Tag Archives: #ReadWomen

The Pursuit of Love by Nancy Mitford

First published in 1945 but set largely in the interwar years, Nancy Mitford’s The Pursuit of Love is a wonderful novel about a young woman’s search for true love, complete with all the delights and disappointments such a quest entails.

While Mitford’s novel focuses on the amorous adventures of Linda Radlett, everything we see and hear is filtered through the lens of Linda’s cousin, the sensible and level-headed Fanny. Having been abandoned by her mother – known within the family as ‘the Bolter’ for her tendency to run off with a sequence of lovers – Fanny has been raised by her kindly Aunt Emily in a small but comfortable home in Shenley. Childhood Christmas holidays are spent with the rather eccentric Radletts at their estate in the Cotswolds, a large manor house by the name of Alconleigh. The Radlett family is headed by Fanny’s Uncle Matthew, a large blustering man whose favourite sports are catching Germans with his entrenching tool, hunting of any description (including the pursuit of his children around the grounds), and stomping about in search of an outlet for his many frustrations; then there is Aunt Sadie (Emily’s sister), who does her best to maintain some semblance of order within the household; and finally, the six Radlett children, most notably Linda, Fanny’s cousin and closest friend. Mitford does a great job in conveying the various idiosyncrasies of this unconventional upper-class family – we are privy to their passions and beliefs, their rather silly preoccupations with outmoded social conventions, and their various peccadillos and habits.

The Radletts were always either on a peak of happiness or drowning in black waters of despair; their emotions were on no ordinary plane, they loved or they loathed, they laughed or they cried, they lived in a world of superlatives. (p. 9)

Fanny and Linda spend much of their time chatting together about girlish things, hiding out in the linen closet (or ‘Hons’ cupboard’ as it is called), the only warm place in the house. It is here that the hopelessly romantic Linda talks of finding true love, one that is lasting and passionate, the sort that only comes along once in a lifetime. In particular, she is entranced by the glamour and sophistication of the smart set of bright young things she meets by way of her neighbour and advocate, the cultured Lord Merlin.

By the time of her coming-out ball, Linda is ripe for the taking. Much to Uncle Matthew’s dismay, she falls in love with an attractive young banker, Tony Kroesig, whose family originally hailed from Germany, albeit several generations ago. In this scene, Uncle Matthew lets rips to Davey, Aunt Emily’s delightful but rather sensitive husband. As you can see, his language is gloriously unfiltered, very much a reflection of his bombastic nature and the prevailing attitudes of the day.

‘Who is that sewer with Linda?’

‘Kroesig, Governor of the Bank of England, you know; his son.’

‘Good God, I never expected to harbour a full-blooded Hun in this house – who on earth asked him?’

‘Now, Matthew dear, don’t get excited. The Kroesigs aren’t Huns, they’ve been over here for generations, they are a very highly respected family of English bankers.’

‘Once a Hun always a Hun,’ said Uncle Matthew, ‘and I’m not too set on bankers myself. Besides, the fellow must be a gate-crasher.’

‘No, he’s not. He came with Merlin.’

‘I knew that bloody Merlin would start bringing foreigners here sooner or later. I always said he would, but I didn’t think even he would land one with a German’ (p. 56)

At first, both families are dead against the match, albeit for very different reasons. Uncle Matthew has an intense hatred of all foreigners, irrespective of their standing and tenure in Britain. The Kroesigs, on the other hand, consider landed gentry such as the Radletts to be feckless and no longer of any great relevance in the modern world. Moreover, they would prefer young Tony to concentrate on his career for a while, with the hope that he might also go on to marry the daughter of one of the other big banking families in the city, thereby creating a union of great worth. Nevertheless, in spite of this initial opposition, the Kroesig-Radlett wedding goes ahead, and Linda and Tony begin their rather ill-fated life together.

As Fanny quite rightly intuits, the marriage turns out to be a failure almost right from the start. Tony is soon revealed to be a frightful bore, a pompous, self-centred ass whose only interests revolve around money and politics – shortly after the wedding he gains a comfortable seat as a Tory MP. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Linda proves a disappointment to the Kroesig family who consider her eccentric, distracted and extravagant. Tony’s work and political activities are of no interest to Linda whatsoever, a point which becomes patently obvious for all to see. By the time her daughter Moira is born, Linda has fallen totally out of love with Tony; his many shortcomings are simply too ingrained to overlook, those first flushes of love have long since gone.

The young man she had fallen in love with, handsome, gay, intellectual, and domineering, melted away upon closer acquaintance, and proved to have been a chimera, never to have existed outside her imagination. Linda did not commit the usual fault of blaming Tony for what was entirely her own mistake, she merely turned from him in absolute indifference. This was made easier by the fact that she saw so little of him. (p. 88)

Then one day at her in-laws’ home, Linda meets Christian Talbot, a handsome Communist full of energy and ideas. Entranced by this young man, his passions and beliefs, she runs away from Tony in the hope of finding true love with husband number two.

Linda was a plum ripe for shaking. The tree was now shaken, and down she came. Intelligent and energetic, but with no outlet for her energies, unhappy in her marriage, uninterested in her child, and inwardly oppressed with a sense of futility, she was in the mood either to take up some cause, or to embark upon a love affair. That a cause should now be presented by an attractive young man made both it and him irresistible. (p.98)

But once the initial excitement dies down, Linda discovers that her new life with Christian isn’t all she had hoped it would be. All too soon, during a trip to France to support the refugees fleeing the Spanish Civil War, Christian reveals himself to be a rather hopeless husband. Concerned as he is with the major revolutions of the day, Christian remains oblivious to the feelings and emotions of others, especially those closest to him; it is radical ideas and left-wing causes that interest Christian, not individual people and their emotional needs. All of a sudden this becomes apparent to Linda – and so she packs her suitcase and leaves, forsaking another husband in the process.

Then, just when Linda is at her lowest ebb, stranded in Paris with insufficient money to make it home to England, a dashing stranger appears and comes to her rescue. The man in question is Fabrice, a wealthy duke and bon viveur, the man who turns out to be the one great love of Linda’s life. At long last, there is a chance of true happiness for our heroine; but the question is, will it last?

But she was filled with a strange, wild, unfamiliar happiness, and knew that this was love. Twice in her life she had mistaken something else for it; it was like seeing somebody in the street who you think is a friend, you whistle and wave and run after him, and it is not only not the friend, but not even very like him. A few minutes later the real friend appears in view, and then you can’t imagine how you ever mistook that other person for him. Linda was now looking upon the authentic face of love, and she knew it, but it frightened her. That it should come so casually, so much by a series of accidents, was frightening. (p. 139)

The Pursuit of Love is an utterly charming novel. It is by turns hilarious, artful, touching and poignant, peppered as it is with Mitford’s sparkling dialogue and wit. The author has drawn heavily on her own family here, particularly in the portrayal of Uncle Matthew, a thinly-veiled version of her father, Lord Redesdale. The characterisation is fabulous throughout, from the privileged, whimsical Linda, to the indomitable Uncle Matthew, to the pitch-perfect minor characters of Davey and Lord Merlin, both of whom remain ardent supporters of Linda in her quest for personal fulfilment. Even the infamous Bolter makes a cameo appearance at one point – another memorable character, vividly sketched.

