Tag Archives: #ReadWomen

The Springs of Affection by Maeve Brennan

I am very much a latecomer to the Irish short-story writer and journalist, Maeve Brennan, only having read The Springs of Affection, a brilliant collection of her Dublin stories from the early 1950s to the early ‘70s. Virtually all of these twenty-one stories were first published by The New Yorker magazine where Brennan worked as a columnist and reviewer.

While I enjoy reading short stories, I often find them difficult to discuss, particularly if there are no apparent connections or common themes across the individual pieces. However, in this case, the situation is somewhat different as almost all of these stories are linked by virtue of their setting, a modest terraced house in the Ranelagh suburb of Dublin – a house featuring the same walled garden with a laburnum tree, the same three steps down to the kitchen, and the same linoleum on the bedroom floor. Moreover, the stories have been collated by theme rather than order of publication, an approach which adds depth to the reader’s understanding of the characters as they move from one story to another.

The collection opens with a series of seven short autobiographical pieces which offer brief glimpses of Brennan’s childhood, a broadly happy time in spite of the political turbulence of the early 1920s. (In one of these stories, The Day We Got Our Own Back, a group of men carrying revolvers come to the house in search of Maeve’s father, a known Republican who has gone into hiding in revolt against the Irish Free State.)

Other pieces in this section paint a picture of a normal family life, complete with the usual tensions between siblings and others. In The Old Man of the Sea, Maeve’s mother feels sorry for an old man who comes to the door with an enormous basket of apples, so she buys two dozen, just to be charitable. But then the man returns the same time the following week with another two dozen apples for Mrs Brennan, all bagged up and ready to be handed over in exchange for payment. As the weeks go by, it becomes increasingly difficult for Mrs B. to refuse the apples until things come to a head in the most embarrassing of manners. This is a lovely story laced with warmth and humour.

The second series of stories feature Rose and Hubert Derdon, a middle-aged couple whose marriage is characterised by an intense emotional distance, a situation which appears to have developed over several years. The opening piece – A Young Girl Can Spoil Her Chances – captures the state of this couple’s relationship in a nutshell as they try to score points off one other in the pettiest of ways.

Some of the Derdon stories look back to happier times, the couple’s courtship and the early years of their marriage when they were young and relatively carefree, enjoying walks together in St Stephens Green park. Sadly, this sense of freedom and gaiety was relatively short-lived, and the cracks in their marriage soon started to appear.

In time, we learn that the Derdons have one grown-up son, John, who – much to Rose’s dismay – has left home to join the priesthood. She feels his absence very deeply. In her heart of hearts, Rose realises that she has lost her beloved John forever, but this doesn’t stop her from fantasising about his return every now and again, convincing herself that she will see him walking down their road at any minute.

But of course he wasn’t coming, and he wouldn’t be coming, and the excitement inside her would flatten out and stupefy her with its weight, and her disappointment and humiliation at being made a fool of would be as cruel as though what she had felt had really been hope and not what it was, the delirium of loss. (p.154)

Shut out of the marriage by Rose’s devotion to John, Hubert broods on what he considers to be his wife’s failings: her shyness and lack of confidence in social situations; her indecisiveness and ambivalence in various domestic matters; and her secrecy and concealment of certain things for no apparent reason.

He never could understand her—her secrecy, her furtiveness, her way of stopping what she was doing and running to do something else the minute he came into the room, as though what she was doing was forbidden to her. She was afraid of him, and she never made any attempt to control the fear, no matter what he said to her. All he ever said to her was that she ought to try to take things easy, try to take life easier—things like that, that would reassure her. But she was afraid of him, and that was the whole of the difficulty, and that is what defeated him at every turn, and that is why he gradually, or finally—he could not have told how it happened—gave up any attempt to get on any kind of terms with her. (p. 77)

When viewed together, these stories form a devastating picture of two desperately unhappy individuals locked in a kind of stasis, unable or incapable of reaching out to one another and accepting their respective flaws. While nothing ever comes to a confrontational head, there is a real sense of bitterness and resentment between husband and wife, the simmering tensions proving particularly destructive as they are rarely aired or spoken about directly.

The final set of stories feature another couple with difficulties in their marriage, Martin and Delia Bagot. The Bagots are younger than the Derdons, and they have two daughters – Lily aged nine, and Margaret, aged seven. As with the Derdons, there are hints that the Bagots were happy in the early days of their marriage, enjoying jokes together just like any other couple. But now Martin sleeps on his own in the back bedroom, an arrangement initially prompted by his unsociable working hours but now maintained through his own preference. What emerges is a picture of a man who longs to get away from his immediate family whom he considers to be a burden.

As the Bagot stories progress, we learn that there was another child in the family before the arrival of the two girls – a boy who died when he was just three days old. Naturally, Delia was distraught at the time, leaving Martin unable to reach out to her or comfort her in any way. This is the source of the fault line in their marriage, an unspoken rift that has been allowed to fester over the years.

She knew things were not as they should be between them, but while the children were at home she did not want to say anything for fear of a row that might frighten the children, and now that the children were away she found she was afraid to speak for fear of disturbing a silence that might, if broken, reveal any number of things that she did not want to see and that she was sure he did not want to see. Or perhaps he saw them and kept silent out of charity, or out of despair, or out of a hope that they would vanish if no one paid any attention to them. (pp. 247-248)

While this all might sound very bleak, there is a little more hope for the Bagots than the Deardons. Their relationship lacks the intense bitterness and anger of the Deardons’ marriage, and it is punctuated by occasional moments of brightness too. A visit from an elderly Bishop and old family friend puts Delia back in touch with herself in a manner that boosts her sense of peace and harmony, although we never see if this enables her to reconnect with Martin in any meaningful way. There are glimpses of jet-black humour too, especially towards the end of the collection.

