Tag Archives: #ReadWomen

Symposium by Muriel Spark

I’ve been working my way through a little VMC set of Spark’s novels, slowly but surely over the past few years, trying to read them in order of publication – you can find my other posts here.

Symposium is the last of the bunch, and I’m a little sad to have finished it as there are no more left on the shelves for me to read. Maybe I’ll go back and revisit The Comforters at some point, a novel I didn’t quite connect with on the first reading, hence the lack of a review. Anyway, returning to the main subject of this post, Symposium, this is a clever and provocative novel, shot through with a devilish streak of dark humour – I enjoyed it very much indeed.

The novel revolves around a dinner party hosted by a sophisticated, well-connected couple, Hurley Reed and his partner, Chris Donovan, at their home in Islington. Hurley, an American painter in his early fifties, and Chris, a rich Australian widow in her late forties, have been together for seventeen years. They are not married, and happily so, never having felt the need to cement their relationship by formal ties. Very quickly, we are introduced to the other four couples attending the party which takes place during the course of the novel.

Based mainly in Brussels, Ernst Untzinger represents the EU on an international commission for finance, while his wife, Ella – a geographer and cartologist by training – has just landed a role teaching at a London University. The Untzingers are in the early forties, and their marriage seems quite relaxed, possibly open, as there are hints of other relationships in the mix.

The Suzys are an interesting couple, fairly recently married. While Lord Brian Suzy is approaching fifty, his current wife, Helen, is just twenty-two, possibly viewing her partner as a kind of surrogate father figure. Seizing the opportunity of a captive audience, Lord Suzy is intent on telling everyone about the recent burglary at his home which happened while the Suzys were asleep – an incident that only came to light when a passing policeman discovered the front door wide open in the middle of the night. Lord Suzy considers the whole episode to be a violation of his privacy, especially as the thieves peed all over the internal walls of the house.

Also in attendance are two cousins, Roland Sykes and Annabel Treece, both in their late twenties/early thirties. Roland is a genealogist who specialises in tracing ancestry, while Annabel works as a TV producer – her interests lie in psychology and philosophy. While Roland and Annabel are not a couple as such, they are very close, almost akin to a brother and sister.

Finally, we have William and Margaret Damien, a young couple who have just returned from their honeymoon in Italy. William’s mother, the very wealthy Hilda Damien, is a close friend of Chris Donovan’s, hence the connection between the Damiens and their hosts. Margaret, with her striking dark red hair and pre-Raphaelite looks, is the source of much speculation throughout the novel. In this scene – a flashback to a time well before the party – Hurley is telling Chris about his early impressions of Margaret.

He told her what he thought she really wanted to know. ‘Quite nice looking, but terrible teeth, they quite spoil her. I think she’s shy or something. There’s something funny. Her get-up wasn’t natural for a young girl at six-thirty on a normal evening. She had green velvet, a wonderful green, and a massive background of red and gold leaves all arranged in pots.’

‘Maybe, knowing you’re an artist, she thought you might want to paint her?’

‘Do you think so?’ Hurley pondered this seriously for a while. People do have crazy ideas about artists. But surely not… (p.25)

As the novel unfolds, alternating between the party itself and a series of carefully constructed flashbacks, we learn more about these couples, particularly the Damiens who had met in the fruit section of Marks & Spencer’s just four months before their marriage took place. Hilda – William Damien’s mother – is particularly suspicious about Margaret’s motives, sensing something sinister afoot. What in heavens name was William doing in the fruit section of M&S, and how did Margaret just happen to encounter him? Something about the whole episode really doesn’t feel right.

She [Hilda] had met Margaret in London. She didn’t think the marriage would last. That goody-goody type of girl, how could she be real?

Hilda had sat good-humouredly in their too-small flat and chatted as she noticed.

‘Marks & Spencer‘s fruit section. What on earth were you doing there, William?’

‘Buying fruit,’ he said ‘I always went there, it was convenient.’

‘And you,’ she said to Margaret in her best Sandringham-type manner, ‘was that your favourite fruit shop?’

‘No, I was just there by chance.’ She gave a little smile, put her head on one side. ‘Lucky chance,’ she said.

William sat there goggling at his bride-to-be as if she were a Miss Universe who had taken a double first at Cambridge, or some such marvel. (pp. 39-40)

Hilda’s suspicions are further aroused when she meets Margaret’s family, the Murchies, in advance of the wedding. During a visit to the Murchie residence – a strange, turreted edifice near St Andrews – Hilda is convinced that something is decidedly off. In some respects, everything appears normal on the surface, almost too normal, so much so that she struggles to put her finger on what feels wrong. In spite of these doubts, the marriage goes ahead as planned, and Hilda gives the young couple a Hampstead flat to mark the occasion. As an extra surprise, she has also purchased a Monet for their home, a piece she plans to install while the newlyweds are out at the dinner party.

In addition to Hilda, some of the other characters have also been speculating about Margaret’s past – most notably Chris and Roland. The name ‘Murchie’ rings a bell with these two, both of whom have vague recollections of there being a scandal in the family’s history. Rumours of various suspicious deaths, contested claims on an inheritance, and the taint of madness in the blood all surround Margaret and the Murchies, elements that are gradually revealed and slotted into place as the story unfolds.

As ever, Spark manages to pack so much into such a slim novel, and in this instance, it never feels crowded or cramped. During the course of the narrative, there are burglaries, murders, family feuds, and all manner of other underhand behaviours. We meet suspicious servants, mad uncles, and a convent of eclectic nuns, one of whom is very sweary. Everything is handled with an assurance characteristic of a writer in full control of her material.

This is a typically sharp and spiky novel from Muriel Spark, one that highlights how people may not be quite as innocent as they appear at first sight. A delicious, multilayered delight.

Symposium is published by Virago Modern Classics; personal copy.

