century, and it’s about time I interspersed a novel that is well and truly 1960s. Another Part of the Wood was Beryl Bainbridge’s second published novel, and there are already many hallmarks of what makes Bainbridge so unusual – a cast of unpleasant, warring characters; unexpected catastrophes; not quite letting you know what is going on. The copy I read is one I bought in 2012, and was from a Penguin series where each cover was designed by Allen Jones. I do love it when reprint series like this look beyond the obvious. We don’t need another edition of Frankenstein.

Another Part of the Wood takes place at a holiday camp, but one which feels very much like a prison camp – a group of people are staying in extremely basic huts, without plumbing or sufficient food. It’s in rural Wales, but the ‘holidaymakers’ have come from the town – George, the owner of the site, isn’t expecting all of them; nor is his stuttering, anxious assistant Balfour. Characters pop up out of nowhere, with unspecified pasts and past relationships, adding to the chaotic tangle Bainbridge creates. George is only really expecting Joseph – a man with big ideas and ideals, who has come from London intending to discuss politics and philosophy. He comes with Dotty, a girlfriend who is tiring of him, and his son Roland. And a mysterious boy (man? It’s unclear) with the ominous name Kidney. He is clearly disturbed in some way, and must take his pills regularly, though Joseph is keen to get him off them – and seems to believe that a bit of fresh air is all he needs. What does he need? We don’t know, because Bainbridge tells us so little – making him all the more sinister as an unpredictable entity.

This is a short novel, and much of it focuses on the claustrophobia of these characters (and Lionel and May, who also come; Lionel’s salient characteristic is that he had a buttock shot off once) and the fraught tension as they bicker and singularly fail to enjoy themselves. Lynn Barber writes in her introduction to this edition that Bainbridge’s initial drafts were often ten times the length of the final novel – that she’d cut away and cut away, making sure nothing superfluous came in. The sparseness works; her writing style is confident even at this early stage, and not a word is wasted – indeed, we aren’t told enough to know quite where we are.

We can feel a dread that something terrible will be the climax to the novel – but also that other moments of huge significance will be thrown away as everyday mundanities. And all I will add about the plot is another word: wasps.

In case you want proof that this is quintessential 1968, here’s a description of a coat that Dotty gets from a shop:

The flowered coat was made of some kind of velvet. It rippled and shone. It was orange and blue and green and black, with a mustard-yellow ground, and there were buttons small as beads going from wrist to elbow. Balfour thought it was terrible.

He prayed she wouldn’t wear it now. He visualised her stalking, swathed in velvet, through the busy market town, the bell-bottoms of her denim trousers flaring out beneath the long and violently coloured hem.

It’s not replaced my favourite Bainbridge (which is Injury Time), but this is my fifth book by her, and it’s helping build up a picture of a strange, assured, quirky novelist who knew exactly the sort of book she wanted to write, and wrote it.

Birds, Beasts, and Relatives by Gerald Durrell

BBROne of my favourite reads from a couple of years ago was Gerald Durrell’s My Family and Other Animals (1956). It was so funny and delightful that I was cross with myself for having missed out on its joys for so long. And so I was thrilled to discover, after finishing, that there were two sequels – which nobody seems much to talk about? Or perhaps I’ve missed it? I made it my mission to find them in the wild, rather than the ease of getting from the internet, and thus it was that Birds, Beasts, and Relatives (1969) ended up in my hands at the Bookbarn last year.

Basically, if you liked My Family and Other Animals – this is more of the wonderful same.

You’ll notice from those dates that there was quite a gap between the two books being published – 13 years – and it was another nine years before the third in the trilogy made its way to print, by which point the halcyon pre-war days spent in Corfu must have seemed a far-off memory. Looking back from 2017, it seems an almost impossible dream – but a lot of that is connected with the way in which Durrell crafts a dreamlike world of nature, humour, and the eccentric foibles of his brothers, sister, and (to a lesser extent) mother.

