Tag Archives: Virago Modern Classics

Poor Caroline by Winifred Holtby

Along with many other readers, I first discovered Winifred Holtby through her friendship with Vera Brittain, whose memoir – The Testament of Youth – is considered a classic for its depiction of the impact of the Great War on the British middle classes, particularly the women. While I’ve previously enjoyed some of Holtby’s other novels, it’s fair to say that my feelings about Poor Caroline (1931) are somewhat mixed. More about that later once I’ve explained a little about the novel itself – an inventive satire about the failings and cruelties of human nature and one woman’s fixation with a farcical scheme.

Central to the novel is Caroline Denton-Smyth, a spirited, eccentric and rather deluded woman who dreams of establishing the Christian Cinema Company (CCC) with the aim of producing chaste British films as a counterpoint to the immoral offerings from Hollywood. At the age of seventy or thereabouts, Miss Denton-Smyth cuts a striking if somewhat absurd figure as illustrated by the following passage.

She halted in the doorway, and fumbling among the chains and beads about her neck, found a pair of lorgnettes, clicked them open,  and stood peering through them into the ante-room, turning her finger a little as she peered, so that all her chains and beads clashed softly together, like the trappings of an oriental dancer at a cheap music hall. The lorgnettes imparted to her short, plump, eccentric figure an air of comic but indomitable dignity. Her preposterous red hat, with its huge ribbon bows and sweeping pheasant’s feather, bobbed triumphantly above her frizzled hair. (pp. 41-42)

Living on her own in a down-at-heel bedsit in Kensington, Caroline has no real money of her own, so she attempts to enlist support for her virtuous venture from a range of interested parties, many of whom gain places on her Board of Directors. There is the aristocratic dilettante, Basil St. Denis, whose wife encourages his participation as a means of keeping him busy; the Jewish businessman, Joseph Isenbaum, whose only interest in the project is to establish an influential connection with St Denis; the argumentative scientist Hugh Macafee, who sees the CCC as a potential buyer for his Tona Perfecta Film technology; and the brash ‘screenwriter’, Clifton Johnson, an American scoundrel on the look-out for any opportunity to pull a swindle.

None of these thoroughly unlikeable characters has any real interest in Caroline’s vision for the CCC. Instead, they are pursuing their own self-centred endeavours, each of which is revealed in detail as the narrative progresses. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Poor Caroline is blind to all these shenanigans, doggedly persisting with her own fanciful ideas for morally upstanding movies. In this scene, she reveals to the Board her plans for the cultivation of future directors, fruitlessly aiming for the top with all her fallacies and delusions.

‘[…] indeed, I hope soon to add an archbishop to our list of directors.’

‘An archbishop?’

‘An archbishop, Mr. Johnson. Do you not remember that at our last meeting we decided to invite a number of distinguished ladies and gentlemen, representing the Stage, the Church, the Schools, the Universities, Art, Music and public service, to become directors so that when we send out our appeals we may make it quite clear that we have the highest possible authority behind us? My idea was, if possible, a Cabinet Minister, even the Premier might, being so greatly interested in English culture. I confess that I should like to see Mr. Baldwin’s name upon our Board and possibly the Archbishop of Canterbury. I always say aim high and you may keep on the level.’ (p. 108)

Meanwhile, Caroline’s family in Yorkshire will have nothing to do with the project, considering it to be the latest in a string of mad ideas. The only relative willing to help Caroline is her young cousin, Eleanor, an independently minded socialist recently arrived from South Africa following the death of her father. In her desperation for support, Caroline persuades Eleanor to invest the majority of her legacy in the CCC, shamelessly taking advantage of the young woman’s generosity and sympathy.

Also in the mix is a young curate, Father Mortimer, whom Caroline takes a shine to in the course of her delusions. However, unbeknownst to Caroline, Father Mortimer only has eyes for Eleanor, a development that leads to complications and heartache as the story plays out – particularly as it becomes clear that Caroline is jealous of her cousin’s youth, intelligence and ambitions.

We learn quite early on what happens to Poor Caroline in the end, but I won’t spoil it for you here. Much of the enjoyment of the novel stems from seeing how this rather sad character meets her fate, aided but mostly abetted by others along the way.

