Tag Archives: UK

The Priory by Dorothy Whipple

Last summer I read my first Dorothy Whipple, Someone at Distance (1953), a thoroughly compelling novel on the systematic destruction of a marriage – a timeless theme rendered with real insight and attention to detail. This year I’m returning to Whipple with one of her earlier novels, The Priory (1939), in a post for Jessie’s Perspehone event (running from 31st May to 9th June).

The Priory is something of an Upstairs-Downstairs story, revolving around the residents of Saunby, a crumbling old estate in the middle of England in the years leading up to the Second World War. The estate is home to the Marwood family: Major Marwood, a widower; his daughters, Christine (aged twenty) and Penelope (nineteen); and the Major’s unmarried sister, the somewhat eccentric Victoria. Also present in the house are various servants, most notably the ineffectual cook, Mrs Nall, the mismatched maids, Bertha and Bessy, and Major Marwood’s trusty right-hand man, Thompson.

Unfortunately for the family, Major Marwood has no head for finances with the estate’s outgoings far outweighing any incomings. Moreover, the buildings at The Priory are deteriorating and in need of relatively urgent repair. In spite of the estate’s dire financial situation, Major Marwood’s priorities remain focused in one direction only – namely, his beloved cricket during the forthcoming summer season. Every August the Major hosts a lavish cricketing fortnight, providing full board and lodgings for visiting teams and refreshments for all spectators. Assisting the Major in this capacity is Thompson, an ex-professional cricketer who proves vital support to The Priory team during the event.

Meanwhile, Christine and Penelope continue to amuse themselves up in the nursery where they have lived since they were children, taking their meals separately from the rest of the family. The girls’ aunt, Victoria, is another law unto herself, content to spend her days painting pictures (which she does rather badly), eschewing any responsibility for the house in favour of artistic pursuits.

Conscious of the need for change in the future, the Major decides to remarry, prompting a proposal to his lady friend, Anthea Sumpton – not a catch exactly, but a suitable woman to take charge of the girls, both of whom should be thinking of marriage themselves sooner rather than later.

It didn’t matter, though, whether she [Anthea] had money or not; he would marry her with or without. She was so suitable. In a second marriage you thought of suitability not of romance. (p. 20)

The girls, for their part, are horrified by their father’s decision to remarry, fearing any changes their new stepmother may introduce in the house.

The first half of this thoroughly enjoyable novel focuses on Anthea’s marriage to the Major, and the gradual realisation on her part that her new husband is anything but loving and romantic – in truth, the Major is rather perfunctory and set in his old ways. Nevertheless, Anthea is made of strong stuff, stronger than might appear at first sight. On discovering what she has let herself in for at Saunby, the new Mrs Marwood is determined to get the house into some sort of order, sacking the hopeless Mrs Nall and enlisting Bessy’s help to clear the rooms of clutter. Then, much to the Major’s horror, Anthea discovers she is pregnant, a development that will lead to even more household expense, especially if the child is a boy. (In the Major’s world, boys are destined to receive a proper education at a reputable school, while girls must make do with a governess at home.)

In the second half of the novel the focus shifts, falling primarily on Christine and her marriage to the promising cricketer, Nicholas Ashwell, whom she meets during the annual cricketing fortnight at Saunby. While the Ashwells are very wealthy and want for very little in the way of material possessions, Nicholas has always felt dependent on his father, unable to make a living of his own on account of Sir James’s reputation and standing in the community.

Christine and Nicholas are blissfully happy at first, but their marriage soon begins to sour, tainted by Nicholas’s attachment to ‘the crowd’, a group of fast-living friends who spend their time drinking and playing poker. In truth, Christine misses her old life at Saunby, while Nicholas wants to continue pretty much as before – in essence, neither of them is finding married life very easy to adjust to.

Penelope, for her part, is also rather unhappy, bereft at the loss of her sister from Saunby. Primarily as a means of escape from Anthea and the changes in the house, Penelope marries Paul Kenworthy, a kindly, handsome man who truly adores her. Luckily for Penelope, Paul has enough money to keep her in a comfortable manner, something she soon becomes accustomed to.

Alongside the ‘upstairs’ developments affecting the Marwoods, there is no shortage of drama below stairs at Saunby. Perhaps most notably, Thompson finds himself caught up in an impossible love triangle with the manipulative Betha and the lovely Bessy, a situation that plays out in a very affecting fashion, much to the reader’s distress.

