Tag Archives: Fiction

Vain Shadow by Jane Hervey

The British writer Jane Hervey wrote the bulk of Vain Shadow – a sharply-observed portrait of a wealthy English family at a time of mourning – in the early fifties. The draft novel then lay in a drawer for ten years before being polished up by Jane and submitted to Gollancz for publication – the book itself came out in 1963. Now it is available again for a whole new generation of readers to enjoy courtesy of this Persephone edition published in 2015.

The narrative arc is a relatively straightforward one – that said, it is not without its small moments of drama. In essence, the Winthorpes gather together at their Derbyshire country estate following the death of the Colonel – the head of the family – from an unspecified but not unexpected illness. Over the four days that follow, members of this family work through the ramifications of the Colonel’s passing, make arrangements for his funeral and debate the contents of his will. Hervey maps out her story in four clearly delineated sections, each one covering a particular day and the events contained therein.

Right from the start, Colonel Winthorpe is painted as a tyrant, a man who made the life of his wife a terrible misery, having barked at her, glared at her and grumbled to her for over fifty years. Mrs Winthrope’s first thought on being informed of the death of her husband is one of relief – relief at no longer having to kiss him goodnight at the end of each day. Perhaps now she can have that longed-for peach bathroom, something her husband would never have agreed to if he were still alive.

Also joining the family gathering are the Winthorpes’ three middle-aged sons, Jack, Harry and Brian, together with the Colonel’s adult granddaughter, Joanna, who was brought up by the Winthorpes following the early death of her mother.

Hervey really excels at capturing the dynamics and tensions – both spoken and unspoken – between the various members of this family, particularly the three brothers, Jack, Harry and Brian. Jack, the eldest of the three, is married to a much younger woman, a rather spirited actress by the name of Laurine. In spite of her efforts to fit in with the Winthorpe family, Laurine had not won the Colonel’s approval, certainly by the time of her wedding – a factor which now leaves Jack wondering whether his father might have cut him out of the final version of his will.

While Jack is conscious of his position as the Colonel’s eldest son (and therefore the one who ought to be in control of the funeral arrangements), it is Harry, the punctilious middle child, who appears to be running the show. As the only unmarried son, Harry has lived at the family home for the duration of his life, managing the Winthorpe estate for his father, particularly so in recent years. Brian, the brightest and most perceptive of the three brothers, is somewhat frustrated by Harry’s exacting ways – so much so that this creates further pressure at what is already a stressful time.

On the night that subsequently turned out to be the Colonel’s last, Mrs Winthorpe, Jack and Harry had decided not to stay by the old man’s side as he lay in bed. (Brian and Joanna were in their own homes at the time, therefore not present at the estate.) When they gather together over breakfast the next day, all three are keen to justify their decision, both internally to themselves and externally to others. In this scene, Jack is talking to the Colonel’s nurse, the only person who was with the old man at the moment of his death.

Jack turned to her: ‘You must be very tired,’ he said, with immense concern. ‘I do hope you managed all right? You could always have come for one of us, you know.’

Harry looked up sharply. There it was again – just like Mother – what was the use of agreeing not to sit up if they were all going to start feeling guilty about it now?

‘I managed all right, thank you,’ Nurse said stiffly. It was not the first time she had been alone with someone while they were dying. No doubt it would not be the last. Didn’t they think her capable? (p. 25)

While most families would mourn the death of their patriarch, there is little in the way of expressions of grief or sadness here. In fact, the only people who seem to show any respect for the Colonel are the housekeeper, Upjohn, and the other members of staff employed by the estate – it is they who appear to know what is required of them at this time.

One of the things Hervey does very effectively in this novel is to move seamlessly between each character’s spoken words and their own private thoughts. In several instances, these two things are the direct opposites of one another, such that virtually every member of the immediate family seems to be thinking something entirely different to what they are saying. It all makes for quite an amusing read, even though a man’s death is central to the story.

There is humour too in many of the details Hervey includes to flesh out her characters, illustrating as she does so the petty grievances and resentments simmering away between various members of the family. Harry’s insistence on the fact that his eggs must be boiled for exactly four minutes, no more and no less; Laurine’s desire to wear an ostentatious diamond brooch to the funeral, possibly on her dress or maybe on her hat; the way some individuals secretly covet particular items from the Colonel’s personal collection of trinkets as they go through the process of divvying them up. There are many more. In this scene, Jack’s frustration at his mother’s concerns about the funeral flowers threatens to boil over as they make their way out the dining room – Mrs Winthorpe is the first to speak.

‘…Still you’re really satisfied with what you got?’

‘Yes, yes,’ Jack broke in. Good Lord, why on earth couldn’t she get a move on! Standing in the doorway like that holding up the traffic (and he was at the end of the queue). One felt such a fool, with Upjohn hovering about in the background like a black crow. (p. 98)

Alongside the Colonel and Mrs Winthorpe, there is another deeply troubled marriage at the heart of this novel, that between Joanna and her devious husband, Tony. The personification of charm on the outside, Tony is at heart a cruel and self-centred man, forever bullying and admonishing Joanna in private while publicly feigning to be nothing but sweetness and light. For two years, Joanna has been subjected to a litany of complaints from Tony, from the way in which she manages their home to her desire for a little independence now and again. Their relationship has been stifled by Tony’s displays of disappointment and resentment.

