Tag Archives: UK

The Adventures of Miss Barbara Pym by Paula Byrne – in which Marks and Spencer take umbrage at Pym’s Jane and Prudence

Regular readers of this blog will be aware of my fondness for the novels of Barbara Pym, with their acute observations of the minutiae and minor dramas of day-to-day English life. It will therefore come as no surprise to many of you that I was eager to read The Adventures of Miss Barbra Pym – a brand new biography by the respected biographer and novelist Paula Byrne. It’s a wonderfully immersive book, one that manages to be both illuminating and affectionate in relatively equally measure.

A more detailed review will follow in due course, but as a taster I wanted to share the following vignette from the biography – an incident which is so quintessentially Pym-like in style that it could have come straight out of one of her novels. Byrne makes this very point in her biography, and she is spot on. There is a comic absurdity to it, much like the little slights that Pym portrayed in her early novels, Excellent Women and Some Tame Gazelle.

It concerns a certain retailer’s reaction to Pym’s third published novel, Jane and Prudence, in which Jane, a rather frumpy clergyman’s wife, is playing matchmaker for her friend, Prudence, an elegant, independent young woman. While critical reviews of the novel were polite and reserved, Pym’s friends were more encouraging with some even preferring it to much loved Excellent Women. In certain respects, the characters seemed more ‘real’ – Prudence in particular.

A blow was suddenly struck, however, when a letter arrived from the legal department of Marks and Spencer. The store had taken umbrage at Jane Cleveland’s comment about their clothes: ‘When we become distressed we shall be glad of an old dress from Marks and Spencer as we’ve never been used to anything better.’ (p. 435)

Pym – a fan of M&S and their clothes – had intended the line to be an affectionate remark, capturing the gentle comfort one can gain from something familiar and reliable. (It’s worth remembering that J&P was published in 1953, not long after the end of clothes rationing in 1949.) Marks and Spencer, however, were upset by the suggestion that their clothes were considered substandard, commenting as follows in their rather wounded and pompous riposte:

‘This reference is clearly derogatory of the Company as both in terms and by implication it suggests that dresses worn by this Company are of inferior quality and unfit for wear by persons of the class who buy their hats from Marshall’s or Debenham’s.’ (p. 435)

As far as M&S were concerned, the fact that Pym had previously been described as the author of books ‘worthy of Jane Austen’ only added insult to injury. Jonathan Cape – Pym’s publishers at the time – responded to confirm that no harm had been intended and ‘Pym wrote dutifully that as a regular customer she had the greatest respect for the store’.

Just like the world Pym created in her novels, this incident is at once both entirely ridiculous and strangely believable – an anecdote that seems entirely in keeping with Pym’s tonal register!  

If this has whetted your appetite for the book, you might want to grab yourself a ticket for the forthcoming livestream event being co-hosted by the Chorleywood Bookshop, Village Books and the Seven Oaks Bookshop. Tickets start at £6 for the event, which is accessible worldwide. There’s a link here if you’re interested. (I should declare a link with the Chiltern Bookshops as I’m currently managing their Personalised Book Subscription services.)

More on this engaging biography a little later, hopefully in the next few weeks…

The Adventures of Miss Barbara Pym is published by William Collins; my thanks to the publishers for kindly providing a review copy.

Across the Common by Elizabeth Berridge

First published in 1964, Across the Common is the third book I’ve read by the British writer Elizabeth Berridge, and it’s probably the richest and most complex of the three. There is quite a lot going on under the surface in this novel of family relationships and suburban life – a subversive element that reveals itself as the narrative progresses.

As the novel opens, Louise is in the process of leaving her husband, Max, to return to The Hollies, the house where she was brought up, largely by her aunts. Waiting at the door for Louise on her arrival are Aunt Rosa and Aunt Seraphina, almost as if they were expecting her despite the lack of notice.

Right from the start there is a strange aura surrounding life at The Hollies, situated as it is across from the common in suburban Pagham Green. The house itself was built by Louise’s grandfather, a man whose presence still casts a shadow over the property in spite of (or perhaps because of) his early death. Now the house has become a refuge ‘for that vanishing species, the Great British Aunt’, as Rosa and Seraphina are soon to be joined by their sister, the wheelchair-bound Cissie.

Berridge excels at creating miniature pen-portraits of the three aunts, capturing their personalities and idiosyncrasies in the most visual of ways.

Aunt Cissie sat in her wheelchair, tiny and malevolent. She could not have weighed more than seven stone, and yet she seemed to vibrate with energy and fill the hall. I had forgotten, or perhaps had never noticed, how handsome she was. She had the Braithwaite nose, high and arched, and a look of a Basque woman about her: indomitable, aristocratic, and yet with a peasant’s energy. Beside her, my two aunts looked faded. (p. 103)

With her fur hat and forthright manner, Cissie has the eccentric air of ‘minor royalty’, commanding attention as she makes her big entrance. By contrast, Aunt Rosa – the eldest and most orderly of the three sisters – seems rather reserved in comparison, a standing typified by her grey flannel dress. Ultimately, it is left to Aunt Seraphina – the green-fingered middle sister – to provide some of the novel’s most humorous moments. As Louise is somewhat surprised to observe, Seraphina is a dab hand at pilfering flower cuttings from the local park, expertly trimming geranium shoots with great speed and efficiency, irrespective of the official regulations.

‘Aunt Seraphina, you can’t! You’ll be had up! Suppose everybody just took –’

‘Hush, child. Everybody is not me. I understand flowers. They were simply begging to be propagated. There is no crime in simply taking a few shoots to propagate in one’s own garden. Think of the next frost: it would be too late. I cannot bear waste, and I told an officious keeper, so, once.’

‘You were caught?’

‘Caught? Come, come. I was observed, yes, and given a sharp warning. But I made him understand my views. I explained that it was my money being spent on this park, so I was entitled to a little interest on it. Men are so illogical.’ (p. 43)

Louise may have more than one reason for returning to her childhood home, for stepping into the past and its memories of those early years. Naturally, there is the question of what she ought to do in the future, having left Max to his work as an art teacher (and potentially the company of one of his students, too). At first, the split seems permanent, but as the novel progresses, the finality of this decision appears somewhat less certain.

Intertwined with these considerations are Louise’s reflections on her family history, particularly the apparent differences between the Braithwaite men and the women.

It was strange how this family had shed its men. They lost them by illness and disaster. And, if I faced it, by desertion. For their brothers, except for Bertie, still, one presumed, in Canada or America, were dead. They outlived their husbands, would-be lovers and sons. Men, one felt, were merely milestones. (p. 97)

In short, these unsettling feelings are heightened by a letter from Louise’s father (now deceased) that has recently come to light. The letter – which was written several years earlier and placed in the hands of a solicitor – reveals previously undisclosed information about the death of Louise’s grandfather and its ramifications for the wider family. It’s a revelation that ultimately forces Louise to confront the possibility of darkness and violence in her family’s history, where secrets were concealed to protect the reputations of the innocent.

