Tag Archives: #ReadWomen

Lolly Willowes by Sylvia Townsend Warner

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sleepless Nights by Elizabeth Hardwick

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sleepless Nights is published by NYRB Classics; personal copy.

Someone at a Distance by Dorothy Whipple

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Cry of the Owl by Patricia Highsmith

Regular readers may be aware of my fondness for Patricia Highsmith’s particular brand of domestic noir. Last year I read and loved Deep Water (1957), a novel which plays with readers’ responses towards an outwardly respectable man who secretly harbours psychopathic tendencies. It remains one of the highlights of my 2017 year in reading.

Highsmith’s interest in decency and morality comes to the fore again The Cry of the Owl (published a few years later in 1962), a book that seems to start off in traditional psychological thriller territory only to shift towards something a little more existential by the end. There is an underlying seam of bleakness here, a real sense of destruction and despair as the story edges closer to its denouement. In some ways, it reminded me a little of some of Georges Simenon’s work – his hard/psychological romains durs as opposed to his Maigret books. Either way, it’s an excellent book.

Owl centres on Robert Forester, a twenty-nine-year-old man who has recently moved to a small town in Pennsylvania to escape the clutches of his venomous former partner, Nickie, a woman who continues to harangue him on the phone out of sheer malice. In spite of finding a decent job in the local aeronautics business, Robert has been battling loneliness and depression for some months – to the extent that he has slipped into the rather odd habit of watching an unknown young woman as she goes about her business at home.

As the book opens, we find Robert observing the girl, Jenny, through her kitchen window as she lays the table and prepares an evening meal for two. While at first sight this situation may appear very creepy, Robert is not a stereotypical Peeping Tom. There is nothing sexual about his attraction to the girl; instead, he is merely seeking solace and comfort by watching her running through her domestic routine. It’s as if this picture of normality is giving Robert some kind of hope, a sense of grounding and purpose that he longs to recapture for himself.

Even if nobody ever understood that watching a girl go calmly about her household routine made him feel calm also, made him see that life for some people could have a purpose and a joy, and made him almost believe he might recover that purpose and joy himself. The girl was helping him. (p.7)

Even though Robert knows he is playing a potentially dangerous game here – Jenny clearly has a boyfriend who visits regularly – he finds it difficult to refrain from watching the girl at night. All too swiftly, of course, Jenny discovers Robert; but instead of feeling fearful for her safety, Jenny invites Robert into her home as she finds herself drawn to him in some strange and inexplicable way.

Robert, for his part, feels somewhat embarrassed at being caught snooping around. Furthermore, there is a sense that getting to know the real Jenny would diminish in some way what her image has come to represent for him – a sense of calm and contentment and the absence of any kind of stress. Nevertheless, he continues to see Jenny, primarily at her rather insistent request.

With each subsequent meeting, Jenny’s attachment to Robert seems to intensify. (In an almost reciprocal act to Robert’s earlier snooping, Jenny actually follows Robert to his new home – thereby the watcher effectively becomes the watched, if only momentarily.) As it turns out, Jenny is having significant doubts about the suitability of her fiancé, Greg, whom she does not love enough to marry. Consequently, she breaks off her engagement to Greg and continues to see Robert, who appears to be drifting into a relationship with her in spite of his better judgement.

Meanwhile, the uber-possessive Greg is determined to track Robert down and warn him off Jenny, firm in the belief that he still has a chance to win her back. As he spies on Jenny and Robert at night, Greg’s temper and imagination start to run riot.

Jenny’s car was there, and so was Robert’s. She was blatantly spending nights there. This might be the seventh, the tenth, for all he knew. Lights were blazing in the house now. He imagined them laughing and talking and fixing dinner, Jenny making one of her big salads, and then – Greg couldn’t bear to imagine any more. (p. 78)

Driven by the toxic Nickie, whose malicious opinions on Robert’s unhinged state of mind add fuel to the fire, Greg launches an attack on Robert near the local river, an incident which leads to a violent struggle between the two men. In the end, Robert has to drag Greg out of the water onto the river bank where he leaves him to recover. Unfortunately for our protagonist, Greg goes missing immediately after the fight, and suspicion naturally falls on Robert – seemingly the last person to have seen Greg alive.

What follows is a veritable nightmare for Robert as his relatively ordered world comes crashing down around him. A sequence of increasingly twisted events ensues, acts which involve Robert, Jenny, Greg and Nickie – all of which leave the reader reeling from the catastrophic fallout.

At first, it is natural to think that Robert is the odd character here; after all, his fondness for spying on Jenny is a little creepy. However, it soon becomes apparent that he might be the least imbalanced character in the book. Having lost her brother at a very young age, Jenny is rather preoccupied with the idea of death, a factor that plays a significant role in her response to the terrible events that unfold for Robert.

