High Rising by Angela Thirkell

I can’t quite recall where I first heard of Angela Thirkell’s cosy novels set in Anthony Trollope’s fictional county of Barsetshire, but it was somewhere on the blogosphere. Even though they sounded a little fluffier than my usual fare, comparisons with Barbara Pym piqued my interest, so I bought a couple to try. (Well, they were going cheap in one of the local charity shops.)

After a false start earlier in the summer, High Rising – the first in Thirkell’s sequence of social comedies – proved to be an absolute delight. Yes, the world she creates here is unashamedly comfy and twee, but it’s also very charming and entertaining. I turned to High Rising for a bit of escapism at the end of a long week, and it fitted the bill perfectly.


The novel revolves around the life of Laura Morland, an independent and capable middle-class widow, who divides her time between her main residence in High Rising and her flat in London. As the book opens, Laura is collecting her youngest son, Tony, from school for the Christmas holidays which they plan to spend in their country home. While Tony is a much-loved child, his capacity to exasperate his mother is seemingly endless as he gabbles away non-stop on the finer details of his train set, which carriages he should acquire next, and so on and so forth. In fact, a substantial portion of the novel’s charm comes from Tony’s incessant chatter with the other characters around him, more of whom in a little while. Here’s Laura as she reflects on her irrepressible young son.

She fondly hoped that after a term or two at school he would find his own level, and be clouted over the head by his unappreciative contemporaries. But not at all. He returned from school rather more self-centred than before, talking even more, and, if possible, less interestingly. Why the other boys hadn’t killed him, his doting mother couldn’t conceive. There seemed to be some peculiar power in youngest sons which made them more resilient to all outside disapproval. When he was checked in his flow of speech, he merely took breath, waited for an opening and began again. Laura could only hope that this tenacity of purpose would serve him in after life. It would either do that, or alienate all his friends completely. (p. 22)

Alongside her role as the mother of four boys, Laura has carved out a decent living for herself as a moderately successful writer of middlebrow page-turners, a skill she developed to support her family following the death of her husband some years earlier.

The story gets going in earnest when we are introduced to Laura’s dear friend and fellow writer, George Knox. George, a widower himself, lives with his twenty-year-old daughter, Sybil, in the nearby settlement of Low Rising. Life in the Risings is relatively gentle and settled, but all this changes with the arrival of George’s new live-in secretary, the rather attractive and confident Miss Grey. Thirkell is a delightful observer of social situations, an ability which I hope comes across in this next passage. In this scene, Laura is meeting Miss Grey (the newcomer) for the first time.

‘You must excuse me,’ said the newcomer. ‘I believe you are Mrs Morland. Miss Knox told me you were coming today. Mr Knox is very busy, but he is coming down, just for tea.’

‘Certainly I’ll excuse you,’ said Laura, ‘though I haven’t the faintest idea what for. You are Miss Grey, of course.’

‘Has Miss Knox been telling you about me?’ asked Miss Grey.

‘Oh, yes, and Dr Ford, and my devoted maid, Stoker. We gossip very quickly here, Miss Grey, and I’ve been looking forward to meeting you.’

She held out her hand, without getting up. Miss Grey hesitated, then touched it without enthusiasm and moved away to the tea-table.

I’m ashamed of myself, thought Laura, for nearly being rude at sight. But I won’t be patronised by a chit in George’s house. And why should she ask if Sybil has been talking about her? Why should she think that anyone wants to talk about her? Impertinence. (p. 46)

It soon becomes apparent that Miss Grey is a bit of a schemer. She has firm designs on George Knox, virtually sidelining his rather sensitive daughter, Sybil, in the family home as she goes about her business. No-one else is allowed to get too close to George, especially Laura whom Miss Grey considers a potential rival for George’s affections. Laura, on the other hand, has no particular desire to marry George; nevertheless, she is very fond of him, so much so that she keeps a close eye on developments at Low Rising as the weeks and months slip by.

Much of the action in High Rising revolves around Laura’s attempts to temper Miss Grey’s hold over the Knox household. Given that the Risings is one of those close-knit communities where everyone knows everyone else’s business, several of Laura’s friends and colleagues also play their part in winkling out Miss Grey, aka ‘The Incubus.’ First, there is Anne Todd, Laura’s resourceful yet vulnerable secretary, a woman who will have to face up to an uncertain future once her frail mother passes away. Then we have Laura’s publisher, the rather charming Adrian Coates, smitten as he is with George’s lovely daughter, Sybil. And finally, there is Amy Birkett, the headmaster’s wife who happens to know something about Miss Grey that might just turn out to be of some significance to the story. There are a few other players too, most notably Laura’s gossipy housekeeper, Stoker, and Dr Ford, the local doctor who has his sights set on Anne Todd, if only she would yield to him. It all makes for a very entertaining mix.

High Rising is a delightfully engaging read, the bookish equivalent of comfort food, something light and frivolous to enjoy every now and again – not the sort of book I would read every day, but rather delicious as an occasional treat. While Thirkell’s brand of humour isn’t quite as sharp or as dry as Barbara Pym’s, there’s still plenty to enjoy here. Much of the dialogue is hilarious in a somewhat farcical sense – intentionally so, I think. (There are a few pointed racial slurs which reflect the attitudes of the day, but unfortunately this seems to be par for the course in many novels from the 1930s.) Equally, some of the situations and set-pieces are most amusing in a theatrical way.

As a central character, Laura is very easy to like. In spite of her trials and tribulations with young Tony, Laura is an intelligent, sympathetic and compassionate woman trying to do the best for her close friends and family. She knows her books aren’t terribly literary, but then again she’s not aiming for that sector. Her readers are the everyday women of Britain, just like Laura and her friends.

I’ll finish with a passage from one of the novel’s early scenes where Laura is reflecting on her first meeting with the publisher, Adrian Coates, back in the days when she was just starting out as a writer. I wondered if Thirkell was thinking of herself (or some of her contemporaries) when she wrote these lines. Either way, I am looking forward to reading more of her in the future.