There are some wonderful set-pieces here involving romantic entanglements, unexpected confrontations and a bizarre accident in the midst of a storm, all beautifully observed by Holtby’s satirical eye. The characters are well captured too, in a manner that lays bare all their undesirable qualities and behaviours. Caroline is painted as a rather tragic figure, an outcast from her family and society, endlessly chasing rainbows in the hope of making her fortune through altruistic efforts. Moreover, Holtby has some serious points to make about the perceptions of women – often unfavourable – who throw themselves into charitable causes, and about the difficulties in funding the arts in general.

The element that sits less comfortably with me stems from one character’s rather unfortunate comments about women’s sex lives and the potential for abuse. (I won’t quote them here; they’re far too unpleasant for that.) Satire or no satire, this feels somewhat out of place, particularly in a novel by a notable feminist such as Holtby. Maybe she is trying to hold up a mirror to society, to draw our attention to the unreasonable nature of the prevailing attitudes at the time (we’re still in the early 1930s here); but even so, this seems somewhat misjudged given the context of the remarks in question. While the character concerned is left feeling rather frustrated by the end of the novel, it does seem as if Holtby lets him off the hook to a certain extent – a more savage denouement for this individual might have been more fitting.

So, in summary, an interesting novel with some excellent scenes, but not without its problems. A very different Holtby from the others I’ve read. If they’re of interest, you can find my thoughts on them here: South Riding; Anderby Wold; and The Crowded Street. The first, in particular, comes very highly recommended indeed.

Poor Caroline is published by Virago; personal copy.

Recent Reads – Rosamond Lehmann, Romain Gary and Ellen Wilkinson

Mini reviews of three recent reads – hopefully you’ll find something of interest across the mix.

Invitation to the Waltz by Rosamond Lehmann (1932)

This beautiful, charming novel – presented through a blend of stream-of-consciousness and more traditional narrative – manages to combine a lightness of touch with a real depth of personal feeling.

On the day of her seventeenth birthday, Olivia Curtis receives from her parents a roll of flame-coloured silk to be fashioned into an evening dress for a forthcoming dance. The occasion will represent Olivia’s introduction to society, a world already glimpsed by her older sister, the attractive, more self-assured Kate.

In the days leading up to the dance, we sense Olivia’s anticipation of the event, a mixture of excitement and apprehension over various aspects of the evening: nervousness as to how her dress will turn out; speculation over who else will be attending, particularly which boys; worries about there being sufficient dance partners for the girls; and ultimately, whether her first experience of a ball will be a success or a disappointment. The idea of ending up as a wallflower is almost too much for Olivia to bear.

Why go? It was unthinkable. Why suffer so much? Wrenched from one’s foundations; neglected, ignored, curiously stared at; partnerless, watching Kate move serenely from partner to partner, pretending not to watch; pretending not to see one’s hostess wondering: must she do something about one again? – (but really one couldn’t go on and on introducing these people); pretending not to care; slipping off to the ladies’ cloakroom, fiddling with unnecessary pins and powder, ears strained for the music to stop; wandering forth again to stand by oneself against the wall, hope struggling with despair beneath a mask of smiling indifference. (pp. 126-127)

The ball itself is beautifully conveyed in a series of vivid scenes, immersing the reader in the atmosphere of the event. Lehmann’s style is evocative and impressionistic, like the brushstrokes of watercolour artist practising their craft. The little pen-portraits of various attendees are very finely sketched, giving just enough detail to bring the characters to life.

Ali has written a characteristically perceptive review of this book, highlighting some interesting observations on class. Simon has also written about it here (his piece focuses on Olivia’s clothes and appearance). Olivia and Kate are very much viewed as country mice by their sophisticated cousin, Etty, also present at the dance – while bright and respectable, the middle-class Curtis family belong to a somewhat different social sphere to that of their hosts, Sir John and Lady Spencer. Olivia’s seamstress, the rather tragic Miss Robinson, provides another contrast – a woman whose narrow, unfulfilled life is heartbreaking to see.

I really enjoyed this novel for its expressive, impressionistic style, the exquisite prose, and its insight into the inner life of an expectant young girl. Very highly recommended indeed.

Promise at Dawn by Romain Gary (tr. John Markham Beach) (1961)

A thoroughly engaging memoir of this French writer’s early life and ongoing quest to fulfil his mother’s ambitions, namely for Gary to become a great artist, a person of distinction. In addition to these creative pursuits, the memoir also touches on Gary’s time as an instructor and pilot during the Second World War. It is by turns humorous, entertaining, charming and poignant, a story that blends the light-hearted with the moving and profound.

