Recent Reads – Joan Didion and Edith Wharton, two of my favourite writers

Time for another couple of mini reviews from me – in this instance focusing on books by two of my favourite writers, Joan Didion and Edith Wharton. (It’s the turn of the Americans today.)

The White Album by Joan Didion (1979)

In many ways, this reads like a companion piece to (or a continuation of) Slouching Towards Bethlehem, a collection of Didion’s essays published in 1968. Here we have another volume of non-fiction pieces exploring various events and reflections in the author’s life during the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, all expressed in Didion’s effortlessly cool and erudite style. Like the essays in Slouching, most of these pieces had previously appeared in journals/magazines before being collected together in one volume.

As I’ve already written at length about Didion’s non-fiction in my review of Slouching, I’m not planning to go into a lot of detail about the twenty essays in The White Album; instead my aim is to give you a brief flavour of the book, mainly by way of a couple of quotes that I noted while I was reading the collection.

The essays included here cover a fairly diverse range of topics from Georgia O’Keeffe’s artworks to Ronald and Nancy Reagan’s former home in California to a recording session with The Doors. Running through many of these snapshots is a sense of social fragmentation and disintegration, a deep-rooted feeling of unease that seems to have characterised Didion’s life, reflecting both her own state of mind and her view of the broader cultural environment in California at the time. In the following passage – taken from the opening piece, The White Album – Didion is reflecting on the mood in LA in the summer of 1969, just before the brutal murders at Sharon Tate Polanski’s house on Cielo Drive.

I imagined that my own life was simple and sweet, and sometimes it was, but there were odd things going around town. There were rumours. There were stories. Everything was unmentionable but nothing was unimaginable. This mystical flirtation with the idea of “sin”—this sense that it was possible to go “too far,” and that many people were doing it—was very much with us in Los Angeles in 1968 and 1969. A demented and seductive vortical tension was building in the community. The jitters were setting in. (pp. 41-42)

While Didion is always clear-eyes and insightful, in some respects she is at her best and most affecting when her reflections touch on the personal, the events and circumstances which have had a profound impact on her own life and ability to function. She writes openly about her relationship with migraine, a debilitating condition she has learned to accept and cope with in spite of its intensity and frequency. There is also the time when she is diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, a moment that pulls into focus her own vulnerability and sense of mortality.

In a few lines of dialogue in a neurologist’s office in Beverley Hills, the improbable had become the probable, the norm: things which happened only to other people could in fact happen to me. I could be struck by lightning, could dare to eat a peach and be poisoned by the cyanide in the stone. The startling fact was this: my body was offering a precise physiological equivalent to what had been going on in my mind. “Lead a simple life,” the neurologist advised. “Not that it makes any difference we know about.” In other words it was another story without a narrative. (p. 47)

Through these highly compelling essays, Didion seems to be saying that there is little use in us trying to look for too much reason or narrative in our lives as reality simply doesn’t operate that way – sometimes we just have to accept the randomness of events or developments however unsettling that may be.

Summer by Edith Wharton (1917)

Described by some as a companion piece to Ethan Frome (reviewed here by Max of Pechorin’s Journal), Edith Wharton’s Summer is a powerful novel set in North Dormer, a small, insular village in the New England region of America. While I didn’t love it quite as much as Ethan, I did like it a lot.

The story focuses on Charity Royall, an impulsive and independently-minded young woman who lives with her guardian and widower, the dour and surly Lawyer Royall. As a young child, Charity was rescued from a bleak life with a group of outcasts from the nearby Mountain, a structure whose ominous presence looms large over North Dormer and Charity’s existence there. Charity feels little affection or gratitude towards Lawyer Royall for his earlier actions; if anything, she resents being constantly reminded of the need to be grateful to her guardian for the lifestyle he has provided, away from the feral nature of the Mountain community. Even her name is a reflection of her questionable status in society, a signal of her reliance on the benevolence of other, more ‘rightful’ citizens in the village.

Yet Charity Royall had always been told that she ought to consider it a privilege that her lot had been cast in North Dormer. She knew that, compared to the place she had come from, North Dormer represented all the blessings of the most refined civilisation. Everyone in the place had told her so ever since she had been brought there as a child. (p. 5)

Thankfully, Charity has already managed to thwart a sexual advance and proposal of marriage from Lawyer Royall, thereby asserting herself as a strong presence in the red house, the home they share in North Dormer.

Charity longs to escape from the boredom and constraints of her drab life in the watchful village, her only respite being a part-time job in the deathly quiet memorial library where she hopes to earn enough money to strike out on her own. So, when the handsome and kindly architect, Lucius Harney comes to town to make a study of the local buildings, young Charity’s passions and restless nature are promptly aroused.

What follows is a sequence of encounters in which Charity wrestles with her feelings for Lucius, an educated man who belongs to a completely different social class from her own. There is a sense of blossoming and awakening in Charity as her relationship with Lucius develops and deepens with each additional meeting, particularly once it is agreed that she will act as his guide.

In addition to the sense of emotional growth described above, the novel also touches on themes of identity, belonging, society’s expectations of women, and the difficulties of bridging a class divide – especially given the relevant period and setting. While I don’t want to say too much about the plot, there is a certain inevitability to the novel’s narrative arc as the story reaches its poignant conclusion. Nevertheless, there are a few glimmers of hope towards the end, particularly once Lawyer Royall is revealed as being somewhat more sympathetic and compassionate than might appear at first sight.

The novel also contains some beautiful descriptive passages, fragments that act as reflections of Charity’s fondness for the open landscape and natural world. I’ll finish up with one of these, but there are many more to be found in the book itself.

