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


Tea or Books? #29: short stories (yes or no?) and Bricks and Mortar vs Princes in the Land

Two more Persephones in this episode – Bricks and Mortar by Helen Ashton and Princes in the Land by Joanna Cannan – along with a discussion of short stories: which writers we like and don’t like, and whether or not we’d race towards short stories in a bookshop.


Tea or Books logoAs always, we’d love to know your choices – and any topics or books you’d like us to cover in future episodes.

Listen to us above, or via a podcast app, or (if you’re feeling daring) at our iTunes page. Our ratings button there has stalled at ‘not enough ratings to display an average’ since day one, so cheer us up and give us a rating. Unless it’s one star, then amuse yourself elsewhere.

Here are the (many!) books and authors we discuss in this episode:

H.G. Wells and His Family (as I have known them) by M.M. Meyer
Ivy Compton-Burnett: A Memoir by Cicely Greig
Mary Barton by Elizabeth Gaskell
Death in the Tunnel by Miles Burton
The Secret of High Eldersham by Miles Burton
The Poisoned Chocolates Case by Anthony Berkeley
The Golden Age by Martin Edwards
All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr
Terms and Conditions by Ysenda Maxtone Graham
Sherlock Holmes stories by Arthur Conan Doyle
Edgar Allan Poe
Agatha Christie
Too Much Happiness by Alice Munro
Katherine Mansfield – ‘At the Bay’, ‘Prelude’, ‘Miss Brill’, ‘Bliss’, ‘The Garden Party’
The Closed Door and other stories by Dorothy Whipple
What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours by Helen Oyeyemi
Elizabeth Taylor
The Woman Who Borrowed Memories: Selected Stories by Tove Jansson
Sylvia Townsend Warner
Lolly Willowes by Sylvia Townsend Warner
The Love-Child by Edith Olivier
Richard Yates
William Maxwell
‘A Christmas Memory’ by Truman Capote
In Cold Blood by Truman Capote
‘The Landlady’ by Roald Dahl
‘The Lottery’ by Shirley Jackson
Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life by Ruth Franklin
Miss Hargreaves by Frank Baker
‘After You, My Dear Alphonse’ by Shirley Jackson
Daphne du Maurier
A Table Near the Band and other stories by A.A. Milne
The Birthday Party and other stories by A.A. Milne
A.L. Kennedy
The Montana Stories
Tea With Mr Rochester
by Frances Towers
Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
Tell it to a Stranger by Elizabeth Berridge
The Woman Novelist and other stories by Diana Gardner
Princes in the Land by Joanna Cannan
Bricks and Mortar by Helen Ashton
Hostages to Fortune by Elizabeth Cambridge
High Table by Joanna Cannan
Parson Austen’s Daughter by Helen Ashton
Return to Cheltenham by Helen Ashton
Greengates by R.C. Sherriff
Greenbanks by Dorothy Whipple
The Fortnight in September by R.C. Sherriff
The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark
A Far Cry From Kensington by Muriel Spark

The Children Who Lived in a Barn by Eleanor Graham #1938Club

This review is part of the 1938 Club: add your reviews to the comments here.

I read the Persephone, but couldn't resist sharing this Puffin cover.
I read the Persephone, but couldn’t resist sharing this Puffin cover.

According to the pencil note inside of my copy of The Children Who Lived in a Barn, I bought it on 18th June 2009 in London, though whether that was at the Persephone shop or not, I couldn’t tell you. As I said before, one of the lovely things about this sort of theme week is that it gives me the opportunity to take down books from my shelves that I have left too long neglected – and The Children Who Lived in a Barn was precisely the sort of book I wanted to read over the past few days, feeling sorry for myself with a cold.

Eleanor Graham isn’t one to cloak the story of her book. It is, indeed, about children who live in a barn. The children are Sue, Bob, Joseph, Samuel, and Alice – in that age order, with Sue the eldest at 12. Joseph and Samuel are twins known as Jumbo and Sambo, or Jum and Sam, and are the sort of storybook twins who speak in unison and share a single character. As for the rest, Sue is resourceful and domestic, Alice is feminine and a little spoiled, and Bob is adventurous and a bit stubborn. Graham hasn’t reinvented the wheel when it comes to the children’s characters. She is particularly, if not surprisingly, old-fashioned when it comes to gender roles (“Why on earth were we made girls, Al? Boys can always run off and do things outside, but we always have to tidy up indoors”.) But her premise is rather unusual.

The children’s parents are called suddenly away to visit an ailing relative – and are taking the then-modern and relatively unusual step of flying there. But the children don’t hear back from them… and then they are evicted by the obstreperous man who leases their house… There are threats from local busybodies (more on them soon) that the children will be divided up, until a kindly local farmer offers them the use of his barn. And they take him up on it.

The barn is a bit less basic then one might imagine – it has a stove, a tap, and other bathroom requirements are mysteriously never mentioned. Still, it stretches credibility a touch to believe that parents would blithely leave five children of 12 and under to their own devices, even without the possibility of eviction on the horizon. But this, of course, is fantasy – and nobody (in 1938, at least) turned to children’s literature for gritty realism.

