Tag Archives: UK

Tomorrow by Elisabeth Russell Taylor

Born in London in 1930, the English writer Elisabeth Russell Taylor – not to be confused with the other Elizabeth Taylor – wrote six novels and three short-story collections during her lifetime. The most prominent of these is perhaps Tomorrow, first published in 1991 and reissued by Daunt Books in 2018. Fans of Anita Brookner’s work will find much to enjoy here. It’s an exquisitely written story of love and loss – a deeply poignant lament to the sweeping away of a glorious existence, a world of innocence and sanctuary in the run-up to WW2.

Tomorrow revolves around Elisabeth Danzinger, a quiet, solitary forty-year-old woman who works as a housekeeper in London. Every summer, Elisabeth returns to The Tamarisks, a beautifully furnished guest house on the Danish island of Møn, a place that holds many memories of a once-idyllic past, particularly the time she spent there with her cousin and lover, Daniel Eberhardt.  

Early in the novel, we learn of Elisabeth’s family background, which is highly significant to the story. During the interwar years, Elisabeth’s father, Jurgen – a man of Aryan stock – taught English at a northern German University. By contrast, her mother, Anna, had a very different upbringing, hailing from a wealthy, cultured German Jewish family in Baden-Baden. Also relevant here are the Danzingers’ close relatives, the Eberhardts, due to the multiple connections between the two families. While Jurgen was teaching English in Germany, Horst Eberhardt – his best friend since their modest shared childhood in Hunsrück – specialised in Italian at the same university. Moreover, Horst’s wife, Charlotte, was in fact Anna’s twin sister – another cultured woman who found herself at risk from the growing prejudices against the Jews.

Thinking back to the Hunsrück the men remembered the extent to which their families were indivisible from their land. But they ignored the fact that German soil was being raked over for an unprecedented crop of anti-semitism; that less accomplished academics than they, jealous of their intellectual prowess and material privilege, revelled in the growing uncertainty that, tainted by association through their wives, the two would someday be checked. (p. 21)

In 1927, the Danzingers and the Eberhardts bought two adjacent holiday homes on Møn, partly as a retreat from the hustle and bustle of university life and partly as an insurance policy in case the situation in Europe escalated (which it subsequently did). The Danzingers’ second home was The Tamarisks, a beautiful house designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens in the classic Elizabethan fashion. Meanwhile, the Eberhardts took charge of the nearby Tuscan Villa, which they tastefully furnished in the Italian style.   

The bulk of Russell Taylor’s novella takes place over a week in August 1960 as the forty-year-old Elisabeth Danzinger makes her annual trip to Møn. Being a steadfast creature of habit, Elisabeth inhabits the same ‘yellow’ room at The Tamarisks each year; and from there, she makes the same visits to each familiar place on her itinerary, ruminating on deeply ingrained sorrows as she goes about her pilgrimage. 

She was filled with an overwhelming sense of loss as she wondered from tree to tree, recognising many, feeling herself accused: she had overstayed her welcome in the world. Life conducted itself independently of her. The scents from the sodden earth filled with an intolerable weight of memory; not that of individual occasions but of the entire past. (pp. 54–55)

During her time on Møn, Elisabeth revisits various personal landmarks – a tree bearing the initials ‘E’ and ‘D’, and a bench inscribed with ‘à l’amitié pure’ (‘in pure friendship’) from a note they made in adolescence – testaments to her relationship with Daniel that have weathered the test of time. In each instance, Elisabeth runs her hands over the markings, contemplating their endurance in a world where so much has changed. There are other reminders of the cousins’ love for one another too, perhaps most notably a box containing a tiny ammonite and a note of the lovers’ bond with one another, hidden away behind the bath panel in Elisabeth’s room.

As this haunting, achingly sad story unfolds, there are flashbacks to 1939 – memories of an idyllic summer Elisabeth and Daniel spent together on Møn while their parents holidayed in South America. Returning to 1939, we follow the cousins as they work on survey of the island, visiting places of interest to take photographs for their collection. Over the summer, the lovers also deepen their shared love of music, planning a programme for a future recital before their time together runs out. Nevertheless, as the political situation in Europe reaches a crisis point, everything these two families hold dear is about to be shattered, their happiness at risk of being obliterated as the Nazis close in…

We know from the novella’s opening that this is a tragic story, but to reveal anything more at this stage might spoil it for potential readers. Elisabeth has a specific reason for these annual pilgrimages to the island, honouring her past with Daniel every August without fail. Once again, the reason for these visits is best left unsaid, enabling future readers to discover this for themselves.

This really is an exquisitely written book, full of painterly images of the mercurial island of Møn – sometimes quiet and peaceful, other times brooding and menacing as signs of darkness burst through the light. Russell Taylor makes excellent use of the unpredictability of the natural world here, harnessing the fickle nature of the sun, wind and sea, elements that can change in outlook in the blink of an eye.

The clouds parted and through them a beam of light fell on Sandweg church. It penetrated a stained-glass window, spreading lozenge shapes of iridescent purple, yellow, red and blue on the tiled floor. And then the clouds re-formed over the sun and the colours vanished, like spilt blood vanishes in the dark at the scene of a crime (p. 81)

Over a barely discernible grey sheet of water was thrown an equally grey shroud of sky, but the shroud was torn in places to reveal streaks of blood red and aquamarine blue. (p. 51)

Tomorrow shares something in common with Hotel du Lac, especially in style and content (although it’s fair to say that Russell Taylor’s novella is more devastating than the Brookner). The settings in particular feel quite similar. For instance, there’s a sense of quiet efficiency about Fru Møller’s management of The Tamarisks, which is reminiscent of the Lac – an austere formality, perhaps, and an air of mutual respect.

Fru Møller’s expertise was nowhere more striking than in the dining-room. She succeeded an exercising complete control over the smooth running of mealtimes without appearing to be more than a vague presence in the Hall. […] At the end of dinner she gently persuaded her guests into the study, where she presided over the Cona coffee machine and orchestrated conversation between strangers. (p. 33)

And, just like the Hotel du Lac, The Tamarisks is frequented by a small coterie of eccentric regulars, idiosyncratic characters that Russell Taylor portrays with a wickedly comic flair. Most notable are the Colonel and his elderly wife Bo-Bo, a former actress who remains frozen in childhood, fussing over her dolls as if they were children with feelings. Bo-Bo’s world revolves around clothes, food and these toy-like figures, while the Colonel remains largely indifferent. In truth, he would like little more than to settle down to a life of companionship with Miss Danzinger, recognising in Elisabeth a like-minded soul.

By writing Tomorrow, Elisabeth Russell Taylor has gifted us a poignant, achingly sad story conveyed with elegance and grace – a haunting elegy to the loss of a generation as the horrors of Elisabeth’s past and present are gradually revealed. I’m definitely going to keep an eye out for more of this author’s fiction with its melancholy, steely edge.

Till Death Do Us Part by John Dickson Carr

A very ingenious locked-room mystery with a tantalising premise, I enjoyed this one a lot, particularly the initial set-up.  

Till Death Do Us Part was initially published in 1944; but the story, which is set in the close-knit village of Six Ashes, actually takes place some years earlier during the run-up to the Second World War. Dick Markham, a moderately successful playwright specialising in psychological thrillers, has just got engaged to Lesley Grant, a relative newcomer to the area. While Lesley has only been living in Six Ashes for the last six months, she has made quite an impact since her arrival, attracting the interest of several local men.