The air was cool and clear, with the autumnal sparkle that a north wind brings to the hills in early summer, and the night had been so still that the dew hung on everything, not as a lingering moisture, but in beads that glittered like diamonds on the ferns and grasses. (p. 40)

The White Album is published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, Summer by Oxford World’s Classics; my thanks to the publisher for the copy of Summer.

Ali and Simon have also reviewed Summer – just follow the links if you’d like to read their reviews.

Lolly Willowes by Sylvia Townsend Warner

Lolly Willowes – the debut novel of the English writer Sylvia Townsend Warner – was an instant success on its publication in 1926. Now regarded as something of an early feminist classic, it tells the story of Laura (Lolly) Willowes, an unmarried woman of semi-independent means who struggles to break free from her conservative family to carve out a life of her own in the lush and seductive countryside of Bucks. While the story starts out in fairly conventional territory, about halfway through it morphs into something more magical, subverting the reader’s expectations with elements of fantasy and wonder. It’s an excellent book, one of the most surprising and unexpected delights of my reading year to date.

From a young age, Laura Willowes has always loved the country, growing up in a quiet, traditional family in the heart of Somerset where she seems at one with nature and everything it has to offer. As an unmarried woman and youngest child in the family, Laura keeps house for her widowed father with consummate ease. She feels contented and at home in this environment with its simple ways and traditions. Moreover, it is clear that Mr Willowes loves his daughter very dearly, to the extent that he secretly hopes she will remain at home to take care of him even though he knows her future happiness may suffer as a result. In reality, marriage holds little appeal for Laura, and she remains relatively satisfied with her position in life.

When Mr Willowes dies of pneumonia in 1902, everything changes for Laura (now aged twenty-eight) as her familiar world is swept away. It is automatically assumed by the remaining members of the family that Laura will leave her home and everything she loves to go and live with her older brother, Henry and his wife, Caroline, in their central London abode. Although Laura has inherited a decent income of her own, there is no question of her choosing to live independently. Her other brother, James, and his wife, Sibyl, are to move into Lady Place (the Somerset home), while Laura herself must be content with the smaller of the two spare rooms in Henry and Caroline’s house.

Her father being dead, they took it for granted that she should be absorbed into the household of one brother or the other. And Laura, feeling rather as if she were a piece of property forgotten in the will, was ready to be disposed of as they should think best. (p. 10)

Going along with the family’s decision, Laura tries to make the best of things of London, helping Caroline with her children and other domestic duties. While she proves herself to be a reliable and trustworthy companion, Laura is often left feeling somewhat inadequate and taken for granted. Caroline, for her part, is pleasant enough to Laura, but she is also orderly, dull and unromantic, bowing to Henry’s better judgement on most things – an action which feeds her husband’s high opinion of himself.

In short, Laura feels her loss of identity very deeply. She is no longer Laura, but good old Aunt Lolly, someone who can be relied on to assist with the children – either that or simply ‘Caroline’s sister-in-law’, something of an appendage to the principal members of the household.

At first, Henry and Caroline try to introduce Laura to respectable, unmarried men in the hope that she might find a suitable husband – but Laura is having none of this, and she discourages any further matchmaking efforts with her somewhat eccentric remarks.

One by one, the years pass by, and before she knows it, Laura finds herself in her late forties, still unmarried and living a dull, unfulfilling life in London. By now, we are in the 1920s where it is becoming a little easier for women to branch out and gain some independence for themselves. There are signs that Laura is feeling somewhat restless and frustrated with her life, longing as she does to reconnect with the countryside in some way.

Then, one day while out shopping in the city, Laura experiences a sort of epiphany in the midst of a flower shop. Surrounded by flora and country produce, she imagines herself in an orchard, communing with nature in all its glory.

She forgot that she was in London, she forgot the whole of her London life. She seemed to be standing alone in a darkening orchard, her feet in the grass, her arms stretched up to the pattern of leaves and fruit, her fingers seeking the rounded ovals of the fruit among the pointed ovals of the leaves. The air about her was cool and moist. There was no sound, for the birds had left off singing and the owls had not yet begun to hoot. (p. 80)

As a result of this experience, Laura decides that she is going to move to Great Mop, a tiny village in the midst of Buckinghamshire, where she intends to live modestly on her own. As Laura surveys her family at dinner that evening, it is as if she has awoken from a dream; now she can see how devoid of excitement their regimented lives appear to be.       

During dinner Laura looked at her relations. She felt as though she had awoken, unchanged, from a twenty-years slumber, to find them almost unrecognizable. She surveyed them, one after the other. Even Henry and Caroline, whom she saw every day, were half hidden under their accumulations—accumulations of prosperity, authority, daily experience. They were carpeted with experience. No new event could set jarring feet on them but they would absorb and muffle the impact. (p. 84)

At first, Laura’s family think her quite mad for wanting to go and live in the country. Henry, in particular, is both astonished and upset by his sister’s outburst, fearing that he and Caroline have failed in their duty to make her feel welcome and part of the household. Nevertheless, Laura is determined to go in spite of the moral and financial pressures Henry tries to bring into play. Not only has Henry taken Laura’s goodwill for granted for so many years, but he has also managed to be careless with her capital, effectively reducing her inheritance by half.

So, reduced circumstances and all, Laura heads off to Great Mop where she must now take rooms in a cottage run by a somewhat idiosyncratic landlady, Mrs Leak. It is here in the unfettered realm of the countryside that Laura is able to rediscover herself, finding freedom and independence in the most unexpected of sources. Without wishing to give too much away, the village holds a secret, one that enables Laura to unleash an element of her psyche that has been lying dormant for years just waiting to be released.

