The Priory by Dorothy Whipple

It’s turning out to be all Whipple all the time on Stuck in a Book right now. Well, long before I started Random Commentary, I was already reading the monster that is The Priory (1939). It’s enormous. My copy is 528 pages – I basically never read books that are over 500 pages, and that’s why I’ve had my copy for nearly 14 years (gasp, how did time pass that quickly?)

I bought it just before I started university, while on a trip to the Bookbarn to buy books for my course. This was, ahem, not for my course – but I couldn’t resist. And it was only when I got home that I discovered that my copy was… signed by Dorothy Whipple!

Obviously my copy is much older than the Persephone edition – which I do also have, as I can’t bring myself to get rid of either copy. And it starts like this…

It was almost dark. Cars, weaving like shuttles on the high road between two towns fifteen miles apart, had their lights on. Every few moments, the gates of Saunby Priory were illuminated. Every few moments, to left or to right, the winter dusk was pierced by needle points of light which, rushing swiftly into brilliance, summoned the old gateway like an apparition from the night and, passing, dispelled it.

The gates were from time to time illuminated, but the Priory, set more than a mile behind them, was still dark. To the stranger it would have appeared deserted. It stood in dark bulk, with a cold glitter of water beside it, a cold glitter of glass window when clouds moved in the sky. The West Front of the Priory, built in the thirteenth century for the service of God and the poor, towered above the house that had been raised alongside from its ruins, from its very stones. And because no light showed from any window here, the stranger, visiting Saunby at this hour, would have concluded that the house was empty.

But he would have been wrong. There were many people within.

So – what’s The Priory about? The house in question is called Saunby Priory, and is the vast home belonging to the Marwood family. There is grumpy widower Major Marwood, who lives only for the cricket season – which he throws large sums of money at, while the rest of the year he is a fierce penny pincher. There are his daughters Christine and Penelope, still in the nursery though now newly grown up. And there is a handful of servants who occasionally war with each other and occasionally sleep with each other (in a tactful 1930s way, of course).

Curiously, the Priory never felt very big to me. After that introduction, the scenes inside the house are rather claustrophobic – people worrying about space, getting in each other’s way, or being moved to make room for others. I wonder how deliberate that was.

There are a series of stages, where the entrance of a new character into the scene changes things – the first being the shy, anxious woman who will become Major Marwood’s new wife: Anthea. She is old enough that she believed she would always be a spinster, and is keen to accept his fairly ungracious proposal – which he makes by phone, because he doesn’t want the bother of going around to her in case she says no. There are also men who enter stage left to woo the girls; there is a passage of time in London. It is all very involved, and spaced evenly throughout the hundreds of pages – like an ongoing soap opera of events, neatly paced and always meeting the anticipated dose of emotion. There is also humour, particularly at the beginning, though the tone of the novel grows a little more melodramatic as the pages go by.

The Priory doesn’t have the psychological nuance of some of Whipple’s other novels. (That’s my view anyway – see review links at the bottom for different opinions!) Because her tapestry of events is so protracted, and must be filled, each one gets its moments of alarm and pathos, and everybody reacts in heightened dialogue before neatly moving onto the next moment. For instance, Anthea moves from being a timid new bride to ruthlessly running the household for the protection of her new babies, but settles into the new role so comfortably that it doesn’t feel as though a psychological shift has taken place so much as a new set of characteristics has been introduced. The same is true for the daughters as they experience marriage, parenthood, and adult woes.

Which is not to say that what is here isn’t a joy to read. It is – I moved through the novel very happily, enjoying every page for the entertaining soap opera that it was. I suppose my only point is that Whipple can do better, in terms of insight and depth – but not every novel needs to be insightful and deep. Some can just be engagingly written and immersively enjoyable – indeed, that is no mean feat. Yes, it could have been 200pp shorter without losing very much – I’d have advised staying in the Priory and not wandering off around the country – but I can’t disagree with the tribute that E.M. Delafield gave the novel in The Provincial Lady in Wartime:

What, I enquire in order to gain time, does Mrs. Peacock like in the way of books?

In times such as these, she replies very apologetically indeed, she thinks a novel is practically the only thing. Not a detective novel, not a novel about politics, nor about the unemployed, nothing to do with sex, and above all not a novel about life under Nazi régime in Germany.

Inspiration immediately descends upon me and I tell her without hesitation to read a delightful novel called The Priory by Dorothy Whipple, which answers all requirements, and has a happy ending into the bargain.

Mrs. Peacock says it seems too good to be true, and she can hardly believe that any modern novel is as nice as all that, but I assure her that it is and that it is many years since I have enjoyed anything so much.


Others who got Stuck into it:

“The best thing about this book is the characters. Whipple develops them so skillfully, and I loved how she did it by showing the reader through their words, thoughts, and actions, not just telling us.” – Books and Chocolate

“It is a beautiful novel, worthy of the highest praise and Whipple is an author, whose writing I look forward to reading more of, in the near future.” – Bag Full of Books

“Not a lot “happens” in this novel; most of the action centers around emotion. It’s all about subtlety here.” – A Girl Walks into a Bookstore

There is also an enjoyable write-up in the Persephone Forum.