Nickie is a very spiteful individual, prone to vindictive acts and outbursts, a characteristic typified by Robert’s recollections of the litany of complaints she unleashed on the night of their second anniversary. Her subsequent character assignations of Robert play a significant role in his downfall.

Robert remembered that he had made himself a second drink during her harangue, a good stiff one, since the wisest thing to show under the circumstances was patience, and the liquor acted as a sedative. His patience that evening had so infuriated her, in fact, that she later lurched against him, bumped herself into him in the bedroom when he was undressing for the night, saying, ‘Don’t you want to hit me, darling? Come on, hit me, Bobbie!’ Curiously, that was one of the times he’d felt least like hitting her, so he’d been able to give a quiet ‘No’ in answer. Then she called him abnormal. ‘You’ll do something violent one day. Mark my words.’ (pp. 49-50)

Then there is Greg, a man who seems hell-bent on removing Robert from the equation – not just figuratively but literally too.

In telling this story, Highsmith excels at capturing the rumours and gossip that circulate in a small-town community – the fears and suspicions that can surface as individuals who know some of those involved begin to put their own spin on events. Women like Mrs Van Vleet, Greg’s landlady and firm supporter.

She had asked if Robert was still working at Langley Aeronautics, and when he said yes, she had said, ‘It’s a wonder to me you’ve still got a job. It’s a wonder to me you can hold your head up in the community, it is indeed…. A fine young man like Greg…trifling with his girl…a fine young girl. I hear you don’t even want to marry her. I should hope not! You’re a killer – or the next thing to it! And Robert had stood there answering, ‘Yes…No,’ politely, trying to smile at it and failing, failing to get more than four consecutive words out before he was interrupted. What was the use? But he knew it took only a noisy minority like Mrs Van Vleet in a community to hang a man, literally or figuratively. (p. 124)

Ultimately though, what really makes this novel such a compelling read is the seemingly unstoppable chain of events that Robert’s relatively innocent search for solace kicks off.  We are left with the sense of how powerless a man can feel when he his actions are judged and misinterpreted by the so-called upstanding citizens around him, especially when fate intervenes and plays her part to the full.

Highly recommended for lovers of dark and twisted fiction.

The Cry of the Owl is published by Vintage Books; personal copy.

You’ll Enjoy it When You Get There by Elizabeth Taylor – stories from The Blush

I’ve been reading some of Elizabeth Taylor’s stories over the last month or so, dipping in and out of her collections in between novels and other things. Even though I already had some of the old green Viragos, I couldn’t resist buying this beautiful NYRB edition of a selection of her stories curated by Margaret Drabble. The NYRB – You’ll Enjoy it When You Get There – comprises twenty-nine stories from different phases of Taylor’s career including seven from her 1958 collection The Blush. These are the stories I’m going to cover in this piece. (I’ve already written about her earlier collection, Hester Lilly – link here.)

As regular readers of this blog will know, I’ve written before about my admiration for Taylor – in particular, her ability to capture a character in one or two perfectly judged sentences. In almost every case, these individuals are drawn in such a way that conveys an acute understanding of their immediate situation – their hopes and dreams, their day-to-day preoccupations and concerns.

Even though these stories were written sixty years ago, the emotions they portray are still universally recognisable today. Here we see people facing up to dashed dreams, acute social embarrassment and the realities of their lonely, marginalised lives.

In The Blush, a respectable middle-class woman, Mrs Allen, gets inadvertently drawn into the private life of her daily help, the ever-grumbling Mrs Lacey. It is only when Mrs Allen receives a visit from the woman’s husband that the depth of Mrs Lacey’s deception of those around her becomes truly apparent.

He was a man utterly, bewilderedly at sea. His married life had been too much for him, with so much in it that he could not understand. (p. 117)

This is an interesting story, quite short but very effective.

Next up we have The Letter-Writers, which is probably my favourite piece here. In this story, a lonely middle-aged woman named Emily is preparing to meet a man she has been writing letters to for the last ten years. Over the years, she has confided such intimacies in Edmund – at a distance he had seemed so approachable and attentive.

As she waits for Edmund to arrive at her cottage for lunch, Emily worries that their meeting will be a mistake. Can she live up to the impressions created by her letters? Will Edmund be disappointed by the real Emily once he meets her in the flesh? Will he ever write to her again?

She had been so safe with him. They could not have wounded one another, but now they might. In ten years there had been no inadvertent hurts of rivalry, jealousy, or neglect. It had not occurred to either to wonder if the other would sometimes cease to write; the letters would come as surely as the sun.