For two years she tried to be what Tony wanted, listened to his complaints, tried to do better, failed, tried again, failed…round and round liked a squirrel in a cage, day after day. And at night in bed she cried, after he had finished with her body and she was alone again. (p. 61)

Virtually all the Winthorpes have been taken in by Tony’s charisma and public performance – only Brian, and possibly Colonel Winthorpe himself, have not been entirely fooled.

Colonel Winthorpe’s death marks a definite turning point for Joanna. While it may be too late for Mrs Winthorpe to break free from the spectre of her husband’s tyranny, for Joanna the situation is very different. She is young enough and strong enough to move forward – to carve out a new life for herself in a relationship built on love.

Joanna saw the weariness on her grandmother’s face, and realised that she was too tired, after all these years, to protest any more. The complaints, displeasures, threats not always veiled, which had closed in on her day by day, month by month, year by year; throughout that long, long marriage, had gradually stifled even the faint tentative fluttering she might once have made towards freedom, while she had still been young enough and strong enough to escape. Now, she was beaten. (p. 180)

I really enjoyed Vain Shadow as a darkly comic insight into dysfunctional family dynamics at a time of heightened stress – there is much jostling for position and saving face going on here. As a novel, it also has some interesting things to say about ways in which women’s lives were often controlled by the men of the family back in the 1950s – the bullying husbands and disapproving elders seeking to put women in their place and restrict their enjoyment of life. Even Harry tries to interfere in Joanna’s future fearing a potential scandal if her marriage to Tony breaks up.

In some ways, Vain Shadow reminded me of Janet McNeill’s Tea at Four O’ Clock, another novel where the recently deceased makes their presence felt on the remaining members of the family. Both of these novels are very, very good, if a little claustrophobic at times – deliberately so, I think.

Good Evening, Mrs Craven: The Wartime Stories of Mollie Panter-Downes

Mollie Panter-Downes was The New Yorker’s England correspondent for the duration of the Second World War and well beyond. During the war years, she produced a significant output for the journal, comprising a series of fortnightly ‘Letters from London’ and twenty-one short stories (roughly one every three months). Luckily for us, these insightful stories have been collected together in this beautiful edition from Persephone Books, initially issued in 1999.

In essence, these are stories of ordinary British people – mostly women – trying to cope with the day-to-day realities of life on the Home Front. While the war alters the lives of all the characters we encounter here, the battleground itself is elsewhere – off-camera so to speak. Instead, we see women trying to accommodate evacuees from the city, making pyjamas for soldiers overseas, or doing their best to maintain some degree of normality around the home in the face of constrained resources.

Panter-Downes’ style – understated, perceptive and minutely observed – makes for a subtly powerful effect. She is particularly adept at capturing the range of emotions experienced by her characters, from loneliness and longing to fear and self-pity.

In This Flower, Safety (1940), Miss Ewing, a wealthy lady from London, tries to escape the horrors of war by fleeing to a seaside town only to discover that even the most sedate of places can feel somewhat exposed. In her heart of hearts, Miss Ewing knows that her life will never be the same again.

Two or three of the stories touch upon one of the major consequences of war for those left behind – the need for families to accommodate distant relations, friends or evacuees in an effort to do their bit. Somewhat unsurprisingly, this often leads to tensions as individuals from different classes or social spheres try to get on with one another while living under the same roof. In other instances, it is merely a clash of personalities and personal habits.

In one of my favourite stories from the collection, Mrs. Ramsay’s War (1940), the titular character is finding her house guests – the ebullient Mrs Parmenter and her two Pekingese dogs – rather difficult to bear.

‘But how we shall revel in the spring when it comes!’ cried Mrs. Parmenter. ‘There! Don’t their brave little faces give you fresh hope?’ Mrs. Ramsay felt that it would take more than a few snowdrops to give her fresh hope. It would take something really big, like the back end of a Daimler loaded with Parmenter luggage going rapidly towards London. (p. 17)

It’s a beautifully observed story, one that also demonstrates the author’s talent for dry humour and wit. Combined Operations (1942) explores a similar theme as a young couple, whose London flat has been destroyed in a raid, outstay their welcome when they ‘visit’ friends in the country.

Other stories of evacuees, most notably, In Clover (1940), expose the snobbery and prejudices of the upper-middle classes. In this piece, the refined Mrs Fletcher is repulsed by the physical appearance of the Clark family, the dishevelled evacuees she is to accommodate in her pristine home.

She had known that her guests were coming from one of the poorest parts of London and it was natural they should look dingy, but she had imagined a medium dinginess that would wear off with one or two good scrubbings and a generous handout of gingham pinafores. The dinginess of the Clarks, which seemed to have soaked in far deeper than just their skins, was a setback, but Mrs. Fletcher met it with her most charming smile. She even drew one of the children towards her as she talked, and stood with an arm round his bony shoulders, trying not to shudder, thinking that she must take a good hot bath before she went anywhere near the nursery. (pp. 22-23)

Right from the start, it is patently obvious that Mrs Fletcher and Mrs Clark have very little in common. Unfortunately for Mrs Fletcher, her belief that money can solve almost every difficulty one encounters in life proves to be somewhat misguided.

There is a strong sense of loneliness running through many of these stories, augmented by feelings of isolation, inadequacy and loss. Panter-Downes is perhaps at her best when she mines this territory by delving more deeply into her characters’ emotions.

In Goodbye, My Love (1941), one of the best stories in the collection, a young woman must face the agonising countdown to her husband’s departure for war, the clock in the flat a constant reminder of their rapidly diminishing time together. This excellent story comes with a sting in its tail. Just as the woman is coming to terms with the absence of her husband, something unexpected happens – and what should be a happy occasion is instead tinged with anxiety.