The final story, The Springs of Affection, is probably worth the cover price alone, focusing as it does on Martin’s spiteful twin sister, Min, who kept house for him in Dublin following Delia’s sudden death (we are now several years down the line). From the opening passages, it is clear that Min resented Delia from the outset, for stealing Martin away from her and the rest of the Bagot family. Now that Martin is also dead, the elderly Min has returned to her flat in Wexford where she can wallow in a satisfaction fuelled by jealousy and bitterness, surrounded as she is by the couple’s furniture and former possessions.

What sets this collection apart from many others I’ve read recently is the strong sense of disconnection/emotional turbulence conveyed through the stories, the layers of insight and meaning which gradually reveal themselves with each additional piece. Brennan’s prose is simple and straightforward yet beautifully precise – her descriptions of various aspects of the terraced house in Ranelagh are both clean and graceful.

This is a terrific collection of stories with much to recommend it, particularly for lovers of perceptive character-driven fiction in an understated style.

My copy of The Springs of Affection was published by Counterpoint.

After Midnight by Irmgard Keun (tr. Anthea Bell)

Last year I read and loved Irmgard Keun’s novel The Artificial Silk Girl, written in the early 1930s as a sort of German response to Gentlemen Prefer Blondes by Anita Loos. (I liked it so much that it made my 2017 list of favourites, a belated write-up from April this year.) So, when the time came to look for something suitable to read for Caroline and Lizzy’s German Literature Month, another Keun felt like a natural choice for me.

After Midnight was written and published in 1937 while Keun was living in exile in Europe having left Germany the previous year. Deceptively straightforward and engaging on the surface, the novel is actually a very subtle and insightful critique of the Nazi regime, written by an author who had experienced the challenges of navigating the system first-hand. It’s an excellent book, one that draws the reader in from its striking opening line.

You can open an envelope and take out something which bites or stings, though it isn’t a living creature. (p. 3)

The novel is narrated by Sanna, a relatively ordinary nineteen-year-old girl who has fled from Cologne to Frankfurt after being questioned by the Gestapo – a move prompted by the malicious actions of her aunt as a way of currying favour with the authorities. Regrettably, Sanna has had to leave behind her cousin and fiancé, the rather unassuming Franz; but as the book opens, Sanna receives a letter which suggests that Franz may be coming to Frankfurt in the hope of seeing her again, hence the mention of an envelope in that very first line.

As the story progresses, we learn more about Sanna’s life in Frankfurt – and through this, more about the perils of living in Nazi Germany, a society where almost every view expressed or every action taken can be used against someone, depending on how they are interpreted by others.

Much of the novel’s subtlety stems from Sanna’s seemingly simple observations on the nature of life in Germany. Her style is uncomplicated and conversational with a natural flow to it; and while some readers may feel these remarks are somewhat too breezy given the seriousness of the situation, her lightweight tone belies the strength and perceptiveness of the message underneath. Sanna’s comments are frequently as astute as they are ironic when she repeatedly points out the hypocrisies of the prevailing regime. In the following passage, Sanna is reflecting on her friend Gerti, whose lover is considered to be of ‘mixed race’, his father being Jewish and his mother non-Jewish – a dangerous position given the political environment at the time.

Why does a girl like Gerti have to go falling in love with a banned person of mixed race, for goodness’ sake, when there are plenty of men around the authorities would let her love? It’s hard enough to know your way around all the rules the authorities lay down for business—business, as we all know, can be very trickily organized—and now we have to know the rules for love too. It isn’t easy, it really isn’t. Before you know it, you may find yourself castrated or in prison, which is not pleasant. Love is supposed to be all right, and German women are supposed to have children, but before you can do that some kind of process involving feelings is called for. And the law says no mistakes must be made in this process. I suppose the safest thing is not to love anyone at all. For as long as that’s allowed. (p. 34)

Sanna and her friend Gerti have much the same preoccupations as any other young women of their age. They are not particularly interested in politics; instead, they just want to go out and have fun without worrying too much about the future. But the nation’s politics seep into every corner of life, to the extent that they cannot be ignored, even when it comes to love and family relationships.

While at first Sanna may seem somewhat unsophisticated and naïve, she is in fact sharp enough to see many of the dangers of living in an environment where suspicion and mistrust are rampant, where people will stop at nothing, even going as far as informing on friends and family to protect their own positions.

We are living in the time of the greatest German denunciation movement ever, you see. Everyone has to keep an eye on everyone else. Everyone’s got power over everyone else. Everyone can get everyone else locked up. There aren’t many can withstand the temptation to make use of the kind of power. The noblest instincts of the German nation have been aroused, and they’re being tenderly cultivated. (p. 100)

The novel is peppered with Sanna’s casually satirical observations, many of which are eminently quotable and on point.

Herr Kulmbach had been saying the Führer had united the whole German nation. Which is true enough, it’s just that the people making up the whole German nation don’t get on with each other. But that doesn’t make any difference to political unity, I suppose. (p. 33)

Keun is also particularly insightful on the dilemmas faced by writers under the Nazi regime. After travelling to Frankfurt, Sanna goes to stay with her older stepbrother, Algin, a once successful novelist whose books are now banned by the authorities. With the prospect of another purge of literary figures looming on the horizon, Algin is effectively caught in a Catch-22 situation – damned if he does and damned if he doesn’t when it comes to using his art to express a view.