‘If you are really writing a book I would very much like to see it when it is ready,’ he said.

‘You mightn’t like it,’ said Laura, in her deep voice. ‘It’s not highbrow. I’ve just got to work, that’s all. You see my husband was nothing but an expense to me when he was alive, and naturally he is no help to me now he’s dead, though, of course, less expensive, so I thought if I could write some rather good bad books, it would help with the boys’ education.’

‘Good bad books?’

‘Yes. Not very good books, you know, but good of a second-rate kind. That’s all I could do,’ she said gravely.

So in time her first story went to Adrian, who recognising in it a touch of good badness almost amounting to genius, gave her a contract for two more. (p. 30)

Several other bloggers have reviewed High Rising – here are links to a couple of positive reviews by Ali and Jane. BookerTalk’s post is also well worth reading, particularly as she offers an alternative perspective on the novel.

High Rising is published by Virago Modern Classics.

Providence by Anita Brookner

Anita Brooker is another of those writers I’ve been meaning to read or revisit for a while. I liked her Booker Prize-winning novel, Hotel du Lac, when I read it some thirty years ago, but I didn’t love it. That said, my tastes in literature have changed quite substantially since the days of my early twenties when I was young and carefree and too foolish to know any better. Now that I’ve come to appreciate the work of writers such as Elizabeth Taylor, Penelope Fitzgerald and Barbara Pym, I thought it would be a good time to try Brookner again, all the more so given her passing in March of this year. (Julian Barnes wrote a beautiful piece about her for The Guardian, which you can read here.) Anyway, to cut a long intro short, I really loved Providence (Brookner’s second novel, first published in 1982), so much so that I’d like a few more of her early books over the next year or two.


I suspect there is a reasonable degree of Brookner herself in Kitty Maule, the central character in this short but subtle novel of life’s hopes, expectations and various misfortunes. Kitty, an intelligent, sensitive and presentable young woman in her thirties, lives on her own in a flat near Chelsea. By her own admission, Kitty is somewhat difficult to place, her father having died shortly before she was born, and her mother some three years ago. Fortunately for Kitty, she is not entirely alone in the world. Her French grandmother, the dressmaker Maman Louise, and her grandfather, Vadim, have lived in London ever since they moved to the city shortly after their marriage several decades earlier.

Kitty works as a college tutor in literature, her key area of focus being literature in the Romantic Tradition. For some time she has been harbouring hopes of a budding romance with one of her colleagues, the rather passive and thoughtless Maurice Bishop, one of the key players in her department. Maurice, however, seems rather reluctant to commit. While he is happy to drop round to Kitty’s flat for the occasional dinner of an evening, Maurice demonstrates very little in the way of warmth or affection for her. In many ways, I thought him a rather selfish man in spite of a broken relationship in his past. It turns out that Maurice is still rather emotionally attached to Lucy, the childhood sweetheart whom he had hoped to marry. Alas, Lucy’s faith and calling in life intervened and so the marriage wasn’t to be. At least that’s what Maurice tells Kitty one evening when they are together in her flat. Kitty, for her part, cannot help but wish for something more in her life. She is tired of being admired for her sensible nature and professional expertise. In short, she wants to feel loved and cherished.

But I want more, she thought, blowing her nose resolutely. I do not want to be trustworthy, and safe, and discreet. I do not want to be the one who understands and sympathizes and soothes. I do not want to be reliable, I do not want to do wonders with Professor Redmile’s group, I do not even care what happens to Larter. I do not want to be good at pleasing everybody. I do not even want to be such a good cook, she thought, turning the tap with full force on to a bowl rusted with the stains of her fresh tomato soup. I want to be totally unreasonable, totally unfair, very demanding, and very beautiful. I want to be part of a real family. I want my father to be there and to shoot things. I do not want my grandmother to tell me what to wear. I want to wear jeans and old sweaters belonging to my brother whom of course I do not have. I do not want to spend my life in this rotten little flat. I want wedding present. I want to be half of a recognized couple. I want a future away from this place. I want Maurice. (pp. 59-60)

As the novel unfolds, we gain an insight into the other aspects of Kitty’s life: the occasional visits to her grandparents complete with Maman Louise’s devotion to making dresses and various outfits for her to wear; Kitty’s tutorials on Constant’s novel Adolphe, a text which I feel sure would add another layer to the nature of her relationship with Maurice; and perhaps most significantly, Kitty’s interactions with her two closest friends – her rather annoying but kindly neighbour, Caroline, and her academic colleague and fellow spinster, Pauline. Deep down in her heart of hearts, Kitty knows that she may well end up like Pauline, a lonely woman cut adrift from so many pleasures in life while she cares for her blind mother. On a visit to Pauline’s cottage, Kitty gets a glimpse of what her own life might come to if things don’t change for the better very soon. (This is a long quote, but it is worth reading in full.)

Kitty felt a pang of pain for her. She comes here every night, even in the darkest winter, she said to herself. There is no one for her to talk to. She has to make arrangements for people to come in and see to her mother during the day. And when her mother dies, what will she do? Probably go on living in the same place, even lonelier. And she knows all this. She is too clever not to know. She is what is called a liberated woman, thought Kitty. The kind envied by captive housewives. She felt an urgent need to put her own life into some sort order, to ensure that she did not turn out like Caroline or like Pauline, the one so stupid, the other so intelligent, and both so bereft. She saw her two friends, who would have nothing to say to each other if they should ever meet, as casualties of the same conflict, as losers in the war in which Providence was deemed to play so large a part, and to determine the outcome, for some, not for others. (pp. 80-81)

In her yearning for Maurice, Kitty’s pursuit takes her on a somewhat fruitless trip to France, a period of waiting alone in a guest house while the love of her life takes in the cathedrals of the country. At home in London, she is persuaded to consult a clairvoyant in the hope of discovering some positive news about her potential future and related matters of the heart.

