Tag Archives: British Library Women Writers

Father by Elizabeth von Arnim

First published in 1931, Father has recently been reissued by the British Library as part of their excellent Women Writers series – my thanks to the publishers for kindly providing a review copy. While it isn’t as well-known as some of von Arnim’s other novels, there is much to enjoy here, not least the author’s skills in exploring the limitations of women’s lives with humour and compassion. In essence, it is a story of domestic tyranny revolving around two oppressive relationships – one between a thirty-three-year-old spinster and her dictatorial father, the other between a mild-mannered clergyman and his selfish older sister.  

The novel’s central character is Jennifer Dodge, who at thirty-three has devoted much of her adult life to keeping house for her widowed father, the successful writer Richard Dodge (referred to throughout as ‘Father’). In addition to her domestic duties, Jennifer also acts as Father’s unpaid secretary, diligently typing his manuscripts in their claustrophobic Gower Street home. Right from the very start of the novel, von Arnim leaves the reader in no doubt about the nature of Father and his attitudes towards his daughter. He is a selfish prig, content for Jennifer to pander to his every whim while simultaneously viewing her as something of a burden.  

It was her duty to make the best of herself, if only because his eyes so frequently were obliged to rest on her face. Besides, it was every woman’s duty to make the best of herself, and Jennifer’s not doing so no doubt accounted for the fact that she was still on his hands. Off those hands she ought, of course, to have been long ago; yet if some man had reft her from him before he was ready, as now, for her to go, it would have been extremely awkward, father knew; he couldn’t have run his house without her; his work would have suffered considerably; In fact he was unable to imagine what would have become of him. (p. 8)

When Father suddenly marries a much younger woman in secret, Jennifer sees an opportunity to escape from his clutches, envisioning a new life for herself in the freedom of the countryside. With Father and the nineteen-year-old Netta safely packed away on a month-long honeymoon, Jennifer travels to Sussex, determined to rent a cottage to establish her new life. There is a previous inheritance of £100 a year for Jennifer to live on – not much, granted, but just about enough if she is prudent and resourceful.

She was, she was sure, infinitely flexible, able to fit into the humblest little corner and enjoy herself in it, if only she could she be in it alone. Freedom, personal freedom, the right to be alone, was what she wanted, and what she now so miraculously had got; the power to behave naturally, to make one’s own arrangements, to decide (it seemed a little thing but was, she was certain, the whole difference between vigour and wilting) what one would do next. (p. 22)

After a farcical incident with a coat at the first prospective property, Jennifer strikes lucky at the second, securing a rather run-down cottage in Cherry Lidgate for a minimum of six months. The property is managed by the local vicar, twenty-seven-year-old James Ollier, whose older sister, Alice – also a spinster, but very different in mindset and temperament to the amiable Jennifer – is the other tyrannical character in the novel. While Jennifer sets about furnishing her new home, enjoying the freedom to do as she pleases, Alice starts to ponder the security of her own position. What if James were to develop a fondness for Jennifer? Where would that leave Alice, dependant as she is on her younger brother for a home?

Perhaps unsurprisingly, James and Jennifer do find comfort in one another’s company, each viewing the other as a kindred spirit of sorts. Consequently, Alice tries her best to monopolise her brother, spiriting him away to Switzerland on the pretence of a holiday – a trip that proves exasperating for James, strengthening his determination to forge a future with Jennifer.

As Simon Thomas highlights in his excellent afterword to the novel, both Jennifer and Alice are largely dependent on men for their livelihoods. While Jennifer is attempting to break free, her position remains somewhat precarious, especially once it transpires that Father expects her to live at home, despite his new marriage. Netta, it seems, is incapable of managing the household, leaving Father fearful of domestic chaos and disorder. Alice too is dependent on a man for her existence, although the power dynamics in this relationship are quite different to those between Jennifer and Father. Alice rules her brother with a rod of iron, dismissing him rather curtly with her regular cries of ‘bosh’. Nevertheless, despite her selfish, belittling tactics towards James, Alice realises that she would be exposed without him, reduced to a position lacking money, security and authority.