He might yet save himself by writing a long poem about the Führer, something he has been most reluctant to do so far. But even that might be dangerous. Because National Socialist writers might take exception to his daring to write about the Führer without being an old campaigner for the cause. Similarly, he daren’t write a Nazi novel, because it wouldn’t be fitting. However, if he doesn’t write a Nazi novel that makes him undesirable. People still like reading his books, people still want to print them, and that’s not right either. (p. 97)

As another character, Heine, observes, the Nazi regime has effectively neutered Algin’s true voice and political conscience. For the love of his wife and their lifestyle in the city, Algin has compromised his own values, putting his name to pieces that go against his personal views to evade the threat of punishment.

A writer in the act of writing must fear neither his own words nor anything else in the world. A writer who is afraid is no true writer. (p. 98)

Heine, we discover, is a former journalist who now writes very little as a consequence of the poisonous climate. Heine is older and more forthright than Algin, such that his criticisms of the authorities are quite explicit and direct, contrasting starkly with Algin’s effective impotence and the veiled nature of Sanna’s critique of the powers that be.

While the novel is primarily concerned with highlighting the inhumanities and idiocies of Nazism as a doctrine, it does contain elements of plot, all of which culminate in a dramatic climax towards the end of the book. The scene in question takes place during a lavish all-night party hosted by Liska, Algin’s sophisticated and glamorous wife, who loves Heine with a fierce passion. As the story moves towards its shocking denouement, the mood darkens considerably and the tension rises. There is a sense of desperation and peril in the air as several of the characters seem poised on the edge of a precipice where the chances of securing a safe outcome seem terribly uncertain.

After Midnight is a fascinating book, one that provides a real insight into a country on the brink of self-destruction. Keun is particularly illuminating on how easily a society can shift such that the unimaginable becomes a reality as a new world order is established. The Melville House edition comes with an excellent afterword by German Studies expert, Geoff Wilkes, who goes into considerable detail on Keun’s life and literary career.

In Sanna, Keun has created a very engaging, relatable narrator, drawing on her own experiences in Germany and possibly the time she spent as an émigré in Europe. I’ll finish with a final passage in which Heine reflects on the concept of a life in exile, a proposition that holds precious little appeal for him, primarily due to the sense that one will always remain an outsider at heart irrespective of the country’s welcome.

You’ll find any other country is smooth and hard as a chestnut shell. You become a trial to yourself and a burden on others. For the roofs that you see are not built for you. The bread that you smell is not baked for you. And the language that you hear is not spoken for you. (p. 143)

A delightful pair of Viragos – novels by E. H. Young and Vita Sackville-West

Another couple of mini reviews from me – this time covering books by the English writers E. H. Young and Vita Sackville-West, both published by Virago.

Miss Mole by E. H. Young (1930)

This is a lovely, traditional novel which features a fully-realised character at its heart, the resilient and ever-optimistic spinster, Miss Hannah Mole.

For the last twenty years, Miss Mole has eked out a humble living for herself as a children’s governess and as a companion to a sequence of demanding women, but her somewhat rebellious nature has often resulted in trouble and dismissal. Rapidly approaching forty with no permanent home of her own, Miss Mole accepts a position as housekeeper to the nonconformist minister, Robert Corder, and his two daughters, Ethel and Ruth, both of whom need sensitive care and attention following the death of their mother. In some respects, this move represents an emotional return for Miss Mole to her home district of Radstowe, a place that holds many memories for our protagonist which are gradually revealed throughout the book.

Unfortunately for Miss Mole, her new employer is a rather pompous man. Blind to his own faults and shortcomings, Reverend Corder has a high opinion of himself and his own standing in the community, a view that is not necessarily shared by his new housekeeper. For her part, Miss Mole wishes the Reverend would show a little more compassion and affection for his daughters, virtues that ought to be second nature to any father, especially a widower.

He was not an unkind father; he was amiable enough and ready to expand under the affection he had made it impossible for them to show him, but he seemed to Hannah to treat his daughters as an audience for his sentiments and the record of his doings and to forget that these girls had characters, unless they happened to annoy him. (p. 67)

While twenty-three-year-old Ethel is sensitive and restless and desperate to be loved, young Ruth presents a somewhat different challenge for Miss Mole, her initial hostility requiring careful handling and a softly-softly approach. In time, however, the bright and resourceful Miss Mole coaxes these two girls out of their shells, winning their affections with her charm, candour and natural gift for storytelling.

While there are many familiar elements to this story – the downtrodden spinster, the conceited employer, the undervalued children and the romantic love-interest – what really elevates this novel above the norm is the character of Miss Mole. There are times when she is too stubborn, reckless and outspoken for her own good; but then again, she is also quick, imaginative and very, very funny. In this scene from the early stages of the novel, Miss Mole is discussing the possibility of becoming the Corders’ housekeeper with her cousin, Lilla Spenser-Smith, a respected member of the community who prefers to keep her true relationship to Miss Mole under wraps. Interestingly, it is Lilla who has arranged the position for Miss Mole, not Hannah herself, partly as a means of getting her cousin out of the way.

‘But won’t he want to see me?’

‘Not necessary,’ said Mrs. Spenser-Smith in her best Spenser-Smithian manner.

‘Not advisable, you mean! I daresay you’re right. What sort of a man is he? Is he brisk and hearty, or one of those gentle paw-folders?’

‘That isn’t funny, Hannah, it’s vulgar; I might say irreverent. Do try to remember you’re a lady.’

‘But I’m not. I come of the same stock as you do, Lilla, and we know what that is. Simple yeoman stock, […]. (p. 36)

This is a charming story of an invisible woman who knows that her best years may well be behind her, and yet she rarely loses hope that something wonderful could be just around the corner – even when some distressing secrets from the past threaten to catch up with her. All in all, a truly excellent read.

All Passion Spent by Vita Sackville-West (1931)

I really enjoyed this classic story of an elderly woman who grasps the opportunity for a little liberation in life following the death of her esteemed husband, Henry, the Earl of Slane.

