Tag Archives: UK

Lolly Willowes by Sylvia Townsend Warner

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Recent Reads – Philip Larkin and Richard Yates

As quite a few of you seemed to enjoy my last round-up of ‘recent reads’ back in August, I’ve decided to do another one – this time focusing on novels by Philip Larkin and Richard Yates.

Jill by Philip Larkin (1946)

A couple of years ago, I read and really loved Larkin’s second novel, A Girl in Winter. While Jill – his debut novel – isn’t quite as good as Winter, it still makes for very interesting reading, particularly given its depiction of student life in the early years of WW2.

In essence, the novel focuses on John Kemp, a socially awkward young man from a Northern, working-class background who wins a scholarship to Oxford University to study English in 1940. Struggling to fit in with his rather arrogant upper-class roommate, Christopher, and the public-school set who surround him, John invents an imaginary sister, Jill, in order to embellish his own life in the face of others. However, things get complicated for John when he meets, Gillian, the fifteen-year-old cousin of one of Christopher’s friends, and the boundaries between the imaginary Jill and the real-life Gillian begin to blur.

While Jill starts very strongly, it loses a bit of momentum in the middle and then fizzles a little out towards the end leaving one of two questions hanging in the air. Nevertheless, these are relatively minor criticisms in the scheme of things – the novel is beautifully written and very sensitively conveyed. Where it really excels is in the portrayal of a shy, isolated young man who finds himself in a totally unfamiliar environment, one in which all his peers seem so confident, socially comfortable and self-assured.

A dismal melancholy was beginning to expand inside him, a great loneliness. It was the knowledge that he had nowhere to go more friendly, more intimate than this room that depressed him so, and particularly because the room was not his alone. He could not fortify himself inside it against the rest of the strangeness, for at any moment Christopher Warner and Patrick might come in and make coffee in his coffee-pot or break one of his plates through trying some balancing trick. He had hoped that at least there would always be his own room, with a fire and the curtains drawn, where he could arrange his few books neatly, fill a drawer with his notes and essays (in black ink with red corrections, held together by brass pins), and live undisturbed through the autumn into the winter. This was apparently not to be. (p. 17)

There is some excellent characterisation here, particularly in the creation of the rowdy, egotistical Christopher and his snobbish friends. Moreover, the novel is full of marvellous details and observations about the minutiae of student life in Oxford at the time: the inevitable tensions that arise when mismatched boys have to room together; the cribbing and last-minute preparations that ensue when essays are due; and the pilfering of items from other boys’ cupboards, especially when there is cake to be sourced for afternoon tea. (The scene where John arrives at his room in Oxford features a terrific set piece.) While the War remains mostly in the background, there is one major interruption which serves to demonstrate that the horrors of death and destruction are never far away.

Overall, this is a moving, sympathetic novel of a boy for whom certain aspects of life remain largely out of reach. Definitely recommended.

A Special Providence by Richard Yates (1969)

No other writer captures the pain of loneliness and disillusionment quite like Richard Yates. It seems to me that he understands his characters’ self-delusions, portraying the cruelty of their false hopes and dashed dreams with real insight and humanity.

In this, his second novel, Yates explores the lives of a single mother, Alice Prentice, and her only son, Bobby, as they try to eke out some kind of existence for themselves in 1930-40s America. The book itself is split into three main sections, the middle one focusing on Alice, a rather sad, delusional woman who toils away needlessly at her sculptures in the hope of becoming a famous artist, perpetually just a few months away from having sufficient material for a one-woman show or a something good enough for submission to the Witney. As the years slip by, Alice and Bobby continue to live hopelessly beyond their means, desperately moving from one place to another as the unpaid bills threaten to catch up with them.

