Category Archives: Essex Mary

My favourite books from a year of reading, 2021 – part two, older books

This year, I’m spreading my highlights from a year of reading across two posts. The first piece focused on my favourite ‘recently published’ titles, while this second one puts the spotlight on the best ‘older’ books from my 2021 reading, most of which were written in the 20th century.

These are the backlisted books I loved, the books that have stayed with me, the ones I’m most likely to recommend to other readers. I’ve summarised each one in this post (in order of reading), but as before, you can find the full reviews by clicking on the appropriate links.

The Ghost Stories of Edith Wharton

Subtle, sophisticated and richly imagined, this unsettling collection of Wharton’s Ghost Stories is a veritable treat. Characterised by the tensions between restraint and passion, respectability and impropriety, Wharton’s narratives are rooted in reality, with the ghostly chills mostly stemming from psychological factors. The fear of the unknown, the power of the imagination and the judicious use of supernatural imagery to unnerve the soul are all in evidence here. As one would expect with Wharton, the writing is first class and the characters brilliantly drawn, with sufficient depth and subtlety to appear fully convincing. A wonderfully chilling collection of tales, tapping into the dark side of American history and human relationships.

Lost Cat by Mary Gaitskill

A thoughtful, beautifully-written rumination on love, loss, grief and the nature of pain, especially where our feelings for others are concerned. While staying at a writing retreat in Italy, Gaitskill is cajoled into adopting a scrawny, feral kitten, whom she names Gattino. Not long after Mary and her husband move house, Gattino mysteriously disappears, thereby reawakening various emotions, previously suppressed feelings of guilt surrounding the death of Gaitskill’s father. In many ways, Lost Cat is an exploration of the complexities of human emotion, of how we try to offer love to another individual (or animal), whether they are accepting of it or not. While the Daunt Books edition came out in 2020, this powerful extended essay first appeared in the Granta literary journal in 2009.

The Sleeping Beauty by Elizabeth Taylor

This loose re-working of the age-old fairy tale is another of Taylor’s marvellous ensemble pieces, very much in line novels such as A View of the Harbour and The Soul of Kindness, where the focus moves from one individual to another as their lives intertwine. The novel is set in Seething, a small seaside town in the early 1950s, and as ever with this author, the characters are brilliantly observed. What I love about this her work are the insights she brings to her characters’ inner lives, their thoughts and interactions with others, and how their experiences and preoccupations reveal themselves over time. There is a combination of depth, complexity and veracity to these individuals that makes them feel human, complete with emotions and motivations that remain relevant some seventy years after publication. Possibly underrated in the Taylor oeuvre, but for me it’s a gem.

Black Narcissus by Rumer Godden

This is a glorious book – an evocative story of nuns, misguided actions and, perhaps most significantly of all, repressed female desire. A small group of Anglican nuns set out to establish a new convent, high up in the Himalayan mountains, a place steeped in beauty and mystery. As the weeks go by, the Sisters begin to fall under the setting’s spell, surrounded by the heady atmosphere of disruption and beauty. Consequently, each Sister becomes obsessed with a particular passion, causing them to neglect their spirituality in favour of more personal desires. Tensions – both sexual and otherwise – abound in this sensual novel, stepped in lush visual imagery. In creating Black Narcissus, Godden has given us a rich exploration of the tensions between competing desires, one that also touches on the follies of colonialism in subtle and memorable ways. Highly recommended, even for devoted fans of the Powell and Pressburger film, such as myself!

Mrs Eckdorf in O’Neill’s Hotel by William Trevor

Over the past couple of years, I’ve been working my way through some of William Trevor’s novels – mostly the early ones with their notes of dark comedy and undeniable tragedy. Mrs Eckdorf is very much of a piece with his others from the 1970s, and is something of a bridge between The Boarding-House and The Children of Dynmouth, both of which I loved. The novel’s catalyst is the titular Mrs Eckdorf – a most annoying and invasive woman who has fashioned a career as a photographer, exploiting the lives of unfortunate individuals around the world, their existences touched by devastation. Once again, William Trevor proves himself a master of the tragicomedy, crafting a story that marries humour and poignancy in broadly equal measure.

Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead by Barbara Comyns

There is something distinctly English about the world that Barbara Comyns portrays in this novel, a surreal eccentricity that could only be found within the England of old. Set in 1911, three years before the advent of the First World War, Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead has all the hallmarks of a classic Comyns novel: enchanting, innocent children, caught up in a dysfunctional family; memorable, vivid imagery, typically with an off-kilter edge; and a simple, matter-of-fact delivery that belies the horrors within. Another strikingly creative work from one of Britain’s most singular writers – a darkly humorous novel of great brilliance and originality with an allegorical nod to the First World War.

