The Three Sisters by May Sinclair

The Three SistersI want to have a stern word with Virago Modern Classics – or, at least, whoever was in charge of cover design back in the 1980s. Normally pretty great, the choice of cover image for their reprint of May Sinclair’s 1914 novel The Three Sisters is pretty unforgivable. I’m going to give you a top tip, right from the start: this is not a novel about the Brontes.

It seems, to me, completely bizarre to put this famous painting on the front of a novel which is only very, very loosely inspired by the Bronte sisters – an ‘imaginative starting point’, as the blurb acknowledges. But we’ll forgive that and put it to one side. The similarities are that there are three sisters in a remote Yorkshire vicarage – that’s about it. They don’t have a brother or two deceased sisters; they aren’t writers; their personalities aren’t even that similar. And the vicar has lost three wives – variously to death and abandonment – and has settled into an angry, unwilling celibacy.

The sisters are Mary, Gwenda, and Alice Carteret. Gwenda is passionate and artistic, striding over the moors and wanting much more than the small community can offer her. Alice is considered weak by all, but has an iron core of determination – and not a little spitefulness. Mary is rather less easy to grasp on the page – starting off staid and dependable, and gradually getting rather less pleasant.

Into this world comes the one eligible man in the district – Dr Steven Rowcliffe. In turn – or, indeed, somewhat all at once – the sisters fall in love with him. He finds these attentions annoying and beguiling, depending which sister is under consideration: it is clearly Gwenda that has caught his eye, but he must cope with all three of them eyeing him as a prospective husband material.

Their father is firmly against any of them marrying anybody, though. He is fired by selfishness, cloaked in supposed holiness. Like most vicars in fiction, he sadly doesn’t come across very well. (Septimus Harding might be the only sympathetic clergyman I can remember, and also by far the closest to the real vicars I have known. Do better, novelists.) His faith and morality seems mostly to emerge in unkindness – such as making the maid Essy leave when she is discovered to be pregnant. It does, at least, lead to an amusingly handled scene where Essy tells her mother – who pretends astonishment, whereas she really ‘only wondered that she had not come four months ago’.

Despite a slightly stereotypical set up, The Three Sisters is really engaging. Sinclair was ahead of the curve, in terms of the psychology of romantic relationships, but – more importantly – she knows how to make the reader find the relationships between all the characters interesting, whether sister/sister, father/daughter, or maid/employer. The dialogues between Gwenda and her father remind me of Austen’s battle-of-wits exchanges, and the prose treads the line between beautifully descriptive and pulling-the-plot-forward extremely well. Sinclair was a very good writer.

But…

Oh, but…

WHY the dialect and transcribed accent? This accounts for probably no more than one in eight pages, but it’s pretty unbearable when it comes. Only the working-class characters speak this way, in what I suppose is meant to be Yorkshire voices, but could equally be anything from Cornwall upwards. I can’t face typing out any of it, but here’s a photo of some of the dialogue…

The Three Sisters accent

Unsurprisingly, I skimmed most of this. Why not just write ‘she spoke with a heavy Yorkshire accent’, and leave it at that? But the rural/dialectical novel was running unchecked around 1900-1920, so Sinclair was only falling into the trap of her time. Suffice to say, if this had accounted for much more of the novel, I definitely wouldn’t have finished it.

But, if you can face with skimming over these pages, there is a lot to like in The Three Sisters – particularly in the second half, where the wheels start to fall off a bit. It’s a sensitive, often fairly wryly amusing, and very well crafted novel. Just don’t expect it to be about the Brontes.

 

Others who got Stuck into it:

A Girl Walks Into a Bookstore: “this book is a strange hybrid of Edwardian values and Victorian conventionality”.

Fleur Fisher (Beyond Eden Rock): “May Sinclair spins a compelling story, full of rich descriptions of people and places, and with a wonderful understanding of her characters and their relationships.”

A Wreath for the Enemy by Pamela Frankau

A Wreath for the EnemyPamela Frankau is one of those names that has been around the edges of my consciousness for years – it’s hard to read about interwar fiction, academically, without seeing Pamela and Gilbert Frankau (her father, it turns out; I had assumed brother) mentioned a lot. Yes, I’ve got her confused with Pamela Hansford Johnson in the past, but having read A Wreath for the Enemy (1954) now, I shan’t make the mistake again – mostly because I thought it was really, really good.
Many thanks to my good friend Caroline for giving me a copy of this book – Caroline was in my Oxford book group and, very sadly for us, moved away a while ago. We’ve stayed in touch, and she sent me A Wreath for the Enemy because she thought it would be up my street. What an unusual, clever, innovative novel it is. And how’s this for an opening line?

There had been two crises already that day before the cook’s husband called to assassinate the cook.

It is told in three sections, though with overlapping sets of characters. In the first, we see Penelope Wells and her family – looking after an eccentric hotel on the French Riviera. She calls her father and stepmother by the first first names, and is one of the most deliciously unusual child characters I’ve ever encountered. She is an adolescent, but one who has learnt language from books rather than friendships – guess who can relate? – and her conversation is a delight. It would be precocious if the character were showing off, but she isn’t; it’s simply the only way she knows how to communicate.

“Painful as it is to refuse,” I said, “my father has acquired visitors and I have sworn to be sociable. The penalty is ostracism.”

What a creation on Frankau’s part. She has brilliantly drawn a girl turned eccentric by her upbringing (when we meet her, she is writing her Anthology of Hates) who is quirky without being irritating, and a world away from a Manic Pixie Dream Girl. For the reader, she is endearing and interesting – but with an undercurrent of sadness: she has not chosen her upbringing any more than anybody else has, and she clearly has some understanding

Penelope meets the Bradley family, and is enamoured by the children Don and Eva. They come from a strikingly conventional family (Penelope’s father calls them ‘the Smugs’), and they find her enticing – she, in turn, admires the conventionality of them. It is an unusual but entirely plausible friendship – which lasts until a disreputable woman known as The Duchess comes to stay at the Wells’s hotel. The Bradley parents are shocked… and the section ends with something tragic, beautifully understated while at the same time having a significant emotional impact on them all.

