Tag Archives: Book Review

The Birds of the Air by Alice Thomas Ellis

While Christmas is often trumpeted as the season to be jolly, it can be an incredibly stressful time for many, throwing us together with relatives we rarely see and may well dislike, encouraging us to stuff ourselves with food and drink, and generally disturbing our usual routines. It’s a set-up that Alice Thomas Ellis cleverly explores in her excellent novel, The Birds in the Air, set in the fictional suburb of Innstead, a British hinterland between town and country.

As the book opens, the widowed Mrs Marsh is preparing for the forthcoming arrival of her extended family, trying to get things ready for the busy festive season. Her eldest daughter, Mary, is mourning the loss of her son, Robin, whose death hangs over the novel, intermittently alluded to but never fully explained. Mrs Marsh, on the other hand, is a stoical woman, very much of the ‘life must go on’ way of thinking, an approach that clashes directly with Mary’s lack of interest in day-to-day life. In truth, Mary wants to be left alone to nurse her grief, avoiding interactions with others, especially over Christmas. 

She wished she could lie in the garden and come up later with the crocuses. What a rest that would be. She had lost interest in the world. A world in which Robin could die was a foolish, trivial place where nothing made sense and she had no desire to linger. (p. 102)

Meanwhile, Mrs Marsh’s other daughter, the dutiful Barbara, is embroiled in her own problems, prompted by the realisation that her husband – the loathsome Sebastian – is having an affair. As Barbara observes the various guests at their pre-Christmas drinks party, she spies Sebastian flirting with the wife of one of his colleagues, thereby confirming what her son, Sam, has already discovered.

Barbara was trying to be brave. She was cold, and her hands shook. Her face was dry and wore a cutout smile, as stiff and unnatural as a cardboard party mask, and she hardly knew what she was saying to the mobile faces around her as they opened and shut to speak or eat. She had told herself repeatedly that everyone else in this room had had extra-marital affairs and no one had died of it. No one minded any more – it was acceptable, it was smart, it was only human, it was ‘sophisticated’. At the old-fashioned word she felt tears in her eyes. She had never even learned to be sophisticated and now that everything had passed beyond the very concept she was lost – a stranger among her friends. (p. 34)

Sam is the eldest of Sebastian and Barbara’s two children – a rebellious teenager ardently railing against any form of conformity and control. Quite a contrast then to his younger sister, Kate, a highly precocious little girl with a tendency to boast, much to Sam’s annoyance.

Ellis is particularly adept at capturing the various tensions as the family gathers together in the confines of Mrs Marsh’s house, a claustrophobic environment that adds to the pressure within. More friends and neighbours subsequently arrive, most notably Sebastian’s publisher, Hunter, whom Barbara covertly desires. In the wake of her discovery about Sebastian, Barbara works herself up into a feverish state, entertaining the fantasy that Hunter is planning to seduce her – a misapprehension that can only end badly. Meanwhile, Mary continues to isolate herself from the rest of the party as far as possible, while Mrs Marsh is rushed of her feet, silently cursing the numerous fallings of her family.

Shot through with flashes of wry insight and barbed humour, The Birds of the Air highlights the casual savageries and absurdities that often occur in family life. Ellis is an astute observer of the suburban middle-classes, skewering her characters’ foibles with sharpness and precision.

Sebastian’s father, the judge, was a complacent man with a high colour, the set mouth of one who has never been contradicted and a voice which sounded as though he was perpetually swallowing a mouthful of expensive whisky together with a few fox hairs. (p. 54)

While none of these characters are particularly likeable, they do feel very recognisable – a testament to the author’s insight into human behaviour. Ellis also has a keen eye for detail with a mordantly witty edge – a note that adds a slightly menacing touch to this inconspicuous setting.

There had been a moon last night – a bridal moon, veiled and ominous behind the running clouds – but now there were only snow flakes, hurrying down and gathering as mobs gathered to overthrow tyrants. (p. 104)

This is a novella steeped in loss, jealousy and betrayal, but Ellis’s humour prevents it from being maudlin, balancing the darkness with some lovely flashes of absurdity.

My first experience of this author’s fiction, but hopefully not my last. Fans of Elizabeth Berridge, Beryl Bainbridge and Barbara Pym would likely enjoy this very much!

My edition of The Birds of the Air was published by Penguin; personal copy.

In Which Barbara Pym Gets a Glamorous Makeover, Courtesy of Virago Press!

Something a little different from me today, a little celebration of one of my favourite women writers, the inimitable Barbara Pym. I have written before about my love of Pym’s novels with their unassuming women, hapless clergymen and fusty academics, moving in a world that feels both strangely absurd and highly relatable.

In the context of most Barbara Pym novels, the most pressing concerns are what to serve the new vicar when he comes over for tea and how to dress for the forthcoming church fete. (If only real life were like that, everything would be so much simpler!) On the surface, they may appear to be light social comedies, amusing sketches of village life; but dig a little deeper and you’ll discover a satisfying amount of depth. Pym wrote insightfully about unrequited love, often based on her own experiences of relationships and middle-class life. Through her engaging fiction, she championed women who were taken for granted by men, those ‘excellent’, capable gentlewomen, always ready to rally the troops with endless cups of tea and consoling words of sympathy.

While many mid-20th century writers have fallen in and out of fashion over the past seventy years, Pym has always enjoyed the ardent support of various literary luminaries, including Philip Larkin, Lord David Cecil, Jilly Cooper, Anne Tyler and Alexander McCall Smith – even during the wilderness years. Moreover, while the social context of the world has changed hugely in that time, Pym’s astute observations on human emotions and behaviours have continued to endure.

Now, as we approach what would have been her 109th birthday (she was born on 2nd June 1913), Pym is set to experience another renaissance, courtesy of a series of nine fabulous reissues in the Virago Modern Classics imprint. They really are beautifully designed, marrying the enduring ‘vintage’ feel of Pym’s fiction with a wonderfully stylish new look.

The Virago team very kindly offered me a couple of review copies, A Glass of Blessings and An Academic Question, both of which I’ve yet to read. But in the meantime, I thought it might be helpful to put together a brief round-up of Pym’s other Virago novels with links to my previous reviews, just to give you a few ideas. Whether you’re a Pym newbie or a more seasoned reader of her work, there’s almost certainly something in the range for you!

Crampton Hodnet

Published posthumously in 1985, Pym actually wrote this delightful comedy of manners in the late 1930s, just after the outbreak of the Second World War. Set in the respectable circles of North Oxford, Crampton Hodnet introduces us to a world of charming curates, mildly ridiculous academics, amorous students and gossipy women. Probably the funniest Pym I’ve read to date, a novel that deserves to be much better known.