For all its wit and satirical humour, this novel also conveys a strong sense of humanity. In spite of her many mistakes and failings, Linda is always welcomed back into the family fold, supported by Fanny, Aunt Sadie and even Uncle Matthew. There is a sense of real support and affection here, a family sticking together despite what life may throw at it.

As the story draws to a close during the turmoil of WW2, Mitford also reminds us of the fragility of our existence. This was not a time for the frivolous pleasures of love; rather the focus was on survival and the preservation of life. While the closing section is rather poignant, the novel ends on a fitting note. All in all, this is a great book, fully deserving of its status as a modern classic. I enjoyed it immensely.

The Pursuit of Love is published by Penguin Books; personal copy.

The Girls of Slender Means by Muriel Spark

Last year I read and really enjoyed Muriel Spark’s 1959 novel Memento Mori, a darkly comic exploration of ageing and mortality. In the hope of building on this positive experience, I recently turned to another of her early works, the wonderfully titled The Girls of Slender Means. Luckily for me, it turned out to be a great success. It’s a mercurial novel. Deceptively light at first sight, there are some genuine elements of darkness lurking just beneath the surface, all of which come together to make it a really interesting and surprising read.

Set mostly in the summer of 1945, The Girls of Slender Means centres on the May of Teck Club in Kensington, a hostel for the ‘Pecuniary Convenience and Social Protection of Ladies of Slender Means below the age of Thirty Years, who are obliged to reside apart from their Families in order to follow an Occupation in London.’

At an early stage in the novel, Spark maps out the social hierarchy that has developed within this large boarding house, once a private residence back in Victorian times. The ground floor houses the staff offices, dining room, recreation room and drawing room (the latter freshly papered in depressing shades of sludge-like brown), while the first floor accommodates the youngest members of the club, girls between the ages of eighteen and twenty, recently released from boarding school and used to living in communal dormitories, not unlike the curtained-off cubicles in this part of the building.

The girls on this floor were not yet experienced in discussing men. Everything turned on whether the man in question was a good dancer and had a sense of humour. The Air Force was mostly favoured, and a D.F.C. was an asset. (p. 27)

For those with more money, the second floor offers a little more privacy: shared rooms for two or four residents, mostly occupied by young woman in transit and those looking for flats or bedsits. The third floor is home to a mix of girls, either prim and pretty young virgins destined for a life of near-celibacy, or bossy women in their late twenties who are too sharp to fall for the charms of any man. Finally, the most attractive, sophisticated and lively girls are to be found on the top floor of the house, typically those with interesting jobs or lovers, and active social lives to boot.

As they realised themselves in varying degrees, few people alive at the time were more delightful, more ingenious, more movingly lovely, and, as it might happen, more savage, than the girls of slender means. (p. 9)

Also residing at the May of Teck are three spinsters in their fifties, women who have somehow managed to sidestep the usual rules of the establishment that require members to move on once they reach the age of thirty. These elderly residents provide some nice comic moments in their interactions with one another, and in those with the younger residents of the club.

By 1945 they had seen much coming of new girls and going of old, and were generally liked by the current batch, being subject to insults when they interfered in anything, and intimate confidences when they kept aloof. (pp. 14-15)

The novel focuses on a handful of the girls who reside at the May of Teck – mostly those on the top floor of the building – offering glimpses of their daily preoccupations and concerns as they try to go about their lives as best they can. While the timeline moves backwards and forwards throughout the novel, the majority of the action takes place over three months: the period between VE day in May and VJ Day in August 1945.

Central to the novel is Jane Wright, who in 1945 is working for a slightly dodgy publisher, checking out the financial status of aspiring authors and trying to uncover their weak spots for her employer to exploit when negotiating contracts. Also featuring prominently are the beautiful Selina Redwood, a rather statuesque girl who values poise and elegance above all else, Dorothy Markham, the impoverished niece of Lady Julia Markham, chairwoman of the club’s management committee, and Anne Baberton, the owner of a fabulous Schiaparelli gown that is loaned out to the other girls on the top floor whenever the occasion demands. This suitably glamorous dress causes a quite stir wherever it makes an appearance…

‘You can’t wear it to the Milroy. It’s been twice to the Milroy…it’s been to Quaglino’s, Selina wore it to Quags, it’s getting known all over London.’

‘But it looks altogether different on me, Anne. You can have a whole sheet of sweet-coupons.’

‘I don’t want your bloody sweet-coupons. I give all mine to my grandmother.’

Then Jane would put out her head. ‘Stop being so petty-minded and stop screeching. I’m doing brain-work.’ (p. 35)

(Jane is constantly seeking peace and quiet to concentrate on her important ‘brain-work’.)

Finally, and perhaps most notably, there is Joanna Childe, the self-sacrificing daughter of a country clergyman in the High Church. Young Joanna, who firmly believes that her one great chance for love has already passed her by, now devotes herself to giving elocution lessons to the other occupants of the house in exchange for payment or extra ration coupons. She is a lover of poetry, and her recitations of famous lines and stanzas are threaded through the novel adding an extra element of hilarity and interest.

Most of the chatter among the girls revolves around everyday issues: the men they are dating; their food rations and diets; the trading of clothing coupons and other luxuries; who gets to wear the posh frock when they have an important date, and so on. Nevertheless, against this light-hearted backdrop, there are signs of darker forces at play, mentions of notable events from 1945 are dropped in every now again – most worryingly perhaps, the emerging threat from the deployment of the atomic bomb.

Spark also inserts another strand into the story, one which adds a somewhat unsettling note. In the opening pages of the novel, a death in the present day (presumably some point in the 1960s) acts as the catalyst for the flashbacks to 1945. The missionary, Nicholas Farringdon has been killed in an uprising in Haiti, news of his death having reached Jane by way of a Reuters bulletin – she now works as a successful reporter for a leading women’s journal. Back in the 1940s, Jane had introduced Nicholas – then an aspiring author and intellectual whom she had been tasked with investigating – to the May of Teck Club. He was said to have been an anarchist, albeit a most unlikely one. No one could quite believe it of him at the time.

He was said to be an anarchist. No one at the May of Teck Club took this seriously as he looked quite normal; that is to say, he looked slightly dissipated, like the disappointing son of a good English family that he was. (p. 32)

Winding back to 1945, Jane is rather attracted to Nicholas and his somewhat bohemian lifestyle. He takes her to parties and poetry gatherings, introducing her to other writers in the process. Ultimately though, Nicholas gets mixed up with the glamorous Selina, spending hot summer nights with her on the May of Teck’s roof.