“But will they now?” Emily was wondering now. (p. 123)

Somewhat inevitably, the lunch is rather strained – the atmosphere made all the more difficult by the most awkward of starts and the interference of a nosy neighbour, the pushy Mrs Waterlow. The story itself is quietly devastating, and yet there is a glimmer of hope at the end. One of Taylor’s best, I suspect.

In a somewhat similar vein, we have Summer Schools, a story that focuses on the experiences of two middle-aged sisters who live together but who seem to have very little in common. The emptiness and quiet tragedies of their respective lives are thrown into sharp relief when they take separate holidays, neither of which live up to their hopes or expectations.

In The Rose, the Mauve, the White, three young girls – all friends from school – attend a formal dance. As the plainest of the three, Frances feels the most exposed – the embarrassment of being left on the sidelines as her friends are whirled around the dancefloor is all too acute.

Frances had attached herself to Charles and Natalie, so that she would not seem to leave the floor alone; but she knew that Mrs Pollard had seen her standing there by the door, without a partner, and for the last waltz of all things. To be seen by her hostess in such a predicament underlined her failure.

“Did you enjoy it, Frances?” Myra asked. And wasn’t that the only way to put her question, Frances thought, the one she was so very anxious to know— “Did you dance much?” (pp.170-171)

Other stories feature a pair of newlyweds whose first night together is scuppered by the husband’s fondness for drink; a young girl whose best friend is now married to her father, thereby putting both girls in very difficult positions at home; and a young girl who ends up making a massive faux-pas at an important function.

While much of the subject matter may sound very melancholy, there are flashes of dark humour in quite a few of these stories – particularly The Blush, The Letter-Writers and Perhaps a Family Failing (that’s the one about the newlyweds). Taylor’s ability to balance these tones so effectively is one of her key strengths.

In summary, these are beautifully understated stories full of insight, nuance and compassion. Overall, The Blush seems to be a stronger, more even collection of pieces than Hester Lilly, which may be a reflection of Taylor’s development as a writer. Highly recommended for lovers of character-driven fiction and short stories in general.

You’ll Enjoy It When You Get There is published by NYRB Classics, The Blush by Virago; personal copies.

Recent Reads – Elaine Dundy, John Le Carré, Cesare Pavese and Winifred Holtby

There are times when I don’t want or feel the need to write a full review of a book I’ve been reading, when I’d just rather experience it without analysing it too much. Nevertheless, there are still things I might want to say about it, even it’s just to capture an overall feeling or response before it disappears into the ether. So, with this in mind, here are a few brief thoughts on four books I’ve read recently – mainly for my own benefit, but some of you might find them of interest too.

The Dud Avocado by Elaine Dundy (1958)

I really loved this novel of the young, adventurous American innocent abroad. It’s smart, witty and utterly engaging from start to finish, a rare delight.

When we first meet the book’s heroine, the wonderful Sally Jay Gorce, she is walking down a Parisian boulevard on her way to meet her Italian lover when she runs into Larry, an old friend from home in the States. The fact that she’s still wearing last night’s evening dress in the middle of the morning does not go unnoticed by Larry – nor does her hair which has recently been dyed a rather striking shade of pink.

What follows is a series of exploits for Sally Jay as she mixes with the bohemian artists, writers and creative directors of Paris. There are various parties, romantic dilemmas and the occasional encounter with a gendarme or two along the way, all conveyed through Dundy’s sparkling prose.

This is a book which eschews plot in favour of tone and mood. Instead, it’s more about the experience of living, of self-discovery and adventure, of making mistakes and wising up from the consequences. Above all, it’s a pleasure to read. Here are a few of my favourite quotes – the first two are archetypal Sally Jay.

The vehemence of my moral indignation surprised me. Was I beginning to have standards and principles, and, oh dear, scruples? What were they, and what would I do with them, and how much were they going to get in my way? (p. 180)

It’s amazing how right you can sometimes be about a person you don’t know; it’s only the people you do know who confuse you.

While the whole novel is eminently quotable, I couldn’t resist including this final piece from the closing section of the story when Sally Jay returns to New York. Dundy has a wonderful way of describing things, a skill which I hope you can see from the following passage.

We went into a cocktail bar just off Fifth Avenue on Eighth Street. One of those suave, sexy bars, dead dark, with popcorn and air-conditioning and those divine cheese things.

“What’ll you have?” he asked. “Champagne? Have anything. Money’s no object. Look. Wads of it. Ceylon. Can’t spend it fast enough. We photographers are the New Rich.”

We had dry martinis; great wing-shaped glasses of perfumed fire, tangy as the early morning air. (p. 244)

Finally, for those of you who might be thinking that The Dud Avocado is too ditzy or sugary, let me try to reassure you that it’s not. There are touches of darkness and jeopardy running underneath the surface of some of Sally Jay’s adventures, especially towards the end. Moreover, Dundy’s writing is so sharp and on the money that it elevates the novel into something with real zing. Highly recommended – in retrospect, I actually preferred it to Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.