The action really gets going at the village fete when Lesley appears to receive some bad news during her consultation with a fortune teller, the star attraction at the event. While Lesley makes light of the discussion, Dick is somewhat puzzled, having clearly seen her reaction to the mystic’s predictions from the shadows visible through the tent. Shortly after the encounter, Lesley shoots the fortune teller with a rifle from one of the stalls, claiming the incident to be an accident due to her lack of familiarity with guns. Nevertheless, when the victim reveals himself to be Sir Harvey Gilman, a famous Home Office Pathologist, suspicions are duly aroused…

While recovering from the shooting, Sir Harvey confides in Dick Markham, raising doubts about Lesley and her personal history. Lesley, it seems, has been associated with a series of poisonings in the past; and in each instance, the victim was either her husband or lover, discovered in a locked room with a syringe of prussic acid close to hand. All three deaths were judged to be suicide at the time, and no hard evidence has ever been found to suggest the contrary; nevertheless, Sir Harvey remains convinced of Lesley’s guilt, especially given the similarities in circumstances.

In short, Sir Harvey wants Dick to help him in his investigations by setting a trap for Lesley. If she really is the killer, chances are she will strike again with an attempt to poison Dick. Sir Harvey hopes to catch Lesley in the act by observing her movements, thereby gathering the evidence he needs to pursue a conviction.

‘She’s being a fool, of course. But she must play with this bright shiny wonderful toy called murder by poison. It’s got her. She’s obsessed. That’s why she took the risk of shooting at me, and trusting to innocent eyes and general gullibility to have it called an accident. All her preparations are made for somebody’s death. And she won’t be cheated of the thrill.’ (p. 59)

It’s a very compelling premise, but before the plans can be finalised and put in place, Sir Harvey himself is found dead in precisely the same circumstances as the other incidents under investigation. In short, the victim’s body is discovered in a locked room with a syringe of prussic acid nearby – a death by poisoning made to look like a suicide, just as before.

As Martin Edwards outlines in his excellent introduction to the book, the eminently likeable Dick Markham now faces a terrible dilemma. He is madly in love with Lesley but knows little of her background before the move to Six Ashes – a factor that gnaws away in his mind in light of Sir Harvey’s allegations. So, should he trust Lesley and her claims of innocence or is she in fact a serial poisoner, just as the Pathologist claimed? And if Lesley isn’t the murderer, who the devil is?

To assist in the investigations into Sir Harvey’s death, Dr Gideon Fell – an expert on locked room mysteries – is brought in; and, as is often the case in these things, various red herrings and other distractions must be worked through before the identity of the perpetrator is revealed. For instance, who fired a shot into Sir Harvey’s room on the night of his murder? Was someone else trying to shoot Sir Harvey, and how does this relate to the poisoning (the actual cause of his death)? Why is Lesley so secretive about the existence of a safe in her bedroom? What does this box contain? And why does Lesley hit Cynthia Drew with a hand mirror when she finds her in the bedroom? Or maybe Cynthia is lying when she tells Dick about this incident with Lesley? It’s all rather hard to tell!

The solution to the locked room mystery, when it comes, is a very ingenuous one – not something I would have worked out for myself without Gideon Fell’s explanation, but perfectly credible nonetheless. As for the perpetrator and their motive, I’ll leave that suitably ambiguous, just as Carr does himself for the majority of the book – he really does keep the reader guessing on this one.

My only slight niggle relates to Gideon Fell. While there’s no doubting Fell’s skill as detective, I didn’t particularly warm to him as a character due to his slightly haughty demeanour and self-assured air. Also, in terms of style, he’s not the most inclusive of detectives, sharing little of his actual thinking with others as the investigation unfolds – an approach that can leave the reader feeling somewhat detached from the detecting itself.

Nevertheless, the residents of Six Ashes are an interesting bunch and very nicely drawn. Carr does a great job of capturing Dick’s feelings towards Lesley, which are suitably conflicted. Dick desperately wants to believe in his fiancée’s innocence, and yet her alleged association with so many suspicious deaths proves hard for him to square. And to complicate matters further, there’s another potential love interest in the picture – Cynthia Drew, an amiable, level-headed woman who many in the village considered a good match for Dick before Lesley turned his head.

So, in summary, this is a clever locked-room mystery with a highly compelling set-up, albeit with one or two caveats about Fell’s personal style. My thanks to the British Library for kindly providing a review copy of the book – very much appreciated as ever.

Burntcoat by Sarah Hall

Written during the early feverish months of the first wave of COVID-19, Burntcoat is a haunting, beautifully-crafted story of love, trauma and the creation of art, all set against the backdrop of a deadly global pandemic. I’ve long been a fan of Hall’s short stories, ever since The Beautiful Indifference came out ten years or so ago, but this is my first experience of her novels – an overwhelmingly positive one, I should clearly state upfront. 

When we first meet Edith Harkness – the critically acclaimed installation artist who narrates the novel – her life is drawing to a close. At fifty-nine, Edith is living alone at Burntcoat, her warehouse-sized studio-cum-apartment, purchased several years earlier with the proceeds from a prestigious prize. The reason for her impending death is Nova (aka AG3) – a more severe virus than COVID but similar in many ways, primed to unleash the maximum devastation, destroying the body from within. 

It was – it is – perfect. Perfectly composed, star-like, and timed for the greatest chaos, for transmission across borders, replication, creating galaxies of itself. Perfectly operating in each victim – the patient incubation, methodical progression through the body, careful removal of the defensive sheath. It ascends, hellishly, erupting inside its host. A fever that becomes critical, so destructive the body might kill itself. The virus dies with the host or survives, retreating deep into the cells, lying dormant. (p. 126)

Edith caught Nova from her Turkish lover, Halit, several years ago, back when the virus was first circulating, before the availability of vaccines or ground-breaking treatments. Twenty or thirty years on, the world is divided into two groups of people: those who escaped the virus and now have some protection through vaccination; and those who were infected and survived. Unfortunately for the latter group, the virus remains dormant in the body, awaiting the inevitable reactivation that can come at any time. Consequently, the pandemic looms large for Edith in more ways than one. Not only is Edith a carrier, she is also finalising a national memorial for the dead, an installation set to endure long after her death.

As her relapse progresses, Edith reflects on different aspects of her life, memories spanning her childhood on the margins, the route to becoming an artist, and her relationship with Halit – an experience she describes with an electrifying sense of intimacy. The novel is presented in sections, almost like a series of extended vignettes, a structure that gives it a wonderful sense of fluidity as we move backwards and forwards in time, alighting on various elements of Edith’s richly-textured life.

Hall writes movingly of Edith’s childhood, an upbringing undoubtedly shaped by severe illness and trauma. When Edith was aged eight, her mother, Naomi, suffered a brain haemorrhage – an incident Edith witnessed during an outing with her parents. Somehow Naomi survived the bleed, ultimately recovering physically by learning how to function again, slowly and steadily with the help of her family. Nevertheless, something inherent to Naomi was displaced during the stroke, rupturing her sense of self and deep-rooted psyche.