Nicholas had decided to do everything nice for Jane, except sleep with her, in the interests of two projects: the publication of his book and his infiltration of the May of Teck Club in general and Selina in particular. (pp. 65-66)

Elements of Nicholas’ ultimate fate are revealed in present-day conversations between Jane and the other former members of the May of Teck. Like Joanna’s recitations, these snatches of dialogue are threaded through the novel, a feat Spark pulls off to good effect.

The tone of the novel is by turns sharp, witty, touching and poignant. As the story heads towards its dramatic conclusion, Spark introduces a development that turns out to be both gripping and devastating. It is perhaps no surprise that the earlier elements of humour segue into a sense of imminent tragedy. In a clever twist, the phrase ‘of slender means’ in the novel’s title has a double meaning. On the one hand, it refers to the girls’ limited financial resources, while on the other it also relates to their physical build and hip measurements. Only the slimmest girls can slip through the narrow slit-window of the top-floor washroom to gain access to the May of Teck roof for a spot of sunbathing. Selina and Anne can manage it, but not the others, especially not Jane who is rather plump. The ability (or not) to slip through this aperture plays an important role in the closing stages of the book, but I had better not say too much more about this for fear of revealing any spoilers.

I really enjoyed this novel with its cast of interesting, well-crafted characters. Spark manages to pack so much into these 140 pages; it’s really quite remarkable. The period detail is excellent too, very evocative of the time, as evidenced by this passage from the opening page. I’ll leave you with this description of London, a city still in the early stages of recovery from the devastation of WW2.

Long ago in 1945 all the nice people in England were poor, allowing for exceptions. The streets of cities were lined with buildings in bad repair or in no repair at all, bomb-sites piled with stony rubble, houses like giant teeth in which decay had been drilled out, leaving only the cavity. Some bomb-ripped buildings looked like the ruins of ancient castles until, at a closer view, the wallpapers of various quite normal rooms would be visible, room above room, exposed, as on a stage, with one wall missing; sometimes a lavatory chain would dangle over nothing from a fourth- or fifth-floor ceiling; most of all the staircases survived, like a new art-form, leading up and up to an unspecified destination that made unusual demands on the mind’s eye. All the nice people were poor; at least that was a general axiom, the best of the rich being poor in spirit. (p. 7)

The Girls of Slender Means is published by Penguin Books; personal copy.

Anderby Wold by Winifred Holtby

Along with many other readers, I first discovered Winifred Holtby through her connection with Vera Brittain, whose memoir – The Testament of Youth – is considered a classic for its depiction of the impact of the Great War on the British middle classes, particularly the women. Holtby and Brittain were at Oxford together; after graduating the pair shared a flat in London where they went on to pursue their respective literary careers. Anderby Wold was Holtby’s first novel – an absorbing story of traditional Yorkshire farming folk grappling with the challenges of financial survival in an environment poised on the brink of great social change. I enjoyed it a great deal, especially the portrayal of the novel’s central character, Mary Robson, the rather headstrong joint-owner of Anderby Wold farm, situated in the East Riding region of Yorkshire.

When her errant father, Ben, died some ten years earlier leaving a multitude of debts, Mary married her steady but desperately unexciting cousin, John Robson, in order to secure a stable future for her family’s farm. It was a union borne out of necessity rather than passion or desire, especially given the large gap in their ages – Mary was just eighteen when she married John, a placid man in his early forties at the time. Now, after ten years of hard work on the farm and much scrimping and saving, the couple have made the final payment on the mortgage; thus Anderby Wold is financially secure, at least for the moment.

Anderby was hers. The mortgage was paid. That was worth anything; worth unlovely dresses made in the village, worth the constant strain of economy, worth the ten years’ intimacy with a man whose presence roused in her alternate irritation and disappointment. (p.23)

As the novel opens, John’s older sister, the formidable Sarah Bannister and her henpecked husband, Tom, are travelling to Anderby for a celebratory tea party to be hosted by the Robsons. Sarah – initially portrayed as a bitter and twisted woman – has always resented Mary for blighting John’s life. She considers Mary a selfish and conceited individual with little regard for John’s wishes and desires, especially given the fact that John had virtually given up work on his own farm at Littledale all those years ago in order to come to her aid at the Wold. Mary makes all the major decisions concerning the farm, with mild-mannered John deferring to the better judgement of his wife in virtually all matters. There is also a sense that Mary has let John down by failing to produce a child, someone to carry on the family name and tradition – a feeling that emerges a couple of times in the story. In this scene, we are privy to Sarah’s uncensored thoughts as her cart approaches the Robsons’ estate.

In a quarter of an hour they would be at Anderby Wold. That was where Ben had died over ten years ago, and where John had called to see if he could do anything for Mary – eighteen-year-old Mary, left alone to cope with her father’s debts. Oh, but she was clever! She knew that John was capable of managing two farms as well as one. Six month’s tribute had been paid to decorum before she had married him – poor John being too guileless to understand her cleverness. And, for the hundredth time since the marriage, Sarah had to enter John’s house as his wife’s guest. It was hard. (p. 6) 

Various aunts and uncles, cousins and other family members have come together to toast the Robsons’ achievement in paying off their mortgage. Holtby does a great job in drawing out the family tensions, particularly those between Mary and her cousin, Sarah. Nothing that Mary can do will ever be good enough for Sarah, the woman who thinks she knows John better than anyone else in the family fold. Nevertheless, as the story progresses, the reader can see that Sarah cares very deeply for her rather sensitive brother – ultimately, a slightly softer side of her personality emerges as it becomes clear that she only has John’s best interests at heart.

The Robsons are conventional folk, and their families have worked the land in pretty much the same way year in year out for several centuries. They believe in traditional values and morals, treating their workers with respect and consideration, paying them a modest wage augmented by generous hospitality at the end of each harvest. While John works on the farm, Mary busies herself with a variety of charitable work in the village. She organises whist drives and social events in aid of the local school, visits the sick and infirm, and offers support where it is needed. In short, Mary likes to think of herself as absolutely indispensable to the community of Anderby.

The government of a kingdom was not always easy. Mary hated to be disliked. She loved to imagine herself the idolized champion of the poor and suffering, the serene mistress of bountiful acres, where the season was always harvest and the labourers worthy of their hire. Coast and Waite were somehow out of the picture. (p. 88)

While many of the villagers and farm workers appreciate Mary’s efforts, others remain somewhat immune to her charms. There are frequent disagreements with the local schoolteacher, Mr Coast, a man who resents Mary for having blocked his application for a more prestigious role outside of the village. The pair clash again when Mary refuses to sell a piece of land to the County Council, partly for sentimental reasons and partly to annoy Mr Coast who wishes to turn the ground into a playing field for the children. These interactions highlight a stubborn, dogmatic steak in Mary’s nature, a facet which makes her character seem all the more human and believable – naturally, we all have our own particular flaws and shortcomings, and Mary is no exception.

Perhaps above everything else, Mary is determined not to end up like the older women in the Robson family who gather together on Wednesday afternoons in nearby Market Burton, their lives revolving around banal talk of ailments, general gossip and the best methods for darning holes in socks. From one generation to the next, the elders have moved to the town after retiring from their farms, simply to wither away and die like old trees starved of a sense of life and vitality.