Natalie Crawford was her neighbour on Charles Street, a twice-divorced, childless woman who had some sort of job with an advertising agency, who burned incense in her apartment and believed in her Ouija board and liked to use words like “simpatico,” and who habitually found respite from her own state of single blessedness with any man she could get her hands on. Alice didn’t like her very much, or at least didn’t wholly approve of her, but for lack of other friends she had come to rely on her – to spend excessive amounts of time with her and attend her frantic parties, and even to borrow money from her at times when she couldn’t make her income stretch through the month. (pp. 129-130)

Alice’s rather tragic story is bookended by two sections which together give an account of Bobby’s time as a soldier at the end of WW2. As an unworldly, inexperienced eighteen-year-old, Bobby is somewhat lost in the midst of his platoon as he makes his way across the battlefields of Europe, trying as best he can to survive the various challenges of war. However, there are precious few chances for heroics or atonement for Bobby as the campaign plays out somewhat differently to his expectations. Meanwhile, Alice waits patiently in New York, hoping for a fresh start once her beloved son returns home – convinced as she is that ‘a special providence’ will always shine on them.

There are almost certainly autobiographical influences in this beautifully-written novel: the somewhat tragic sculptor mother who relies heavily on drink; the young boy who sees his mother for everything she really is; the absent father who has a strained relationship with his family; and the young man who is thrown into the realities of war.

While A Special Providence isn’t my favourite Yates, it is still very much worth reading, particularly for its portrayal of the complexities of the relationship between mother and son as the balance of reliance between these two individuals begins to shift. Moreover, there is the novel’s quietly devastating ending, a poignant coda which feels like quintessential Yates.

You can read my other posts on Richard Yates’ work here:

The Easter Parade

Eleven Kinds of Loneliness

A Good School

Disturbing the Peace

Liars in Love

Jill is published by Faber & Faber, A Special Providence by Vintage Books; personal copies.

Someone at a Distance by Dorothy Whipple

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Craven House by Patrick Hamilton

As some of you may know, I have fondness for books featuring the great British boarding house – an interest sparked by novels such as Of Love and Hunger by Julian Maclaren-Ross, The Boarding-House by William Trevor, and perhaps the greatest of them all, The Slaves of Solitude by Patrick Hamilton.

Craven House, a fledgling novel by the aforementioned Hamilton, fits right into this groove, set as it is in a West London boarding house during the early part of the 20th century. While Craven isn’t as polished as Hamilton’s later work – he was only twenty-two when the book was first published in 1926 – there is still much to enjoy here, particularly in the use of the setting as a vehicle for fiction.

In some ways, Craven House could be thought of as a collection of character studies, an exploration of the lives and traits of the somewhat disparate group of individuals who inhabit this dwelling. While very little actually happens in the way of plot – the book reads like a sequence of episodes or occurrences – there is much to treasure in the characterisation, especially in relation to the younger residents of the house.

Craven House is owned and managed by the tireless Miss Hatt, an outwardly amiable individual who has the general bearing of a ‘merry sparrow taking the sun’. Also crucial to the establishment – in terms of standing if not ownership – are Mr and Mrs Spicer, long-term friends of Miss Hatt’s from her school days. Mr Spicer is ‘In Tea’, although quite what that means in practice remains a bit of a mystery. Nevertheless, The Spicers like to think of themselves as a respectable middle-aged couple, a notion typified by the following passage on their fondness for walking, particularly on a Sunday morning.

Mr and Mrs Spicer alone remained out of doors, thereby observing one of their most time-sanctioned and inviolable practices – the Sunday morning walk – and regarding themselves as in no small measure an ornament to the neighbourhood in their capacity of a Quiet Middle-aged Couple. For Mr and Mrs Spicer very much liked to advertise themselves as a quiet middle-aged couple – as though quietness was a fine point in their favour, and the world couldn’t keep its middle-aged couples quiet as a rule. (pp. 87-88)

However, initial appearance may be deceptive, and Mr Spicer may not be quite as honourable as his wife thinks. In reality, Mr S has a penchant for attempting to pick up young ladies during his solitary outings to Hyde Park Corner, a practice that lands him in trouble a little later in the book.

Paying guests at the house include twice-widowed Mrs Nixon and her young daughter, Elsie, and recent additions, Major Wildman and his young son, Henry – commonly known as Master Wildman. Finally, the cast is completed by two servants: the cook, Edith and the maid, Audrey, neither of whom quite live up to Miss Hatt’s somewhat unrealistic expectations of domestic staff. Nevertheless, Edith – a blotchy woman with the demeanour of a ‘Dickens character’ – proves herself to be an efficient cook, while Audrey seems pleasant enough, to begin with at least.