I stood there in my leather flying jacket, with that ridiculous cigar in my mouth, my cap pulled down jauntily over one eye, my hands in my pockets, and the familiar tough look on my face, while the whole world around me became a strange, foreign place empty of all life. That is what I chiefly remember of that moment today: a feeling of utter strangeness, as though the most familiar things, the houses, the trees, the birds, and the very ground under my feet, all that I had to come to regard as certainties, had suddenly become part of an unknown planet which I had never visited before. My whole system of weights and measures, my faith in a secret and hidden logic of life were giving way to nothingness, to a meaningless chaos, to a grinning, grimacing absurdity. (p. 212)

Grant has already written an excellent review of this book, and I agree with pretty much everything he says in his piece – do take a look. Emma has a page devoted to Romain Gary on her blog, so you’ll be able to find more posts about the author’s work there.

This is a thrilling yarn laced with philosophical reflections on this nature of life – my first encounter with this esteemed writer, but hopefully not my last.

The Division Bell Mystery by Ellen Wilkinson (1932)

I do love these British Library Crime Classics with their vintage settings and stylish covers. This is an interesting entry in the series from the Labour politician and writer, Ellen Wilkinson. In short, it is a most enjoyable mystery with a political edge.

Up-and-coming Conservative MP and parliamentary private secretary, Robert West, turns amateur detective when an influential financier is shot dead during a private dinner at the House of Commons. What appears at first to be a case of suicide turns out to be far more complicated than that, especially once the official investigation – led by Inspector Blackitt of the Yard – gets underway.

This is a compelling little mystery with a likeable central character in Robert West. While the ending feels a little rushed, the atmosphere in the House of Commons is captured in vivid detail, bringing to life the hustle and bustle of political life in the 1930s.

Shaw followed West along the locker-lined corridor to that octagonal space where the heart of Parliament beats. The House of Commons had risen soon after the nine o’clock division, and it was now ten-thirty, but groups of Members still stood excitedly discussing the sensation of the day–-for the threatened crisis had disappeared with the announcement of the Government’s majority. Again Shaw had to admire his friend’s technique.

Every one made a dart at West, who somehow managed to deny rumours, to quieten agitated and elderly M.P.s and even to deal with a cynical young woman who wanted to know why he had only shot one poor little millionaire instead of turning a machine-gun on to the whole Front Bench. (p. 43)

There are some nice reflections on the changing nature of Britain too, as the old traditions and values must give way to new sources of business and revenue streams. The economic context/state of the nation forms an important backdrop to the story, adding to the political intrigue.

Karen has written a great review of this, and I agree with everything she highlights in her piece. In spite of a few flaws, this is an interesting mystery with an atmospheric sense of place.

My copies of Invitation to the Waltz, Promise at Dawn, and The Division Bell Mystery were published by Virago, Penguin, and the British Library respectively; personal copies.

Symposium by Muriel Spark

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Symposium is published by Virago Modern Classics; personal copy.

The World My Wilderness by Rose Macaulay

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My books of the year, 2018 – favourites from a year of reading

Regular readers of this blog will probably experience a strong sense of déjà vu when they scan through my list of favourites from 2018, such is the familiar nature of the selection. Several of the authors listed here have already appeared in some of my other best-of-the-year posts, writers like Elizabeth Taylor, Barbara Pym and Dorothy B. Hughes – it’s getting to the point where they’re virtually guaranteed their own dedicated slots! In other words when it comes to reading, I know what I like, and I like what I know.

Still, there are a few *new* names in this year’s line-up, writers like William Trevor, Dorothy Whipple and Brian Moore, all of whom I’d like to revisit in the future.

Anyway, without further ado, here are my favourites from 2018 in order of reading. These are the books I loved, the books that have stayed with me, the ones I’m most likely to recommend to others. I’ve summarised each one in this post, but you can read the full reviews by clicking on the appropriate links.

A View of the Harbour by Elizabeth Taylor

What better way to kick off the year than with this early novel by Elizabeth Taylor, a beautifully crafted story of the complications of life, love and family relationships, all set within a sleepy, down-at-heel harbour town a year or so after the end of WW2. It’s a wonderful ensemble piece, packed full of flawed and damaged characters who live in the kind of watchful environment where virtually everyone knows everyone else’s business. Probably my favourite book of the year – fans of Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Bookshop will likely enjoy this.