It’s the Reaction (1943) is in a similar vein to the previous piece. In this, my favourite story in the collection, a lonely young woman is buoyed by the camaraderie of war when she finally gets to know her neighbours as they take shelter together during the Blitz. However, once the sequence of air raids is over, life in Miss Birch’s apartment block reverts to normal – and when she tries to rekindle the new friendships, Miss Birch soon discovers the fickle nature of relationships, even in times of war.

Mrs Chalmers, if she and Miss Birch met in the lift, said, ‘Do you know, I’ve been meaning and meaning to ring you,’ and at the back of her worried baby eyes and plucked eyebrows, Miss Birch could see the thought forming that one of these days they must really ask the old girl over, fill her up with gin, do something about it. After a while, even that thought disappeared. Mrs Chalmers simply said ‘Hello’ and smiled vaguely, as though Miss Birch were someone she had once met at a party. (pp. 139-140)

Other stories touch on the sense of absence or loss that can characterise a country at war. I loved this line from Fin de Siècle (1943) in which a young couple reflect on their friends’ house – now standing empty and forsaken following the occupants’ departure.

They had gone, and the integrity, the personality of the house had splintered like matchwood. (p.73)

The advent of social change which accompanied the war is another prominent theme, particularly in the later pieces. In Cut Down the Trees (1943), Mrs Walsingham, a member of the English gentry, opens her home to accommodate forty Canadian soldiers in support of the war effort. Interestingly though, it is not Mrs Walsingham who struggles to get to grips with a different way of life, but her elderly maid, Dossie – a woman who remains very fearful of change. In essence, Dossie bemoans the loss of the old guard, the disappearance of the caps and aprons who served the house and maintained order. This new practice of her mistress taking dinner in the kitchen will come to no good; the passing of old traditions and customs is something to regret rather than embrace.

She disliked the innovation intensely. It was all part and parcel of the unwarranted bad joke, the conspiracy against Dossie’s way of life, which they called a war and which had taken first the menservants and then the girls one by one, which had stopped the central heating, made a jungle of the borders and a pasture of the lawns, marooned the two old women in a gradually decaying house with forty Canadians, and made Mrs. Walsingham stop dressing for dinner. (pp. 149-150)

In Year of Decision (1944), an upper-middle-class couple try hard to preserve their old rituals however pointless they seem to be. The wife in particular struggles to keep on top of the house, a situation that leaves her feeling both frazzled and exhausted. The husband, on the other hand, longs for the action and excitement of war – instead, he finds himself confined to a Government office on account of his specialist knowledge, a valuable commodity in a time of crisis. In a sense, some aspects of this story feel like a bit of a rehearsal for One Fine Day, Panter-Downes’ wonderful novel about a couple adjusting to a new way of life following the end of the Second World War.

Oher stories in this fine collection feature a young woman facing up to pregnancy and the prospect of motherhood in the absence of her husband, a mistress who realises that she may never discover if her married lover is injured or killed in action, and the various members of a sewing circle as they gossip and bicker about all manner of subjects.

All in all, these are beautifully observed vignettes, shot through with humour, understanding, insight and humanity. Recommended for readers interested in the British way of life in the 1940s.

Good Evening, Mrs Craven is published by Persephone Books, personal copy.

Loitering with Intent by Muriel Spark

Of the Muriel Spark novels I’ve read so far, Loitering with Intent is perhaps the most playful. In some respects, there are similarities with Memento Mori, Spark’s wonderful social comedy on the challenges of ageing – another vehicle for her razor-sharp wit coupled with a dash of the macabre. I had a lot of fun with Loitering, a marvellous slice of metafiction about the work of writers and the fine line between fiction and reality.

Loitering is narrated by Fleur Talbot, now a seasoned author with a long and successful career under her belt. In order to compile her autobiography, Fleur looks back on her early days as an aspiring writer in the mid-20th century, a time when she was eager to gain a foothold in the literary world.

The setting is London, the year 1949. Fleur takes a job working as a secretary for Sir Quentin Oliver, a rather odd character who runs the Autobiographical Association, a ‘special circle’ designed to support a small number of individuals in the production of their memoirs. By night, Fleur toils away on her debut novel, Warrender Chase, a dark and sinister story which she claims to be a work of fiction. Nevertheless, that doesn’t stop her from taking inspiration from the world around her.

I was finding it extraordinary how, throughout all the period I had been working on the novel, right from Chapter One, characters and situations, images and phrases that I absolutely needed for the book simply appeared as if from nowhere into my range of perception. I was a magnet for experiences that I needed. Not that I reproduced them photographically and literally. I didn’t for a moment think of portraying Sir Quentin as he was. What gave me great happiness was his gift to me of the finger-tips of his hands touching each other, and, nestling among the words, as he waved towards the cabinet, ‘In there are secrets,’ the pulsating notion of how much he wanted to impress, how greatly he desired to believe in himself. (pp. 7-8)

Sir Quentin insists that the work Fleur is to undertake at the Association is top secret, to the extent that the opening chapters of the autobiographies are kept in a locked cabinet in his London apartment. It is alleged that the contents of the memoirs are incendiary, full of revelations that ought not to be revealed for several years in case they cause distress to certain persons still alive. In reality, however, the drafts are rather dull and poorly written. As a consequence, Fleur is encouraged by Sir Quentin to spruce up (and maybe even spice up) the texts, giving her licence to act as an editor of sorts as she goes along.