The first section of the novel deals with the years immediately leading up to the Great War, a time when the traditional customs of Edwardian society were starting to crumble. Hamilton excels at capturing the sense of ennui in Craven House, the interminable mealtimes and stilted conversations in the drawing-room, especially as the guests attempt to get to know the new arrivals. In this scene, the residents are taking tea on a Sunday afternoon.

‘Oh – ah – yes. Possibly,’ said the Major, and the company’s blushes were rescued half in cheek, by the clanging of the gong for tea, which was followed by the appearance of an Audrey labouring under a large tray; which was followed by the appearance of a dumb waiter containing the thinnest bread and butter conceivable, swiss roll and plum cake; which was followed by much fuss and bother, uncanny feats of balancing (Mr Spicer sliding across the floor, tea-cup in hand, as though it were an egg-and-spoon race), and the extreme little-gentlemanliness of Master Wildman, who handed things round; (p.90-91)

It is the small details Hamilton focuses on here, the petty grievances and tensions that ensue when individuals with different habits come together under one roof. The Major, used to having hot water to hand at any time of day or night, takes it upon himself to have a bath early in the evening, a slot usually reserved for Mrs Nixon – a move that creates some commotion in the house.

Perhaps the two residents who get on best are the playful Master Wildman and the obedient Elsie Nixon, a charming, amiable girl who finds a friend in her young companion. The pair play cards together during the evenings to pass away the time. One day, they even manage to escape the clutches of the tyrannical Mrs Nixon to visit the shops for an hour or two, an episode that lands Elsie in considerable trouble on her return. The relationship between these two children is very touchingly portrayed.

The Great War is touched on very briefly, mostly to capture the darkness and uncertainty of the time. Only Mr Spicer is directly involved in the war effort, and even his particular contribution is less than spectacular following a rather short spell of action in France.

Mr Spicer’s services to his country were, we are inclined to believe, something in the nature of a burden to both parties concerned. (p. 166)

Hamilton saves some of his best set-pieces for the novel’s final act, an extended section in which we return to Craven House six years after the end of the war. By this time, Master Wildman is in his early twenties, with Elsie Nixon following just a few years behind, worshipping her dear friend from close quarters. While Elsie longs to spread her wings a little in the hope that Master Wildman will fall for her, the dictatorial Mrs Nixon is having none of it, determined as she is to maintain a fierce hold over Elsie and everything she does.

‘Can I have my hair bobbed, Mother?’ asks Elsie. ‘No, you can not, Miss,’ says Mrs Nixon. ‘We’ll have none of these modern airs here.’ (p. 179)

Mrs Nixon is, needless to say, hale and hearty, and exuding a glad confidence in complete domination of her daughter or any other rebellious event or person likely to tackle her. (p. 180)

By this point, a new paying guest has also taken up residence at Craven House, the somewhat eccentric yet charming Mrs Hoare, an elderly lady who ‘employs flattery with a trowel’. One of Mrs Hoare’s most delightful habits involves her referring to various items by their initial letters, a practice that causes more than a little confusion and amusement amongst the residents. For instance, ‘Ell’ for Love, ‘Bee’ for Bed and ‘Doubleyou’ for Master Wildman. Elsie is very fond of Mrs Hoare – as is Master Wildman, although he cannot help but poke fun at her too, albeit in a rather gentle way.

As the novel draws towards its conclusion, the simmering tensions apparent within the house culminate in a couple of dramatic outbursts. One involving the Spicers when Mrs S discovers precisely what her husband has been getting up to while her back has been turned; the other concerning Miss Hatt, who seems close to a breakdown after fifteen years in charge of the establishment. There is also a wonderful contretemps between Miss Hatt and Audrey (the maid) when the latter has the audacity to answer back to her employer following a rebuke over her tardiness. Naturally, Miss Hatt is stunned by the outrage, so much so that she decides ‘Audrey Must Go’. In spite of these dramas, there is a happy ending of sorts for two of the house’s inhabitants, a nice touch amid the darkness of the environment.