There is a sense that Louise has also returned ‘home’ to understand her past more clearly, to gain a kind of freedom or independence from the aunts who raised her. It is only by doing this, by uncovering the guilt and shame inherent in The Hollies, that she can hope to move forward.

While there is a narrative of sorts here, Across the Common is a character-driven novel – an insightful and humane look at the complexities of family relationships. Berridge has a wonderful eye for detail, capturing the aunts’ minor jealousies with humour and authenticity. The way they cling to the past, guarding their individual habits and rituals, is really quite endearing, highlighting our need as human beings for some dignity and stability – particularly in old age. Louise too is very well drawn, with an engaging combination of visible sympathy and private humour.

Overall, then, an enjoyable read with some great characterisation. Well worth seeking out if you’re a fan of this type of fiction. The Gerts have also written about this book, and you can find their thoughts here

My copy of Across the Common was published by Abacus; personal copy.

Family & Friends by Anita Brookner

Central to this novel – Brookner’s fifth – are the Dorns, a wealthy Jewish family living in London during the first half of the 20th century. It’s a quiet, character-driven book, rather European in style – an approach that reflects the family’s origins and mitteleuropean traditions. It also represents something a break from Brookner’s previous novels, each of which featured a lonely unmarried woman at its heart. A widening of scope, so to speak, building on some of the supporting themes from the earlier Providence.

Head of the family is Sofka, a stately matriarch beholden to traditional rituals, a practice typified by her celebrated marzipan cake, usually served with coffee on a Sunday afternoon. Sofka’s husband is no longer alive – a flirtatious man who engaged in various dalliances (and possibly some excessive gambling) prior to his early death several years before.

Frederick is the eldest of Sofka’s children – a natural boulevardier who prefers the captivating company of women to the dull environment of business. It’s a temperament that his mother encourages, reminiscent as it is of her late husband’s salacious charm. At sixteen, young Alfred is already destined to spend the best part of his life managing the family firm; his serious, bookish nature marking him out as the dutiful one, despite any other, more personal aspirations he may be harbouring. Aiding Alfred in this respect is Lautner, the faithful right-hand-man and longstanding employee at the factory; his knowledge and experience prove indispensable at first, although Alfred soon supersedes him in standing.

Completing the family are Sofka’s daughters, Mimi and Betty, who couldn’t be more different from one another if they tried. At seventeen, Mimi is the prettier of the two girls, but she is also the more passive in temperament, favouring the piano over more sociable pursuits. Betty, on the other hand, has her sights set on Paris, preferably as a dancer in the Folies Bergère, a role where she can put her high-spirited, flirtatious nature to evident good use.

I find it entirely appropriate and indeed characteristic that Sofka should have named her sons after kings and emperors and her daughters as if they were characters in a musical comedy. Thus were their roles designated for them. The boys were to conquer, and the girls to flirt. (p. 10)

Brookner uses quite an interesting framing device to help present her narrative, bookending the novel with a pair of wedding photographs, separated by a period of some 30 to 40 years. The opening picture captures a moment in time, possibly in the mid-1920s, showing Sofka, the Dorn children plus various family and friends. An unnamed narrator casts their eye over this initial photograph, pausing to speculate whether any signs of the children’s destinies were detectable at this point – particularly to Sofka. As the remainder of the novel unfolds, we gain insights into the Dorns’ lives, their hopes and dreams, their frustrations and disappointments, all captured in Brookner’s supremely elegant prose.

One aspect that seems to be of interest to Brookner is the question of familial duty vs personal fulfilment. Who will fare better in life? Will it be Frederick, the rather flamboyant womaniser, or Alfred, the family’s dutiful provider? Betty, the outgoing, incorrigible flirt, or Mimi, the accepting, mild-mannered companion? In certain respects, Alfred and Mimi form a natural pair – both remain relatively close to Sofka, both are accepting of compromises in their lives, in the early years at least.

There are similarities too between Frederick and Betty – both are naturally flamboyant and adventurous, characteristics that contribute to their departure from the nest. When Betty is packed off to a Swiss finishing school, she gives Frederick the slip, choosing to remain in Paris to pursue her artistic dream. In short, Betty has arranged to run away with Frank Cariani, a handsome young dancer whom the girls know from London through the piano lessons his father gives to Mimi. When Betty’s disappearance comes to light, Mimi and Alfred – the sensible ones – are swiftly dispatched to Paris to rescue their sister from her foolish adventure. Nevertheless, it is Mimi whom Frank truly prefers – a belief that Mimi clings to as she waits in her hotel room at night, hoping that he will come to claim her in favour of Betty.

Hastily she [Mimi] removes her dress and pulls down her hair; then, in her plain white nightgown, she resumes her seat by the window. Since she can now see nothing she listens all the more intently. She hears the occasional motor car; she hears footsteps in the corridor and the diminishing sound of voices. She seems to hear a clangourous bell, although there are no churches in this district and the bell is probably in her head. The intense darkness envelops her, envelops also her inviolate dream. At some time in that interminable night she lies down on her bed; on her face the smile is tinged with intimations of the most absolute horror. (p. 71)

It’s a quietly devastating scene, one of the most affecting in the book, as the reader realises its significance in shaping Mimi’s destiny. 

Frederick’s escape comes about as the result of his marriage – an event that yields another wedding photograph to add to the family album. The girl in question is Evie, a natural yet unconventional girl whom Sofka finds rather noisy, especially at first.

Who is this person whom Frederik has bought home for coffee and for marzipan cake? She is certainly not a lady and is rather too old to be a girl: Sofka is almost forced to think of her as a woman. Where did he find her? At what party, in what clubhouse on what golf-course or tennis-court did he manage to acquire this all-round, outdoor, noisy, cheery, healthy-looking, loud-voiced, incessantly laughing, large-boned, carelessly dressed person whose name is Eva and who instantly says, ‘Call me Evie’? Why should Sofka call her Evie, even if the woman has unconsciously conformed to Sofka’s family tradition? Why should she call her anything, thinks Sofka… (p. 72)

Nevertheless, Sofka soon warms to her future daughter-in-law, recognising the suitability of the match for Frederick as the wedding arrangements get underway. Following their marriage, the couple depart for the Italian Riviera, where Frederick is to act as General Manager for one of Evie’s father’s hotels – a natural fit for the happy couple as they settle down to their married life.