The book kicks off with a preamble that I can only assume is fake – in which his family (in the 1960s) look back at the horrors that ensued when the previous book was published: ‘The bank writing to ask you if you will kindly remove your overdraft, the tradesmen looking at you askance, anonymous parcels of straight-jackets [sic] being left on the door step, being cut dead by all the relatives’. Unmoved, Gerald decides to write the sequel…

I haven’t been watching the TV series about this trilogy, mostly because I want to make sure that I finish reading it before I start watching it – so the stories may be familiar to those who are watching. There are plenty of set pieces – one of my favourites comes near the beginning, where they go back to London to seek weight-loss solutions for Margo (who was suffering from a glandular condition). Not only does this introduce us to Prue and Aunt Fan – the latter a deaf and kind lady who carries on her own conversations, entirely unrelated to everybody else’s, while being quietened by her daughter – but it also shows us Margo’s attempt at spiritualism. It is all hilarious, and some of Durrell’s best comic writing comes in this section. Never has the word ‘faintly’ had such amusing impact (now there’s something to entice you).

As with the previous volume, I was more interested in the family than the animals; though there were some very interesting moments concerning a camouflaging crab, I don’t think Durrell can expect everybody to share his fascination with dung beetles. Predictably, my interest hit its peak when the animal chat met etymology. Etymology over entomology, say I. (Excuse me while I retire on the back of this glorious moment.) Gerry is talking to Theodore, a man who shares his naturalist preoccupations, about the collared dove…

“In Greek,” Theodore said, munching his sandwich methodically, “the name for collared dove is dekaoctura, eighteener, you know. The story goes that when Christ was… um… carrying the cross to Calvary, a Roman soldier seeing that He was exhausted, took pity on Him. By the side of the road there was an old woman selling… um… you know… milk and so the Roman soldier went to her and asked her how much a cupful would cost. She replied that it would cost eighteen coins. But the soldier only had seventeen. He… er… you know… pleaded with the woman to let him have a cupful of milk for Christ for seventeen coins, but the woman avariciously stuck out for eighteen. So, when Christ was crucified the old woman was turned into a collared dove and condemned to go about the rest of her days repeating dekaocto, dekaocto, eighteen, eighteen.”

I don’t know if this the commonly-accepted etymology, but I want it to be so much that I refuse to look it up.

What else? There are some wonderful moments with Roger the dog, there is a wedding and a birth, there is an ill-fated sea quest or two. Basically, it’s full of the same sort of anecdotes that made My Family and Other Animals such a joy. And, while I fully empathise with the longsuffering family who don’t want (say) a turtle dissected on their patio, I still continued to enjoy the optimistic and spirited Gerry as our narrator.

If I didn’t love the sequel quite as much as the original, I think that might be the effect of novelty rather than anything else. This was returning to old friends, and it certainly didn’t feel like a second-rate set of stories. I think I might need to race on to the third in the trilogy which, as luck would have it, I have waiting for me…

 

 

 

At the Jerusalem by Paul Bailey

At the JerusalemIn a recent episode of ‘Tea or Books?’, Rachel and I pitted Elizabeth Taylor’s Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont against Paul Bailey’s At the Jerusalem. While we both preferred Taylor’s novel, I also thought Bailey’s slightly earlier novel (1967) was fantastic – really unusual, and possibly even an inspiration for Mrs Palfrey (c.f. Bailey’s introduction to the Virago reprint).

Bailey’s novel (which I have in a very sweet pocket-sized edition, apparently part of a Bloomsbury series in the 1990s) is about an old people’s home – called the Jerusalem – where Faith Gadny has been dispatched by her stepson Henry and his brightly indifferent wife Thelma. Here, she is torn from a comfortable world that has started to close in on her with its new discomforts – and placed, instead, in a world of interfering and disturbed women on a communal ward that she cannot escape.

Faith does not try to ingratiate herself. She is unresponsive to overtures of friendship, says few words to anybody, and is pretty closed off. This has the effect of making her closed off to the reader too – unlike Mrs Palfrey, this is not a book to turn to for a warm or empathetic character. But it is, perhaps, for a sympathetic character – for who would wish themselves in her position, at a place as steriley unpleasant as the Jerusalem? Other residents have either lost their faculties or are far too keen to make friendships that Faith does not want – and there is always, always the recurring motif of the woman who once hanged herself in the toilets.

Stylistically, At the Jerusalem will either impress or irk. Rachel was irked; I was impressed. A lot of the novel is in sparse dialogue – often crossing over each other as several conversations whirl around. The talent of Bailey is that it’s always obvious what’s going on, though at first glance it doesn’t seem like it (and you might need some context!) – and I found it darkly funny, even with hardly any words on the page. For example…

Another page. “More relations. That one there with the eyes is Cousin Charlie. He ended up in Africa. Nothing more was heard.”