Viewed in its entirety, Craven House is perhaps best suited to Hamilton enthusiasts. The novel itself is rather baggy, and some of the characters a little underdeveloped – Miss Hatt, Mrs Spicer and Mrs Nixon, in particular. At times, the prose is somewhat protracted and overwrought, a point that Hamilton himself was conscious of when he looked back at the work a little later in his career.

Nevertheless, it is fascinating to see the early genesis of some of this author’s favourite themes here – particularly his preoccupation with the boarding house milieu and his interest in individuals who seem to carry an inner sense of loneliness and self-doubt. In some ways, Craven House could be viewed as a bit of a trial run for one of Hamilton’s later books, the utterly brilliant The Slaves of Solitude, one of the highlights of my reading year back in 2014.

Craven House is published by Abacus; personal copy.

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

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

The Dud Avocado by Elaine Dundy (1958)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Simon has reviewed this book here.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Crowded Street by Winifred Holtby (1924)

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

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

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

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

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

How tragic is that?

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

Vain Shadow by Jane Hervey

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Good Evening, Mrs Craven: The Wartime Stories of Mollie Panter-Downes

Mollie Panter-Downes was The New Yorker’s England correspondent for the duration of the Second World War and well beyond. During the war years, she produced a significant output for the journal, comprising a series of fortnightly ‘Letters from London’ and twenty-one short stories (roughly one every three months). Luckily for us, these insightful stories have been collected together in this beautiful edition from Persephone Books, initially issued in 1999.

In essence, these are stories of ordinary British people – mostly women – trying to cope with the day-to-day realities of life on the Home Front. While the war alters the lives of all the characters we encounter here, the battleground itself is elsewhere – off-camera so to speak. Instead, we see women trying to accommodate evacuees from the city, making pyjamas for soldiers overseas, or doing their best to maintain some degree of normality around the home in the face of constrained resources.

Panter-Downes’ style – understated, perceptive and minutely observed – makes for a subtly powerful effect. She is particularly adept at capturing the range of emotions experienced by her characters, from loneliness and longing to fear and self-pity.

In This Flower, Safety (1940), Miss Ewing, a wealthy lady from London, tries to escape the horrors of war by fleeing to a seaside town only to discover that even the most sedate of places can feel somewhat exposed. In her heart of hearts, Miss Ewing knows that her life will never be the same again.

Two or three of the stories touch upon one of the major consequences of war for those left behind – the need for families to accommodate distant relations, friends or evacuees in an effort to do their bit. Somewhat unsurprisingly, this often leads to tensions as individuals from different classes or social spheres try to get on with one another while living under the same roof. In other instances, it is merely a clash of personalities and personal habits.

In one of my favourite stories from the collection, Mrs. Ramsay’s War (1940), the titular character is finding her house guests – the ebullient Mrs Parmenter and her two Pekingese dogs – rather difficult to bear.

‘But how we shall revel in the spring when it comes!’ cried Mrs. Parmenter. ‘There! Don’t their brave little faces give you fresh hope?’ Mrs. Ramsay felt that it would take more than a few snowdrops to give her fresh hope. It would take something really big, like the back end of a Daimler loaded with Parmenter luggage going rapidly towards London. (p. 17)

It’s a beautifully observed story, one that also demonstrates the author’s talent for dry humour and wit. Combined Operations (1942) explores a similar theme as a young couple, whose London flat has been destroyed in a raid, outstay their welcome when they ‘visit’ friends in the country.

Other stories of evacuees, most notably, In Clover (1940), expose the snobbery and prejudices of the upper-middle classes. In this piece, the refined Mrs Fletcher is repulsed by the physical appearance of the Clark family, the dishevelled evacuees she is to accommodate in her pristine home.

She had known that her guests were coming from one of the poorest parts of London and it was natural they should look dingy, but she had imagined a medium dinginess that would wear off with one or two good scrubbings and a generous handout of gingham pinafores. The dinginess of the Clarks, which seemed to have soaked in far deeper than just their skins, was a setback, but Mrs. Fletcher met it with her most charming smile. She even drew one of the children towards her as she talked, and stood with an arm round his bony shoulders, trying not to shudder, thinking that she must take a good hot bath before she went anywhere near the nursery. (pp. 22-23)

Right from the start, it is patently obvious that Mrs Fletcher and Mrs Clark have very little in common. Unfortunately for Mrs Fletcher, her belief that money can solve almost every difficulty one encounters in life proves to be somewhat misguided.