The novel is written in three parts, the first of which opens with a family gathering in the wake of Lord Slane’s demise. For the past seventy years, eighty-eight-year-old Lady Slane has devoted her life to the needs of her husband and their six children (now all in their sixties and feeling the responsibilities of middle age). Her own needs and desires have been pushed aside in favour of playing the dutiful wife, accompanying her husband on his diplomatic duties in India and the UK.

As they come together at this momentous time, the Slane children – most of whom are patronising, dismissive, money-grabbing creatures – assume their mother will have next to nothing in her life now that her husband has passed away. In their infinite wisdom, the four eldest Slanes decide that their mother must be parcelled up like a piece of furniture and sent to each of their houses in turn on a rotational basis until the time of her death. The possibility that Lady Slane might have a mind of her own does not come into the equation. As far as her children are concerned, Lady Slane is rather dim and helpless. They see her as an impractical woman, someone with no understanding of the workings of the real world, utterly reliant on her husband for everything; naturally she will be pleased with any arrangements they care to make for her.

Mother was wonderful, but what was to be done with Mother? Evidently, she could not go on being wonderful for the rest of her life. Somewhere, somehow, she must be allowed to break down, and then, after that was over, must be stowed away; housed, taken care of. (p. 23)

Of course, she would not question the wisdom of any arrangements they might choose to make. Mother had no will of her own; all her life long, gracious and gentle, she had been wholly submissive—an appendage. […] She was not a clever woman. She would be grateful to them for arranging her few remaining years. (p. 24-25)

Contrary to the prevailing view, Lady Slane is actually much sharper than her children give her credit for. Before long, she declares her intention to leave her prestigious home in Kensington to go and live in a modest house in Hampstead, a place she had first seen and desired some thirty years earlier. Her dutiful French maid, Genoux, is to accompany Lady Slane in this new phase of her life, but other than that, there are to be no regular visits from members of the family – particularly the great-grandchildren who are far too full of the joys and exuberance of youth for Lady Slane to cope with. Naturally, Lady Slane’s children think she is mad, particularly given their (utterly misguided) perception of her as an unworldly, submissive ‘appendage’. Only Edith, Lady Slane’s youngest daughter – herself an outwardly hesitant but insightful woman – has any real appreciation of her mother’s inner life.

In the second and third parts of the novel, we see Lady Slade and Genoux in their new home, their burgeoning friendship with the delightfully eccentric Mr Bucktrout, who acts as an agent for the house, and Mr Gosheron, the decorator/handyman. Mr Bucktrout’s little gestures and small acts of kindness towards his new tenant are very touchingly portrayed.

As the novel unfolds, Lady Slade is revealed as a woman of distinction, one who values art and beauty – in her youth she longed to develop her skills as an artist, an opportunity denied her by an early marriage to Henry and the domestic/diplomatic duties that ensued. Reflecting on various aspects of her life with Henry, Lady Slade is reminded of her youthful dreams and passion along with everything she has lost.

As the novel draws to a close, there a couple of developments which contribute to the enrichment of the remainder of Lady Slane’s life. She receives a visit from Mr FitzGeorge, an old acquaintance of the Slanes from India who has carried a flame for Lady S. for several decades. As a consequence, the pair strike up a gentle friendship, taking walks together on nearby Hampstead Heath. There is another visit too, this time from one of the great-granddaughters, Deborah Holland, a young woman with a passion for music, who reminds Lady Slane of herself in her free-spirited youth.

This is a touching story of a woman who finally finds a sense of freedom and liberation in her twilight years. On the whole, the novel is very well-written novel with some lovely descriptive passages and sensitive insights into the protagonist’s inner life. Definitely recommended.

I’m sure there are quite a few reviews of this novel across the blogosphere, but here’s a link to a recent post from Simon of Tredynas Days, and one from Madame Bibi lophile, which actively encouraged me to read the book. .

Recent Reads – Joan Didion and Edith Wharton, two of my favourite writers

Time for another couple of mini reviews from me – in this instance focusing on books by two of my favourite writers, Joan Didion and Edith Wharton. (It’s the turn of the Americans today.)

The White Album by Joan Didion (1979)

In many ways, this reads like a companion piece to (or a continuation of) Slouching Towards Bethlehem, a collection of Didion’s essays published in 1968. Here we have another volume of non-fiction pieces exploring various events and reflections in the author’s life during the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, all expressed in Didion’s effortlessly cool and erudite style. Like the essays in Slouching, most of these pieces had previously appeared in journals/magazines before being collected together in one volume.

As I’ve already written at length about Didion’s non-fiction in my review of Slouching, I’m not planning to go into a lot of detail about the twenty essays in The White Album; instead my aim is to give you a brief flavour of the book, mainly by way of a couple of quotes that I noted while I was reading the collection.

The essays included here cover a fairly diverse range of topics from Georgia O’Keeffe’s artworks to Ronald and Nancy Reagan’s former home in California to a recording session with The Doors. Running through many of these snapshots is a sense of social fragmentation and disintegration, a deep-rooted feeling of unease that seems to have characterised Didion’s life, reflecting both her own state of mind and her view of the broader cultural environment in California at the time. In the following passage – taken from the opening piece, The White Album – Didion is reflecting on the mood in LA in the summer of 1969, just before the brutal murders at Sharon Tate Polanski’s house on Cielo Drive.

I imagined that my own life was simple and sweet, and sometimes it was, but there were odd things going around town. There were rumours. There were stories. Everything was unmentionable but nothing was unimaginable. This mystical flirtation with the idea of “sin”—this sense that it was possible to go “too far,” and that many people were doing it—was very much with us in Los Angeles in 1968 and 1969. A demented and seductive vortical tension was building in the community. The jitters were setting in. (pp. 41-42)

While Didion is always clear-eyes and insightful, in some respects she is at her best and most affecting when her reflections touch on the personal, the events and circumstances which have had a profound impact on her own life and ability to function. She writes openly about her relationship with migraine, a debilitating condition she has learned to accept and cope with in spite of its intensity and frequency. There is also the time when she is diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, a moment that pulls into focus her own vulnerability and sense of mortality.