I decided to rank all the Persephones (…that I’ve read)

I love ranking things. Ever since I was young, I’ve liked making lists of favourite-to-least-favourite (or, mixing it up, least-favourite-to-favourite). That’s why my end-of-year Best Books list are always in order. It feels incomplete otherwise. And so, with the Persephone Readathon happening, I thought I’d rank all the Persephone Books I’ve read. (Not including the two I’m currently reading.) 1 = least favourite; 57 = most favourite. Each comes with a very inadequate one-sentence thought about it.

A few caveats – I love Persephone, so even things towards the bottom of the list are v good reads. Anything from about #10 onwards I would heartily recommend. And I’ve put titles in bold if I read them before they became Persephones – which turned out to be rather interesting…

Do you have any violent disagreements with my list? Any unread Persephones I need to get to asap?


1. It’s Hard to Be Hip Over Thirty by Judith Viorst

The only Persephone I really, really dislike. Tedious, annoying, and bad poetry too.

2. Princes in the Land by Joanna Cannan

I found the main woman very unsympathetic, and I don’t think we were meant to…

3. Reuben Sachs by Amy Levy

I don’t remember much at all about this, except I wasn’t bowled over.

4. Making Conversation by Christine Longford

This was fine, but seemed much less engaging than many novels Persephone have turned down.

5. The Happy Tree by Rosalind Murray

As above!

6. Midsummer Night in the Workhouse by Diana Athill

Don’t remember much about these, except that Athill writes better non-fic.

7. The Closed Door and other stories by Dorothy Whipple

This was one very good story told over and over and over again…

8. Saplings by Noel Streatfeild

The tone felt a bit all over the place, but engaging nonetheless.

9. Consider the Years by Virginia Graham

I enjoyed this, but Graham’s humorous Say Please and Here’s How are worlds better.

10. Hetty Dorval by Ethel Wilson

Only so low because I don’t remember anything at all about it!

11. The Sack of Bath by Adam Fergusson

A fascinating look at how Bath was drastically altered by bad planning decisions. (See, I already love books this low down the list!)

12. Miss Buncle’s Book by D.E. Stevenson

A favourite for many, but I found the writing a little sub-par at times.

13. Fidelity by Susan Glaspell

I seem to remember a great scene with sheep?

14. Minnie’s Room by Mollie Panter-Downes

Poignant and well-written short stories, but I like MPD best at full-length.

15. Little Boy Lost by Marghanita Laski

This tale of a lost child has somehow almost totally gone from my mind.

16. High Wages by Dorothy Whipple

Love the shop stuff, but feels more lightweight than other Whipple novels.

17. Lady Rose and Mrs Memmary by Ruby Ferguson

The twist was a bit too heavily signposted, but an entertaining tale.

18. The Winds of Heaven by Monica Dickens

Dickens in serious mode is great (though not as good as One Pair of Hands!)

19. Greenbanks by Dorothy Whipple

I read this eons ago and remember nothing about it.

20. William – an Englishman by Cicely Hamilton

The first Persephone, and a shocking, raw novel about war. So much for ‘cosy’ books.

21. There Were No Windows by Norah Hoult

A novel about dementia, sensitively told.

22. The Children Who Lived in a Barn by Eleanor Graham

A classic children’s tale of being accidentally abandoned – what’s not to like?

23. Doreen by Barbara Noble

A brilliant perspective on evacuation in wartime, and competing parent figures.

24. The Making of a Marchioness by Frances Hodgson Burnett

Everybody loves a Cinderella story, right?

25. Lettice Delmer by Susan Miles

Who knew a verse novel could be so good? And theologically interesting, no less.

26. The Wise Virgins by Leonard Woolf

I don’t remember a lot about this, but it’s good to have an illustration of Virginia Woolf’s life.

27. Tea With Mr Rochester by Frances Towers

Some lovely stories with heavy literary influence.

28. Journal by Katherine Mansfield

One of my favourite writers, but her journal is a bit all over the place.

29. The New House by Lettice Cooper

This feels like the quintessential 1930s domestic novel. It’s great.

30. To Bed With Grand Music by Marghanita Laski

An amusing gender-reversed Casanova tale of a woman finding adulterous lovers in wartime.

31. A House in the Country by Jocelyn Playfair

A much less ‘domestic-style’ novel than you’d expect – biting and extremely well told.

32. On the Other Side by Mathilde Wolff-Monckeberg

This non-fic account of being an anti-Nazi German in Nazi Germany shines an important light on WW2.

33. The Priory by Dorothy Whipple

This is wildly too long, but an engaging domestic drama.

34. The Blank Wall by Elisabeth Sanxay-Holding

A tense sort-of-thriller, and a great character study.

35. The Victorian Chaise-Longue by Marghanita Laski

A short and fascinating time travel novel – pacy and quite moving.

36. Alas, Poor Lady by Rachel Ferguson

I love Ferguson’s quirky novels, but she’s also great in (slightly) more traditional mode.