There are some locals who share my mistrust of the situation – but the District Visitor (‘the D.V.’) and her ilk are treated with short shrift by Graham. Without exception, they perform their duties with rudeness and rigorous unkindness. Here’s Mrs. Legge in action:

“We have been working very hard indeed on your behalf and have now decided on a plan of action. Oh, yes, you got here first – but we had actually arranged for you to do something of the sort, for a time at least. The summer lies ahead of us and you won’t suffer any great hardship in camping out here for a few weeks or even months. You must not, of course, just run wild. But we shall see that that does not happen. We must know that you are observing the decencies of life, that the place is being kept clean and in order, that you have enough to eat and that you are attending properly to hair, teeth, nails,and so on. So for the present you may stay here and we have appointed Miss Ruddle to come here and inspect every Friday at half-past-four.” 

It is clear that the reader is supposed to cheer on the situation of the children living in the barn, looking after themselves, and I was more than willing to suspend disbelief and everything else, and get behind Sue et al. It was just too enjoyable and charming a story not to.

Once they’re in situ, the book is quite episodic – as many children’s stories of the period were. So we see Alice’s interactions with poor Miss Blake (who spends a great deal of time making her an ugly frock; the ugliness and Miss Blake’s strict manner are enough for us to dispose of her pretty swiftly), Bob’s apprenticeship at a barber’s, Sue’s education in washing clothes – and they are all dealt with and left behind as the next adventure rears its head. I don’t recall the twins doing much besides speaking in unison, but presumably they had their own adventures at some point.

The one that everyone seems to remember, and which I had come across in the Persephone Quarterly (as was) and other discussions was… the haybox! Apparently this is a legitimate way to cook things, more or less like a slow-cooker, and has beguiled generations ever since the book first came out. I was more interested in ‘Solomon’, a passing tramp whose use of any and all wise saws earns him his nickname. Graham wrote him wittily, and I have a penchant for characters who use aphorisms willy-nilly.

Being a 1930s children’s book, it perhaps won’t surprise you that nothing particularly awful befalls any of the children and (spoilers) the parents turn out to be fine too – but the events and stakes scarcely matter. If Journeying Wave was a comforting rollercoaster for adults, this is the same for children. I can see myself reading and re-reading this delightedly had I first come across it as a child – and, to be honest, I’d happily revisit it now. The Children Who Lived in a Barn is charming fun, and must have been very welcome respite at a time when the world was clearly about to change.

Diana Athill and Susan Hill

These two books (Midsummer Night in the Workhouse and other stories by Diana Athill and Black Sheep by Susan Hill) have very little in common, other than that (a) the authors have ‘hill’ in their name, and (b) they are the final two books for my Reading Presently project and this is the last day of the year.  So I shall consider them in turn, and only if I’m very lucky will I find anything to link them…

Mum gave me Midsummer Night in the Workhouse as a cheer-up present a few months ago, and a Persephone book is (of course) always very, very welcome.  One of my very favourite reads in 2013 was Diana Athill’s memoir about being an editor, Stet (indeed, I claimed in Kim’s Book Bloggers Advent Calendar that it was my favourite, but while compiling my list I remembered another which beat it – full top ten to be unveiled in January, donchaknow) so I thought it was about time that I read some of her fiction.  Turns out there isn’t that much of it, and she speaks quite disparagingly of the whole process in Somewhere Towards The End (which I’m reading at the moment; spoiler alert, it doesn’t compare to Stet in my mind).

As my usual disclaimer, whenever I write about short stories – they’re very difficult to write about.  But they do seem the perfect medium for the expert editor, depending – as they do, more than any other fiction – upon precision and economy.  And I thought (says he, being very brief) that Athill was very good at it.  My favourite was probably ‘The Return’, about a couple of young women who are taken to an island by local ‘tour guide’ sailors – it was just so brilliantly structured, managing to be tense, witty, and wry at the same time.  But the last line of ‘Desdemona’ was exceptionally good (and you know how I like my last lines to stories…)

My only complaint with the collection is that they are a bit too samey occasionally – which might be explained by the new preface, where Athill explains that she mostly wrote from her own experience.  And her own experience seemed to be observing a fair amount of unsatisfactory marriages, and having a rather casual attitude towards marital fidelity (more on that when I get around to writing about Somewhere Towards The End.)

Her character and voice seem better established in her non-fiction, but this collection is certainly very good – and Persephone should be celebrated for collecting and publishing something which had been largely ignored in Athill’s career.  Hurrah for Persephone!

*  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *

Colin (yes, he blogs too, and apparently will be doing so more regularly in 2014) gave me Susan Hill’s latest novella, Black Sheep (which was on my Amazon wishlist) for Christmas, and I read it on Boxing Day while laid up with that cold.  I’m always so grateful that I gave Susan Hill’s writing a second go, after being underwhelmed by the children’s book I read first – and I have a special soft spot for the novellas which have been coming out over the past few years.