There is a strong sense of loneliness running through many of these stories, augmented by feelings of isolation, inadequacy and loss. Panter-Downes is perhaps at her best when she mines this territory by delving more deeply into her characters’ emotions.

In Goodbye, My Love (1941), one of the best stories in the collection, a young woman must face the agonising countdown to her husband’s departure for war, the clock in the flat a constant reminder of their rapidly diminishing time together. This excellent story comes with a sting in its tail. Just as the woman is coming to terms with the absence of her husband, something unexpected happens – and what should be a happy occasion is instead tinged with anxiety.

It’s the Reaction (1943) is in a similar vein to the previous piece. In this, my favourite story in the collection, a lonely young woman is buoyed by the camaraderie of war when she finally gets to know her neighbours as they take shelter together during the Blitz. However, once the sequence of air raids is over, life in Miss Birch’s apartment block reverts to normal – and when she tries to rekindle the new friendships, Miss Birch soon discovers the fickle nature of relationships, even in times of war.

Mrs Chalmers, if she and Miss Birch met in the lift, said, ‘Do you know, I’ve been meaning and meaning to ring you,’ and at the back of her worried baby eyes and plucked eyebrows, Miss Birch could see the thought forming that one of these days they must really ask the old girl over, fill her up with gin, do something about it. After a while, even that thought disappeared. Mrs Chalmers simply said ‘Hello’ and smiled vaguely, as though Miss Birch were someone she had once met at a party. (pp. 139-140)

Other stories touch on the sense of absence or loss that can characterise a country at war. I loved this line from Fin de Siècle (1943) in which a young couple reflect on their friends’ house – now standing empty and forsaken following the occupants’ departure.

They had gone, and the integrity, the personality of the house had splintered like matchwood. (p.73)

The advent of social change which accompanied the war is another prominent theme, particularly in the later pieces. In Cut Down the Trees (1943), Mrs Walsingham, a member of the English gentry, opens her home to accommodate forty Canadian soldiers in support of the war effort. Interestingly though, it is not Mrs Walsingham who struggles to get to grips with a different way of life, but her elderly maid, Dossie – a woman who remains very fearful of change. In essence, Dossie bemoans the loss of the old guard, the disappearance of the caps and aprons who served the house and maintained order. This new practice of her mistress taking dinner in the kitchen will come to no good; the passing of old traditions and customs is something to regret rather than embrace.

She disliked the innovation intensely. It was all part and parcel of the unwarranted bad joke, the conspiracy against Dossie’s way of life, which they called a war and which had taken first the menservants and then the girls one by one, which had stopped the central heating, made a jungle of the borders and a pasture of the lawns, marooned the two old women in a gradually decaying house with forty Canadians, and made Mrs. Walsingham stop dressing for dinner. (pp. 149-150)

In Year of Decision (1944), an upper-middle-class couple try hard to preserve their old rituals however pointless they seem to be. The wife in particular struggles to keep on top of the house, a situation that leaves her feeling both frazzled and exhausted. The husband, on the other hand, longs for the action and excitement of war – instead, he finds himself confined to a Government office on account of his specialist knowledge, a valuable commodity in a time of crisis. In a sense, some aspects of this story feel like a bit of a rehearsal for One Fine Day, Panter-Downes’ wonderful novel about a couple adjusting to a new way of life following the end of the Second World War.

Oher stories in this fine collection feature a young woman facing up to pregnancy and the prospect of motherhood in the absence of her husband, a mistress who realises that she may never discover if her married lover is injured or killed in action, and the various members of a sewing circle as they gossip and bicker about all manner of subjects.

All in all, these are beautifully observed vignettes, shot through with humour, understanding, insight and humanity. Recommended for readers interested in the British way of life in the 1940s.

Good Evening, Mrs Craven is published by Persephone Books, personal copy.