The members of the Autobiographical Association (AA) are an eclectic bunch. There are six of them in total including a French Baroness of indeterminate age, a defrocked priest who has experienced a loss of faith, and an elaborately dressed woman who was raised at the Czar of Russia’s court. Another writer might have chosen to expand on the lives of these characters in more detail, but Spark decides – rather wisely in my opinion – to keep the focus on Fleur and her immediate world.

As Fleur goes about her work at the AA, she begins to suspect that Sir Quentin is involved in some kind of sinister racket – possibly one that involves blackmail, although the financial circumstances don’t seem to fit. He appears to be quite wealthy while most of the members of the Association are not; some of them are actually quite hard up.

To complicate matters further, the boundaries between ‘reality’ and ‘fiction’ begin to blur. Some of the people Fleur encounters in her job start to resemble characters from her novel, Warrender Chase. Certain events from her book play out in real life. Particular phrases reverberate and echo through each story as life begins to imitate art.

In my febrile state of creativity, I saw before my eyes how Sir Quentin was revealing himself chapter by chapter to be a type and consummation of Warrender Chase, my character. I could see that the members of the Autobiographical Association were about to become his victims, psychological Jack the Ripper as he was. (p. 42)

To reveal many more details of the plot might spoil things, I think. Suffice it to say that Spark has a lot of fun in playing out the rest of the novel, a story that involves theft, duplicity and a dash of intrigue.

There are some brilliant characters here. Sir Quentin is quite clearly a crank and a terrible snob, in thrall to a social class that is rapidly fading away.

Fleur herself is a very engaging narrator – funny, independent and a little bit absurd. She is very protective of her novel, Warrender Chase, even though she believes at the time that it may never be published. I don’t think we’re meant to take her entirely seriously, especially as there appears to be an element of unreliability in her narration. Maybe trying to disentangle ‘fiction’ and ‘reality’ is all part of the fun here.

Sir Quentin’s elderly mother, Lady Edwina, is another marvellous creation – complete with her glamorous tea gowns and immaculately painted nails, she has a penchant for the dramatic entrance. In spite of the fact that Sir Quentin and his housekeeper, the rather bossy Beryl Tims, believe Lady Edwina to be a little senile, Fleur quite correctly intuits that there is nothing wrong with this lady’s mind. Far from it; she is quite sharp with a wicked sense of humour to boot, all of which makes for some interesting interactions with Mrs Tims.

In this scene, Lady Edwina enters a meeting of the AA ‘as if it were a drawing-room tea party, holding up the proceedings with the blackmail of her very great age and of her newly revealed charm’. It’s a real delight.

She knew some of them by name, enquired of their families so solicitously that it hardly mattered that most of them were long since dead, and when Mrs Tims entered with the tea and soda buns on a tray, exclaimed, ‘Ah, Tims! What delightful things have you brought us?’ Beryl Tims was amazed to see her sitting there, wide awake, with her powdered face and her black satin tea dressed freshly spoiled at the neck and shoulders with a slight face-powder overflow. Mrs Tims was furious but she put on her English Rose simper and placed the tray with solicitude on the table beside old Edwina, who was at that moment enquiring of the unfrocked Father, ‘Are you the Rector of Wandsworth in civilian clothing?’ (pp. 30-31)

All in all, Loitering with Intent is another excellent novel by Muriel Spark, full of ideas and knowing nods to the power of fiction. (I find her a consistently inventive writer.) There are stories nested within other stories here: Fleur’s recollections of her time at the AA; the biographies of the AA members, ultimately augmented by various developments in the book; Fleur’s novel Warrender Chase, of which we learn more as Loitering unfolds.

I’ll finish with a final quote from Fleur as she reflects on her work as a writer, an observation that seems just as applicable to Spark herself.

When I first started writing people used to say my novels were exaggerated. They never were exaggerated, merely aspects of realism. (p. 65) 

I am a little early for Ali’s #ReadingMuriel2018 schedule, but you can discover more about her project to celebrate Spark’s centenary here.

Loitering with Intent is published by Virago; personal copy.

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes by Anita Loos

What a marvellous novella this turned out to be. Smart, engaging and uproariously funny – another great summer read for me.

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes was the debut novel of the American screenwriter and author Anita Loos. (You can read a little more about her career here.) The book was an instant success on its release in 1925 – the individual sections had previously been published in Harper’s Bazaar, so the market was ripe for its appearance as a complete text.

Blondes features Lorelei Lee, a young American girl about town, and her best friend, Dorothy Shaw. Lorelei and Dorothy are very different from one another. At first sight, Lorelei – a blonde – appears rather witless and ditzy, while Dorothy – a brunette – seems sharper, more outspoken and more irreverent in her views. Lorelei likes to think of herself as being very refined, someone who is part of a particular social set along with everything this confers – more of that later…

So Mr Eisman gave me quite a nice string of pearls and he gave Dorothy a diamond pin and we all went to the Colony for dinner and we all went to a show and supper at the Trocadero and we all spent quite a pleasant evening. (p. 18)

The book’s main action really gets going when one of Lorelei’s male friends, Mr Eisman, ‘the Button King’, sends Lorelei to Europe with a view to broadening her horizons – a means of furthering her education if you like. Naturally, Dorothy accompanies our narrator on her trip, and their story is presented as a series of entries from Lorelei’s diary, a sequence of amusing vignettes as the girls make their way from New York to London to Paris and beyond.