South Riding by Winifred Holtby

Set in a fictional district of Yorkshire in the early 1930s, South Riding is an epic, life-affirming novel which explores issues of poverty, social mobility and the value of education. On one level, it is an ensemble piece structured around the workings of local government, their impact on the district of South Riding and the people who live there. It is also a feminist book, one concerned with the destinies of women from different points along the social spectrum, both young and old. Perhaps unsurprisingly, I loved this thoroughly absorbing novel, a definite five-star read for me.

Central to Holtby’s story is Sarah Burton, a forty-year-old unmarried woman, newly appointed to the role of headmistress at the local girls’ school. With her flaming red hair and forthright nature, Sarah is far from the archetypal mousy spinster; instead she is bright, optimistic and fiercely committed to the development of young women. Having seen something of the world and life in London, Sarah is returning to Yorkshire, the county of her birth, intent on preparing her girls for life and the challenges it will present to them.

Sarah believed in action. She believed in fighting. She had unlimited confidence in the power of the human intelligence and will to achieve order, happiness, health and wisdom. It was her business to equip the young women entrusted to her by a still inadequately enlightened State for their part in that achievement. She wished to prepare their minds, to train their bodies, and to inoculate their spirit with some of her own courage, optimism and unstaled delight. She knew how to teach; she knew how to awaken interest. (p. 49)

While Sarah’s appointment to the school receives significant support, one governor votes against the motion which passes nonetheless. The opponent is Robert Carne, a rather conservative farmer who remains wedded to the values and traditions of the past. In truth, Carne bears a bit of a grudge against Sarah following a run-in with her drunken father many years earlier – an incident from the past which he recalls on learning of Sarah’s former ties to the area.

There is something of the Jane Eyre-Mr Rochester dynamic about Sarah’s relationship with Carne, especially as the novel unfolds. While Carne appears formal and proud, there is a softer, more humane side to his personality too – one that Sarah discovers as she gets to know him better. In truth, Crane is a tortured soul, a man damaged by a difficult marriage. As his farm continues to struggle, Carne must find a way of paying for the care of his troubled wife in a private mental institution, a commitment that represents a major drain on his resources. Plus, there is the Carnes’ fourteen-year-old daughter Midge, a somewhat wayward child who is need of a steadying influence in her life, ideally a feminine one.

Also pivotal to the novel’s themes are the impoverished Holly family who live a cluster of old railway carriages known as ‘the shacks’. Fourteen-year-old Lydia Holly is the eldest girl in a family of seven children, a fiercely intelligent individual burdened by the weight of an ailing mother and a useless but good-natured father. Sarah knows that Lydia Holly is by far the best prospect the school has to offer – pupils like Lydia only come along once in a lifetime – but she is also aware that family responsibilities may scupper the girl’s future. When circumstances conspire to force Lydia to leave school, Sarah must find a way of enabling her to come back. A good education is the best route out of poverty for Lydia, just as it proved to be the making of Sarah herself.

[Mrs Beddows] ‘My dear, you know there are other things in life besides book-learning. What if she does give up her scholarship and doesn’t go to college? There’ll be one school teacher less, and perhaps one fine woman and wife the more. Is that such a tragedy?’

[Sarah Burton] ‘Yes, yes. All waste is tragedy. To waste deliberately a rare, a unique capacity, that’s downright wicked. It’s treason to the human stock. We need trained intelligence.’

‘What about trained character?’

‘Oh, that too, yes. I believe in discipline – but not frustration.’

‘You believe very much in having your own way, don’t you?’

Sarah looked up in surprise. The room was twilit. The alderman’s face was turned away from the window.

‘I believe,’ said Sarah gravely, ‘in being used to the furthest limit of one’s capacity.’ (pp. 196-197)

Alongside the domestic concerns of the likes of Hollys, Holtby is also keen to delve into the workings of local government – both as a catalyst for social improvement and a vehicle for abuse and corruption. The proposal to build a new road through an area of land in South Riding acts as a focal point here, a thread that runs through the narrative like a spine. While the project offers opportunities for development – improvements to transport, new housing, more jobs – the scheme is also open to abuse, particularly by the likes of Alderman Snaith, a slippery man who preys on the vulnerabilities of others. There are examples of misinformation, manipulation and personal gain, all of which serve to illustrate that local government decisions may not always be made for purely altruistic reasons.

We also meet Alderman Emma Beddows, a seventy-year-old woman almost certainly inspired in part by the author’s own mother, Alice Holtby. A supporter of Sarah’s, Emma Beddows appears to hold something of a candle for Robert Crane, viewing him as a potential partner in spite of their differences in age. In time, however, Mrs Beddows recognises her feeling towards Carne are more akin to that of a mother for her son-in-law, particularly once she assumes the role of surrogate grandmother to Midge.

Also worthy of a mention is Miss Sigglesthwaite, the hopelessly ineffective science teacher, a rather tragic creature who finds herself the object of ridicule at the hands of Midge Carne and her fellow classmates. In truth, Sarah Burton would like to replace Miss Sigglesthwaite with a better role model for her pupils; her only hope is that the Sig will resign, freeing up the position for a more dynamic teacher to join the staff.

While Holtby’s canvas is broad and ambitious, the characters themselves feel deeply personal and convincing. We gain such insights into their lives – their hopes and fears, their dreams and preoccupations. While the book is ultimately inspiring and life-affirming, it is also underscored by a sense of mortality. At The Nag’s Head, Lily Sawdon knows she is dying of cancer, too frightened to confide in her husband for fear of his reaction; at the Carnes’ farm, foreman Castle is very poorly, unlikely to see another season in the fields of the estate; in the council, Jo Astell, Sarah’s altruistic socialist ally, is battling with tuberculosis. Meanwhile, the spectre of war seems to be everywhere – not only the fallout following WW1 but the threat of another conflict just hovering on the horizon.