Even though I’m still quite new to Brookner, I strongly suspect that Providence is highly representative of much of her work. It’s a quiet, beautifully observed novel about the disappointments in life, both large and small, the crumbling of those hopes and dreams that many of us hold dear. I felt a great death of empathy and sympathy for Kitty as her somewhat inevitable story played out across the pages of this book. In some ways, it reminded me of Elizabeth Taylor’s A Game of Hide and Seek in its precision and insight into the inner life of a woman whose life remains unfulfilled. The central characterisation is excellent, Kitty in particular. Moreover, there is much warmth and compassion in Brookner’s portrayal of the grandparents, Louise and Vadim. There’s a lovely scene in which Kitty takes the elderly couple out for the afternoon, a trip that warms their hearts.

I loved this book and would recommend it as a suitable point of entry (or re-entry) into Brookner’s work. I’m hoping it will turn out to be a gateway novel for me.

Providence is published by Penguin Books. My thanks to the publishers for kindly providing a review copy.

A Girl in Winter by Philip Larkin

Best known for his poetry, Philip Larkin wrote two loosely connected novels during his lifetime. The second of these, A Girl in Winter, concerns itself with the confusing mix of emotions which characterise a critical period in a young girl’s life: her coming of age. It also captures the deep sense of loneliness and isolation that marks its central character, a woman named Katherine Lind.

First published in 1947, A Girl in Winter represents my contribution to Karen and Simon’s 1947 Club which is running next week (my post is a little early as I’ll be offline during the event itself). It’s a quiet, contemplative novel, one that explores the difficulties we face in understanding and interpreting the behaviour of others, especially when we are young and inexperienced and eager to be loved. I hope to find a place for it in my end-of-year highlights.


Girl is composed of three sections, the first and third of which take place on the same Saturday in winter – the setting is an English town in the midst of WW2. (The second part takes the form of an extended flashback which I’ll return to a little later.)

The novel focuses on Katherine Lind, a twenty-two-year-old girl who is working as a temporary assistant in the town’s library. As the story unfolds, we start to form a picture of this somewhat fragile figure. While she is sensitive and intelligent, Katherine finds herself working in a role which is beneath her capabilities, a position only made worse by the small-minded bullying of her boss, the obnoxious Mr Anstey. It soon becomes clear that Katherine – a European by birth – has come to England having been displaced by the war, and as such she is permanently conscious of her status as an outsider.

She had been appointed temporary assistant, which marked her off from the permanent staff: she was neither a junior a year or so out of school who was learning the profession, nor a senior preparing to take the intermediate or final examination. It meant that she could safely be called upon to do anything, from sorting old dust-laden stock in a storeroom to standing on a table in the Reading Room to fit a new bulb in one of the lights, while old men stared aqueously at her legs. Behind all this she sensed the influence of Mr. Anstey. There was a curious professional furtiveness about him, as if he were a guardian of traditional secrets; he seemed unwilling to let her pick up any more about the work than was unavoidable. Therefore any odd job that was really nobody’s duty fell to her, for Miss Feather, who was a pale ghost of his wishes, had caught the habit from him. It annoyed her, not because she gave two pins for library practice, but because it stressed what was already sufficiently marked: that she was foreign and had no proper status there. (p. 25)

While Larkin never explicitly states Katherine’s nationality, there are several hints to suggest she is German, possibly a refugee of Jewish descent. From an early stage in the novel, it is also clear that she is desperately lonely. Katherine has made no friends since her arrival in England some two years earlier, preferring instead to avoid any social contact with others in favour of a solitary existence. There is a sense that she is living day by day, suppressing every reference to her former life while also disconnecting herself from any possible thoughts of what the future may bring. As Katherine’s story reveals itself, there is a strong suggestion that her family may have suffered at the hand of the Nazis. Once again this is never explicitly confirmed, only implied by the portrait Larkin creates. What we do know is that Katherine has experienced significant trauma in her life.

Returning to the first section of the novel, two things happen which serve to challenge the relative stasis of Katherine’s existence. The first and most significant of these events is the re-establishment of contact between Katherine and the Fennels, an English family whom she visited for a holiday some six years earlier. When Katherine learns of an imminent visit from her former pen pal and teenage crush, Robin Fennel, she is torn between the excitement of seeing him again and the uncertainty of where such a meeting might lead. The second is precipitated by an incident at the library which culminates in Katherine being tasked with the job of escorting home a petulant young colleague (Miss Green) who is suffering from severe toothache. At first sight, this particular development may seem of little significance, but it is during this journey to her colleague’s home that Katherine comes to a realisation. All of a sudden, it dawns on her that she is responsible for Miss Green; Katherine’s emotions have been suppressed for so long that she has almost forgotten what it feels like to care for another human being. In a sudden rush of sympathy, her emotions are reawakened.

Till then she had seen only her ugliness, her petulance, her young pretentions. Now this faded to unimportance and she grasped for the first time that she really needed care, that she was frail and in a remote way beautiful. It was so long since she had felt this about anyone that it came with unexpected force: its urgency made her own affairs, concerned with what might or might not happen, bloodless and fanciful. This was what she had not had for ages, a person dependent on her: (pp. 34-35)

In the third section of the novel, we continue to follow Katherine on this Saturday in winter to discover whether or not she finally reconnects with Robin Fennel. I don’t want to say anything else about this as it might spoil the story. Instead, I’ll consider part two of the book which goes back to the summer Katherine spent with the Fennels at their home in Oxfordshire some six years earlier, a beautifully-written section full of days spent playing tennis, taking trips to the local villages and the odd spot of punting on the river. Taken in its entirety, it helps to flesh out Katherine’s character while also casting light on her relationship with the country which is now her adopted home.