“Who’s a good girl? Who’s finished her junket?”

“He could have been eaten, for all anybody knew. Stewed in a pot.”

When did Miss Burns sleep?

“He had enough meat on him.”

At every hour of the day she sat upright, staring.

“My wedding.”

Wouldn’t a meal have made her sleepy?

“My wedding, Faith?”

“Oh?”

“My wedding. Don’t I look fetching?”

“You do.”

“I was thirty.”

“Thirty.”

“He was a fair bit older. Harry Capes. Handsome Harry.” She laughed, winked. “Oh, he was too. And I loved him. At the time.” She paused. “It was on a Sunday, it was the June of 1921; he’d been in the war, he’d come out of it in one piece.”

Tom had a scar to show.

The novel starts in the home, flashes back to Henry and Thelma’s house for the second section, and returns to the Jerusalem in the third. In each, the coherence of the writing echoes the stage of Faith’s mind – getting more traditional in the flashback section. It’s never unreadable or even particularly experimental, but Bailey cleverly puts enough fragility into his prose that you can see the patterns.

Overall, what impressed me with Bailey was the sparseness of his writing, and how much he conveys with so little. Quite a few of the minor characters aren’t well delineated, and I had a tendency to get them a bit confused, but there are four or five at the forefront of the novel (including Faith) who are incredibly nuanced, given how little we hear from or about them. And there are a couple pivotal moments which are handled very well – without being unduly sensationalist. It’s certainly not a harrowing book, but it is often poignant in a slightly dark way – while also being amusing. I liked this moment in which Bailey mocks the redundancy of much speech – but it is a melancholy humour:

“Her Majesty sends telegrams to all her centenarians. The Mayor and Mayoress sent a very thoughtful message today.”

“Did they, Matron?”

“Shall I read it out?”

“Yes, please.”

“What one is it? Ah, yes. ‘Mrs Hibbs, The Jerusalem Home. Greetings on reaching your great age. Mayor and Mayoress Ernest and Sylvia Marsh.'”

“It is thoughtful.”

“Thoughtful.”

“Thoughtful. As Matron says.”

At The Jerusalem isn’t the achievement that Mrs Palfrey is, but it’s astonishing for a debut novel by a 30 year old. And, I learned after I finished it, Bailey is still alive and possibly still writing. I can see that I’ve got some catching up to do!

The Chinese Garden by Rosemary Manning

Chinese GardenRemember when I went to Edinburgh last year and every review for months seemed to start with ‘this is another book I read in Edinburgh’? Well, the same thing might happen here – since I read six books during the week that I was in Ludlow. Let’s kick off with Rosemary Manning’s The Chinese Garden (1962). It’s a book I’ve had waiting on my shelves for about 15 years, I think, so it was about time.

Fans of Elizabeth Taylor’s Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont may recall a moment in it where she refers to there being two novelists called Manning (and one character always gets them confused at the library). Olivia Manning is perhaps the more famous of those – but I’m assuming Rosemary Manning was the other. I don’t think I’ve heard of her anywhere else – but The Chinese Garden is an interesting idea for a novel, even if it never quite comes together.

It’s about a girl’s schooldays – she is sixteen, intelligent, bookish, and torn between a growing loathing of the strict rules of the school she will soon be leaving – and the love and respect she holds for certain teachers, not to mention uncertainty about what will happen after she graduates. Here’s how it begins:

I was at boarding school for my sixteenth birthday, for it falls at the beginning of November. I climbed out of bed very early that morning, wrapped my dressing-gown round me and went to the window. The other members of the dormitory were still sleeping under bright red blankets. The window, as always in our spartan establishment, was wide open top and bottom, but I could hardly have been conscious of the cold air streaming in, for the room was never filled with anything else and my lungs had been breathing deeply of it all night. After four years, the code of Bampfield had fixed its iron bands around my spirit, and my innate puritanism so welcomed it that I found a deliberate pleasure in a mortifying regime of cold water, draughts, outdoor drill and bad food. Although I now look back on that regime with repugnance, I can summon up my gratitude for the trained indifference to discomfort and cold which enabled me to sit almost naked at an open, November window, and watch the sun rise.