Some Tame Gazelle

This is vintage Pym, a great introduction to her recurring preoccupations and themes. The central characters – Belinda and Harriet Bede – are loosely based on Barbara and her elder sister, Hilary. In essence, Pym imagines their lives in thirty years’ time, both sisters unmarried and living together in a house in a quiet village in the countryside. In this early novel, she demonstrates such a wonderful eye for social comedy, tempered with touches of poignancy, adding genuine texture and depth.

Excellent Women

One of Pym’s most popular, best-known novels and rightly so. I revisited this at the beginning of the COVID pandemic, and it turned out to be the perfect lockdown read – charming, comforting and thoughtful, with enough insight into its protagonist’s world to elevate it into the literary sphere. The novel is narrated by the quintessential Pym heroine, Mildred Lathbury, a sensible, diplomatic and accommodating spinster in her early thirties. Marriage is a central theme in this book, set as it is in a period when society placed a great deal of value on the institution of marriage. The novel explores whether a woman like Mildred can live ‘a full life’ if she remains unmarried, a central concept that makes it a very satisfying read.

Jane and Prudence

Another sparkling addition to Pym’s oeuvre, Jane and Prudence is a charming story of unrequited love, the blossoming of unlikely relationships, and the day-to-day dramas of village life. Once again, Pym shows her keen eye for a humorous scenario and an interesting personality or two. Her trademark descriptions of food and clothing – hats in particular – are also in evidence. As the story plays out, there are some unexpected developments, one or two of which show us that we can find solace and a form of love in the most unlikely of potential partners. Possibly my favourite Pym to date.

Less Than Angels

Pym drew on her own experiences of life at the International African Institute in London for this thoughtful novel set within the world of a group of anthropologists. On the surface, Less Than Angels seems a more serious, more reflective novel than some of Pym’s other early works, certainly judging by those I’ve read to date. There is a poignant note to the central character’s story, which only reveals itself as the book draws to a close. Nevertheless, Pym’s trademark dry humour is never too far away. Probably best suited to seasoned Pym readers rather than newbies, I think.

No Fond Return of Love

This very enjoyable novel features two rather mismatched young women, Dulcie and Viola, who meet at a conference for proofreaders and indexers. While that might sound a little dry as a set-up, in Pym’s capable hands it is anything but! There are some wonderful set-pieces here, all played out in the familiar Pym world of afternoon tea, jumble sales, church gatherings and various learned organisations. As one might expect, each scene is very keenly observed. There’s also some gloriously furtive stalking on the part of Dulcie as she spies on the object of her affection, the editor Dr Aylwin Forbes. Definitely a novel I’d like to re-read.

Civil to Strangers

Published posthumously in 1987, Civil to Strangers comprises the titular novel, three unfinished novels/novellas and four short stories. While the novels and novellas are minor Pyms in the grand scheme of things, there is much for the completist to enjoy in this lovely collection of work. The short story Goodbye Balkan Capital is particularly strong. It’s quintessential Pym, a beautifully observed tale of two spinster sisters sharing a house together, protagonists reminiscent of the Bede sisters from Some Tame Gazelle.

So, there we have it. A whistle-stop tour of my thoughts on these Pym reissues from Virago. I’m sure they’ll be a runaway success, especially given the stunning new designs!

Let me know what you think of these novels in the comments below, especially if you’ve read any of them – and your thoughts on the updated editions, of course. Or maybe you have plans to (re-)read some of them soon? If so, feel free to mention them below.

The new editions will be published in the UK on 2nd June (Pym’s birthday!), and you can pre-order them here from my Bookshop.Org affiliate site. My sincere thanks to Virago Press for kindly providing copies.

Unsettled Ground by Claire Fuller

Shortlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction in 2021, Unsettled Ground tells the heartrending story of two adult twins, fifty-one-year-old Jeanie and Julius Seeder, sheltered from the modern world by their mother, Dot, in their run-down cottage in Wiltshire.

The twins have lived at home with Dot their whole lives. Julius picks up casual jobs where he can while Jeanie supports her mother, helping to tend the vegetables the family sell to a local deli and B&B. Their world is small and fragile, their existence hand-to-mouth – living rent-free in a dilapidated cottage, an undocumented arrangement dating back to the death of the twins’ father, Frank, some thirty-seven years earlier. In the absence of any technology or external influences, the family gain comfort from simple homely rituals, mostly playing folk songs together, passed down through the generations.

When Dot dies of a stroke at the beginning of the novel, the twins’ lives are thrown into turmoil as everything the Seeders previously understood about their family history begins to unravel. Caroline Rawson – married to the farmer on whose land the Seeders’ cottage is situated – claims that Dot owed her husband £2,000 in rent, a debt that the twins struggle to understand given the nature of Dot’s agreement with Rawson. The circumstances surrounding Frank Seeder’s death are alluded to, suggesting an element of guilt on Rawson’s part, hence the longstanding rent-free arrangement. But if that was indeed the case, why is Caroline Rawson suddenly demanding payments?

They rarely discussed money in the past and it comes awkwardly now, and they never talked in any depth about the agreement, they know it simply as an arrangement that was negotiated between Dot and Rawson a year after their father’s death – an event that was only ever alluded to, all of them orbiting an incident so horrific they were unable to shift themselves closer. (p. 92)

Other debts and family secrets gradually come to light, compounding the twins’ ability to hold onto the cottage in the face of the Rawsons’ hostility. With barely enough money to buy food, let alone to make a dent in Dot’s outstanding debts, Jeanie and Julius must face the possibility of eviction – all at a time when they are still grieving for their mother. In short, they can’t even afford a basic funeral for Dot – something they eventually deal with in the only way possible while batting away awkward questions about the secluded service and wake.

The novel is told mostly from the point of view of Jeanie, a proud, vulnerable, stubborn woman who gradually reveals her resilience over the course of the book. With great sensitivity and compassion, Fuller shows us just how challenging it is for someone like Jeanie to navigate the modern world with its reliance on formal processes and online technology. Largely due to a severe bout of rheumatic fever during her childhood, Jeanie cannot read and write – limitations she tries to keep hidden from the few people she comes into contact with.

Occasionally Jeanie sees these problems as her own failings and is ashamed, but most of the time she is cross that the world is designed for people who can read and write with ease. (p. 58)

It is an illness Jeanie remains wary of to the current day, largely due to Dot’s warnings about the frailty of her daughter’s heart, thereby imposing restrictions on Jeanie’s physical capabilities.

The lack of a bank account is another obstacle for the Seeders, something Jeanie discovers when she lands a job tending a local resident’s garden two afternoons a week. When her first payment is handed over as a cheque, Jeanine is too embarrassed to ask for cash, thereby rendering her work useless, at least as a means of gaining money. Nevertheless, it’s a step in the right direction for Jeanie, a sign of growing independence, which Fuller teases out beautifully during the book.