The Boarding-House by William Trevor

I loved this darkly comic novel set in a South London boarding house in the mid-1960s. Another excellent ensemble piece, this one focusing on the lives and concerns of a disparate group of lost souls, each with their own individual characteristics and personality traits. A wickedly funny tragi-comedy of the highest order, this claims the spot for my boarding-house novel of the year. (That said, I must mention Patrick Hamilton’s Craven House in this context – not a perfect novel by any means but a hugely enjoyable one nonetheless.)

The Expendable Man by Dorothy B. Hughes

A young doctor picks up a dishevelled teenage girl on a deserted highway while driving to a family wedding. What could possibly go wrong? Pretty much everything as it turns out in Hughes’ seriously gripping novel set in 1960s America. There’s a crucial ‘reveal’ at certain point in the story, something that may well cause you to question some of your assumptions and maybe expose a few subconscious prejudices too. A truly excellent book, beautifully written, this proved a big hit with my book group.

The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson

Last year Shirley Jackson made my ‘best-of’ list with her gothic masterpiece We Have Always Lived in the Castle. Now she’s back again, this time with The Haunting of Hill House a brilliantly unsettling book that relies more on the characters’ fears, imaginations and terrors than any explicit elements of horror or violence. Hill House itself, with its curious, labyrinthine design and off-kilter angles, is an imposing presence in the novel, a place marked by its complex and ill-fated history. Also central to the story is Eleanor Vance, a rather reclusive, childlike woman in her early thirties who travels to Hill House at the invitation of Dr Montague, an academic with an interest in the paranormal. The way that Jackson illustrates the gradual falling apart of Eleanor’s mind is very effective, encouraging the reader to come to their own conclusions about the young woman’s sanity. An unnerving exploration of a character’s psyche.

Jane and Prudence by Barbara Pym

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

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

A wonderful collection of stories featuring ordinary British people – mostly women – trying to cope with the day-to-day realities of life on the Home Front during WW2. 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. Probably my favourite collection of short stories this year, although Maeve Brennan’s The Springs of Affection comes a very close second.

The Cry of the Owl by Patricia Highsmith

A book powered by Highsmith’s trademark interest in decency and morality, The Cry of the Owl appears to start off in traditional psychological thriller territory only to shift towards something a little more existential by the end. The story centres on Robert, a deeply lonely man who finds some comfort from naively observing a girl through her kitchen window as she goes about her domestic routine. What really makes this novel such a compelling read is the seemingly unstoppable chain of events that Robert’s relatively innocent search for solace kicks off. We are left with the sense of how powerless a man can feel when he his actions are judged and misinterpreted by the supposedly upstanding citizens around him, especially when fate intervenes. Highly recommended for lovers of dark and twisted fiction.

The Spy Who Came in from the Cold by John Le Carré

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 plot may appear somewhat confusing at first, Le Carré trusts in the intelligence of his readers, knowing their perseverance will be rewarded in the end. The tense and gritty atmosphere of Berlin is beautifully conveyed, perfectly capturing the political distrust and uncertainty that prevailed during the Cold War of the early ‘60s. A thoroughly engrossing book from start to finish.

Someone at a Distance by Dorothy Whipple

My first experience of Whipple’s work but hopefully not my last. The central story is a timeless one, focussing as it does on the systematic destruction of a loving marriage, brought about by a venomous serpent in the Garden of Eden. Whipple captures everything with such skill and attention to detail that it feels so compelling, pushing the reader forward to discover how the narrative will end. In writing Someone at a Distance, she has created a really excellent novel about the fragile nature of love and the lives we build for ourselves. Possibly one for fans of Elizabeth Taylor and Elizabeth Jane Howard.

After Midnight by Imrgard Keun (tr. Anthea Bell)

Deceptively straightforward and engaging on the surface, After Midnight is in fact a very subtle and insightful critique of the Nazi regime, written by an author who experienced the challenges of navigating the system first-hand. A little like The Artificial Silk Girl (also by Keun), the novel is narrated by a seemingly naïve and engaging young woman, Sanna, who turns out to be somewhat sharper than she appears at first sight. A fascinating book, one that provides a real insight into how easily a society can shift such that the unimaginable becomes a reality as a new world order is established. My favourite read in translation this year, although The Burning of The World, a remarkable WW1 memoir by the Hungarian writer Béla Zombory-Moldován, also deserves a mention.