In writing the novel, Holtby – an ardent feminist, socialist and pacifist – drew on the experiences of her mother, Alice Holtby, the first woman to be appointed to the position of alderman on East Riding County Council. While Alice Holtby initially opposed the book, Vera Brittain – Winifred’s great friend and literary executor – ensured it was published posthumously following Winifred’s untimely death in 1935 (she was just 37 at the time).

There is an unmistakable sense of authenticity here, an author writing about a place she knows intimately and the heartbreak of the people who inhabit it. It’s a brilliant achievement – a novel rich with progressive values and a strong emotional heart. I’ve barely scratched the surface of it in this piece. Very highly recommended, particularly for readers with an interest in social change.

South Riding is published by Virago; personal copy.

The World My Wilderness by Rose Macaulay

Beautiful, haunting and evocative, The World My Wilderness is something of a rediscovered gem, set as it is in the challenging years following the end of WW2. As a novel, it explores the fallout from fractured family relationships – particularly in terms of their impact on children, needlessly caught up in the damaging effects of war.

As the novel opens, seventeen-year-old Barbary Deniston and her mother, Helen Michel, are in the South of France where they have been living during the war. Helen – a rather enigmatic yet lazy creature with artistic leanings – no longer lives with Barbary’s father, Sir Gulliver Deniston, following the couple’s divorce some years earlier. Two other children also reside at Villa Fraises (the Michels’ home in Collioure): Barbary’s step-brother, Raoul (the son of Helen’s second husband, Maurice Michel), and baby Roly (born to Helen and Maurice). To complicate matters further, Maurice is no longer alive, having drowned in suspicious circumstances following rumours of a collaboration with the Occupiers.

Life for Barbary has been primitive and unconventional, a free-spirited existence in the natural world. Left mostly to their own devices, both Barbary and Raoul have fallen in with the local Maquis, a French resistance movement that defies the authorities. In essence, Helen has allowed the children to run wild, her own interests lying elsewhere – either tending to Roly or playing cards and chess, painting less and less in favour of lounging around.

At an early stage in the story, it becomes clear that Barbary and Raoul are to be sent to live in London as the city is no longer under the threat of attack. While Raoul will stay with his uncle (Maurice’s brother), Barbary is to go to her father, Gulliver, who lives in London with his new wife, Pamela, and their baby, David. It is hoped that Barbary will study art at the Slade, and learn to become a lady under the guidance of her guardians.

Unlike the lax and casual Helen, Sir Gulliver – an eminent lawyer by trade – is rather stern and impatient. Above all, he values honesty, respectability and discipline – qualities that seem alien to Barbary after the freedom of her life in France. As a consequence, Barbary feels utterly restricted by her new environment, and she longs to return to the wilds of Collioure.

…there were too many things between them; he [Gulliver] was clever and knew about everything, she was stupid and knew about nothing; he had taken Pamela instead of her mother, she was for ever her mother’s; he stood for law and order and the police, she for the Resistance and the maquis, he for honesty and reputability, she for low life, the black market, deserters on the run, broken ruins, loot hidden in caves. All the wild, desperate squalor, of the enfants du maquis years – would he even believe it if she told him? His clever, cultured, law-bound civilisation was too remote. (p. 77, Virago)

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Barbary also takes a dislike to Gulliver wife, Pamela, a rather dull, straight-laced woman in her early thirties, a pale shadow compared to Barbary’s bohemian mother, Helen. Barbary resents Pamela for the place she has taken in Gulliver’s affections, believing her to have usurped Helen, even though the marriage was over long before Pamela’s arrival on the scene. In turn, Pamela despairs at Barbary with her shabby appearance and disregard for the conventions of society, viewing the child as a constant source of exasperation and worry, particularly for Gulliver.

Unhappy with their new lives in London, Barbary and Raoul spend their afternoons combing the streets of Cheapside and the surrounding areas. It is here that Barbary finds solace, amidst the bombed-out ruins of offices, apartments and churches – a wilderness dotted with wildflowers and weeds, a special place for her to explore with Raoul.

 They climbed out through the window, and made their way about the ruined, jungled waste, walking along broken lines of wall, diving into the cellars and caves of the underground city, where opulent merchants had once stored their wine, where gaily tiled rooms opened into one another and burrowed under great eaves of overhanging earth, where fosses and ditches ran, bright with marigolds and choked with thistles, through one-time halls of commerce, and yellow ragwort waved its gaudy banners over the ruins of defeated businessmen. (p. 49)

While here, the pair encounter other occupants of the ruins, mostly petty thieves and deserters who also fly in the face of the authorities with their restrictive regulations. In effect, this environment becomes another kind of Maquis for Barbary, an opportunity for her to recapture something of the life she has left behind in France. Consequently, Barbary spends as little time as possible with Gulliver and Pamela, preferring instead to hang out in the abandoned flat she and Raoul have found in Somerset Chambers. The pair make a little money for themselves by selling Barbary’s paintings of a local church, postcard-sized mementos that prove popular with tourists. Shoplifting provides another source of income, especially once Barbary is schooled in the art of thieving by Mavis, a fellow fugitive and occupant of the ruins.

Naturally, this kind of existence cannot last forever, much as Barbary would like it too. There is a brush with the authorities – a dramatic incident which brings the situation to a head, culminating in the arrival of Helen at the Denistons’ London home, a situation that puts Pamela’s nose firmly out of joint.

The World My Wilderness is a very evocative novel, nuanced and poignant in its portrayal of Barbary’s circumstances. Both parents have failed Barbary in their own individual ways: Helen for letting her run wild with the Marquis; Gulliver for trying to mould her into something she doesn’t want to be.