Lolly Willowes is a lovely story of a woman’s need for independence, to carve out a life of her own without the interference of those who think they know better. (Interestingly, it predates Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own by three years.) I couldn’t help but root for Laura in her quest for fulfilment and pleasure, all the more so given her resilient personality.

The fantastical elements in the last third of the book are nicely done, encouraging the reader to go with the flow at the appropriate moments – and there are some beautiful passages of descriptive writing too, especially in the author’s portrayal of the natural world.

The slope before her was dotted with close-fitting juniper bushes, and presently she saw a rabbit steal out from one of these, twitch its ears, and scamper off. The cloud which covered the sky was no longer a solid thing. It was rising, and breaking up into swirls of vapor that yielded to the wind. The growing day washed them with silver. (p. 184)

The book is not without its touches of humour here and there, particularly in the scenes between Laura and her family when she makes her intentions clear – an element which adds to the enjoyment of Laura’s transformation.

So, all in all, another very satisfying read for me. Highly recommended if you’re willing to embrace a little magic and mischief.

My edition of Lolly Willowes was published by NYRB Classics; personal copy.

Recent Reads – Philip Larkin and Richard Yates

As quite a few of you seemed to enjoy my last round-up of ‘recent reads’ back in August, I’ve decided to do another one – this time focusing on novels by Philip Larkin and Richard Yates.

Jill by Philip Larkin (1946)

A couple of years ago, I read and really loved Larkin’s second novel, A Girl in Winter. While Jill – his debut novel – isn’t quite as good as Winter, it still makes for very interesting reading, particularly given its depiction of student life in the early years of WW2.

In essence, the novel focuses on John Kemp, a socially awkward young man from a Northern, working-class background who wins a scholarship to Oxford University to study English in 1940. Struggling to fit in with his rather arrogant upper-class roommate, Christopher, and the public-school set who surround him, John invents an imaginary sister, Jill, in order to embellish his own life in the face of others. However, things get complicated for John when he meets, Gillian, the fifteen-year-old cousin of one of Christopher’s friends, and the boundaries between the imaginary Jill and the real-life Gillian begin to blur.

While Jill starts very strongly, it loses a bit of momentum in the middle and then fizzles out a little towards the end leaving one of two questions hanging in the air. Nevertheless, these are relatively minor criticisms in the scheme of things – the novel is beautifully written and very sensitively conveyed. Where it really excels is in the portrayal of a shy, isolated young man who finds himself in a totally unfamiliar environment, one in which all his peers seem so confident, socially comfortable and self-assured.

A dismal melancholy was beginning to expand inside him, a great loneliness. It was the knowledge that he had nowhere to go more friendly, more intimate than this room that depressed him so, and particularly because the room was not his alone. He could not fortify himself inside it against the rest of the strangeness, for at any moment Christopher Warner and Patrick might come in and make coffee in his coffee-pot or break one of his plates through trying some balancing trick. He had hoped that at least there would always be his own room, with a fire and the curtains drawn, where he could arrange his few books neatly, fill a drawer with his notes and essays (in black ink with red corrections, held together by brass pins), and live undisturbed through the autumn into the winter. This was apparently not to be. (p. 17)

There is some excellent characterisation here, particularly in the creation of the rowdy, egotistical Christopher and his snobbish friends. Moreover, the novel is full of marvellous details and observations about the minutiae of student life in Oxford at the time: the inevitable tensions that arise when mismatched boys have to room together; the cribbing and last-minute preparations that ensue when essays are due; and the pilfering of items from other boys’ cupboards, especially when there is cake to be sourced for afternoon tea. (The scene where John arrives at his room in Oxford features a terrific set piece.) While the War remains mostly in the background, there is one major interruption which serves to demonstrate that the horrors of death and destruction are never far away.

Overall, this is a moving, sympathetic novel of a boy for whom certain aspects of life remain largely out of reach. Definitely recommended.

A Special Providence by Richard Yates (1969)

No other writer captures the pain of loneliness and disillusionment quite like Richard Yates. It seems to me that he understands his characters’ self-delusions, portraying the cruelty of their false hopes and dashed dreams with real insight and humanity.

In this, his second novel, Yates explores the lives of a single mother, Alice Prentice, and her only son, Bobby, as they try to eke out some kind of existence for themselves in 1930-40s America. The book itself is split into three main sections, the middle one focusing on Alice, a rather sad, delusional woman who toils away needlessly at her sculptures in the hope of becoming a famous artist, perpetually just a few months away from having sufficient material for a one-woman show or a something good enough for submission to the Witney. As the years slip by, Alice and Bobby continue to live hopelessly beyond their means, desperately moving from one place to another as the unpaid bills threaten to catch up with them.

Natalie Crawford was her neighbour on Charles Street, a twice-divorced, childless woman who had some sort of job with an advertising agency, who burned incense in her apartment and believed in her Ouija board and liked to use words like “simpatico,” and who habitually found respite from her own state of single blessedness with any man she could get her hands on. Alice didn’t like her very much, or at least didn’t wholly approve of her, but for lack of other friends she had come to rely on her – to spend excessive amounts of time with her and attend her frantic parties, and even to borrow money from her at times when she couldn’t make her income stretch through the month. (pp. 129-130)

Alice’s rather tragic story is bookended by two sections which together give an account of Bobby’s time as a soldier at the end of WW2. As an unworldly, inexperienced eighteen-year-old, Bobby is somewhat lost in the midst of his platoon as he makes his way across the battlefields of Europe, trying as best he can to survive the various challenges of war. However, there are precious few chances for heroics or atonement for Bobby as the campaign plays out somewhat differently to his expectations. Meanwhile, Alice waits patiently in New York, hoping for a fresh start once her beloved son returns home – convinced as she is that ‘a special providence’ will always shine on them.