She is excited, amazed at what she has managed to do so easily, and although she knows that what she will be earning won’t touch their debts, the idea of doing work other than looking after her own house and garden makes her feel like something inside her – as tiny as an onion seed – is splitting open, ready to send out its shoot. (p. 107)

While the novel is relatively bleak in tone, it is not without occasional moments of brightness. As Dot’s death forces the twins to interact with the outside world in various unfamiliar ways, there is support from Dot’s friend, Bridget, and her husband, Stu. Bridget in particular tries to help Jeanie as best she can while keeping her counsel on Dot’s history and the version of events passed down to the twins. There is genuine heartbreak in this novel, particularly when unscrupulous bullies seize on the twins’ vulnerabilities and misfortunes, just at their lowest point. Ultimately though, it is a story of resilience, how sometimes we have to come to terms with darkness in our family history to forgive and move forward.

In Jeanie and Julius, Fuller has created two highly distinctive, richly-layered characters that feel fully painted on the page. The Seeders are marginalised – underdogs the reader will likely invest in, sensitively conveyed with compassion despite their undoubted failings. (There are times in this novel when you’ll probably want to give each twin a good shake or talking to, purely for their own good, but you know they’ll need to learn things the hard way to really pull through.) The supporting players are excellent too, especially Bridget and her wayward son, Nathan, who gets drawn into the eviction proceedings, much to his parents’ disgust. 

Fuller writes beautifully about the twins’ environment, capturing a feel for the landscape and the rhythms of rural life.

The morning sky lightens, and snow falls on the cottage. It falls on the thatch, concealing the moss and the mouse damage, smoothing out the undulations, filling in the hollows and slips, melting where it touches the bricks of the chimney. It settles on the plants and bare soil in the front garden and forms a perfect mound on top of the rotten gatepost, as though shaped from the inside of a teacup. It hides the roof of the chicken coop, and those of the privy and the old dairy, leaving a dusting across the workbench and floor where the window was broken long ago. (p. 1)

Her eye for detail is equally impressive, highlighting the idiosyncratic nature of the world the twins inhabit – the image of a piano lying on its side in the middle of a spinney will likely linger and endure.

This is a poignant, highly distinctive story of two outsiders living on the fringes of society. A tender, achingly sad novel with glimmers of hope for a brighter future, especially towards the end.

Unsettled Ground is published by Penguin Books; my thanks to the publishers for kindly providing a review copy.

The Vet’s Daughter by Barbara Comyns

Barbara Comyns continues to be a source of endless fascination for me, a distinctly English writer with a very particular style. Her novels have a strange, off-kilter feel to them, blending surreal imagery and touches of dark, deadpan humour with the harsh realities of day-to-day life. There’s often a sadness too, a sense of melancholy or loneliness running through the texts.

First published in 1959, The Vet’s Daughter is the sixth Comyns I’ve read, and after a couple of false starts it may well turn out to be my favourite. This Virago edition (kindly sent to me by Liz) contains an introduction by the author herself, a sort of potted history of her life up to the time of the novel’s release. There are hints of an eccentric home life in the Comyns household: a fiery, unpredictable father, an invalid mother with a pet monkey; a succession of governesses with few qualifications; and little mixing between the family and the outside world. It’s a background that seems to feed directly into The Vet’s Daughter, a striking coming-of-age novel with a distinctive narrative voice.

The story is narrated by Alice Rowlands, the titular vet’s daughter, who lives in south London with her domineering father, Euan, and her sickly mother. Euan Rowlands is a violent man, essentially bullying Alice and her mother with his sudden outbursts and demands. Alice, on the other hand, is fully alive to the world around her, sensing the danger that her father duly presents. She is an innocent, imaginative girl at heart, qualities that come through in her childlike tone of voice.

I didn’t look after Father as well as Mother used to, and he often hit me because the bacon was burnt or the coffee weak. Once, when I had ironed a shirt badly, he suddenly rushed at me like a charging ball in a thunderstorm, seeming to toss the shirt in some way with his head. I held on to the kitchen sink, too afraid to move. He came right up to me, and I saw the whites of his eyes were all red. (pp. 17-18)

With her mother desperately ill upstairs in bed and no siblings to help out, Alice is little more than a maid – shopping for the household and looking after her mother, particularly at night. There is some support for Alice in the shape of Mrs Churchill, a straight-talking woman who comes over during the day; but when Alice’s mother dies, the future seems increasingly uncertain. Euan disappears for three weeks, leaving a locum vet, Henry Peebles, in charge of the practice. By contrast to Euan, Henry is a kindly chap, the first man to treat Alice with due care and consideration – in Henry (aka ‘Blinkers’), Alice has found a true friend for life.

When Euan reappears, Mrs Churchill is shocked to find him accompanied by Rosa Fisher, a rather brash woman who helps out behind the bar at the local pub. While Euan positions Rosa as the Rowlands’ new housekeeper, even Alice can see what she really represents. In effect, Rosa is Euan’s mistress – a careless, brazen woman who ultimately neglects Alice, endangering her well-being in the most deplorable of ways.

Alice turns to daydreams as a means of escape, vividly imagining a lush, exotic world where creatures roam freely, released from their restrictive constraints. In short, she uses these fantasies as a coping mechanism, blunting some of the sadness and brutality in her life.

Sometimes the life I was living seemed so hopeless and sad I would try to imagine I was in another world. Then all the dreary brown things in the kitchen would turn into great exotic flowers and I’d be in a kind of jungle, and, when the parrot called from his lavatory prison, he wasn’t the parrot, but a great white peacock crying out. (p. 60)

A respite ultimately comes in the form of Blinkers, who takes Alice to live in the Hampshire countryside as a companion to his elderly mother, Mrs Peebles. At first, Alice is enchanted by her new surroundings, taking comfort from the beauty of the natural world, alive with the signs of winter.

In the early morning, when I looked out of my bedroom window, the trees and fields were white with hoar frost and the glass in the window was beautifully patterned with it. I’d never loved the frost before but now it enchanted me. Besides the beauty, there were the sounds: the snap of a stick, the hard rustle of a frozen leaf, the crack of breaking ice–-even the birds’ winter cries seemed to be sharp and intensified. (p. 125)

Nevertheless, Alice’s new environment comes with its own set of challenges. The house is dark and in poor repair; and Mrs Peebles herself is also being preyed upon by bullies – in this instance, Mr and Mr Gowley, a rather dubious pair of housekeepers with their eyes on the family silver. It is here in the countryside that Alice becomes fully aware of her magical gift, an unusual ability only she seems to possess. It would be foolish of me to say too much about this, but it’s not dissimilar to Laura’s secret in Lolly WillowesSylvia Townsend Warner’s marvellous novel of a woman’s liberation, which I read in 2018.

Before long, circumstances conspire to dictate another change for Alice, prompting her return to Euan, who is back with the hideous Rosa. When Euan learns about his daughter’s unusual gift, he immediately seeks to exploit it for monetary gain, setting up a denouement with a shocking conclusion. It’s an ending that will prove hard to shake, somewhat reminiscent of Shirley Jackson’s work – We Have Always Lived in the Castle immediately springs to mind.