Simon has reviewed this book here.

The Spy Who Came into the Cold by John Le Carré (1963)

Another brilliant book that has been languishing on my shelves for far too long.

What can I say about this classic spy novel that hasn’t been said before? Probably not a lot, other than to reiterate that it’s a masterclass in how to tell a complex, gripping story without having to rely on lots on clunky exposition along the way. While the narrative may appear to be rather confusing at first, everything becomes much clearer by the end. Crucially, Le Carré trusts in the intelligence of his readers, knowing that their perseverance will be rewarded as the action draws to a close.

It’s also a book that seems to perfectly capture the political distrust and uncertainty that must have been prevalent during the Cold War years of the early ‘60s – the tense and gritty atmosphere of Berlin is beautifully conveyed.

There was only one light in the checkpoint, a reading lamp with a green shade, but the glow of the arclights, like artificial moonlight, filled the cabin. Darkness had fallen, and with it silence. They spoke as if they were afraid of being overheard. Leamas went to the window and waited. In front of him the road and to either side the Wall, a dirty, ugly thing of breeze blocks and strands of barbed wire, lit with cheap yellow light, like the backdrop for a concentration camp. East and west of the Wall lay the unrestored part of Berlin, a half-world of ruin, drawn in two dimensions, crags of war. (pp. 6-7)

While the first two Smiley novels are good, The Spy Came in from the Cold is in a totally different league. A thoroughly engrossing book from start to finish.

The Beautiful Summer by Cesare Pavese (tr. by W.J. Strachan, 1955)

This is a slightly curious one – not entirely successful for me, but an enjoyable read nonetheless.

Set in 1930s Italy in the heady days of summer, this short novel focuses on the life of Ginia, a rather sheltered sixteen-year-old girl on the cusp of adulthood.

When she meets the more sophisticated, self-assured Amelia, Ginia is quickly drawn into an intriguing milieu of bohemian artists and everything this new culture represents, including some brushes with the opposite sex. It’s not long before Ginia falls in love with Guido, an attractive young painter who responds to her innocence and youth while remaining somewhat emotionally detached. What follows is a fairly painful introduction to the fickle nature of human emotions and the duplicities of the adult world, at least as far as Ginia is concerned.

In short, this is a delicate story of a young girl’s loss of innocence and sexual awakening, themes which usually hold a great deal of appeal for me, especially in translated literature. However, while I really liked the overall mood of this novel and Pavese’s depiction of the conflicted emotions of youth, I wasn’t quite as taken with the writing, some of which felt a bit flat or clunky to me. (The following quote is intended to convey something of the novel’s tone and mood as opposed to the quality of the prose.)

Ginia slept little that night; the bed-clothes seemed a dead weight on her. But her mind ran on many things that became more and more fantastic as the time passed by. She imagined herself alone in the unmade bed in that corner of the studio, listening to Guido moving about on the other side of the curtain, living with him, kissing him and cooking for him. She had no idea where Guido had his meals when he was not in the army. (p. 49)

Overall, I was left wishing that Penguin had commissioned a fresh translation of Pavese’s text instead of running with the original from 1955. Others may have a different view on this, so I would be interested in hearing from anyone who has read the book, particularly in the original Italian. Grant and Max have also written about it here and here.

For a sharper, more insightful take on the loss of a teenager’s innocence, albeit from a male character’s perspective, try Alberto Moravia’s Agostino, also set in the heat of an Italian summer – this time in the early 1940s.

The Crowded Street by Winifred Holtby (1924)

(Don’t worry, my comments on this last novel are going to be relatively brief!)

While I liked this novel, I didn’t love it. It’s a perfectly enjoyable story of Muriel, a young girl struggling to find her place within the confines of a restrictive Edwardian society in a small Yorkshire village, a world where marriage seems to be the only option available to ladies of her class. That said, it lacks some of the bite of other stories I’ve been reading lately, particularly those by women writers from the mid-20th century, a favourite period of literature for me.

The latter stages of the novel are the most interesting, mainly because the advent of WW1 provides new opportunities for women like Muriel, encouraging them to spread their wings by gaining some much-needed independence.

Holtby’s prose is good but not particularly spectacular. That said, I loved this next passage from the end of the book – it really stood out for me.

I used to think of life as a dance, where the girls had to wait for men to ask them, and if nobody came – they still must wait, smiling and hoping and pretending not to mind.

How tragic is that?

The Dud Avocado is published by NYRB Classics, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold and The Beautiful Summer by Penguin, and The Crowded Street by Virago; personal copies.

Vain Shadow by Jane Hervey

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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