There are almost certainly autobiographical influences in this beautifully-written novel: the somewhat tragic sculptor mother who relies heavily on drink; the young boy who sees his mother for everything she really is; the absent father who has a strained relationship with his family; and the young man who is thrown into the realities of war.

While A Special Providence isn’t my favourite Yates, it is still very much worth reading, particularly for its portrayal of the complexities of the relationship between mother and son as the balance of reliance between these two individuals begins to shift. Moreover, there is the novel’s quietly devastating ending, a poignant coda which feels like quintessential Yates.

You can read my other posts on Richard Yates’ work here:

The Easter Parade

Eleven Kinds of Loneliness

A Good School

Disturbing the Peace

Liars in Love

Jill is published by Faber & Faber, A Special Providence by Vintage Books; personal copies.

Sleepless Nights by Elizabeth Hardwick

Those of you who follow me on Twitter will know that I have been trying to read from my shelves over the past year or so, limiting the acquisition of ‘new’ books in favour of reading older titles from my TBR. Elizabeth Hardwick’s Sleepless Nights has been sitting there for some time, patiently waiting for its moment in the sun (or maybe I should say ‘the glow of autumn’ as we are in October now).

It’s a difficult book to describe – part fiction, part memoir, Sleepless Nights blurs the boundaries between the real and the imaginary. In terms of style and form, the closest comparison I can think of is Renata Adler’s Speedboat, a wonderful book that blew me away with its shimmering vignettes and episodes from the narrator’s life.

Like Speedboat, Hardwick’s book doesn’t follow a conventional narrative arc; nor does it possess a noticeable plot as such. Instead, we are presented with a series of fragments from a woman’s life, the recollections of journeys undertaken, of people encountered and situations observed. The writing has a poetic quality, rich with vivid images with the ability to linger in the mind.

When you travel your first discovery is that you do not exist. The phlox bloomed in its faded purples; on the hillside, phallic pines. Foreigners under the arcades, in the basket shops. A steamy haze blurred the lines of the hills. A dirty, exhausting sky. Already the summer seemed to be passing away. Soon the boats would be gathered in, ferries roped to the dock. (p. 5)

While at first, the individual fragments may seem somewhat unconnected, there is a sort of framing device at work here. As the narrative opens, a ‘broken old woman’ – also named Elizabeth – living in a shabby nursing home is looking back over the years that have gone before.

Over the course of her life, Elizabeth travels from her home in Kentucky to New York, to Boston, to Maine, and then to Europe. Unsurprisingly, there are various relationships with men along the way. We learn of Elizabeth’s first lover at the age of eighteen, a casual, romantic figure twelve years her senior. There are other affairs too, perhaps most notably with Alex, a rather vain man in possession of a certain charm. Following the break-up of a long-term relationship with a different lover, Elizabeth reflects on the nature of their bond – in essence, what it can mean for a man and a woman to be joined together in this way.

I am alone here in New York, no longer a we. Years, decades even, passed. Then one is out of the commonest of plurals, out of the strange partnership that begins as a flat, empty plain and soon turns into a town of rooms and garages, little grocery stores in the pantry, dress shops in the closets, and a bank with your names printed together for the transaction of business. (p. 51)

One of the most evocative sections of the book captures Elizabeth’s memories of her time in New York: the sleazy atmosphere of the Hotel Schuyler where she shared rooms with a friend; the smoky jazz clubs of the city, often characterised by their rapidly changing owners; and the magnetic presence of Billie Holliday, a woman drawn to self-destruction like a moth to a flame.

The creamy lips, the oily eyelids, the violent perfume—and in her voice the tropical l’s and r’s. Her presence, her singing created a large, swelling anxiety. Long red fingernails and the sound of electrified guitars. Here was a woman who had never been a Christian. (p. 31)

There are other memories too, reflections on Elizabeth’s father and mother, their values and characteristics. Stories of friends, acquaintances and lovers light up the pages, all coming together to form an intriguing collage or scrapbook of the protagonist’s life.

In the following passage, Elizabeth recalls her former neighbour, Miss Cramer, an old music teacher who has fallen on hard times. Once elegant and self-assured, Miss Cramer is now a dishevelled and sorry presence in her torn canvas shoes and thin dress – following the death of her elderly mother, the advent of poverty was swift and destructive.

Poverty for the autocrat came like a bulldozer, gouging out her pretentions, her musical education, her trips to Bayreuth. The mother died, summers vanished, the voices were silent. Out of the apartment went the piano and the trash of two and a half decades., brilliant American, English, and European trash. Miss Cramer moved down the street, and the move was a descent on the roller coaster, hair flying, trinkets ripped off the ears and the fingers, heart pounding and head filled with a strange gust of air, which was never again released and seemed to be still blowing about behind the brow, rippling the dark eyelashes. (pp. 46-47)

The narrative is also laced with a number of perceptions and insights, particularly those on the status of women and their standing relative to men. There are observations on the ease with which society can define a woman by her relationship with a man, almost as if she has little identity or agency of her own. In this fragment, Elizabeth considers the nature of life for spinsters, reflecting that a form of spinsterhood may even exist within marriage – for some women at least.