Of the four siblings in the novel, Mimi is perhaps the one who undergoes the most interesting transformation, her character developing in the most serendipitous of ways. It would be unfair of me to reveal any more about this, other than to say that Mimi ultimately finds a way to shed some of the more self-effacing aspects of her personality, much to her brother Alfred’s disgust.   

While Family & Friends isn’t my favourite Brookner, there’s certainly more than enough for her fans to enjoy here. The prose is elegant, evocative and precise, very much in the style of this author’s other work. Brookner’s characters are always so well-drawn and fully fleshed-out, and yet I didn’t always feel a strong connection with them here. This might be a function of the use of the unnamed narrator, whose relationship to the family we never discover. Nevertheless, this is a highly accomplished book, an exquisitely-painted family saga that shows how our character traits and personalities can shape our ultimate destinies.  

Black Narcissus by Rumer Godden

I have long been an admirer of Powell and Pressburger’s film, Black Narcissus, with its sumptuous, vivid colours and moments of heightened drama. The movie, which came out in 1947, was adapted from Rumer Godden’s 1939 novel of the same name (an instant bestseller in its day, it remains Godden’s best-known work). It’s a glorious book, an evocative story of nuns, misguided actions and – perhaps most significantly of all – repressed female desire.

As the novel opens, a small group of Anglican nuns are setting out to establish a new convent, high up in the Himalayan mountains – a place steeped in beauty and mystery. Sister Clodagh – newly appointed as the youngest Sister Superior in her Order – will lead the mission, to go forward where others have failed. (A group of Jesuit Brothers has recently returned from the mountains, having abandoned their plans for a school in the very same location.)

Accompanying Sister Clodagh in her quest are four other sisters, each with their own potential role in the new collective: Sister Briony to run the dispensary; Sister Phillipa to establish a garden; Sister Ruth to give the children lessons; and Sister Honey to teach the young women to make lace.

Roles and responsibilities aside, the various dynamics in the group have the potential to hinder progress. Sister Ruth is unpredictable and strong-willed, likely to cause trouble if not carefully managed. There are question marks too over Sister Clodagh’s abilities – not least from Dorothea, the Mother Superior who has already expressed reservations about Clodagh’s readiness for the role, despite the young Sister’s assurances. Right from the start, there is an air of trouble brewing with this mission, a feeling only enhanced by the strangeness of the location itself. Mopu Palace – the building donated to the nuns for their convent – is the former home of the General’s seraglio, effectively a harem or ‘House of Women’.

At first, the nuns are somewhat daunted by the challenge as they struggle to adapt to the high altitude and new living conditions; nevertheless, they soon begin work to establish their community. Assisting the sisters is Ayah, an elderly lady who keeps house at the Palace. Also of note is Mr Dean, the outspoken British man who acts as the General’s Agent in the area.

Mr Dean is quite a character – not one for holding back on his opinions of the sisters’ ambitions, especially when he foresees trouble with the locals. His forthright nature, strong sense of humour and fondness for drink all come as a bit of a shock to the Sisters, who have led quite a sheltered existence to date. The dynamic between Mr Dean and Sister Clodagh is a fascinating one, the kind of sexual tension that can erupt in a passionate disagreement.

‘You’re –’ she said furiously. ‘You’re – you’re unforgivable.’ Then she said vindictively, between her teeth: You’re objectionable when you’re sober, and abominable when you’re drunk.’

‘I quite agree,’ he said, and taking his pony went down the hill. (p. 121)

That said, Mr Dean is a level-headed man at heart, naturally sympathetic to the Sisters’ situation, and he soon proves highly valuable to the mission, assisting with plumbing, construction and all manner of practical jobs – some of which involve careful liaison with the locals.

As the weeks go by, the Sisters begin to fall under Mopu’s spell, surrounded by the heady atmosphere of disruption and beauty. Consequently, each Sister becomes obsessed with a particular passion, causing them to neglect their spirituality in favour of more personal desires. For Sister Honey, it is a longing for a baby; for Sister Philippa, the love of her garden; for Ruth, an ongoing obsession with the magnetic Mr Dean; and for Clodagh it is Con, the childhood sweetheart she left behind in Ireland, back in the days of her carefree youth. In short, each woman must wrestle with her own psychological demon.

Sister Honey stopped in her work to listen eagerly to the children saying their lesson in the next room, as if they belonged to her; Sister Philippa straightened her back from her frozen beds and stared across the garden, seeing it in summer, and Sister Ruth watched and waited for Mr Dean. Sister Clodagh’s face was so softened and changed that Mother Dorothea would not have known her. (p. 143)

As the novel moves towards its dramatic climax, tensions between Sister Clodagh and Sister Ruth intensify, threatening to erupt at any given moment. Sister Ruth becomes increasingly unstable, accusing Sister Clodagh of harbouring feelings for Mr Dean – an accusation driven by jealousy and a kind of descent into madness.

‘All the same, I’ve noticed that you’re very pleased to see him yourself!’ she flung at Sister Clodagh.

Sister Clodagh’s face blazed. She half rose in her chair and then she sank back into it again, holding her desk.

‘You’re trying to tell me I’m not fit to be a nun,’ cried Sister Ruth. ‘Well, let me tell you that no more are you. You should never have entered either, and you know it for all your honours and success. Wonderful Sister Clodagh. Clever Sister Clodagh. Admirable Sister Clodagh,’ she mocked, ‘and all the time you’re worse than I am and that’s why you’re trying to bully me.’ (p. 127)

Another factor in the novel’s undeniable sexual tension is Dilip Rai, the General’s nephew who comes to the Palace for lessons with the Sisters. While there, Dilip falls for Kanchi, a flirtatious girl who has been pestering Mr Dean, much to the latter’s annoyance. Black Narcissus is Sister Ruth’s nickname for Dilip Rai – a rather dismissive term coined from the women’s perfume he likes to wear. However, it also holds a significance for Sister Clodagh, whose relationship with Dilip can be viewed as a kind of metaphor for her repressed desires.

In terms of style, the novel is wonderfully sensual, rich in detail and imagery – aspects that capture the lush appearance of the surrounding natural world.

Just before Easter the knife wind changed to boisterousness, playing round the trees and rattling at the windows, and snatching at skirts and veils; with its roughness it was warm, scented with the orange flowers from the groves in the valley, a languorous scent blown roughly. The snow was melting and the streams were full; their own stream pelted down the hill, swelling up round the bamboos; over the slopes came a green bloom with a blueness in it like a grape and the rhododendrons opened in hundreds, and the magnolia behind the house budded into thick white flowers. (p. 178)

While the novel is rooted in a very specific time and place, there is a strange, dreamlike quality to the narrative – a little like a fairy tale or powerful spell that gradually works its magic on the unsuspecting reader. It all makes for an evocative reading experience, the essence of which is reflected in Powell and Pressburger’s luxuriant film.