The Vet’s Daughter has all the hallmarks of a classic Comyns novel: an enchanting, innocent child caught up in a dysfunctional family; memorable, vivid imagery, often with an off-kilter edge; and a simple, matter-of-matter-of-fact tone of voice that belies the horrors within. As ever, this author excels in her use of symbolism, skilfully establishing a somewhat surreal tone to the narrative right from the start.

The door was propped open by a horse’s hoof without a horse joined to it, and I looked through. (p. 3)

Perhaps the most striking elements of the story stem from the violence and cruelty meted out to Alice, particularly at home. The novel has much to say about the tyrannical behaviour of fathers and the exploitation of the more vulnerable members of our society – especially children, the elderly and those who are ill or infirm. While Comyns blends elements of fantasy and magic realism with the stark realities of day-to-day life, she never lets us forgets the horrors of Alice’s existence, complete with its constraints.

This is a wonderful, magical novel with a dark, highly distinctive flavour. Barbara Comyns may not be to every reader’s taste, but she is a true original with a unique view of the world’s cruelties. A highly imaginative writer who deserves to be widely read.

Bad Dreams by Tessa Hadley

Last year I read and thoroughly enjoyed Tessa Hadley’s The Past, a beautifully-observed novel about four adult siblings coming together for a holiday at their old family home. It’s a character-driven book, full of subtle tensions and frustrations, demonstrating the author’s insight into family dynamics and human nature. There’s a similar degree of perceptiveness in Bad Dreams, an impressive collection of short stories, all with female protagonists at the heart.

Seven of the ten stories included here were first published in the New Yorker, and are probably still available to read online. Nevertheless, by experiencing them together in this volume, certain patterns begin to appear – common threads and themes, similar structural patterns or motifs – adding texture and depth.

While these stories are rooted in the everyday, Hadley seems particularly interested in what happens when the mundanity of life is interrupted – typically by a new experience or a chance encounter with the potential to disrupt.

In An Abduction – one of the most memorable stories in the collection – Jane, a bored fifteen-year-old girl, home from boarding school for the summer holidays, accepts a lift from three unfamiliar boys in a sports car. Older and more experienced than Jane, the boys are living the high life in a large Surrey house, dabbling with drink and drugs while their parents are away. What follows isn’t quite the horror story the reader might be expecting given the set-up. Still, it’s unsettling nonetheless, culminating in a coda that adds another layer to the narrative.

Experience is another story in this vein, with the protagonist crossing a line into an intriguing new world. When Laura needs a new place to live following the breakdown of her marriage, a friend hooks her up with Hana, a sophisticated, glamorous woman with a spacious house in London. Hana wants someone to look after her home while she spends time in the US, so Laura moves in rent-free to caretake in Hana’s absence. Having settled into the house, Laura begins to step into Hana’s shoes – eating her food, reading her secret diaries, even wearing her clothes now and again.

I had thought that I would forget about Hana once she was out of the house, but moving around inside the shapes of her life, I found myself more powerfully impressed by her than I had been when she was present. The wardrobes full of her clothes stood in for her: velvet trousers and brocade jackets, an evening dress of pleated chiffon with a sequinned bodice – everything padded and sculpted, each outfit a performance in itself. (p. 90)

When Hana’s on/off lover, Julian, calls at the house to pick up some stuff, the visit offers Laura the opportunity to go deeper into Hana’s life. Laura begins to fantasise about a liaison with Julian, a chance to experience something more thrilling than the tame relationship she experienced with her husband. It’s an excellent story with several possibilities for the ending – but Hadley pitches it just right, resisting the temptation for too much spectacle or drama.

There’s a chance encounter of a different kind in Under the Sign of the Moon, another excellent story despite its somewhat uninspiring title! In this piece, Greta, a middle-aged married woman recovering from an illness, travels by train to Liverpool to visit her daughter, Kate. While Greta would prefer to read her book during the journey, the young man sitting opposite her is desperate to talk. After a while, Greta relents, and the pair strike up a conversation, culminating in them sharing a coffee at the station while Greta waits for Kate to arrive. There’s something sad and lonely about this man with his quaint, polite manner and dated clothes – compounded perhaps by his mother’s recent death.

As the two travellers part ways, the man hurriedly issues an invitation for Greta to meet him again later in the week, stating a specific time and place for the rendezvous. Greta declines to reply at the time, but when the day in question duly arrives, she surprises herself by following through, with rather unexpected results! Once again, this is another story with multiple possibilities for development. I won’t spoil things by saying how the potential meeting turns out, but it’s an interesting one for sure.

Other stories showcase Hadley’s skills at viewing situations from a child’s point of view – how strange and unknowable the world can seem when we’re only nine or ten. In One Saturday Morning, ten-year-old Carrie is alone in the house when Dom, a friend of her parents, calls with some bad news about his wife. Hadley perfectly captures the emotions children experience when the mood shifts – a longing for the normality of life to return when sadness disrupts events.

He was set apart, just as his wife had been set apart – except that it was worse with Dom, because he persisted, discomforting in all his living bulk, putting himself in the way of Carrie’s thoughts when she tried to be rid of him. She longed to hear the door shut behind him and for the dinner-party preparations to be resumed, however belatedly – for the whole ordinary process of living to start into motion again, downstairs in the kitchen. (p. 79)

The titular story, Bad Dreams – one of the highlights in the collection – explores a domestic scenario from two different perspectives. Firstly, we see what happens when a young girl wakes at night after dreaming about her favourite story; then we cut to the girl’s mother when she is disturbed later the same night. In both instances, the characters walk around the house, their movements and actions revealing much about the family members within – their habits and preoccupations, their vulnerabilities and flaws. It’s a terrific story, relatively simple on the surface yet full of insights and depth.

Other stories hinge on specific items being passed from one family member to another, providing a framework for exploring the characters’ lives and the fault lines that have developed over time. In Flight, a silk scarf passes from one estranged sister to another, a gift to help atone for past failings and absences. Silk Brocade features a similar motif – in this instance, a sumptuous length of silk is earmarked for a wedding dress until tragedy intervenes.

There’s also a brilliant story about an old man who wishes to leave his house to his carer, Marina, much to her embarrassment. The relationship between these two individuals is beautifully drawn, complete with moments of tenderness and frustration as the man’s life draws to a close. Possibly my favourite piece in the collection, the meaning of the story’s title — The Stain — becomes clear as elements from the past begin to emerge.

In summary then, Bad Dreams is an excellent of stories, elegantly conveyed. While most are set in contemporary times, a few pieces reach back to the 1950s and ‘60s (or occasionally even earlier), boding well for Hadley’s latest novel, Free Love, with its late ‘60s setting. 