The Priory is a very engaging novel, one that explores the complexities of family relationships and the choices we make when faced with significant change. For readers who enjoy a decent amount of plot, there are lots of interesting developments throughout the narrative as these families adjust and reshape themselves over time. Whipple introduces various elements along the way, including compromising indiscretions, unwanted pregnancies, manipulative actions and painful separations. The narrative strands are thought-provoking and absorbing – I’ve barely scratched the surface of them here.

The lack of options for women is a major theme throughout, particularly when marriage proves to be elusive – or worse, a failure. At one point towards the end of the story, Christine reflects on the nub of the issue, vowing that something must change in time for the next generation – for girls like her daughter, Angela.

What did women in her position do? What did they do? If there was only marriage for girls brought up in the way she and Penelope had been brought up and marriage failed, what then?

It was a question parents, in her world, did not ask themselves.

‘All the money goes on the sons,’ thought Christine. ‘They just trust to luck about the daughters, hoping they’ll be pretty enough to make a good marriage. If they’re not, they just have to exist like Rosamund Hunter and the rest, and end up like Aunt Victoria.’ (pp. 424-425)

One of the most impressive aspects of the novel is the depth of characterisation Whipple brings to the story, particularly in her portrayal of the main female characters, Anthea, Christine and Penelope. Individuals who at first seem rather neglected and worthy of our sympathies turn out to have considerable failings, revealing themselves to be selfish or downright obstinate. Conversely, those who appear to be unfeeling and domineering are actually very caring at heart, particularly in times of desperate need. The way that characters change and develop throughout the narrative is one of the most engaging aspects of the book.

As the novel draws to a close, the threat of WW2 looms on the horizon. While the ultimate ending might feel too neat and tidy for some readers’ tastes, I was happy to go with it. This is good old-fashioned storytelling at its most enjoyable, particularly for fans of British fiction between the wars.

Two excellent novels by Brigid Brophy – The Snow Ball and Flesh

The Snow Ball by Brigid Brophy (1964)

I’ve been keen to return to Brigid Brophy for quite a while, ever since I read her thoroughly engaging coming-of-age novel, The King of a Rainy Country, a book imbued with the freshness of youth. Luckily the Bloomsbury Oxfam turned up trumps a few months ago with a lovely secondhand copy of The Snow Ball, Brophy’s fifth novel, initially published in the mid-1960s.

It’s a playful, seductive book, shot through with a captivating sense of wit. In essence, Brophy is riffing with the themes of Mozart’s celebrated opera Don Giovanni, reimagining the relationship between the titular character, DG, and Donna Anna, the young woman he tries to seduce. (As the opera opens, the attempted seduction has just taken place, but its success or otherwise remains unclear.)

The setting for Brophy’s novel is a grand house in London where various guests have gathered for an 18th-century costume ball on New Year’s Eve. (Although the exact period is never specified, the story appears to take place in the early 1960s.) Central to the narrative are Anna K, a fortysomething divorcee attending the ball as Mozart’s Donna Anna, and another guest (identity unknown) who is dressed as a masked Don Giovanni.

When Don Giovanni kisses Donna Anna on the stroke of midnight, naturally the pair are attracted to one another, irresistibly drawn together in the woozy atmosphere of the ball. As the remainder of the night unfolds, we follow this couple in a provocative dance of sensuality and seduction, a liaison brought to life through Brophy’s exquisitely crafted prose. The use of dialogue is particularly impressive, highlighting the sophisticated nature of the author and her lead characters.

They were again leaning on the parapet, arm parallel with arm, cheek parallel with cheek; but not touching. Anna had let her clasped hands drop, from the wrists, below the level of the parapet, but not out of Don Giovanni’s sight. She was aware of his head turned ten degrees from the straight and of his gaze resting, consumingly, on her hands.

“My husband—” she began, but broke off. She twisted her wedding ring a millimetre further round. “Please let’s remain anonymous.”

“All right. But it restricts the conversation.”

“It needn’t. Tell me what sort of person you are. In general terms.”

“I don’t think in general terms.”

“What things do you think about?”

“Mozart and sex,” he said.

“Nothing else?”

“Nothing else in general terms. And you?”

 Mozart, sex and death,” she said.