If Beale Street Could Talk by James Baldwin

This is a really remarkable piece of writing, so powerful, passionate and lyrical that it’s hard to do it any kind of justice in a few sentences. The novel is narrated by Tish, a nineteen-year-old black girl who lives with her family in Harlem in the early 1970s. Tish is deeply in love with Fonny, just a regular young black guy except for the fact that he happens to be in jail, accused of a crime he clearly did not commit. It’s a novel shot through with a powerful sense of loss, of missed chances and opportunities, of familial love and familial tensions. The forthcoming film adaptation by Barry Jenkins is pretty wonderful too.

The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne by Brian Moore

This is an achingly sad novel, a tragic tale of grief, delusion and eternal loneliness set amidst the shabby surroundings of a tawdry boarding house in 1950s Belfast. Its focus is Judith Hearne, a plain, unmarried woman in her early forties who finds herself shuttling from one dismal bedsit to another in an effort to find a suitable place to live. When Judith’s dreams of a hopeful future start to unravel, the true nature of her troubled inner life is revealed, characterised as it is by a shameful secret. The humiliation that follows is swift, unambiguous and utterly devastating, but to say any more would spoil the story. This is an outstanding novel, easily in my top three for the year. It’s also beautifully written, a heartbreaking paean to a solitary life without love.

The Girl on the Via Flaminia by Alfred Hayes

This jewel-like novel, my third by Hayes, focuses on Robert, a desperately lonely American soldier who finds himself stationed in Rome in 1944. Robert is hoping to make a simple arrangement with a local girl, Lisa – namely some warmth and company at night in exchange for a few sought-after provisions. But nothing in wartime is ever easy, and in times of unrest and uncertainty even the most straightforward of arrangements can run into complications. Another brilliant, bleak yet beautifully written book, shot through with an aching sense of pain and sadness.

So there we are, another pretty satisfying year of reading for me. I really have read some excellent books in 2018.

All that remains is for me to wish you a very Merry Christmas and all the best for the year ahead – may it be filled with plenty of bookish delights!

A delightful pair of Viragos – novels by E. H. Young and Vita Sackville-West

Another couple of mini reviews from me – this time covering books by the English writers E. H. Young and Vita Sackville-West, both published by Virago.

Miss Mole by E. H. Young (1930)

This is a lovely, traditional novel which features a fully-realised character at its heart, the resilient and ever-optimistic spinster, Miss Hannah Mole.

For the last twenty years, Miss Mole has eked out a humble living for herself as a children’s governess and as a companion to a sequence of demanding women, but her somewhat rebellious nature has often resulted in trouble and dismissal. Rapidly approaching forty with no permanent home of her own, Miss Mole accepts a position as housekeeper to the nonconformist minister, Robert Corder, and his two daughters, Ethel and Ruth, both of whom need sensitive care and attention following the death of their mother. In some respects, this move represents an emotional return for Miss Mole to her home district of Radstowe, a place that holds many memories for our protagonist which are gradually revealed throughout the book.

Unfortunately for Miss Mole, her new employer is a rather pompous man. Blind to his own faults and shortcomings, Reverend Corder has a high opinion of himself and his own standing in the community, a view that is not necessarily shared by his new housekeeper. For her part, Miss Mole wishes the Reverend would show a little more compassion and affection for his daughters, virtues that ought to be second nature to any father, especially a widower.

He was not an unkind father; he was amiable enough and ready to expand under the affection he had made it impossible for them to show him, but he seemed to Hannah to treat his daughters as an audience for his sentiments and the record of his doings and to forget that these girls had characters, unless they happened to annoy him. (p. 67)

While twenty-three-year-old Ethel is sensitive and restless and desperate to be loved, young Ruth presents a somewhat different challenge for Miss Mole, her initial hostility requiring careful handling and a softly-softly approach. In time, however, the bright and resourceful Miss Mole coaxes these two girls out of their shells, winning their affections with her charm, candour and natural gift for storytelling.

While there are many familiar elements to this story – the downtrodden spinster, the conceited employer, the undervalued children and the romantic love-interest – what really elevates this novel above the norm is the character of Miss Mole. There are times when she is too stubborn, reckless and outspoken for her own good; but then again, she is also quick, imaginative and very, very funny. In this scene from the early stages of the novel, Miss Mole is discussing the possibility of becoming the Corders’ housekeeper with her cousin, Lilla Spenser-Smith, a respected member of the community who prefers to keep her true relationship to Miss Mole under wraps. Interestingly, it is Lilla who has arranged the position for Miss Mole, not Hannah herself, partly as a means of getting her cousin out of the way.

