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The Adventures of Miss Barbara Pym by Paula Byrne – Book Review, Part 2

Earlier this week, I posted part 1 of my review of Paula Byrne’s marvellous new biography of Barbara Pym. If you missed it, you can catch up with it here as this post carries straight on from the first.

Some of the most interesting aspects of this biography – and there are many things to treasure here – are the connections Byrne makes between Pym’s personal life and the threads in her fiction. Over the course of her career, Pym drew extensively on her own personal experiences, creating an environment populated with excellent, unassuming woman, pompous, unobservant husbands, fusty, isolated academics and precious young curates. Spinsterhood was a recurring theme, from ‘contended spinsters’ such as Belinda Bede from Some Tame Gazelle to exploited spinsters such as Mildred Lathbury from Excellent Women.

It is a world that seems at once both farcical and recognisable, such was Pym’s insight into the foibles of human nature. In effect, the novels became outlets for Pym’s deepest feelings, particularly those of loss, hurt and unrequited love.

In Some Tame Gazelle – which features two sisters, Belinda and Harriet Bede, closely modelled on how Barbara and her younger sibling Hilary might be living when they reach their fifties – Pym channelled former lover Henry Harvey for her portrayal of Archdeacon Hoccleve, a pompous, self-centred man whom Belinda worships from afar.

In Some Tame Gazelle, the Archdeacon loves nothing better than the sound of his own voice, bores his parishioners with his overlong, wordy sermons, and is jealous of his curates. Many of Henry’s traits and peccadilloes are depicted in this handsome, selfish, petulant, lazy, conceited and not terribly bright man of the cloth: his dislike of olives, his delicate constitution, his habit of lying in bed in the morning, his constant complaints. His Viennese red wool socks that Belinda must forever darn. (p. 133)

Hoccleve is a brilliant creation, all the more so when we realise how closely he resembles Henry in both character and behaviour. (You can read more about Pym’s romantic entanglements with Henry Harvey in part 1 of my review.)

Byrne highlights several other examples too. There is more than a hint of Julian Amery – a sophisticated young man who had a fling with Barbara, only to drop her quite casually – in Simon Beddoes, the ambitious young politician who featured in Pym’s marvellous ‘Oxford novel’ Crampton Hodnet.

Another of Pym’s lovers, Gordon Glover, provided the inspiration for Fabian Driver, the handsome yet vain widower from Jane and Prudence. Pym fell hard for Gordon, the estranged husband of her close friend Honor Glover; and while Honor knew about Pym’s relationship with Gordon, the situation was complicated by the fact that the two women were sharing a house (along with Barbara’s sister, Hilary) at the time.

In short, Barbara was mesmerised by Gordon, but their affair ended after just two months when he dumped her rather abruptly shortly after the Christmas break. While Gordon seemed to be treating their relationship as a fling, Barbara was hoping for something more lasting. As a consequence, Pym poured all of her hurt over the rejection by Gordon Glover – and his cowardice in not being straight with her – into another novel, the pitch-perfect Excellent Women. Here we see Pym writing with a whole new level of insight into affairs of the heart, particularly the intense bruising that can come from being sidelined.

Another rejection provided inspiration for the novel The Sweet Dove Died, written around 1970 but only published followed Pym’s renaissance later that decade. At close to fifty, Pym fell in love with another somewhat unsuitable chap, Richard Roberts, aka Skipper. A rugged, ‘virile-looking’ man, Skipper was eighteen years Pym’s junior and a homosexual; and while Pym appeared to be aware of Skipper’s sexual leanings from an early stage, it didn’t stop her from falling hard for him. Skipper had a certain degree of charisma, but there was also a dark side to his personality, an irascible, depressive streak that made him difficult to like. Once again Pym was ‘off-loaded’, an experience that she channelled into her art, penning Dove as a kind of riposte. It is considered one of Pym’s most melancholy novels, a reflection no doubt of her feelings at the time.

To compound matters, Skipper’s rejection coincided with Pym’s well-documented ‘Wilderness Years’, which commenced when Jonathan Cape declined to published her seventh novel, An Unsuitable Attachment. The year was 1963 – which Byrne terms as Pym’s ‘Annus Horribilis’ – when significant social changes were sweeping through Britain. As such, Pym’s rather genteel image seemed oddly out-of-step with modern trends and considerations.

Beatlemania had begun, and with it a cult of youth and working-class rebellion in which Pym’s world suddenly looked unfashionably middle aged and middle class – though she herself liked their records. (p. 486)

It didn’t help that the novel portrayed a cross-class relationship as being ‘unsuitable’, just at a time when class barriers were being demolished.

Pym was deeply hurt by Cape’s actions, particularly the manner of their brush-off, which was communicated to her in a cold letter, without the courtesy of a face-to-face meeting or phone call to soften the blow. Several other publishers subsequently declined An Unsuitable Attachment, and its successor The Sweet Dove Died; however, the respected writer Philip Larkin proved himself Pym’s saviour…

Larkin and Pym had been friends for many years, writing to one another over the course of a couple of decades. The poet was a huge fan of Pym’s novels, diligently re-reading them all every few years. As such, he was a great source of comfort to Barbara during her Wilderness Years, writing to Faber’s editor, Charles Monteith, on her behalf in the hope of securing future publications of her work.

‘In all her writing I find a continual perceptive attentiveness to detail, which is a joy and a steady background of rueful yet courageous acceptance of things which I think more relevant to life as most of us have to live it.’ (Letter from Larkin to Charles Monteith, p. 522)

Pym’s renaissance was finally secured in 1977 when the TLS ran an article asking various writers to name their most underrated authors. Pym was the only writer to receive two nominations, one from Philip Larkin, the other from Lord David Cecil. As a consequence, Pym’s fortunes changed virtually overnight. Various broadsheets wanted to interview her, Roy Plomley secured her for Desert Island Discs, and best of all, Macmillan offered to published her latest novels, Quartet in Autumn and The Sweet Dove Died. Even Jonathan Cape wanted to be friends with Pym again, once they’d got over the shock of her new-found popularity. The satisfaction of being able to tell them that she’d since signed with Macmillan must have been delightful for Pym! A happy ending for our heroine, very much in keeping with the tone of her early books.

I hope I’ve succeeded in giving you a flavour of this absorbing biography over the past few weeks. (It really is a very comprehensive book.) There were many sides to Pym’s personality, some of them public, others more private. Ultimately, what emerges is an image of a woman who had many fascinating experiences during her lifetime, including several affairs of the heart – a rather surprising number for an English gentlewoman and spinster from the mid-20th-century! (Other than Pym’s relationship with Henry Harvey, I had very little knowledge of this aspect of her life before reading Byrne’s biography.)

While Pym’s canvases were small, the emotions she depicted were significant and universal, highlighting her sensitivity to the foibles of human behaviour. There is a sharpness in her fiction that comes from lived experience, a compassion and sense of humanity, particularly for those who have loved and lost. How I envy those of you who’ve yet to read her for the first time – you have so many treats to forward to!

The Adventures of Miss Barbara Pym is published by William Collins; my sincere thanks to the publishers for kindly providing a review copy.