Winding back to the summer in question, sixteen-year-old Katherine comes to England in two minds. On the one hand, she feels apprehensive at the thought of spending three weeks in a strange land with people she barely knows; on the other, she is somewhat intrigued by the prospect of meeting her pen pal for the first time. Once Katherine arrives at the Fennels, Robin is very attentive and polite, treating his guest like royalty, someone he is trying to impress as opposed to a friend and potential playmate. Rather frustratingly for Katherine, Robin’s older sister, Jane – a rather irritable and moody girl, at least at first – seems intent on accompanying the pair everywhere, almost as though she has been tasked with the role of chaperone for the duration of the trip. Katherine, for her part, is dying to get Robin on her own, when she hopes his real personality will finally start to emerge.

He treated her as he might a boy of his own age whom he wanted to impress. Her assent was asked for everything they did: he never left her alone without making sure she had something nominally to amuse her. And this began to exasperate her. She was used to striking a quick response from people, to jumping from track to track of intimacy until either she tired of it or they reached a stable relationship. With him she simply could not get going. And this annoyed her, because he was attractive. If he had—well, if he had only laughed and paid her openly-insincere compliments, which was the lightest kind of flirtation she knew, that would have satisfied her. It would have shown he was human… (p. 127)

During the course of this section, Larkin shows us the difficulties Katherine experiences in reading and interpreting the behaviour of others, especially given the cultural differences and language barriers at play. At various points during the holiday, Katherine is mystified as to why Robin has invited her to stay. Nevertheless, after much uncertainty, the reason for the invitation finally becomes clear. This second part of the novel ends on a note of confusion for Katherine, something that explains much of her restlessness at the prospect of seeing Robin again after so many years.

I really loved A Girl in Winter. Technically speaking, it’s not perfect; the middle section is arguably too long, and there is a sense of the whole novel falling just slightly short of the sum of all the individual parts. Nevertheless, I was captivated by this nuanced portrait of Katherine, a character study that reminded me a little of Elizabeth Taylor’s A Game of Hide and Seek.

As one might expect, Larkin’s prose is glorious, equally impressive in its portrayal of the nostalgic atmosphere of a bucolic English summer and in its evocation of the bitterness of an unforgiving winter. Larkin is particularly strong when it comes to capturing life in an English town during wartime, an environment where people find themselves in rather diminished circumstances. In this respect, Girl calls to mind Patrick Hamilton’s The Slaves of Solitude, another 1947 novel which I absolutely adored. I’ll finish with a passage which conveys something of this atmosphere.

It was easier to forget about it in the city, however. For one thing it was Saturday afternoon, and by one o’clock most people were free to go home. They could turn their backs on the window, and the slabs of garden, and read the newspaper by the fire till teatime. Or if they had no real home, they could pay to sit in the large cinemas, where it seemed warmer because it was dark. The cafeterias filled up early, and the shoppers lingered over their teas, dropping cigarette-ends into their empty cups, unwilling to face the journey back to where they lived. Everywhere people indoors were loth to move. Men stayed in their clubs, in billiard saloons, in public bars till closing time. Soldiers layer discontentedly in Y.M.C.A. rest rooms, writing letters or turning over magazines several weeks old. (p. 177)

A Girl in Winter is published by Faber and Faber.


You Were Never Really Here by Jonathan Ames (Pushkin Vertigo)

I love the Pushkin Vertigo series, a collection of classic, mind-bending crime novels by a variety of different authors from around the world. (My review of Boileau-Narcejac’s Vertigo, the novel behind the Hitchcock film, is here.) While most of the books in the series were written in the early-to-mid 20th century, one or two are more contemporary. You Were Never Really Here (2013) by Jonathan Ames is one such book, a taut and compelling noir that packs quite a punch.


The book centres on Joe, an ex-Marine and former FBI agent who now earns a living as an off-the-books operative in his home city of New York. By way of his middleman, an ex-State Trooper and PI named McCleary, Joe specialises in rescuing people, mostly teenage girls who have been lured into the sex trade through no real fault of their own. In spite of the fact that he lives with his ageing mother, Joe is to all intents and purposes a lone wolf. Living and operating undercover comes as second nature to Joe. He keeps his cards close to his chest, eschewing any unnecessary contact with those around him for fear of leaving any traceable marks. His body is a lethal weapon, primed and ready for action.

So his hands were weapons, his whole body was a weapon, cruel like a baseball bat. Six-two, one-ninety, no fat. He was forty-eight, but his olive-colored skin was still smooth, which made him appear younger than he was. His jet-black hair had receded at the temples, leaving a little wedge, like the point of a knife, at the front. He kept his hair at the length of a Marine on leave. (p.11)

As the story gets underway, Joe is tasked with a new assignment. Some six months earlier, Lisa, the thirteen-year-old daughter of a prominent State Senator, went missing from the family home in Albany. Now the Senator is in New York with a fresh lead on the case, but he doesn’t want the police involved; instead he wants Joe to follow it up with a view to finding and rescuing his daughter, ideally discovering the identity of her abductor along the way. The lead takes Joe to a Manhattan brownstone, the location of a high-end brothel where Lisa is thought to be working. Here’s an excerpt from the stakeout scene, a passage which should give you a feel for Ames’ pared-back yet atmospheric style. Paul, the brothel’s ‘towel boy’ has just left the house.

So Joe loped down the north side of the street and then crossed, five yards ahead of his target. He looked about. No immediate witnesses. It was a cold October night. Not too many people were out. He stepped from between two cars and right into the path of the towel boy—a thirty-two-year-old white man, a failed blackjack dealer from Atlantic City named Paul, who didn’t have much talent for anything. He was startled by Joe’s sudden appearance, and Joe shot out his right hand unerringly and grabbed Paul by the throat, the way a man might grab a woman’s wrist. Paul didn’t even have time to be scared. He was already half-dead. Everything Joe did was to establish immediate and complete dominance. (pp. 42-43)

At 88 pages, this is a short read, so I don’t want to reveal too much about the plot, save to say that the case is more complex than appears at first sight. Power, corruption and dirty cops all play a role in this gripping story of cat-and-mouse in the underbelly of NYC.  What’s interesting here is the character of Joe. At various points in the book, Ames reveals a little more of Joe’s backstory, in particular the abusive childhood that has shaped his outlook on life.