Against all odds, the rupture hadn’t killed her. Naomi would recover, slowly, anatomically, but something fundamental was disrupted by the process of repair – the complex library of thought, memory, emotion, personality. They saved her life; they could not save her self. (p. 13)

When her parents’ marriage deteriorates in the year following her haemorrhage, Edith is left alone to care for Naomi in the absence of her father.

We also learn of Edith’s training as an artist, a process which takes her to Japan to learn the highly skilled process of ‘shou sugi ban’, a technique for charring cedar, rendering it waterproof. While it might sound counterintuitive at first, burning the wood in this way actually strengthens its structure, ‘preserving its integrity while enhancing its beauty’ – a phrase that could apply to Hall’s creative work itself.

Also of broader significance is Edith’s most famous installation, ‘The Witch at Scotch Corner’, an enormous Angel-of-the-North type structure, also known as ‘Hecky’. It’s a nod to the days of major investment in the arts – the commissioning of ‘a statement piece by a radical new artist’, supported by a wealthy patron with the requisite political clout. Edith delivers on the brief with an impressive combination of vision and ambition. As a result, her radical artwork – a gigantic squatting woman – duly takes up its position by the Scotch Corner junction, the gateway to the North East.

She is the masterwork. A half-burnt assemblage lofting high as a church tower, containing all the unrealistic belligerence and boldness of early ambition. The upper planks of beech were steamed pink, bent and hooped to extraordinary angles, the lower trellis strengthened by charring. She rises above the yellow furze as if from a pyre, hair streaming on the updraft, her back arcing. Welcome North. (p. 79)

It’s a wildly controversial piece, simultaneously attracting fulsome praise and reactionary outrage – a point that Hall, to her credit, never labours or overplays.

The most powerful sections of the novel are those featuring Halit, whom Edith starts seeing in the months leading up to lockdown. There’s a breathtaking feeling of intimacy to these passages, which Hall expresses in the second person – a viewpoint that enhances the sense of closeness between the couple, both physically and sexually.

The stove in the bedroom kept us warm. We sat or lay, you unwinding from work, taking off layer after layer, and our forms melted together in the red underworld light. We slept as the flames settled and died, tucked together like pigeons in a loft, the sleet creeping over the roof, the country waiting. February, with its bare, larval branches. March. Other nations were closing borders, quarantining. (p. 57)

Hall is well known for writing about sex in a way that feels both poetic and visceral, capturing the physicality of the act without losing the emotional depth. These passages are sensual and intense without ever feeling gratuitous – a testament to Hall’s finely-turned judgement as an artist and a writer. The prose is utterly sublime throughout – graceful and elegant in tone, almost meditative at times, especially when conveying the intimacy between the two lovers. The portrayal of their relationship is beautifully judged.

In Burntcoat, Sarah Hall has created something vital and vivid, capturing the fragile relationship between life and death. There is a deep sense of poignancy to the novel, a quality that stems from our understanding that Edith is facing her own mortality – she knows the resurgence will prove fatal this time as others have already succumbed. (At nearly sixty, Edith is old for a carrier, and her time is almost up.) As such, the novel explores some weighty existential themes. Namely, how do we live with the knowledge that one day we will die? How do we prepare for the inevitable without allowing it to consume us? And what do we wish to leave behind as a legacy of our existence? Intertwined with these big questions is the role of creativity in a time crisis – the importance of art in the wake of trauma, both individual and collective.

In short, this is a multi-layered novel with so much to offer – a moving elegy to love, life, loss and creativity that acts as a testament to humanity’s resilience in the face of deep uncertainty. Definitely one of the best and most thought-provoking novels I’ve read this year.

Burntcoat is published by Faber & Faber; my thanks to the publishers and the Independent Alliance for kindly providing a reading copy.

The Birds of the Air by Alice Thomas Ellis

While Christmas is often trumpeted as the season to be jolly, it can be an incredibly stressful time for many, throwing us together with relatives we rarely see and may well dislike, encouraging us to stuff ourselves with food and drink, and generally disturbing our usual routines. It’s a set-up that Alice Thomas Ellis cleverly explores in her excellent novel, The Birds in the Air, set in the fictional suburb of Innstead, a British hinterland between town and country.

As the book opens, the widowed Mrs Marsh is preparing for the forthcoming arrival of her extended family, trying to get things ready for the busy festive season. Her eldest daughter, Mary, is mourning the loss of her son, Robin, whose death hangs over the novel, intermittently alluded to but never fully explained. Mrs Marsh, on the other hand, is a stoical woman, very much of the ‘life must go on’ way of thinking, an approach that clashes directly with Mary’s lack of interest in day-to-day life. In truth, Mary wants to be left alone to nurse her grief, avoiding interactions with others, especially over Christmas. 

She wished she could lie in the garden and come up later with the crocuses. What a rest that would be. She had lost interest in the world. A world in which Robin could die was a foolish, trivial place where nothing made sense and she had no desire to linger. (p. 102)

Meanwhile, Mrs Marsh’s other daughter, the dutiful Barbara, is embroiled in her own problems, prompted by the realisation that her husband – the loathsome Sebastian – is having an affair. As Barbara observes the various guests at their pre-Christmas drinks party, she spies Sebastian flirting with the wife of one of his colleagues, thereby confirming what her son, Sam, has already discovered.

Barbara was trying to be brave. She was cold, and her hands shook. Her face was dry and wore a cutout smile, as stiff and unnatural as a cardboard party mask, and she hardly knew what she was saying to the mobile faces around her as they opened and shut to speak or eat. She had told herself repeatedly that everyone else in this room had had extra-marital affairs and no one had died of it. No one minded any more – it was acceptable, it was smart, it was only human, it was ‘sophisticated’. At the old-fashioned word she felt tears in her eyes. She had never even learned to be sophisticated and now that everything had passed beyond the very concept she was lost – a stranger among her friends. (p. 34)

Sam is the eldest of Sebastian and Barbara’s two children – a rebellious teenager ardently railing against any form of conformity and control. Quite a contrast then to his younger sister, Kate, a highly precocious little girl with a tendency to boast, much to Sam’s annoyance.

Ellis is particularly adept at capturing the various tensions as the family gathers together in the confines of Mrs Marsh’s house, a claustrophobic environment that adds to the pressure within. More friends and neighbours subsequently arrive, most notably Sebastian’s publisher, Hunter, whom Barbara covertly desires. In the wake of her discovery about Sebastian, Barbara works herself up into a feverish state, entertaining the fantasy that Hunter is planning to seduce her – a misapprehension that can only end badly. Meanwhile, Mary continues to isolate herself from the rest of the party as far as possible, while Mrs Marsh is rushed of her feet, silently cursing the numerous fallings of her family.

Shot through with flashes of wry insight and barbed humour, The Birds of the Air highlights the casual savageries and absurdities that often occur in family life. Ellis is an astute observer of the suburban middle-classes, skewering her characters’ foibles with sharpness and precision.

Sebastian’s father, the judge, was a complacent man with a high colour, the set mouth of one who has never been contradicted and a voice which sounded as though he was perpetually swallowing a mouthful of expensive whisky together with a few fox hairs. (p. 54)

While none of these characters are particularly likeable, they do feel very recognisable – a testament to the author’s insight into human behaviour. Ellis also has a keen eye for detail with a mordantly witty edge – a note that adds a slightly menacing touch to this inconspicuous setting.