The Adventures of Miss Barbara Pym by Paula Byrne – Book Review, Part 1

Last week I posted a little excerpt from Paula Byrne’s comprehensive new biography of Barbara Pym, one of my favourite underappreciated writers from the mid-20th century. Hopefully it will have whetted your appetite for this truly immersive book, which I plan to cover in more detail over the course of the week. (It really is a most fascinating read!)

Byrne digs deep into the detail here, following Pym from her childhood in Shropshire to her twilight years in Oxfordshire, illuminating with great clarity and affection each distinct phase of the author’s life. The Adventures of Miss Barbara Pym is written in the style of a picaresque narrative, which gives the book a jaunty tone, very much in line with its subject’s world. As such, it is presented as an engaging sequence of vignettes with titles such as ‘Miss Pym’s Summer of Love’, ‘Miss Pym passes her Interview’ and ‘Hullo Skipper’.

Following her birth in Oswestry in 1913, Pym lived through a remarkable period of history, a time that encompassed two World Wars, a royal abdication and sweeping social change; and while it would be impossible for me to cover all aspects of her life in these reviews, I hope to convey something of the flavour of the book.

Pym’s childhood was a happy and loving one. Born into a respectable, middle-class family in 1913, Barbara was well suited to Oswestry’s comfortable routines. Her father, Frederic, was a good-natured solicitor, and her mother, Irena, the epitome of the ‘excellent women’ Pym would go on to portray with great affection in her novels.

Irena – an avid reader and lover of music – had clear ambitions for Barbara and her younger daughter, Hilary, supporting their education in the hope they would progress to Oxford. In 1931, Barbara gladly fulfilled her mother’s wishes, winning a place at St Hilda’s College to read English. Perhaps unsurprisingly, these new surrounding proved stimulating and exhilarating to the young Pym, and she embraced University life with great enthusiasm and relish.

Pym found Oxford ‘intoxicating’. In no small part this was because she suddenly found herself the centre of male attention and, like many girls from single-sex schools, she was ready to enjoy being in the company of young men. As with her heroine, Miss Bates, in her third published novel Jane and Prudence, the male undergraduates beat a path to Pym’s door. It was not only the preponderance of men (the ratio was one woman to ten men) that enhanced her desirability, but also the fact that she was so funny and interesting. She was in particular a magnet for homosexual men, who were drawn to her wit and playfulness. (pp. 26–27)

As a witty, highly original young woman, Pym was not short of male admirers, and Byrne devotes several chapters to the romantic adventures in our heroine’s life, many of which proved hurtful and damaging. Pym tended to rush headlong into love affairs, confessing all her most intimate feelings in the pages of her diaries. Naturally, Byrne draws heavily on these texts in this biography, particularly as they offer such a rich seam of material.

Pym’s first real love was a Classics student named Rupert Gleadow, and while their letters to one another were both affectionate and passionate, Barbara was clearly coming under pressure to take things a step further. When Barbara finally agreed to sleep with Rupert, the incident caused a rupture in their relationship – the relevant pages from Barbara’s diary are missing, presumably ripped out from intense embarrassment and distress. The specifics of what happened that night remain a mystery. Nevertheless, it is clear from the state of Barbara’s diary and her subsequent withdrawal from Rupert that she felt pressurised, ultimately losing her virginity in a most unpleasant way. It must have been an incredibly traumatic thing for any young woman to process at the time, especially someone of Barbara’s sensitivity. The very least she could do was to purge the incident from her diary if not from her memories and mindset.

Other lovers duly followed, perhaps most significantly, Henry Harvey, a handsome student whom Pym ‘stalked’ at the Bodleian Library – his ‘herringbone tweed grey overcoat and brown leather gloves, lined with lambswool’ were duly noted. Unfortunately for Barbara, Henry led her a bit of a merry dance, playing things cool and flirting with other admirers, even though their relationship had become sexual.

In truth, the deeply sensitive Pym was too open with her affections, falling fast and hard for this dashing intellectual with a tendency for cruelty. Henry abused Pym’s affections, but he was also capable of great compassion alongside the callousness, and Pym remained attracted to him for several years. Sadly, Pym’s early experiences with Henry set something of a pattern for her future relationships with men – as Byrne quite correctly notes in the biography, ‘the more badly they treated her, the more deeply in love she felt’.

Alongside Pym’s romantic entanglements, Byrne shines a light on many other aspects of Pym’s life, not least her war work in the Wrens and subsequent role in the African Institute, where she became involved in the field of anthropology. It is perhaps no coincidence that Pym would gravitate to such an area, concerned as it is with the subject of human behaviour.

Also covered within the biography is Pym’s fascination with Germany – its culture, its landscapes and ultimately its men (her rather naïve flirtation with an SS Officer, Friedbert Glück, is explored in some detail). Interestingly, the initial mid-1930s drafts of her early novel, Some Tame Gazelle, contained several references to Germany; however, Pym finally removed them on the advice of her friend, Jock Liddell – a trusted Oxford contemporary who helped Barbara with her early manuscripts.

Like many Britons in the 1930s, Pym was drawn to the allure of developments in Germany, only to subsequently realise the true horror of Hitler’s regime as the war drew closer. Pym remained blinkered to the reality of the situation for some time, refusing to believe that her darling Friedbert could be capable of such atrocities. Nevertheless, his closeness to Hitler made this a distinct possibility. It’s a salutary experience that highlights just how challenging it can be for us to separate the personal from the political, especially when our deepest emotions are involved.

Luckily Pym ultimately saw the light, and by the time of its publication in 1950, Some Tame Gazelle had been stripped of all references to Germany and its countrymen. In hindsight, it is rather lucky that Pym’s initial submission of Gazelle was rejected by Chatto & Windus in the mid ‘30s, otherwise her legacy might have looked somewhat different…

That’s it for today. More in part 2 of this review when I’ll be looking at how Pym mined her own personal experiences as source material for her fiction. It’s one of the most fascinating aspects of this insightful biography, particularly as it sets Pym’s fiction in a more personal context.

The Adventures of Miss Barbara Pym is published by William Collins; my thanks to the publishers for kindly providing a review copy.

The Adventures of Miss Barbara Pym by Paula Byrne – in which Marks and Spencer take umbrage at Pym’s Jane and Prudence

Regular readers of this blog will be aware of my fondness for the novels of Barbara Pym, with their acute observations of the minutiae and minor dramas of day-to-day English life. It will therefore come as no surprise to many of you that I was eager to read The Adventures of Miss Barbra Pym – a brand new biography by the respected biographer and novelist Paula Byrne. It’s a wonderfully immersive book, one that manages to be both illuminating and affectionate in relatively equally measure.

A more detailed review will follow in due course, but as a taster I wanted to share the following vignette from the biography – an incident which is so quintessentially Pym-like in style that it could have come straight out of one of her novels. Byrne makes this very point in her biography, and she is spot on. There is a comic absurdity to it, much like the little slights that Pym portrayed in her early novels, Excellent Women and Some Tame Gazelle.

It concerns a certain retailer’s reaction to Pym’s third published novel, Jane and Prudence, in which Jane, a rather frumpy clergyman’s wife, is playing matchmaker for her friend, Prudence, an elegant, independent young woman. While critical reviews of the novel were polite and reserved, Pym’s friends were more encouraging with some even preferring it to much loved Excellent Women. In certain respects, the characters seemed more ‘real’ – Prudence in particular.