There was a pause. They both burst into laughter. (p. 66)

Brophy skilfully intercuts this flirtation with tantalising glimpses of other couples at the ball, most notably teenagers Ruth (Cherubino) and Edward (Casanova) who are embroiled in their own romantic entanglement – partially captured through a series of real-time diary entries by Ruth. The two young lovers are beautifully sketched in a manner that highlights their individual airs and affectations to great effect. Interestingly, their relationship acts as a striking contrast to the Donna Anna-Don Giovanni arc: the awkwardness and inexperience of youth vs the sophistication of more seasoned lovers. Also participating in a separate clandestine tryst are the ball’s hosts, fifty-something Anne (a close friend of Anna K’s) and her fourth husband, Tom-Tom.

In spite of my lack of familiarity with Mozart’s opera, I found this an utterly captivating read, accentuated by some beautiful descriptive prose. This is a highly imaginative novel of seduction, ageing, mortality and Mozart – definitely worth seeking out.

Flesh by Brigid Brophy (1962)

Having enjoyed The Snow Ball so much, I decided to go on a hunt for more novels by Brophy – a search that eventually uncovered Flesh, a suitable companion piece from 1962. Once again, Brophy demonstrates her natural ability to riff with the creative arts, this time alluding to Rubens’ women as symbols of sexuality.

When we are first introduced to Marcus, he appears as a shy, socially awkward, gangly young man, struggling to find his place in the world. By the end of the narrative, he is transformed – infinitely more comfortable with himself and his relationships with others. The woman who brings about this fundamental change in character is Nancy, a self-assured, sexually experienced young woman whom Marcus meets at a party.

Flesh is the story of Marcus and Nancy’s relationship, a sexual awakening of sorts played out against the bohemian backdrop of 1960s London. In the following scene from an early stage in their relationship, Nancy encourages Marcus to dance, something he has never felt confident to do in public before – happily, the outcome is rather enchanting.

But Marcus was wrapped, enchanted, in his discovery of dancing, which felt to him like floating not in the water but in the air. He did not care who was watching or visualising what. This publicly permitted parody of an experience he had never had, sexual intercourse, at last liberated his physical response to Nancy. He was amazed to find it so unlike – and yet so exactly the realisation of – his erotic daydreams. It was easier; the imagination need not be worked, but responded of its own instant accord to the actuality of the thing – a real person, real legs, moving : yet because of the actuality it was also harder, inasmuch as muscles had actually to grip and let go, and to be displaced. And in the same way it was both less and more exciting. (p. 35)

There’s some interesting character development here, particularly with Marcus who evolves quite significantly under Nancy’s reassuring influence. The novel also contains some beautiful descriptive passages about sex – always sensual and evocative, never gratuitous or overly explicit. Instead, everything is beautifully judged.

As ever, Brophy is wonderful when it comes to detail, particularly in her depiction of the secondhand furniture shop where Marcus works. Fans of Rainy Country will find much to enjoy in the portrayal of the establishment’s owner, the rather idiosyncratic Mr Polydore, with his scarlet bow tie and lavender suede shoes.

This is another smart, sexy, thoroughly enjoyable novel from Brigid Brophy, an author who seems ripe for rediscovery, particularly in the current era of women’s empowerment.

My copies of The Snow Ball and Flesh were published by Allison & Busby.

After Julius by Elizabeth Jane Howard

I’ve been looking for an opportunity to try again with Elizabeth Jane Howard, ever since my somewhat mixed response to The Long View, her novel of a deeply unhappy marriage told in reverse. While structurally very interesting, TLV felt rather uneven and was ultimately marred by bitterness for me. I just couldn’t engage with or invest enough in the characters to care about them – an issue exacerbated by Howard’s somewhat clinical, dispassionate tone.

So here I am again with EJH – this time, her 1965 novel, After Julius, which also fits nicely with Simon and Karen’s latest ‘Club’ event, running all this week. Happily, this experience was much more positive for me. I’d even go as far as to say that I loved this novel with one very notable caveat – more on that later, as the scene in question comes towards the end.

The Julius of the title is Julius Grace, an affluent publisher who was killed while assisting in the Dunkirk evacuation during WW2. The story takes places over a weekend some twenty years after Julius’ death, as the remaining members of the Grace family, together with a few guests, gather at the family home in Sussex. What starts as well-intentioned, sociable occasion ends in devastation as various revelations connected with Julius’s heroic actions gradually come to light.

Hosting the weekend is Esme, Julius’ fifty-eight-year-old widow who has never remarried following the loss of her husband. Joining Esme for the weekend are her two daughters: the beauty of the family, Cressy (37), a rather reluctant concert pianist; and the more practical, down-to-earth, Emma (27), a reader and editor in the family’s publishing firm.