Those of you who follow Hill on Twitter, or remember her erstwhile blog, will know that she seems to finish a book in the time it takes most of us to boil a kettle.  Well, more power to her, say I – and I’ve been impressed by The Beacon and A Kind Man.  I hadn’t realised that I read those in 2009 and 2011 – well, time flies, and perhaps Hill does pause for breath between books.  Black Sheep is not only being marketed in a similar way, with equally lovely colours/image/format, but does – whether Hill has done this deliberately or not – belong in the same stable.  The three novellas have definite differences, and possibly started from very different inspirations, but they also share a great deal – all three concern remote, almost isolated communities, the complicated lives of simple folk, and (it must be conceded) a fair dose of misery.  Or perhaps just a dose of hardship, because the three novels all seem to come near to gratuitous misery, and then duck away.

Black Sheep takes place in a mining community in the past… I’m not sure how far in the past, or if we’re told, but definitely an era when people rarely left their village and almost no outside-communication took place.  The village (called ‘Mount of Zeal’) is divided into the pit, Lower Terrace, Middle Terrace, and Upper Terrace (known as Paradise).  We follow the fortunes of one overcrowded family home as the children grow up.  Who to marry, whether or not to get a job in the mine, how to cope with illness and grief – these are the overriding concerns of the different children and their parents – but these topics are less important than the way in which Hill writes about them, and the community they live in.

It is such a brilliant depiction of a village.  Setting the community on the side of this hill, leading from Paradise to the hell of the mine, may seem like a heavy-handed metaphor – but more significant is the claustrophobia of the village from any vantage, whether in the pit or in the fanciest inspector’s house.  We follow perhaps the most important character, the youngest boy Ted, when he emerges from the village into the sheep-filled fields above – a journey seldom made by anybody, for some reason – and there is a palpable sense of narrative and readerly relief.  Even while giving us characters we care about, Hill makes the whole atmosphere suffocating and, yes, claustrophobic.

Of these three novellas, I still think The Beacon is the best – but the setting of Black Sheep is probably the most accomplished.  It lacks quite the brilliance of structure which Hill demonstrates elsewhere, and comes nearest to a Hardyesque piling on of unlikely misery, but that can’t really dent the confident narrative achievement readers have come to expect from Hill.  As a follow-on read from Ten Days of Christmas, it was a bit of a shock – but, if you’re feeling emotionally brave, this triumvirate of novellas is definitely worth seeking out.

*  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *

And there you have it.  No noticeable link between the two – but my Reading Presently challenge is finished!  I realise it isn’t as interesting for vicarious readers as A Century of Books, because (presumably) it makes no difference to you whether a reviewed book was a gift or a purchase, but I’ve enjoyed seeing what people have recommended over the years.  At the very least, it has assuaged a fair amount of latent guilt!  I still have at least 30 books people have given me, and I’ll be prioritising a few for ACOB 2014, but I’ll also enjoy indulging my own whims to a greater extent.

Appropriately enough, five of my Top Ten Books were gifts, and five were not – considering this year I read 50 books that were gifts and just over 50 that were not (finishing, because of DPhil, headaches, and new job, rather fewer books than usual).  All will be revealed soon, as promised…

Hetty Dorval – Ethel Wilson

Somehow I’d forgotten, when noting down books to read for my Reading Presently project, that quite a few of my unread Persephones had originally been gifts.  So there might be a little flurry of them as I come to the end of the year… and first up is the shortest, which accompanied me on my trip to the Lake District (and which I read in its entirety on the train): Hetty Dorval (1947) by Ethel Wilson. (Thanks, Becca!)

Hetty Dorval isn’t really the heroine of the book, and she certainly isn’t its narrator – that title goes to Frankie (Frances) Burnaby – but she is perhaps its leading figure.  Frankie first sees her on her arrival in their small British Columbian community, and is enchanted (and a little intimidated) by Hetty’s beauty and lack of convention:

We walked our horses side by side, I feeling at the same time diffident and important.  Mrs. Dorval did not ‘make conversation’.  I discovered that she never did.  It began to seem so easy and natural riding beside her there and no one making an effort at conversation that I was able to steal a few looks at her side face.  This was especially easy because she hardly seemed to know that I was beside her; she just took me for granted in a natural fashion.  Through the years in the various times and places in which I came to know Mrs. Dorval, I never failed to have the same faint shock of delight as I saw her profile in repose, as it nearly always was.  I can only describe it by saying that it was very pure.  Pure is perhaps the best word, or spiritual, shall I say, and I came to think that what gave her profile this touching purity was just the soft curve of her high cheek-bone, and the faint hollow below it.
Frankie is only a child, and does not understand the mystery of the woman – but agrees to keep coming to visit her secretly, flattered because Hetty Dorval refuses to have any other people call.  And, of course, it all ends rather calamitously.