The paradox of the woman who reaches her true spinsterhood only after she is at last married and settled. She takes command and reaches a state of dominating dependency to which only she has the clue. How confident her reign, how skillful the solitary diplomacy, the ordering of the future and control of the present. She gathers in revenues and makes dispensations, carefully, never forgetting that she is alone. (p. 20)

Like Adler’s book, Sleepless Nights was first published in the late 1970s, and its slightly detached tone leaves me wondering whether this was some kind of reflection of the sense of unease in the US at the time. It’s difficult to tell. Nevertheless, there is a fluidity and luminosity to Hardwick’s prose that makes her novel a real pleasure to read. There is a dreamlike quality to the overall feel of the book, akin to the way in which seemingly unconnected fragments or shards of memories seem to emerge from nowhere to flow through the mind. All in all, this is a beautiful, elegant read to stimulate the senses.

I’ve posted this review today to coincide with Lizzy’s NYRB Classics fortnight which is running from 1st– 14th October. You can find out more about it via the link.

Sleepless Nights is published by NYRB Classics; personal copy.

Someone at a Distance by Dorothy Whipple

Originally published in 1953, Someone at a Distance is my first experience of Dorothy Whipple’s work. The central story is a timeless one, focussing as it does on the systematic destruction of a loving marriage – and yet, Whipple captures everything with such insight and attention to detail that it all feels so compelling, pushing the reader forward to discover how the narrative will end. It’s certainly one of the most absorbing novels I’ve read this year.

The novel centres on the North family – principally Avery North, a handsome, successful partner in a London-based publishing company, and his kind, considerate wife, Ellen. The Norths, who are in their early forties, have two children: eighteen-year-old Hugh, who is in the midst of completing his National Service, and fifteen-year-old Anne, the apple of her father’s eye. While Anne spends much of the year away at boarding school, during the holidays she returns to the Norths’ beautiful home in the suburban countryside where she is devoted to her horse, Roma.

With domestic help being hard to come by following the changes ushered in by the Second World War, Ellen is kept busy with domestic duties, taking care of the house – Netherfold – and the burgeoning garden. She has little interest in attending parties or literary events associated with Avery’s job. In fact, being a rather shy, unassuming individual at heart, she eschews these social gatherings in favour of staying at home. In any case, Avery – a good networker – is well able to make useful contacts and relationships for himself.

Guiltily, pleasurably, she avoided the parties Bennett and North gave for authors, agents and the like. At first, she had youthfully tried to do what might be considered her duty as a publisher’s wife. She moved from group to group, smiling. But everybody talked vociferously, and though here and there people moved aside, smiling to let her pass, nobody interrupted conversation for her. Slight, fair, with no idea at all of trying to make an impression, she didn’t look important and nobody wondered who she was. (p. 9)

Ellen’s preoccupation with her home and immediate family also leaves little time for Avery’s mother, old Mrs North, an elderly widow who lives in her own house (The Cedars) nearby. Much to the old lady’s annoyance, there is always some pressing engagement or activity on the horizon for Ellen whenever she comes to visit – a situation that leaves Ellen feeling rather guilty whenever she has to rush away.

To all intents and purposes, the young Norths have the perfect life. Ellen and Avery seem to love one another dearly; they have two wonderful children, a beautiful home and a comfortable lifestyle. In short, everything in the garden appears to be wonderfully rosy.

However, everything changes when old Mrs North hires a young French girl, Louise Lanier, to keep her company at The Cedars, and to pass on something of the language here and there. Right from the start, it is abundantly clear to the reader that Mademoiselle Lanier is trouble. A spiteful and selfish minx at heart, Louise Lanier has come to England to get away from her former secret lover, a local dignitary who rejected Louise in favour of marrying a woman from his own social class. In short, Louise is looking to avenge the humiliation she believes she has suffered as a way of proving her worth back in France.

Slowly but surely, Louise inveigles her way into the lives of old Mrs North, Avery and Ellen, spreading her own particular brand of poison very carefully as she goes. There is an early hint of it here in this scene after Christmas dinner in which Louise passes judgement on Anne North who looks very attractive in her new white tulle dress.

‘Oh, she is very pretty,’ repeated Louise. ‘She will go a long way.’ She drew on her cigarette and threw the end of it into the fire. ‘If she is careful,’ she said, exhaling smoke through her nostrils.

Ellen stared in frowning displeasure, but Avery laughed, and loudly. (p. 129)

Nevertheless, old Mrs North is taken in, buoyed by the company of Louise and her considerable interest in getting dressed up. The fact that Louise encourages her employer to make the most of her appearance does not go amiss. As a consequence, when the old lady dies, Louise finds herself a beneficiary in the will to the tune of £1,000. Not that Louise spares much of a thought for her former companion – after all, she had to go at some point, so it might as well be now.

She felt nothing in particular for old Mrs. North, except that it was very nice of her to have left her the money. After all, Mrs North was old. She had to die some time. And it was not as if she had known her long or had had time to become attached to her. (p. 149)

Unfortunately for Avery and Ellen, Louise comes to stay with them at Netherfold while old Mrs North’s estate is being settled, and it is at this point that she really starts to get her claws into Avery. Out of pure spite and viciousness, Louise sets out to deliberately ruin the Norths’ marriage, capturing Avery as some kind of trophy in the process. While there is no doubt that Avery is a loving husband and father, he is also infallibly human – something Louise leverages when he shows a flicker of attraction to her.