Then, into the relative stability of the Robsons’ world comes young David Rossitur, an enthusiastic socialist full of radical ideas for the implementation of social change in the valleys of East Riding. Rossitur favours a more generous living wage for all farm labourers over a reliance on the philanthropy or goodwill of their employers come harvest time. He stirs up everything in Mary’s world on both a professional and a personal level, encouraging her workers to join a labourers’ union to fight for their rights. Here’s a brief excerpt from one of Rossitur’s feisty but good-natured debates with Mary.

‘You stand for an ideal that is, thank Heaven, outworn. The new generation knocks at your door – a generation of men, independent, not patronized, enjoying their own rights, not the philanthropy of their exploiters, respecting themselves, not their so-called superiors. You can’t stop them, but they may stop you. You can’t shut them out, but they may shut you in.’ (p. 118)

Even though Rossitur ardently disagrees with everything Mary and her class represent – in particular, their strong beliefs in time-honoured principles and traditions – he finds himself captivated by her spirited personality. Mary, for her part, is equally attracted to Rossitur, stuck as she is in a stagnant marriage utterly devoid of any spark of excitement.

David regarded her across the table. She was maddening, with her amused complacency, her indifference to all his arguments. And yet kind, and intelligent too in a way, and not without a sense of social responsibility. Clearly a convert worth making. (p. 109)

I don’t want to say too much more about the plot. You can probably guess how the story plays out, but it’s fair to say that Holtby throws in a few surprises along the way. My only quibble relates to certain events towards the end of the novel, some of which feel a little contrived and heavy-handed – engineered to force a conclusion to the story.

The novel does a fine job of exploring various timely themes, including the balance between tradition and progression, the need to let go of the past, the rights of workers vs employers, the dynamics between the different social classes, and the tensions arising from family obligations. For a debut, it’s pretty good – well-written and engaging, with plenty of scope for further development of the relevant themes in subsequent novels. Holtby brings a strong sense of authenticity to this story, an element which stems from her knowledge and experience of the community she portrays here. For the most part, the main characters feel real and sufficiently fleshed out, their personalities are sketched in shades of grey rather than purely black or white. Mary, in particular, is fully realised on the page. While there are times when she is kind and considerate, there are occasions when another side of her character emerges, one that reveals a somewhat stubborn, selfish and self-protective streak to her nature. Nevertheless, I found it easy to warm to Mary in spite of her failings.

All in all, Anderby Wold is an interesting and convincing portrait of a community wrestling with the prospect of significant social change. I’ll finish with a final quote, one that captures something of the dilemma that Mary faces as she contemplates an uncertain future ahead.

Between the generation that was passing and the one coming forward was a great gulf fixed – Mary and John were on one side. For a moment rebellion seized her. Why could she not relinquish this – the dim hills before her, the bearded figure beside her, the responsibilities that preyed upon her? Why not escape to the other side? (pp. 154-155)

Anderby Wold is published by Virago; personal copy.

One Fine Day by Mollie Panter-Downes

In this beautifully written novel, we follow a day in the life of the Marshalls, an upper-middle-class family struggling to find a new way to live in an England irrevocably altered by the Second World War. While Britain has emerged victorious from the conflict, life in the country has not returned to ‘normal’, to the way things were before – and for many people, it never will. Set on a blisteringly hot day in the summer of 1946, the novel captures a moment of great social change as thousands of families find themselves having to adapt to significant shifts in circumstances. For some inhabitants of Wealding, a picturesque village in the home counties, the war has opened up fresh opportunities and pastures new; but for others like Laura Marshall and her husband Stephen, it has led to a marked decline in living standards compared to the glory days of the late 1930s.

Laura – sensitive, wistful, bohemian – is trying to maintain some semblance of domestic harmony around the house now that the family’s servants are now longer there to maintain order, the invisible ‘caps and aprons’ who worked the strings of their world so perfectly. The cook and nanny are long gone; the maids who left to help with the war effort will not be returning, lured away by the chance to work in a local factory with all the benefits this new environment has to offer.

Like young horses intoxicated with the feel of their freedom, Ethel and Violet had disappeared squealing into the big bright world where there were no bells to run your legs off, where you knew where you were, where you could go to the flicks regular, and where you worked to the sound of dance music pouring out continuously, sweet and thick and insipid as condensed milk dripping through a hole in a tin. (p. 13)

While Laura tries her best, she is a hopeless cook, forever pulling something unidentifiable out the oven, or leaving the milk to boil over, her thoughts often elsewhere. There is skeleton help in the form of Mrs Prout, a local charwoman who comes to the Marshalls’ a few mornings a week to ‘circulate the dust a little’. Mrs Prout likes Laura even though she considers her a daydreamer, prone to contemplation and reflection while the house slowly crumbles around her feet. A keen observer of people, Panter-Downes has a wonderful knack for capturing a character in just a few sentences, as evidenced by this brief portrait of Mrs Prout.

Mrs. Prout obliged several ladies in Wealding, conscious of her own value, enjoying glimpses of this household and that, sly, sardonic, given to nose tapping and enormous winks, kind, a one for whist tables and a quiet glass at the local, scornful of the floundering efforts of the gentry to remain gentry still when there wasn’t nobody even to answer their doorbells, poor souls. (p. 18)

By contrast to Laura, Stephen is more troubled and dismayed by the loss of their servants, particularly the trusty gardener, Chandler – killed on the battlefields of Holland – who once tended their roses with such care and affection. Now there is only Voller from the village, a slow, plodding presence in the garden for one or two evenings a week, a man too old and weary to cope with any heavy work. As a consequence, the garden is hopelessly overgrown, the house tired and dilapidated, no longer filled with the gaiety and chatter of days gone by. Stephen longs for times past when everything ran efficiently, the house spick and span, the garden beautifully tended, their young daughter Victoria delivered to them fresh and clean in her towelling bath robe, cared for largely by the family’s nanny. Those days are but a dim and distant memory in the mind.

Meanwhile, here they were awkwardly saddled with a house which, all those pleasant years, had really been supported and nourished by squawks over bread-and-cheese elevenses, by the sound of Chandler’s boots on the paths, by the smell of ironing and toast from the nursery. The support, the nourishment, had been removed. Now, on this summer morning, when doors and windows stood open, it was possible to hear the house slowly giving up, loosening its hold, gently accepting shabbiness and defeat. (p. 13)

Recently returned from the war, Stephen travels to London for work each day, while his evenings are spent battling with the weeds in the garden. On top of the worries with the house, he is a little dismayed to find Laura looking middle-aged at thirty-eight, her hair grey, her face tired and weary. The couple’s ten-year-old daughter, Victoria, is a bit of a mystery to Stephen too, vastly changed from the inconspicuous child he left behind for the battlefield.