The novel follows the various different times that the paths of Frankie and Hetty overlap, as the narrator realises and mentions, when she is a young adult:

But this is not a story of me […] but of the places and ways known to me in which Hetty Dorval has appeared.  It is not even Hetty Dorval’s whole story because to this day I do not know Hetty’s whole story and she does not tell.  I only knew the story of Hetty by inference and by strange chance.  Circumstances sometimes make it possible to know people with sureness and therefore with joy or some other emotion, because continuous association with them makes them as known and predictable as the familiar beloved contours of home, or else the place where one merely waits for the street car, or else the dentist’s drill.  Take your choice.  But one cannot invade and discover the closed or hidden places of a person like Hetty Dorval with whom one’s associations, though significant, are fragmentary, and for the added reason that Hetty does not speak – of herself.  And therefore her gently impervious and deliberately concealing exterior does not permit her to be known.
It is a curious and interesting way to structure a novel, because it leaves the reader with a sense of incompleteness and an obviously skewed sequence of events.  Both factors enhance the mystery and complexity of Hetty, seen through the narrator’s evolving eyes.  The early enchantment becomes, inevitably, disenchantment – as Hetty’s past is revealed to show her not only disliked, but dislikeable.  Hetty Dorval is a intriguing counterpart to another Persephone book, Susan Glaspell’s Fidelity, and all others of its reactionary ilk which sought, George Bernard Shaw style, to show that the fallen woman need not be immoral.  That was so much the dominant narrative of interwar fiction that a ‘conservative’ viewpoint would be more revolutionary than a liberal one – or so it seems to me.

Not that Wilson is making any grandiose point about sexual morality – rather, she is depicting one woman’s sexual morality, and the impact this has on another young girl growing up.  Hetty Dorval is psychologically so subtle that the narrative can read deceptively simply – but it is an impressively measured and restrained portrait of two women.  Well, restrained, that is, until the final section where things get suddenly melodramatic – but somehow it doesn’t feel out of place; it is as though emotion had been repressed or held back for so much of the novel, that it has to burst out at some point.

The Persephone edition has an afterword by Northrop Frye, of all people, and an amusing and interesting letter from Ethel Wilson to her publisher, obviously in response to various corrections and suggestions – largely asking for them all to revert to her initial wording.  It’s always great to see ‘behind the scenes’, and this is the sort of thing to which the reader all too seldom has access.

Others who got Stuck into this Book:

“This is a “small” story of ordinary dramas, but it illustrates a big truth that is easy to forget in a world that prizes the independent spirit.” – Teresa, Shelf Love

“This is a book definitely worthy of its dove-grey cover and beautiful endpapers!” – Jane, Fleur in Her World

“This small book so captures the wild joy I feel in the wind, in nature, in prairies, hills and mountains.” – Carolyn, A Few of My Favourite Books

Consider the Years – Virginia Graham

You’ll see that I’ve tagged this as post as ‘Persephone’, for this Consider the Years (1946) by Virginia Graham is available in a dove grey volume – but my copy is the beautiful one you see below (and the gorgeous bookmark was made by my friend Sherry):

Having read, and loved, Virginia Graham’s hilarious spoof etiquette and ‘how to’ books Say Please and Here’s How (click on those titles to read my reviews – or here for an excerpt from the latter on ‘How to sing’), I thought I’d branch out and read some of her poems.  Consider the Years is a collection of poems which were written between 1938 and 1946 and so, of course, primarily concern the Second World War.

Dear reader, what we have is a case of frustrated expectations.  Having read Graham in fine comic mode, I was hoping that Consider the Years would be a collection of comic verse.  And, goodness knows, many authors have found much to laugh at amidst the horrors of wartime.  Unfair as it is to judge an author by standards which they they didn’t agree to, the only poems I really loved in this collection were those that were funny.  Here, for example, is one called ‘Losing Face’:

This is my doodle-bug face.  Do you like it?
It’s supposed to look dreadfully brave.
Not jolly of course – that would hardly be tactful,
But… well, sort of loving and grave.

You are meant to believe that I simply don’t care
And am filled with a knowledge superal,
Oh, well… about spiritual things, don’t you know,
Such as man being frightfully eternal.

This is my doodle-bug voice.  Can you hear it?
It’s thrillingly vibrant, yet calm.
If we weren’t in the office, which isn’t the place,
I’d read you a suitable psalm.

This is my doodle-bug place.  Can you see me?
It’s really amazingly snug
Lying under the desk with my doodle-bug face
And my doodle-bug voice in the rug.
Would that the whole collection had been along these lines!  And I mean that both in tone and metre.  I know it’s a terribly unscholarly thing to say, but I have to confess a fondness for poems with rhyme and scan.  (This is why I have only studied prose at graduate level, I suspect.)

When Graham wanders into free verse, or to scanning verse that doesn’t rhyme (or, sometimes, rhyming verse that doesn’t scan), I lose interest.  Her poems are never particularly experimental, I should add – her free verse isn’t unduly free – but I, with my reluctance to read poetry, had come hoping for pages of poems like ‘Losing Face’, and Graham does not intend to provide that.

But… it’s is a beautiful little book, isn’t it?

