Tag Archives: Backlisted

On Rereading: Something in Disguise by Elizabeth Jane Howard

A couple of months ago, the Backlisted team covered Elizabeth Jane Howard’s 1969 novel Something in Disguise for their Halloween episode of the podcast. It’s a book I had read before, with somewhat mixed feelings; however, Andrew and Laura’s impassioned case for it being a rather sly, perceptive novel about the horrors of domestic life prompted me to revisit it with a fresh pair of eyes. Naturally, they were right! (How could they not be?) On my second reading, I found it much more chilling from the start, partly because I already knew just how painfully the story would play out for some of the key characters involved…

So in this post, I’m jotting down a few things that particularly struck me on this second reading – largely for my own benefit, but some of you might find it interesting too.

As the Backlisted discussion touches on, the novel’s title has multiple meanings. Not only are certain individuals in the story concealing things from those closest to them, but the novel itself is also ‘something in disguise’. In essence, this is a domestic horror story masquerading under the cover of a family drama/whirlwind romance, complete with a breezy ‘women’s fiction’ style jacket to misdirect the reader; and while I’d picked up some of this domestic horror (particularly Alice’s miserable marriage to the insensitive, overbearing Leslie) on my first reading, I’d missed some of the early warning signs about Herbert’s true intensions. More on these red flags a little later in the post.

In my previous write-up of the novel, I’d noted the following points about the family’s matriarch, May, whose first husband had been killed many years earlier in the Second World War. “May is now married to Colonel Herbert Browne-Lacey, a pompous, penny-pinching bore who spends most of his spare time in London, dining at his club and visiting a ‘lady friend’ for sexual favours. Meanwhile, May must amuse herself at home, a rather staid old house in Surrey which she finds both cold and unwelcoming.”

May and Herbert’s Surrey house is almost a character in its own right, such is EJH’s talent for describing settings, furnishings and rooms. Herbert appears to have pushed May into buying it with the proceeds of an inheritance, somewhat against her better judgement. It’s a terrifying place – cold, dark and oppressive, the type of dwelling that wouldn’t feel out of place in a Shirley Jackson short story.

The floors of the wide, dark passages were polished oak, which, as Herbert had pointed out, obviated the need for carpets. The staircase was also oak – no carpet there, either, which made it slippery and a nightmare to negotiate with heavy trays. The hall, with its huge, heavily-leaded window – too large to curtain – was somehow always freezing, even in summer, and dark, too, because here the oak had crept up the walls to a height of about nine feet, making any ordinary furniture and look ridiculous. There was also a tremendous stone fireplace in which one could have roasted an ox; and, as Oliver had pointed out, nothing less would have done either to warm the place or to defeat the joyless odour of furniture polish. ‘It really is a monstrous house,’ she thought… (p. 83)

As the novel progresses, May begins to feel increasingly unwell, but no specific illness can be identified, with the doctors ultimately putting her condition down to age or the stress of Alice’s wedding. (At the beginning of the novel, Herbert’s daughter, Alice, marries Leslie – the first man to pay her any attention – chiefly as a means of getting away from her hideous father.) Moreover, the Colonel’s self-centred, duplicitous manner becomes increasingly apparent, leaving May to take the full strain of his selfishness, with no-one else in their Surrey home to offer support.

It’s hard to talk about how the May-Herbert storyline ends without getting into spoiler territory, but it definitely takes a very sinister turn. On my previous reading, I hadn’t fully grasped Herbert’s intentions until the closing scenes; however, this time I noticed just how many clues about his true colours are dropped in along the way. Instances such as the following when May’s daughter, Elizabeth, and her older lover, John, turn up unexpectedly at the Surrey house.