I never quite worked out who all the different teachers were, but there are some that Rachel feels a deep, sometimes slightly confusing affection for – and some that she sees as symbolic of the restraints she is hoping to be freed from. Most significant, and the most memorable, is the headteacher – a woman who insists on being referred to as ‘Chief’, calling her all-female student body ‘boys’, and wanting her school to be run as closely as possible on the lines of Eton or the like. And then there’s the little friendship trio Rachel is in – Margaret, the mysterious and secretive friend who doesn’t seem to value Rachel’s friendship in return, and Bisto, the clingy, slightly sad friend whom Rachel will tolerate when Margaret isn’t around.

Rather confusingly, the novel starts in the first person – the first few chapters are all from the viewpoint of Rachel, looking back to her schooldays – and then shifts to the third person, still about Rachel. After that, there are occasional moves back to the first person for a few paragraphs, then back to third… maybe it’s meant to be borrowing modern techniques, or playing with free indirect discourse, or something – but it’s a bit clumsy, and doesn’t really work.

What does work is the Chinese garden itself – though it takes a long time to turn up. In proper secret garden style, it’s a garden in the grounds, boarded up and seemingly inaccessible. Though Margaret and Rachel have independently found their way into it – and the description of the garden is rather lovely. She walks about its Chinese bridges and pools with enthralled wonder, and Manning is at her best when describing these scenes. Here’s a bit:

Rachel crossed a creaking, dilapidated bridge, and went into the tiny pagoda. Bells were still hanging under the painted eaves, their copper green with age, shrill and fragile when she touched them with her hand. It was inhabited only by spiders. The floorboards were rotten, and covered with bird droppings, and the once bright paint was blistered and faded. The quiet pools, greened over with weed, never-disturbed, the dense overgrown shrubbery which hedged it from the world without, the incongruous oriental appearance of the pagoda and its bridges, created an indescribable air of secrecy and strangeness. She entered an exotic world where she breathed pure poetry. It had the symmetry of Blake’s tiger. It was the green thought in a green shade.

If you have heard of The Chinese Garden, it’s probably in the context of its being considered a lesbian classic. There is an overt moment of lesbianism late in the book, and some more implicit moments in Rachel’s thoughts about her friends and teachers – but I rather suspect that the locked Chinese garden is a metaphor for much more than initially seems.

I suppose my problem with the novel – which I certainly did enjoy, and thought was well written, so please don’t think I disliked it – was that it never quite felt developed enough. I appreciate the delicacy of metaphor, and I don’t think Manning should have been any more heavy-handed, but perhaps the novel just needed to be longer – and the garden to come a bit earlier, and be explored a bit more. A rare case where I want a novel to be longer!

 

The House on the Strand by Daphne du Maurier

The House on the StrandIt’s Historical Fiction week over at Vulpes Libris, and I’m throwing some fat on the fire with a post about why I don’t like historical fiction… and (because I MULTI-TASK, y’all) it’s also a review of The House on the Strand (1969) by Daphne du Maurier.

Which sounds like I hated the novel – whereas in fact I had quite a confusing relationship with it, given that half of it is in present day (yay!) and half in the 14th century (boo!). Read all about it over at Vulpes Libris

Closely Observed Trains by Bohumil Hrabal

Closely Observed TrainsJust a quick post to point you in the direction of my latest blog post for Vulpes Libris: Closely Observed Trains (1965) by Bohumil Hrabal. Go and have a gander here; I’ve ended up reading rather a few Czech writers over the years. And by that I guess I mean three. But, still.

I seem to be in a bit of a reading slump at the moment, actually. Which is a shame, as I have a couple of books to read for the next podcast, and one for book group… well, hopefully blitzing a few episodes of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend on Netflix will put my mind back into reading. For now, I’ll just keep singing the excellent spoof Face Your Fears. Check it out.

 

Hons and Rebels by Jessica Mitford

I've borrowed this image from Karyn, who reviewed it here: http://apenguinaweek.blogspot.co.uk/2011/09/penguin-no-1738-hons-and-rebels-by.html (Hope that's ok, Karyn!)
I’ve borrowed this image from Karyn, who reviewed it here: http://tinyurl.com/qhpbmxc (Hope that’s ok, Karyn!)