Much to everyone’s surprise, Emma has brought along a young man, a wayward poet named Dan Brick, whom she met earlier that day while at work. Being essentially working-class, Dan comes from a very different social sphere to the Graces and their friends, and his responses to the events of the weekend are rather interesting to observe. Importantly, he seems to have clicked with Emma, a young woman whose only previous experience with the opposite sex has blighted most of her adult life.

Cressy, on the other hand, has come alone. Following an early, disastrous marriage which promptly ended with her husband’s death in the war, Cressy has subjected herself to a string of unhappy affairs, failing to achieve any sense of comfort or emotional fulfilment despite her desires. In essence, her situation is encapsulated in the following quote.

Had been married; husband killed in the war. No children. Sad, but infinitely intriguing – and convenient. Surely there must be a lover lurking about? Some cynical, selfish fellow who ruined sensitive intelligent girls by spending two evenings a week with them – preying upon their finer feelings with anything from money, the right sexual touch to downright lies about the future? But there never was, for Cressy was passionately monogamous. So whoever it was took possession, spent two evenings a week with her (and sometimes more, but they couldn’t be sure from week to week – they’d telephone anyhow so don’t go out: and, poor fool, she never would), and preyed upon her feelings with whatever equipment they could bring to bear. (p.60)

Cressy has vowed to end her latest hopeless affair, a liaison with the thoroughly self-centred Dick Hammond – a factor made all the more complicated by his unexpected arrival at the house for Saturday night’s dinner party.

Also in attendance for the weekend is Esme’s former lover, forty-four-year-old Felix King. While Julius was still alive, Esme embarked on a passionate affair with Felix, the one great love of her life irrespective of their differences in age. As the novel unravels, it soon becomes clear that Esme had never truly loved Julius, certainly not in a deep, fulfilling sense. His obsession with quoting poetry to her in moments of heightened emotion had put paid to all that, right from the early stages of their marriage.

In all moments of emotion he resorted to poetry; and this included making love to her. She had pleaded ignorance, but this only provoked hours of tender instruction, and every time he reached out for some slim calf-bound volume from a shelf, or threw back his head and half shut his eyes (he knew a fantastic amount of stuff by heart) the same wave of unwilling reverence and irritated incomprehension swept over her. (p. 28)

Emotionally isolated in her relationship with Julius, Esme turned to Felix for a little love and affection – perhaps unsurprisingly so given the nature of her situation.

No son was a private, nagging refrain, and for the rest of her functions she sometimes felt as though she was endlessly laying an elaborate table for a meal to which nobody in the end sat down. (p. 33)

Felix for his part was attracted to Esme, finding her shrewd, sophisticated and wonderfully entertaining. Nevertheless, it was too early in life for him to settle down back then, even once Esme became free following her husband’s untimely death.

Now Felix is keen to see Esme again after a gap of twenty years – the first time the former lovers will have met following a rather abrupt end to their relationship. As she waits for Felix to arrive at the house, Esme wonders why he wishes to see her again. Is out of duty, curiosity, or some other unknown motive? It’s hard to tell.

Esme knows she still loves Felix, possibly even more so now than before. If anything, his reappearance releases an intensity of feeling that has been allowed to accumulate for too long, precipitating a liberation of sorts. What Esme doesn’t know is just how Felix will react…

After Julius is a very carefully constructed novel, elegantly alternating between the perceptions of the five main characters, alongside a few pivotal group scenes. The inner lives of Howard’s women are captured with great precision and accuracy, painfully revealing past traumas and their resultant scars: Esme remains trapped in a kind of time-capsule, continuing to harbour deep feelings for Felix, in spite of his apparent abandonment of her; Emma has repressed all thoughts of love and emotional fulfilment following a horrendous early experience at the hands of a brute; and Cressy has spent most her life trying to fit around her lovers’ plans in the desperate hope of some affection in return.

With the possible exception of Julius, whom we encounter through flashbacks, the leading male characters here are mostly self-centred cads, frequently treating women as love-objects, merely to picked up and dumped at a moment’s notice. In this scene, one of the female characters – I won’t say which one – reveals how she was bullied by a former lover who had learned of her pregnancy.

He was furious! He managed to make me feel squalid and entirely to blame. (…) This man was supposed to have loved me: he wrote books about people and ideology – he was regarded as a pioneer, a humanitarian, someone of great integrity who cared what happened to society – a responsible and courageous man – one in a million. And yet there I was pregnant, honestly because he bullied me about knowing better, and all he wanted to do was to be shot of the situation – never mind what became of me in the process. (pp. 278–279)

As a slight aside, there is an interesting sub-theme running through this novel, that of the tension between a person’s public conscience to serve the good of humanity and their private desire for personal advancement. It’s a dynamic that touches several of the characters here – Julius, Felix and Cressy, in particular.