A blow was suddenly struck, however, when a letter arrived from the legal department of Marks and Spencer. The store had taken umbrage at Jane Cleveland’s comment about their clothes: ‘When we become distressed we shall be glad of an old dress from Marks and Spencer as we’ve never been used to anything better.’ (p. 435)

Pym – a fan of M&S and their clothes – had intended the line to be an affectionate remark, capturing the gentle comfort one can gain from something familiar and reliable. (It’s worth remembering that J&P was published in 1953, not long after the end of clothes rationing in 1949.) Marks and Spencer, however, were upset by the suggestion that their clothes were considered substandard, commenting as follows in their rather wounded and pompous riposte:

‘This reference is clearly derogatory of the Company as both in terms and by implication it suggests that dresses worn by this Company are of inferior quality and unfit for wear by persons of the class who buy their hats from Marshall’s or Debenham’s.’ (p. 435)

As far as M&S were concerned, the fact that Pym had previously been described as the author of books ‘worthy of Jane Austen’ only added insult to injury. Jonathan Cape – Pym’s publishers at the time – responded to confirm that no harm had been intended and ‘Pym wrote dutifully that as a regular customer she had the greatest respect for the store’.

Just like the world Pym created in her novels, this incident is at once both entirely ridiculous and strangely believable – an anecdote that seems entirely in keeping with Pym’s tonal register!  

If this has whetted your appetite for the book, you might want to grab yourself a ticket for the forthcoming livestream event being co-hosted by the Chorleywood Bookshop, Village Books and the Seven Oaks Bookshop. Tickets start at £6 for the event, which is accessible worldwide. There’s a link here if you’re interested. (I should declare a link with the Chiltern Bookshops as I’m currently managing their Personalised Book Subscription services.)

More on this engaging biography a little later, hopefully in the next few weeks…

The Adventures of Miss Barbara Pym is published by William Collins; my thanks to the publishers for kindly providing a review copy.

The Ghost Stories of Edith Wharton – subtle, sophisticated and richly imagined.

I have long been a fan of Edith Wharton, a fascination that started with Ethan Frome, Wharton’s brilliant yet brutal novella of the fallout from an intense love triangle. The Age of Innocence and The House of Mirth are favourites too, along with the New York Stories which I wrote about in 2019.

Wharton’s Ghost Stories – collected together in this beautifully-produced book from Virago’s Designer Collection – are probably closest in style to some of the more unsettling pieces in the New York book, characterised by the tensions between restraint and passion, respectability and impropriety. Here we have narratives 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. As one might expect with Wharton, the writing is first class and the characters brilliantly drawn – with sufficient depth and subtlety to appear fully convincing.

The book opens with The Lady’s Maid’s Bell, one of the most unnerving tales in this excellent collection. Narrated by the maid herself, it is a classic ghost story in which the protagonist is haunted by the appearance of a spectre, the identity of which becomes clear as the story unfolds. There are several familiar elements here: a dark gloomy house; a feverish young lady of the manor; servants who refuse to speak of the maid’s predecessor; and a ghostly image that only the protagonist herself is able to detect. However, perhaps the most frightening element of the story is Wharton’s use of sound – the terrifying ring of the maid’s bell after hours, piercing the intense silence of the house as it rests at night.

Silence also plays a key role in All Souls, another highlight and possibly the most terrifying story in the collection. It tells the tale of a widow, Sara Clayborn, who believes she has spent a horrific weekend at her home, Whitegates, a lonely, remote house in the wilds of Connecticut. Having spotted an unknown woman heading towards her house, Sara breaks her ankle and is confined to bed for the night. On waking she discovers that the servants are nowhere to be found. The house appears to be deserted; an eerie silence having replaced the normal bustle of activity during the day. In this story, it is not the unexplained creaks and groans that strikes terror into the heart of the protagonist; rather, it is the ominous lack of any sound at all, especially as the house appears to be completely deserted.

More than once she had explored the ground floor alone in the small hours, in search of unwonted midnight noises; but now it was not the idea of noises that frightened her, but that inexorable and hostile silence, the sense that the house had retained in full daylight its nocturnal mystery, and was watching her as she was watching it; that in entering those empty orderly rooms she might be disturbing some unseen confabulation on which beings of flesh-and-blood had better not intrude. (p. 348)

It’s a tale in which Sara begins to doubt her own sanity and perception of reality, with time appearing to expand and contract before the servants finally reappear.

Afterward is another highlight, a vividly-imagined story that feels all too believable and real. The Boynes, and American couple living in England take a country house in Dorset as their home – a property already known to their friend, Alida Stair. When the Boynes enquire about the possible presence of a ghost, they are told by Alida that there is a ghost, although its appearance does not become clear to the house’s inhabitant until ‘afterward’, whatever that may mean. At first, the Boynes take this conjecture in their stride, laughing it off in a light-hearted manner. It is only once a mysterious figure is seen approaching the house that the supernatural happenings swing into action…

Then of a sudden she was seized by a vague dread of the unknown. She had closed the door behind her on entering, and as she stood alone in the long silent room, her dread seemed to take shape and sound, to be there breathing and lurking among the shadows. Her shortsighted eyes strained through them, half-discerning an actual presence, something aloof, that watched and knew; and in the recoil from that intangible presence she threw herself on the bell rope and gave it a sharp pull. (p. 91)

Once again, the fear of the unknown is crucial here, the abject terror that stems from the zealous nature of our own imaginations. Overall, this is a very nuanced story, one that alludes to a sense of retribution – a kind of reckoning for past misdemeanours and nefarious deeds.

Also very impressive is Pomegranate Seed in which Charlotte Ashby, a newly-married young woman, is haunted by the spectre of her predecessor – her husband having previously been widowed following the death of his first wife. In this piece, the haunting comes as a series of mysterious letters, always enclosed in grey envelopes and addressed in the faintest of hands. As a consequence, Charlotte is left shaken; it would appear that the first Mrs Ashby retains an unhealthy hold over her husband, something that Charlotte is determined to break. There are shades of du Maurier’s Rebecca here, albeit with a more supernatural element. (Interestingly, Wharton’s story actually predated the du Maurier, first appearing in 1931, a good seven years before the publication of Rebecca.)

Finally, a mention for The Triumph of Night, which shares something with the opening story, The Lady’s Maid’s Bell. This is another story in which a spectral presence makes itself known to one individual in particular – in this instance, Faxon, a man who is offered shelter by a fellow traveller when his carriage fails to show. Over dinner with his benefactor’s family, Faxon realises that the ghostly figure is fixated on the young man, the very one who invited him to stay. As a consequence, Faxon’s hold on reality begins to slip, a development that is brilliantly conveyed in the following passage.

The glass was so full that it required an extraordinary effort to hold it there, brimming and suspended, during the awful interval before he [Faxon] could trust his hand to lower it again, untouched, to the table. It was this merciful preoccupation which saved him, kept him from crying out, from losing his hold, from slipping down into the bottomless blackness that gaped for him. As long as the problem of the glass engaged him he felt able to keep his seat, manage his muscles, fit unnoticeably into the group; but as the glass touched the table his last link with safety snapped. He stood up and dashed out of the room. (p. 162)

This is a very unnerving story, one that explores themes of guilt, manipulation and the preying on others’ weaknesses – a sobering tale with a tragic twist.