The second section jumps forward a few years, and is from the perspective of Don. He is now at a boarding school, and beginning to rebel against his father’s conventionality – chiefly through his friendship with Crusoe. Crusoe is an older man in a wheelchair, brusque and direct with all, but with evident fondness for Don and a certain amount of wisdom. But absolutely no regard for ‘doing the right thing’, in the British-upper-class sense, and Don has to choose between his father’s commands and the new world he has glimpsed – while also still affected by the events of the first section of the book. And I shan’t talk too much about the final section – but Penelope is back, everybody is older, and new challenges come to the fore.

What makes A Wreath for the Enemy so brilliant, to my mind – well, it’s the writing, and the quirkiness, and the great humour – but it’s also the unusual way in which it’s written. It’s as though Frankau took a traditional novel, threw it up in the air, and wrote up what fell to the ground. It should feel disparate and jagged, but the different elements are ingeniously combined. It’s something of an abstract portrait, where the reader is left to fill in some gaps – but can understand a whole world of half a dozen characters, just be the brief moments we see them.

I will confess that I had always rather assumed that Frankau wasn’t very good. She was so prolific, and (I think I’m right in recollecting) disparaged in the highbrow/middlebrow debate – but both these facts are true of authors I love, so I should have realised that she’d be a winner. If any of her other novels are up to the quirky, imaginative, and confident calibre of A Wreath for the Enemy, I greatly look forward to reading them. And I have The Willow Cabin next on my tbr…

Others who got Stuck into this…

(I could only find one, but it’s a lovely one.)

Fleur Fisher: “This is lovely: a quite beautifully written book that speaks so profoundly. I find myself wanting to say so much, and at the same time being almost lost for words.”

Blood on the Dining-Room Floor by Gertrude Stein

If Swallows and Amazons is a great book to be reading while the brain is a bit confuzzled, then Blood on the Dining-Room Floor (1948) probably isn’t.  But it came to mind the other day when Dorothy Richardson was mentioned – simply because I’d mixed up who wrote it – but by then I’d pulled it off the shelf, and the fab Picasso cover, combined with the book’s brevity, meant I thought I’d give it a whirl.

Every great writer has, I imagine, been called a fraud – and many frauds have been called great writers.  Which is Gertrude Stein?  I haven’t read anything else by her, and the introduction to this edition more or less says that Blood on the Dining-Room Floor wasn’t a success, but I spent the whole time thinking ‘Emperor’s New Clothes’.  But then I thought… there are plenty of people who say that about Virginia Woolf’s fiction, which I think is sublimely brilliant – so it’s just as likely that this novella is brilliant and I simply don’t get it.  Here’s a sample sentence:

A little come they which they can they will they can be married to a man, a young enough man an old man and a young enough man.
Well, sure, Gertrude, why not?  Not all the novella is that obfuscatory, but it’s also far from unique in the narrative.  In theory, I’m not anti experimental writing – but as I get further and further from my undergraduate days, my tolerance for unconventional grammar and deliberately cloaked meaning gets lower and lower.

And what’s it about?  Well, the writer of the blurb optimistically calls Blood on the Dining-Room Floor a detective novel, but since it’s more or less impossible to work out who any of the characters are, up to and including the person whose blood is on the dining-room floor (a more prominent death in the book is the maybe-sleepwalker who fell out a window), then it can only be called a detective novel in the loosest sense conceivable.

An interesting experiment to read, and it’s always possible that my cold-ridden delirium played its part, but… I can’t call myself a Stein fan as of yet.  Anybody read this, or any of Stein’s more famous work?  Could I be yet persuaded?

Together and Apart – Margaret Kennedy

I think Together and Apart (1936) by Margaret Kennedy might just be the most 1930s novel I have ever read.  Not that it is the best (though it is very good) but that it is somehow quintessentially 1930s, stuffed with all the ingredients I have come to expect – marital politics; sensuality tempered by an intrinsic conservatism; a sense of change which is both progressive and nostalgic; fraught family gatherings; women discovering their voices, but torn between the roles of wife, mother, and independent woman; people explaining their feelings to each other at elaborate length.  Of course, none of these themes are unique to the 1930s, but they recur so often in novels of that decade that, together, they evoke the 1930s for me.  (Before I go any further – thank you Rob, who gave this to me in the Virago Secret Santa back in 2011, making Together and Apart possibly my only black Virago Modern Classic.)

It all starts off with that touchy-for-the-1930s topic of divorce, with Betsy writing to her mother about her proposed separation from her husband, the celebrated librettist Alec, and it’s worth quoting at length…

Well now Mother, listen.  I have something to tell you that you won’t like at all.  In fact, I’m afraid that it will be a terrible shock and you will hate it at first.  But do try to get used to the idea and bring father round to it.

Alec and I are parting company.  We are going to get a divorce.

I know this will horrify: the more so because I have, perhaps mistakenly, tried very hard to conceal our unhappiness during these last years.  I didn’t, naturally, want anybody to know while there was still a chance of keeping things going.  But the fact is, we have been quite miserable, both of us.  We simply are unsuited to one another and unable to get on.  How much of this have you guessed?

Life is so different from what we expected when we first married.  Alec has quite changed, and he needs a different sort of wife.  I never wanted all this money and success.  I married a very nice but quite undistinguished civil servant.  With my money we had quite enough to live on in a comfortable and civilised way.  We had plenty of friends, our little circle, people like ourselves, amusing and well bred, not rich, but decently well off.  Alec says now that they bored him.  But he didn’t say so at the time.
Divorce was no longer the great unthinkable, but you don’t have to be cynical to detect a hint of false brio in Betsy’s assured tone.  The respective mothers leap into action – and they remind me rather of the mothers in Richmal Crompton’s Family Roundabout.  Betsy’s mother is weak and anxious; Alec’s mother is domineering and formidable.  Neither, it turns out, is particularly good at bringing the separated couple back together, and there is rather a sense that they might have inadvertently accelerated the split…

From here, Margaret Kennedy weaves a complex and evolving pattern.  I expected the novel to focus on the married couple, seeing whether or not they could mend their rift, but Kennedy’s world is far wider than that.  I might even criticise it for being a little too wide, in that it occasionally seems to lose focus a bit as she tries to encompass a school, four or five households, and the minds and opinions of a dozen or more principal players.