On The Other Side by Mathilde Wolff-Mönckeberg

Yesterday I wrote about Monica Dickens’ The Winds of Heaven, and told you that it was towards the fluffier end of the Persephone Books canon – and promised to take you to the other side of their spectrum today.  Well, here it is – one of Persephone’s non-fiction titles, On The Other Side: Letters to My Children From Germany 1940-1946 by Mathilde Wolff-Mönckeberg, translated by her daughter Ruth Evans, and first published in 1979. 

On The Other Side is effectively Mathilde’s diary, framed through letters to her children in Britain (although she never sent them), and documents what life was like in Germany during the Second World War.  Despite having read a lot about the British Home Front, the German equivalent is a perspective I have never read firsthand.  It helps that Mathilde is a delightful person, easy to empathise with – what other response would we have to someone who would say this?

Life would have no purpose at all if there weren’t books and human beings on loves, whose fate one worries about day and night.
This is going to be one of those ‘reviews’ which are, in fact, mostly quotations from the book – because the excerpts I’ve selected give such a comprehensive overview of the diary that it would be a waste of time for me to try and paraphrase them. 

Rather naively, I hadn’t really realised that people like Mathilde existed in wartime Germany.  I thought the German public would have been divided into those who supported Nazism, those who were apathetic, and those who lied to so much by Nazi propaganda that, though not sympathetic to those views, had no way of knowing what was going on.  But Mathilde shows that there were many exceptions:

Practically everyone knows that all that bluff and rubbish printed in
the newspapers and blazoned out on the wireless is hollow nonsense, and
when big speeches are made nobody listens any more.
Indeed, the account she gives of the appalling public life of Jewish Germans could scarcely be bettered by a textbook in its fullness, nor its empathy

Perhaps you cannot imagine what life is like for Jews.  Their ration cards are printed on the outside with a large red J, so that everybody knows at one that they are non-Aryan.  All women have to add the name Sarah to their first names, the men Israel.  They never get special rations, such as coffee, tea or chocolate, nor do they received clothing coupons.  After 7.30 at night they are not allowed out into the street; their radios and telephones have been removed.  Practically every shop and restaurant has a notice saying ‘Jews are not wanted here.’  It is so vile and mean that I can only blush with embarrassment while I write this.  But you and your children must know of this, that things like this are possible in Germany under our present regime.  You will hardly credit all this, or the fact that we others have stood by and said nothing.  And there are much, much worse things.  Many people have committed suicide because they could not bear this indignity.  Then, like vultures and hyenas, they [the Nazis] rush in and grab the belongings of the dead; honest names are smeared with filth, and decent Germans have been driven to emigrate by the thousand.
When reading about the war from the perspective of a British person (or, I daresay, the French, Belgian etc. – I haven’t read their accounts) there is much pain and anguish, but little internal conflict.  Love of country and hatred of the enemy can be expressed in a single breath, without contradiction.  While individuals may question the point of war as a concept, or the political manoeuvres of those in power, this couldn’t compare to the conflict Mathilde experienced with love of country and hatred of Hitler.

But however much we strain with every nerve of our beings towards the downfall of our government, we still mourn most deeply the fate of our poor Germany.  It is as if the final bomb hit our very soul, killing the last vestige of joy and, hope.  Our beautiful and proud Germany has been crushed, ground into the earth and smashed into ruins, while millions sacrificed their lives and all our lovely towns and art treasures were destroyed.  And all this because of one man who had a lunatic vision of being ‘chosen by God’.  May he and his followers be caught in just retribution.
However engaging and thought-provoking On The Other Side was for Mathilde’s accounts of the war, the actual events were very similar to those in Britain – shortages, bombings, fear for loved ones.  It is certainly all moving, but it has become familiar ground in fiction and non-fiction.  The part I found most fascinating concerned Mathilde’s experiences after the war was over; it was, again, something I had never read about from a German’s perspective.

6 May 1945: It is Sunday and I almost hesitate to put pen to paper.  Too much has happened in the few days since last I wrote.  The whole world has changed and part of the crushing nightmare that oppressed us for so long has been lifted during these five days.  I have listened quite openly to an American and to a British radio station, no longer threatened with the death sentence for this.  I can go along the road and proclaim loudly, “Adolf Hitler, the most evil criminal in the world,” and nobody will tell me to shut up.  Can you imagine that?  And can you picture our Andreasstrasse full of English trucks and private cars; on the pavements and in the front gardens a milling crowd of English soldiers – and it is a Welsh regiment, Ruth dear.  They serenely patrol the district: one is sitting in the middle of the road playing with a dog, another one is playing a recorder on a balcony; a couple tumble in and out of the house, for downstairs a captain has moved into the bottom flat.  What a lot of coming and going!
Although Mathilde and her husband welcomed the end of the war, and were very grateful for being in the British-controlled part of Germany (apparently other areas, particularly that under the rule of Russia, suffered greatly), the British army were, probably understandably, reluctant at first to sympathise with the German public. This was perhaps the most moving passage in the book:

He [her husband] was so passionately devoted to Great Britain and all it stood for.  Now he is disillusioned by the limitless arrogance and the dishonesty with which they treat us, proclaiming to the whole world that only Germany could have sunk so low in such abysmal cruelty and bestiality, that they themselves are pure and beyond reproach.  And who destroyed our beautiful cities, regardless of human life, of women, children or old people?  Who poured down poisonous phosphorous during the terror raids on unfortunate fugitives, driving them like living torches into the rivers?  Who dive-bombed harmless peasants, women and children, in low-level attacks, and machine-gunned the defenceless population?  Who was it, I ask you?  We are all the same, all equally guilty, and if my entire being was not straining towards a re-union with you, life would be nothing but torture and abhorrence.
As I promised at the start, I have mostly quoted from the book, rather than giving my own views.  It’s one of those books which I believe is too important to have me weigh in on it.  I couldn’t say that I loved Mathilde’s voice as much as I love Nella Last’s, but they are books which ought to be read alongside each other.  On The Other Side couldn’t be much further from The Winds of Heaven, but both exemplify what makes Persephone Books wonderful – books which enrich the reading life, whether through delightful fiction or thought-provoking non-fiction.

The Winds of Heaven – Monica Dickens

Firstly, just thought I’d let you know that I’m back in the blogosphere (after two or three days of not reading much) and have replied to all recent comments, including all the wonderful and interesting comments on the On Commenting post.

Having recently got all excited about Persephone publishing their 100th title, I decided to check my unread Persephones against my A Century of Books list, and see how many blank spaces could be filled.  I have loved doing A Century of Books, but there’s no denying that some of those blank spaces are frustratingly elusive.  However, this cross-referencing did fill up two gaps – which happened to cover the whole cross-section of Persephone’s ethos.  Today’s book is at the light, frothy end of the scale – the book I’ll review tomorrow is serious and important.  I’m very glad to have read both.

My parents gave me The Winds of Heaven (1955) for my birthday a year or two ago, and it’s been on my large pile of books I’m looking forward to reading – especially since I am already a huge fan of Monica Dickens’ semi-autobiographical, very hilarious One Pair of Hands and One Pair of Feet.  But haven’t yet, somehow, read Mariana.  Anyway, The Winds of Heaven is very different from those – gone is the humour, gone is the absurdity, and present instead is one widower’s lonely, awkward life, bustled from pillar to post (those pillars and posts being represented by three rather selfish daughters.)

Lest we be in any doubt that those heavenly winds of the title be metaphorical, the opening paragraph is this:

When the winds of Heaven blow, men are inclined to throw back their heads like horses, and stride ruggedly into the gusts, pretending to be much healthier than they really are; but women tend to creep about, shrunk into their clothes, and clutching miserably at their hats and hair.
Louise Bickford is certainly of the creep-about variety.  She is recently a widow, left with enormous debts by an unscrupulous and selfish husband, and must spend her days living with one or other of her three daughters, on rotation.  In this novel, Monica Dickens draws her characters with broad strokes.  Having recently read V.S. Pritchett’s complex and brilliant delineation of his father, it was even clearer that Louise’s husband Dudley is essentially a cartoon villain.  Louise is downtrodden by him, and throughout the novel he looms in her memories like a bogeyman, apparently unkind and cruel from their honeymoon onwards.  Indeed, nobody would read The Winds of Heaven for its range of subtle character portraits – every marriage in the novel has at least one ‘bad’un’, and sometimes two.  On the flipside, some characters are just hopelessly nice.  Here are the various daughters and families:

1.) Miriam – sharp, pre-occupied, but not cruel.  Husband Arthur – cross, irascibile.  Daughter Ellen – sensitive, withdrawn, kind.  Other children Simon and Judy – young, excitable.

2.) Eva – bohemian.  Lover David – unreliable.

3.) Anne – lazy.  Husband Frank – adorable.

I’m being a little unkind to Monica Dickens, and I should point out that none of this prevented me enjoying The Winds of Heaven to the utmost.  It just isn’t a finely-drawn, perceptive novel – it’s light and broad and completely, wonderfully entertaining.  It reminded me a great deal of Richmal Crompton’s novels, which I love but which (I now recognise) are far from great art.  Indeed, the relative staying with various families is a plot Crompton uses more than once, and to great effect in Matty and the Dearingroydes.

Having called this novel entertaining, I should add that its themes are often sombre.  Chief amongst these is Louise’s situation – being loved but unwanted by her family, an awkward imposition wherever she goes.  In the hands of Elizabeth Taylor this would be a subtly crafted, very moving story – in the hands of Monica Dickens, it is moving but never heartbreaking.  Serious themes do not a serious novel make.  Indeed, the novel is still more entertaining than it is cautioning or saddening.  In fact, I’m trying to work out why it was so fun to read, when there is almost no comedy in it, and the events are all rather melancholy – from miserable affairs to accidents with farm machinery.  I think it’s the same experience one has when watching a soap opera – the events are so over the top, and the characters embodying individual traits (Anne might as well just be a sign saying Selfish and Lazy) rather than complex personalities, that it’s impossible to feel distraught for them, and instead you can settle down to guiltless enjoyment of the spectacle.