What Joe didn’t grasp was that his sense of self had been carved, like a totem, by his father’s beatings. The only way for Joe to have survived his father’s sadism was to believe that he deserved it, that it was justified, and that belief was still with him and could never be undone. In essence, he had been waiting nearly fifty years to finish the job that his father had started. (p. 23)

Joe’s father, also a US Marine, was destroyed by the experience of fighting in the Korean War. Having entered the fray as a human being, Joseph Sr. ultimately emerged as a bitter and twisted creature, a ’subhuman’ of sorts. In many ways, the nature of Joe’s tortured relationship with his now deceased father has left him with a deep need to gain some kind of vengeance on the evils of the world. There is a sense that Joe remains mindful of the requirement to keep himself in check, to maintain the vigilance and control he must demonstrate in order to preserve his current existence.

This is an impressive slice of noir fiction; quite dark and brutal at times, but that’s all part of the territory with this genre – Joe’s weapon of choice is a hammer, and he knows how to use it. On the surface, Joe is slick, tough and merciless in the face of the enemy, but underneath it all he is rather damaged too. There is something mournful and a little bit vulnerable lurking beneath that hard exterior, these qualities coming to the fore on a couple of occasions during the story. Ames also adds one or two touches of compassion to his portrayal of Joe. There’s a very gentle scene near the beginning of the book where Joe’s mother makes him some eggs for breakfast, the pair communicating with one another without any need for words.

While the book ends at a particular point, it feels as if there is scope for another chapter in Joe’s story, a further instalment so to speak. If that happens at some stage in the future, I will gladly read it.

Ames has also written a novel in a very different style to this one – Wake Up, Sir!, a satire which sounds like a modern-day riff on the Jeeves and Wooster story. You can read Gert Loveday’s enlightening review of it here.

My thanks to Pushkin Press for kindly providing a review copy of You Were Never Really Here.

#ReadingRhys – a round-up and a few closing thoughts

Well, what a busy week it’s been for #ReadingRhys! When I canvassed interest in the concept of a Jean Rhys Reading Week earlier this year, I had no idea that it would gather quite so much momentum in such a short space of time. It’s been truly wonderful to see the level of interest in reading Rhys’ work both amongst new readers and those already familiar with her unique style.

Firstly, I’d like to thank Eric at Lonesome Reader for being such an enthusiastic and knowledgeable co-host for the week – his insights into Jean Rhys and her work have been truly enlightening. Thanks also to Poppy at poppy peacock pens and Margaret at New Edition for taking a lead in reviewing and contributing to the discussions on a few of Rhys’ books as part of the week. Do visit their blogs if you haven’t done so already as they’re definitely worth a look. Thanks to Andy Miller (author of The Year of Reading Dangerously and co-host of the Backlisted podcast) for kindly speaking to me about Rhys – I couldn’t have wished for a more enthusiastic advocate of her work. Finally, and most importantly, a huge ‘thank you’ to everyone who has participated in the Reading Week, either by posting a review, sharing thoughts via Twitter, contributing to the discussions on blogs, GoodReads or social media, or simply by reading one of her books – the level of engagement has been terrific. Just for a bit of fun, I’ve collated together a selection of tweets from the week, mainly pictures, quotes and responses from various readers – you can view them here via Storify.

JeanRhysReadingWeek banner

By way of a wrap-up, here’s a list of all the new reviews/articles posted as part of the JR Reading Week – if I’ve missed any posts, do let me know in the comments and I’ll add a link. Plenty to explore here, so do take a look if you’re interested. (I haven’t collated links to the various archive reviews as I fear this would take me until Christmas!)

The Left Bank and Other Stories – 1927

Quartet (originally published as Postures) – 1928

After Leaving Mr Mackenzie 1930

Voyage in the Dark – 1934

Good Morning, Midnight – 1939

Wide Sargasso Sea – 1966

Tigers Are Better-Looking – 1968 

Sleep It Off, Lady – 1976

Smile Please: An Unfinished Autobiography – 1979

Jean Rhys: Letters 1931-66 – 1984

Other posts

A number of things struck me during the week, especially in relation to After Leaving Mr Mackenzie and the short stories, my main areas of focus for the event. Firstly, Rhys’ wonderful use of imagery as a way of creating mood and emotion. Several people commented on this during the week, and it was interesting to see the following passage cropping up more than once in reviews of Mr Mackenzie:

But really she hated the picture. It shared, with the colour of the plush sofa, a certain depressing quality. The picture and the sofa were linked in her mind. The picture was the more alarming in its perversion and the sofa the more dismal. The picture stood for the idea, the spirit, and the sofa stood for the act.

Secondly, there is Rhys’ ability to create and convey character. Much has been said about Julia Martin, a figure who elicited mixed opinions among the various readers of this book. While some people saw her as vulnerable women with limited options in life, others viewed her as rather feckless and self-centred – a woman with a strong sense of entitlement for want of a better phrase. To me she seems like a woman deserving of our understanding and compassion, another of Rhys’ women trapped by circumstances and the cruelty of life. I particularly liked Grant’s comments on Julia. Here’s a brief passage from his review.