In a few lines of dialogue in a neurologist’s office in Beverley Hills, the improbable had become the probable, the norm: things which happened only to other people could in fact happen to me. I could be struck by lightning, could dare to eat a peach and be poisoned by the cyanide in the stone. The startling fact was this: my body was offering a precise physiological equivalent to what had been going on in my mind. “Lead a simple life,” the neurologist advised. “Not that it makes any difference we know about.” In other words it was another story without a narrative. (p. 47)

Through these highly compelling essays, Didion seems to be saying that there is little use in us trying to look for too much reason or narrative in our lives as reality simply doesn’t operate that way – sometimes we just have to accept the randomness of events or developments however unsettling that may be.

Summer by Edith Wharton (1917)

Described by some as a companion piece to Ethan Frome (reviewed here by Max of Pechorin’s Journal), Edith Wharton’s Summer is a powerful novel set in North Dormer, a small, insular village in the New England region of America. While I didn’t love it quite as much as Ethan, I did like it a lot.

The story focuses on Charity Royall, an impulsive and independently-minded young woman who lives with her guardian and widower, the dour and surly Lawyer Royall. As a young child, Charity was rescued from a bleak life with a group of outcasts from the nearby Mountain, a structure whose ominous presence looms large over North Dormer and Charity’s existence there. Charity feels little affection or gratitude towards Lawyer Royall for his earlier actions; if anything, she resents being constantly reminded of the need to be grateful to her guardian for the lifestyle he has provided, away from the feral nature of the Mountain community. Even her name is a reflection of her questionable status in society, a signal of her reliance on the benevolence of other, more ‘rightful’ citizens in the village.

Yet Charity Royall had always been told that she ought to consider it a privilege that her lot had been cast in North Dormer. She knew that, compared to the place she had come from, North Dormer represented all the blessings of the most refined civilisation. Everyone in the place had told her so ever since she had been brought there as a child. (p. 5)

Thankfully, Charity has already managed to thwart a sexual advance and proposal of marriage from Lawyer Royall, thereby asserting herself as a strong presence in the red house, the home they share in North Dormer.

Charity longs to escape from the boredom and constraints of her drab life in the watchful village, her only respite being a part-time job in the deathly quiet memorial library where she hopes to earn enough money to strike out on her own. So, when the handsome and kindly architect, Lucius Harney comes to town to make a study of the local buildings, young Charity’s passions and restless nature are promptly aroused.

What follows is a sequence of encounters in which Charity wrestles with her feelings for Lucius, an educated man who belongs to a completely different social class from her own. There is a sense of blossoming and awakening in Charity as her relationship with Lucius develops and deepens with each additional meeting, particularly once it is agreed that she will act as his guide.

In addition to the sense of emotional growth described above, the novel also touches on themes of identity, belonging, society’s expectations of women, and the difficulties of bridging a class divide – especially given the relevant period and setting. While I don’t want to say too much about the plot, there is a certain inevitability to the novel’s narrative arc as the story reaches its poignant conclusion. Nevertheless, there are a few glimmers of hope towards the end, particularly once Lawyer Royall is revealed as being somewhat more sympathetic and compassionate than might appear at first sight.

The novel also contains some beautiful descriptive passages, fragments that act as reflections of Charity’s fondness for the open landscape and natural world. I’ll finish up with one of these, but there are many more to be found in the book itself.

The air was cool and clear, with the autumnal sparkle that a north wind brings to the hills in early summer, and the night had been so still that the dew hung on everything, not as a lingering moisture, but in beads that glittered like diamonds on the ferns and grasses. (p. 40)

The White Album is published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, Summer by Oxford World’s Classics; my thanks to the publisher for the copy of Summer.

Ali and Simon have also reviewed Summer – just follow the links if you’d like to read their reviews.

Lolly Willowes by Sylvia Townsend Warner

Lolly Willowes – the debut novel of the English writer Sylvia Townsend Warner – was an instant success on its publication in 1926. Now regarded as something of an early feminist classic, it tells the story of Laura (Lolly) Willowes, an unmarried woman of semi-independent means who struggles to break free from her conservative family to carve out a life of her own in the lush and seductive countryside of Bucks. While the story starts out in fairly conventional territory, about halfway through it morphs into something more magical, subverting the reader’s expectations with elements of fantasy and wonder. It’s an excellent book, one of the most surprising and unexpected delights of my reading year to date.

From a young age, Laura Willowes has always loved the country, growing up in a quiet, traditional family in the heart of Somerset where she seems at one with nature and everything it has to offer. As an unmarried woman and youngest child in the family, Laura keeps house for her widowed father with consummate ease. She feels contented and at home in this environment with its simple ways and traditions. Moreover, it is clear that Mr Willowes loves his daughter very dearly, to the extent that he secretly hopes she will remain at home to take care of him even though he knows her future happiness may suffer as a result. In reality, marriage holds little appeal for Laura, and she remains relatively satisfied with her position in life.

When Mr Willowes dies of pneumonia in 1902, everything changes for Laura (now aged twenty-eight) as her familiar world is swept away. It is automatically assumed by the remaining members of the family that Laura will leave her home and everything she loves to go and live with her older brother, Henry and his wife, Caroline, in their central London abode. Although Laura has inherited a decent income of her own, there is no question of her choosing to live independently. Her other brother, James, and his wife, Sibyl, are to move into Lady Place (the Somerset home), while Laura herself must be content with the smaller of the two spare rooms in Henry and Caroline’s house.