All of which sounds like I’m damning Monica Dickens with faint praise – but I have admiration for authors who can create an action-packed, page-turning novel, with underlying seriousness, and still produce a credible narrative.  Dickens’ writing is never poor, and Louise herself is rather a well-drawn character – just one surrounded by characters who aren’t particularly.  And which of us lives on Elizabeth Taylor alone?  It is no mean feat to produce a loveable, engaging novel.  It’s the light end of the Persephone scale, but it’s perfect for a winter evening when you want something relaxing and enjoyable, with just the right amount of thought-provoking paragraphs laced into the mix.  Thinking about it, The Winds of Heaven is the literary equivalent of The Archers… and that, my parents would assure me, can be no bad thing.

Possibly Persephone?

Another quick post, as I seem to be constantly too sleepy to write proper reviews – the little space on the bookshelves above my bed for books waiting to be reviewed is getting pretty chock-a-block.

I’m off to an event at Persephone Books next Wednesday, called Possibly Persephone?, where people can suggest books which they think would be good in the series. I’ve chosen the book I’m going to recommend, but I’ll keep it secret here until after the event. The books which I think would fit most perfectly into Persephone’s canon are Helen Thomas’ (auto)biographies As It Was and World Without End – it’s like they were written to be Persephone Books, but they’ve already been given the Persephone shake of the head, for whatever reason. So, I’ll try my luck with another one! I don’t know if any of the previous Possibly Persephone? events have resulted in published titles, but it should be fun nonetheless.

So, of course, I’m turning this over to you – which neglected book do you think would make the next great Persephone title? Thinking caps on…

A House in the Country

We recently chatted about how titles can influence the way in which we read a novel – I loved all of your contributions, and encourage anyone who hasn’t to read the comments to this post, all fascinating. Well, the book I want to write about tonight has a title that is somehow both very appealing and entirely unrevealing: A House in the Country (1944 – set in 1942) by Jocelyn Playfair. It was the second Persephone book that I started during Persephone Reading Weekend, but didn’t finish until a little while later. It had been on my shelf for years; I loved the gentle, rural title, but knew nothing whatsoever about its contents.

Having read it, I can now say that my expectations were wildly misplaced – and yet I loved the novel, for reasons quite different from those anticipated. A House in the Country is not a cosy paean to countryside ways, but a deep, moving, and surprisingly controversial novel.

Cressida Chance (wonderful name) lives in the house of the title, and has started taking paying guests. The idea of paying guests completely foreign now, but it must have been an ingenious way for people to get a bit of extra money without demeaning themselves – and to provide houses for those who needed them during war. If someone were to make a list of things which would attract me to a novel, having big old houses at their centre would definitely make the list. Here’s Cressida’s, from the viewpoint of John Greenacre, who is arriving to be one of the said paying guests:
He half turned away from the view of the house. As he did so the sun caught every pane in the high, evenly spaced windows of the lovely front and spread warmth over the old red bricks so that the house glowed like a jewel against the dark trees behind.
I’m rather captivated, don’t know about you. But the most captivating thing about the novel is Cressida herself. She is a wonderful heroine, and I’m not quite sure how to put her personality into words. She is sensible but not dull; strong-feeling but not excessively passionate; loving but neither dependent nor demanding; caring but not sentimental. She seems to have just enough of all virtues to be attractive, and not enough to become irritating. Her feet are certainly made of clay. She is a remarkable creation.

Cressida is undoubtedly the beacon of Playfair’s novel. Against her fully-realised, exquisitely drawn character, it did feel as though others rather faded into one another. With the exception of Tori, that is – ‘a little beetle of a man’ from war-torn Europe, who has seen and suffered much. Other than him, the rest of the cast didn’t really come alive, and seemed mostly there to provide occasional colour and interest, rather than pathos. But Playfair doesn’t really need more than her main players to make an impression.

I tell a lie, Miss Ambleside is a great addition to the mix. Her type is familiar, and the target of much delicious caustic humor in novels of the period. Miss Ambleside is one of those people who constantly feel martyred, incapable of seeing how insignificant their sufferings are:
Miss Ambleside’s life in London had never been far from the normal. During the blitz she had done a great deal of visiting in the country. And now Miss Ambleside’s gloom drove her to consider the possible advantages of living in London again. One could open one’s house in the country, but then there would be the trouble of servants. It was all very difficult and trying. Perhaps dear Cressida would keep one a little longer, until one could see which way things were going. But in that case one would lose one’s hair appointment, and getting another was always problematical. There were difficulties, it seemed, whichever course one decided upon.
Those of you who don’t fancy sizable chunks of quotation, look away now – because what I find most fascinating about novels from this period is their perspective on the war. Plenty of historical novels try and deduce this from a distance, but there is nothing quite like reading the views which were expressed there and then, whether in fact or fiction. So here are another couple of excerpts, the first from Cressida’s viewpoint, and the second from a man in active service, returning to England. They offer competing, but novelistically equally valid, perspectives on the effects of war at home – and demonstrate Playfair’s sophistication. She hasn’t got simply one view to hammer home.
People talked a lot about the various hells of war; the dust and heat in the desert, the steam and exhaustion of the tropics, the ice terror of the sea, the nerve-shattering clash of actual battle anywhere. But there was another sort of hell; the hell of impatience. Living in England, surrounded by normal people, living near-normal lives, trying to do a job that seemed to have no end and no purpose, a life of exercises and long journeys in lorries from one English village to another, without even an air raid to give reality to what felt like merely an irritating and prolonged succession of manoeuvres. Much better, she thought, to be right away from England, where the spectre of pre-war life was not always hovering in the background, constantly reminding one of normality, making it impossible to cut oneself off and become really a part of the machine humanity had to become in order to fight this latest form of war.