Chatterton Square by E. H. Young

Probably the richest, most satisfying entry in the British Library’s Women Writers series so far, Chatterton Square is a novel of contrasts, an exploration of lives – women’s lives in particular – in the run-up to the Second World War. On the surface, Chatterton appears to be a straightforward story of two neighbouring families – one relatively happy and functional, the other much more constrained. However, the degree of depth and nuance that Young brings to her portraits of the main characters makes it a particularly compelling read – more so than my description suggests. Set in Upper Radstowe’s Chatterton Square – a place modelled on Bristol’s Clifton – the novel features one of the most pompous characters I’ve encountered this year: Herbert Blackett, a conceited, self-absorbed puritan who considers himself vastly superior to his more relaxed neighbours.

The Island by Ana María Matute (tr. Laura Lonsdale)

Set on the island of Mallorca, shortly after the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War, The Island is a darkly evocative coming-of-age narrative with a creeping sense of oppression. With her mother no longer alive and her father away in the war, Matia has been taken to the island to live with her grandmother (or ‘abuela’), Aunt Emilia and cousin Borja – not a situation she relishes. Matute excels in her depiction of Mallorca as an alluring yet malevolent setting, drawing on striking descriptions of natural world to reinforce the impression of danger. It’s a brutal and oppressive place, torn apart by familial tensions and longstanding political divisions. As this visceral novella draws to a close, Matia is left with few illusions about the adult world. The beloved fables and fairy tales of her childhood are revealed to be fallacies, contrasting starkly with the duplicity, betrayal and cruelty she sees being played out around her. A unsettling summer read.

The Fortnight in September by R. C. Sherriff

During a trip to Bognor in the early 1930s, R. C. Sherriff was inspired to create a story centred on a fictional family by imagining their lives and, most importantly, their annual September holiday at the seaside resort. While this premise seems simple on the surface, the novel’s apparent simplicity is a key part of its magical charm. Here we have a story of small pleasures and triumphs, quiet hopes and ambitions, secret worries and fears – the illuminating moments in day-to-day life. By focusing on the minutiae of the everyday, Sheriff has crafted something remarkable – a novel that feels humane, compassionate and deeply affecting, where the reader can fully invest in the characters’ inner lives. This is a gem of a book, as charming and unassuming as one could hope for, a throwback perhaps to simpler, more modest times.

Passing by Nella Larsen

Larsen’s 1928 novella Quicksand – which was inspired by Larsen’s own background and life – tells the story of a young mixed-race woman searching for her place in society, lacking a sense of identity in a highly segregated world. In Passing (1929), Larsen takes these themes a step further by exploring the emotional, moral and societal implications of the act of ‘passing’, whereby a light-skinned mixed-race woman passes as white in a society divided by race. Central to Passing is a fascinating yet complex relationship between two middle-class women, Irene Redfield and Clare Kendry – both of whom are black but sufficiently light-skinned to pass as white, depending on their personal attitudes and circumstances. Passing is just as much an exploration of the complexities of female friendships as it is of race, touching on themes of desire, jealousy, loyalty, betrayal, victory and victimhood along the way. A superb book, fully deserving of its status as a classic of the Harlem Renaissance. I loved Rebecca Hall’s film adaptation too, currently steaming on Netflix.

Finally, a few books that almost made the cut – all very highly recommended indeed.

  • Meeting in Positano – Goliarda Sapienza’s gorgeous novel of female friendship, set in the glamorous world of 1950s Italy.  
  • The Visitor – Maeve Brennan’s piercing novella of resentment, bitterness and the loneliness of isolation.
  • Family Happiness – Laurie Colwin’s beautifully observed story of familial obligations and our need to be loved.   
  • Tea is So Intoxicating – Mary Essex’s delightfully amusing comedy on the pettiness of village life and the failure to recognise our own limitations.
  • The Feast – Margaret Kennedy’s joyous novel, set in post-war Cornwall. Part morality tale and part family saga/social comedy, it’s an escapist delight!

All that remains is for me to wish you a very Merry Christmas and all the best for the year ahead. Let’s hope it turns out to be significantly less stressful than the last two have been…

Tea is so Intoxicating by Mary Essex

First published in 1950, Tea is so Intoxicating is another recent reissue in the British Library’s excellent Women Writers series, and it’s probably my favourite so far. Ostensibly the story of a couple’s quest to open a tea garden in an insular English village, Essex’s novel touches on various areas of British life in the years immediately following the Second World War. More specifically, it is a book about class, social attitudes, the pettiness of village life, and perhaps most importantly of all, the failure to recognise one’s own limitations.

The couple in question are David and Germayne Tompkins, who are relative newcomers to Wellhurst in Kent, the sort of village where everyone knows everyone else’s business. David is one of those men with big ambitions but precious little skills or knowledge to put his ideas into practice. He is also something of a self-conscious snob, forever envying other, more successful individuals for their achievements and contentment with life.