Other pieces in the collection feature mysterious individuals who are not quite what they seem; the dead seemingly brought back to life; and an eerie pack of dogs who reputedly appear on a certain day of the year.

These wonderfully chilling stories are subtle, sophisticated and richly imagined, tapping into the darker side of American history and human relationships. My thanks to the publishers for kindly providing a review copy.

The Victorian Chaise-Longue by Marghanita Laski

I have long wanted to read Marghanita Laski, the British writer and broadcaster who came to prominence in the 1940s and ‘50s. (Five of her novels are currently in print with Persephone Books.) My original intention had been to start with her 1949 novel, Little Boy Lost, which focuses on a man’s search for his lost son in post-WW2 France. But then, back in December, the Backlisted team featured Laski’s 1953 novella, The Victorian Chaise-Longue, on an episode of their podcast, and the decision was made for me.

It’s a difficult book to say very much about without revealing key elements of the premise; so, if you’re thinking of reading it and would prefer to know as little as possible before going in, look away now. What I will say upfront is that the experience of reading this novella feels somewhat akin to being trapped in a terrifying COVID fever dream from times past. Ideal lockdown reading for the more sensitive among you!

The premise of this chilling story is a simple yet highly effective one. In the early 1950s, Melanie, a young mother recovering from tuberculosis, falls asleep, only to wake up in the body of her alter ego, Milly, some ninety years earlier.

As Melanie realises that she is trapped, effectively imprisoned in the body of a dying woman, she begins to doubt various ‘truths’ about her existence – more specifically, her identity, her sanity, and perhaps most troubling of all, her ability to return to the life she once knew.

Given that this is a short book, it would be unfair of me to reveal anything else about the plot – I’ve probably said more than enough already. Instead, I’ll try to convey something of the story’s tone and underlying themes.

A little like the woman in Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper, Melanie (in the 1950s) finds her freedoms restricted by a patronising doctor and an equally paternalistic husband – both of whom treat her like a child. Nevertheless, after a long period of recuperation in bed, Melanie is to be allowed a slight change of scenery in the afternoons – a move to the drawing-room where she can lie on the chaise-longue, an antique piece from the Victorian era. It is while lying on this couch that Melanie falls asleep, setting the eerie nightmare in motion…

A common voice, a cruel voice, assured and domineering. Not a voice to be conquered with superior strength but the nightmare voice that binds the limbs in dreadful paralysis while the danger creeps and creeps and at last will leap. I am asleep, said Melanie, ordering her wakened brain to admit this and be still, her closed eyes to see not even the ugly green and scarlet and yellow patterns under too tightly pressed eyelids, and then there was a heavy weighted rattle and almost simultaneously another, and consciousness of light shot through the close lids and forced them open. (p. 43)

Milly’s situation in the 1860s is even more restricted than Melanie’s, something that invites comparisons between what is deemed acceptable for a married woman in the 19th century vs the 20th. Laski is very skilled in her use of language, drawing on all the senses to convey the horror of her protagonist’s position – from the ‘bumpy hardness’ of the couch and the harsh woollen blanket covering the woman’s body to the fetid smell enveloping her surroundings.

Melanie folded the bread-and-butter and tried to eat it. The butter was nasty, over-salt and slightly rancid, seeming to have absorbed some of the room’s foul smell of which she was continually aware. But I must eat, she told herself, I must overcome this sick dizziness and feel strong. If this body is dead, I am still, for the moment, imprisoned within it. (pp. 92–93)

There is also the question of what constitutes the ‘present’ vs the past and the future. Is Melanie trapped in a terrifying dream, or has she somehow gone back in time to an earlier incarnation of her life?

I must always have been Milly and Milly me. It is now that is present reality and the future is still to come. But if I have to wait for the future, if it is only in time to come that I shall be Melanie again, then that time must come again too when Sister Smith leaves me to sleep on the chaise-longue, and I wake up in the past. I shall never escape – and the eternal prison she imagined consumed her mind, and she fainted or dozed off into a nightmare of chase and pursuit and loss. (p. 97)

Seeking a potential release from entrapment through prayer, Melanie even wonders whether she has been set some kind of challenge by God, possibly as a penance for past sins. The acceptability of a woman experiencing desire and ecstasy are also questioned as confusion kicks in, with Melanie’s mind going into overdrive.

In summary, this is a very unnerving story, one that relies on our fears of entrapment – a feeling augmented by the loss of personal agency and any grip on reality. It captures the terror of feeling helpless and imprisoned, when everything we previously believed about our existence is destabilised and undermined. In short, a psychologically disturbing read for a dark winter’s night.

My copy of The Victorian Chaise-Longue was published by The Cresset Press, but the book is currently available from Persephone Books.

The Constant Nymph by Margaret Kennedy

The Constant Nymph (1924) was Margaret Kennedy’s most commercially successful novel, spawning both a play featuring Noel Coward and a film starring one of my favourite actresses, Joan Fontaine. As a book, it shares much with another of my recent reads, Edith Wharton’s 1928 novel, The Children: a man who enters into a relationship with an underage girl; an unconventional family living a bohemian lifestyle; and a brood of rather engaging, precocious children to name but a few. While the Wharton explores these issues from the male perspective, Kennedy’s novel places a young girl at the centre of its narrative. The individual in question is Tessa, the fourteen-year-old daughter of Albert Sanger, a brilliant yet difficult composer who lives in a rambling chalet in the Austrian Alps.

As the novel opens, Lewis Dodd, a young English composer of some promise is travelling to Austria to visit the much-feted Sanger, whom he views as something of a mercurial genius. With his rather conventional upbringing, Lewis finds himself attracted to Sanger and his ‘circus’ – an assortment of children from various marriages, Sanger’s current wife, the beautiful but lazy Linda, and various hangers-on. Their lifestyles are free-spirited and unconventional with little regard for the customs of the broader society at large. For instance, it is Sanger’s eldest daughter, Kate, who manages the household, her desire for some degree of organisation far outweighing that of Linda.

Young Tessa is the constant nymph of the novel’s title, a wonderfully unfiltered, warm-hearted girl, who at fourteen is already wildly in love with Lewis and his passion for the arts. Lewis, for his part, is also attracted to Tessa with her wild, unfettered innocence, viewing her as the most interesting of Sanger’s daughters.

He has always thought her the pick of the bunch. She was an admirable, graceless little baggage, entirely to his taste. She amused him, invariably. And, queerly enough, she was innocent. That was an odd thing to say of one of Sanger’s daughters, but it was the truth. Innocence was the only name he could find for the wild, imaginative solitude of her spirit. The impudence of her manners could not completely hide it, and beyond it he could discern an intensity of mind which struck him as little short of a disaster in a creature so fragile and tender, so handicapped by her sex. She would give herself to pain with a passionate readiness, seeing only its beauty, with that singleness of vision which is the glory and the curse of such natures. He wondered anxiously, and for the first time, what was to become of her. (p. 68)

Tessa longs for a time when she is grown-up, a point when it will be possible for her to enter into a more fulfilling relationship with Lewis; and while nothing is explicitly said, there is a sense that Lewis understands this too, casting an air of destiny over their connection.