* * *

Charles could not have said in so many words what it was he had expected to find in England. Perhaps he had not quite imagined that the entire countryside would be a blackened ruin, that people would be picking their way nervously between yawning bomb craters and darting into underground holes as soon as daylight began to fade. Perhaps he had not quite expected to see on every face the hard lines of heroism and stark, but controlled, fear. But England had been for three years described in terms of heroism, in outsize headlines. It had been loudly called the war-torn, the noble, the indomitable, the last outpost of civilisation. Surely it was natural to suppose that all this hyperbole must have a visible cause. But it was certainly difficult to detect in the stolid, well-fed faces of the English people any sign of undue heroism, or any indication that they were making a brave struggle to support life on insufficient food and unremitting hard labour under the constant fear of death. Here and there, it was true, there were ruined and burnt-out buildings. But there were always burnt-out buildings to be seen from railway-trains, and these ruins looked as if they had quite gently decayed under the slow wear of time rather than been blasted asunder with savage violence in a few seconds. Even the thousands of broken windows merely suggested small boys with stones rather than death-dealing splinters of steel and iron.
Decades of talking about the war, and people’s stoicism, and the bravery of the home front has built up a picture for those of us not alive then. And, of course, it has much truth to it. But a passage like that I’ve just typed seems, to me, so much more vivid and truthful – a fascinating angle on expectation, reality, and wartime confusion.

What is difficult to remember, when reading novels of this period, is that neither author nor reader knew who would win the war. Published in 1944, it was still possible (or at least not impossible) that England would be occupied by the Nazis. Propaganda of the Brave British Soldier was doubtless still indefatigable. And this makes Playfair all the more brave in her extremely honest, often critical discussions of warfare. Characters suggest that war is futile; that few soldiers know why they are fighting, and that ideals are far below blind obedience, when it comes to motive.
We are always being told the German people don’t want war, the English don’t want war; no one wants war. And yet we have war. We have war because we have been herded, they’ve been formed into masses, they’ve been taught to obey without question, to fight and die without hesitation. But men have not been taught to take the advice Christ gave them when He said “Know thyself.”One can only imagine what a brave stance this was to offer in 1944.

A House in the Country is not without its faults. The major one is that which so many ’20s-’40s novels stumble into, and is certainly seen in more than one Persephone and Virago title (much as we love ’em – and we do, of course): it is too earnest. That’s probably a sign of the times, more than anything. Nowadays we don’t like to take things *too* seriously, at least in our fiction – that’s not to say that serious topics aren’t addresses, but that they’re always laced with humour. Plenty of contemporary novelists did know this – you won’t find earnestness in the pages of the Provincial Lady, and yet she does hit home time and again. I’m not saying the novel should have avoided all its pontificating moments – they are often done thoughtfully and thoroughly, but… when you get to another speech about honour or why men choose to fight, etc. etc., you can’t help wish a little that Playfair had spread her delightful humour more evenly into every corner.

And this, despite its more serious and even harrowing moments, is a very funny novel. Playfair has something of Delafield’s wry analysis of character, and is not above a thread or two of Wodehousian humour now and then. I liked odd touches like this:
As always, the moment Cressida crossed the threshold, the dogs appeared from apparently nowhere, their extreme empressement obviously assumed partly out of excitement, and partly to give an impression of not having been on one of the spare beds.I haven’t even mentioned the other story threading through the novel; that of Charles Valery in the wreckage of a destroyed ship, surviving alone at sea, and eventually making his way back to Cressida’s house (which is actually his own). These sections, naturally given his solitude, take mostly the form of his thoughts – they aren’t intended to have the humour or sparkle seen elsewhere in the novel, but they are involving and thought-provoking. Of course, these separate strands of the novel come together, but not in the way which you might expect…

All in all, A House in the Country is another Persephone triumph (and one with a very good, informative Preface). It’s not one of their books which is much mentioned in the blogosphere, but I think it should be. I have read few novels with so intriguing an angle on wartime living, and – as I have said – Cressida is a wonderful character. This isn’t the novel I was expecting, when I pulled the title off the shelf, and it certainly isn’t as relaxing a read as I’d anticipated – but I’m happy to say that it is a better one, and significantly more thought-provoking.