Laura too feels a little uncertain about her ability to adapt to this new life. She realises that her looks have faded, that others may see her as an ‘old sofa,’ worn but comfortable. Every now and again, Laura’s thoughts return to her mother, Mrs Herriot, a formidable woman who lives in Cornwall with Laura’s rather conservative father. Life for the Herriots has remained largely unchanged by the war. The new ideas have yet to catch on in St. Pol, the Herriot household still full of young girls willing to bow to the family’s every need. By contrast, Mrs Herriot bemoans the fact that Laura should be reduced to cooking, cleaning and looking after Victoria, unable to understand why the Marshalls’ servants have not returned to the fold. Moreover, she blames Stephen – whom she has never liked – for this sorry state of affairs, for not taking care of her daughter properly. As far as Mrs Herriot is concerned, Laura should have married her old flame, Philip Drayton, now a successful politician living comfortably in Westminster with his wonderful wife, Cicely, their old family cook and parlourmaid still firmly in position.

While Panter-Downes slips seamlessly between the minds of several of the characters, her main focus is always Laura; it is Laura’s thoughts that drive the narrative forward as we go through the day. By focusing on this one woman and her domestic situation, the author builds up a insightful picture of the inhabitants of a broader community, their lives touched and altered by the war in various ways. We follow Laura during her regular trip to the local town in an effort to buy food for the family’s dinner. Supplies are scarce, almost more so than during the war itself, as illustrated by this scene at Mr Kellett’s, Bridbury’s fishmonger.

It’s terrible, Mr. Kellett had grumbled, diving his scarlet hands into a bucket of goggling monsters, it’s never been worse, not even in the war, it hasn’t. The line of women had swayed and sighed, murmuring uneasily, staring with depression at the dwindling pile of fish, summoning up a false brightness when their turn came to step forward under Mr. Kellett’s angry little blue eyes. And to-night, chewing the dead slab which she would disguise as something or other, Stephen would say thoughtfully that it was odd what had happened to the soles. Had they disappeared from the seas, a war-time casualty? Not that this was not, of course, perfectly delicious, he would add kindly… (pp. 60-61)

Later, Laura calls in on a local family, the Porters, to ask if their son, George, would be interested in helping with the garden; but the young man in question has been offered a job at a garage in Coventry, lured away from the village by the promise of money and a livelier social life. We meet the Cranmers, a formerly grand family who have just sold the bulk of their vast estate as they can no longer afford to maintain it – the remaining members are to live more modestly in the stable wing. There is a fleeting visit to a shop where Laura encounters a young war widow – referred to here as Mrs Jim – a beautiful woman who, much to Laura’s dismay, seems all set to marry the stuffy and pernickety Stanley Rudge. As far as Laura is concerned, Mrs Jim could do so much better for herself, someone young and handsome like George Porter, for example. But Mr Rudge has prospects, he is a builder/property developer; and unlike Laura, whose husband returned from the war safe and sound, Mrs Jim cannot afford to be choosy, not since young Jim was declared lost at sea.

It is all very well for you, said Mrs. Jim’s eyes coldly. You are one of the safe ones, you have a roof and a child. Your man came back. One must take what one can. One is forced to make do, to pick up the crumbs, to be sensible., And all that, the other part, is gone for ever, sunk and drowned beneath the oily waters. (pp. 93-94)

There are other encounters too, all of which come together to paint a vivid picture of a nation, a country trying to come to terms with new ways of life and the accompanying changes to its social fabric.

Panter-Downes draws an astute contrast between the inner turmoil of Laura’s and Stephen’s thoughts and the peaceful nature of the idyllic landscape which surrounds them. Threaded through the novel are beautiful descriptions of the countryside on a hot summer’s day. The sunny is bright, the flowers and crops are flourishing in the fields. England is at peace, the land has survived in all its glory and is set to endure long into the future.

While this subtle novel is imbued with a strong sense of loss, of what has passed and will never return, the story finishes on an optimistic note. At the end of the afternoon, Laura climbs to the top of the local hill at Barrow Down. Enthused by the glorious views from the summit, she vows to reintroduce into her marriage some of the fun and intimacy that has been lacking lately. Stephen too seems ready to embrace a new beginning as he suddenly realises how preposterous it was to have become so dependent on servants for everything in the days before the war. While the couple’s future is left open to the reader’s imagination, the tone is undoubtedly hopeful; a fitting close for this lovely novel, sketched and coloured in an evocative, impressionistic style.

One Fine Day is published by Virago Press; personal copy.

The Long View by Elizabeth Jane Howard

First published in 1956, The Long View offers an insightful view of the different stages of a deeply unhappy marriage, one that ultimately seemed destined for disaster right from the start. The novel has a very interesting structure, beginning in 1950 when the couple in question – Antonia and Conrad Fleming – have been married for twenty-three years, and then winding back in time to 1942, 1937 and 1927, the time of their honeymoon. In this respect, it mirrors the structure of François Ozon’s excellent film, 5×2, which focuses on five key timepoints in the disintegration of a middle-class marriage, presenting them in reverse order. Crucially, Howard’s story finishes in 1926 just before Antonia meets her future husband for the first time. While the story is presented mostly from the perspective of Antonia, there are times when we are given access to Conrad’s thoughts, albeit intermittently.

When the novel opens in 1950, Antonia is preparing for a dinner party to recognise the engagement of her son, Julian, to June Stoker, a rather unexceptional young woman who seems desperate to get away from her insufferable mother. I say recognise as opposed to celebrate as there appears to be nothing joyous or pleasurable about this occasion. If anything, Julian – an advertising executive – looks set to emulate the model of an ill-fated marriage set out by his parents. There is a sense that finding a socially acceptable wife is the next thing on the list for Julian; and June, with her innocence and naivety, seems as suitable a prospect as any. June isn’t sure of her feelings for Julian (or of his for her); she merely hopes that everything will turn out okay in the end. Antonia recognises these doubts all too clearly, a point that only becomes fully apparent once the latter stages of the narrative are revealed. Conrad, for his part, is convinced that the couple’s time together will follow a well-trodden path, one almost certainly destined to create complications for both parties.

He had no doubt that Julian was marrying an exceptionally, even a pathetically, dull young woman, and the only mitigating feature of the affair, Julian’s extreme youth, was not likely, in view of his work and disposition, to count for very much. He would probably attempt to extricate himself at thirty, or thereabouts, by which time he would have two or three brats, and a wife, who, drained of what slender resources had first captivated him, would at the same time be possessed of a destructive knowledge of his behaviour. This would inevitably lead to his leaving her (if indeed he were to achieve it) for entirely the wrong reasons. (p. 16)

You’ve probably got the measure of Conrad by now, a selfish, arrogant and thoroughly obnoxious man who is largely absent from the family home in Holland Park, London. He cares very little for Antonia, a point that becomes abundantly clear from the opening pages of the novel.