‘But won’t he want to see me?’

‘Not necessary,’ said Mrs. Spenser-Smith in her best Spenser-Smithian manner.

‘Not advisable, you mean! I daresay you’re right. What sort of a man is he? Is he brisk and hearty, or one of those gentle paw-folders?’

‘That isn’t funny, Hannah, it’s vulgar; I might say irreverent. Do try to remember you’re a lady.’

‘But I’m not. I come of the same stock as you do, Lilla, and we know what that is. Simple yeoman stock, […]. (p. 36)

This is a charming story of an invisible woman who knows that her best years may well be behind her, and yet she rarely loses hope that something wonderful could be just around the corner – even when some distressing secrets from the past threaten to catch up with her. All in all, a truly excellent read.

All Passion Spent by Vita Sackville-West (1931)

I really enjoyed this classic story of an elderly woman who grasps the opportunity for a little liberation in life following the death of her esteemed husband, Henry, the Earl of Slane.

The novel is written in three parts, the first of which opens with a family gathering in the wake of Lord Slane’s demise. For the past seventy years, eighty-eight-year-old Lady Slane has devoted her life to the needs of her husband and their six children (now all in their sixties and feeling the responsibilities of middle age). Her own needs and desires have been pushed aside in favour of playing the dutiful wife, accompanying her husband on his diplomatic duties in India and the UK.

As they come together at this momentous time, the Slane children – most of whom are patronising, dismissive, money-grabbing creatures – assume their mother will have next to nothing in her life now that her husband has passed away. In their infinite wisdom, the four eldest Slanes decide that their mother must be parcelled up like a piece of furniture and sent to each of their houses in turn on a rotational basis until the time of her death. The possibility that Lady Slane might have a mind of her own does not come into the equation. As far as her children are concerned, Lady Slane is rather dim and helpless. They see her as an impractical woman, someone with no understanding of the workings of the real world, utterly reliant on her husband for everything; naturally she will be pleased with any arrangements they care to make for her.

Mother was wonderful, but what was to be done with Mother? Evidently, she could not go on being wonderful for the rest of her life. Somewhere, somehow, she must be allowed to break down, and then, after that was over, must be stowed away; housed, taken care of. (p. 23)

Of course, she would not question the wisdom of any arrangements they might choose to make. Mother had no will of her own; all her life long, gracious and gentle, she had been wholly submissive—an appendage. […] She was not a clever woman. She would be grateful to them for arranging her few remaining years. (p. 24-25)

Contrary to the prevailing view, Lady Slane is actually much sharper than her children give her credit for. Before long, she declares her intention to leave her prestigious home in Kensington to go and live in a modest house in Hampstead, a place she had first seen and desired some thirty years earlier. Her dutiful French maid, Genoux, is to accompany Lady Slane in this new phase of her life, but other than that, there are to be no regular visits from members of the family – particularly the great-grandchildren who are far too full of the joys and exuberance of youth for Lady Slane to cope with. Naturally, Lady Slane’s children think she is mad, particularly given their (utterly misguided) perception of her as an unworldly, submissive ‘appendage’. Only Edith, Lady Slane’s youngest daughter – herself an outwardly hesitant but insightful woman – has any real appreciation of her mother’s inner life.

In the second and third parts of the novel, we see Lady Slade and Genoux in their new home, their burgeoning friendship with the delightfully eccentric Mr Bucktrout, who acts as an agent for the house, and Mr Gosheron, the decorator/handyman. Mr Bucktrout’s little gestures and small acts of kindness towards his new tenant are very touchingly portrayed.

As the novel unfolds, Lady Slade is revealed as a woman of distinction, one who values art and beauty – in her youth she longed to develop her skills as an artist, an opportunity denied her by an early marriage to Henry and the domestic/diplomatic duties that ensued. Reflecting on various aspects of her life with Henry, Lady Slade is reminded of her youthful dreams and passion along with everything she has lost.

As the novel draws to a close, there a couple of developments which contribute to the enrichment of the remainder of Lady Slane’s life. She receives a visit from Mr FitzGeorge, an old acquaintance of the Slanes from India who has carried a flame for Lady S. for several decades. As a consequence, the pair strike up a gentle friendship, taking walks together on nearby Hampstead Heath. There is another visit too, this time from one of the great-granddaughters, Deborah Holland, a young woman with a passion for music, who reminds Lady Slane of herself in her free-spirited youth.