Julia leads a precarious existence from man to man. Rhys brilliantly exposes her inner anxieties via outer discomforts – tiredness, cold. More than once she is described as a ghost. (Grant on After Leaving Mr Mackenzie)

While it is natural to view Rhys’ fiction as bleak and melancholy, a number of people picked up on the undercurrent of wry humour in her work, not just in the novels, but in the stories too. Staying with Rhys’ short fiction, other readers highlighted some of the parallels between these pieces and certain elements of the writer’s own life. In some ways, her stories read like little vignettes, dealing as they do with the marginalisation of women and the perpetual fragility of lives lived on the edge. As Marina put it, where Rhys succeeds so brilliantly is in her ability to take a certain experience from her own world and heighten it, “polishing it until it catches the light of universality.” Maybe that’s one of the reasons why her work remains so relevant today; the emotions are timeless. All the elements of Rhys’ fiction are here in miniature: the feeling of being the perpetual outsider; the fear of poverty and the constant scrabble for money; the importance of clothes in these women’s lives; the near constant dependence on men. There are many more.

Finally, I couldn’t finish without mentioning a few of the descriptions of Rhys’ work which stayed with me throughout the week. A couple of people quite rightly described Rhys as a poet, someone who gave a voice to the sole woman, the lonely outsider whose very existence hangs by a thread. All three succeeded in capturing something of the essence of this unique writer.

Jean Rhys’ writing represents the poetry of the downtrodden and vanquished, who nevertheless display an obstinate pride from time to time and an occasional wild streak, like the black cat in the story ‘Kikimora’. (Marina on Smile Please & Sleep It Off, Lady)

Rhys is the poet of hypocrisy and unspoken disapproval. (Max on Voyage in the Dark)

Here is the world of the dispossessed, the powerless, the damaged and those who damage. (Ali on Good Morning Midnight)

Eric, Poppy and Margaret have also posted few closing thoughts on Rhys’ other works as part of their wrap-ups for the week, so please do take a look at their blogs. (Note: Poppy’s summary to follow.)

All that remains is for us to reveal the winner of our prize for making a significant contribution to the week. We’re delighted to announce that the winner is Dorian of the Eiger, Mönch & Jungfrau blog for his brilliant post on Teaching Rhys. Congratulations Dorian – a special bundle of Rhys’ books will be on its way to you shortly. Many thanks to Penguin for their generosity and support of the reading week – it is very much appreciated.

The Left Bank and Other Stories by Jean Rhys

Earlier this week I posted a piece about Tigers Are Better-Looking, a set of short stories by Jean Rhys – the book was first published in 1968 even though many of the pieces were in fact written much earlier (during the 1940s and ‘50s, I believe). Wednesday’s post looked at the eight stories in the first section of the book. My 1987 Penguin edition of Tigers also includes nine pieces from Rhys’ first book, The Left Bank and Other Stories, a collection of sketches and vignettes published in 1927. It is now widely considered that these Left Bank pieces (along with her early novels) were significantly ahead of their time in terms of style, tone and theme. The Left Bank itself is currently out of print, but I managed to get hold of a relatively rare copy by way of an inter-library loan. It’s a fascinating book, all the more so because it’s possible to see the origins of some of Rhys’ themes and preoccupations in these early sketches.

As you may know by now, Penguin will be publishing Jean Rhys’ Collected Short Stories in March 2017 – this volume will include all the stories from her three collections, The Left Bank (1927), Tigers Are Better-Looking (1968) and Sleep It Off, Lady (1976). A hugely exciting development for fans of Jean Rhys!


In the meantime, I’m going to focus on the nine ‘Left Bank’ sketches which appear in editions of Tigers – these pieces form the second section of the book.


In Illusion, one of my favourite stories in this section, the narrator tells us about her friend, Miss Bruce, a portrait painter from Britain who has been living in Paris for the past seven years. To all intents and purposes, Miss Bruce appears untouched by the beauty and indulgences of life in the French capital. Eschewing anything frivolous in favour of a sensible tweed suit and brown shoes, her one concession to Paris is a touch of powder on her nose.

One day, a more surprising side of this lady’s character emerges. When Miss Bruce falls ill and is taken to hospital, her friend thinks she might need some things from her room, a couple of nightgowns and a comb or a brush. But when she opens Miss Bruce’s wardrobe, the narrator is astonished to find an array of beautiful dresses, gowns of every colour, ‘a riot of soft silks’. This discovery reveals a quest both for the perfect dress and for the transformation it might help to furnish. In essence, the contents of this wardrobe represent the search for an illusion.

Then must have begun the search for the dress, the perfect Dress, beautiful, beautifying, possible to be worn. And lastly, the search for illusion – a craving, almost a vice, the stolen waters and the bread eaten in secret of Miss Bruce’s life. (p. 143)

Mannequin features a typical Rhys protagonist. It focuses on Anna – a fragile, delicate girl, her hair ‘flamingly and honestly red’ – who goes for an interview as a mannequin in a Paris salon. Having gained the approval of the vendeuse, Anna is engaged to model the ‘jeune fille’ dresses. Her salary is a pittance, but as a beginner she can scarcely expect anything more. At first, everything seems strange and alien to Anna; the atmosphere is efficient if somewhat hectic.

In the mannequins’ dressing-room she spent a shy hour making up her face – in an extraordinary and distinctive atmosphere of slimness and beauty; white arms and faces vivid with rouge; raucous voices and the smell of cosmetics; silken lingerie. Coldly critical glances were bestowed upon Anna’s reflection in the glass. None of them looked at her directly…A depressing room, taken by itself, bare and cold, a very inadequate conservatory for these human flowers. (p. 150)

In time though, Anna meets the other eleven mannequins; each of the twelve has her own distinct style and individual look.

Despite the coldness of that passage quoted above and a few wobbles for Anna along the way, Mannequin is pretty upbeat for a Rhys story. It finishes on a fairly optimistic note as the young girl feels a sense of connection to the Paris, this ‘great maddening city’ that is her home.

The appropriately titled Hunger features a woman teetering on the edge of a precipice. Breakfast consists of coffee, and if she is lucky, there might be some bread for lunch. It is not uncommon for her to go without food for several days. In this story, the narrator describes how she feels as the days of starvation pass by. It’s tremendously powerful stuff.