There had been a moon last night – a bridal moon, veiled and ominous behind the running clouds – but now there were only snow flakes, hurrying down and gathering as mobs gathered to overthrow tyrants. (p. 104)

This is a novella steeped in loss, jealousy and betrayal, but Ellis’s humour prevents it from being maudlin, balancing the darkness with some lovely flashes of absurdity.

My first experience of this author’s fiction, but hopefully not my last. Fans of Elizabeth Berridge, Beryl Bainbridge and Barbara Pym would likely enjoy this very much!

My edition of The Birds of the Air was published by Penguin; personal copy.

In Which Barbara Pym Gets a Glamorous Makeover, Courtesy of Virago Press!

Something a little different from me today, a little celebration of one of my favourite women writers, the inimitable Barbara Pym. I have written before about my love of Pym’s novels with their unassuming women, hapless clergymen and fusty academics, moving in a world that feels both strangely absurd and highly relatable.

In the context of most Barbara Pym novels, the most pressing concerns are what to serve the new vicar when he comes over for tea and how to dress for the forthcoming church fete. (If only real life were like that, everything would be so much simpler!) On the surface, they may appear to be light social comedies, amusing sketches of village life; but dig a little deeper and you’ll discover a satisfying amount of depth. Pym wrote insightfully about unrequited love, often based on her own experiences of relationships and middle-class life. Through her engaging fiction, she championed women who were taken for granted by men, those ‘excellent’, capable gentlewomen, always ready to rally the troops with endless cups of tea and consoling words of sympathy.

While many mid-20th century writers have fallen in and out of fashion over the past seventy years, Pym has always enjoyed the ardent support of various literary luminaries, including Philip Larkin, Lord David Cecil, Jilly Cooper, Anne Tyler and Alexander McCall Smith – even during the wilderness years. Moreover, while the social context of the world has changed hugely in that time, Pym’s astute observations on human emotions and behaviours have continued to endure.

Now, as we approach what would have been her 109th birthday (she was born on 2nd June 1913), Pym is set to experience another renaissance, courtesy of a series of nine fabulous reissues in the Virago Modern Classics imprint. They really are beautifully designed, marrying the enduring ‘vintage’ feel of Pym’s fiction with a wonderfully stylish new look.

The Virago team very kindly offered me a couple of review copies, A Glass of Blessings and An Academic Question, both of which I’ve yet to read. But in the meantime, I thought it might be helpful to put together a brief round-up of Pym’s other Virago novels with links to my previous reviews, just to give you a few ideas. Whether you’re a Pym newbie or a more seasoned reader of her work, there’s almost certainly something in the range for you!

Crampton Hodnet

Published posthumously in 1985, Pym actually wrote this delightful comedy of manners in the late 1930s, just after the outbreak of the Second World War. Set in the respectable circles of North Oxford, Crampton Hodnet introduces us to a world of charming curates, mildly ridiculous academics, amorous students and gossipy women. Probably the funniest Pym I’ve read to date, a novel that deserves to be much better known.

Some Tame Gazelle

This is vintage Pym, a great introduction to her recurring preoccupations and themes. The central characters – Belinda and Harriet Bede – are loosely based on Barbara and her elder sister, Hilary. In essence, Pym imagines their lives in thirty years’ time, both sisters unmarried and living together in a house in a quiet village in the countryside. In this early novel, she demonstrates such a wonderful eye for social comedy, tempered with touches of poignancy, adding genuine texture and depth.

Excellent Women

One of Pym’s most popular, best-known novels and rightly so. I revisited this at the beginning of the COVID pandemic, and it turned out to be the perfect lockdown read – charming, comforting and thoughtful, with enough insight into its protagonist’s world to elevate it into the literary sphere. The novel is narrated by the quintessential Pym heroine, Mildred Lathbury, a sensible, diplomatic and accommodating spinster in her early thirties. Marriage is a central theme in this book, set as it is in a period when society placed a great deal of value on the institution of marriage. The novel explores whether a woman like Mildred can live ‘a full life’ if she remains unmarried, a central concept that makes it a very satisfying read.

Jane and Prudence

Another sparkling addition to Pym’s oeuvre, Jane and Prudence is a charming story of unrequited love, the blossoming of unlikely relationships, and the day-to-day dramas of village life. Once again, Pym shows her keen eye for a humorous scenario and an interesting personality or two. Her trademark descriptions of food and clothing – hats in particular – are also in evidence. As the story plays out, there are some unexpected developments, one or two of which show us that we can find solace and a form of love in the most unlikely of potential partners. Possibly my favourite Pym to date.

Less Than Angels

Pym drew on her own experiences of life at the International African Institute in London for this thoughtful novel set within the world of a group of anthropologists. On the surface, Less Than Angels seems a more serious, more reflective novel than some of Pym’s other early works, certainly judging by those I’ve read to date. There is a poignant note to the central character’s story, which only reveals itself as the book draws to a close. Nevertheless, Pym’s trademark dry humour is never too far away. Probably best suited to seasoned Pym readers rather than newbies, I think.

No Fond Return of Love

This very enjoyable novel features two rather mismatched young women, Dulcie and Viola, who meet at a conference for proofreaders and indexers. While that might sound a little dry as a set-up, in Pym’s capable hands it is anything but! There are some wonderful set-pieces here, all played out in the familiar Pym world of afternoon tea, jumble sales, church gatherings and various learned organisations. As one might expect, each scene is very keenly observed. There’s also some gloriously furtive stalking on the part of Dulcie as she spies on the object of her affection, the editor Dr Aylwin Forbes. Definitely a novel I’d like to re-read.

Civil to Strangers

Published posthumously in 1987, Civil to Strangers comprises the titular novel, three unfinished novels/novellas and four short stories. While the novels and novellas are minor Pyms in the grand scheme of things, there is much for the completist to enjoy in this lovely collection of work. The short story Goodbye Balkan Capital is particularly strong. It’s quintessential Pym, a beautifully observed tale of two spinster sisters sharing a house together, protagonists reminiscent of the Bede sisters from Some Tame Gazelle.

So, there we have it. A whistle-stop tour of my thoughts on these Pym reissues from Virago. I’m sure they’ll be a runaway success, especially given the stunning new designs!

Let me know what you think of these novels in the comments below, especially if you’ve read any of them – and your thoughts on the updated editions, of course. Or maybe you have plans to (re-)read some of them soon? If so, feel free to mention them below.

The new editions will be published in the UK on 2nd June (Pym’s birthday!), and you can pre-order them here from my Bookshop.Org affiliate site. My sincere thanks to Virago Press for kindly providing copies.

Unsettled Ground by Claire Fuller

Shortlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction in 2021, Unsettled Ground tells the heartrending story of two adult twins, fifty-one-year-old Jeanie and Julius Seeder, sheltered from the modern world by their mother, Dot, in their run-down cottage in Wiltshire.

The twins have lived at home with Dot their whole lives. Julius picks up casual jobs where he can while Jeanie supports her mother, helping to tend the vegetables the family sell to a local deli and B&B. Their world is small and fragile, their existence hand-to-mouth – living rent-free in a dilapidated cottage, an undocumented arrangement dating back to the death of the twins’ father, Frank, some thirty-seven years earlier. In the absence of any technology or external influences, the family gain comfort from simple homely rituals, mostly playing folk songs together, passed down through the generations.