As the story unfolds, we learn of traumatic experiences in Barbary’s past, most notably the suggestion of a sexual assault by a member of the Gestapo. In essence, Barbary has been suppressing this incident and other distressing experiences for some years, trying to control her feelings as they threaten to bubble up. The one person who senses her inner anxiety is Gulliver’s brother-in-law, Angus, who specialises in nervous conditions and disorders of the mind. But when Angus reaches out to Barbary, she baulks at the idea of opening up, preferring instead to return to her own world, the new-found wilderness in the midst of the city.

Macaulay’s portrayal of post-war London is absolutely stunning, so atmospheric and evocative in its depiction of an area ravaged by war. The empty shells of bombed-out churches; the thriving businesses wiped away; the sense of history destroyed – it’s all captured to great effect.

Equally atmospheric are the descriptions of France, which illustrate the deep sense of savagery that lurks below the surface, an ever-present hangover from the days of war.

The peace that shrouded land and sea was a mask, lying thinly over terror, over hate, over cruel deeds done. Barbarism prowled and padded, lurking in the hot sunshine, in the warm scents of the maquis, in the deep shadows of the forest. Visigoths, Franks, Catalans, Spanish, French, Germans, Anglo-American armies, savageries without number, the Gestapo torturing captured French patriots, rounding up fleeing Jews, the Resistance murdering, derailing trains full of people, lurking in the shadows to kill, collaborators betraying Jews and escaped prisoners, working together with the victors, being in their turn killed and mauled, hunted down by mobs hot with rage; everywhere cruelty; everywhere vengeance; everywhere the barbarian on the march. (p. 140)

There is a sense of redemption in this novel, of coming to terms with past failings – not only for Barbary’s parents but for Barbary too. For the most part, these failings are treated with insight and clemency – every character comes with their own virtues and values, their own faults and transgressions.

While certain elements of the denouement feel somewhat contrived, this is a relatively minor drawback in the scheme of things, particularly given the novel’s other strengths. Overall, this is a very moving and striking novel with a vivid sense of place. An excellent introduction to Macaulay’s work.

The World My Wilderness is published by Virago; personal copy.

A Dedicated Man by Elizabeth Taylor

I’ve been working my way through Elizabeth Taylor’s stories, slowly but surely over the last couple of years. Originally published in 1965, A Dedicated Man was her third collection of short fiction, and I think it’s my favourite of the three I’ve read so far. (You can read my posts about the first two here: Hester Lilly and The Blush.). As ever, Taylor demonstrates her skill in capturing people in their most private of moments. In short, we see individuals facing up to dashed dreams, social embarrassment and the realities of their marginalised lives.

As with other collections I’ve reviewed, I’m not going try to cover every story; instead, I’ll try to focus on a few favourites to give you a flavour of the volume as a whole.

The collection opens with Girl Reading, a poignant story of inadequacies and social embarrassment. Etta Salkeld, a young girl from a relatively poor background, enjoys staying with her well-to-do schoolfriend, Sarah Lippmann, during the holidays. The Lippmanns are a sociable, sophisticated bunch, their home full of activity with guests dropping in and out at various times of the day. Etta feels at home there, particularly as she longs to be part of a lively, comfortable family – one where she can observe other individuals at first hand, not just in books. Mrs Salkeld would like her daughter to invite Sarah to their house to return the Lippmans’ hospitality, but Etta is embarrassed by the shabbiness of the place and fears her friend would be bored – points that hit home to Mrs Salkeld when she finally gets to meet Mrs Lippmann in her rather grand surroundings. The contrast between the two women is very striking.

Etta, who had never seen her mother drinking sherry before, watched nervously, as if she might not know how to do it. Mrs Salkeld—remembering the flavour from Christmas mornings many years ago and—more faintly—from her mother’s party trifle—sipped cautiously. In an obscure way she was doing this for Etta’s sake. “It may speed her on her way,” thought Mrs Lippmann, playing idly with her charm bracelet, having run out of conversation. (p. 29)

The Thames Spread Out features Rose, a middle-aged woman who lives on her own in a house by the river. Every Friday, Rose receives a visit from her married lover, Gilbert, who stops off to see her on his way home to his wife. For the rest of the week, Rose must survive largely on the money that Gilbert leaves when he departs on Saturday mornings, treating herself to a few peppermint creams and other little indulgences when she can.

This Friday everything is different; the river has flooded, and the roads are impassable, leaving Rose trapped in the upstairs of her house, somewhat at the mercy of a couple of unfamiliar men who are staying next door. It is only once the water starts to recede that Rose realises the true emptiness of her life, especially when she compares it to that of her sister.

When it was dark she pinned the curtains together again and sat down at the table, simply staring in front of her; at the back of her mind, listening. In the warm living-room of her sister’s house, the children in dressing-gowns would be eating their supper by the fire; Roy, home from a football match, would be lying back in his chair. Their faces would be turned intently to the blue-white shifting screen of a television. (p. 61)

This is a quietly devasting story, the type of piece that Elizabeth Taylor does so well – and yet there is a glimmer of hope at the end as Rose finally takes control of her life.

In A Dedicated Man, a pompous waiter, Silcox, and his dull but dependable colleague, Edith, have taken the opportunity to move positions from a shabby seaside B&B to a more refined hotel in the Home Counties. The need to masquerade as husband and wife seems a small sacrifice to make, particularly for the improvement in the pair’s standing. After a somewhat awkward period of adjustment to sharing a twin-bedded room, Silcox and Edith begin to settle into a rhythm, buoyed by their ambitions and desires to succeed. However, when Silcox invents a son to give the couple a more rounded family background, the tissue of lies begins to unravel, ultimately exposing him to ridicule and scandal. This is a powerful piece, a fitting lead story for the collection as a whole.