Returning to the men, even Dan – whose outward appearance is rather amiable – harbours worrying beliefs about the ‘acceptable’ roles and behaviours of women. In this scene, Dan is reflecting on Cressy’s reactions to her mother, especially once it transpires that Felix has returned.

Well, that sister of Emma’s would make an occasion out of a milk shake on a wet Sunday afternoon. She hadn’t seemed to like the doctor either; but then he’d never seen anyone treat their mother as she had done – downright discourtesy if ever he’d seen it: crossed in love, he had no doubt, and nearly on the shelf on top of that. No wonder the poor thing was edgy. Of course, the father had died, and a houseful of women without a man to crack the whip always made them soft and restless. (pp. 118-119)

This a perceptive, beautifully observed novel of secrets, guilt and longstanding resentments. The insights into characters’ perceptions and emotions, particularly those of the emotionally stranded women, are brilliantly judged. There is also some gorgeous deceptive writing here, particularly in the depiction of the interiors and the natural world.

My one reservation relates to a very brutal scene towards the end of the novel in which one of the women submits to a horrific act of violence, virtually accepting it as part-and-parcel of her relationship with the man concerned. It’s tricky to say any more without revealing spoilers, but I found it difficult to accept this character’s reactions in the hours and days following the incident. Maybe it’s merely a reflection of the prevailing attitudes of the period or some of EJH’s own damaging experiences – it’s a little hard to tell. Feel free to comment on it below, especially if you’ve read the book.

Update: Caroline has posted an excellent review of this novel, which you can find here.

After Julius is published by Picador; personal copy.

Recent Reads – Evelyn Waugh and Anthony Powell

Those of you who follow me on Twitter may know that I’ve been getting through a lot of books lately, more than I’ve had time to write about in detail. So, here are a few thoughts about some of them – a sparkling Evelyn Waugh, and books 2-4 of Anthony Powell’s marvellous series, A Dance to the Music of Time.

A Handful of Dust by Evelyn Waugh (1934)

I thoroughly enjoyed this sharply executed satire on the debauched society set of the early 1930s, complete with its blend of acerbic humour, unexpected tragedy and undercurrent of savagery. As a novel, it seems to perfectly capture that ‘live for the moment, hang tomorrow’ attitude that existed during the interwar years.

In essence, A Handful of Dust charts the falling apart of a marriage – that between the bored socialite, Brenda Last, and her somewhat less gregarious husband, Tony. The Lasts live at Hetton Abbey, a faded Gothic mansion in need of refurbishment and repair. Unfortunately, the Lasts are rather short of money, and what little they do appear to have goes on various servants, consumables and Brenda’s regular trips to London to see friends.

The rot sets in when Brenda slips into an affair with John Beaver, a somewhat depthless chap who proves an appealing distraction, at least for a time. While Brenda’s sister and friends know of the situation with Beaver, Tony remains ignorant of the relationship, naively believing Brenda’s ridiculous cover story of her enrolment in a London-based economics course – hence the need for a little flat in the city where Brenda can stay during the week. However, things come to a head in the form of an unexpected tragedy, a terrible accident which cleaves the Last family apart.

Waugh uses dialogue to great effect in this novel, frequently moving the narrative along through a series of conversations – sometimes face-face, other times on the phone. The style is pin-sharp and pithy, qualities illustrated by the passage below. In this scene from an early stage in the novel, Tony has just learned that Beaver is coming to Hetton, a discovery that annoys him greatly.

[Tony] ‘What’s he coming here for? Did you ask him to stay?’

[Brenda] ‘I suppose I did in a vague kind of way. I went to Brat’s one evening and he was the only chap there so we had some drinks and he said something about wanting to see the house…’

‘I suppose you were tight.’

‘Not really, but I never thought he’d hold it against me.’

‘Well, it jolly well serves you right. That’s what comes of going up to London on business and leaving me alone here…Who is he anyway?’

‘Just a young man. His mother keeps that shop.’

‘I used to know her. She’s hell. Come to think of it we owe her some money.’

‘Look here, we must put a call through and say we’re ill.’