When Dot dies of a stroke at the beginning of the novel, the twins’ lives are thrown into turmoil as everything the Seeders previously understood about their family history begins to unravel. Caroline Rawson – married to the farmer on whose land the Seeders’ cottage is situated – claims that Dot owed her husband £2,000 in rent, a debt that the twins struggle to understand given the nature of Dot’s agreement with Rawson. The circumstances surrounding Frank Seeder’s death are alluded to, suggesting an element of guilt on Rawson’s part, hence the longstanding rent-free arrangement. But if that was indeed the case, why is Caroline Rawson suddenly demanding payments?

They rarely discussed money in the past and it comes awkwardly now, and they never talked in any depth about the agreement, they know it simply as an arrangement that was negotiated between Dot and Rawson a year after their father’s death – an event that was only ever alluded to, all of them orbiting an incident so horrific they were unable to shift themselves closer. (p. 92)

Other debts and family secrets gradually come to light, compounding the twins’ ability to hold onto the cottage in the face of the Rawsons’ hostility. With barely enough money to buy food, let alone to make a dent in Dot’s outstanding debts, Jeanie and Julius must face the possibility of eviction – all at a time when they are still grieving for their mother. In short, they can’t even afford a basic funeral for Dot – something they eventually deal with in the only way possible while batting away awkward questions about the secluded service and wake.

The novel is told mostly from the point of view of Jeanie, a proud, vulnerable, stubborn woman who gradually reveals her resilience over the course of the book. With great sensitivity and compassion, Fuller shows us just how challenging it is for someone like Jeanie to navigate the modern world with its reliance on formal processes and online technology. Largely due to a severe bout of rheumatic fever during her childhood, Jeanie cannot read and write – limitations she tries to keep hidden from the few people she comes into contact with.

Occasionally Jeanie sees these problems as her own failings and is ashamed, but most of the time she is cross that the world is designed for people who can read and write with ease. (p. 58)

It is an illness Jeanie remains wary of to the current day, largely due to Dot’s warnings about the frailty of her daughter’s heart, thereby imposing restrictions on Jeanie’s physical capabilities.

The lack of a bank account is another obstacle for the Seeders, something Jeanie discovers when she lands a job tending a local resident’s garden two afternoons a week. When her first payment is handed over as a cheque, Jeanine is too embarrassed to ask for cash, thereby rendering her work useless, at least as a means of gaining money. Nevertheless, it’s a step in the right direction for Jeanie, a sign of growing independence, which Fuller teases out beautifully during the book.

She is excited, amazed at what she has managed to do so easily, and although she knows that what she will be earning won’t touch their debts, the idea of doing work other than looking after her own house and garden makes her feel like something inside her – as tiny as an onion seed – is splitting open, ready to send out its shoot. (p. 107)

While the novel is relatively bleak in tone, it is not without occasional moments of brightness. As Dot’s death forces the twins to interact with the outside world in various unfamiliar ways, there is support from Dot’s friend, Bridget, and her husband, Stu. Bridget in particular tries to help Jeanie as best she can while keeping her counsel on Dot’s history and the version of events passed down to the twins. There is genuine heartbreak in this novel, particularly when unscrupulous bullies seize on the twins’ vulnerabilities and misfortunes, just at their lowest point. Ultimately though, it is a story of resilience, how sometimes we have to come to terms with darkness in our family history to forgive and move forward.

In Jeanie and Julius, Fuller has created two highly distinctive, richly-layered characters that feel fully painted on the page. The Seeders are marginalised – underdogs the reader will likely invest in, sensitively conveyed with compassion despite their undoubted failings. (There are times in this novel when you’ll probably want to give each twin a good shake or talking to, purely for their own good, but you know they’ll need to learn things the hard way to really pull through.) The supporting players are excellent too, especially Bridget and her wayward son, Nathan, who gets drawn into the eviction proceedings, much to his parents’ disgust. 

Fuller writes beautifully about the twins’ environment, capturing a feel for the landscape and the rhythms of rural life.

The morning sky lightens, and snow falls on the cottage. It falls on the thatch, concealing the moss and the mouse damage, smoothing out the undulations, filling in the hollows and slips, melting where it touches the bricks of the chimney. It settles on the plants and bare soil in the front garden and forms a perfect mound on top of the rotten gatepost, as though shaped from the inside of a teacup. It hides the roof of the chicken coop, and those of the privy and the old dairy, leaving a dusting across the workbench and floor where the window was broken long ago. (p. 1)

Her eye for detail is equally impressive, highlighting the idiosyncratic nature of the world the twins inhabit – the image of a piano lying on its side in the middle of a spinney will likely linger and endure.

This is a poignant, highly distinctive story of two outsiders living on the fringes of society. A tender, achingly sad novel with glimmers of hope for a brighter future, especially towards the end.

Unsettled Ground is published by Penguin Books; my thanks to the publishers for kindly providing a review copy.

The Vet’s Daughter by Barbara Comyns

Barbara Comyns continues to be a source of endless fascination for me, a distinctly English writer with a very particular style. Her novels have a strange, off-kilter feel to them, blending surreal imagery and touches of dark, deadpan humour with the harsh realities of day-to-day life. There’s often a sadness too, a sense of melancholy or loneliness running through the texts.

First published in 1959, The Vet’s Daughter is the sixth Comyns I’ve read, and after a couple of false starts it may well turn out to be my favourite. This Virago edition (kindly sent to me by Liz) contains an introduction by the author herself, a sort of potted history of her life up to the time of the novel’s release. There are hints of an eccentric home life in the Comyns household: a fiery, unpredictable father, an invalid mother with a pet monkey; a succession of governesses with few qualifications; and little mixing between the family and the outside world. It’s a background that seems to feed directly into The Vet’s Daughter, a striking coming-of-age novel with a distinctive narrative voice.

The story is narrated by Alice Rowlands, the titular vet’s daughter, who lives in south London with her domineering father, Euan, and her sickly mother. Euan Rowlands is a violent man, essentially bullying Alice and her mother with his sudden outbursts and demands. Alice, on the other hand, is fully alive to the world around her, sensing the danger that her father duly presents. She is an innocent, imaginative girl at heart, qualities that come through in her childlike tone of voice.

I didn’t look after Father as well as Mother used to, and he often hit me because the bacon was burnt or the coffee weak. Once, when I had ironed a shirt badly, he suddenly rushed at me like a charging ball in a thunderstorm, seeming to toss the shirt in some way with his head. I held on to the kitchen sink, too afraid to move. He came right up to me, and I saw the whites of his eyes were all red. (pp. 17-18)

With her mother desperately ill upstairs in bed and no siblings to help out, Alice is little more than a maid – shopping for the household and looking after her mother, particularly at night. There is some support for Alice in the shape of Mrs Churchill, a straight-talking woman who comes over during the day; but when Alice’s mother dies, the future seems increasingly uncertain. Euan disappears for three weeks, leaving a locum vet, Henry Peebles, in charge of the practice. By contrast to Euan, Henry is a kindly chap, the first man to treat Alice with due care and consideration – in Henry (aka ‘Blinkers’), Alice has found a true friend for life.