On the second day you have a bad headache. You feel pugnacious. You argue all day with an invisible and sceptical listener. (p. 169)

It is like being suspended over a precipice. You cling for dear life with people walking on your fingers. Women do not only walk : they stamp. (p. 170)

A couple of the stories are rooted in the Caribbean. Mixing Cocktails draws on the languid dreams of a young girl, a childhood spent in the heat of the sun. Set in Dominica, Again the Antilles tells of a quarrel between a newspaper editor – a born rebel embittered by the colour of his skin, he is neither black nor white – and a local landowner/producer. Both of these pieces are brief sketches.

The collection ends with two longer pieces, the first of which, La Grosse Fifi, is set in a gloomy hotel on the French Riviera. This story focuses on two women, both of whom are staying there: a somewhat melancholy lady named Roseau and a rather large woman by the name of Fifi.

Fifi was not terrific except metaphorically, but she was stout, well corseted – her stomach carefully arranged to form part of her chest. Her hat was large and worn with a rakish sideways slant, her rouge shrieked, and the lids of her protruding eyes were painted bright blue. She wore very long silver earrings; nevertheless her face looked huge – vast, and her voice was hoarse though there was nothing but Vichy water in her glass. (p. 173)

One of Roseau’s acquaintances considers Fifi to be a bit of an old tart (this woman certainly stands out from the crowd). He makes fun of Fifi, laughing at her appearance and her gentleman friend, a young gigolo by the name of Pierre Rivière. Roseau, on the other hand, thinks rather fondly of Fifi, especially as the woman comes to her aid one night when she is feeling rather tired and bruised by life. Fifi’s presence is comforting to Roseau; in some ways, it makes her feel protected and strengthened. I don’t want to say too much more about this piece; it might spoil it, I think. What I will say is that it ends with a mix of emotions, a dramatic development adding a touch of poignancy to Fifi’s story.

The final piece, Vienne, is arguably the most ambitious in the collection. In many ways, it reads like a series of vignettes, snapshots of central Europe in a certain era. Narrated by Francine, a young woman in her twenties, it follows a young couple’s travels from Vienna to Budapest to Prague in the early part of the 20th century (more specifically the 1920s, I think). Having made his fortune on the exchange, Pierre has plenty of money to spend on Francine, at least at first; there are cars, a chauffeur, clothes, and jewellery, everything a woman could want. Nevertheless, in spite of living the high life, Francine has a terrible presentiment of danger ahead; in the knowledge that she will never be able to cope with being poor again, her mind races at the prospect.

Not to be poor again. No and No and No.

So darned easy to plan that – and always at the last moment – one is afraid. Or cheats oneself with hope.

I can still do this and this. I can still clutch at that or that.

So-and-So will help me.

How you fight, cleverly and well at first, then more wildly – then hysterically.

I can’t go down. I won’t go down. Help me, help me!

Steady – I must be clever. So-and-So will help.

But So-and-So smiles a worldly smile.

You get nervous. He doesn’t understand, I’ll make him –

But So-and-So’s eyes grow cold. You plead. (p. 202)                   

And so it continues in this vein.

When everything comes crashing down, as it inevitably must, the pair make their escape to Prague. This is a wonderful story packed with little sketches and vivid images of life in Vienna, Budapest, and the journey from Hungary to Czechoslovakia as it was then.

Like some of the later pieces from Tigers, one or two of these early Left Bank stories include snatches of stream of consciousness – you can see it in the passage from Vienne quoted above. In The Left Bank stories, Rhys’ themes are perhaps a little broader than those she mines in Tigers. Alongside the pieces which explore the loneliness of the outsider, the fear and anxiety of lives lived on the margins, there are other topics too – most notably the central European culture of the day depicted in Vienne.

Rather than repeating some of the ground I covered in my first piece on Tigers, I’ll leave it there. Hopefully these posts will have whetted your appetite for Rhys’ Collected Short Stories which Penguin will be publishing next year. In the meantime, do take a look at Max’s review of La Grosse Fifi and three other stories from The Left Bank.

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For #ReadingRhys, author Andy Miller discusses his passion for the work of Jean Rhys – part 2

I’m delighted to welcome back Andy Miller (AM) for the second part of our discussion on the work of Jean Rhys. If you missed the first part, please do take a look as it contains some fascinating insights into Rhys’s appeal, in particular the settings for her books, her unique voice and some of the central themes in her work. You’ll also find a brief account of how Andy came to Rhys’s work in the first place.


Just to give you some background on Andy, he describes himself as a reader, author and editor of books – his most recent book, The Year of Reading Dangerously, is an account of a year-long expedition through literature: classic, cult and everything in between. Alongside his role as co-host of Backlisted, a series of podcasts designed to give new life to old books, Andy is also the reader in residence at this year’s Durham Literary Festival.


JW: How do you feel about the characters in Rhys’s work and their relationship with men, this sense of reliance on men – often ex-lovers – for money, dinners and other sustenance too? In many ways, these men are cast as providers of things in these women’s lives.

AM: Let me ask you a question first. What do you think Jean Rhys’s characters want from men?

JW: I have asked myself this a number of times; I wonder if deep down they are searching for some warmth and affection…

AM: Yes, they want to be loved. They don’t want to be outsiders. She articulates the voice of the outsider brilliantly, whilst simultaneously none of those women really want to be that person. I think in their relationships with men, that’s frequently what they want. We know they are scared of men, but they are aware that they need the patronage of men in a way they would prefer not to. There’s that brilliant line from Wide Sargasso Sea (WSS): “I had two longings and one was fighting the other. I wanted to be loved and I wanted to be always alone.”  That for me is one of the emblematic quotes both of the Rhys heroine and of Rhys’s writing. And the same dichotomy applies in her approach to the reader: the desire to pull the reader in and push them away at the same time. She reels you in; she wants you to understand her, but not too much, and on her terms not your terms. And in a sense that’s also true of her female characters’ relationships with the male characters. What do you think? Do you find the male characters two-dimensional?