In creating Black Narcissus, Godden has given us a rich exploration of the tensions between competing desires, one that also touches on the follies of colonialism in subtle and memorable ways. Highly recommended, irrespective of your familiarity with the story.

Black Narcissus is published by Virago Press, my thanks to the publishers for a reading copy.

Two terrific vintage mysteries by Josephine Bell and John Dickson Carr (British Library Crime Classics)

Some fairly brief thoughts on a couple of very enjoyable mysteries from the British Library Crime Classics series – both set in London, both initially published in the 1930s, but very different from one another in terms of style.

The Port of London Murders by Josephine Bell (1938)

A dark and gritty mystery set amidst the London docklands, a location steeped in atmosphere and squalor.

When local resident Harry Reed rescues June Harvey and her young brother, Leslie, in a riverside accident, all three become embroiled in a network of shady events in the heart of the community…

An unemployed former dressmaker, Mary Holland, is found dead in her lodgings, presumably from suicide given the bottle of Lysol found nearby. Nevertheless, when Detective Sergeant Chandler begins to investigate, he quickly establishes that the case might not be quite as simple as it first appeared. A post mortem reveals traces of heroin in Mrs Holland’s body, but no syringes were found in her room, a point that the detective finds puzzling to say the least.

Events take a more sinister turn when Sergeant Chandler himself disappears without a trace, possibly having discovered some vital clues to the case. As a consequence, Inspector Mitchell of Scotland Yard is called in to take over the investigation, including the question of whether these incidents are connected.

What follows is less a whodunnit (the guilty parties are all pretty clear early on), but more an exploration of the criminal network, complete with all its threads and complexities. Murder is not the only crime being committed here. There are instances of blackmail, drug smuggling, shady importation deals and other nefarious activities, with chiffon nighties passing from one part of the dubious chain to another.

Where this mystery really excels is in the portrayal of dockside neighbourhood, the dark, grimy streets, the fog-bound quayside, and the shabby houses due to be demolished once the remaining tenants are evicted.

The light faded rapidly as the Fatima churned upstream. The fog was patchy now, for the wind had risen and cleared those parts of the river where the banks were low and the water exposed. Here the boats could move freely, guided by one another’s lights and the various familiar landmarks on shore. The intervening banks of fog, by contrast, seemed all the thicker and more menacing. (p. 65)

Bell captures the lives of her working-class characters with just the right notes of sympathy and compassion, illustrating their day-to-day troubles and preoccupations in a very believable way. These are ordinary, everyday people living in dismal conditions, often relying on Public Assistance as a vital part of their welfare.

Bell has created some memorable figures amongst her large cast of disparate individuals, whose lives intertwine as the narrative unravels. June Harvey and her younger brother, Leslie, are particularly engaging – the latter drawing on his curiosity and enthusiasm to assist the police with their enquiries. The more upmarket criminals are equally well portrayed, illustrating both their weaknesses and their ruthlessness when faced with adversity. Alongside the darkness of the narrative there are some lighter moments too, touches of humour in the feuds between neighbouring families, and in the views of Sergeant Welsford, Inspector Mitchell’s rather presumptive sidekick.

In summary then, this is a very enjoyable mystery, strong on authenticity and atmosphere. Definitely one I would recommend to other readers with an interest in this period.

The Lost Gallows by John Dickson Carr (1931)

This colourful mystery, written when Carr was just twenty-four-years old, is an altogether more melodramatic affair than Bell’s Port of London. Almost Victorian Gothic in style, The Lost Gallows is a hugely enjoyable revenge story, primarily set in a notorious gentlemen’s club in central London.

When the Parisian detective, Henri Bencolin, meets up with his old friend, Sir John Landervorne, at London’s Brimstone Club, he is quickly drawn into a complex mystery involving another club resident, the Egyptian, Nezam El Moulk. In recent weeks, El Moulk has been spooked by the appearance of a series of macabre items at the club, the latest of which is a tiny model of a gallows, sent directly to the Egyptian by post. It seems the perpetrator is operating under the pseudonym ‘Jack Ketch’, a nickname or common shorthand for the public hangman, but his real identity is a closely guarded secret.

The main mystery that Bencolin must turn his mind to here is to identify Jack Ketch, who seems to be seeking revenge for a crime allegedly committed by El Moulk some ten years earlier. In short, the race is on to find Ketch before he can claim payback, presumably on the 10th anniversary of the original deed.

Also swirling around in the mix are several other gruesome incidents for Bencolin to get his teeth into. The sighting of a shadow showing a man ascending the gallows; the mystery of the infamous ‘Ruination Street’, a location that cannot be found on any London map; the vision of a car being driven by a corpse. These are just some of the ghastly goings-on at play here.

It loomed up out of Jermyn Street soundlessly. Distorted by the muddy fog, it had a devilish life of its own, and its staring lamps bounded towards me as I turned. I heard the officer’s cry and the shrilling of his whistle. Then the great green limousine swept past me into the Haymarket. (p. 34)

This is a complex mystery with a lot going on, particularly in the first half of the book. Nevertheless, these seemingly disparate threads do eventually come together as the narrative approaches its end. As in Bell’s mystery, the London location is vividly portrayed, the city bustling with activity amid the fog-bound streets.

London that night was a wet chaos of fog, screeching with taxis and smeared on the sky with a blur of electric signs round Piccadilly. But as we turned down the Haymarket, there was a sense of intimacy crowded into these dun-coloured walls. The heavy-footed traffic rumbling past, the shine of light on wet pavements—clank, babble, shrill policeman’s whistle, and loom of big arm in water-proof—all carried a suggestion of companionship through mere virtue of the fog. It was not until we entered the theatre, until the house darkened and the curtain rose on that pale mimic world of terror which was Vautrelle’s play, that the afternoon’s devils returned… (p. 31)

There is a real sense of melodrama in Carr’s portrayal of events as the ghoulish atmosphere is dialled up at every given opportunity. And while the characterisation is a little thin and clichéd in places, the actual story itself is never less than entertaining. Great fun for lovers of gothic-style mysteries, as long as they’re prepared to suspend belief!

My thanks to the British Library for kindly providing review copies.

Call for the Dead and A Murder of Quality by John le Carré

Something a little different from me today. Less a review as such, more a sequence of observations on the early George Smiley novels from John le Carré. I’ve been reading (and in some cases re-reading) them recently, broadly in chronological order, although I’ve skipped The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, a classic Cold War spy thriller which I read back in 2018.