It soon becomes clear that Lorelei has little interest in gaining a ‘traditional’ education while abroad. In fact, she seems far more concerned with shopping, drinking champagne and collecting valuable trinkets than taking in the famous sights. The majority of these attractions fail to impress her anyway, especially once she compares them to the buildings back in the US.

In London they make a very, very great fuss over nothing at all. I mean London is really nothing at all. For instants, they make a great fuss over a tower that really is not even as tall as the Hickox building in Little Rock Arkansas and it would only make a chimney on one of our towers in New York. So Sir Francis Beekman wanted us to get out and look at the tower because he said that quite a famous Queen had her head cut off there one morning and Dorothy said “What a fool she was to get up that morning” and that is really the only sensible thing that Dorothy has said in London. So we did not bother to get out. (p. 40)

Money, expensive jewellery and the good things in life are all important to Lorelei – she likes nothing more than a glamorous diamond bracelet and a delightful glass of champagne or two. Men are the main providers of these things with Lorelei attracting a trail of suitable admirers wherever she goes.

That said, Lorelei isn’t particularly interested in getting involved in any amorous romances. Unlike Dorothy, who falls in love relatively easily, Lorelei doesn’t become emotionally attached to any of these men. Instead, she sees them more as forms of light-hearted amusement and entertainment, just as long as they can furnish her with stylish gifts. As soon as Lorelei gets bored with her current beau, she demonstrates her readiness to move on to the next – providing he has enough money to keep her in the manner to which she has become accustomed.

So the French veecount is going to call up in the morning but I am not going to see him again. Because French gentlemen are really quite deceiving. I mean they take you to quite cute places and they make you feel quite good about yourself and you really seem to have a delightful time but when you get home and come to think it all over, all you have got is a fan that only cost 20 francs and a doll that they gave you way for nothing in a restaurant. I mean a girl has to look out in Paris, or she would have such a good time in Paris that she would not get anywhere. So I really think that American gentlemen are the best after all, because kissing your hand may make you feel very very good but a diamond and safire bracelet lasts forever. (p. 55)

By the way, these misspellings and the rather childlike phraseology are all part of Lorelei’s charm; Loos’ prose has a natural rhythm all of its own.

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes is a short book, but the girls’ adventures rattle along at quite a pace. There is a brief encounter with the Prince of Wales, a contretemps over a diamond tiara that Lorelei has her eye on, and plenty of other vignettes aside. We even get a peek at Lorelei’s backstory – an incident involving a shooting, a charge of which our heroine was rather demurely acquitted.

The two women make ideal foils for one another – in many ways, they are complete opposites. Lorelei struggles to understand why Dorothy can fall for a man who has no money, while Dorothy herself is dismayed at Lorelei’s willingness to accept a life without love. However, a man’s monetary wealth and resources are more valuable to Lorelei than any emotional or physical connection. She is very single-minded in her approach.

You might feel you know the story of Lorelei and Dorothy from the 1953 Howard Hawks film – also titled Gentlemen Prefer Blondes – but Loos’ original novel feels like a different creature altogether. There is something rather knowing about the book, something much sharper and more satirical going on underneath the outwardly frothy surface. It’s all very cleverly done. Whatever level you choose to read it on, it’s a real treat.

The Penguin Classics edition comes complete with a series of charming illustrations by Ralph Barton. Here’s an example from the Paris section of the story.

To finish, a brief note about Irmgard Keun’s 1932 novel, The Artificial Silk Girl, a book that would make an interesting partner to Gentlemen Prefer Blondes – you can read my post about it here. Reputedly inspired by the Loos, Keun set out to write a response from the German perspective, something that ultimately illustrated the darker side of life which lay beneath the glamour of the capital city of Berlin. It’s an excellent book, one that features a narrator whose voice I found utterly engaging from the start. Highly recommended reading.

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes is published by Penguin Books; personal copy.

Liars in Love by Richard Yates

I’ve been on a bit of Richard Yates kick lately. First with A Good School (1978), his loosely autobiographical novel of life as a teenage boy at a single-sex boarding school, and now with Liars in Love (1981), his second collection of short stories. While Liars isn’t quite as strong as his earlier collection, the superb Eleven Kinds of Loneliness (1962), it’s still very much worth reading, especially if you’re a fan of this author’s work or short stories in general – Yates is widely acknowledged as a true master of the form.

Once again, Yates demonstrates a deep understanding of the frailties of human nature here. More specifically, he explores the frustrations and disappointments of day-to-day life, the feelings of worthlessness that can stem from small failures, and the lack of connection as promising relationships break down and individuals drift apart. Here we have failing marriages, disparate households, and children who seem detached and isolated from their parents. It’s vintage Yates territory, as intuitively observed as one might expect.

The collection comprises seven stories each ranging from around 30 to 60 pages in length. As with other collections I’ve reviewed, I’m not going to cover each story in turn. Instead, my aim is to pick out a few favourites to give a flavour of the volume as a whole.

The opening story, Oh, Joseph, I’m So Tired, is narrated by a young boy living in Greenwich Village with his sister and mother who is trying her hand – quite poorly as it turns out – at producing sculptures. The mother is a classic Yates character; having separated from her husband some three years earlier, she is now a somewhat tragic and deluded woman whose best years are almost certainly behind her.