And quite apart from the fact that she owed her comfortable home and position, and her freedom from money cares to James, having ruled him since he was a baby he had now become necessary to her very existence—something to care for and to bully, to goad and to guard, something belonging to her, an object in life. What she would do without James, Alice, in her softer moments, couldn’t imagine. (p. 117)

Alongside the options for unmarried women, von Arnim explores other themes within the novel – freedom, selfishness, love and perhaps most importantly, the tension between individual desires and familial responsibility – all with her characteristic blend of insight and wit. There are some wonderfully farcical scenes here, particularly between James and Alice – a tussle over a basket of apricots seems to typify the tensions between the two siblings, signalling their opposing positions towards Jennifer’s presence in the cottage. Moreover, it is a testament to the author’s skills with character that even the most unlikeable individuals will elicit the reader’s sympathy – to some degree at least.

At heart, Father is a charming novel that uses wisdom, humour and playful ridicule to convey some of the challenges faced by unmarried women in the early 20th century. While understandable from a technical point of view, the ending feels a little too neat, but that’s a minor quibble in the scheme of things. It’s a delight to see it back in print.

Chatterton Square by E. H. Young

First published in 1947, E. H. Young’s marvellous novel, Chatterton Square, is another of the titles recently reissued by the British Library as part of their Women Writers series.

Having now read five of these books, I think this is probably the richest, most satisfying in the series so far. It is a novel of contrasts, an exploration of lives – women’s lives in particular – in the run-up to the Second World War. As Simon Thomas points out in his excellent afterword, on the surface, Chatterton Square 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 Young brings to her portraits of the main characters makes for a particularly compelling read – more so than that description suggests.

The two families in question are the Frasers and the Blacketts, whose houses are situated perpendicular to one another in the corner of Upper Radstowe’s Chatterton Square – a setting modelled on Clifton in Bristol. The Fraser household is the happy one – a relaxed and loving environment created by Rosamund Fraser for her five children, most of whom are teenagers. Rosamund – whose husband has disappeared off to France to find creative fulfilment – is an attractive, liberated woman, the kind of mother who encourages her children to pursue their own ambitions and preferences in life wherever possible. Also living with the Frasers is Rosamund’s close friend, Miss Spanner, a spinster in her forties, somewhat akin to a maiden aunt. 

By contrast, the Blackett household is much more subdued than its lively next-door neighbour. Headed by Herbert Blackett – a conceited, self-absorbed puritan who considers himself vastly superior to the Frasers – the Blackett family have three children, Flora, Rhoda and Mary, all similar in age to some of the Frasers. Mr Blackett’s wife, Bertha, has lived a narrow, restricted life, effectively penned in by her husband’s self-satisfied, high-minded behaviour, a damaging culture that permeates the Blackett household. 

In reality however, Bertha – who is constantly referred to as Mrs Blackett in the novel – is far smarter than her husband suspects. While at first glance, Bertha seems willing to defer to Mr Blackett’s better judgement on family matters, under the surface there is a steeliness to her personality, one that reacts to her husband’s arrogance with a mix of frustration and amusement. In short, it is a kind of coping mechanism for Bertha, her way of making the best of a bad situation. It is also something that Rhoda, Bertha’s favourite daughter, notices at an early point in the novel when her father makes one of his many disparaging remarks.

Without turning her head, Rhoda turned the eyes which had been watching her father towards her mother and intercepted the glance Mr. Blackett did not see and in the very short time it lasted, Rhoda saw in it a concentration of emotions which she could not analyse and which half frightened her. There was a cold anger in it, but she thought there was a kind of pleasure in it too. (p. 27)

One of the things Young excels at in this novel is to portray the complex network of relationships that develop between various members of these two families – connections which frequently reveal different aspects of their personalities. At first, Flora Blackett – who takes after her father in outlook and temperament – is attracted to James Fraser, an aspiring farmer. When James ultimately shows more interest in Rhoda Blackett – who is much kinder and generous than her sister, very much in the mould of her mother, Bertha – Flora’s nose is put out of joint. Even though she has lost interest in James by this point, Flora cannot help but feel envious of her sister’s connection with him due to their mutual love of the outdoors. It’s just one of the ways in which Young demonstrates her acute understanding of the human psyche.