For those of you unfamiliar with le Carré’s work, George Smiley is a career intelligence officer within the British overseas intelligence agency, commonly known as ‘the Circus’ due to its base in London’s Cambridge Circus. His first appearance comes in Call for the Dead (1961), a very enjoyable novella that serves as a good introduction to Smiley and certain elements of his backstory – in particular, the troublesome nature of his relationship with flighty ex-wife, Ann.

Following a routine security check by Smiley, Foreign Office civil servant, Samuel Fennan, apparently commits suicide, triggering a meeting between Smiley and Maston, the Circus’s head. All too soon, Smiley realises he is being set up to take the blame for Fennan’s death, something he finds both troubling and suspicious, particularly as his interview with the civil servant had ended quite amicably.

The arrival of a letter from Fennan to Smiley, posted shortly before the man’s death, adds to the mystery, suggesting that Fennan had something pressing to pass on to Smiley following their initial meeting. When Smiley is warned off the case by Maston, he begins his own investigation into Fennan’s network, bringing him into contact with the East Germans and their agents.

Le Carré clearly has things to say here about the intelligence agencies, the way they use people as pawns on a chessboard, illustrating a lack of humanity at the heart of the system. In this scene, Fennan’s widow is expressing her views to Smiley, not holding back in her perceptions of the institution.

The mind becomes separated from the body; it thinks without reality, rules a paper kingdom and devises without emotion the ruin of its paper victims. But sometimes the division between your world and ours is incomplete; the files grow heads and arms and legs, and that’s a terrible moment, isn’t it? The names have families as well as records, and human motives to explain the sad little dossiers and their make-believe sins. (pp. 20-21, Call for the Dead)

The third book in the series, The Looking Glass War is particularly strong on this theme – the way that agents can end up as collateral, ultimately viewed as expendable in the cut-and-thrust of the game.

The descriptive passages are excellent, something I had completely forgotten about until I went back to the first book. Moreover, there are some marvellous touches of humour in le Carré’s writing, another aspect of his craft that had temporarily slipped my mind.

The Fountain Café (Proprietor Miss Gloria Adam) was all Tudor and horse brasses and local honey at sixpence more than anywhere else. Miss Adam herself dispensed the nastiest coffee south of Manchester and spoke of her customers as ‘My Friends’. Miss Adam did not do business with friends, but simply robbed them, which somehow added to the illusion of genteel amateurism which Miss Adam was so anxious to preserve. (p. 26, Call for the Dead)

While Call for the Dead might not be le Carré’s most polished novel, it is still highly compelling and convincing. A well-crafted literary spy novel with some memorable moments of tension along the way. Plus, it’s a great introduction to Smiley with his quiet, perceptive disposition and expensive yet ill-fitting clothes! As something of a segue into the second novel in the series, here’s a description of the man himself, taken from a passage near the beginning of book two.

‘Looks like a frog, dresses like a bookie, and has a brain I’d give my eyes for. Had a very nasty war. Very nasty indeed.’

Well, he looked like a frog, right enough. Short and stubby, round spectacles with thick lenses that made his eyes big. And his clothes were odd. Expensive, mind, you could see that. But his jacket seemed to drape where there wasn’t any room for drape. What did surprise Rigby was his shyness. Rigby had expected someone a little brash, a little too smooth for Carne, whereas Smiley had an earnest formality which appealed to Rigby’s conservative taste. (p. 28, A Murder of Quality)

A Murder of Quality (1962) is somewhat atypical in style for a le Carré. In short, it is a murder mystery as opposed to a spy novel, the type of detective story that wouldn’t be entirely out of place amongst the British Library Crime Classics. The book can also be viewed as a barbed commentary on the English class system – in particular public boarding schools with their cruelty and elitist attitudes.

As the novel opens, Smiley is contacted by a former colleague, Ailsa Brimley (aka Brim), who now runs a small journal, The Christian Voice. Ailsa is worried about a letter she has received from a loyal subscriber, Stella Rode, in which Rode claims that her husband intends to kill her. The fact that the Rode family have supported the Voice for several years only adds to Ailsa’s feelings of responsibility towards Stella. Consequently, Ailsa asks Smiley to investigate what’s behind the letter before she alerts the police.

When Smiley contacts Carne, the public school where Stella’s husband works, he discovers that the murder has already been committed. All the more reason for Smiley to pay a visit to the school to uncover the events surrounding Stella’s death…

What le Carré captures so brilliantly here is the snobbishness that exists within the school environment, the internal politics between the masters and, perhaps more tellingly, between their wives. It seems that Stella Rode did not conform to Carne’s traditional conventions and high standards. In short, she had lowered the tone with her doyleys and china ducks, much to Shane Hecht’s dismay.

‘…Stella Rode was such a nice person, I always thought…and so unusual. She did such clever things with the same dress…But she had such curious friends. All for Hans the woodcutter and Pedro the fisherman, if you know what I mean.’

‘What is she popular at Carne?’

Shane Hecht laughed gently: ‘No one is popular at Carne…but she wasn’t easy to like…She would wear black crêpe on Sundays…Forgive me, but do the lower classes always do that?’ (p. 93, A Murder of Quality)

There is some nice development of Smiley’s character in this book, with the retired intelligence office emerging as a man with a conscience, someone who can find it difficult to reconcile the means with the end. He also knows the value of being able to assimilate, to blend into the background without being noticed. His quiet, perceptive manner coupled with an innate insight into human nature and motivation makes him an excellent spy – a keen observer of people, alert to signs of danger and duplicity. His understated investigative style is a pleasure to see in action, laying some of the groundwork for the subsequent novels.

This is a very well-written, satisfying mystery with just enough intrigue to keep the reader interested – needless to say, there is more to the case than meets the eye. Moreover, it’s a darkly humorous book – worth reading for the satirical sideswipes at the upper classes, particularly the public-school set.

The George Smiley novels are published by Penguin; personal copies.

Potterism by Rose Macaulay

There has been something of a revival of interest in Rose Macaulay’s work in recent years. Firstly, the Virago reissues of Crewe Train (1926) and The World My Wilderness (1950) in Feb 2018; then, last summer, the British Library’s publication of Dangerous Ages (1921) a novel focusing on women at various stages of the lifecycle; and last but not least, the release of two Macaulay titles by Handheld Press in November 2020.

Potterism (1920) is one of the two Handheld Press reissues, beautifully produced with a stylish cover design – very much in line with the book’s early 20th-century setting. In essence, the novel is a satire, one that allows the author to cast a critical eye over many subjects including socialism, spiritualism, religion, the ethics of war and, perhaps most importantly, the powerful nature of the newspaper industry.