As with the G.B. Stern novel (and because I’m rushing up so many posts!) I don’t think it’s worth elaborating at length about the plot.  Kennedy shows us the consequences of actions, and movingly depicts the ways in which separation affects everyone – not just the ‘think of the children’ angle (although this is shown a fair bit, the children are all quite flawed of their own accord) but the married couple themselves.  The split between Betsy and Alec is never final and certain in their minds – both are plagued by regret or, more to the point, uncertainty about their decision (regret would be a form of certainty which neither can reach).  I have never been married, and of course never divorced, but I was still impressed by the nuances in Kennedy’s writing…

…with the caveat that this is the 1930s, and I often find that the dialogue in 1930s novels is never quite as nuanced as one might wish.  People do explain their emotions at length, and have oh-gosh-darling moments, but that all adds to the good fun of it all.  My first Margaret Kennedy book was her biography of Jane Austen, and it is interesting to see how her own fiction compares.  Well, of course Austen is better – but you can see where Kennedy learnt a bit about portraying human nature in its complexities, and I think Jane would rather have enjoyed reading this if she’d been around in 1936.

The Cynical Wives Brigade (A Woman of My Age – Nina Bawden)

When Karen mentioned that she’d bought some Nina Bawden books, I commented that I had a few on my shelves, but had never got around to reading her – and, hey presto, a joint readalong of A Woman of My Age (1967) was born.  Karen’s already posted her review here, but I have to admit that I have yet to read it – because I wanted to give you my thoughts before I discovered hers.

I didn’t know what to expect from Nina Bawden – I’ve never even read her famous children’s books – so I started the novel with more or less a blank canvas. Elizabeth is the heroine (if the term fits… which it doesn’t, really) and is in Morocco with her husband of eighteen years, Richard.  The heat is stultifying and their companions a trifle wearying – the obese, overly-friendly Mrs Hobbs and her quiet husband, and the unexpected friend from home, Flora. Unexpected to Elizabeth, anyway…

As their journey across the country continues, the web between these characters gets more and more complex, as secrets are revealed and alliances kindled – but the mainstay of the narrative is Elizabeth’s musings on her past life, as her marriage to Richard is slowly documented, and considered in minute detail.  For Elizabeth is nothing if not introspective – she’s even introspective about being introspective, which does lead to one amusing line at least:

She peered appraisingly at herself in the mirror, pulling faces as if she were alone, and I was embarrassed by her candour. (Though I have as much interest in my appearance as most women, I feel it is somehow degrading to admit it.  Before we came away, I bought a special cream supposed to restore elasticity to the skin, but I destroyed the wrapper on the jar and the accompanying, incriminating literature, as furtively as I had, when young, removed the cover of a book on sex.)
Before I go further, I should put forward the weak statement that I quite enjoyed A Woman of My Age, because I’m going to harp on about the things I didn’t much like.  So, while I do that, please bear in mind that Bawden’s writing is always good, her humour (when it comes) is sharp and well-judged, and her characters are generally believable.  There is even some pathos in the account of Elizabeth’s ageing relatives, but I shan’t comment much on that – because they are pretty incidental.

Elizabeth’s age, referred to in the title, is 37.  She has been married for nearly half her life, and is obviously rather dissatisfied.  We know this, because she often tells us.  Sometimes (in this mention of her early married life) it is almost laughably stereotypical:

We were bored with our husbands.  They were sober young men, marking school books, studying, advancing into an adult world of action and responsibility.
This is, I shall admit now, my main problem with the novel – and that which inspired my title to this post.  Elizabeth is a card-carrying, fully-paid-up member of the Cynical Wives Brigade.  You may remember how little I liked Margaret Drabble’s The Garrick Year – you can read my thoughts here – and a lot of A Woman of My Age is cut from the same cloth. Perhaps it’s because I’ve never been a wife, and because I wasn’t around in the 1960s, but I find this gosh-is-my-privileged-life-wonderful-enough unutterably tedious, not to mention the casual adultery that all these characters indulge in.  Adultery seems, at best, a stimulus for another tedious, introspective conversation or contemplation.  Children, as with Drabble’s novel, are included simply to show the passage of time, and none of the adult characters seem to have any particularly parental instincts.

Was this a 1960s thing?  Well, Lynne Reid Banks’s The L-Shaped Room (1960) is one of my favourite novels, but I can’t deny that it is very introspective – but Jane isn’t a wife, so she manages to escape the Cynical Wives Brigade.  I haven’t read many novels from this decade, but already I get the idea (supported by this novel) that it’s full of this type of navel-gazing, morally-lax types.  For someone born in the 1980s, incidentally, there were a couple of moments which are very of-their-time, and rather shocking to me. (Were these views still acceptable in the 1960s?? Both are from Elizabeth’s point of view, and neither seem ironic.)