Holidays feature in several pieces in this collection, perhaps most notably In a Different Light. In this story, Barbara is visiting Jane, her recently widowed sister at her home in Greece. While there, Barbara forms an unlikely friendship with Roland, a young man holidaying on his own, his wife preferring to stay with her sister in Buxton. The relationship is all very chaste as Barbara and Roland settle into a rhythm of walks in the countryside and siestas in the afternoon. Before leaving the island, the pair exchange addresses, never thinking that they will actually meet up again; but in her restlessness back home, Barbara decides to invite Roland and his wife, Iris, for Sunday lunch, just to recapture something of the visit. When Iris arrives, she reveals herself to be loud and pushy, so much so that Barbara’s young children take an instant dislike to her. Roland, for his part, is a different person altogether, more formal and serious than he seemed in Greece. As Barbara reflects on the situation, she realises the true nature of Roland’s life with Iris, the stripping away of his verve and vitality.

These weeks, since his return from the island, must have been worse than hers, she realised—as the rest of his life would be worse, His experience must have been deeper, his brief escape desperately planned and wearily paid for. It was something for her—for Iris—to deride along with the other things. Once he had liked music, he had told Jane in answer to one of her off-hand enquiries; later the sisters had laughed about it, but Barbara could not have laughed now. She could see too clearly the history of discarded interests. (pp. 89-90)

In The Voices, Laura, a young woman recovering from an illness, is holidaying at a hotel in Athens; but instead of going on excursions to see the sights herself, Laura spends much of her time listening to the two women in the adjacent room as they discuss their own trips to various places of interest. In effect, Laura is living her holiday through the activities of these women, imagining how they look as they go about their days. This is another beautifully observed story with a glimmer of brightness at the end.

In the Sun also features individuals abroad, this time three English couples holidaying at the same characterless hotel in Morocco. This a story of petty snobberies and prejudices as the couples observe and gossip about one another – especially the Wallaces, the last of the three pairs to arrive. It’s also the most amusing piece in the collection, laced as it is with Taylor’s fabulously sharp wit.

No need to explain who Janice was. The Troughtons knew all about Janice, who was training to be a nurse. They knew about the hospital too—the matron, sisters, patients. Mrs Troughton thought she could find her way blindfold about it. […] She would also be quite at home in the other Crouch girl’s, Carol’s, office, and in their house in Guilford, with its frilled nylon curtains at seven-and-elevenpence a yard; its sun-lounge and bar—quilted plastic décor done by Mr Crouch…Leslie…Daddy…himself. (p. 192)

As the story draws to a close, there is a surprise revelation, one that leads the others to view the Wallaces in a somewhat different light, in spite of the fault lines in their unlikely marriage.

All in all, this is a superb collection of stories from Elizabeth Taylor. She portrays her characters in a way that conveys an acute understanding of their immediate situation – their hopes and dreams, their day-to-day preoccupations and concerns, their petty foibles and failings.

A Dedicated Man is published by Virago; personal copy.

More Was Lost by Eleanor Perényi

First published in 1946 (and now back in print courtesy of NYRB Classics), More Was Lost is a remarkable memoir by the American-born writer, editor and keen gardener, Eleanor Perényi. In essence, the memoir covers the early years of Eleanor’s marriage to Zsiga Perényi, a relatively poor Hungarian baron whom she meets while visiting Europe with her parents in 1937. It’s a gem of a book, both charming and poignant in its depiction of a vanishing and unstable world, all but swept away by the ravages of war. I hope to find a place for it in my end-of-year highlights.

Eleanor Stone is just nineteen years of age when she is captivated by Zsiga, an unconventional, liberal man with a keen interest in people. At thirty-seven, Zsiga is somewhat older than Eleanor, but personality-wise he is a good match; so, following a short courtship and engagement, the pair marry and ultimately make their way to Zsiga’s Ruthenian estate at the edge of the Carpathian Mountains.

It was no Eastern European Versailles. It was small, and infinitely lovable. It had a sort of touching elegance. And there were little barbaric bits here and there that were particularly pleasing in a building meant to be so classic. For instance, the water spouts, which were fierce little mermaids wearing crowns. (p. 121)

While the Perényis have little money to speak of, their assets are substantial as the estate comprises 750 acres of gardens and farmland, a vineyard, a distillery and a sizeable forest. The baroque property itself is characterful but dilapidated and in significant need of repair – there is much work to be done to make the dwelling comfortable for the newlyweds.

While the Stones are fearful for their daughter’s future in an unfamiliar land, Eleanor herself is much more optimistic, buoyed by the richness of her new life with Zsiga. Money is of little importance to her, particularly compared to the pleasures of the estate.

We walked over the fields toward an acacia-shaded road. The earth was fine and crumbly under our feet. I had not expected to feel very much about the land. It was the house and the garden that I had thought of. But I was wrong. The land was the reason for everything. And standing there, we felt rich. We wondered what everyone had meant by saying we had no money, and no future, and should not marry. Nonsense! At that moment, we felt we had everything. (p. 45)

The first two-thirds of the memoir focuses on Eleanor’s adjustment to her new world, situated as it is on the shifting borders between Hungary and Czechoslovakia. At the time of her arrival, the area surrounding the estate is under the auspices of the Czechs; however, as Zsiga speaks Hungarian, this is the language she decides to learn, aided by the trusty Györffy, a long-standing employee of the Perényi family and manager of the estate.

Alongside her lessons, Eleanor must also get to grips with managing the household, the gardens and ultimately the orchard, all of which need regular care and attention. There is little time for her to feel bored, especially as there are several renovations and refurbishments to be made around the house. With her flair for colour and interior design, Eleanor sets about rearranging and furnishing the rooms, rescuing past glories including paintings, maps and a collection of old books, many of which belonged to Zsiga’s grandfather, Alexei. With most of the ground floor given over to the kitchen, office and storerooms, the Perényis establish their living quarters in the upstairs rooms of the house, complete with a new library furnished by Eleanor.