Her father being dead, they took it for granted that she should be absorbed into the household of one brother or the other. And Laura, feeling rather as if she were a piece of property forgotten in the will, was ready to be disposed of as they should think best. (p. 10)

Going along with the family’s decision, Laura tries to make the best of things of London, helping Caroline with her children and other domestic duties. While she proves herself to be a reliable and trustworthy companion, Laura is often left feeling somewhat inadequate and taken for granted. Caroline, for her part, is pleasant enough to Laura, but she is also orderly, dull and unromantic, bowing to Henry’s better judgement on most things – an action which feeds her husband’s high opinion of himself.

In short, Laura feels her loss of identity very deeply. She is no longer Laura, but good old Aunt Lolly, someone who can be relied on to assist with the children – either that or simply ‘Caroline’s sister-in-law’, something of an appendage to the principal members of the household.

At first, Henry and Caroline try to introduce Laura to respectable, unmarried men in the hope that she might find a suitable husband – but Laura is having none of this, and she discourages any further matchmaking efforts with her somewhat eccentric remarks.

One by one, the years pass by, and before she knows it, Laura finds herself in her late forties, still unmarried and living a dull, unfulfilling life in London. By now, we are in the 1920s where it is becoming a little easier for women to branch out and gain some independence for themselves. There are signs that Laura is feeling somewhat restless and frustrated with her life, longing as she does to reconnect with the countryside in some way.

Then, one day while out shopping in the city, Laura experiences a sort of epiphany in the midst of a flower shop. Surrounded by flora and country produce, she imagines herself in an orchard, communing with nature in all its glory.

She forgot that she was in London, she forgot the whole of her London life. She seemed to be standing alone in a darkening orchard, her feet in the grass, her arms stretched up to the pattern of leaves and fruit, her fingers seeking the rounded ovals of the fruit among the pointed ovals of the leaves. The air about her was cool and moist. There was no sound, for the birds had left off singing and the owls had not yet begun to hoot. (p. 80)

As a result of this experience, Laura decides that she is going to move to Great Mop, a tiny village in the midst of Buckinghamshire, where she intends to live modestly on her own. As Laura surveys her family at dinner that evening, it is as if she has awoken from a dream; now she can see how devoid of excitement their regimented lives appear to be.       

During dinner Laura looked at her relations. She felt as though she had awoken, unchanged, from a twenty-years slumber, to find them almost unrecognizable. She surveyed them, one after the other. Even Henry and Caroline, whom she saw every day, were half hidden under their accumulations—accumulations of prosperity, authority, daily experience. They were carpeted with experience. No new event could set jarring feet on them but they would absorb and muffle the impact. (p. 84)

At first, Laura’s family think her quite mad for wanting to go and live in the country. Henry, in particular, is both astonished and upset by his sister’s outburst, fearing that he and Caroline have failed in their duty to make her feel welcome and part of the household. Nevertheless, Laura is determined to go in spite of the moral and financial pressures Henry tries to bring into play. Not only has Henry taken Laura’s goodwill for granted for so many years, but he has also managed to be careless with her capital, effectively reducing her inheritance by half.

So, reduced circumstances and all, Laura heads off to Great Mop where she must now take rooms in a cottage run by a somewhat idiosyncratic landlady, Mrs Leak. It is here in the unfettered realm of the countryside that Laura is able to rediscover herself, finding freedom and independence in the most unexpected of sources. Without wishing to give too much away, the village holds a secret, one that enables Laura to unleash an element of her psyche that has been lying dormant for years just waiting to be released.

Lolly Willowes is a lovely story of a woman’s need for independence, to carve out a life of her own without the interference of those who think they know better. (Interestingly, it predates Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own by three years.) I couldn’t help but root for Laura in her quest for fulfilment and pleasure, all the more so given her resilient personality.

The fantastical elements in the last third of the book are nicely done, encouraging the reader to go with the flow at the appropriate moments – and there are some beautiful passages of descriptive writing too, especially in the author’s portrayal of the natural world.

The slope before her was dotted with close-fitting juniper bushes, and presently she saw a rabbit steal out from one of these, twitch its ears, and scamper off. The cloud which covered the sky was no longer a solid thing. It was rising, and breaking up into swirls of vapor that yielded to the wind. The growing day washed them with silver. (p. 184)

The book is not without its touches of humour here and there, particularly in the scenes between Laura and her family when she makes her intentions clear – an element which adds to the enjoyment of Laura’s transformation.

So, all in all, another very satisfying read for me. Highly recommended if you’re willing to embrace a little magic and mischief.

My edition of Lolly Willowes was published by NYRB Classics; personal copy.

Sleepless Nights by Elizabeth Hardwick

Those of you who follow me on Twitter will know that I have been trying to read from my shelves over the past year or so, limiting the acquisition of ‘new’ books in favour of reading older titles from my TBR. Elizabeth Hardwick’s Sleepless Nights has been sitting there for some time, patiently waiting for its moment in the sun (or maybe I should say ‘the glow of autumn’ as we are in October now).

It’s a difficult book to describe – part fiction, part memoir, Sleepless Nights blurs the boundaries between the real and the imaginary. In terms of style and form, the closest comparison I can think of is Renata Adler’s Speedboat, a wonderful book that blew me away with its shimmering vignettes and episodes from the narrator’s life.

Like Speedboat, Hardwick’s book doesn’t follow a conventional narrative arc; nor does it possess a noticeable plot as such. Instead, we are presented with a series of fragments from a woman’s life, the recollections of journeys undertaken, of people encountered and situations observed. The writing has a poetic quality, rich with vivid images with the ability to linger in the mind.