As a result, I drank more than was sensible in my condition: like a lot of women, I always felt more unwell during the first three months of pregnancy than afterwards, and alcohol went to my head very quickly.
and

I was surprised at the violence of his remorse – after all, he had only hit me
I suppose I can’t blame Bawden for that, if those were still prevalent opinions and actions in the time.  But what I can blame her for is making an interesting scenario and potentially interesting characters get so dragged down by the dreariness of reading about Elizabeth’s self-pity and moping. To do her justice, another character in the novel does accuse her of exactly these faults. I cheered when I read this:

If they are a sample of your usual conversation I’m not surprised that he doesn’t listen to you.  You’re no more worth listening to than any bored, spoiled young woman, whining because the routine of married life has gone stale on you.  It really is very provoking, to a woman of my generation.  When I was thirty, we didn’t have the vote, we had to fight for a place in the world.  Now you’ve got it, most of you don’t bother to use it.  I daresay it’s dull, being tied to a house and young children, but it was a life you chose, after all, you were so eager to rush into it that you didn’t even take your degree.
I’m always curious when authors incorporate criticisms of their novel or characters into the narrative itself.  Is it a moment of self-awareness, to distance themselves from the voice of the narrator?  Is it the belief that recognising one’s faults is the same as correcting them?  Or is simply a moment of regret, for the direction a novel should have taken?

(I should make clear – a lot of the things Elizabeth complains about are probably genuine issues. But complaining does not a novel make.)

And I haven’t even mentioned the big twist at the end.  I don’t really know what to say about it.

I’m still glad that I read Nina Bawden, and I’ll have a look at the other one’s on my shelves to see if they’re any less frustrating.  Right now I’m off to see what Karen thought… come join me?

Love at Second Sight by Ada Leverson

Whilst rooting around for a 1916 title for A Century of Books (you should have seen me, scrabbling through my books, opening covers, reading publication details, reshelving huffily) I stumbled upon Love At Second Sight by Ada Leverson.  It’s the third book in The Little Ottleys, of which I have previously read the first – Love’s Shadow – which was rather brilliant.  This is the only time A Century of Books has really rather compromised my reading plans – in that I skipped past the second title in the trilogy (Tenterhooks) straight to the third.  But someone had spoken on The Little Ottleys at a recent conference, and given away the plot, so it wasn’t as calamitous as it could have been.

Look away if you don’t want to know what happened in the first two novels… but they’ve (to be very brief) set up the fairly loveless marriage of Edith and Bruce; Edith falls in love with Aylmer Ross, but will not leave her husband, even when he asks for a divorce himself (having run off with another woman); he comes back to her, and everything settles down into what it had been before – which is to say, an amusing, charming, patient woman, and an exasperating man.  Bruce is best summed up by this wonderful quotation from Love’s Shadow: “He often wrote letters beginning “Sir, I feel it my duty,” to people on subjects that were no earthly concern of his.”  As for the lovely Edith, I’ll hand over to Leverson to describe her.  An author should show and not tell, as a rule, but all these qualities in Edith have been exemplified in previous books, so it is forgiveable that Leverson wants to let us know what a wonder she is, so that we can get on with the show.

She was a slim, fair, pretty woman, with more vividness and character than usually goes with her type.  Like the boy, she had long-lashed grey eyes, and blonde-cendre hair: her mouth and chin were of the Burne-Jones order, and her charm, which was great but unintentional, and generally unconscious, appealed partly to the senses and partly to the intellect.  She was essentially not one of those women who irritate all their own sex by their power (and still more by their fixed determination) to attract men; she was really and unusually indifferent to general admiration.  Still, that she was not a cold woman, not incapable of passionate feeling, was obvious to any physiognomist; the fully curved lips showed her generous and pleasure-loving temperament, while the softly glancing, intelligent, smiling eyes spoke fastidiousness and discrimination.  Her voice was low and soft, with a vibrating sound in it, and she laughed often and easily, being very ready to see and enjoy the amusing side of life.  But observation and emotion alike were instinctively veiled by a quiet, reposeful manner, so that she made herself further popular by appearing retiring.  Edith Ottley might so easily have been the centre of any group, and yet – she was not!  Women were grateful to her, and in return admitted that she was pretty, unaffected and charming.

Love At Second Sight opens with a scream.  The Ottleys’ son Archie has, it seemed, used Madame Frabelle’s mandolin as a cricket bat, and she is not best pleased.  And who might Madame Frabelle be, you ask?  The Ottleys want to ask much the same thing.  Their delightfully forgetful and absent-minded friend Lady Conroy introduced them (although later denied ever having heard of her, and in fact asks for an introduction herself) – and Madame Frabelle arrives for a visit.  Which has lengthened itself into many, many weeks.  She is charming, a great listener, given to understanding people – noticing their subtlest of thoughts, predicting their actions, and invariably being wrong about everything.

Indeed Edith did sincerely regard her opinion as very valuable.  She found her so invariably wrong that she was quite a useful guide. She was never quite sure of her own judgement until Madame Frabelle had contradicted it.
Madame Frabelle is determined that Edith is in love with Mr. Mitchell, another of the Ottleys acquaintances.  What neither Madame Frabelle nor Bruce notice is that Edith is in love – with Aylmer, who has returned from fighting in France with a broken leg.  Edith has to face a quandary – whether or not to leave her husband…

As I say, I haven’t read Tenterhooks, where a similar story takes place, so I can only contrast this with the first book in the trilogy.  In that (again, c.f. my review here), we see a marriage which is irksome and unequal, but in a comic fashion.  All the will-they-won’t-they plot concerns a multitude of other characters, none of whom have stayed in my mind, and the central Ottley marriage is stable, if awful.  Bruce’s absurd lack of self-awareness is hilarious, and his terribleness as a husband is darkly humorous – in Love At Second Sight, more is at stake, and more than a punchline is likely to come out of this incompatible couple.

Which is not to say that the novel isn’t funny.  It is very amusing, especially when Lady Conroy wanders onto the scene.  Ada Leverson was friends with Oscar Wilde, and his influence is apparent – if anything, rather more so than in Love’s Shadow, because she turns to the epigram rather more frequently in Love At Second Sight – par example, ‘she was a woman who was never surprised at anything except the obvious and the inevitable’.  Sometimes this clash of serious storyline and comic prose was a little disconcerting – I thought the balance worked better in Love’s Shadow – but  this is still a wonderful little book.