As she smoked now, she smiled, and her smile was compounded of triumph, scorn and excitement. Triumph because she had won, and excitement because the game had started in earnest now. She had dangled the bait. No need to take any more notice of it now. She herself was the bait. (p. 187)

All too soon, Ellen and Anne catch Avery in an unguarded moment with Louise, and their image of him is shattered. The situation then escalates very quickly leaving Avery utterly ashamed of his behaviour but too proud to make amends – a plight that turns Ellen’s world upside down, forcing her to rethink her life and position as a wife and mother. Meanwhile, Louise is revelling in the prospect of being able to avenge her former lover, Paul, now happily married and settled with his new wife in their hometown of Amigny.

It was much more amusing this time when the power was all hers. Much more interesting when the heart was not involved, though Avery was certainly attractive. In a way, she was avenging herself on Paul. She was getting her own back. The conquest, the annexation of Avery was necessary to restore her confidence in herself. (p. 202)

In writing Someone at a Distance, Whipple has created a very good novel about the fragile nature of love and the lives we build for ourselves. After a few moments of passion and desire, the idyllic nature of the Norths’ existence is fractured forever.

The main characters are drawn with understanding and insight, and their motives explored with a real sense of depth – points which make the core story feel all too believable for its day. While the consequences of Avery’s foolish indiscretion with Louise would probably play out somewhat differently today, the social stigma associated with such an incident was very different back then. Nevertheless, the emotions of shame, humiliation and rejection that Whipple explores are undoubtedly timeless – factors that ensure the novel retains a relevance in the contemporary world. There are times when it is almost too distressing to observe the impact of Louise’s behaviour on each member of the North family as she uncovers and exploits their individual vulnerabilities to her own advantage.

In addition to her admirable fleshing out of the main characters, Whipple also does a fine job in painting the secondary players in the mix. Individuals like Mrs Beard, the formidable manager of a local hotel/care home, whose demeanour is signalled by the following brief description.

Mrs. Beard was a middle-aged Gibson girl, built-up hair, large bust, curved hips and that thrown-forward look which may have been due to her stays or to the fact that she wore high-heeled court shoes which tired her and made her cross, but which she thought necessary to her appearance. (p. 53)

Louise’s humane parents are beautifully drawn too, the humble, straightforward nature of their lives in small-town France contrasting sharply with their daughter’s unnecessary airs and graces. Louise makes it quite clear to the Laniers that they will never be good enough for her, their status as shopkeepers being less than ideal.

All in all, this is a very fine novel, one that may well suit fans of writers such as Elizabeth Taylor and Elizabeth Jane Howard. It also represents my contribution to Jessie’s Persephone readathon – more details here.

Craven House by Patrick Hamilton

As some of you may know, I have fondness for books featuring the great British boarding house – an interest sparked by novels such as Of Love and Hunger by Julian Maclaren-Ross, The Boarding-House by William Trevor, and perhaps the greatest of them all, The Slaves of Solitude by Patrick Hamilton.

Craven House, a fledgling novel by the aforementioned Hamilton, fits right into this groove, set as it is in a West London boarding house during the early part of the 20th century. While Craven isn’t as polished as Hamilton’s later work – he was only twenty-two when the book was first published in 1926 – there is still much to enjoy here, particularly in the use of the setting as a vehicle for fiction.

In some ways, Craven House could be thought of as a collection of character studies, an exploration of the lives and traits of the somewhat disparate group of individuals who inhabit this dwelling. While very little actually happens in the way of plot – the book reads like a sequence of episodes or occurrences – there is much to treasure in the characterisation, especially in relation to the younger residents of the house.

Craven House is owned and managed by the tireless Miss Hatt, an outwardly amiable individual who has the general bearing of a ‘merry sparrow taking the sun’. Also crucial to the establishment – in terms of standing if not ownership – are Mr and Mrs Spicer, long-term friends of Miss Hatt’s from her school days. Mr Spicer is ‘In Tea’, although quite what that means in practice remains a bit of a mystery. Nevertheless, The Spicers like to think of themselves as a respectable middle-aged couple, a notion typified by the following passage on their fondness for walking, particularly on a Sunday morning.

Mr and Mrs Spicer alone remained out of doors, thereby observing one of their most time-sanctioned and inviolable practices – the Sunday morning walk – and regarding themselves as in no small measure an ornament to the neighbourhood in their capacity of a Quiet Middle-aged Couple. For Mr and Mrs Spicer very much liked to advertise themselves as a quiet middle-aged couple – as though quietness was a fine point in their favour, and the world couldn’t keep its middle-aged couples quiet as a rule. (pp. 87-88)

However, initial appearance may be deceptive, and Mr Spicer may not be quite as honourable as his wife thinks. In reality, Mr S has a penchant for attempting to pick up young ladies during his solitary outings to Hyde Park Corner, a practice that lands him in trouble a little later in the book.

Paying guests at the house include twice-widowed Mrs Nixon and her young daughter, Elsie, and recent additions, Major Wildman and his young son, Henry – commonly known as Master Wildman. Finally, the cast is completed by two servants: the cook, Edith and the maid, Audrey, neither of whom quite live up to Miss Hatt’s somewhat unrealistic expectations of domestic staff. Nevertheless, Edith – a blotchy woman with the demeanour of a ‘Dickens character’ – proves herself to be an efficient cook, while Audrey seems pleasant enough, to begin with at least.

The first section of the novel deals with the years immediately leading up to the Great War, a time when the traditional customs of Edwardian society were starting to crumble. Hamilton excels at capturing the sense of ennui in Craven House, the interminable mealtimes and stilted conversations in the drawing-room, especially as the guests attempt to get to know the new arrivals. In this scene, the residents are taking tea on a Sunday afternoon.