She was forty-one, an age when even romantics must admit that youth is gone, and she had nothing to show for the years but a studio crowded with green plaster statues that nobody would buy. She believed in the aristocracy, but there was no reason to suppose the aristocracy would ever believe in her. (p. 30)

This is a thoughtful story laced with moments of pathos and sadness, a strong start to the collection.

Children feature again in one of my favourites pieces, Trying Out for the Race. In this story, two mothers with kids agree to share a house together in Scarsdale as a means of combining their respective resources. However, in spite of the fact that the two women, Elizabeth Hogan Baker and Lucy Towers, have been friends for years, they turn out to be somewhat mismatched as living companions. Here’s a brief flavour of the myriad of tensions that ensue – Nancy is Elizabeth’s young daughter.

The Towers family shied away from Elizabeth most of the time, and so did Nancy; it was like having a stranger in the house. Coming heavily downstairs in her spike heels, standing at the front windows to stare out at the Post Road as if in deep thought, picking at whatever food was set before her and drinking a lot after dinner as she paged impatiently through many magazines. Elizabeth didn’t even seem to notice how uncomfortable she made everyone feel. (p. 84)

This is a story full of acute observations on the sheer awkwardness and frustrations of living in close quarters with people other than family – a situation familiar to most of us at some point in our lives.

Another of my favourite stories, A Natural Girl, touches on the strained relationship between a father and his much-loved daughter, a young woman named Susan. Yates is typically strong on openings, but this one in particular drew me in from the very first line. Here’s how it begins.

In the spring of her sophomore year, when she was twenty, Susan Andrews told her father very calmly that she didn’t love him anymore. She regretted it, or at least the tone of it, almost at once, but it was too late: he sat looking stunned for a few seconds and then began to cry, all hunched over to hide his face from her, trying with one unsteady hand to get a handkerchief out of his dark suit. He was one of the five or six most respected hematologists in the United States, and nothing like this had happened to him for a great many years. (p. 37)

While the father struggles to understand why his daughter feels this way, there is in fact no particular reason behind it. As Susan says at one point: “There’s no more why to not loving than there is to loving. I think most intelligent people understand that.”

This is another beautifully observed story which also explores the landscape of Susan’s marriage to her college lecturer, an older man named David Clark. Towards the end of the narrative, things come full circle in more ways than one as Susan makes a brief return visit to the family home before setting out on her life again. The opening and closing sections are particularly poignant.

Others stories focus on an American soldier who requests compassionate leave to visit his estranged mother and sister, both of whom now live in England; a divorced writer who has a fling with a strikingly attractive girl while working on a screenplay in LA; and a young copywriter/editor named Bill Grove, presumably a grown-up version of the protagonist in A Good School.

While much of the subject matter explored in this collection is rather melancholy, there are touches of real tenderness and compassion here. In some ways, Yates is at his best when capturing these moments as he brings a degree of sensitivity and nuance to such scenes. It can be difficult when a quote is presented out of context, but I hope you can see something of it in this passage from Trying Out for the Race.

And Nancy gave her a brief, shy smile before turning away again. Slowly, Elizabeth removed the driving glove from her right hand. She reached across her daughter’s lap, clasped the outer thigh and brought her sliding over, careful to keep her small knees clear of the shuddering gear shift. She held the child’s thighs pressed fast against her own for a long time; then, in a voice so soft it could scarcely be heard over the sound of the car, she said “Listen, it’ll be alright, sweetheart. It’ll be all right.” (p. 92)

In summary, Liars in Love is another very satisfying collection from Yates. There are even glimmers of hope and optimism in some of these stories, a sense of fresh starts, new beginnings or second chances for some of the characters, which is pleasing to see. In many ways, these stories feel all the better for it.

Liars in Love is published by Vintage Books; personal copy.

Jane and Prudence by Barbara Pym

I have written before about my love of Barbara Pym’s novels, populated as they are by ‘excellent’, well-meaning women, amiable clergymen, fusty academics and one or two more spiky characters – usually female. It’s a world that seems at once both rather absurd and strangely believable, full of the sharply-observed details of a genteel English community in the 1950s. Jane and Prudence is another sparkling addition to Pym’s oeuvre, a charming story of unrequited love, the blossoming of unlikely relationships, and the day-to-day dramas of village life.

In this novel, first published in 1953, we are introduced to Jane Cleveland, the forty-one-year-old wife of Nicholas Cleveland, an Anglican minister, and her close friend Prudence Bates, a twenty-nine-year-old spinster who lives on her own in London. (The two women first met one another at Oxford Uni where Prudence was a pupil in Jane’s English Literature class.)

Towards the beginning of the novel, Jane, Nicholas and their eighteen-year-old daughter, Flora, are in the process of moving to a new parish in the country, clearly hoping that they will be greeted by a gaggle of eager parishioners. While Jane is amiable and well-intentioned, she is less than ideally suited to the role of a clergyman’s wife, liable as she is to mild indiscretions and a touch too much honesty. Her frumpy, ill-matched clothes give her the appearance of a farmer’s wife all set to feed the chickens, and her down-to-earth style means she lacks some of the social graces of her predecessor, the wife of the much-revered Canon Pritchard. Nevertheless, Jane and Nicholas love one another dearly, and they seem happy enough in their new home. If only they didn’t have to get embroiled in those petty disagreements amongst the more opinionated members of the parish council, then everything would be fine.

Jane’s real area of interest is in finding a desirable match for her friend, the bright, elegant and relatively independent Prudence. Much to Jane’s dismay, Prudence seems to have slipped into a sequence of unsatisfactory, shallow love affairs – mostly with unsuitable men.