Of course, what you should do is get the trilogy and read them in order!  I’ll read Tenterhooks one day, and then everything will fall into place properly…

At Mrs. Lippincote’s – Elizabeth Taylor

I intended to read At Mrs. Lippincote’s (1945) back in January, in its rightful place for Elizabeth Taylor Centenary year, but somehow it didn’t happen… and then I went to a wonderful Celebration of Elizabeth Taylor in Reading, and one of the book groups was discussing this title.  I would have written about the day in Reading properly (where I got to meet lots of lovely ladies from the LibraryThing Virago group) but it happened just before Muriel Spark Reading Week, so I had other things to take blog prominence!

Well, better late than never – I’ll give you my thoughts on At Mrs. Lippincote’s.  The short review is that this is my favourite, of the five or six Elizabeth Taylor novels I’ve read.  My usual confusion over characters didn’t occur, and I didn’t even have that tiny this-feels-like-homework response I sometimes get with Taylor.  Instead, I just enjoyed her beautiful writing and intriguing characters, and only had one misgiving – which I’ll come to later.

The Mrs. Lippincote of the title has gone to a residency not unlike Mrs. Palfrey’s at the Claremont, and has let her house to Roddy Davenant (an RAF airman) and his wife Julia, for the duration of the war.  The idea of living in somebody else’s house is a very rich vein for a novelist, and it is mined (can one mine a vein?) beautifully by Taylor.  Mrs. Lippincote is very present through her absence, and the constant possibility of her visitation and judgement.  All her possessions are still in the house, and Julia makes her home amongst them, treading the line between running her family’s home and living in a stranger’s house.  She looks at an old photo of Mrs. Lippincote’s family at an elaborate wedding:

“And now it’s all finished,” Julia thought.  “They had that lovely day and the soup tureen and meat dishes, servants with frills and streamers, children.  They set out that day as if they were laying the foundations of something.  But it was only something which perished very quickly, the children scattered, the tureen draped with cobwebs, and now the widow, the bride, perhaps at this moment unfolding her napkin alone at a table in a small private hotel down the road.”
While Taylor is great at delving into characters and relationships over the course of a novel, she is also fantastic at painting complete portraits with a few imaginative details.  A bit like synedochal snapshots of people’s lives.

Roddy’s cousin Eleanor is also living with them, and anybody who has read Rebecca West’s excellent novella The Return of the Soldier will be familiar with the dynamic of the wife/husband/husband’s cousin.  (It is a cousin in The Return of the Soldier too, isn’t it?)  Eleanor, indeed, does think that she would make a better wife for Roddy – and she is probably right.  Roddy and Eleanor aren’t on the same wavelength – neither are the ‘bad guy’, but our sympathies are definitely with Julia, who is a wonderful character.

I would be confident that you’d all love Julia, or at least empathise with her, but I’ve just reminded myself of Claire’s review: ‘Julia is an odd character and certainly not a very likeable one.”  Re-reading her post, I’m starting to change my mind a bit… but I’ll stick to my guns and explain why I did love Julia.  She is intelligent and artistic, coping with the dissatisfactions of her life with stoicism and wit.  She hasn’t been handed the home or husband that she would ideally choose, but makes the best of the situation she is in – as well as being sensitive and thoughtful about the wider conditions of the country.  When talking to the Wing Commander (Roddy’s boss), she argues the point for education for his daughter Felicity:

“They will try to stuff her head with Virgil and Pliny and Greek Irregular Verbs.”

“All Greek verbs are irregular,” Julia murmured.

“I think it nonsense.  What use will it be to her when she leaves school?  Will it cook her husband’s dinner?”

“No, it won’t do that, but it will help her to endure doing it, perhaps.  If she is to cook while she is at school, then there will be that thing less for her to learn when she’s grown-up: but, if she isn’t to learn Greek at school, then she will never learn it afterwards.  And learning Greek at school is like storing honey against the winter.”

“But what use is it?” he persisted.

“Men can be educated; women must be trained,” she said sorrowfully.
A little heavy-handed perhaps, but a point worth making – and, incidentally, a battle subsequently won (although neither girls nor boys are likely to study Greek irregular verbs now… at least not at the sort of school I attended.)  The Wing Commander is another really intriguing character.  He has all the firmness and professionalism you’d expect of a Wing Commander, but also a literary side which baffles Roddy.  He’s a bit awkward with children, but manages to engage Oliver Davenant in a discussion about the Brontes – a theme which runs throughout the novel, potential mad-woman-in-the-attic and everything.  Oh, I’ve not mentioned Oliver before, have I?  He is Julia’s ten year old son, and which of us could fail to greet a fellow bibliophile?

Oliver Davenant did not merely read books.  He snuffed them up, took breaths of them into his lungs, filled his eyes with the sight of the print and his head with the sound of words.  Some emanation from the book itself poured into his bones, as if he were absorbing steady sunshine.  The pages had personality.  He was of the kind who cannot have a horrifying book in the room at night.  He would, in fine weather, lay it upon an outside sill and close the window.  Often Julia would see a book lying on his doormat.
He is incredibly sensitive and fairly weak, in a determined-invalid sort of way, but his friendship with Felicity is more or less the only straightforward one in the novel.  Which brings me onto my sticking point with At Mrs. Lippincote’s – the ending, which I shan’t spoil, is a crisis between two characters which comes rather out of the blue, and doesn’t feel very consistent with the rest of the narrative.  At Mrs. Lippincote’s, like all the Taylor novels I’ve read, is more concerned with characters than plot – nothing hugely unbalancing occurs, and the focus is upon the way people live together and communicate.  Until the end, which feels a bit as though Taylor wasn’t sure how to conclude a novel, and decided, unfortunately, to end with a bang.

I shall take a leaf out of her book (not literally, that would be vandalism) and end in a manner which I usually do not – with a quotation.  At Mrs. Lippincote’s is thoughtful, clever, and perceptive, but it’s also often very witty – and I’ll finish with a quotation which amused me.