There were the books and the maps; and this room, too, was frescoed. On the vaulted ceiling there were four panels, representing the seasons of the year. In the firelight, with the red brocade curtains drawn, this room seemed to vibrate with faint motion. Everything moved and looked alive, the gleaming backs of the books, the shadowy little figures on the ceiling, and the old Turk over the fireplace. (p. 130)

This section of the memoir reads like a sequence of vignettes – snapshots of the Perényis’ lives as they lovingly restore the estate. There are local dignitaries to visit, traditional festivities to host, and strange customs to uphold, all of which Eleanor handles beautifully – she doesn’t seem phased by any of it. In one particularly evocative episode, the couple cross the border into Hungary to stay with Zsiga’s cousin Laci, a larger-than-life character with an enormous bushy beard. Eleanor is captivated by Laci and his dashing friend, Bottka, with their enduring stamina and thirst for enjoyment.

All too soon, however, developments in the outside world begin to impinge on the Perényis’ existence, and their position in the liminal zone between borders becomes all too perilous. Eleanor is acutely aware that if Czechoslovakia were to enter the war against Germany, Zsiga’s status as a Hungarian national would lead to his internment as a foreign subject. The situation in Europe is changing fast; too fast for Zsiga to arrange for Czech citizenship to secure his position. So, after much soul-searching, the couple make a dash for the border in the hope of making it into Hungary and back to Budapest.

We left. All the frontiers were closed, except for one spot about a hundred miles away. We had managed to keep the car, and we drove it to this place. Our exit was very melodramatic, considering that Chamberlain was already on his way to Munich. We didn’t know this, however, and neither apparently did the Czechs. The roads were clogged with military vehicles, and with soldiers. (p. 168)

They make it, but only just – crossing the border at the last barrier where the frontline defences are in the process of being established.

Back in Hungary, the Perényis find themselves caught up in the schizophrenic, illogical nature of Hungarian politics. As the disputes over the Czech territories rumble on, the couple dearly hope that their area will be returned to Hungary. (While a continuation of life under the Czechs would be perfectly acceptable, all hopes for the nation’s survival are rapidly ebbing away; it seems merely a matter of time before the capitulation occurs.) Alternatively, the prospect of being ruled by the Ruthenians is unthinkable, a situation that would leave the Perényis exposed to the whims of barbarians.

We would have been quite happy to go on living under the Czechs, but if in this nearly final partition of Czechoslovakia we were left to the Ruthenians, we knew it would be very bad news indeed. There was all the difference in the world between the enlightened civilized Czechs and the savage Ruthenians. If that happened to us, we would be left without any competent authority, lost in a remote province. For there was no doubt that the Ruthenians were going to demand and, with the Czechs reduced to complete impotence by this latest blow, get complete autonomy. (p. 178)

I won’t reveal how the decision on these territories works out for Eleanor and Zsiga; you’ll have to read the memoir yourselves to discover the outcome. Suffice it to say that there are testing times ahead for this couple as they try to navigate the turmoil of war.

More Was Lost found its way onto my radar when Dorian wrote so enthusiastically about it back in 2016 (do take a look at his posts which you can find here). It is by turns beautiful, illuminating, poignant and sad; one of those rare books that feel expansive in scope yet intimate in detail all at once. There is a sense of lives being swept up in the devastating impact of broader events as the uncertainty of the political situation begins to escalate. The pivotal decisions that Eleanor and Zsiga must take are conveyed with clarity and openness, qualities that make their story all the more moving to read.

Perényi is a wonderful writer, describing her life on the estate and the changing of the seasons with great attention to detail. There are some beautiful descriptive passages in the book, from the snowy landscapes of the surrounding areas to the grand portraits and photographs of Zsiga’s ancestors – the last remnants of an idyllic vanished world.

The book comes with a lovely introduction from J. D. McClatchy, an author and close friend of   Perényi, which outlines what happened to Eleanor and Zsiga both during and after the war. Like many introductions, it is probably best left to the end to avoid any spoilers.

All in all, this is a superb memoir written in a thoroughly engaging, straightforward style. Very highly recommended, particularly for readers with an interest in the period.

More Was Lost is published by NYRB Classics. Huge thanks to Dorian for kindly gifting me a copy of the book.

At Freddie’s by Penelope Fitzgerald

Set in a London stage school in the early 1960s, At Freddie’s is another of Penelope Fitzgerald’s marvellous tragicomedies, reasonably similar in style to her earlier works, Human Voices and OffshoreMany of the familiar elements from the author’s early novels are here – isolated women; hopeless, befuddled men; precocious children – all caught up in a somewhat eccentric, idiosyncratic community. Once again Fitzgerald has drawn on some of her own experiences in writing this book – in this instance, her time spent as a teacher at the Italia Conti drama school during the decade in question. It’s an excellent novel, both darkly comic and poignant, shot through with a deep understanding of the foibles of human nature both positive and negative.

Situated in the midst of Covent Garden, the Temple Stage School is managed by the eponymous Freddie, an elderly matriarch and longstanding doyenne of the theatrical world. Aiding Freddie in this capacity is Miss Blewett – affectionately known as the Bluebell – her devoted assistant of several years. The school specialises in training children for classic roles, parts in Shakespeare’s plays, Peter Pan and other such staples. Naturally, Freddie’s pupils are terribly precious in a rather dramatic way, prone to overexcitement and competitiveness, qualities typified by the following passage.