When Euan reappears, Mrs Churchill is shocked to find him accompanied by Rosa Fisher, a rather brash woman who helps out behind the bar at the local pub. While Euan positions Rosa as the Rowlands’ new housekeeper, even Alice can see what she really represents. In effect, Rosa is Euan’s mistress – a careless, brazen woman who ultimately neglects Alice, endangering her well-being in the most deplorable of ways.

Alice turns to daydreams as a means of escape, vividly imagining a lush, exotic world where creatures roam freely, released from their restrictive constraints. In short, she uses these fantasies as a coping mechanism, blunting some of the sadness and brutality in her life.

Sometimes the life I was living seemed so hopeless and sad I would try to imagine I was in another world. Then all the dreary brown things in the kitchen would turn into great exotic flowers and I’d be in a kind of jungle, and, when the parrot called from his lavatory prison, he wasn’t the parrot, but a great white peacock crying out. (p. 60)

A respite ultimately comes in the form of Blinkers, who takes Alice to live in the Hampshire countryside as a companion to his elderly mother, Mrs Peebles. At first, Alice is enchanted by her new surroundings, taking comfort from the beauty of the natural world, alive with the signs of winter.

In the early morning, when I looked out of my bedroom window, the trees and fields were white with hoar frost and the glass in the window was beautifully patterned with it. I’d never loved the frost before but now it enchanted me. Besides the beauty, there were the sounds: the snap of a stick, the hard rustle of a frozen leaf, the crack of breaking ice–-even the birds’ winter cries seemed to be sharp and intensified. (p. 125)

Nevertheless, Alice’s new environment comes with its own set of challenges. The house is dark and in poor repair; and Mrs Peebles herself is also being preyed upon by bullies – in this instance, Mr and Mr Gowley, a rather dubious pair of housekeepers with their eyes on the family silver. It is here in the countryside that Alice becomes fully aware of her magical gift, an unusual ability only she seems to possess. It would be foolish of me to say too much about this, but it’s not dissimilar to Laura’s secret in Lolly WillowesSylvia Townsend Warner’s marvellous novel of a woman’s liberation, which I read in 2018.

Before long, circumstances conspire to dictate another change for Alice, prompting her return to Euan, who is back with the hideous Rosa. When Euan learns about his daughter’s unusual gift, he immediately seeks to exploit it for monetary gain, setting up a denouement with a shocking conclusion. It’s an ending that will prove hard to shake, somewhat reminiscent of Shirley Jackson’s work – We Have Always Lived in the Castle immediately springs to mind.

The Vet’s Daughter has all the hallmarks of a classic Comyns novel: an enchanting, innocent child caught up in a dysfunctional family; memorable, vivid imagery, often with an off-kilter edge; and a simple, matter-of-matter-of-fact tone of voice that belies the horrors within. As ever, this author excels in her use of symbolism, skilfully establishing a somewhat surreal tone to the narrative right from the start.

The door was propped open by a horse’s hoof without a horse joined to it, and I looked through. (p. 3)

Perhaps the most striking elements of the story stem from the violence and cruelty meted out to Alice, particularly at home. The novel has much to say about the tyrannical behaviour of fathers and the exploitation of the more vulnerable members of our society – especially children, the elderly and those who are ill or infirm. While Comyns blends elements of fantasy and magic realism with the stark realities of day-to-day life, she never lets us forgets the horrors of Alice’s existence, complete with its constraints.

This is a wonderful, magical novel with a dark, highly distinctive flavour. Barbara Comyns may not be to every reader’s taste, but she is a true original with a unique view of the world’s cruelties. A highly imaginative writer who deserves to be widely read.

Bad Dreams by Tessa Hadley

Last year I read and thoroughly enjoyed Tessa Hadley’s The Past, a beautifully-observed novel about four adult siblings coming together for a holiday at their old family home. It’s a character-driven book, full of subtle tensions and frustrations, demonstrating the author’s insight into family dynamics and human nature. There’s a similar degree of perceptiveness in Bad Dreams, an impressive collection of short stories, all with female protagonists at the heart.

Seven of the ten stories included here were first published in the New Yorker, and are probably still available to read online. Nevertheless, by experiencing them together in this volume, certain patterns begin to appear – common threads and themes, similar structural patterns or motifs – adding texture and depth.

While these stories are rooted in the everyday, Hadley seems particularly interested in what happens when the mundanity of life is interrupted – typically by a new experience or a chance encounter with the potential to disrupt.

In An Abduction – one of the most memorable stories in the collection – Jane, a bored fifteen-year-old girl, home from boarding school for the summer holidays, accepts a lift from three unfamiliar boys in a sports car. Older and more experienced than Jane, the boys are living the high life in a large Surrey house, dabbling with drink and drugs while their parents are away. What follows isn’t quite the horror story the reader might be expecting given the set-up. Still, it’s unsettling nonetheless, culminating in a coda that adds another layer to the narrative.

Experience is another story in this vein, with the protagonist crossing a line into an intriguing new world. When Laura needs a new place to live following the breakdown of her marriage, a friend hooks her up with Hana, a sophisticated, glamorous woman with a spacious house in London. Hana wants someone to look after her home while she spends time in the US, so Laura moves in rent-free to caretake in Hana’s absence. Having settled into the house, Laura begins to step into Hana’s shoes – eating her food, reading her secret diaries, even wearing her clothes now and again.

I had thought that I would forget about Hana once she was out of the house, but moving around inside the shapes of her life, I found myself more powerfully impressed by her than I had been when she was present. The wardrobes full of her clothes stood in for her: velvet trousers and brocade jackets, an evening dress of pleated chiffon with a sequinned bodice – everything padded and sculpted, each outfit a performance in itself. (p. 90)

When Hana’s on/off lover, Julian, calls at the house to pick up some stuff, the visit offers Laura the opportunity to go deeper into Hana’s life. Laura begins to fantasise about a liaison with Julian, a chance to experience something more thrilling than the tame relationship she experienced with her husband. It’s an excellent story with several possibilities for the ending – but Hadley pitches it just right, resisting the temptation for too much spectacle or drama.

There’s a chance encounter of a different kind in Under the Sign of the Moon, another excellent story despite its somewhat uninspiring title! In this piece, Greta, a middle-aged married woman recovering from an illness, travels by train to Liverpool to visit her daughter, Kate. While Greta would prefer to read her book during the journey, the young man sitting opposite her is desperate to talk. After a while, Greta relents, and the pair strike up a conversation, culminating in them sharing a coffee at the station while Greta waits for Kate to arrive. There’s something sad and lonely about this man with his quaint, polite manner and dated clothes – compounded perhaps by his mother’s recent death.

As the two travellers part ways, the man hurriedly issues an invitation for Greta to meet him again later in the week, stating a specific time and place for the rendezvous. Greta declines to reply at the time, but when the day in question duly arrives, she surprises herself by following through, with rather unexpected results! Once again, this is another story with multiple possibilities for development. I won’t spoil things by saying how the potential meeting turns out, but it’s an interesting one for sure.