Eleanor, whom he [Oliver] did not really like, set sums for him every morning and corrected them when she came home for tea.  Occasionally, he had a right answer, in much the same manner as when one backs horses a great deal, now and the one of them comes in for a place.
(See all the Elizabeth Taylor Centenary Celebration reviews for this title here.)

Early Young

One of the best books I’ve read this year was William by E.H. Young – a few of us did a joint read back in February, and I became a confirmed fan of Emily Hilda’s, after having previously enjoyed Miss Mole. In a manner not unknown to me, I had stockpiled EHY novels long before I knew whether or not I would like her, and so when I saw that someone at the conference I’m attending this week would be discussing The Misses Mallett (1922), I was able to prepare.

My received understanding about EH Young, from various reviews and from Virago’s judicious selection of novels to reprint in the 1980s and 1990s, was that her first three novels were rather mediocre and that The Misses Mallett (also published as The Bridge Dividing) was something of a momentous turning point. After that (so I understood) she wrote nothing but gems. After all, nothing separates those early rural novels from the sophistication of William except one novel: yes, The Misses Mallett.

I had great expectations. And, I’m sorry to say, they rather faltered. The topic showed such promise, especially given my predisposition towards spinster novels of the 1920s. And there are plenty of spinsters around – let me hand you over to my favourite one, Caroline:
“The Malletts don’t marry, Henrietta. Look at us, as happy as the day is long, with all the fun and none of the trouble. We’ve been terrible flirts, Sophia and I. Rose is different, but at least she hasn’t married. The three Miss Malletts of Nelson Lodge! Now there are four of us, and you must keep up our reputation.”Caroline, Sophia, and Rose are sisters, Rose being rather younger than the first two – who are drawn rather two-dimensionally, if amusingly. Caroline is fairly feisty, and spends her autumnal years reliving imagined conquests of her youth, and alluding to improprieties which she, in fact, has never had the opportunity to commit. Sophia is mousy and quiet and traipses after Caroline, excusing, correcting, and loving her. They have their own touching dynamic, even if their characters aren’t hugely evolved. It is with Rose, and later their feckless brother’s daughter Henrietta, that the reader is supposed to sympathise. They are from the same mould – affected intensely by their emotions, but compelled by society to quash their wilder affections, etc. etc. And they’re both tangled up with love for the (to my mind) wholly unattractive Francis Sales. He’s off the market anyway, married to an invalid wife of the variety who alternates catty remarks with lunges after her smelling salts.

To be honest, much of this plot reminded me of the most unlikely excesses of Thomas Hardy. People fall in love from distances of a hundred metres, flash their eyes all over the place, and emote wildly through woodland and over moors. Here’s an excerpt:
She did not love him – how could she? – but he belonged to her; and now, if this piece of gossip turned out to be true, she must share him with another. Jealousy, in its usual sense, she had none as yet, but she forged a chain she was to find herself unable to break. It was her pride to consider herself a hard young person, without spirituality, without sentiment, yet all her personal relationships were to be of the fantastic kind she now experienced, all her obligations such as others would have ignored.I haven’t read anything by Mary Webb et al, but this has to be the sort of thing Stella Gibbons was parodying in Cold Comfort Farm, no? (Which reminds me – review of Stella Gibbons’ Westwood coming soon, promise.) I’m being a little cruel to EHY here, perhaps, but only because her later novels are so brilliant. It’s somewhat reassuring that she wasn’t born with inherent subtlety and style.

I’m skimming over the plot rather, because it’s a bit predictable. I’ve watched enough corny films to know that the Rugged Hero will eventually be passed over for the Male Best Friend. In Henrietta’s case, the latter appears in the wonderful character of Charles. He is like a lump of real gold amidst fool’s gold – when EH Young went on to write better, much better, novels, she need not have been ashamed of creating Charles. He is a wonderful mixture of the aesthetic and inept. He lives for beauty in music, much in the way that characters in EM Forster might, but he also lacks confidence and is unnervingly self-aware.
Charles blinked, his sign of agitation, but Henrietta did not see. “He’s good to look at,” Charles muttered. “He knows how to wear his clothes.”

“That doesn’t matter.”

Charles heaved a sigh. “One never knows what matters.”As a hero he defies cliche, and thus is a nod towards the sort of complex characters which Young would later form. It’s just a shame that the Misses Mallett themselves, inoffensive though they might be, never really reveal any inspiration on Young’s part. A novel about 1920s spinster sisters living together could have been deliciously fun or painfully poignant, or even both, but there are only brief moments when The Misses Mallett could be said to be either. A serviceable novel, certainly, and good enough to pass the time – but unworthy of the pen which would later create William and Miss Mole, and goodness knows whatever other sparkling or clever works.

I’m very glad that this wasn’t my first encounter with EH Young, as it might well have also been my last. Instead, I shall chalk this up to experience – and go foraging for one of her later novels next time. Can anybody at all step forward to defend Young and, equally importantly, those Misses Mallett?

Red Pottage

Turns out Burns was onto something when he talked about the best laid schemes ganging aft agley – mine ganged aft agley all over the place. I had intended to devote August to reading through some of the Viragos I have piled in various places – and had even picked a modest six or seven to read. And I managed to finish… one. True, I am most of the way through another, but somehow August ran away from me almost entirely Viragoless. Still, the one I did read ended up being pretty brilliant – step forward Red Pottage by Mary Cholmondeley.

I can’t remember who first put me onto Red Pottage (maybe Lyn?) but I do know that for a long time I kept an eye out for it, and snapped it up when I spotted it in the Bookbarn during this rampage.

The novel was published in 1890, and it couldn’t really have been published in any other decade. There are elements of New Woman feminism alongside Lady Audleyesque sensation, and all washed down with wit. There is a certain decadence to the prose which is never over the top, recalling a period where three words could be used where one would have done – because sparseness is not the only approach to literature, and what ‘would have done’ is a paltry second-best to what ‘can be done’. This paragraph, for instance, adds nothing to the plot – but it is a delicious sidetrack which would doubtless have been edited out ten years later.