‘Oh – ah – yes. Possibly,’ said the Major, and the company’s blushes were rescued half in cheek, by the clanging of the gong for tea, which was followed by the appearance of an Audrey labouring under a large tray; which was followed by the appearance of a dumb waiter containing the thinnest bread and butter conceivable, swiss roll and plum cake; which was followed by much fuss and bother, uncanny feats of balancing (Mr Spicer sliding across the floor, tea-cup in hand, as though it were an egg-and-spoon race), and the extreme little-gentlemanliness of Master Wildman, who handed things round; (p.90-91)

It is the small details Hamilton focuses on here, the petty grievances and tensions that ensue when individuals with different habits come together under one roof. The Major, used to having hot water to hand at any time of day or night, takes it upon himself to have a bath early in the evening, a slot usually reserved for Mrs Nixon – a move that creates some commotion in the house.

Perhaps the two residents who get on best are the playful Master Wildman and the obedient Elsie Nixon, a charming, amiable girl who finds a friend in her young companion. The pair play cards together during the evenings to pass away the time. One day, they even manage to escape the clutches of the tyrannical Mrs Nixon to visit the shops for an hour or two, an episode that lands Elsie in considerable trouble on her return. The relationship between these two children is very touchingly portrayed.

The Great War is touched on very briefly, mostly to capture the darkness and uncertainty of the time. Only Mr Spicer is directly involved in the war effort, and even his particular contribution is less than spectacular following a rather short spell of action in France.

Mr Spicer’s services to his country were, we are inclined to believe, something in the nature of a burden to both parties concerned. (p. 166)

Hamilton saves some of his best set-pieces for the novel’s final act, an extended section in which we return to Craven House six years after the end of the war. By this time, Master Wildman is in his early twenties, with Elsie Nixon following just a few years behind, worshipping her dear friend from close quarters. While Elsie longs to spread her wings a little in the hope that Master Wildman will fall for her, the dictatorial Mrs Nixon is having none of it, determined as she is to maintain a fierce hold over Elsie and everything she does.

‘Can I have my hair bobbed, Mother?’ asks Elsie. ‘No, you can not, Miss,’ says Mrs Nixon. ‘We’ll have none of these modern airs here.’ (p. 179)

Mrs Nixon is, needless to say, hale and hearty, and exuding a glad confidence in complete domination of her daughter or any other rebellious event or person likely to tackle her. (p. 180)

By this point, a new paying guest has also taken up residence at Craven House, the somewhat eccentric yet charming Mrs Hoare, an elderly lady who ‘employs flattery with a trowel’. One of Mrs Hoare’s most delightful habits involves her referring to various items by their initial letters, a practice that causes more than a little confusion and amusement amongst the residents. For instance, ‘Ell’ for Love, ‘Bee’ for Bed and ‘Doubleyou’ for Master Wildman. Elsie is very fond of Mrs Hoare – as is Master Wildman, although he cannot help but poke fun at her too, albeit in a rather gentle way.

As the novel draws towards its conclusion, the simmering tensions apparent within the house culminate in a couple of dramatic outbursts. One involving the Spicers when Mrs S discovers precisely what her husband has been getting up to while her back has been turned; the other concerning Miss Hatt, who seems close to a breakdown after fifteen years in charge of the establishment. There is also a wonderful contretemps between Miss Hatt and Audrey (the maid) when the latter has the audacity to answer back to her employer following a rebuke over her tardiness. Naturally, Miss Hatt is stunned by the outrage, so much so that she decides ‘Audrey Must Go’. In spite of these dramas, there is a happy ending of sorts for two of the house’s inhabitants, a nice touch amid the darkness of the environment.

Viewed in its entirety, Craven House is perhaps best suited to Hamilton enthusiasts. The novel itself is rather baggy, and some of the characters a little underdeveloped – Miss Hatt, Mrs Spicer and Mrs Nixon, in particular. At times, the prose is somewhat protracted and overwrought, a point that Hamilton himself was conscious of when he looked back at the work a little later in his career.

Nevertheless, it is fascinating to see the early genesis of some of this author’s favourite themes here – particularly his preoccupation with the boarding house milieu and his interest in individuals who seem to carry an inner sense of loneliness and self-doubt. In some ways, Craven House could be viewed as a bit of a trial run for one of Hamilton’s later books, the utterly brilliant The Slaves of Solitude, one of the highlights of my reading year back in 2014.

Craven House is published by Abacus; personal copy.

The Cry of the Owl by Patricia Highsmith

Regular readers may be aware of my fondness for Patricia Highsmith’s particular brand of domestic noir. Last year I read and loved Deep Water (1957), a novel which plays with readers’ responses towards an outwardly respectable man who secretly harbours psychopathic tendencies. It remains one of the highlights of my 2017 year in reading.

Highsmith’s interest in decency and morality comes to the fore again The Cry of the Owl (published a few years later in 1962), a book that seems to start off in traditional psychological thriller territory only to shift towards something a little more existential by the end. There is an underlying seam of bleakness here, a real sense of destruction and despair as the story edges closer to its denouement. In some ways, it reminded me a little of some of Georges Simenon’s work – his hard/psychological romains durs as opposed to his Maigret books. Either way, it’s an excellent book.

Owl centres on Robert Forester, a twenty-nine-year-old man who has recently moved to a small town in Pennsylvania to escape the clutches of his venomous former partner, Nickie, a woman who continues to harangue him on the phone out of sheer malice. In spite of finding a decent job in the local aeronautics business, Robert has been battling loneliness and depression for some months – to the extent that he has slipped into the rather odd habit of watching an unknown young woman as she goes about her business at home.