Bad Dreams is published by Vintage; personal copy.

A Friend from England by Anita Brookner

The English writer and art historian Anita Brookner carved out a particular niche for herself during her writing career, producing beautifully crafted novels about loneliness and isolation. Her books often feature unmarried women living small, unfulfilling lives in well-to-do London flats, where they spend their evenings waiting for unobtainable lovers to make fleeting appearances. First published in 1987, three years after her Booker Prize win, A Friend from England is another exquisitely written story of loneliness and self-deception, very much in a similar vein to this Brookner’s other work.

Central to the novel is Rachel, a single, independently-minded woman in her early thirties. The co-owner of a small bookshop in Notting Hill, Rachel lives her life on the fringes of other people’s worlds, avoiding entanglements, amorous relationships, or anything that might lead to a loss of control or demonstration of passion. To her mind, the illusion of romantic love is not for the sensible – only for the naive or the very brave. Despite her role as the novel’s narrator, Rachel remains somewhat enigmatic or difficult to pin down throughout. She drops hints of previous affairs and ‘arrangements’, but little more in terms of detail is ever revealed. Above all, Rachel takes satisfaction from her lack of emotional bonds, a position that ultimately colours her view of others, particularly those who see the world through rose-tinted glasses.

Rachel’s closest friends are Oscar Livingstone – an ageing accountant that Rachel inherited from her deceased father – and his wife, Dorrie. The Livingstones are a kindly couple, treating Rachel almost as if she were part of their family. In short, they see Rachel as an older sister to their twenty-seven-year-old daughter, Heather – someone to guide her in the broader ways and mysteries of the world. On the surface, Heather appears to be a passive person, seemingly content to remain in the company of her parents, sharing their interests and lives until such time as she is ready to marry. While Rachel loves her Saturday afternoon visits to the Livingstones’ for tea, she feels somewhat ambivalent towards Heather and her seemingly circumspect approach to life. Consequently, the two women maintain a friendship, albeit a rather superficial, surface-level one.

While Rachel would be happy for her Saturdays with the Livingstones to continue forever, this arrangement is threatened when Heather suddenly announces her engagement to Michael Sandberg, a strange, childlike man whom Rachel views as somewhat suspicious.

My first impression of Michael Sandberg was that he was blessed with, or consumed by, radiant high spirits. My second impression was that a man of such obvious and exemplary charm must be a liar. (p. 42)

Michael appears to be fairly comfortably off, mostly due to his father’s various business interests in time-share apartments and travels agencies; nevertheless, there is something false or forced about him, a quality that doesn’t quite ring true.

Before long, Heather and Michael are married, settling into an apartment near Hyde Park to begin their married life. As far as Rachel see it, Heather appears to have fast-forwarded to middle age. There is little evidence to suggest that she actually loves Michael; rather their relationship appears to be relatively functional or anodyne in character.  

She seemed to me to have passed into another age group, one in which material certainties are taken for granted, romantic love is a thing of the past, and work has assumed the central position that it usually occupies in truly adult lives. (pp. 71–72)

Meanwhile, Oscar and Dorrie are as welcoming as ever, inviting Rachel to come and see them, just as before – and it is during one of these visits that Oscar reveals his concerns about Michael while driving Rachel home.

A series of revelations follows, ultimately culminating in Heather moving to Venice to marry Marco (the brother of an Italian friend, Chiara) after her first marriage to Michael breaks down. It is at this point that Rachel realises how little influence she has Heather. Rather than sacrifice her happiness by staying in England, Heather has chosen to follow her heart by moving to Venice, where she hopes the marriage to Marco will be a success.

In a showdown between the two women in Venice – a location that Rachel dislikes due to her fear of water – Rachel rails against Heather and what she sees as her selfishness, revealing an envy of those who choose a different path to her own. In some respects, the most startling revelation is the one that Rachel experiences when the reality of her life becomes painfully apparent.

The fact of the matter was that the wonders of this earth suddenly meant nothing to me. Without a face opposite mine the world was empty; without another voice it was silent. I foresaw a future in which I would always eat too early, the first guest in empty restaurants, after which I would go to bed too early and get up too early, anxious to begin another day in order that it might soon be ended. I lacked the patience or the confidence to invent a life for myself, and would always be dependent on the lives of others. (p. 204)

A Friend from England is a very interior novel – claustrophobic, almost, as everything we see and hear is filtered through Rachel’s outlook and perspective. There is real fury and anger from Rachel in what she sees as the foolishness of Heather’s actions. Women like Heather think life is ‘a sort of party, to which invitations are sent out’ without realising there comes a point when ‘the celebrations have to stop’. In short, Heather’s rejection of a circumspect worldview comes as a shock to Rachel, exposing the folly of the self-image she has carefully constructed for herself.

Despite the novel’s somewhat sombre tone, there are occasional flashes of humour – a very Brooknerian strain of humour, mostly stemming from the author’s dissection of the quirks of human nature. In this scene, Dorrie and her sisters are fussing over Michael, eagerly anticipating their roles in orchestrating Heather’s wedding.

They looked on him with indulgence, and I could see that he had a special rapport with these simple women, women who loved weddings and babies and cherished these matters over and above all others, simply filling in the time disdainfully until mobilised by another wedding. The married state claimed their strongest loyalties, their finest efforts; already their minds were furiously working on the arrangements, which would be argued out in long telephone calls. (p. 46)

In summary, this is a quiet, character-driven novel – beautifully-written as ever and very tightly controlled. It’s a novel I admired rather than loved, but brilliantly observed nonetheless.  

My copy of A Friend from England was published by Pantheon Books; personal copy.

Happening by Annie Ernaux (tr. Tanya Leslie)

I’ve been meaning to try more of Annie Ernaux’s work for the past six months, ever since I read her hugely impressive memoir, The Years, published in France in 2008. It’s a fascinating, distinctive book, a kind of collective biography in which the cultural and social history of a generation – Ernaux’s generation – is refracted through the lens of one woman’s experiences. So, with the imminent release of Audrey Diwan’s adaptation of Ernaux’s Happening (another memoir), I was galvanised into action. (The film picked up the prestigious Golden Lion at last year’s Venice Film Festival, and I’m very eager to see it.)

First published in French in 2000, and translated into English in 2001, Happening takes us back to October 1963 when Ernaux was twenty-three, studying literature at Rouen University and living in the college halls of residence. Like most young women of her day, Ernaux uses the Ogino (or ‘rhythm’) method of birth control to minimise the chances of conceiving. (Other, more reliable forms of contraception were not legally sanctioned in France until 1967, four years down the line.)

Unfortunately for Ernaux, she falls pregnant, something she resists naming explicitly as this would feel like a validation of her status – for example, why use the word ‘expecting’ when she has no intention of giving birth? It’s a pregnancy that Ernaux is determined to terminate, partly due to the restrictions it would impose on her day-to-day life and partly for the associated stigma and sense of shame. (Ernaux’s desire to distance herself from her working-class background – her parents run a grocer’s shop – remains an important theme in her work.)