A kingfisher flashed across the open on his way back to the brook near at hand, fleeing from the still splendour of the sun-fired woods where he was but a courtier, to the little winding world of grey stones and water, where he was a jewelled king.

Virago insist in their blurb that the novel is about Rachel West and Hester Gresley, and ‘explores the ways in which two very different women search for fulfilment in a society bound by convention.’ I can understand how such a synopsis would cohere with Virago’s (admirable) publishing aims, but it does Red Pottage a disservice to summarise it in that manner – for it is really far more complex than that, as well as rather more entertaining.

Preparing for a George Gissing-type melancholy novel (I should mention now that I haven’t read anything by George Gissing – or, indeed, Lady Audley’s Secret, I’m just throwing around these references with no first-hand knowledge whatsoever) I was surprised when Red Pottage opens with neither Rachel nor Hester, but instead Hugh Scarlett. Scarlett is embroiled in an affair with Lady Newhaven, and Lord Newhaven challenges Scarlett to a duel, of a sort. They each take a taper – the one with the shorter taper must kill himself before the end of five months. Told you this was a sensation novel.

Except it is not simply a sensation novel. There’s quite a web running through the interrelations of characters, and it’s not long before we meet newly-rich Rachel West, a sensible and social girl who has endured years of poverty. She, in turn, is friends with Hester Gresley who, after having published an extremely successful novel, is now trying to write her second whilst living with her clergyman brother, his jealous wife, and their energetic children. These eight or so characters compose the principal cast – or at least those that are foremost in my mind a few weeks after finishing the novel.

Although the blurb talks about Hester and Rachel being very different, they seemed almost entirely identical figures to me – progressive, but with a firm sense of morals; artistic; loving. My favourite sections of the novel dealt with Hester and her brother’s family – she writing away whenever she had spare moments, and he unappreciative and unadvanced, while believing himself to be deficient in nothing. Any topic under the sun would be ‘thrashed out’ by him, and his judgement he considered final. As for his sense of humour, Cholmondeley pens a particularly delightful paragraph on the topic:

Why does so deep a gulf separate those who have a sense of humour and those who, having none, are compensated by the conviction that they possess it more abundantly. The crevasse seems to extend far inland to the very heights and water-sheds of character. Those who differ on humour will differ on principles. The Gresleys and the Pratts belonged to that large class of our fellow creatures, who, conscious of a genius for adding to the hilarity of our sad planet, discover an irresistible piquancy in putting a woman’s hat on a man’s head, and in that “verbal romping” which playfully designates a whisky and soda as a gargle, and says “au reservoir” instead of “an revoir.”(Shades of Mapp and Lucia, no?) And yet Cholmondeley is unswervingly fair in her portraits. Red Pottage is no attack on the church – indeed, there is a thread of faith through it which is done honestly and well. Rather, the novel contains (among many other things) an exposure of a certain type of clergyman, who is balanced out by a much more sensitive and sympathetic bishop. Even Rev. James Gresley is not solely a figure to be lambasted – his saving grace is the love he feels towards his children, which in turn is the only sort of love within Hester’s own novel which he does not consider overblown.

The conversations between James and Hester are amongst the chief delights of the novel. Jane Austen would not have spoken slightingly of them – some of the exchanges reminded me, in their linguistic delicacy and exactness, of that wonderful scene between Lady Catherine de Burgh and Elizabeth Bennett. Hester’s dialogue is always carefully inoffensive, and yet subtly demonstrates how far she is from agreeing with her brother’s values and pronouncements. To pick one example out of the air: ‘But from your point of view you were right to speak – as – as you have done. I value the affection that prompted it.’ I shan’t spoil the outcome of the relationship between Hester and her family, but I will mention that it involves one of the most moving deaths I have ever read about – and it is not even the death of a human.

Cholmondeley’s constant fairness can confuse, at times – simply because the more sensational aspects of the novel feel as though they require less complex characters. It would be tempting to view Scarlett as a cad and bounder, and a cowardly one at that, but Cholmondeley makes the reader question these assumptions:

But was he a coward? Men not braver than he have earned the Victoria Cross, have given up their lives freely for others. Hugh had it in him to do as well as any man in hot blood, but not in cold.It would be ridiculous to fault Cholmondeley for creating rounded characters, and I don’t intend to do so – only perhaps occasionally (only occasionally) her plot-lines are not quite so well rounded, and the consequent discord is a little unsettling.

I have done little justice to the overlapping and interweaving storylines of the novel, nor the wry humour which so often made me laugh aloud. Cholmondeley is an excellent observer of human nature, and (which is rarer) a generous one. Her generosity does not preclude laughing at traits and actions, but it does forbid pillory or scapegoating. Red Pottage is a rich, moving, funny, and deeply perceptive novel. I may only have managed to finish one Virago Modern Classic this August – but at least the one I finished turned out to be rather brilliant.

Favourite Viragos

Thanks for your lovely comments on yesterday’s post! Let’s keep the Virago Modern Classic mood going (thanks again Rachel and Carolyn!) Here’s a little bit of serendipity for you – I had no idea that suc
h a thing as Google Docs existed until today at work, when my boss asked me to open it. Lo and behold, not only did my Yahoo address automatically set me up with a Google Docs account, but I had three messages (or files or, I suppose, documents) – the third, sent earlier this month, being a complete list of Virago Modern Classics! Thank you, LALindsay, whoever you are – presumably something to do with the VMC group on LibraryThing?