He had a heart when he cared to use it. But on the whole, he did not care in the least about other people, and neither expected nor desired them to care about him. He cared simply and overwhelmingly for himself; and he felt now that he was at last a man after his own heart. The only creature in the world who caused him a moment’s disquiet was his wife, and this, he thought, was only because he had at one period in their lives allowed her to see too much of him. (p. 15)

After twenty-three years of marriage, Antonia has been left feeling emotionally drained and worn out. Having long since given up the battle of striving for Conrad’s approval and affection, she now faces the long years ahead, trapped in a stagnant life upon which she must try to carve out some kind of meaningful existence for herself.

It was too late to mourn any private intentions she might once have had towards herself – she had been loved, and touched and fashioned; dominated, protected, and ignored, until even her enjoyment of the wallpaper that her husband despised was coloured by the fact that he despised it. Even the few occasions when she had thought that she had asserted herself were direct results of her association with him. (p. 61)

There are other worries for Antonia too, most notably in the shape of her rather impulsive daughter, Deirdre, a girl who always seems to have two men on the go at any one time. It soon becomes clear that Deirdre also looks set to make a mess of her life – in this case by running off with the fall-back option when it turns out that her preferred lover does not reciprocate her feelings for him.

As the novel moves back in time, Howard peels back the layers of Antonia and Conrad’s marriage, enabling us to see key moments in their relationship and the fault lines therein. With his work taking him all over the country, Conrad sees little of Antonia during WW2, their paths occasionally crossing in London in between missions. The marriage is well and truly dead by this stage, suffocated by Conrad’s controlling personality and the fallout from his earlier affairs.

In 1937 (ten years into the marriage), we find the couple on holiday with friends in St Tropez, with Conrad desperate to get away from the group. In the end, he goes back to London to see his beautiful young lover, Imogen, a girl who shares something of the freshness and innocence of Antonia back in the days of her youth. By this point in the marriage, Antonia has started to realise that some of Conrad’s liaisons run the risk of disrupting the nature of her life with him. In this scene, Antonia recalls the occasion when she spotted her husband at the opera in the company of a ravishing young woman, a point she confronted him with later that night.

He had begun calmly by saying that the whole scene was horribly dated, and that were she to attend the opera more often she would learn that such behaviour as hers invariably led to disastrous consequences; but when these remarks merely elicited from her a flood of ill-considered and conventional allegations he became dangerous: wholeheartedly agreed with her, ignored her tears, and left her on the discouraging note that there were only two kinds of people – those who live different lives with the same partners, and those who live the same life with different partners; a remark, he said, to which she could not possibly object, since she had so perfectly created the situation which provoked it. (p. 124)

Back in 1927, we find the couple on honeymoon in Europe with the warning signs apparent from the start. It soon becomes clear that Conrad simply wants to mould and fashion the malleable Antonia into something to suit his very exacting needs. In essence, he treats Antonia like a decorative pawn in some sort of elaborately designed game.

‘I married you,’ he said slowly and clearly, ‘because you are going to be extremely beautiful, which means for me that you will be a pleasure to see, a delight to be with, and because, possessing you, I shall be envied by others. Knowing this, I wanted you. I married you because you are not a fool, because you have innate good taste, because you have a vast capacity for enjoyment, and because, if I was to marry at all, I wanted at least the possibility of perfection. You will not be perfect: but the amount that you will fall short will be my fault – not yours – and that responsibility is more desirable to me than anything else. (p. 278)

Perhaps most revealing of all is the final section of the novel set in 1926 where we find the nineteen-year-old Antonia – or Toni as she is referred to here – living at home with her parents in Sussex. Toni’s flighty and sociable mother, Araminta, fails her daughter badly, criticising and teasing her at every opportunity. In some ways, Araminta views Toni as a sort of rival, the latter’s innocence and youth representing potential threats to her own allure and beauty.

She was, her mother said, too tall and far too thin; her hair, although positively dark, was too fine to be manageable and she had almost no colour. Her eyes were her only good feature, said her mother, and proceeded to dress her in every shade of inferior blue which detracted from them. (p. 324) 

Toni’s father, on the other hand, is cold and withdrawn, eschewing the social whirl of weekend parties at the house in favour of working on his books. At first, it appears as though Wilfred is blind to his wife’s affairs and other goings on in the house; but when the desperately gauche and naïve Toni finds herself falling for one of her mother’s friends, it transpires that her father has observed and understood the situation all too clearly.

The revelations in this final section of the novel go a long way to explaining why Antonia married Conrad so quickly the following year. Moreover, they also cast a particular light on certain events in the earlier sections of the book – most notably Conrad’s fascination with his young lover, Imogen, and June Stoker’s forthcoming marriage to Julian.

The Long View is an interesting but claustrophobic novel. While I liked the opening and closing sections, I found the middle sections too protracted and drawn out. The writing is good, but it lacks the economy and focus I admire in the work of other writers such as Elizabeth Taylor and Penelope Fitzgerald. There are times when the tone is very caustic and bitter, too clinical and critical for my tastes. As the story is told almost exclusively from Antonia’s perspective, it could be argued that the picture we see is rather one-sided. I have no doubt that Conrad is responsible for much of the trouble in the Flemings’ marriage, but Antonia is not without blame either – she too has affairs at certain points in the relationship.

Nevertheless, I’m not unhappy that I read this novel – at least now I can say that I have tried Elizabeth Jane Howard.

The Long View is published by Picador; personal copy.

Our Spoons Came from Woolworths by Barbara Comyns

Another of my reads for the Classics Club, Our Spoons Came from Woolworths is narrated by Sophia, a young woman who is looking back on her unhappy marriage to a rather feckless artist by the name of Charles Fairclough. In writing this book, the British-born author Barbara Comyns has drawn heavily on her own life experience – it is, by all accounts, a lightly fictionalised version of her first marriage, a relationship characterised by tensions over money worries and various infidelities on her husband’s part. Although it took me a couple of chapters to fall into line with Sophia’s unassuming conversational style, I really warmed to her character, particularly as the true horror of her story became apparent. This is a wonderful book, by turns humorous, sad, shocking and heartwarming.

When young Sophia meets fellow artist, Charles, on a train, she soon falls for him against the backdrop of a glorious English summer. In spite of opposition from virtually everyone in Charles’s family, the couple marry very quickly and find a flat in North London which they furnish with secondhand pieces, all painted a beautiful duck-egg green. Their lifestyle is rather bohemian to say the least.

Right from the start, money is in very short supply. While Sophia has a regular job at a commercial studio, Charles considers himself to be a more ‘serious’ artist, reliant on the occasional commission or ad-hoc sale for income. In reality, he contributes next to nothing to the household finances – and when he does, it is quickly frittered away on luxuries such as paint, new brushes and restaurant dinners. For all her charms and initial optimism about married life, Sophia is rather naïve, and the first half of the novel is peppered with humorous moments as she tries to get to grips with marriage and running the house as well as being the main breadwinner in the family. Impractical advice from various members of Charles’s interfering family does little to help matters, especially when it’s delivered in a rather condescending fashion – here’s a typical example.