Nevertheless, when Albert Sanger dies, this idyll is fractured, and the family is at risk of being split up. The two eldest children, Caryl and Kate, are old enough to fend for themselves, leaving their younger siblings – Tessa included – to be catered for elsewhere. As a consequence, Florence and Robert Churchill – who are related to Sanger’s second wife, now deceased – travel to Austria with a view to bringing the children back to England.

With her traditional breeding and refined lifestyle, Florence is enchanted by the young Sangers. Nevertheless, their wild, unconventional existence proves something of a surprise, prompting Florence to decide that the children should be sent to boarding school where they will receive a proper education.

In a further unexpected twist, Lewis is drawn away from Tessa by the beautiful Florence with her sophisticated lifestyle and strong standing in society. Florence, for her part, is seduced by Lewis’s artistic temperament and role as a musician. However, their sudden marriage is not a great success, primarily as a consequence of unrealistic expectations and subsequent frustrations for both parties. While Lewis feels constrained by the conventions of London society, Florence finds her new husband rather challenging to fashion. It’s a conflict captured in the following passage, which touches on the balance between art and civilisation/humanity – one of many sets of opposing forces in the novel.

[Florence:] “Your attitude is completely wrong. You put the wrong things first. Music, all art…what is it for? What is its justification? After all…”

[Lewis:] “It’s not for anything. It has no justification. It…”

“It’s only part of the supreme art, the business of living beautifully. You can’t put it on a pedestal above decency and humanity and civilization, as your precious Sanger seems to have done. Human life is more important.” (p. 209)

Meanwhile, Tessa and her siblings are also finding it difficult to adapt to a new life, highlighting the tension between an ordered, conventional lifestyle and an unstructured, bohemian one. The constraints of boarding school prove unbearable for Tessa and her sister, Paulina, prompting them to run away with their brother, Sebastian. The relationship between Lewis and Tessa is rekindled when the latter returns to the Dodds’ London home, a move that reveals the intensity of Florence’s jealousy towards her young cousin.

As the novel’s denouement plays out, Tessa must try to reconcile her love for Lewis – something she views as her destiny – with other complicating factors, most notably her ties to the family and the constraints of a conventional society. By the end of the narrative, Tessa is only fifteen, a factor that dictates society’s view of any sexual relationship she may wish to have with Lewis.

While Kennedy has created a very interesting moral dilemma here, I feel she could have gone a little further in exploring the psychology of her characters, particularly in the case of Lewis. It’s something Wharton delves into quite deeply with The Children, probing Martin Boyne’s state of mind in her characteristically incisive style. Nevertheless, Kennedy’s central characters are recognisable, believable and beautifully drawn, factors that add an extra layer of poignancy to the novel’s ending which I would rather not reveal.

There is some terrific humour here, too. Kennedy has a sharp eye for an amusing scene, highlighting the absurdities of the Sangers’ unfettered existence and the moral outrage of Florence’s family at the prospect of her marriage to Lewis.

[Robert:] “I can’t think what her father will say. If he’s got any sense, he’ll forbid it! He’ll forbid it! But I suppose he’ll blame me. How could I have prevented it? How could I have foreseen it? Who could have thought that Florence, FLORENCE, a sensible woman like Florence, not quite a young girl either, would dream of doing such a thing. A delicate-minded, well-bred girl, to take up with a wretched mounteback, a disagreeable, ill-conditioned young cub, with the manners of…of…well, he hasn’t got any manners. And goodness knows if he ever washes.” (p. 154)

Tessa’s siblings are another source of joy, especially Paulina, whose wonderfully unfiltered letter to Lewis on the trials of boarding school life is one of the book’s most amusing highlights.

If you’re interested in hearing more about this novel, the marvellous Backlisted team covered it in one of their recent podcasts, which you can find here. It’s well worth a listen to hear more about some of this novel’s rather controversial elements, particularly the depiction of an underage relationship and the anti-Semitic sentiments the book contains. (Very much a reflection of the era in which it was written, but it’s certainly something for contemporary readers to bear in mind.)

The Constant Nymph is published by Virago Press; personal copy.

How to Cook a Wolf by M. F. K. Fisher

The food and travel writer M. F. K. Fisher is turning out to be a wonderful new discovery for me – largely due to the sterling efforts of the Backlisted team who recently featured How to Cook a Wolf, Fisher’s wartime guide to keep appetites sated when good ingredients are in short supply, on their fortnightly podcast. It’s a timely read, particularly given our recent lockdown when planning ahead and making the most of store-cupboard staples swiftly became the order of the day. How prescient then of Daunt Books to have scheduled their lovely reissue of Wolf for the beginning of June, when many of us were still in lockdown. It’s a situation that gives Fisher’s insights into eating with ‘grace and gusto’ a whole new level of resonance, especially as *normal life* still seems somewhat fragile and uncertain in these challenging times. 

Initially published in 1942 and subsequently updated in the 1950s, How to Cook a Wolf is a terrifically witty discourse on how to eat as well (or as decently) as possible on limited resources. The ‘wolf’ of the book’s title is the one at the door – a metaphor for hunger, particularly when money and other supplies are very tight.

In her characteristically engaging style, Fisher encourages us to savour the pleasures of simple dishes: the delights of a carefully cooked omelette; the heartiness of a well-flavoured soup; and the comforting taste of a baked apple with cinnamon milk at the end of a good meal.

Amongst others, there are chapters on eggs (How Not to Boil an Egg), meat (How to Carve the Wolf) and fish (How to Greet the Spring), together with sections on more philosophical topics, e.g. How to Distribute Your Virtue – all culinary-related, of course. The book is peppered with various recipes; some straightforward and recognisable (e.g. Napolitana Sauce for Spaghetti), others more bizarre or idiosyncratic (e.g. War Cake, ‘an honest cake, and one loved by hungry children’ despite its absence of eggs). The infamous Tomato Soup Cake also warrants a mention here: ‘a pleasant cake, which keeps well and puzzles people who ask what kind it is’. I’m almost tempted to give it a whirl myself…

Refusing to be phased by the lack of a particular ingredient, Fisher is more than happy to suggest passable alternatives. ‘Substitute’ or ‘whatever’ make frequent appearances in her recipes. Bacon grease can be used as a replacement for shortening in the aforementioned War Cake as the use of cinnamon and other spices will hide the meaty taste; decent oil will do in place of butter in certain dishes, but only if absolutely necessary.

Never being one to waste precious resources, Fisher extols the virtues of slipping a pan of apples below whatever else is being cooked in the oven at the time, whether we fancy baked apples for supper or not. In essence, it’s a way of making the most of the energy needed to heat the oven; plus, the apples could be considered a future meal in themselves, particularly if supplemented by some buttered toast and tea. In a similar vein, vegetables should be cooked quickly in as little water as possible to preserve their vitamins and minerals. Moreover, the cooking liquor must never be thrown away; instead, it should be decanted into an old gin bottle and squirrelled away in the freezer for use in stocks and soups. Only an idiot would tip such riches down the drain.