JW: I wouldn’t necessarily say they are two-dimensional, but I would describe them as flaky. So they want things from these women, but they don’t really want the responsibility that goes with it. I get the impression that all of these men are momentarily fascinated by the Jean Rhys heroine; but then they tire of these women quite quickly and want to distance themselves as soon as possible.

 AM: Yes, that’s also very true of Voyage in the Dark (VITD), that awful seemingly endless dance between the main character, Anna, and a series of men. Anna is basically seduced and rebuffed by 3 or 4 male characters in the course of that book with increasingly disastrous results, each encounter building on the previous one. VITD is such a fantastic book.

JW: Yes, that novel really blew me away. I loved After Leaving Mr Mackenzie (ALMM) when I read it, but I wasn’t prepared for how powerful VITD would be – it just knocked me sideways.

 AM: For me it’s Good Morning, Midnight (GMM), that’s my favourite of Jean Rhys’s books. Actually it’s become one of my favourite novels by anyone. It seems to me like the culmination of the sequence, of the character’s unhappy destiny. And you can open it at almost any page and find something astonishing and beautiful.  There’s a famous phrase at the beginning of GMM: “I have been here five days. I have decided on a place to eat in at midday, a place to eat in at night, a place to have my drink after dinner. I have arranged my little life.” The weariness of it. “A room is a place where you hide from the wolves outside and that’s all any room is.” 

JW: Yes, this overwhelming tiredness with life is very striking. It’s in much of her work from the short stories to the early novels. 

AM: Yes, and one of the other things I like about Rhys, as a writer, there’s an insolence to her work, which I find very appealing. That kind of insolent, almost provocative sense of ‘Reader, I care very deeply but at the same time I don’t give a damn; because to give a damn would be to let you in. Keep your distance.’ Wonderful!

JW: You mentioned earlier that Tigers Are Better-Looking (Tigers) was the one that really made you sit up and take notice of her work. What was it about those stories that made you feel that way? Can you remember what in particular struck you about them? 

AM: Partly it’s like when you listen to a record 3 or 4 times and it takes a while for it to grow on you. By the time I got to Tigers, as I said, I had some experience of Rhys’s writing. I remember specifically reading the third story in Tigers, Let Them Call It Jazz (LTCIJ), and having one of those once-in-a-decade moments of thinking ‘I’ve never read anything as good as this.’ LTCIJ is a story she didn’t like very much, incidentally. And then the story Tigers itself is very good as well – sorry Jean! And that’s followed by Outside the Machine, which is set inside a psychiatric clinic, I think I’m right in saying. And that’s shockingly bleak and brave, that story, it’s extraordinary.

Also, as a writer, you can see when someone has worked and reworked and reworked, which Jean Rhys certainly did. She would write draft after draft, because what she’s aiming for is almost a kind of musical cadence, I think, in the prose. An economy of style that is almost epigrammatic.

JW: There isn’t a word out of place, is there? Nothing superfluous in her writing.

AM: Yes, there’s something about the musical and lyrical nature of the phrasemaking which means you can pick almost any sentence and it will have some internal rhythm that allows it to work out of context too. But we haven’t really talked about how experimental these books are, have we? They are genuinely pioneering in their use of inner voice and fragmented narrative. They’re quite challenging to read now in some ways, so the mind boggles at what it was like picking one of these up in the 1930s.

JW: Yes, at the time they must have been hugely groundbreaking.

AM: Well, they’re groundbreaking, but not noisily so, in the way that we might think of other modernist work from this era, e.g. Virginia Woolf or James Joyce. Rhys’s books are quieter, but they are deliberately quieter; and yet as they go on, there’s an experimentalism with chronology and narrative voice, which must have been really challenging, I think, to a reader in the 1930s.

I’ve got a real soft spot for the humorous grump, from Eeyore to Philip Larkin to Morrissey, and I think Jean Rhys is one of those. If someone were to say about her writing: ‘Oh, it’s so miserable,’ with the best will in the world they don’t get it – because it can be miserable, but it’s all these other things as well; not just funny and brave but also formally ambitious and experimental.

JW: We’ve talked about the past, and how the books were received at the time. How relevant do you consider these novels to be in today’s day and age? In other words, what do they have to say to the modern reader? 

AM: There’s that famous definition of a classic by Italo Calvino: ‘A classic is a book that has never finished saying what it has to say’. So on one level, I think Rhys is a ‘great writer’ in the classic sense, and therefore everything she wrote is art and art that has something to say to us now, as I would say about any literary artist, Thackeray or Jane Austen or William Burroughs. In Rhys’s case, there is also something about the solitary urban existence that she paints in those ‘30s novels that probably does have something specific to say to people right now. This is something Lauren Elkin talks about in her new book, Flâneuse, about Rhys, and likewise Olivia Laing in her most recent book The Lonely City. So I think Rhys has quite a lot to tell people about that existence, which we perhaps think of as being a uniquely 21st century state of affairs; but I think you can see in that sort of aimless wandering from bar to rented room to never being sure of your position with either men or other women, a kind of loneliness. As Olivia Laing says, loneliness and solitude not being the same thing! But I think Rhys probably has something to say about both.

The fact that she is finding new, enthusiastic readers all the time and you and Eric are running #ReadingRhys is testament to her popularity with modern readers. I wonder what she would make of it all. You know what she said when she won the WH Smith Award for Wide Sargasso Sea, don’t you? “It has come too late.” [LAUGHS]  Very Jean Rhys.

JW: Andy, thank you so much for such an fascinating insight into Rhys’s enduring appeal. It’s been a real pleasure to have your involvement in the Jean Rhys Reading Week.

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We hope you found our discussion of interest – do let us know in the comments below.

I’ll be back tomorrow with my final post for the week, a review of The Left Bank stories.