Although most of Charles’s relations came from Wiltshire they used to come to London very frequently. They all talked and asked questions about our financial position and took the line of “I hope you are looking after dear Charles properly”, or “What a lucky girl you are to have married into our family.” In those days I was too timid to say much, but I used to resent it all the more and sometimes, after they left, I would be nervy and resentful with Charles. Also they would keep suggesting impractical ways we could earn extra money. They sent cuttings from the Daily Mail about how I could make sweets or gloves at home and make a fortune, or complicated rackets for Charles to sell note-cases to our friends on commission. As none of our friends had any notes, he wouldn’t have done very well from it. (pp. 20-21)

Things take a distinct turn for the worse when Sophia finally discovers she is expecting a baby (cue some amusing scenes as she wonders why she has been feeling poorly all the time). Charles is pretty horrified by the prospect of becoming a father, and Sophia herself has no real understanding of the practicalities of motherhood. In short, they are both completely unprepared for what lies ahead. Nevertheless, I couldn’t help but feel for Sophia when I read the following passage.

Before I married Charles I used to hope I would have masses of children. I thought it would be nice always to have at least one baby and quite a number of older children all developing in their individual ways, but before we were married Charles told me he never wanted to have any children, and I saw they would not fit in with the kind of life we would lead, so I just hoped none would come to such unsuitable parents—anyway, not for years. I had a kind of idea if you controlled your mind and said “I won’t have any babies” very hard, they most likely wouldn’t come. I thought that was what was meant by birth-control, but by this time I knew that idea was quite wrong. (p. 26)

When Sophia informs her boss that she is pregnant, he responds by telling her she might as well leave at the next holiday. We are in the early 1930s here, many years before the introduction of maternity pay and employment protection for expectant mothers. With Sophia out of a job and Charles swanning about all day nurturing his artistic tendencies, the couple’s prospects are very poor indeed.

Much to Charles’s dismay, Sophia has a little boy which they name Sandro. He is a fragile little thing, very quiet and gentle and almost certainly malnourished. In spite of all this, Charles doesn’t warm to the child. Not for the first time, Comyns pulled me up short with one of Sophia’s revelations about life with her husband with all his blatant insensitivity.

Charles still disliked him [Sandro], but in spite of this made some drawings of us together, so I hoped eventually he would get used to him. At the moment I felt I had most unreasonably brought some awful animal home, and that I was in disgrace for not taking it back to the shop where it came from. (p. 64)

I don’t want to reveal too much more about the plot. It might spoil things, I think. Suffice it to say that the situation gradually deteriorates over the course of the next couple of years. While there are occasional periods of brightness – an inheritance from Sophia’s aunt and the occasional commission for Charles provide brief respites from poverty – they are sporadic and relatively short-lived.  All too soon Sophia finds herself desperately scrabbling around for money again, a situation which leads to the re-emergence of tensions in the marriage. She is forced to find another job to support the family as Charles won’t (or can’t) hack it in a commercial studio. As the story moves towards a somewhat inevitable crisis point, the mood darkens considerably, and the humour that characterises the first half of the novel gradually falls away. In this scene, Sophia reflects on her first day back at work as a commercial artist. Once again, Charles’s selfishness is all too apparent…

The first day there, I had to walk to work because we had no money in the house. Charles promised he would bring some in time for lunch, but, of course, didn’t, and I was too shy of the other girls to borrow any, so I became rather hungry and when it was time to leave I waited to see if he would come to fetch me, but again he failed me, so I had to walk home, getting more and more hungry on the way, and angry, too. When I arrived home I saw Charles through the uncurtained window. He was sitting reading with a tray of tea-things beside him. He looked so comfortable, I became even more angry, and dashed in like a whirlwind and picked up a chair and hit him with it. He did look startled. It was the first time I had done anything like that, and he was disgusted with me. I was ashamed of myself, too, but felt too tired to apologise, so just went to bed and wished I was dead. (pp. 100-101)

Hooray for Sophia! I think I would have sideswiped him with that chair, too.

This is an excellent novel, one that I enjoyed a lot more than I had expected to. For some reason, I had got it into my head that Comyns would be too left-field or eclectic for my tastes. How wrong could I be! I found Sophia a rather endearing narrator – yes, she is gullible and naïve, but she is also sympathetic and good-natured at heart. I couldn’t help but warm to her matter-of-fact, childlike narrative, a style that makes her revelations all the more shocking and impactful when they come, like little bolts out of the blue.

One of the things I like most about this novel is the way Comyns weaves various points of social commentary into Sophia’s story, all grounded in personal experience no doubt. There are some truly shocking and degrading scenes depicting Sophia’s treatment in the maternity wards following her admission to give birth. Several of the nurses are cruel and insensitive to her condition, and she is forced to carry her own suitcase from one room to another during a seemingly endless sequence of transfers through the hospital. The lack of proper care doesn’t end there either; this next passage highlights the lack of support and information available to young mothers following the birth.

We had no money at all and the milkman wouldn’t leave any milk because we hadn’t given him any money lately. He was quite nice about it and said we could have some free milk every day if we applied to the council. Mothers with new babies were allowed one pint a day if they had no money. The council went up in my estimation when I heard about this. Up till now I had thought it was almost a criminal offence to have a baby. All the same I did not apply for the free milk, because I was afraid they would take the baby away and put it in a home on the grounds of its parents having no visible means of support. (p. 65)

I’ve probably made this novel sound terribly grim, but it isn’t at all. There are quite a few laugh-out-loud moments here, especially in the first half of the book. More importantly, perhaps, we know from the opening page that there is some light at the end of the tunnel for Sophia. By the end of the novel, she is in a happier place having learnt some important lessons along the way. I guess that’s as much as any of us can hope for in life.

Our Spoons Came from Woolworths is published by NYRB Classics; personal copy.

The Enchanted April by Elizabeth von Arnim

Oh my goodness, what an enchanting novel this turned out to be! I read it over that beautifully sunny weekend just before Easter, and I couldn’t have chosen a better time – it matched the glorious weather to perfection.

First published in 1922, The Enchanted April, tells the story of four very different English women who come together to rent a medieval castle on the Italian Riviera for the month of April. The rather shy and mousey Mrs Wilkins proves to be a somewhat unlikely catalyst for the trip when she sees an advertisement in The Times appealing to those who appreciate ‘wisteria and sunshine’ to take a small castle on the shores of the Mediterranean, furnishings and servants provided – a prospect that captures her imagination on a dark and dreary afternoon in February. Before long Mrs Wilkins is joined in her quest by Mrs Arbuthnot – a woman previously known to her only by sight – who also appears to be transfixed by the very same ad and the idea of a break from her dismal routine.