(some of my favourite covers)

It has enabled me to count up all the VMCs I’ve read – not the ones I own; that’s probably about twice this number, but out of 553 VMCs published, I have read a respectable 59. Scroll down to the bottom of this post for the list of those I’ve read, if you’re interested – feel free to ask me about any of them, or tell me which ones I *should* have read that aren’t listed. To be honest, quite a few I read in non-VMC editions. I didn’t even know the Brontes and Austen had had the Virago treatment. But there are still a fair few on the list that have found their way to me courtesy of Virago – and it is those I’ll be choosing from for my favourite VMCs. So, Provincial Lady and myriad Jane Austen novels, even though I love you I’m afraid you shan’t be appearing on this list – because I didn’t meet you between those distinctive green borders. Fair’s fair.

Ok, here are five Virago Modern Classics I love, cherish, and adore. I’m afraid the pictures are of varying sizes; if someone can tell me how to get bigger images of the covers on LibraryThing, that would be much appreciated for future use…

The Love Child – Edith Olivier
(VMC #46)

This one will surprise none of you, I suspect… Olivier’s novel, about a lonely spinster who conjures her childhood imaginary friend into life, is short but powerful. Don’t be put off by a slightly fey cover – The Love Child is clever, moving, and one I’ll be re-reading many times. Well do I remember picking it up on a whim, for mere pence, in the charity shop on Little Clarendon Street (Oxford). For some reason I had no other book with me, or had just finished one, for I immediately went round the corner to a public garden (the one, in fact, pictured) and started it. And was blown away by how good it was.

Mother and Son – Ivy Compton-Burnett
(VMC #394)

I was trying to remember which Virago title was the first I read between those distinctive green spines… without my reading diary to hand, I’m not sure, but it might well have been Mother and Son. My mum loathes Ivy Compton-Burnett, but a lady in our village lent me this, telling me to give Ivy a go. I’m ever grateful to Jay for introducing me to this most divisive of authors – you definitely either love or hate – and her dialogue-packed novels of family intrigue and enjoyably futile, highbrow exchanges.

A Very Great Profession – Nicola Beauman
(VMC #406)

The place where Persephone started, Beauman’s very accessible look at many and various middlebrow female authors is bound to have you filling a notebook with ideas for future reads. Chapters are cleverly divided up into topics like ‘Surplus Women’; ‘Sex’; ‘Psychoanalysis’ etc. An invaluable resource for anyone even vaguely interested in the sort of books in the VMC line – and now available from Persephone.

Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead – Barbara Comyns
(VMC #238)

A title I don’t shut up about, this Comyns novel is surreal and domestic at the same time, and takes pride of place amongst my slightly quirker taste in novels. But nobody is quite like Comyns – and while I want to thank Virago for bringing her novels to a wider audience, I also want to ask why they’ve let almost all of them drop off the VMC list? (Ditto The Love Child!)

The Return of the Soldier – Rebecca West
(VMC #32)

Probably the best novel I have read associated with war – in this case, as the title suggests, the return of a soldier, and the messy familial and romantic tangles which ensue. Also incredibly sensitive about shell shock and bereavement – all packed into one slim volume.

Hope that has given you some tips for further VMC reading! Do ask about any of those below, should you want to know my opinions.

Viragos I have read:
(in order of VMC-publication)

1. Mr Fortune’s Maggot : Sylvia Townsend Warner
2. The Life and Death of Harriett Frean : May Sinclair
3. The Return of the Soldier : Rebecca West
4. The Third Miss Symons : F.M. Mayor
5. The Vet’s Daughter : Barbara Comyns
6. The Love Child : Edith Olivier
7. The Yellow Wallpaper : Charlotte Perkins Gilman
8. The Professor’s House : Willa Cather
9. Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont : Elizabeth Taylor
10. The Little Ottleys : Ada Leverson
11. The Tortoise and the Hare : Elizabeth Jenkins
12. Keynotes and Discords : George Egerton
13. Our Spoons Came from Woolworths : Barbara Comyns
14. All Passion Spent : Vita Sackville-West
15. Angel : Elizabeth Taylor
16. Miss Mole : E.H. Young
17. Diary of a Provincial Lady : E.M. Delafield
18. Sisters by a River : Barbara Comyns
19. No Signposts in the Sea : Vita Sackville-West
20. The Lifted Veil : George Eliot
21. Two Days in Aragon : Molly Keane
22. One Fine Day : Mollie Panter-Downes
23. A Game of Hide and Seek : Elizabeth Taylor
24. The Enchanted April : Elizabeth von Arnim
25. The Skin Chairs : Barbara Comyns
26. Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead : Barbara Comyns
27. The Stone Angel : Margaret Laurence
28. The New House : Lettice Cooper
29. Olivia : Dorothy Strachey
30. Seducers in Ecuador and the Heir : Vita Sackville-West
31. The Brontës Went to Woolworths : Rachel Ferguson
32. The Way Things Are : E.M. Delafield
33. Thank Heaven Fasting : E.M. Delafield
34. The Story of an African Farm : Olive Schreiner
35. Mrs Miniver : Jan Struther
36. Emma : Jane Austen
37. Pride and Prejudice : Jane Austen
38. Sense and Sensibility : Jane Austen
39. Persuasion : Jane Austen
40. Mansfield Park : Jane Austen
41. Northanger Abbey : Jane Austen
42. Villette : Charlotte Bronte
43. Wuthering Heights : Emily Bronte
44. Agnes Grey : Anne Bronte
45. Try Anything Twice : Jan Struther
46. Jane Eyre : Charlotte Bronte
47. Ethan Frome : Edith Wharton
48. Crewe Train : Rose Macaulay
49. Lolly Willowes or the Loving Huntsman : Sylvia Townsend Warner
50. Mother and Son : Ivy Compton-Burnett
51. A Very Great Profession : Nicola Beauman
52. I Capture the Castle : Dodie Smith
53. Provincial Daughter : R.M. Dashwood
54. 84 Charing Cross Road : Helene Hanff
55. Rebecca : Daphne du Maurier
56. My Cousin Rachel : Daphne du Maurier
57. The Flight of the Falcon : Daphne du Maurier
58. Loitering with Intent : Muriel Spark
59. Excellent Women : Barbara Pym