Other stories showcase Hadley’s skills at viewing situations from a child’s point of view – how strange and unknowable the world can seem when we’re only nine or ten. In One Saturday Morning, ten-year-old Carrie is alone in the house when Dom, a friend of her parents, calls with some bad news about his wife. Hadley perfectly captures the emotions children experience when the mood shifts – a longing for the normality of life to return when sadness disrupts events.

He was set apart, just as his wife had been set apart – except that it was worse with Dom, because he persisted, discomforting in all his living bulk, putting himself in the way of Carrie’s thoughts when she tried to be rid of him. She longed to hear the door shut behind him and for the dinner-party preparations to be resumed, however belatedly – for the whole ordinary process of living to start into motion again, downstairs in the kitchen. (p. 79)

The titular story, Bad Dreams – one of the highlights in the collection – explores a domestic scenario from two different perspectives. Firstly, we see what happens when a young girl wakes at night after dreaming about her favourite story; then we cut to the girl’s mother when she is disturbed later the same night. In both instances, the characters walk around the house, their movements and actions revealing much about the family members within – their habits and preoccupations, their vulnerabilities and flaws. It’s a terrific story, relatively simple on the surface yet full of insights and depth.

Other stories hinge on specific items being passed from one family member to another, providing a framework for exploring the characters’ lives and the fault lines that have developed over time. In Flight, a silk scarf passes from one estranged sister to another, a gift to help atone for past failings and absences. Silk Brocade features a similar motif – in this instance, a sumptuous length of silk is earmarked for a wedding dress until tragedy intervenes.

There’s also a brilliant story about an old man who wishes to leave his house to his carer, Marina, much to her embarrassment. The relationship between these two individuals is beautifully drawn, complete with moments of tenderness and frustration as the man’s life draws to a close. Possibly my favourite piece in the collection, the meaning of the story’s title — The Stain — becomes clear as elements from the past begin to emerge.

In summary then, Bad Dreams is an excellent of stories, elegantly conveyed. While most are set in contemporary times, a few pieces reach back to the 1950s and ‘60s (or occasionally even earlier), boding well for Hadley’s latest novel, Free Love, with its late ‘60s setting. 

Bad Dreams is published by Vintage; personal copy.

A Friend from England by Anita Brookner

The English writer and art historian Anita Brookner carved out a particular niche for herself during her writing career, producing beautifully crafted novels about loneliness and isolation. Her books often feature unmarried women living small, unfulfilling lives in well-to-do London flats, where they spend their evenings waiting for unobtainable lovers to make fleeting appearances. First published in 1987, three years after her Booker Prize win, A Friend from England is another exquisitely written story of loneliness and self-deception, very much in a similar vein to this Brookner’s other work.

Central to the novel is Rachel, a single, independently-minded woman in her early thirties. The co-owner of a small bookshop in Notting Hill, Rachel lives her life on the fringes of other people’s worlds, avoiding entanglements, amorous relationships, or anything that might lead to a loss of control or demonstration of passion. To her mind, the illusion of romantic love is not for the sensible – only for the naive or the very brave. Despite her role as the novel’s narrator, Rachel remains somewhat enigmatic or difficult to pin down throughout. She drops hints of previous affairs and ‘arrangements’, but little more in terms of detail is ever revealed. Above all, Rachel takes satisfaction from her lack of emotional bonds, a position that ultimately colours her view of others, particularly those who see the world through rose-tinted glasses.

Rachel’s closest friends are Oscar Livingstone – an ageing accountant that Rachel inherited from her deceased father – and his wife, Dorrie. The Livingstones are a kindly couple, treating Rachel almost as if she were part of their family. In short, they see Rachel as an older sister to their twenty-seven-year-old daughter, Heather – someone to guide her in the broader ways and mysteries of the world. On the surface, Heather appears to be a passive person, seemingly content to remain in the company of her parents, sharing their interests and lives until such time as she is ready to marry. While Rachel loves her Saturday afternoon visits to the Livingstones’ for tea, she feels somewhat ambivalent towards Heather and her seemingly circumspect approach to life. Consequently, the two women maintain a friendship, albeit a rather superficial, surface-level one.

While Rachel would be happy for her Saturdays with the Livingstones to continue forever, this arrangement is threatened when Heather suddenly announces her engagement to Michael Sandberg, a strange, childlike man whom Rachel views as somewhat suspicious.

My first impression of Michael Sandberg was that he was blessed with, or consumed by, radiant high spirits. My second impression was that a man of such obvious and exemplary charm must be a liar. (p. 42)

Michael appears to be fairly comfortably off, mostly due to his father’s various business interests in time-share apartments and travels agencies; nevertheless, there is something false or forced about him, a quality that doesn’t quite ring true.

Before long, Heather and Michael are married, settling into an apartment near Hyde Park to begin their married life. As far as Rachel see it, Heather appears to have fast-forwarded to middle age. There is little evidence to suggest that she actually loves Michael; rather their relationship appears to be relatively functional or anodyne in character.  

She seemed to me to have passed into another age group, one in which material certainties are taken for granted, romantic love is a thing of the past, and work has assumed the central position that it usually occupies in truly adult lives. (pp. 71–72)

Meanwhile, Oscar and Dorrie are as welcoming as ever, inviting Rachel to come and see them, just as before – and it is during one of these visits that Oscar reveals his concerns about Michael while driving Rachel home.

A series of revelations follows, ultimately culminating in Heather moving to Venice to marry Marco (the brother of an Italian friend, Chiara) after her first marriage to Michael breaks down. It is at this point that Rachel realises how little influence she has Heather. Rather than sacrifice her happiness by staying in England, Heather has chosen to follow her heart by moving to Venice, where she hopes the marriage to Marco will be a success.

In a showdown between the two women in Venice – a location that Rachel dislikes due to her fear of water – Rachel rails against Heather and what she sees as her selfishness, revealing an envy of those who choose a different path to her own. In some respects, the most startling revelation is the one that Rachel experiences when the reality of her life becomes painfully apparent.

The fact of the matter was that the wonders of this earth suddenly meant nothing to me. Without a face opposite mine the world was empty; without another voice it was silent. I foresaw a future in which I would always eat too early, the first guest in empty restaurants, after which I would go to bed too early and get up too early, anxious to begin another day in order that it might soon be ended. I lacked the patience or the confidence to invent a life for myself, and would always be dependent on the lives of others. (p. 204)

A Friend from England is a very interior novel – claustrophobic, almost, as everything we see and hear is filtered through Rachel’s outlook and perspective. There is real fury and anger from Rachel in what she sees as the foolishness of Heather’s actions. Women like Heather think life is ‘a sort of party, to which invitations are sent out’ without realising there comes a point when ‘the celebrations have to stop’. In short, Heather’s rejection of a circumspect worldview comes as a shock to Rachel, exposing the folly of the self-image she has carefully constructed for herself.

Despite the novel’s somewhat sombre tone, there are occasional flashes of humour – a very Brooknerian strain of humour, mostly stemming from the author’s dissection of the quirks of human nature. In this scene, Dorrie and her sisters are fussing over Michael, eagerly anticipating their roles in orchestrating Heather’s wedding.