Central to the novel are the Potter family, whose lives and experiences are explored in the years immediately following the First World War. Heading up the household is Percy Potter, the influential newspaper magnate and the chief proponent of ‘Potterism’ – a term coined by its opponents to describe the type of communications or ‘spin’ founded on fear, suspicion and the protection of specific interests. The parallels with our current media culture are both immediate and alarming.

They’re up against what we agreed to call Potterism – the Potterism, that is, of second-rate sentimentalism and cheap short-cuts and mediocrity; they stand for brain and clear thinking against muddle and cant; but they’re fighting it with Potterite weapons – self-interest, following things for what they bring them rather than for the things in themselves. (p. 57)

Percy and his wife Leila – a romantic novelist with an interest in spiritualism – have four children, three of whom play important roles in the novel. The eldest daughter, Clare, is a fairly conventional young woman, sharing something of her mother’s outlook and romanticism. Her affection for Oliver Hobart – who works for one of Percy’s newspapers, the Daily Haste – plays a key role in the novel’s narrative.

The twins, Johnny and Jane Potter, are bright young things – ambitious, greedy and rather competitive, especially with one another. Complete with their Oxford educations and socialist leanings, the twins are heavily involved in the anti-Potterite movement, a faction that aims to fight against the views being touted by the Potter press – and it is through this association that they come into contact with Arthur Gideon, the leader of a rival newspaper, the Weekly Fact.

Macaulay uses a very interesting structure to convey her story to the reader. The novel is bookended by two sections ‘told by RM’, presumably the author herself; while the intervening parts are given over to Gideon, Leila, and a couple of other characters who are able to observe various developments from the sidelines. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Gideon is especially insightful on the language politicians and journalists use to encourage particular sentiments amongst their audiences, drawing on feelings on nationalism and patriotism to suit the messages they wish to convey.

What one specially resented was the way the men who had been killed, poor devils, were exploited by the makers of speeches and the writers of articles. First, they’d perhaps be called ‘the fallen’, instead of ‘the killed’ (it’s a queer thing how ‘fallen’ in the masculine means killed in the war, and in the feminine given over to a particular kind of vice), and then the audience, or the readers, would be told that they died for democracy, or a cleaner world, when very likely many of them hated the first and never gave an hour’s thought to the second. (p. 58)

The character of Lelia – Percy Potter’s silly yet influential wife – enables Macaulay to draw attention to the heinous nature of anti-Semitic views, beliefs that were not uncommon in this country at the time. Arthur Gideon is a Jew of Russian descent, his grandparents having perished in the Odessa pogrom some years earlier – and it is in Leila’s views of Mr Gideon and his heritage that these prejudices come out. While not as damaging as Percy and his newspaper empire, Leila has her own sphere of influence through her cheap novels – a situation that has contributed to her inability to distinguish fiction from fact.

As the narrative unfolds, there are some very interesting developments involving Jane, Gideon, Oliver and Clare. A shocking death occurs, the circumstances of which give rise to suspicion, gossip and unhelpful conjecture. For a while, these characters find themselves caught up in a rather sinister mystery – a situation that is only fuelled by the sensationalist Potter press. What Macaulay does so well here is to allow various characters – both reliable and unreliable – to give their individual perspectives on these events, thereby enabling the reader to construct the picture as they go along.

In summary, Potterism is a fascinating piece of writing with much to say on topics that remain all too relevant today. We have seen how certain elements of the popular/tabloid media helped to whip up jingoistic sentiments amongst the British public during the recent Brexit campaign. The damaging nature of fake news and inflammatory political ‘spin’ are all too familiar to us from our current communications culture. In crafting Potterism, Macaulay has written a timely and rather prescient commentary that continues to resonate one hundred years on.

The story goes that when anyone told old Pinkerton [aka Percy Potter] he was wrong about something, he would point to his vast circulation, using it as an argument that he couldn’t be mistaken. If you still pressed and proved your point, he would again refer to his circulation, but using it this time as an indication of how little it mattered whether his facts were right or wrong. Someone once said to him curiously, ‘Don’t you care that you are misleading so many millions?’ To which he replied, in his dry little voice, ‘I don’t lead, or mislead, the millions. They lead me.’ (p. 76)

Potterism is published by Handheld Press; my thanks to the publishers for kindly providing a review copy.

The Sleeping Beauty by Elizabeth Taylor

I have written before about my love of Elizabeth Taylor’s fiction, the beautifully-observed stories of the minutiae of middle-class life, the loneliness, insecurities and poignancy that often accompanies such an existence, especially for women. The Sleeping Beauty – a loose re-working of the age-old fairy tale – is no exception to this rule. In style, it feels very much in line with much of Taylor’s other work, ensemble pieces like A View of the Harbour and The Soul of Kindness, with the focus moving from one individual to another as their lives intertwine.

The setting for this novel is Seething, a small seaside town in the early 1950s. Vinny – a rather smooth man in his late forties – is visiting an old friend, Isabella, whose husband has just died in a boating accident. At first sight, Vinny might appear to be a kindly, compassionate individual, coming to comfort Isabella in her hour of need. However, Isabella’s adult son, Laurence, has other ideas, viewing Vinny’s apparent sympathy towards his mother with resentment and suspicion.

While staying in Seething, Vinny spots a beautiful woman walking along the beach, and he is instantly captivated by her aura. The woman in question is Emily, the ‘Sleeping Beauty’ of the novel’s title, whose situation, he subsequently discovers, was fundamentally altered by a devastating car accident some years before. Previously outgoing and sociable, Emily now lives a very narrow and secluded life, effectively tied to the guest house owned by her embittered sister, Rose, whose husband died in the incident.

Also living at the guest house is Philly, Rose’s disabled daughter, whom Emily effectively cares for while her sister adopts the role of martyr in charge of the family business. While Emily is still a very beautiful woman, her appearance was fundamentally altered as a consequence of the accident, something she has yet to come to terms with alongside other changes in her life. (The fact that Emily’s former fiancée deserted her while she was recovering in hospital has only added to the air of tragedy.)

Vinny is a romantic, with a tendency to live in the past and future as opposed to the present, someone who gives the impression that they are not the marrying type.

Inability to cross the gap from wooing to lovemaking and many unconcluded love affairs, had left him [Vinny] with a large circle of women friends. They bore him no ill-will, valuing his continued attention—presents, compliments; their pique soon vanished. They married, loved, elsewhere. Only very stupid husbands resented Vinny. (pp. 68–69)

Nevertheless, Vinny is so smitten with Emily that he wishes to propose marriage, hopeful of freeing her from the imprisonment imposed by Rose. Isabella, on the other hand, is looking forward to being the beneficiary of Vinny’s affection. Not that she wants to marry him, of course; rather, she is hoping to bask in an ongoing glow of attention – regular lunches in town, a well-chosen gift or two, and the pleasure of demurring to his annual proposals.