‘Too late, he’s in the train now, recklessly mixing starch and protein in the Great Western three and sixpenny lunch…Anyway he can go into Galahad. No one who sleeps there ever comes again – the bed’s agony I believe.’ (pp. 27-28)

Basically, if you like that passage, you’ll almost certainly enjoy this book; if you don’t, then it’s probably not for you!

A Handful of Dust is an entertaining yet bittersweet romp, a story shot through with Waugh’s characteristically caustic wit. And yet there is an undercurrent of despair here too, a sense of hopelessness that becomes apparent, particularly towards the end as Tony ventures off into the Amazonian jungle in search of a secluded city. His adventures with a maverick explorer are artfully portrayed.

Reputedly inspired by the disintegration of Waugh’s own marriage coupled with his experiences in South America, this is a tonally sophisticated novel with more to say than might appear at first sight.

A Dance to the Music of Time by Anthony Powell, books 2-4

I’ve been making good progress with this series, working my way through the books in between other reads. Rather than commenting on the plot, which would be virtually impossible to do without revealing spoilers, I’m going to highlight a few aspects that have struck me so far.

Firstly, Powell’s undoubted ability to convey a clear picture of a character – their appearance, disposition, even their way of moving around a room – in just a few carefully judged sentences. He does this time and time again, enabling the reader to anchor each character firmly in their mind.

There are numerous passages I could have chosen to illustrate this, but here’s one from the third book in the series, The Acceptance World. The individual in question is Mrs Myra Erdleigh, an acquaintance of Uncle Giles’ whom Jenkins meets during a trip to the Ufford, Giles’ favoured haunt for discussions on his money troubles.

He [Giles] had blown his nose once or twice as a preliminary to financial discussion, when the door of the lounge quietly opened and a lady wearing a large hat and purple dress came silently into the room.

She was between forty and fifty, perhaps nearer fifty, though possibly her full bosom and style of dress, at a period when it was fashionable to be thin, made her seem a year or two older than her age. Dark red hair piled on her head in what seemed to me an outmoded style, and good, curiously blurred features from which looked out immense, misty, hazel eyes, made her appearance striking. Her movements, too, where unusual. She seemed to glide rather than walk across the carpet, giving the impression almost of a phantom, a being from another world; this illusion no doubt heightened by the mysterious, sombre ambience of the Ufford, and the fact that I had scarcely ever before seen anybody but Uncle Giles himself, or an occasional member of the hotel’s staff, inhabit its rooms. (pp. 5-6, book 3)

It is Mrs Erdleigh’s movements that make all the difference here, her way of gliding across the carpet like a ghostly apparition or a creature from another world.

Powell’s attention to detail is pretty impressive too, often revealing little insights into an individual’s persona. At an earlier moment in the same scene, Nick offers the following reflection on Uncle Giles, an observation which discloses something of the latter’s fastidious manner in spite of his lack of funds.

On that particular occasion, the three fish-paste sandwiches and slice of seed cake finished, talk about money was about to begin. Uncle Giles himself never ate tea, though he would usually remove the lid of the teapot on arrival and comment: ‘A good sergeant-major’s brew you’ve got there,’ sometimes sending the tea back to the kitchen if something about the surface of the liquid specially displeased him. (p. 5, book 3)

Finally (for now), I’m also enjoying Powell’s meditations on life itself, his somewhat wistful observations on the nature of the game. Here’s how book two, A Buyer’s Market, draws to a close.

Certain stages of experience might be compared with the game of Russian billiards, played (as I used to play with Jean, when the time came) on those small green tables, within the secret recesses of which, at the termination of a given passage of time–a quarter of an hour, I think–the hidden gate goes down; after the descent of which, the white balls and the red return no longer to the slot to be replayed; and all scoring is doubled. This is perhaps an image of how we live. For reasons not always at the time explicable, there are specific occasions when events begin suddenly to take on a significance previously unsuspected, so that, before we really know where we are, life seems to have begun in earnest at last, and we ourselves, scarcely aware that any change has taken place, are careering uncontrollably down the slippery avenues of eternity. (p. 274, book 2)

How very apt…

You can read my piece on the first book in the series here: A Question of Upbringing.

A Handful of Dust is published by Penguin Books, A Dance to the Music of Time by Arrow Books; personal copies. (For more info on Stu’s Penguin Classics event, click here.)

Symposium by Muriel Spark

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Symposium is published by Virago Modern Classics; personal copy.

South Riding by Winifred Holtby

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘What about trained character?’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

South Riding is published by Virago; personal copy.

The World My Wilderness by Rose Macaulay

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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