It is best to keep it in an old gin bottle in the icebox, alongside the other old gin bottle filled with juices left from canned fruit. You can add what’s left of the morning tomato juice. You can squeeze in the last few drops of the lemon you drink in hot water before breakfast, if you still do that. You can put canned vegetable juices in. You can steep parsley stems in hot water and pour their juice into the bottle. In other words, never throw away any vegetable or its leaves or its juices unless they are bad; else count yourself a fool. (p. 26)

By now, you might be thinking that this all sounds rather dry and wholesome. However, that’s really not the case at all. Fisher is a prose stylist of the highest order. Her writing is glorious – a marvellous blend of the wise, pithy and perhaps unintentionally witty. I love this introduction to a recipe for An English Curry, a modest dish that lives or dies according to the capabilities of the cook who executes it.

There are always curries, of course, which are not really curries at all, but simply leftover meat served in a gravy flavoured with curry powder. [This is a horrible definition, and only the next sentence saves me from gastronomical guilt.] They can be very good or ghastly, according to the cook. The following recipe is uninspired, but dependable. (p. 137)

The quotes in square brackets are Fisher’s annotations to the original text, incorporated into the updated version of the book published in 1954. Some of these notes offer additional advice or revisions to recipes based on the increased availability of certain items in the 1950s, while others strike a more humorous or ironic note, such as the example in the passage on curries noted above.

Another thing I love about Fisher is her willingness to embrace a mix of high and low culture in her approach to crafting dishes. While Fisher clearly appreciates fine food as much as the best of us, she has no qualms about cherry-picking elements from the best French chefs and blending them with those from more rustic or homely sources – as evidenced here with this introduction to her recipe for Cream of Potato Soup.

Here is a recipe, a combination really of Escoffier’s Soupe à la Bonne Femme and one I found in a calendar published by the gas company in the Canton of Vaud in Switzerland. It is excellent hot, but to make it into a mighty passible Vichyssoise it should have some cream [sour, or very thick] beaten into it and be put into the coldest part of the icebox for at least twenty-four hours. (p. 40)

If it’s not clear already, I adored this book. The writing is spirited and full of intelligence, a style that seems to reflect Fisher’s personality as well as her approach to cooking. The book ends with a chapter on more extravagant dishes, occasions when something more luxurious is called for as a break from reality. It’s a fitting end to a volume devoted to practical advice for keeping the wolf at bay, thereby giving us licence to dream of such treats as Shrimp Pâté or Bœuf Moreno should the requisite ingredients ever become available.

Yes, it is crazy, to sit savouring such impossibilities, while headlines yell at you and the wolf whuffs through the keyhole. Yet now and then it cannot harm you, thus to enjoy a short respite from reality. And if by chance you can indeed find some anchovies, or a thick slice of rare beef and some brandy, or a bowl of pink curled shrimps, you are doubly blessed, to possess in this troubled life both the capacity and the wherewithal to forget it for a time. (p. 255)

How to Cook a Wolf is published by Daunt Books; my thanks to the publishers / independent alliance for kindly providing a reading copy.

The Weather in the Streets by Rosamond Lehmann

The English writer Rosamond Lehmann seems to fall somewhere in the intersection between Elizabeth Taylor and Virginia Woolf, her modernist style and piercing insight into character marking her out as a writer of great skill and distinction. The Weather in the Streets (1936) is a sequel to Lehmann’s earlier novel, Invitation to the Waltz, in which seventeen-year-old Olivia Curtis is captivated at her first society ball by the dashing Rollo Spencer. Nothing much comes of their meeting on the terrace at the time. Rollo belongs to a higher social class than Olivia and remains somewhat out of her reach, and yet she is mesmerised by him all the same.

In Weather – which is set ten years later – a chance encounter brings Olivia into contact with Rollo once again, and an illicit relationship soon follows, forming the focus of the narrative. While Invitation is a very good novel – encapsulating the blend of excitement and apprehension we feel when we’re young – Weather is on an entirely different level altogether. It’s a remarkable book, one that expertly captures the cruelty, frustration and devastation of a doomed love affair in the most glittering prose.

As the novel opens, Olivia is working as a photographer’s assistant in London, where she lives with her cousin, Etty. Having separated from her husband, Ivor, two years earlier, Olivia now has a dull, unfulfilling marriage behind her; the couple, however, are not legally divorced.

While travelling home to see her father who is seriously ill with pneumonia, Olivia has the misfortune of being seated opposite Rollo on the train – a chance encounter that rekindles longstanding emotions within Olivia as she recalls their previous meeting at the ball. Rollo is wealthy, privileged and attractive. He is also married, but the marriage is not a particularly happy one – his wife, Nicola, is delicate, fragile and highly strung, an earlier miscarriage having precipitated something of an emotional withdrawal on her part.

Lehmann excels at conveying the rush of conflicting emotions Olivia experiences on seeing Rollo again, the desire to open up vs the tendency towards self-protection. The author holds the reader close to Olivia, giving us near-direct access to her thoughts alongside the couple’s conversation.

[Rollo] “…You going home, too?”

[Olivia] “Yes…Yes, I’m going home. Just for a few days.”

“D’you often come down?”

“No–-not very often really. No, I don’t.” She stopped, feeling stubborn, choked by the usual struggle of conflicting impulses: to explain, to say nothing; to trust, to be suspicious; lightly to satisfy natural curiosity; to defy it with furious scorn and silence; to let nobody come too near me… (p. 18)

When Rollo contacts Olivia again, the inevitable affair swiftly follows. While there are a few halcyon days in the country, the liaison is largely a frustrating one. It’s a clandestine relationship played out in fragments of time snatched here and there; of secret meetings in dark, secluded restaurants and stuffy, sordid hotel rooms. Once again, Lehmann’s portrayal of this world is brilliant, the dampness of the London winter providing the perfect backdrop to the dispiriting, claustrophobic tone of the affair. 

Beyond the glass casing I was in, was the weather, were the winter streets in rain, wind, fog, in the fine frosty days and nights, the mild, damp grey ones. Pictures of London winter the other side of the glass–-not reaching the body; no wet ankles, muddy stockings, blown hair, cold-aching cheeks, fog-smarting eyes, throat, nose…not my usual bus-taking London winter. It was always indoors or in taxis or in his warm car; it was mostly in the safe dark, or in half-light in the deepest corner of the restaurant, as out of sight as possible. Drawn curtains, shaded lamp, or only the fire… (p. 145)

On the surface, Rollo seems to be attracted to Olivia, calling her ‘darling’ and buying her expensive jewellery now and again; and yet for the reader, the warning signs are plain to see. Alongside his admiration for other women, Rollo clearly dislikes any unseemly displays of emotion on Olivia’s part. Moreover, when Olivia finally expresses her frustration with a relationship in which she comes second to Nicola every time, Rollo is shocked and surprised. In short, he seems blind to the idea that Olivia might not be happy with the existing arrangements, their occasional meetings by secrecy and stealth. 

We were silent. What was plain was what hadn’t been said. Never once, not even in the joyful, grateful, amazing beginning days, had he…no, not once…put her second–-broken a plan made for, by, with her to stay with me…Not once. Nothing explicit ever said. Nothing crude or marital to hurt my feelings, but–-well, there it is…I should have thought of it all before, I should have gone on being content with a half-share. I shouldn’t have gone to that house… (p. 194)

While Olivia lives a relatively independent, bohemian life, spending her days with artists and photographers, she is at heart a very vulnerable, sensitive woman – someone who craves reassurance and approval from others. Her love for Rollo is absolute and unshakable, blinding her to the damaging consequences of this ill-fated affair.