The children did a half day’s education only. If they went to their music, dancing and dramatic classes in the morning, they spent the afternoon in a kind of torpor; if they weren’t to go till the afternoon, they were almost uncontrollable all morning. Feverishly competitive, like birds in a stubblefield, twitching looks over their shoulder to make sure they were still ahead, they all of them lied as fast as they could speak. Whether they had any kind of a part in a show or not, they wrote ‘Working’ against their names in the register and claimed that they were only in school because there wasn’t a rehearsal that day. The first professional secret they learned was an insane optimism. Still, all children tell lies. But not all of them, if reproached, well up at once with unshed crystal tears, or strike their foreheads in self-reproach, like the prince in Swan Lake. (pp. 29-30)

While Fitzgerald is primarily concerned with recreating a rather peculiar world, the novel does have a narrative thread of sorts, namely the perilous state of the school’s finances. (Pupils must carefully navigate the sagging floors and areas of disrepair to avoid any unpleasant accidents.) For years, Freddie has used her considerable and power and influence in the theatre community to keep the establishment going, procuring resources here and there to maintain the business. Moreover, when necessary, she has been successful in combating various adversaries, as evidenced by her success in staving off the creditors.

Debt collectors had long since given up waiting at the front and back doors of the Temple School. They knew there was no prospect of getting anything, and it was said that one of them, in the manner of the old comedies, had been persuaded to part with his waistcoat and jacket and donate it to the stock of costumes. ‘He gave them to Freddie’s Frocks, dear,’ said the Bluebell with loyal vagueness. (p. 59)

However, now we are in the ‘60s, the surrounding world is beginning to change. The importance of television is growing, but Freddie remains wedded to the medium of theatre, a place where longevity and tradition are admired and treasured.

Into the mix comes Mr Blatt, a potential investor in the school, if only he could make Freddie see sense. Blatt is dismayed at the lack of business management at the Temple, so he sets about making a number of sensible suggestions for improvement, all of which are promptly ignored. As far as Blatt sees things, the potential for TV and radio commercials is vast, but Freddie remains steadfast, at least until the novel’s closing stages. Fitzgerald is clearly making a point about the dynamics between artistic merit and commercialisation – that said, it never feels forced or laboured, just wonderfully ironic instead.

Also threaded through the novel is a subplot involving the school’s only proper teachers, Hannah Graves and Pierce Carroll, both recently hired from Northern Ireland (naturally, as this is Freddie’s, they are being paid a pittance). Hannah is attracted to the romance and atmosphere of the theatre, a point successfully identified by Freddie during their discussions about the role, hence her ability to strike a bargain on the girl’s salary.

Hannah Graves was a nice-looking girl of twenty, with too much sense, one would have thought, to consider a job at eleven pounds fifteen shillings a week. But Freddie had instantly divined in her that attraction to the theatre, and indeed to everything theatrical, which can persist in the most hard-headed, opening the way to poetry and disaster. (p. 19)

Pierce, on the other hand, has no interest whatsoever in dramatic pursuits. Instead, he is simply grateful to have found a half-decent job, knowing his own value (or lack of it) in the wider world. As the weeks go by, Hannah and Pierce fall into a loose relationship with each another, one that seems doomed from the start. There is an excruciating proposal of marriage, followed by an even more desperate discussion in a Lyons tea shop, complete with waitresses itching to clear up and go home. Pierce is one of Fitzgerald’s classic hopeless men, aware of his own tragedy but clueless as to how to negate it.

Interspersed with these storylines are various vignettes of life at the stage school and the theatre in general. We follow the progress of twelve-year-old Mattie (a bit of a prankster) and his gifted friend, Jonathan, both of whom have landed the role of Prince Arthur in Shakespeare’s King John. (Mattie is to play the part for the first twelve weeks followed by Jonathan for the remainder of the run.) There are also some highly amusing pen portraits of the various luvvies in the theatrical world, typically men with overinflated views of their own importance. Take William Beardless, for instance, the actor who has been hired to play King John – a performer whose reputation proceeds him.

He [Beardless] was disliked throughout the profession for his habit of handing out little notes to the cast after every performance, pointing out, in a friendly spirit, exactly where they had gone wrong. His notebook and pencil were out already. (p. 91)

A visit from Noël Coward is another highlight, an occasion that prompts Mr Blatt to give nine-year old Jonathan a drink of whisky for courage, something that results in the young lad being sick in the boys’ toilets.

Overall, At Freddie’s offers a marvellous insight into a rarefied world, that of a stage school struggling to survive in a time of change. The theatrical world in general is revealed as one characterised by resentments, jealousies, overinflated notions and egos, and yet there is also compassion and understanding too. As ever, Fitzgerald is wonderfully perceptive on the opportunities and disappointments of life, both big and small. The Covent Garden setting, with its traditional fruit and vegetable market, is also beautifully evoked.

Once again, Penelope Fitzgerald confirms her status as one of my favourite writers. If they’re of interest, you can find my posts on some of her other novels here.

At Freddie’s is published by Fourth Estate; personal copy.

Look at Me by Anita Brookner

Perceptive, engrossing and enigmatic, Look at Me – Anita Brookner’s third novel – is something of a minor masterpiece, probing as it does the inner life of a lonely young woman who experiences a brief period of renaissance, only to be scarred by the torrid experience.

The woman in question is Frances Hinton, a spinster who works in the reference library of a medical research institute, organising and cataloguing images of various mental conditions and abnormalities of human behaviour. Highly analytical and orderly by nature, Frances is a keen observer of her colleagues and visitors to the institute, studying and recording her observations as potential material for short stories, or possibly even a novel. In her spare time, of which there is ample, Frances aspires to be a writer, viewing her writing as a means of expression, of reminding other people that she exists. In short, it is her one way of saying: ‘Look at me. Look at me’.

After work, Frances returns to the large, outmoded flat in Maida Vale she has inherited from her recently-deceased mother. There she is looked after by the family’s elderly maid, a steadfast yet loyal Irish woman by the name of Nancy, who ministers to Frances as if she were still a child, serving her the same bland meal each evening out of habit and routine.

There are times, especially at night, when Frances wonders if this is to be her lot, with Nancy shuffling along the corridor in her worn slippers, carrying the same old-fashioned tray with the same meagre dinner ad infinitum; for while she is used to her own company, Frances longs for a little enjoyment and excitement in her life.