Rhoda Blackett also develops a gentle friendship with Agnes Spanner, another woman rarely referred to by her first name, seemingly defined instead by her status as a spinster. Agnes is another woman who has lived a largely unfulfilling life, recently rescued by Rosamund following the death of Miss Spanner’s puritanical parents. When Rosamund receives a letter from her husband, Fergus, requesting his release from their marriage, Agnes fears for her own happiness. Having joined the Frasers in Chatterton Square, she is loath to relinquish her right to this newfound happiness if Rosamund decides to remarry. There will be no shortage of suitors for Rosamund to choose from should Fergus divorce her – not least Piers Lindsay, Mrs Blackett’s kindly cousin, who has recently moved to the area. In truth, Rosamund feels deeply for this somewhat wounded soul with his noticeable limp and scarred face – both of which were sustained in the First World War.

Perhaps the most fascinating interplay between the two houses is the one involving Mr Blackett and Rosamund herself. Given his priggish nature and fixation with respectability, it is perhaps no surprise that Mr B disapproves of Rosamund and her liberated attitudes to life and parenting. And yet, he remains strangely intrigued by this woman, sometimes going out of his way to observe her, if only to fuel his disapproval. Any signs of the furthering of connections between the two households are also gravely frowned upon.

As the narrative progresses, Mr Blackett becomes increasingly baffled by Bertha’s behaviour, particularly her responses to his pronouncements. Like the hapless Baron from Elizabeth von Armin’s novel, The Caravaners, Herbert Blackett – with his pompous nature and lack of self-awareness – has completely underestimated his wife’s intelligence, something that is all too apparent to the reader. When it is proposed that Mr Blackett should take Flora on holiday to Europe, Bertha is all for it, knowing full well that she and Rhoda would be happier as a result.

“I think you might feel quite different when you came back. Your mind would be refreshed. You would have other things to think about.”

“But I don’t want to feel different!” Mr. Blackett exclaimed irritably. “And as for my mind, I wasn’t aware that it showed signs of flagging.”

“Oh no,” Mrs. Blackett said pleasantly, “it’s too active,” and she gave him one of her rare, full looks. “Like a squirrel in a cage,” she added and carried away the tray before he could reply. (pp. 143–144)

Once Mr Blackett and his darling Flora are out of the way, Bertha visibly relaxes, as if a burdensome weight has been lifted from her shoulders. Consequently, Bertha, Rhoda and Mary are free to come and go as they please, to enjoy picnics with Cousin Piers, and to cement their connections with the Frasers, whose spirit and vitality prove a breath of fresh air.

As the novel draws to a close, the political developments in Europe become an increasingly dominant factor. The book is set in the lead-up to the Munich Agreement in 1938 when Chamberlain was advocating for appeasement. While many Britons – Mr Blackett included – consider the avoidance of war as a victory, others – including the Frasers, Piers and Miss Spanner – see Chamberlain’s actions as treacherous. There is a clear political dynamic running through the novel – not least the impact of developments on Rosamond’s eldest sons, Felix and James, both of whom would be called up in the event of another war.

In many respects, it’s an important component of the various uncertainties we are left with at the end of the novel. Rosamund’s marital status, and hence her freedom to marry Piers Lindsay, remains somewhat open – as does the nature of the Blackett’s marriage when Bertha finally bows to the pressure inflicted by her husband.

I’ll finish with a final quote, one that captures something of the sadness of this couple’s situation. I couldn’t help but be reminded of the Derdons from Maeve Brennan’s brilliant Springs of Affection collection. While the Derdons are very different individuals to the Blacketts, there is a similarity in their marriage – a kind of stasis and lack of communication that has prevented them from reaching out to one another to address their situation.

There was no one in the world, except himself, who really cared for him, there were very few who cared for her. They had each lived in a mean little world, his of self-satisfaction, hers of pandering to it for her own amusement and hers, she feared, was the meaner. Twenty years ago they might have helped each other but he did not know he needed help and she was too young, too wretched to give it, too sure he would not understand her if she asked for it, and here they were, looking at each other across the kitchen table, complete strangers bound to each other for life. (pp. 253–254)

In summary, this is a superb addition to the Women Writers series; my thanks to the British Library for kindly providing a review copy.

Tea is so Intoxicating by Mary Essex

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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