As the affair plays out, Lehmann perfectly captures the agony Olivia experiences as she waits for Rollo to contact her; the desperation of being caught in limbo, awaiting a letter or phone call, is keenly felt.

Third time of ringing up Rollo’s house: third time unlucky. These voices speaking for him made him mythical, removed him far out of reach, guarding him like a public personage in an artificially important world. This time it was a different voice again: the muted voice, benevolent, of an old retainer…Familiar somehow, surely…Who could it be?

There was nothing to do but wait for a letter. Surely he must write. Why hasn’t he?…He’ll write the moment he gets my letter, or, anyway, my wire…Who forwarded that? Uncomfortable thought…signed Liv.

It doesn’t matter. (p. 262)

The story of an extramarital affair may seem like a numbingly familiar one, but what sets this novel apart from others in the genre is Lehmann’s understanding of character, her ability to convey the rush of conflicting emotions on the page. In Lehmann’s hands, this becomes a devastating portrait of a woman who loves someone desperately but is unable to express her feelings openly due to the constraints of society. There is a terrific appreciation of the cruel nuances of the class structure here, particularly in the exchanges between Olivia and Lady Spencer, Rollo’s openly warm but inherently class-conscious mother. Nothing must be seen to taint the respectability of Rollo and Nicola’s marriage; reputation and social standing are everything in this world, not unlike the kind of society Edith Wharton portrays in her New York novels, The Age of Innocence and The House of Mirth.

This a story that will resonate with anyone who has found themselves being swept up by the passions and disappointments of an illicit affair. The modernity of Lehmann’s prose, with its passages of stream-of-consciousness and fluid style, makes the novel feel fresh and alive, certainly well ahead of its time for the mid-1930s. And yet, Lehmann doesn’t shy away from tackling the harsh realities and unpleasant consequences of a liaison in this era. There are scenes here that would have seemed shocking in 1936, elements that Lehmann insisted should remain in the book despite the impassioned concerns of her transatlantic publishers.

In short, this is a beautiful, devastating, deeply affecting novel that captures the cruelty and desolation of Olivia’s situation to perfection. One of the very best novels I’ve read so far this year.

The Weather in the Streets is published by Virago Press; personal copy

Recent Reads – 20th Century Women: Daphne du Maurier and Madeleine Bourdouxhe

Another of my round-up posts – this one focusing on two short-story collections, both from the mid-20th century.

The Breaking Point by Daphne du Maurier (1959)

Aside from Rebecca (which I love), I probably prefer du Maurier’s stories to her novels. There’s something about the short form that seems to suit this author’s style, a heightening of the creeping sense of dread that runs through much of her work.

The Breaking Point is a characteristically unsettling collection of eight stories, many of which blur the lines between the real and the imaginary. They’re wonderfully creepy, often tapping into our deepest fears and suspicions, our latent sources of restlessness and anxiety. As the title suggests, each story pivots on a moment of crisis in an individual’s life, a time when the protagonist’s emotions are stretched to the extreme. Whether that person snaps or survives remains the critical question, something du Maurier leaves for the reader to ponder and decide.

In The Alibi – one of my favourites in the collection – we meet James Fenton, a middle-aged man who feels trapped in the routine of his marriage, desperate to break free from his conventional lifestyle. Suddenly, out of the blue, Fenton is seized by the forces of evil, prompting thoughts of violence and murder. With this in mind, he picks a house a random, posing as a respectable man looking to rent a room. Luckily for Fenton, the occupant is Anna, a poor refugee desperately in need of money to support her young son, Johnnie – little does Anna know what might be in store for her when Fenton makes his request.

‘What would you want the room for?’ she asked doubtfully.

There was the crux. To murder you and the child, my dear, and dig up the floor, and bury you under the boards. But not yet.

‘It’s difficult to explain,’ he said briskly. ‘I’m a professional man. I have long hours. But there have been changes lately, and I must have a room where I can put in a few hours every day and be entirely alone. You’ve no idea how difficult it is to find the right spot. This seems to me ideal for the purpose.’ He glanced from the empty house down to the child, and smiled. ‘Your little boy, for instance. Just the right age. He’d give no trouble.’ (p.6)

This is a brilliant story, one that takes the narrative in unexpected directions. (I couldn’t help but think of the excellent film, 10 Rillington Place, as I was reading it.) As with many of the pieces here, the reader experiences a looming sense of dread, fearful of what might happen to the occupants as the tale unfolds. Over time, Anna becomes increasingly dependent on Fenton, a development that sparks another kind of crisis in our protagonist’s life.

The Blue Lenses is another highlight, a particularly unnerving story that plays with the mind. Marda West is recovering in a nursing-home following an eye operation – a procedure considered very successful by the surgical team. The time has come for Marda’s bandages to be removed and temporary lenses fitted – the blue lenses that represent the first step in her recovery. Marda has been told to expect things to look a little different with the lenses. She will be able to see everything, but not in full colour – the effect is akin to wearing sunglasses on a bright day. However, when Marda finally opens her eyes, she is horrified by the sights that greet her. The blue lenses have the effect of exposing people for who they really are, revealing to Marda their true personalities. 

Now she was certain that what was happening was real, was true. Some evil force encompassed the nursing-home and its inhabitants, the Matron, the nurses, the visiting doctors, her surgeon – they were all caught up in it, they were all partners in some gigantic crime, the purpose of which could not be understood. (pp. 64-65)

This is a rather alarming story, one that plays on some of our deepest fears and paranoias, not to mention our fascination with conspiracies.  

Du Maurier is brilliant at building atmosphere and tension – qualities that are evident in The Pool, the tale of two siblings who are spending the summer with their grandparents. This is a dreamlike story, one in which the girl, Deborah, is enticed into a secret magical world with frightening results.

Chaos had come. There were no stars, and the night was sulphurous. A great crack split the heavens and tore them in two. The garden groaned. If the rain would only fall there might be mercy, and the trees, imploring, bowed themselves this way and that, while the vivid lawn, bright in expectation, lay like a sheet of metal exposed to flame. Let the waters break. Bring down the rain. (p.152)

In The Lordly Ones, a young, near-mute boy, brutally abused by his cruel parents, finally finds his voice, only by being placed in the most precarious of positions. This tale of brutality and heartbreak takes places in the wilds of the moors, a setting du Maurier chillingly evokes.

I read this excellent collection for Ali’s Daphne du Maurier event – running this week. There are shades of Shirley Jackson’s Dark Tales here, another disquieting collection of stories to unsettle the soul. Highly recommended indeed.

A Nail, A Rose by Madeleine Bourdouxhe (tr. Faith Evans, 1989)

The Belgian writer Madeleine Bourdouxhe has been enjoying something of a mini-revival in the last few years. In 2014, Daunt Books reissued her excellent novella, La Femme de Gilles (1937), a timeless story of the pain that desire and self-sacrificing love can inflict on a marriage. Another novella soon followed: Marie (1943), also available from Daunt, an intimate book in which we gain a deep insight into a young woman’s inner life. 