Sometimes I wish it were different. I wish I were beautiful and lazy and spoiled and not to be trusted. I wish, in short, that I had it easier. Sometimes I find myself lying awake in bed, after one of these silent evenings, wondering if this is to be my lot, if this solitude is to last for the rest of my days. Such thoughts sweep me to the edge of panic. For I want more, and I even think I deserve it. I have something to offer. (p. 19) 

Then, just when she is least expecting it, Frances finds herself being drawn into the seductive world of Dr Nick Fraser, a charming yet shallow researcher at the institute, and Alix, his alluring, self-confident wife. In many ways, Nick and Alix appear to be the golden couple – glamorous, bohemian and flamboyant. Almost like the product of some form of natural selection, they attract various devotees and followers, drawing in admirers wherever they go. Naturally, Frances is intrigued by the Frasers’ sophisticated lifestyle, their spontaneity and ease with one another, and she clings to their company in the hope that some of the glamour and vitality will rub off.

Nevertheless, while Frances is fascinated by Nick and Alix, she also recognises that there is something a little repellent about them – more specifically, their need to show off or exhibit their relationship, as if she is there to serve as an audience for their performance, not as a friend or companion. 

What interested me far more, although I also found it repellent, was their intimacy as a married couple. I sensed that it was in this respect that they found my company necessary: they exhibited their marriage to me, while sharing it only with each other. […] I was there because some element in that perfect marriage was deficient, because ritual demonstrations were needed to maintain a level of arousal which they were too complacent, perhaps too spoilt, even too lazy, to supply for themselves, out of their own imagination. I was the beggar at their feast, reassuring them by my very presence that they were richer than I was. Or indeed could ever hope to be. (p. 57) 

Alix, in particular, is rather careless and unfeeling, treating Frances as a kind of toy or plaything for her personal amusement, tossing her aside whenever she is bored. And yet, Frances puts up with Alix’s supposedly good-natured taunts, submitting to being referred to as ‘Little Orphan Fanny’ even though she claims to dislike the use of this pet name.

As her association with the Frasers continues, Frances also becomes involved with James Anstey, another researcher at the institute, who on the surface seems reliable and considerate. As a consequence, they begin to see one another, albeit in a fairly chaste and innocent fashion. Nevertheless, it’s not long before Frances starts to imagine a different kind of future for herself, far away from that of her predecessor at work, the bitter Miss Morpeth, who now faces a relatively bleak retirement; or that of Mrs Halloran, a regular visitor to the library who ekes out her days with the help of substantial quantities of drink. 

Beginnings are so beautiful. I was not in love with James, but now there was something to get up for in the mornings, other than that withering little routine that would eventually transform me into a version of Miss Morpeth, although I had no niece in Australia who might brighten my last years. Nor would I turn into Mrs Halloran, still game, but doomed to hopelessness. No glasses of gin for me, no bottle in the wardrobe of a room in a hotel in South Kensington, no evenings lying on the bed dressed in a housecoat too young and too pink, casting superior horoscopes for those who fear the future. With what thankfulness did I register my deliverance from this dread, which had possessed me for as long as I could remember. (pp. 85-86) 

Naturally, as this an Anita Brookner novel, the aura of happiness that surrounds Frances is somewhat short-lived. All too soon, Alix is berating Frances, accusing her of stringing Nick along and selfishly taking advantage of him – this seems a bit rich coming from Alix, who has to be one of the most heartless, self-absorbed characters you are ever likely to encounter. 

I felt that I was being hurried along a path that I had not originally wanted to take, or at least not with so much dispatch, so much secrecy. I had wanted the company of my friends to sustain my golden enjoyment and my new future, but those friends had turned into spectators, demanding their money’s worth, urging their right to be entertained. And I no longer wanted to be available for that particular function. (p. 105) 

It all ends rather badly, of course, with a shattering dinner at the restaurant frequented by Alix and Nick. Before the night is out, Frances is subjected to another haunting experience as she combs the streets of London in a state of shock, fear and disorientation. 

Look at Me is a very accomplished novel. What impresses me most about it is how cleverly Brookner controls the narrative. There is something incredibly compelling about Frances’ voice, the carefully-constructed reflections and insights into her complex personality. Few writers can capture the acute pain of social isolation and dashed dreams quite like Anita Brookner, and this has to be one of her best, most nuanced explorations of these themes.

While Frances isn’t a classic unreliable narrator as such, there is something slippery and elusive about her story. She frequently contradicts herself or claims to desire things that are pulling in opposite directions. For example, Frances is fatally drawn to the Frasers and their alluring lifestyle; and yet in her heart of hearts, she knows there is something repulsive about them, something unsavoury and possibly dangerous. Moreover, she declares a lack of love for James, and yet she also persists in dreaming of some kind of life with him. There are instances when Frances seems at once both childlike and old before her time – and for someone so analytical in nature she lacks self-awareness, failing to recognise how others perceive her. There are also some oblique references to a previous relationship in her life, a painful, damaging affair, almost certainly with a married man.

As the novel draws to a close, there is a sense that Frances realises she was out of her depth with the Frasers, destined for a brief flirtation with their gilded lives without every truly taking part. Her only consolation is that she now has ample material for her novel, the various characters and scenarios seem fully formed.

I have quoted very extensively from this novel, partly because of the flawless nature of Brookner’s prose – not a word wasted or out of place. I’ll finish with one last passage from the final section, Frances forever the outsider, always looking in. 

I could not even side against them. I was not of their number, that was all. The moment at which I recognized this difference was the ultimate sadness, and I felt all my assumed certainties dropping away from me as if they had been fashionable clothes which I had perhaps tried on in a shop and then regretfully laid aside, as being…not suitable. (p. 181)

Look at Me is published by Penguin Books; my thanks to the publisher for providing a copy.