When you travel your first discovery is that you do not exist. The phlox bloomed in its faded purples; on the hillside, phallic pines. Foreigners under the arcades, in the basket shops. A steamy haze blurred the lines of the hills. A dirty, exhausting sky. Already the summer seemed to be passing away. Soon the boats would be gathered in, ferries roped to the dock. (p. 5)

While at first, the individual fragments may seem somewhat unconnected, there is a sort of framing device at work here. As the narrative opens, a ‘broken old woman’ – also named Elizabeth – living in a shabby nursing home is looking back over the years that have gone before.

Over the course of her life, Elizabeth travels from her home in Kentucky to New York, to Boston, to Maine, and then to Europe. Unsurprisingly, there are various relationships with men along the way. We learn of Elizabeth’s first lover at the age of eighteen, a casual, romantic figure twelve years her senior. There are other affairs too, perhaps most notably with Alex, a rather vain man in possession of a certain charm. Following the break-up of a long-term relationship with a different lover, Elizabeth reflects on the nature of their bond – in essence, what it can mean for a man and a woman to be joined together in this way.

I am alone here in New York, no longer a we. Years, decades even, passed. Then one is out of the commonest of plurals, out of the strange partnership that begins as a flat, empty plain and soon turns into a town of rooms and garages, little grocery stores in the pantry, dress shops in the closets, and a bank with your names printed together for the transaction of business. (p. 51)

One of the most evocative sections of the book captures Elizabeth’s memories of her time in New York: the sleazy atmosphere of the Hotel Schuyler where she shared rooms with a friend; the smoky jazz clubs of the city, often characterised by their rapidly changing owners; and the magnetic presence of Billie Holliday, a woman drawn to self-destruction like a moth to a flame.

The creamy lips, the oily eyelids, the violent perfume—and in her voice the tropical l’s and r’s. Her presence, her singing created a large, swelling anxiety. Long red fingernails and the sound of electrified guitars. Here was a woman who had never been a Christian. (p. 31)

There are other memories too, reflections on Elizabeth’s father and mother, their values and characteristics. Stories of friends, acquaintances and lovers light up the pages, all coming together to form an intriguing collage or scrapbook of the protagonist’s life.

In the following passage, Elizabeth recalls her former neighbour, Miss Cramer, an old music teacher who has fallen on hard times. Once elegant and self-assured, Miss Cramer is now a dishevelled and sorry presence in her torn canvas shoes and thin dress – following the death of her elderly mother, the advent of poverty was swift and destructive.

Poverty for the autocrat came like a bulldozer, gouging out her pretentions, her musical education, her trips to Bayreuth. The mother died, summers vanished, the voices were silent. Out of the apartment went the piano and the trash of two and a half decades., brilliant American, English, and European trash. Miss Cramer moved down the street, and the move was a descent on the roller coaster, hair flying, trinkets ripped off the ears and the fingers, heart pounding and head filled with a strange gust of air, which was never again released and seemed to be still blowing about behind the brow, rippling the dark eyelashes. (pp. 46-47)

The narrative is also laced with a number of perceptions and insights, particularly those on the status of women and their standing relative to men. There are observations on the ease with which society can define a woman by her relationship with a man, almost as if she has little identity or agency of her own. In this fragment, Elizabeth considers the nature of life for spinsters, reflecting that a form of spinsterhood may even exist within marriage – for some women at least.

The paradox of the woman who reaches her true spinsterhood only after she is at last married and settled. She takes command and reaches a state of dominating dependency to which only she has the clue. How confident her reign, how skillful the solitary diplomacy, the ordering of the future and control of the present. She gathers in revenues and makes dispensations, carefully, never forgetting that she is alone. (p. 20)

Like Adler’s book, Sleepless Nights was first published in the late 1970s, and its slightly detached tone leaves me wondering whether this was some kind of reflection of the sense of unease in the US at the time. It’s difficult to tell. Nevertheless, there is a fluidity and luminosity to Hardwick’s prose that makes her novel a real pleasure to read. There is a dreamlike quality to the overall feel of the book, akin to the way in which seemingly unconnected fragments or shards of memories seem to emerge from nowhere to flow through the mind. All in all, this is a beautiful, elegant read to stimulate the senses.

I’ve posted this review today to coincide with Lizzy’s NYRB Classics fortnight which is running from 1st– 14th October. You can find out more about it via the link.

Sleepless Nights is published by NYRB Classics; personal copy.

Someone at a Distance by Dorothy Whipple

Originally published in 1953, Someone at a Distance is my first experience of Dorothy Whipple’s work. The central story is a timeless one, focussing as it does on the systematic destruction of a loving marriage – and yet, Whipple captures everything with such insight and attention to detail that it all feels so compelling, pushing the reader forward to discover how the narrative will end. It’s certainly one of the most absorbing novels I’ve read this year.

The novel centres on the North family – principally Avery North, a handsome, successful partner in a London-based publishing company, and his kind, considerate wife, Ellen. The Norths, who are in their early forties, have two children: eighteen-year-old Hugh, who is in the midst of completing his National Service, and fifteen-year-old Anne, the apple of her father’s eye. While Anne spends much of the year away at boarding school, during the holidays she returns to the Norths’ beautiful home in the suburban countryside where she is devoted to her horse, Roma.

With domestic help being hard to come by following the changes ushered in by the Second World War, Ellen is kept busy with domestic duties, taking care of the house – Netherfold – and the burgeoning garden. She has little interest in attending parties or literary events associated with Avery’s job. In fact, being a rather shy, unassuming individual at heart, she eschews these social gatherings in favour of staying at home. In any case, Avery – a good networker – is well able to make useful contacts and relationships for himself.