As it turns out, both of these women are unhappy with their current lives, albeit in rather different ways. Lotty Wilkins feels trapped and belittled in a stifling marriage; her husband, Mellersh-Wilkins, is a stuffed shirt and a bully, someone who demands prudence and thrift in every department of their home life except the one that relates to his food. In this respect he is highly critical, dismissing any shortfalls in standards as poor housekeeping on Lotty’s part. Rose Arbuthnot, on the other hand, has all but abandoned any chance of ever being noticed by her husband, Frederick, a highly successful writer of rather salacious memoirs of the mistresses of kings. In the early days of their marriage, the Arbuthnots were very much in love; but all too soon the situation changed as Frederick began to throw himself into his work. As a consequence, Rose has filled her life with other things to occupy her time, mostly self-sacrificing charitable work in support of the poor and needy, primarily as a means of easing her conscience about the somewhat grubby nature of the source of Frederick’s income. In short, Lotty and Rose feel constrained by their respective circumstances, worn down over the years by a lack of love and affection – even though they are only in their early thirties, both of these women seem old before their time.

Why couldn’t two unhappy people refresh each other on their way through this dusty business of life by a little talk – real natural talk, about what they felt, what they would have liked, what they still tried to hope? And she could not help thinking that Mrs Arbuthnot, too, was reading that very same advertisement. Her eyes were on the very part of the paper. Was she, too, picturing what it would be like – the colour, the fragrance, the light, the soft lapping of the sea among little hot rocks? Colour, fragrance, light, sea; instead of Shaftesbury Avenue, and the wet omnibuses, and the fish department at Schoolbred’s, and the Tube to Hampstead, and dinner, and tomorrow the same and the day after the same and always the same… (p. 7)

Having overcome their initial reluctance to do something so daring, these two ladies from Hampstead decide they will reply to the ad and take the castle in Italy. The only real obstacle that remains is finding a means of funding the cost of the trip from their respective nest eggs, a task that would prove particularly challenging for Lotty given her personal circumstances. So, as a solution to their dilemma, Lotty and Rose decide to place their own advertisement in the paper in the hope of finding two suitable companions for the trip. Thus they are joined by Lady Caroline Dester, a glamorous young socialite who is seeking refuge from all the charming men who want a piece of her back in London, and Mrs Fisher, a rather crabby old lady who seems determined to live in the past, forever lamenting the loss of old friends and acquaintances from her beloved literary world.

On their arrival at the San Salvatore castle, these four very different ladies begin to connect and interact with one another, often with the most amusing consequences. There are some priceless scenes, especially at mealtimes, as the different personalities start to emerge, frequently clashing over the smallest and most telling of details. In this early scene, the elderly Mrs Fisher has adopted the role of grande dame at the breakfast table, almost as if she were the hostess or chief facilitator of the trip. Somewhat unsurprisingly, Rose Arbuthnot is more than a little put out by this development, and so she tries to establish her own standing as joint hostess with Lotty Wilkins, a move which doesn’t quite go according to plan! The indomitable Mrs Fisher is the first to speak here.

She turned more markedly than ever to Mrs Arbuthnot. ‘Do let me give you a little more coffee,’ she said.

‘No, thank you. But won’t you have some more?’

‘No indeed. I never have more than two cups at breakfast. Would you like an orange? ‘

‘No, thank you. Would you?’

‘No, I don’t eat fruit at breakfast. It is an American fashion which I am too old now to adopt. Have you had all you want?’

‘Quite. Have you?’

Mrs Fisher paused before replying. Was this a habit, this trick of answering a simple question with the same question? If so it must be curbed, for no one could live four weeks in any real comfort with somebody who had a habit. (pp. 66-67)

Gradually over time, the castle begins to work its magic on the occupants, often in profound and surprising ways. Lotty Wilkins is the first to experience its bewitching effects, transformed as she is by the abundance of beauty and resplendent atmosphere at San Salvatore (the descriptions of the gardens are magnificently lush). And how could she fail to be when she opens her curtains for the first time in the morning, only to be greeted by the following sight?

All the radiance of April in Italy lay gathered together at her feet. The sun poured in on her. The sea lay asleep in it, hardly stirring. Across the bay the lovely mountains, exquisitely different in colour, were asleep too in the light; and underneath her window, at the bottom of the flower-starred grass slope from which the wall of the castle rose up, was a great cypress, cutting through the delicate blues and violets and rose-colours of the mountains and the sea like a great black sword. (p. 50)

Almost immediately upon her arrival at the retreat, Lotty Wilkins comes right out of her shell, becoming bolder, more impetuous, more enthusiastic about life and all the possibilities it has to offer. As a consequence, she makes an audacious decision, one that she hopes will lead to the promise of greater happiness in the future. To reveal any more might spoil things for the reader. Suffice it to say that Lotty’s enthusiasm is infectious, so much so that it catches the attention of the previously reclusive Lady Caroline. As a consequence, these two women strike up an unlikely friendship, one that looks all set to last beyond the duration of the trip. Lady Caroline, for her part, also begins to question the value of her life to date and what may lie ahead for her in the months and years to come. Even the disagreeable Mrs Fisher starts to soften as she realises that the members of the younger generation are not all as shallow and as frivolous as she had previously assumed.  

Nevertheless, perhaps the one person who is most affected by Lotty’s optimism and enthusiasm is Rose Arbuthnot. As she reflects on the transformation in her new friend, the rather lonely and sensitive Rose longs to experience something similar. If only her life with Frederick were different, if only they could recapture the early days of their marriage, the first flushes of love and affection for one another, the feeling of being cared for and valued by an attentive partner.

[…] and once again Rose wondered at Lotty, at her balance, her sweet and equable temper – she who in England had been such a thing of gusts. From the moment they got into Italy it was Lotty who seemed the elder. She certainly was very happy; blissful, in fact. Did happiness so completely protect one? Did it make one so untouchable, so wise? Rose was happy herself, but not anything like so happy. Evidently not, for not only did she want to fight Mrs Fisher but she wanted something else, something more than this lovely place, something to complete it; she wanted Frederick. For the first time in her life she was surrounded by perfect beauty, and her one thought was to show it to him, to share it with him. She wanted Frederick. She yearned for Frederick, Ah, if only, only Frederick… (p.103)

Without wishing to give away too much about the ending, this utterly charming novel has a touch of the fairy tale about it as the lives of these four women are altered in various ways by their time at San Salvatore. At times, I was reminded of Winifred Watson’s equally adorable book, Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, a story that also captures a sense of joie de vivre and escapism from the constraints of an unfulfilled life.

Von Armin takes great care in portraying each of her central characters with enough subtlety and depth, thereby encouraging the reader to invest in these women from an early stage in the story. Lotty Wilkins and Rose Arbuthnot are particularly well developed, especially in the fleshing out of their marriages and the different challenges they face with their respective husbands. Lady Caroline is also painted in a nuanced fashion. At first, it would be tempting to assume that she is simply selfish, spoilt and rather ungrateful for the attention others lavish upon her; but as the novel progresses, a different side to her personality starts to emerge, one that is more thoughtful and vulnerable. Even the fusty Mrs Fisher is portrayed in a manner which ultimately encourages the reader’s sympathies as it becomes clear that she too is rather lonely and isolated in her restricted life.

All in all, this is a most delightful novel with much to commend it – another strong contender for my end-of-year list.

The Enchanted April is published by Penguin Classics and Vintage Books.