As the book opens, we find Robert observing the girl, Jenny, through her kitchen window as she lays the table and prepares an evening meal for two. While at first sight this situation may appear very creepy, Robert is not a stereotypical Peeping Tom. There is nothing sexual about his attraction to the girl; instead, he is merely seeking solace and comfort by watching her running through her domestic routine. It’s as if this picture of normality is giving Robert some kind of hope, a sense of grounding and purpose that he longs to recapture for himself.

Even if nobody ever understood that watching a girl go calmly about her household routine made him feel calm also, made him see that life for some people could have a purpose and a joy, and made him almost believe he might recover that purpose and joy himself. The girl was helping him. (p.7)

Even though Robert knows he is playing a potentially dangerous game here – Jenny clearly has a boyfriend who visits regularly – he finds it difficult to refrain from watching the girl at night. All too swiftly, of course, Jenny discovers Robert; but instead of feeling fearful for her safety, Jenny invites Robert into her home as she finds herself drawn to him in some strange and inexplicable way.

Robert, for his part, feels somewhat embarrassed at being caught snooping around. Furthermore, there is a sense that getting to know the real Jenny would diminish in some way what her image has come to represent for him – a sense of calm and contentment and the absence of any kind of stress. Nevertheless, he continues to see Jenny, primarily at her rather insistent request.

With each subsequent meeting, Jenny’s attachment to Robert seems to intensify. (In an almost reciprocal act to Robert’s earlier snooping, Jenny actually follows Robert to his new home – thereby the watcher effectively becomes the watched, if only momentarily.) As it turns out, Jenny is having significant doubts about the suitability of her fiancé, Greg, whom she does not love enough to marry. Consequently, she breaks off her engagement to Greg and continues to see Robert, who appears to be drifting into a relationship with her in spite of his better judgement.

Meanwhile, the uber-possessive Greg is determined to track Robert down and warn him off Jenny, firm in the belief that he still has a chance to win her back. As he spies on Jenny and Robert at night, Greg’s temper and imagination start to run riot.

Jenny’s car was there, and so was Robert’s. She was blatantly spending nights there. This might be the seventh, the tenth, for all he knew. Lights were blazing in the house now. He imagined them laughing and talking and fixing dinner, Jenny making one of her big salads, and then – Greg couldn’t bear to imagine any more. (p. 78)

Driven by the toxic Nickie, whose malicious opinions on Robert’s unhinged state of mind add fuel to the fire, Greg launches an attack on Robert near the local river, an incident which leads to a violent struggle between the two men. In the end, Robert has to drag Greg out of the water onto the river bank where he leaves him to recover. Unfortunately for our protagonist, Greg goes missing immediately after the fight, and suspicion naturally falls on Robert – seemingly the last person to have seen Greg alive.

What follows is a veritable nightmare for Robert as his relatively ordered world comes crashing down around him. A sequence of increasingly twisted events ensues, acts which involve Robert, Jenny, Greg and Nickie – all of which leave the reader reeling from the catastrophic fallout.

At first, it is natural to think that Robert is the odd character here; after all, his fondness for spying on Jenny is a little creepy. However, it soon becomes apparent that he might be the least imbalanced character in the book. Having lost her brother at a very young age, Jenny is rather preoccupied with the idea of death, a factor that plays a significant role in her response to the terrible events that unfold for Robert.

Nickie is a very spiteful individual, prone to vindictive acts and outbursts, a characteristic typified by Robert’s recollections of the litany of complaints she unleashed on the night of their second anniversary. Her subsequent character assignations of Robert play a significant role in his downfall.

Robert remembered that he had made himself a second drink during her harangue, a good stiff one, since the wisest thing to show under the circumstances was patience, and the liquor acted as a sedative. His patience that evening had so infuriated her, in fact, that she later lurched against him, bumped herself into him in the bedroom when he was undressing for the night, saying, ‘Don’t you want to hit me, darling? Come on, hit me, Bobbie!’ Curiously, that was one of the times he’d felt least like hitting her, so he’d been able to give a quiet ‘No’ in answer. Then she called him abnormal. ‘You’ll do something violent one day. Mark my words.’ (pp. 49-50)

Then there is Greg, a man who seems hell-bent on removing Robert from the equation – not just figuratively but literally too.

In telling this story, Highsmith excels at capturing the rumours and gossip that circulate in a small-town community – the fears and suspicions that can surface as individuals who know some of those involved begin to put their own spin on events. Women like Mrs Van Vleet, Greg’s landlady and firm supporter.

She had asked if Robert was still working at Langley Aeronautics, and when he said yes, she had said, ‘It’s a wonder to me you’ve still got a job. It’s a wonder to me you can hold your head up in the community, it is indeed…. A fine young man like Greg…trifling with his girl…a fine young girl. I hear you don’t even want to marry her. I should hope not! You’re a killer – or the next thing to it! And Robert had stood there answering, ‘Yes…No,’ politely, trying to smile at it and failing, failing to get more than four consecutive words out before he was interrupted. What was the use? But he knew it took only a noisy minority like Mrs Van Vleet in a community to hang a man, literally or figuratively. (p. 124)

Ultimately though, what really makes this novel such a compelling read is the seemingly unstoppable chain of events that Robert’s relatively innocent search for solace kicks off.  We are left with the sense of how powerless a man can feel when he his actions are judged and misinterpreted by the so-called upstanding citizens around him, especially when fate intervenes and plays her part to the full.

Highly recommended for lovers of dark and twisted fiction.

The Cry of the Owl is published by Vintage Books; personal copy.