A Nail, A Rose – published here in a beautiful new edition from Pushkin Press – is a collection of eight short stories written throughout Bourdouxhe’s literary career. (The earliest pieces first appeared in the 1940s, while the most recent ones came much later in the ‘80s.) As is often the case with a collection of this nature, certain stories resonate more strongly than others. Nevertheless, Bourdouxhe’s best pieces are very good indeed, particularly those based on some of her own personal experiences.

The standout story here is the novella-length Sous Le Pont Mirabeau in which a young woman attempts to journey from Belgium to France at the time of the German invasion in 1940. Like Bourdouxhe herself, the central character has just given birth to a baby girl, leaving her little option but to set out with the infant in her arms. It’s a very affecting account, threaded through with striking images of a nation at war.

The streets were full of people who were strangely silent, and the big balloons looked fixed in the sky; she felt heaviness and oppression in the air. Turning away she went on walking up and down. The soldiers weren’t talking, they were lined up in the café benches as if they were storing sleep, gathering their strength. She felt very alone, caught up in the great apparatus of war. She tried to find a single face on which to rest her gaze. The baby raised one arm and uttered a little cry; she quietened her by leaning against her face. They stayed like this, their faces buried in each other’s. (pp. 195–196)

Virtually all of Bourdouxhe’s stories are focused on women, several of whom seem trapped in the confines of domesticity. One of the best of these is Blanche, in which the titular character ignores her husband’s cries for a clean shirt, hiding it in a cupboard while longing for some peace. This is an imaginative story, one that ultimately grants Blanche a brief taste of freedom – an escape to the forest where she can dream of an imaginary lover.

Some of the stories are quite abstract in style or contain elements of fantasy. Pieces like Clara which explores themes of communication and mortality, and René in which a hairdresser’s thoughts and actions drift into somewhat surreal territory.

In summary, then, these are stories of discontent and disaffection, of ordinary women yearning for more fulfilment in life. An interesting collection, if somewhat uneven.

My thanks to the publishers for kindly providing a review copy. You can find Guy’s review here.

Recent Reads – The Memory Police; Square Haunting; Excellent Women

One of the perverse by-products of the current lockdown is the fact that I have more time to read and write at the moment, even if my ability to concentrate isn’t the best. So, in the spirit of trying to keep a record of my reading, here are a few brief thoughts on some of the books that have captured my imagination over the past few weeks.

The Memory Police by Yoko Ogawa (1994), tr. By Stephen Snyder (2019)

A haunting, beautifully-written novel about memory, loss and the holes left in our hearts when memories disappear.

The novel is set on an unnamed island where specific objects have been vanishing from day-to-day life for several years. Birds, perfume, bells, stamps – these are some of the things that have been ‘disappeared’, no longer in existence either as physical objects or as memories in the minds of the islanders.

The disappearance of the birds, as with so many other things, happened suddenly one morning. When I opened my eyes, I could sense something strange, almost rough, about the quality of the air. The sign of a disappearance. […] I got up, put on a sweater, and went out into the garden. The neighbours were all outside, too, peering around anxiously. The dog in the next yard was growling softly.

Then I spotted a small brown creature flying high up in the sky. It was plump, with what appeared to be a tuft of white feathers at its breast. I had just begun to wonder whether it was one of the creatures I had seen with my father when I realized that everything I knew about them had disappeared from inside me: my memories of them, my feelings about them, the very meaning of the word “bird” – everything. (p. 10)

The disappearances are enforced by the Memory Police, an authoritarian group who go around looking for any remaining traces of ‘disappeared’ items. Moreover, the Police also play a role in tracking down any islanders who can recall erased items, rounding them up for further investigation.

The novel’s narrator is a writer; and her editor, R, is one of the few individuals with the ability to remember some of these things – namely, the existence of emeralds, perfume and other forgotten items. As the narrative unfolds, we follow the narrator’s attempts to conceal her editor from the authorities while simultaneously trying to work on her novel – the premise of which has a certain resonance with the broader story. 

Ogawa’s thoughtful, meditative novel has been widely reviewed elsewhere, so rather than wittering on about it here, I shall direct you to various other posts – particularly those by Claire, Eric and Grant – which cover it in more detail. When I think about this book, what strikes me most is how poignant it feels right now, at a time when so many of the things we have taken for granted for years are no longer accessible to us – at least for the foreseeable future. It’s a very thought-provoking read, particularly given the current global crisis – definitely recommended reading.

Square Haunting by Francesca Wade (2020)

I’ll keep this one brief, not because of any concerns about the book – it’s actually incredibly good! – but for other, purely personal reasons. In short, I’ve always found it harder to write about non-fiction than fiction, especially when a book is as meticulously researched as this.

Square Haunting is a fascinating collection of mini-biographies, focusing on five female inhabitants of Bloomsbury’s Mecklenburgh Square, primarily covering the interwar years. The women in question are:

  • Hilda Doolittle (H. D.) – modernist poet, in residence 1916-18;
  • Dorothy L. Sayers – writer of detective fiction, in residence 1920-21;
  • Jane Ellen Harrison – classicist and translator, in residence 1926-28;
  • Eileen Power – historian, broadcaster and pacifist, in residence 1922–40;
  • Virginia Woolf – writer and publisher, in residence 1939-40.

What I really like about this book is the way the author uses Mecklenburgh Square as a prism through which to view the lives of these pioneering women, painting a rich tapestry of life within London’s cultural milieu from the end of WW1 to the beginning of WW2. In addition to presenting a snapshot of each woman’s life, Wade also enables us to glimpse other notable figures of the day – writers such as D.H Lawrence and Lytton Strachey, for example – on the edges of various social circles. There are some surprising connections between the lives of the various inhabitants of Mecklenburgh Square, relationships that make this location seem all the more intriguing.

In summary, Square Haunting is an erudite, evocative and beautifully constructed book. Highly recommended for anyone with an interest in London’s social/cultural scene in the 1920s and ‘30s.

Excellent Women by Barba Pym (1952)

Finally, for this post at least, I’ve been revisiting Excellent Women, a novel I first wrote about back in 2016. The Backlisted Podcast team will be covering it in their next episode – due to land on Monday 13th April – hence the reason for my recent reread.

Once again, I’ll keep this brief – you can read my initial impressions of the book by clicking on the link above. What I will say is that it’s perfect lockdown reading. Reassuringly comforting and familiar, but with enough insight into the world of its protagonist to elevate it into the literary sphere.

In short, the novel is narrated by Mildred, a spinster in her early thirties, one of those ‘excellent women’ who can be relied on to offer a kind word or a cup of tea when needed. The trouble is, Mildred ends up getting drawn into other people’s messy business, particularly as it is often assumed that she has no real life of her own.

I suppose an unmarried woman just over thirty, who lives alone and has no apparent ties, must expect to find herself involved or interested in other people’s business, and if she is also a clergyman’s daughter then one might really say that there is no hope for her. (p. 1)

It’s a charming novel, one in which the most pressing concerns involve flower arranging and making plans for the forthcoming church bazaar. If only real life were as simple as this; we can but wish…Anyway, do tune into Backlisted once the podcast is up; it’s bound to be a good one.

The Memory Police is published by Harvill Secker; my thanks to the publishers for kindly providing a reading copy. Square Haunting is published by Faber & Faber, and Excellent Women by Virago Books; both personal copies.