Somehow I felt there existed a connection between my social background and my present condition. Born into a family of labourers and shopkeepers, I was the first to attend higher education and so had been spared both factory and retail work. Yet neither my baccalaureate nor my degree in literature had waived that inescapable fatality of the working-class – the legacy of poverty – embodied by both the pregnant girl and the alcoholic. Sex had caught up with me, and I saw the thing growing inside me as the stigma of social failure. (p. 23)

Abortion was illegal in France in the early ‘60s, and the penalties for any involvement in such a practice were widely known to be severe. Consequently, Ernaux must find someone who is willing to perform a backstreet termination – something she manages to do through a contact of a friend. The abortionist is a nurse, a plain-speaking woman in her sixties who will conduct the procedure at her home in Paris, a small flat in the 17th arrondissement. Interestingly, there is a quiet determination about this woman who simply focuses on the essentials at hand. She makes no judgments about Annie’s decision to abort; there are no awkward questions or feelings to be explored, just the practical details of what needs to happen and when.

In essence, Happening is an account of Ernaux’s experiences of the abortion – her quest to secure it, what takes place during the procedure and the days that follow, all expressed in the author’s trademark candid style. While Ernaux wishes to convey a steady flow of unhappiness during this time in her life, she remains mindful of not clouding her experiences with any emotional outbursts – outpourings that would signal either anger or emotional pain.

What makes this account so powerful is the rigorous nature of Ernaux’s approach. There are no moral judgements or pontifications here, just the unflinchingly honest details of a topic that remains controversial even in today’s relatively liberated society. Ernaux spares us nothing about the messy details of the procedure itself and what happens in the aftermath. As such, readers need to be aware of the potentially triggering nature of some of the content in this book. Happening is a searingly honest account of a taboo subject, but it may cut too close to the bone for some readers depending on their own views and experiences.

Interspersed throughout the text are some of Ernaux’s reflections about writing the book, ruminations on what she is trying to achieve by exploring these events. There is a sense of her trying to immerse herself in a particular section of her life to learn what can be found there. It’s an experience that comes with its own challenges, forty years on. For instance, she talks about the process of accessing various memories, how certain objects such as a basin of water in the woman’s apartment remain vivid in her mind while specific emotions are much harder to recapture. Nevertheless, some general feelings remain accessible even if the finer details do not.

(To experience anew the emotions I felt back then is quite impossible. The closest I can get to the state of terror thrust upon me that week is to pick out any hostile, harsh-looking woman in her sixties waiting in line at the supermarket or the post office and to imagine that she is going to rummage around in my loins with some foreign object.) (p. 51)

By recounting this traumatic experience, one deeply connected to life and death, perhaps Ernaux is looking to translate the personal into something of broader social relevance. Towards the end of Happening, she wonders whether the true purpose of her life is to channel various experiences – both physical and emotional – into her writing. There is a desire to create ‘something intelligent and universal’ from her existence, reflections that may prove useful to others – an aim I think she has achieved with this powerful, uncompromising book.

Happening is published by Fitzcarraldo Editions; my thanks for the publishers and the Independent Alliance for kindly providing a review copy.

The Tortoise and the Hare by Elizabeth Jenkins

Over the course of her career, the English writer Elizabeth Jenkins produced biographies of several leading figures, including Henry Fielding, Lady Caroline Lamb and Jane Austen. There is more than a touch of Austen in The Tortoise and the Hare, Jenkins’ 1954 novel about the slow, stealthy disintegration of a marriage. It’s an exquisitely written book, a masterclass in precision and understatement, currently in print with Virago with an introduction by Hilary Mantel.

While Jenkins’ story takes place in a particular sub-sector of the British class structure – the upper-middle-class ‘home counties set’ in the mid-1950s – its themes and emotions are universal, broadening the novel’s relevance beyond the sphere in which it is set.

Central to the story are the Gresham family – fifty-two-year-old Evelyn Gresham, a successful barrister of the highest rank, his beautiful wife, Imogen, and the couple’s ten-year-old son, Gavin. At thirty-seven, Imogen is fifteen years younger than Evelyn – an age difference that mattered little when the couple married, but now, twelve years into their relationship, the gap is beginning to show. While Evelyn was initially attracted to Imogen’s ingénue-type character, his needs have changed over time. Now Imogen must devote herself to making Evelyn’s home life as efficient and unruffled as possible, a task she finds challenging in light of her husband’s exacting standards. At heart, Imogen is a sensitive, compassionate young woman, but efficient management and organisation are not her strongest suits.

By contrast, Blanche Silcox – the Greshams’ nearest neighbour – is the polar opposite of Imogen. At fifty, Blanche is the living embodiment of the home counties ‘country type’, complete with her dowdy tweeds and forbidding hats. While Imogen is quiet, graceful and unassuming, Blanche is plain, practical and direct, a leading figure in the local community through her roles on various committees.

Slowly but surely, Blanche begins to encroach on Imogen’s territory, worming her way into the Greshams’ marriage in the stealthiest of ways.

She [Imogen] could not have said exactly when she had become aware of how often their neighbour Blanche Silcox’s name occurred in Evelyn’s conversation as that of a woman immensely knowledgeable on rural topics, whose opinions on the ethics of tied cottages, drainage and poultry-keeping for profit called forth respectful agreement. To all such topics Imogen herself could only listen in silence. (p. 39)

Before long, Evelyn is spending an increasing amount of time with Blanche, popping over to see her on a daily basis, taking phone calls at all hours, and accepting lifts from her when he travels from Berkshire to London for work. (Unfortunately, Imogen cannot drive, putting her at a disadvantage to Blanche when it comes to chauffeuring Evelyn around.) Moreover, whenever Imogen dares to comment on her husband’s closeness to Blanche, Evelyn rationalises the relationship by reiterating the latter’s qualities – how nice or helpful it is of Blanche to support him in these ways, thereby implying that Imogen is being unreasonable when she questions these kindnesses.

Sadly for Imogen, her role as Gavin’s mother is also under threat. As far as Gavin is concerned, Imogen is weak-willed and useless, and he barely suppresses his contempt for her tendency to fuss. Blanche, on the other hand, is a more natural fit for the young boy, arranging for him to have riding lessons and access to her land to fish. In short, Gavin is turning into a junior version of Evelyn, following in his father’s footsteps, disregarding Imogen’s feelings while suiting himself.

Imogen does have some support, albeit from outside the family circle. For instance, her closest female friend, Cecil (who occasionally visits from London), has the measure of Blanche from the very start.