The thought of her gay and tender rejection had been her chief comfort in the last few weeks: it had been constantly rehearsed. She [Isabella] had daydreamed of a future secure in his gallantry and affection; with occasional luncheons together; always his wistful teasing; the proposal renewed on every—say—St Valentine’s Day, half as a private joke, but nevertheless with true pleading. He would shore up her pride and look at her through kindly eyes. (p. 79)

As the narrative plays out, we see different sides to these characters as their insecurities and anxieties come to the surface, and their flaws and imperfections are gradually revealed. Rose is fearful of losing Emily to Vinny, thereby disturbing the caretaker role she has carefully cultivated over the years. This desire prompts Rose to disrupt the blossoming of Emily and Vinny’s relationship as far as possible – and yet there are times when the reader might feel a smidgen of sympathy for Rose as certain facts about her deceased husband become clear.

There are secrets too in Vinny’s life which Isabella discovers by accident, circumstances that put a completely different complexion on the acceptability of her friend’s behaviour.

As ever with Taylor, the minor characters are wonderful – fully fleshed-out and lifelike on the page. Vinny’s mother, Mrs Tumulty, is an excellent case in point, a forthright woman who doesn’t suffer fools gladly – someone who values briskness over beauty, as evidenced by her responses during a trip to Seething.

She was pleasurably suspicious of Vinny’s seaside weekends and intended to sort things out, especially the women. Isabella she had met once before and thought her a poor, silly creature. Rose had made a better impression; Emily a much worse one. Mrs Tumulty had no especial grudge against beauty, as long as it did not detract from liveliness. Anything passive she abhorred, and Emily’s dead-white skin, her lack of expression, about which Vinny had found no words to forewarn her, no heart to explain or discuss, annoyed and repelled her. (pp. 53–54)

As Vinny’s relationship with Emily develops, Mrs Tumulty realises that she has been used as a patsy, something to justify Vinny’s continued visits to the guest house where she is staying.

Isabella’s son, Laurence, is another interesting character, somewhat directionless in life following the death of his father. There is much sly humour when Laurence receives a visit from his friend, Len – a bit of a ladies’ man who knows just how to play up to Isabella with a combination of showy attentiveness and flattery.

Alongside other entanglements there is Laurence’s burgeoning romance with Betty, a nursemaid who works for one of the families at Rose’s guest house. A tea party hosted by Isabella turns out to be an uncomfortably amusing set-piece as Laurence finds himself the target of his mother’s needling, much to the detriment of Betty. In short, Isabella behaves abominably, like a spoilt child at a party, something that Vinny points out to her once the others have departed.

While many other readers would not name The Sleeping Beauty as one of their favourite Elizabeth Taylor novels, I found it utterly involving. What I love about this author’s work are the insights she brings to her characters’ inner lives, their thoughts and interactions with others, and how their experiences and preoccupations reveal themselves over time. There is a combination of depth, complexity and validity to these individuals that makes them feel human, complete with emotions and motivations that remain relevant some seventy years after publication.

As a writer, Taylor implies that she visualises her stories as scenes, writing from the perspective of situation as opposed to narrative or plot. It’s an approach that rings true for this novel along with her other ensemble pieces – the action, such as it is, stemming from the sequencing of these scenarios.

It would be unfair of me to reveal how the relationship between Vinny and Emily progresses, you’ll have to read the novel for yourself to find out. Nevertheless, given that this is also considered to be Taylor’s most romantic novel, I’ll finish with a quote about love, one that highlights the disruption it can trigger, especially within others. It’s a riposte to the idealised vision of this emotion and all its rose-tinted associations.

Love is a disturbing element, as Isabella had said–disruptive, far-reaching. The world cannot assimilate it, or eject it. Its beauty can evoke evil: its radiance corrupts… (p. 149)

The Sleeping Beauty is published by Virago; personal copy.

All Among the Barley by Melissa Harrison

All Among the Barley – the third novel from the writer, critic and columnist, Melissa Harrison – is a beautiful evocation of rural life, rich in the English countryside’s rhythms and traditions during the interwar years. It is also an absorbing coming-of-age story in which the novel’s central protagonist is intrigued by the arrival of a visitor to the community, the spirited Constance (Connie) FitzAllen.

The novel is narrated by Edie Mather, a fourteen-year-old girl who lives at Wych Farm with her parents, George and Ada Mather. Also living at the estate to help with the farm work are Edie’s brother, Frank, their paternal grandfather and two farmhands, John and Doble.

A preoccupied, bookish girl at heart, Edie is something of a loner, one who prefer books to the company of other children. She is also interested in superstitions – witch marks, curses, forms of protection and the like – drawing on an active imagination fuelled by folklore.

Into Edie’s life comes Constance FitzAllen, a forthright, engaging young woman from the city who has come to document the countryside’s age-old traditions to aid with their preservation. At first, Ada Mather is suspicious of this stranger; however, she is soon won over by Constance’s willingness to listen and to modify her behaviour.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Constance’s presence awakens something in Edie – a feeling that she is being seen in a new light. Here is someone who appears to be interested in the impressionable young Edie as a person, viewing her as an individual with her own thoughts and opinions, not just another member of the Mather family.

I smiled back, and realised that I was going to see her. I felt as though she perceived me more clearly than my family did, for they all took me for granted, whereas she seemed curious about who I was and what I thought. Although I did not know her well yet, I felt more real, more interesting even, when I saw myself through Constance’s eyes. (p. 75)

Running through the book is the need for farmers to balance the preservation of traditional methods with the drive for progression and change. As Constance begins to spend more time with the Mathers, her views on certain political and financial principles begin to emerge. While George Mather shares some of Constance’s beliefs on the benefits of protection, John, the experienced farmhand, takes a more open view, sowing the seeds for future tensions to emerge.

‘You can’t trust politicians, George. They lie and lie,’ Connie said. She had stayed on to eat with us, although I wasn’t quite sure if she’d been invited or had simply not left. ‘They’ll tell you the sky is green if they think it’ll win them a vote. We should have proper import controls to protect our native English formers – it’s the only way…’ (p. 113)

‘But this country must be able to feed itself without relying on imports,’ Connie said, ‘and that means ensuring decent honest Englishman like you, George, can continue to farm. (p. 114)

As the narrative progresses, we begin to realise – even if Edie remains blind to it – that Constance’s interest in the traditions of English life extends to holding prejudices against outsiders. In short, Miss FitzAllen harbours anti-Semitic views, beliefs that play a key role in the novel’s dramatic denouement.