…they had arrived without warning at the innocuous hour of tea time, but this had so enraged the colonel that May had thought he was going to have a stroke. They had ‘broken in’ on him when he was in the greenhouse mixing something up for the lawn; no common courtesy left – he’d looked up from measuring something because he thought he’d heard a sound behind him, and there was this giant stranger without so much as a by-your-leave standing over him – enough to give any honest feller a heart attack. He’d lost his temper: not for long, but enough to make everyone feel intensely embarrassed… (p. 247)

And here, where Elizabeth wonders if men are largely responsible for the terrible things that happen to women. Perhaps John is responsible for his ex-wife’s drink problem and his daughter’s petulant behaviour? Maybe even Herbert – or Daddo as Elizabeth thinks of him – has a villainous streak? Sometimes it’s hard to tell…

And Daddo! She [Elizabeth] thought, with exactly the same hectic alarm; supposing he was wicked and just masquerading as stupid and dull! There was absolutely no reason, she went on, wildly, why on earth stupid people shouldn’t be wicked: it was far more likely, when you came to consider it. It was supposed to be far easier to be wicked than to be good…(p. 128)

This re-read also reinforced how trapped Alice must have felt in her marriage to Leslie – another self-absorbed bore with no regard for his wife’s feelings. In my previous post, I’d quoted an excruciating passage from Leslie and Alice’s wedding night (which you can read via the link). However, during this reading I highlighted a section from later in the novel when Alice is pregnant, desperately battling a combination of loneliness, isolation and nausea, to which Leslie seems oblivious.

By the time Leslie returned she was just beginning to feel sick again, but gave the appearance of having been at wifely occupations all day. He would make himself a drink, switch on the television and tell her about his day in a raised voice over it, while she struggled with nausea and supper.… When, eventually, they went to bed, Leslie left her alone which was the single best thing about being pregnant, she decided. He would kiss her forehead, pat her hand, sometimes – maddeningly – stroke her belly, but he seemed to regard sex as unnecessary. (p. 199)

Also worthy of a mention before I finish is Alice’s marvellous cat, Claude, who steals the whole show – quite literally in this scene – as he tucks into a pair of salmon trout that Herbert has held back from the catering for Alice and Leslie’s wedding.

He [Claude] had known for ages how to open the larder door, but had not advertised the fact, largely because there was hardly ever anything there worth eating; but he was extremely fond of fish. He inserted a huge capable paw round the lower edge of the door and heaved for several minutes: when the gap was wide enough he levered it open with his shoulder and part of his head. The fish lay on a silver platter on the marble shelf, skinned and garnished. He knocked pieces of lemon and cucumber contemptuously aside, settled himself into his best eating position and began to feast. He tried both fish – equally delicious – and when he could eat no more, he jumped heavily off the shelf with a prawn in his mouth which he took to the scullery for further examination. (pp. 21–22)

Claude really is quite the character – the sort of pet that does as he pleases, as many cats are inclined to do!

So, a fascinating reread for many different reasons, some of which I’ve noted above. I still feel that John is a little bit too good to be true. His whisking Elizabeth away to a life of luxury in the South of France seems like a fantasy – too idealistic or fantastic to buy into completely. But maybe that’s a deliberate decision on Howard’s part; I’m curious to hear any views.

Something in Disguise is published by Picador; personal copy.

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

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

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

The Ghost Stories of Edith Wharton

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

Lost Cat by Mary Gaitskill

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

The Sleeping Beauty by Elizabeth Taylor

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

Black Narcissus by Rumer Godden

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

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

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

Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead by Barbara Comyns

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

Chatterton Square by E. H. Young

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

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

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

The Fortnight in September by R. C. Sherriff

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

Passing by Nella Larsen

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

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

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

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

Autumn reads – a few favourites from the shelves

A few weeks ago, Trevor and Paul released a podcast on some of their favourite fall/autumn books, including a few they hope to read this year. It’s a fascinating discussion, which you can listen to at The Mookse and the Gripes podcast via the usual platforms. Their conversation got me thinking about my own seasonal reading, particularly books with autumnal settings or moods. So, with a nod to Trevor and Paul’s selection, here are a few of my favourite autumn reads.