They looked on him with indulgence, and I could see that he had a special rapport with these simple women, women who loved weddings and babies and cherished these matters over and above all others, simply filling in the time disdainfully until mobilised by another wedding. The married state claimed their strongest loyalties, their finest efforts; already their minds were furiously working on the arrangements, which would be argued out in long telephone calls. (p. 46)

In summary, this is a quiet, character-driven novel – beautifully-written as ever and very tightly controlled. It’s a novel I admired rather than loved, but brilliantly observed nonetheless.  

My copy of A Friend from England was published by Pantheon Books; personal copy.

The Tortoise and the Hare by Elizabeth Jenkins

Over the course of her career, the English writer Elizabeth Jenkins produced biographies of several leading figures, including Henry Fielding, Lady Caroline Lamb and Jane Austen. There is more than a touch of Austen in The Tortoise and the Hare, Jenkins’ 1954 novel about the slow, stealthy disintegration of a marriage. It’s an exquisitely written book, a masterclass in precision and understatement, currently in print with Virago with an introduction by Hilary Mantel.

While Jenkins’ story takes place in a particular sub-sector of the British class structure – the upper-middle-class ‘home counties set’ in the mid-1950s – its themes and emotions are universal, broadening the novel’s relevance beyond the sphere in which it is set.

Central to the story are the Gresham family – fifty-two-year-old Evelyn Gresham, a successful barrister of the highest rank, his beautiful wife, Imogen, and the couple’s ten-year-old son, Gavin. At thirty-seven, Imogen is fifteen years younger than Evelyn – an age difference that mattered little when the couple married, but now, twelve years into their relationship, the gap is beginning to show. While Evelyn was initially attracted to Imogen’s ingénue-type character, his needs have changed over time. Now Imogen must devote herself to making Evelyn’s home life as efficient and unruffled as possible, a task she finds challenging in light of her husband’s exacting standards. At heart, Imogen is a sensitive, compassionate young woman, but efficient management and organisation are not her strongest suits.

By contrast, Blanche Silcox – the Greshams’ nearest neighbour – is the polar opposite of Imogen. At fifty, Blanche is the living embodiment of the home counties ‘country type’, complete with her dowdy tweeds and forbidding hats. While Imogen is quiet, graceful and unassuming, Blanche is plain, practical and direct, a leading figure in the local community through her roles on various committees.

Slowly but surely, Blanche begins to encroach on Imogen’s territory, worming her way into the Greshams’ marriage in the stealthiest of ways.

She [Imogen] could not have said exactly when she had become aware of how often their neighbour Blanche Silcox’s name occurred in Evelyn’s conversation as that of a woman immensely knowledgeable on rural topics, whose opinions on the ethics of tied cottages, drainage and poultry-keeping for profit called forth respectful agreement. To all such topics Imogen herself could only listen in silence. (p. 39)

Before long, Evelyn is spending an increasing amount of time with Blanche, popping over to see her on a daily basis, taking phone calls at all hours, and accepting lifts from her when he travels from Berkshire to London for work. (Unfortunately, Imogen cannot drive, putting her at a disadvantage to Blanche when it comes to chauffeuring Evelyn around.) Moreover, whenever Imogen dares to comment on her husband’s closeness to Blanche, Evelyn rationalises the relationship by reiterating the latter’s qualities – how nice or helpful it is of Blanche to support him in these ways, thereby implying that Imogen is being unreasonable when she questions these kindnesses.

Sadly for Imogen, her role as Gavin’s mother is also under threat. As far as Gavin is concerned, Imogen is weak-willed and useless, and he barely suppresses his contempt for her tendency to fuss. Blanche, on the other hand, is a more natural fit for the young boy, arranging for him to have riding lessons and access to her land to fish. In short, Gavin is turning into a junior version of Evelyn, following in his father’s footsteps, disregarding Imogen’s feelings while suiting himself.

Imogen does have some support, albeit from outside the family circle. For instance, her closest female friend, Cecil (who occasionally visits from London), has the measure of Blanche from the very start.

Cecil meanwhile had used the opportunity to study Blanche Silcox. Imogen had described the latter to her with great earnestness but the description had conveyed little of what Cecil now found to be the reality. Imogen had said that Blanche Silcox was obviously much attracted by Evelyn, and that she was so thoroughly kind and useful to him it was only natural that he should appreciate it. There was nothing in it on his side, naturally. When Cecil had the people concerned before her eyes, she began to doubt the truth of this judgement immediately. (p. 98)

Cecil is so struck by the sense of magnetism surrounding Blanche that she that likens the effect to the ‘indrawing draught of a furnace’, clearly spotting the danger that Imogen is trying her hardest to dismiss. In Cecil’s eyes, Blanche should not be underestimated – underneath that dowdy appearance is a woman of quiet determination, a force of fire and heat.  

The real strength of this novel lies in the precision and clarity Jenkins brings to her portrayal of Imogen, particularly the lack of agency she feels when faced with Blanche as a competitor. Slowly but surely, Imogen’s self-confidence ebbs away as she forces herself to come to terms with Evelyn’s infidelity. Deep down, it’s something that Imogen has known for a while, but it takes a gossipy acquaintance to reveal the depth of Blanche’s involvement in Evelyn’s life, much to Imogen’s distress.

The revelation of the degree of Blanche Silcox’s intimacy with Evelyn – ‘all those late meals, as he hates restaurants’ – yet did it tell her anything she did not know? Did it not merely fill in the details of a picture she had unconsciously drawn for herself? But she had never known until this moment that in a state of jealous agitation each separate detail is as painful as the whole: The comings and goings, the telephone calls, the brief visits paid by car between the two houses, the evenings in London, the constant, close intimacy filling every hour that she herself was not there, and now this monstrous arrangement of the holiday in Scotland: it was like some closed book she was wild with curiosity to read, although the meaning was known to her already. (p. 157)

One of the most interesting aspects of this novel is its quietly subversive nature, how it goes against some of our traditional assumptions and expectations in affairs of the heart. For instance, in a love triangle of this nature, it is more usual for the man to be seduced away from his wife by a younger, more attractive model, leaving the older, more faded woman in the shade. But in this case, the conventions are reversed, with the beautiful, graceful Imogen potentially losing out to the frumpy but capable Blanche – a woman who matches Evelyn very closely in terms of age. This might lead us to think of Blanche as the Tortoise in this scenario, slowly but stealthily triumphing over Imogen the Hare. Nevertheless, in the novel’s excellent afterword, the publisher Carmen Callil argues for a different interpretation of these labels, viewing Imogen as the Tortoise – the one with the most to gain, especially if she chooses to break free from the pain of her marriage. It’s an interesting interpretation, albeit somewhat hard to discuss without revealing the novel’s ending, which I would rather not do.

All four leading characters – Imogen, Evelyn, Blanche and Gavin – are brilliantly drawn, fully painted on the page with all their individual habits, preoccupations and failings. There’s strong support too from the secondary players, perhaps most notably from Imogen’s perceptive friend, Cecil, and Evelyn’s school friend, Paul – a compassionate man who is more than a little in love with Imogen and caught up in a somewhat mismatched marriage himself. Also of note is Gavin’s friend, Tim, a gentle boy whom Imogen takes under her wing, partly due to his rather chaotic homelife.

All in all, this is a superb book, a devastating portrayal of the erosion of a marriage, all the more impressive for its subtlety and refusal to submit to melodrama. My slightly early contribution to Karen and Simon’s #1954Club, which is just about to kick off!