It’s no secret that I’m a longstanding fan of the Mitfords – or, at least, of reading about them. Debo has an eternal place in my heart, but, even though none of the others quite made it there, I still adored reading the letters between all six sisters. The one whom I didn’t much like (besides Unity, obvs, though her regression after shooting herself is fascinating to see in letter-form) was Jessica. I was chastised. I was told I should read her letters and her books, and that thus I would come to like her more. Finally – FINALLY – I have read Hons and Rebels (1960). Do I like her more? Maybe.

I’ll get in there early: if I were writing a scholarly book review, whether or not I like the woman would be completely immaterial. And here, as with a novel, it isn’t the be all and end all. But if it is acceptable to cheer on a biography because you like the writer so much (heart you, Debo), then it’s equally acceptable to do the reverse. On the same page? Fabs.

In actual fact, Jessica (or Decca, as she was known) comes across very sympathetically. Partly this is because of my political leanings, I daresay. I don’t fall as far left as Decca, but I’m pretty much a lefty – and we can all agree to band against the Fascist and Nazi beliefs of Diana and Unity Mitford. There are some pretty extraordinary descriptions of Decca and Unity setting up their shared bedroom into a Fascist and Communist split, with posters advocating their own politics on either side. It would be amusing if Unity’s views were not so extreme.

I was expecting a biography of the eccentric Mitford childhood we (mostly) all know well. The sort of thing we found in Nancy Mitford’s The Pursuit of Love – with the hons in the cupboard, the father hunting the children, and the various codes. Spoilers: it is not. We do see some of Decca’s childhood – but by the time she was around in the nursery, her older siblings were more or less adults. Just Unity, Debo, and Decca were left around – and it is the three of them who formed various bonds and antipathies.

This section of the book I loved, even without the full line-up of Mitfords. We see, for instance, them being dragged around by the Conservative Party – ‘Our car was decorated with Tory blue ribbons, and if we should pass a car flaunting the red badge of Socialism, we were allowed to lean out of the window and shout at the occupants: “Down with the horrible Counter-Honnish Labour Party!”.’ We get a child’s-eye-view of the various scandals Nancy causes. Mostly, we get a taste of Decca’s thirst for independence, particularly in her longing to go to school and her storing-up of a Running Away Fund.

That fund turns out not to be as whimsical as it sounds. Very young, she rushes off to the Spanish Civil War. For those who think the Mitfords were rich gentry who never stepped down from their thrones to put their money where their mouths were (to mix metaphors) – Hons and Rebels is an education. We are many miles from the Cotswolds as we see the intrepid Decca follow her cousin Esmond Romilly to Spain, facing hardship, opposition, and – yes – romance. It shows the extraordinary person Decca was, for better or worse.

But the Cotswolds get even further around as the book progresses – as Decca moves to America. Here’s an example both of her early sheltered life, and the wit with which she writes. It is often a very amusing book.

My own impressions of Americans had been culled from various sources, ranging from books read in childhood, such as Little Women and What Katy Did, to Hemingway and movies. I knew that they lived on strange and rather unappetizing-sounding foods called squash, grits, hot dogs, and corn pudding. On the other hand, cookies sounded rather delicious. I visualized them as little cakes made in the shape of cooks with sugar-icing aprons and hats. From seeing The Petrified Forest, I gathered that Americans often made love under tables while gangster bullets whizzed through the air.

I’ve given enough plot for this book, so shan’t tell you all that happens in America – but, suffice to say, Esmond and Decca go through some difficult conditions and she writes about them winningly and wittily. A stray and dispassionate footnote on the penultimate page alerts us to why this memoir is particularly moving – but I’ll allow you to find that out for yourself.

So, in brief – it is fascinating, and certainly well told. The only reason I didn’t love Hons and Rebels as much as I could have done is because I was expecting something else – I missed hearing about the rest of the family (who are more or less absent for the second half of the book), and wondered quite what they were thinking about her. The feeling I got from the letters, that she rather abandoned them, is quietly reflected here – not by what she says about them, but by the fact that they are seldom mentioned. And that is a terrible reason to put something in the ‘cons’ column of a book review. But, Mitford-fanatic that I am, I can’t help it, and thought I should warn fellow enthusiasts. But this issue aside (as it should be), Hons and Rebels is an extraordinary book. When I read the sequel (A Fine Old Conflict), I shall better prepare myself for the book Decca wrote, rather than the one I wish she’d written.