As the novel opens, the primary object of Prudence’s attention is her boss, the rather remote academic/publisher, Arthur Grampian. For some months now, Prudence has been worshipping Dr Grampian from afar in spite of the fact that he is married and entirely unsuitable for her. (In reality, she is far too good for him.) Jane, however, has other ideas for Prudence, especially once she meets Fabian Driver, a handsome if somewhat vain young widower who lives in the village. In this scene, Jane tries to casually mention the existence of Fabian to Pru without appearing to have an agenda for doing so. Prudence, however, intuits quite clearly what Jane is hoping to seed by the comment…

Jane was too wise to appear anything but casual in her tone as she mentioned this eligible widower. She knew that the pride of even young spinsters is a delicate thing and that Prudence was especially sensitive. There must be no hint that she was trying to ‘bring them together’.

‘Yes – you said something about him eating the hearts of his victims,’ said Prudence, equally casual. She realised that Jane might have some absurd idea in her mind about ‘bringing them together’, but determined not to let her see that she suspected or that she entertained any hopes herself. So they were both satisfied and neither was really deceived for a moment. (pp.74-75)

In time, Prudence pays a visit to the Clevelands, the village whist drive being touted as the main social attraction of the weekend. Here she meets Fabian, and the pair slip away for a quiet drink together at the local pub. With her natural distrust of good-looking men, Prudence is a little wary of Fabian at first, but after a few dinners and trips to the theatre back in London, their relationship soon starts to develop.

Fabian himself is a very interesting character, perhaps more complex than he appears at first sight. I love this quote about his late wife, Constance, a passage that says as much about Fabian as it does about his former partner.

She had been a gentle, faded-looking woman, some years older than Fabian. She had been pretty when he had married her and had brought him a comfortable amount of money as well as a great deal of love. He had been unprepared for her death and outraged by it, for it had happened suddenly, without a long illness to prepare him, when he had been deeply involved in one of the little romantic affairs which he seemed to need, either to bolster up his self-respect or for some more obvious reason. The shock of it all had upset him considerably, and although there had been several women eager to console him, he had abandoned all his former loves, fancying himself more in the role of an inconsolable widower than as a lover. (p. 56)

As the story plays out, there are some unexpected developments, one or two of which show that we can find solace and a form of love with the most unlikely of potential partners.

Once again, Pym shows her keen eye for a humorous scenario and an interesting personality or two. There is an opportunity to revisit the formidable Miss Doggett and her sharp-witted companion, Jessie Morrow, a wonderful pair of characters who were first created by Pym for her delightful social comedy, Crampton Hodnet. (The novel was originally written in the late 1930s but published posthumously in 1985.) There is also the gossipy Mrs Glaze, a sort of daily woman/help who seems to enjoy busying herself around the Clevelands’ house. Her observations on the comings and goings in the village are a real delight. Finally, there are Prudence’s work colleagues, the rather parochial Miss Clothier and Miss Trapnell, both of whom appear to be more interested in trying to take the moral high ground over their time of arrival at the office than in the duties they are to carry out once they get there.

Pym’s trademark descriptions of food and clothing – hats in particular – are also in evidence. In this passage, she manages to convey Miss Doggett’s self-assumed superiority over the other ladies who help out at the church while also describing their headwear.

It seemed that there was a particular kind of hat worn by ladies attending Parochial Church Council meetings – a large beret of neutral-coloured felt pulled well down to one side. Both Mrs Crampton and Mrs Mayhew wore hats of this type, as did Miss Doggett, though hers was of a superior material, a kind of plush decorated with a large jewelled pin. Indeed, there seemed to be little for the ladies to do but observe each other’s hats, for their voices were seldom heard. (p. 143)

While there is no curate here for the ladies of the village to fuss over and cherish, Pym does offer us a kind of curate substitute, the rather charming Edward Lyall, the local MP. Lyall proves to be an admirable replacement for the young innocent when he captures the villagers’ attention at the whist drive.

All in all, Jane and Prudence is another marvellous novel from Barbara Pym. Once again, she gives us an insight into the lives of her characters, women in particular, and their desire to feel valued.

In many respects, several of Pym’s central protagonists are women living on the fringes, their lives feeling somewhat unsatisfactory and unfulfilled – almost as if they have become accustomed to waiting in the wings, observing others from a distance. Nevertheless, by the end of her novels, one usually gets the sense that these individuals are somewhat better off, more content with the world and their place within in it. I certainly feel that’s the case here with Prudence – and with Mildred in Excellent Women, too.

Jane and Prudence is published by Virago Books; personal copy.

The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson

Last year I read and loved Shirley Jackson’s gothic masterpiece We Have Always Lived in the Castle. So, it was with a keen sense of anticipation that I picked up another of her classic novels, The Haunting of Hill House, first published in 1959 and famously adapted for the screen as The Haunting some four years later. It’s a brilliantly unsettling book, a gothic/psychological chiller that relies more on the characters’ fears, imaginations and terrors than any explicit elements of horror or violence.

Central to the story is Eleanor Vance, a rather reclusive, childlike woman in her early thirties who travels to Hill House at the invitation of Dr Montague, an academic with an interest in the paranormal. Dr Montague has rented Hill House for the summer to observe and collect any evidence of supernatural activity or ghostly goings-on, not least of which may be connected to the dwelling’s complex and ill-fated history. Also joining Dr Montague and Eleanor at the house are Theodora, a bright, flamboyant young woman who brings a touch of sophistication to the proceedings and Luke Sanderson, the congenial heir to the estate.