37. They Knew Mr Knight by Dorothy Whipple

A powerful novel about an interloper ruining a family – including a good depiction of faith.

38. Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day by Winifred Watson

Who doesn’t love this frothy Cinderella tale? We all love it.

39. Bricks and Mortar by Helen Ashton

Such an engaging, enjoyable novel about architecture and family.

40. The Village by Marghanita Laski

There are a zillion novels about class relations in 1940s villages, and this is the Platonic ideal.

41. The Home-Maker by Dorothy Canfield Fisher

Still very ahead of its time in showing a house-husband (and was ahead of its time in showing a working mother).

42. The Fortnight in September by R.C. Sherriff

I was late to the Sherriff party, but his beautifully ordinary novels are exceptional.

43. Flush by Virginia Woolf

I’m putting this high up because it’s Queen Virginia, but it’s probably her least interesting novel, and definitely didn’t need rescuing.

44. Consequences by E.M. Delafield

One of my first Persephone reads – dark and brilliant, like much EMD.

45. Cheerful Weather for the Wedding by Julia Strachey

Divides people, but I found this odd, short novel extremely funny.

46. Miss Ranskill Comes Home by Barbara Euphan Todd

Shipwrecked woman returns to England during WW2 – a fantastic way of giving an unusual perspective on wartime.

47. Greengates by R.C. Sherriff

Same as the previous Sherriff, but with extra love because it’s also about houses.

48. Greenery Street by Denis Mackail

A funny, happy novel about marriage – rare and lovely.

49. The Runaway by Elizabeth Anna Hart

A fun children’s novel, so high up because Gwen Raverat’s woodcuts are so wonderful.

50. A Very Great Profession by Nicola Beauman

A groundbreaking work on middlebrow fiction that is basically a guide to the world of Persephone, written a decade before it started.

51. Someone at a Distance by Dorothy Whipple

I’m pretty sure everybody agrees this is Whipple’s best novel. A well-told story of a butterfly effect.

52. London War Notes by Mollie Panter-Downes

MPD’s fortnightly columns about war give a fascinating overview of the experience, as it happened.

53. A Writer’s Diary by Virginia Woolf

A masterpiece of editing, giving Woolf’s astonishing insights into being The Best Writer of the 20th Century (TM).

54. Hostages to Fortune by Elizabeth Cambridge

This, it turns out, is my favourite Persephone book that I didn’t know before it was a Persephone. A wonderful novel about being a wife and mother in Oxfordshire countryside.

55. Family Roundabout by Richmal Crompton

Totally compelling, and with RC’s greatest characters in the two covertly warring matriarchs.

56. Guard Your Daughters by Diana Tutton

Hilarious, warm, delightful – and also a little dark. So thrilled this is now a Persephone.

57. Diary of a Provincial Lady by E.M. Delafield

I still don’t think this should have been a Persephone, when there are so many out of print Delafield novels to be discovered – but it has to go at the top because it might well be my favourite novel. How could it not?

I’d love it if other people wanted to go crazy and rank all the Persephones they’ve read. And I’d love your thoughts on my list!

#PersephoneReadathon: Day One

I’ve only just spotted that Jessie at Dwelling in Possibility is running an eleven-day Persephone Readathon. What a good idea! You can read more here, and by exploring a few of Jessie’s most recent posts, but I definitely want to jump on board. While I’m still deciding which of my unread Persephones to pick up (and which of those tick years in A Century of Books, of course), I thought I’d join in with the challenge for Day One: First Impressions Challenge: Tell us how you first discovered Persephone Books and/or the first Persephone book you read.

Well, there are a couple of potential answers to that – because I read a Persephone or two in non-Persephone covers before I’d ever heard of them. But my route to Persephone was through Richmal Crompton – I’d picked up Family Roundabout (I think) in Hay-on-Wye, intrigued because I’d loved her William stories throughout my childhood. That set me off on a little RC binge, for any of the books I could find easily – Frost at MorningWeatherley Parade. And so I was rather intrigued when I saw a copy of Family Roundabout as part of a display in Pershore library, the little library local to be in Worcestershire. Yes, that copy was in Persephone clothing.

This was in late 2003, I think. I went to Amazon and saw a review of it – back in the days when Amazon would tell you email addresses of reviewers. I emailed the reviewer to say how much I’d like the novel too – and that reviewer happened to be Lyn, of I Prefer Reading. She told me all about Persephone Books, and invited me to join an online book group discussing them – from which I have never looked back.

So, the first Persephone book I read in its Persephone edition was either Miss Ranskill Comes Home by Barbara Euphan Todd or Miss Pettigrew Lives For a Day by Winifred Watson – they were both books I found in the library (and I should really check my notebooks to see which I read first). They’re also both brilliant.

To date, I’ve read 56 Persephone books. Which, wonderfully, leaves almost seventy still to read – plenty of happy years of reading ahead of me!

Do join in with the Persephone Readathon if you can, and head over to Jessie’s blog to find out more.

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!

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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.

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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.