Cecil meanwhile had used the opportunity to study Blanche Silcox. Imogen had described the latter to her with great earnestness but the description had conveyed little of what Cecil now found to be the reality. Imogen had said that Blanche Silcox was obviously much attracted by Evelyn, and that she was so thoroughly kind and useful to him it was only natural that he should appreciate it. There was nothing in it on his side, naturally. When Cecil had the people concerned before her eyes, she began to doubt the truth of this judgement immediately. (p. 98)

Cecil is so struck by the sense of magnetism surrounding Blanche that she that likens the effect to the ‘indrawing draught of a furnace’, clearly spotting the danger that Imogen is trying her hardest to dismiss. In Cecil’s eyes, Blanche should not be underestimated – underneath that dowdy appearance is a woman of quiet determination, a force of fire and heat.  

The real strength of this novel lies in the precision and clarity Jenkins brings to her portrayal of Imogen, particularly the lack of agency she feels when faced with Blanche as a competitor. Slowly but surely, Imogen’s self-confidence ebbs away as she forces herself to come to terms with Evelyn’s infidelity. Deep down, it’s something that Imogen has known for a while, but it takes a gossipy acquaintance to reveal the depth of Blanche’s involvement in Evelyn’s life, much to Imogen’s distress.

The revelation of the degree of Blanche Silcox’s intimacy with Evelyn – ‘all those late meals, as he hates restaurants’ – yet did it tell her anything she did not know? Did it not merely fill in the details of a picture she had unconsciously drawn for herself? But she had never known until this moment that in a state of jealous agitation each separate detail is as painful as the whole: The comings and goings, the telephone calls, the brief visits paid by car between the two houses, the evenings in London, the constant, close intimacy filling every hour that she herself was not there, and now this monstrous arrangement of the holiday in Scotland: it was like some closed book she was wild with curiosity to read, although the meaning was known to her already. (p. 157)

One of the most interesting aspects of this novel is its quietly subversive nature, how it goes against some of our traditional assumptions and expectations in affairs of the heart. For instance, in a love triangle of this nature, it is more usual for the man to be seduced away from his wife by a younger, more attractive model, leaving the older, more faded woman in the shade. But in this case, the conventions are reversed, with the beautiful, graceful Imogen potentially losing out to the frumpy but capable Blanche – a woman who matches Evelyn very closely in terms of age. This might lead us to think of Blanche as the Tortoise in this scenario, slowly but stealthily triumphing over Imogen the Hare. Nevertheless, in the novel’s excellent afterword, the publisher Carmen Callil argues for a different interpretation of these labels, viewing Imogen as the Tortoise – the one with the most to gain, especially if she chooses to break free from the pain of her marriage. It’s an interesting interpretation, albeit somewhat hard to discuss without revealing the novel’s ending, which I would rather not do.

All four leading characters – Imogen, Evelyn, Blanche and Gavin – are brilliantly drawn, fully painted on the page with all their individual habits, preoccupations and failings. There’s strong support too from the secondary players, perhaps most notably from Imogen’s perceptive friend, Cecil, and Evelyn’s school friend, Paul – a compassionate man who is more than a little in love with Imogen and caught up in a somewhat mismatched marriage himself. Also of note is Gavin’s friend, Tim, a gentle boy whom Imogen takes under her wing, partly due to his rather chaotic homelife.

All in all, this is a superb book, a devastating portrayal of the erosion of a marriage, all the more impressive for its subtlety and refusal to submit to melodrama. My slightly early contribution to Karen and Simon’s #1954Club, which is just about to kick off!

The House in Paris by Elizabeth Bowen  

First published in 1935, The House in Paris is probably one of Elizabeth Bowen’s most accomplished novels. It’s certainly the most atmospheric of the four I’ve read to date, an elegantly constructed story of deceptions, infidelity and identity, infused with a sense of secrecy that feels apparent from the start.

The novel is divided into three sections, the first and third of which (both titled ‘The Present’) take place on the same day – a fateful day in the lives of Bowen’s four main characters, as the narrative ultimately reveals. As the book opens, eleven-year-old Henrietta has just arrived in Paris, where she will spend the day with the Fishers before continuing her journey to Menton, where her grandmother is spending the winter. In short, the Fishers’ is a stopover point for Henrietta between trains – a visit arranged by the girl’s grandmother, Mrs Arbuthnot, and her friend, Miss Naomi Fisher.

Also waiting at the Fishers’ house in Paris in Leopold, a nine-year-old boy who is due to meet his mother, Karen, for the first time since his birth – a reunion that coincides with Henrietta’s visit purely by chance, much to Naomi’s concern. The circumstances surrounding Leopold’s parentage are clearly something of a mystery, with Bowen dropping clues here and there for the reader to piece together. For instance, when Henrietta arrives at the Fishers’ house, she is introduced to Naomi’s mother, Mme Fisher, a manipulative elderly lady in the dying days of her life. While Naomi is keen for Leopold to be treated sensitively, Mme Fisher is much less discreet, readily disclosing her daughter’s link to the boy’s father as she talks to Henrietta.

‘Oh,’ Henrietta said, ‘did you know his father too?’

‘Quite well,’ said Mme Fisher. ‘He broke Naomi’s heart.’

She mentioned this impatiently, as though it had been some annoying domestic mishap. Henrietta, glancing across the bed, saw Miss Fisher’s eyelids glued down with pain. Then, with the air of having known all along this would come, the helpless daughter rolled up her knitting quickly, as though to terminate something, perhaps the pretence of safety, jabbing her needles through it with violent calm. (p. 43)

Leopold, too, learns something of the mystery surrounding his birth during his time at the Paris house. While Henrietta is upstairs with Miss Fisher and her bedridden mother, Leopold finds some letters in Naomi’s handbag – one from his guardians, the Grant Moodys, outlining various sensitivities to Naomi, and another from Mrs Arbuthnot on the details of Henrietta’s trip. However, a third letter – a note from Leopold’s mother to Naomi – is missing, remaining unavailable to the reader and Leopold himself. Nevertheless, there are worrying references to his parents’ temperaments – ‘instability on the father’s side’ and a ‘lack of control on the mother’s’ – in the first letter that Leopold discovers. 

Slowly but surely, Bowen ratchets up the sense of tension as the two children circle one another in the Paris house. It’s a dark, claustrophobic place, heightened by the oppressive air in Mme Fisher’s sick room and the poisonous events of the past.

Round the curtained bedhead, Pompeian red walls drank objects into their shadow: picture-frames, armies of bottles, boxes, an ornate clock showed without glinting, as though not quite painted out by some dark transparent wash. Henrietta had never been in a room so full and still. (p. 36)

Bowen excels at portraying these children, skilfully capturing their growing awareness of the adult world while a fuller picture of its mysteries remains tantalisingly out of reach.