A Sunday in Ville d’Avray by Dominique Barbéris (tr. John Cullen)

This beautiful, evocative novella is set in Paris on a Sunday afternoon in September, just at the crossover point between summer and autumn. The narrator – an unnamed woman – drives from the city centre to the Parisian suburb of Ville-d’Avray to visit her married sister, Claire Marie. As the two sisters sit and chat in the garden, an intimate story emerges, something the two women have never spoken about before. Claire Marie reveals a secret relationship from her past, a sort of dalliance with a mysterious man whom she met at her husband’s office. What emerges is a story of unspoken desire, missed opportunities and avenues left unexplored. This haunting, dreamlike novella is intimate and hypnotic in style, as melancholy and atmospheric as a dusky autumn afternoon.

A Fortnight in September by R. C. Sherriff

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

The Shooting Party by Isabel Colegate

Set on an Oxfordshire country estate in the autumn of 1913, The Shooting Party offers readers a terrific insight into the dying days of the Edwardian era, the beginning of the end of a time-honoured way of life for the English upper classes. The novel follows the final twenty-four hours of a three-day shoot, a landmark event in the social calendar of the Nettlebys and their immediate set. As the story unfolds, we learn more about the main characters, their distorted moral values and the rarefied world in which they circulate. What Colegate does so well here is to shine a light on the farcical nature of Edwardian society, the sheer pointlessness of the endless social whirl and the ridiculous codes that govern it. Fans of L. P. Hartley’s The Go-Between will likely enjoy The Shooting Party, a superb novel that deserves to be better known.

We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson

What can I say about this widely-acclaimed Gothic classic that hasn’t already been said before? Not a lot, other than to reiterate how brilliantly unsettling it is. The novel’s narrator, Merricat Blackwood – an eighteen-year-old girl with a distinctive, childlike voice – lives with her amiable older sister, Constance, in a large isolated house on the outskirts of a New England village. However, the girls have been ostracised by the local townsfolk, primarily due to an infamous poisoning in the family six years ago. As such, the book has much to say about outsiders – more specifically, how as a society we treat people who seem strange or different from the ‘norm’, and how our suspicions and prejudices can lead to fear – and ultimately to violence. An atmospheric, unsettling, magical book, shot through with touches of black humour, ideal for Halloween.

American Midnight – Tales of the dark short story anthology

Also making a strong claim for the Halloween reading pile is American Midnight is a wonderfully chilling short story anthology released in 2019. The collection comprises nine tales of the dark and supernatural, all penned by American authors and originally published in the 19th or 20th century. The featured writers include Edith Wharton, Edgar Allen Poe, Charlotte Perkins Gilman and Shirley Jackson (again!). One of the best things about the selection is the diversity of styles across the ranger – from gothic folk horror to classic ghost stories, there’s something for virtually everyone here. American Midnight is a wide-ranging collection of unsettling stories, shot through with striking imagery and a palpable sense of unease, exploring some of the mystery and darkness in America’s chequered past. For more unnerving short stories, check out Shirley Jackson’s Dark Tales, Daphne du Maurier’s The Breaking Point and Edith Wharton’s Ghost Stories – all come with high recommendations from me.

Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont by Elizabeth Taylor

At first, this might seem an unusual choice; however, I’ve chosen it because the novel’s heroine, Mrs Palfrey – a recently widowed elderly lady – is in the twilight of her life. As the book opens, Mrs Palfrey is in the process of moving into London’s Claremont Hotel (the story is set in the late ‘60s/early ‘70s, when this was not unusual for those who could afford it). Here she joins a group of residents in similar positions, each likely to remain at the hotel until they can no longer avoid a move to a nursing home or hospital.

To save face in front of the other residents, Mrs P persuades a kindly young man, Ludo, to play the role of her grandson, and an unlikely yet deeply touching relationship between the pair soon develops. This beautiful, bittersweet novel prompts the reader to consider the emotional and physical challenges of old age: the need to participate in life; the importance of small acts of kindness; and the desire to feel valued. Taylor’s observations of social situations are spot-on, and there are some very amusing moments alongside the undoubted poignancy. Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont is an understated gem – a wise, beautifully-observed novel that stands up to re-reading.

Do let me know what you think of these books if you’ve read some of them already or if you’re thinking of reading any of them in the future. Perhaps you have a favourite autumnal book or two? Please feel free to mention them in the comments below.

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.