While recuperating from a short illness, David develops an obsession with cooking, convincing himself that he can produce dishes of the highest order when in fact his efforts are little short of disastrous. This, coupled with his experience in the accounts department of the Dolly Varden Cosy Tea Shops, Ltd., leads David to the view that he should open a tea garden in the grounds of the couple’s cottage – a rather primitive, poorly-equipped property that the Tompkinses have unwisely purchased at a knockdown price. Germayne, on the other hand, is somewhat dismayed at the prospect, fearful in the belief that poor David is getting carried away with himself…

She [Germayne] was dubious about the success of the proposed tea-house. But, meanwhile, David had launched himself out into the thought of selling lunches packed ready to take on the road with you, teas in the garden, teas in the inglenook, teas you took away with you, or teas you took away inside you. In fact, it was a comprehensive plan, and it covered every line of resistance that man could offer. His flights of fancy took him into realms of the type of lunch that no hiker or biker wants, but that did not worry him in the least. He would educate them. (p. 34)

Naturally, the villagers are opposed to the idea, viewing the Tompkinses as outsiders (or ‘foreigners’) who have no right to be opening a commercial venture in their back garden – especially one with the potential to attract all manner of hikers and bikers to the village, increasing the levels of noise and congestion. Mr Perch at the Dolphin is not happy about the proposal, mostly because his wife serves teas in the pub’s garden. The fact that there’s only enough space for four people in the Perches’ tiny outdoor area is neither here nor there.

David went to elaborate efforts to hide his true intentions. He explained that there was no question of competition at all, because he was catering only for the better-class tea-seeker; his Cherry Tree Cot would appeal only to the more sensitive with its fine china, delicate sandwiches, and home-made cakes. Naturally this did not mollify Mr Perch, who knew privately that his wife’s teas were shockers, and that any kind of competition would be too much for him. (pp. 52–53)

David doesn’t exactly endear himself to the locals when explaining to Mr Perch how their respective tea gardens are aiming for very different sectors of the market, his snobbishness and lack of self-awareness coming firmly to the fore. To compound matters, there is also the question of the Tompkinses’ relationship, a source of significant scandal and gossip amongst the villagers.

As it turns out, David and Germayne were not married to one another on their arrival at Wellhurst, Germayne having left her first husband, the dull but dependable Digby, for the more entrepreneurial David. In time, a divorce was secured, allowing David and Germayne to get married on the quiet, away from prying eyes. Nevertheless, somehow or other, these developments have become common knowledge, giving the residents of Wellhurst something else to disapprove of alongside the tea garden itself.

As the novel plays out, we see just how much of a mess David gets himself into as preparations for the Cherry Tree Cot lurch from one catastrophe to another. His lack of common sense and inability to get to grips with the practicalities come together to form the perfect storm – almost literally. Meanwhile, Germayne is at the end of her tether, run ragged by David’s ineptitude and blinkered vision. Add to the mix a flirtatious baker from Vienna (Mimi) and Germayne’s precocious daughter, Ducks, from her marriage to Digby, and the stage is set for all manner of chaos.

Alongside the high jinks of the tea shop, Essex also has time to touch on the social changes sweeping through Britain at the time, largely accelerated by the Second World War. Mrs Arbroath at the Manor – another vociferous opponent of David’s tea garden – bemoans the progressive nature of developments under the Labour government, desperately hoping to cling to the world of the past. Albeit rather lonely and tragic at heart, Mrs A is another blinkered individual whose snobbish attitudes reveal themselves all too clearly…

Mrs Arbroath steeled herself against what was coming to the world, and she clung on to her previous glory with two clutching hands. […] Her income had started to drop, which was the fault of that miserable surtax, which she had always thought was thieving, and she had had to sell a few fields. Instantly there had sprung up a pale mushroom growth of awful little houses, with asbestos roofs, which made her groan. She could do nothing about it, though she tried… (p. 87)

The story of Germayne’s earlier marriage to Digby is also nicely woven into the fabric of the book, granting Essex the opportunity to reflect on the relative merits of Germayne’s matrimonial matches. There is a message here about the value of dull yet dependable individuals over more exciting, erratic ones, something that prompts Germayne to reflect on the life she gave up with Digby. In all reality, perhaps the grass isn’t greener on the other side after all…

In short, I loved this highly amusing novel, complete with its insights into the trials and tribulations of tea gardens and village life. There is more than a hint of Barbara Pym’s social comedies here, with their sharp observations on human relationship and women’s lives – especially when the women in question are long-suffering individuals, frequently taken for granted by others. Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Bookshop is another touchstone, particularly in its portrayal of the villagers’ territorial attitudes and resistance to outsiders heralding change.

It’s such a joy to see this delightful novel back in print as part of the British Library’s Women Writers series, and I hope to see more of Mary Essex’s work coming through in the future. My thanks to the publishers for kindly providing a review copy. Should you wish to buy a copy of this book, you can do so via this link to Bookshop.org (see the disclosure on the home page of my website).