In the novel’s second section (‘The Past’), Bowen takes us back ten years to a time when Naomi was engaged to Max Ebhart, a Jewish banker of French-English heritage. Central to this section is Naomi’s friend, Karen Michaelis – herself engaged to Ray Forrestier, a respectable man from the ‘right’ background and social class – and it is by focusing on Karen’s story that we learn the origins of Leopold’s birth.

One of the things Bowen does so well here is to show us how the past shapes the present, how former indiscretions and secrets can bleed into the here and now in the most painful of ways. Consequently, there is an air of damage or trauma surrounding Leopold, a lack of motherly love and sense of identity that have left their marks on his character.

Bowen’s prose is beautiful, if a little tricky to get to grips with from time to time. Nevertheless, there is some lovely descriptive writing here, from the glimpses of Paris in the morning light to the sun-drenched cul-de-sacs of Boulogne during a secret assignation.

Today, the salt sunshine bought every shape nearer, as though distance has been parched out. Doorways, cobbles, arches and stone steps looked sentient and porous in the glare. Buildings basked like cats in the kind heat, having been gripped by cold mists, having ached in unkind nights, been buffeted in the winter. Hot wind tugged now and then at the flags down on the Casino, stretching the flags, then letting them drop again. Flashing, a window was thrown open uphill. What you saw, you felt. (p. 139)

The House in Paris is an elegantly constructed novel in which the past is firmly intertwined with the present – a structure that Tessa Hadley mirrors in her 2015 novel, The Past, with a clear nod to Bowen’s approach.

The House in Paris is published by Vintage Books; personal copy.

Tension by E. M. Delafield

The English writer E. M. Delafield is probably best known for her Diary of a Provincial Lady, a largely autobiographical account of middle-class life in the early 1930s. Tension is an earlier book, first published in 1920 when Britain was still recovering from the impact of the First World War. It’s an interesting story about the damaging effects of gossip – how hard-won reputations can be destroyed by malicious rumours, especially when a manipulative person is involved. On another level, the novel also highlights the limited options available to single women with no husband or family to support them in financing their day-to-day existence.

The novel’s title refers to the tensions created by a new appointment at a Commercial and Technical College in the South West – the main setting for Delafield’s story. As an experienced teacher of shorthand and typing, twenty-eight-year-old Miss Marchrose is well qualified for the role of Lady Superintendent. However, her card is marked when the College Director’s wife – the poisonous Lady Edna Rossiter – recognises Miss Marchrose’s name from an unfortunate incident in the past. Some years earlier, Lady Rossiter’s cousin, Clarence Isbister, was jilted by his fiancée following a life-changing accident – an incident that caused both Clarence and Lady Rossiter considerable distress at the time. Given the unusual nature of Miss Marchrose’s name, Lady Rossiter is convinced that the new Superintendent is the woman who slighted her cousin, so she sets out to ruin her reputation in the most underhand of ways.

Nevertheless, Miss Marchrose proves herself to be hardworking, capable and well-organised – qualities appreciated by College Supervisor Fairfax Fuller, a blunt, plain-speaking man who dislikes any outside interference in his activities, especially from Lady R. Sir Julian Rossiter, the College Director, also takes kindly to Miss Marchrose, viewing her as a good addition to the institution’s staff. But when the new appointee develops a close friendship with Mark Easter, the agent for Sir Julian’s estate, Lady Rossiter sees her chance. As the friendship between Mark and Miss Marchrose blossoms, showing every potential to develop into a romance, Lady Rossiter begins to draw attention to it, dropping carefully-worded hints to other trustees and staff.

“Yes, poor Miss Marchrose. Don’t think that I would willingly say an unkind word about her, for indeed I could never cast the first stone. But I’ve been uneasy for some time, and this afternoon it gave me a little shock to see something—Oh, never mind what! A straw very often shows which way the wind blows.”

Having by this reticence left the simple-minded Alderman to infer the existence of a whole truss of straw at the very least, Lady Rossiter leant back and closed her eyes, as though in weary retrospect. (p. 145)

The situation is further complicated by the fact that Mark Easter is already married; however, his wife is an alcoholic, incarnated in a home for inebriates, a fact he shares with Miss Marchrose at an early stage in their relationship.

As Lady Rossiter continues to sow the seeds of doubt about the nature of Miss Marchrose’s character, the reader can only watch as the rumours begin to circulate, giving rise to the uneasy atmosphere and tensions of the novel’s title. While Sir Julian knows full well what his wife is getting up to, he does little to nip her duplicitous behaviour in the bud – opting instead for a quiet existence, despite his disapproval.

Lady Rossiter, on the other hand, is a fascinating creation – a hypocritical, insensitive woman who lacks even the slightest hint of self-awareness. In living her life by the mantra “Is it kind, is it wise, is it true?”, Lady R is convinced that her actions are for the moral good, misguided in the belief that she is a shining light to others. Moreover, the Rossiters’ marriage is a loveless one, a union of convenience and companionship – a point made clear by Sir Julian right from the very start. In fact, one wonders whether the lack of romantic love in her own life has made Lady Rossiter somewhat envious when she observes it in others, contributing perhaps to her ‘protection’ of Mark Easter from Miss Marchrose’s charms…

As the novel unfolds, we hear a little more of Miss Marchrose’s backstory as the young woman confides in Sir Julian Rossiter – a friendly presence in a somewhat hostile world. By delving into this in some detail, Delafield shows us how desperately lonely life can be for an unmarried woman in the city, with no husband or close family for support – the long, uneventful days stretching out ahead of her as hopelessness and resignation sets in.

“…But all the time I was more and more lonely, and I used to sit and think in the evenings, wondering how I could bear it if all my life was going to be like that—just working on and on and then becoming like one of the older women at that hostel—there were dozens of them—pinched and discontented, always worrying over expense, and why there weren’t two helpings of pudding at dinner, with nothing to do, nothing to remember, nothing to look forward to—knowing themselves utterly and absolutely unnecessary in the world. And they’d got used to it—that was the ghastly part of it—and yet they couldn’t always have been like that…” (p. 120)

In time, we also learn about the circumstances surrounding Miss Marchrose’s aborted engagement to Clarence Isbister – and perhaps unsurprisingly, they’re not quite as ruthless as Lady Rossiter has assumed.

In summary, then, Tension is an absorbing exploration of the challenges of life for working spinster in the interwar years, not least when there are poisonous women such as Lady Rossiter about. The latter may well have earned her place alongside other monstrous women in fiction – characters such as Flora in Elizabeth Taylor’s The Soul of Kindness and Miss Bohun in Olivia Manning’s School for Love – each one flawed in her own individual way. There are some good supporting characters here, too – not least Mark Easter’s rebellious children, Ruthie and Ambrose (aka Peekaboo), who provide a little light relief amidst the tensions in the college.

All in all, it’s another fine addition to the British Library’s Women Writers list, a series that continues to shine a light on society’s treatment of women in the early-mid 20th century. My thanks to the publishers for kindly providing a review copy.