Where the novel really excels is in its evocation of rural life in the 1930s – the book is set in the fictional Suffolk village of Elmbourne, an environment alive with the beauty of the natural world as the year passes from one season to the next. There is a lyricism in Harrison’s descriptions of the environment which manages to be both detailed and evocative.

In October, Wych Farm’s trees turned quickly and all at once, blazing into oranges and reds and burnished golds; with little wind to strip them the woods and spinneys lay on our land like treasure, the massy hedgerows filigreed with old-man’s-beard and enamelled with rosehips and black sloes. Along the winding course of the River Stroud the alder carrs were studded with earthstars and chanterelles and dense with the rich, autumnal stink of rot; but crossing Long Piece towards the Lottens the sky opened and into austere equinoctial blue, where flocks of peewits wheeled and turned, flashing their broad wings black and white. (pp. 5–6)

The rhythms and rituals of farming are also beautifully portrayed, augmenting the novel’s captivating sense of time and place. Moreover, the novel captures the sense of loss inherent in the community as a consequence of the Great War. Some fifteen years on, the signs remain. From the empty pews at the church to the tools left idle in barns to the poorly stacked ricks due to a lack of skilled men, these silent absences are deeply felt.

All Among the Barley is an evocative hymn to a lost way of life, a slow-burning narrative that will draw patient readers in – particularly those with an interest in nature. It’s an excellent novel that touches on some important aspects of rural life. More specifically, the balance between tradition and progression; the stealthy rise of nationalism in the early ‘30s; the lack of opportunities for women in a male-dominated society; and perhaps most poignantly, societal attitudes towards women who experienced mental health issues at that time.

The novel’s epilogue is very affecting, a section in which seventy-year-old Edie contemplates her current situation – a life marked by events that took place during Constance’s visit. No spoilers, but it casts the remainder of the book in a somewhat different light, illuminating the tragic consequences of the visitor’s beliefs and actions. There are some very interesting points for discussion here – a great choice for book groups and solo readers alike. Plus, if you need any more persuading about the quality of this novel, I can point you in the direction of Max’s reading highlights for 2020 where it features prominently – there’s a link here

All Among the Barley is published by Bloomsbury; personal copy. Should you wish to buy a copy of this book, you can do so via this link to Bookshop.org (see the disclosure on the home page of my website). 

I’m hoping this piece will qualify for Karen and Lizzy’s Reading Independent Publishers Month, which you can read about here.

The Victorian Chaise-Longue by Marghanita Laski

I have long wanted to read Marghanita Laski, the British writer and broadcaster who came to prominence in the 1940s and ‘50s. (Five of her novels are currently in print with Persephone Books.) My original intention had been to start with her 1949 novel, Little Boy Lost, which focuses on a man’s search for his lost son in post-WW2 France. But then, back in December, the Backlisted team featured Laski’s 1953 novella, The Victorian Chaise-Longue, on an episode of their podcast, and the decision was made for me.

It’s a difficult book to say very much about without revealing key elements of the premise; so, if you’re thinking of reading it and would prefer to know as little as possible before going in, look away now. What I will say upfront is that the experience of reading this novella feels somewhat akin to being trapped in a terrifying COVID fever dream from times past. Ideal lockdown reading for the more sensitive among you!

The premise of this chilling story is a simple yet highly effective one. In the early 1950s, Melanie, a young mother recovering from tuberculosis, falls asleep, only to wake up in the body of her alter ego, Milly, some ninety years earlier.

As Melanie realises that she is trapped, effectively imprisoned in the body of a dying woman, she begins to doubt various ‘truths’ about her existence – more specifically, her identity, her sanity, and perhaps most troubling of all, her ability to return to the life she once knew.

Given that this is a short book, it would be unfair of me to reveal anything else about the plot – I’ve probably said more than enough already. Instead, I’ll try to convey something of the story’s tone and underlying themes.

A little like the woman in Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper, Melanie (in the 1950s) finds her freedoms restricted by a patronising doctor and an equally paternalistic husband – both of whom treat her like a child. Nevertheless, after a long period of recuperation in bed, Melanie is to be allowed a slight change of scenery in the afternoons – a move to the drawing-room where she can lie on the chaise-longue, an antique piece from the Victorian era. It is while lying on this couch that Melanie falls asleep, setting the eerie nightmare in motion…

A common voice, a cruel voice, assured and domineering. Not a voice to be conquered with superior strength but the nightmare voice that binds the limbs in dreadful paralysis while the danger creeps and creeps and at last will leap. I am asleep, said Melanie, ordering her wakened brain to admit this and be still, her closed eyes to see not even the ugly green and scarlet and yellow patterns under too tightly pressed eyelids, and then there was a heavy weighted rattle and almost simultaneously another, and consciousness of light shot through the close lids and forced them open. (p. 43)

Milly’s situation in the 1860s is even more restricted than Melanie’s, something that invites comparisons between what is deemed acceptable for a married woman in the 19th century vs the 20th. Laski is very skilled in her use of language, drawing on all the senses to convey the horror of her protagonist’s position – from the ‘bumpy hardness’ of the couch and the harsh woollen blanket covering the woman’s body to the fetid smell enveloping her surroundings.

Melanie folded the bread-and-butter and tried to eat it. The butter was nasty, over-salt and slightly rancid, seeming to have absorbed some of the room’s foul smell of which she was continually aware. But I must eat, she told herself, I must overcome this sick dizziness and feel strong. If this body is dead, I am still, for the moment, imprisoned within it. (pp. 92–93)

There is also the question of what constitutes the ‘present’ vs the past and the future. Is Melanie trapped in a terrifying dream, or has she somehow gone back in time to an earlier incarnation of her life?

I must always have been Milly and Milly me. It is now that is present reality and the future is still to come. But if I have to wait for the future, if it is only in time to come that I shall be Melanie again, then that time must come again too when Sister Smith leaves me to sleep on the chaise-longue, and I wake up in the past. I shall never escape – and the eternal prison she imagined consumed her mind, and she fainted or dozed off into a nightmare of chase and pursuit and loss. (p. 97)

Seeking a potential release from entrapment through prayer, Melanie even wonders whether she has been set some kind of challenge by God, possibly as a penance for past sins. The acceptability of a woman experiencing desire and ecstasy are also questioned as confusion kicks in, with Melanie’s mind going into overdrive.

In summary, this is a very unnerving story, one that relies on our fears of entrapment – a feeling augmented by the loss of personal agency and any grip on reality. It captures the terror of feeling helpless and imprisoned, when everything we previously believed about our existence is destabilised and undermined. In short, a psychologically disturbing read for a dark winter’s night.

My copy of The Victorian Chaise-Longue was published by The Cresset Press, but the book is currently available from Persephone Books.