Guiltily, pleasurably, she avoided the parties Bennett and North gave for authors, agents and the like. At first, she had youthfully tried to do what might be considered her duty as a publisher’s wife. She moved from group to group, smiling. But everybody talked vociferously, and though here and there people moved aside, smiling to let her pass, nobody interrupted conversation for her. Slight, fair, with no idea at all of trying to make an impression, she didn’t look important and nobody wondered who she was. (p. 9)

Ellen’s preoccupation with her home and immediate family also leaves little time for Avery’s mother, old Mrs North, an elderly widow who lives in her own house (The Cedars) nearby. Much to the old lady’s annoyance, there is always some pressing engagement or activity on the horizon for Ellen whenever she comes to visit – a situation that leaves Ellen feeling rather guilty whenever she has to rush away.

To all intents and purposes, the young Norths have the perfect life. Ellen and Avery seem to love one another dearly; they have two wonderful children, a beautiful home and a comfortable lifestyle. In short, everything in the garden appears to be wonderfully rosy.

However, everything changes when old Mrs North hires a young French girl, Louise Lanier, to keep her company at The Cedars, and to pass on something of the language here and there. Right from the start, it is abundantly clear to the reader that Mademoiselle Lanier is trouble. A spiteful and selfish minx at heart, Louise Lanier has come to England to get away from her former secret lover, a local dignitary who rejected Louise in favour of marrying a woman from his own social class. In short, Louise is looking to avenge the humiliation she believes she has suffered as a way of proving her worth back in France.

Slowly but surely, Louise inveigles her way into the lives of old Mrs North, Avery and Ellen, spreading her own particular brand of poison very carefully as she goes. There is an early hint of it here in this scene after Christmas dinner in which Louise passes judgement on Anne North who looks very attractive in her new white tulle dress.

‘Oh, she is very pretty,’ repeated Louise. ‘She will go a long way.’ She drew on her cigarette and threw the end of it into the fire. ‘If she is careful,’ she said, exhaling smoke through her nostrils.

Ellen stared in frowning displeasure, but Avery laughed, and loudly. (p. 129)

Nevertheless, old Mrs North is taken in, buoyed by the company of Louise and her considerable interest in getting dressed up. The fact that Louise encourages her employer to make the most of her appearance does not go amiss. As a consequence, when the old lady dies, Louise finds herself a beneficiary in the will to the tune of £1,000. Not that Louise spares much of a thought for her former companion – after all, she had to go at some point, so it might as well be now.

She felt nothing in particular for old Mrs. North, except that it was very nice of her to have left her the money. After all, Mrs North was old. She had to die some time. And it was not as if she had known her long or had had time to become attached to her. (p. 149)

Unfortunately for Avery and Ellen, Louise comes to stay with them at Netherfold while old Mrs North’s estate is being settled, and it is at this point that she really starts to get her claws into Avery. Out of pure spite and viciousness, Louise sets out to deliberately ruin the Norths’ marriage, capturing Avery as some kind of trophy in the process. While there is no doubt that Avery is a loving husband and father, he is also infallibly human – something Louise leverages when he shows a flicker of attraction to her.

As she smoked now, she smiled, and her smile was compounded of triumph, scorn and excitement. Triumph because she had won, and excitement because the game had started in earnest now. She had dangled the bait. No need to take any more notice of it now. She herself was the bait. (p. 187)

All too soon, Ellen and Anne catch Avery in an unguarded moment with Louise, and their image of him is shattered. The situation then escalates very quickly leaving Avery utterly ashamed of his behaviour but too proud to make amends – a plight that turns Ellen’s world upside down, forcing her to rethink her life and position as a wife and mother. Meanwhile, Louise is revelling in the prospect of being able to avenge her former lover, Paul, now happily married and settled with his new wife in their hometown of Amigny.

It was much more amusing this time when the power was all hers. Much more interesting when the heart was not involved, though Avery was certainly attractive. In a way, she was avenging herself on Paul. She was getting her own back. The conquest, the annexation of Avery was necessary to restore her confidence in herself. (p. 202)

In writing Someone at a Distance, Whipple has created a very good novel about the fragile nature of love and the lives we build for ourselves. After a few moments of passion and desire, the idyllic nature of the Norths’ existence is fractured forever.

The main characters are drawn with understanding and insight, and their motives explored with a real sense of depth – points which make the core story feel all too believable for its day. While the consequences of Avery’s foolish indiscretion with Louise would probably play out somewhat differently today, the social stigma associated with such an incident was very different back then. Nevertheless, the emotions of shame, humiliation and rejection that Whipple explores are undoubtedly timeless – factors that ensure the novel retains a relevance in the contemporary world. There are times when it is almost too distressing to observe the impact of Louise’s behaviour on each member of the North family as she uncovers and exploits their individual vulnerabilities to her own advantage.

In addition to her admirable fleshing out of the main characters, Whipple also does a fine job in painting the secondary players in the mix. Individuals like Mrs Beard, the formidable manager of a local hotel/care home, whose demeanour is signalled by the following brief description.

Mrs. Beard was a middle-aged Gibson girl, built-up hair, large bust, curved hips and that thrown-forward look which may have been due to her stays or to the fact that she wore high-heeled court shoes which tired her and made her cross, but which she thought necessary to her appearance. (p. 53)

Louise’s humane parents are beautifully drawn too, the humble, straightforward nature of their lives in small-town France contrasting sharply with their daughter’s unnecessary airs and graces. Louise makes it quite clear to the Laniers that they will never be good enough for her, their status as shopkeepers being less than ideal.

All in all, this is a very fine novel, one that may well suit fans of writers such as Elizabeth Taylor and Elizabeth Jane Howard. It also represents my contribution to Jessie’s Persephone readathon – more details here.