Eleanor is the first of the group to arrive at the property, and her initial impressions are not promising. Hill House itself is a strong force within the book, its imposing presence making itself felt at an early stage in the story.

This house, which seemed somehow to have formed itself, flying together into its own powerful pattern under the hands of its builders, fitting itself into its own construction of lines and angles, reared its great head back against the sky without concession to humanity. It was a house without kindness, never meant to be lived in, not a fit place for people or for love or for hope. Exorcism cannot alter the countenance of a house; Hill House would stay as it was until it was destroyed. (p. 35)

The house has been built in a curious design with the various rooms forming two concentric circles surrounding a central inner room. All the angles and doorways are slightly off-kilter, giving each room a somewhat unbalanced perspective, a feeling which only adds to the creepiness of the place – the internal doors seem to close of their own free will.

The housekeeper, Mrs Dudley, is a very strange creature indeed, unwilling to waver from her strict timetable of breakfast at nine and the laying out of dinner at six sharp, leaving everything in readiness for the guests so that she can head off to her own home before it gets dark. Mrs D is a wonderful Jackson creation (albeit in miniature), delivering her lines in a deadpan style – all of which adds a touch of dark humour to the novel.

In many ways, Eleanor acts as a focal point for the story. She has come to Hill House as a means of escape, to break free from her unhappy home life, an existence indelibly marked by the lonely years she previously spent nursing her sick mother (now deceased). There is an increasing sense, especially as novel progresses, that Eleanor sees Hill House as her destiny, drawn as she is to certain aspects of the house in spite of its chilling appearance and unsettling aura.

As she closed the door of the blue room behind her Eleanor thought wearily that it might be the darkness and oppression of Hill House that tired her so, and then it no longer mattered. The blue bed was unbelievably soft. Odd, she thought sleepily, that the house should be so dreadful and yet in many respects so physically comfortable—the soft bed, the pleasant lawn, the good fire, the cooking of Mrs. Dudley. The company too, she thought, and then thought, Now I can think about them; I am all alone. Why is Luke here? But why am I here? Journeys end in lovers meeting. They all saw that I was afraid. (p. 91)

At first, all seems relatively uneventful at the estate, and the members of the group sleep soundly through the night. However, it’s not long before the house begins to exert its mysterious forces on the group. A sequence of frightening noises, the appearance of strange writing on walls and other inexplicable events come together to unnerve the inhabitants, Eleanor in particular. In this scene, she cries out to Montague and Luke for assistance.

Her voice was not loud, and she had tried to keep it level, but she heard the doctor’s book drop to the floor and then the pounding of feet as he and Luke ran for the stairs. She watched them, seeing their apprehensive faces, wondering at the uneasiness which lay so close below the surface in all of them, so that each of them seemed always waiting for a cry for help from one of the others; intelligence and understanding are really no protection at all, she thought. (p. 154)

As the novel moves forward, there is a sense that Hill House is taking control of Eleanor, possessing her in some way, with things coming to a head following the arrival of Dr Montague’s disagreeable and controlling wife and her rather blunt assistant, Arthur. Mrs Montague also has a keen interest in the supernatural, bringing with her a planchette – a sort of Ouija board that produces words – in the hope of being able to communicate with the spirits.

The various relationships between women form an interesting thread which runs through the book, almost all of them characterised by hostility, envy or jealousy. First we have Eleanor and her sister – a woman we never meet in person, although we know that Eleanor dislikes her. Then there are the two Crain sisters, the daughters of the ill-fated man who commissioned the construction of Hill House in the first place – after inheriting the estate following their father’s death, the two sisters then spent a lifetime arguing over the division of the property and the family heirlooms. Finally, we have Eleanor and Theodora who initially form a close bond in unison against the potential terrors of the house. There is a sense that Eleanor views Theodora as the soulmate she has longed for, or even the person she would love to be herself – a glamorous, self-assured woman with an interesting life. But then the relationship between these two women begins to sour when Eleanor feels provoked by Theodora, a situation that only serves to distance Eleanor from the rest of the group.

The way that Jackson illustrates the gradual falling apart of Eleanor’s mind is very effective, encouraging the reader to come to their own conclusions about the young woman’s sanity. Does the terrifying aura of Hill House have the greatest impact on Eleanor’s state of mind, or is she inherently emotionally unhinged anyway irrespective of her surroundings? There is a degree of ambiguity here for the reader to ponder.

Eleanor is undoubtedly a daydreamer and fantasist, her vivid, childlike imagination running riot at various points in the story. When she spots a tiny cottage hidden away in a garden during the journey to Hill House, Eleanor imagines herself living there alone with only her fantasies and a white cat for company. Several of the motifs and images she creates at this point resurface later in the book, echoing and reverberating with great effect. These recurring symbols reminded quite strongly of Merricat’s lucky charms and rituals in We Have Always Lived in the Castle.

All in all, this is an excellent novel – a very striking exploration of a character’s psyche. It’s extremely well-written, too – at times the prose has an almost musical quality. Fans of Castle will almost certainly enjoy Hill House, a book that turned out to be a very satisfying and intriguing read for me. It was one of Max’s summary posts that prompted me to bump it up the pile – you can find a more detailed review here. Ali has also written about this book here.

The Haunting of Hill House is published by Penguin; personal copy.