This is a touching story of a woman who finally finds a sense of freedom and liberation in her twilight years. On the whole, the novel is very well-written novel with some lovely descriptive passages and sensitive insights into the protagonist’s inner life. Definitely recommended.

I’m sure there are quite a few reviews of this novel across the blogosphere, but here’s a link to a recent post from Simon of Tredynas Days, and one from Madame Bibi lophile, which actively encouraged me to read the book. .

Loitering with Intent by Muriel Spark

Of the Muriel Spark novels I’ve read so far, Loitering with Intent is perhaps the most playful. In some respects, there are similarities with Memento Mori, Spark’s wonderful social comedy on the challenges of ageing – another vehicle for her razor-sharp wit coupled with a dash of the macabre. I had a lot of fun with Loitering, a marvellous slice of metafiction about the work of writers and the fine line between fiction and reality.

Loitering is narrated by Fleur Talbot, now a seasoned author with a long and successful career under her belt. In order to compile her autobiography, Fleur looks back on her early days as an aspiring writer in the mid-20th century, a time when she was eager to gain a foothold in the literary world.

The setting is London, the year 1949. Fleur takes a job working as a secretary for Sir Quentin Oliver, a rather odd character who runs the Autobiographical Association, a ‘special circle’ designed to support a small number of individuals in the production of their memoirs. By night, Fleur toils away on her debut novel, Warrender Chase, a dark and sinister story which she claims to be a work of fiction. Nevertheless, that doesn’t stop her from taking inspiration from the world around her.

I was finding it extraordinary how, throughout all the period I had been working on the novel, right from Chapter One, characters and situations, images and phrases that I absolutely needed for the book simply appeared as if from nowhere into my range of perception. I was a magnet for experiences that I needed. Not that I reproduced them photographically and literally. I didn’t for a moment think of portraying Sir Quentin as he was. What gave me great happiness was his gift to me of the finger-tips of his hands touching each other, and, nestling among the words, as he waved towards the cabinet, ‘In there are secrets,’ the pulsating notion of how much he wanted to impress, how greatly he desired to believe in himself. (pp. 7-8)

Sir Quentin insists that the work Fleur is to undertake at the Association is top secret, to the extent that the opening chapters of the autobiographies are kept in a locked cabinet in his London apartment. It is alleged that the contents of the memoirs are incendiary, full of revelations that ought not to be revealed for several years in case they cause distress to certain persons still alive. In reality, however, the drafts are rather dull and poorly written. As a consequence, Fleur is encouraged by Sir Quentin to spruce up (and maybe even spice up) the texts, giving her licence to act as an editor of sorts as she goes along.

The members of the Autobiographical Association (AA) are an eclectic bunch. There are six of them in total including a French Baroness of indeterminate age, a defrocked priest who has experienced a loss of faith, and an elaborately dressed woman who was raised at the Czar of Russia’s court. Another writer might have chosen to expand on the lives of these characters in more detail, but Spark decides – rather wisely in my opinion – to keep the focus on Fleur and her immediate world.

As Fleur goes about her work at the AA, she begins to suspect that Sir Quentin is involved in some kind of sinister racket – possibly one that involves blackmail, although the financial circumstances don’t seem to fit. He appears to be quite wealthy while most of the members of the Association are not; some of them are actually quite hard up.

To complicate matters further, the boundaries between ‘reality’ and ‘fiction’ begin to blur. Some of the people Fleur encounters in her job start to resemble characters from her novel, Warrender Chase. Certain events from her book play out in real life. Particular phrases reverberate and echo through each story as life begins to imitate art.

In my febrile state of creativity, I saw before my eyes how Sir Quentin was revealing himself chapter by chapter to be a type and consummation of Warrender Chase, my character. I could see that the members of the Autobiographical Association were about to become his victims, psychological Jack the Ripper as he was. (p. 42)

To reveal many more details of the plot might spoil things, I think. Suffice it to say that Spark has a lot of fun in playing out the rest of the novel, a story that involves theft, duplicity and a dash of intrigue.

There are some brilliant characters here. Sir Quentin is quite clearly a crank and a terrible snob, in thrall to a social class that is rapidly fading away.

Fleur herself is a very engaging narrator – funny, independent and a little bit absurd. She is very protective of her novel, Warrender Chase, even though she believes at the time that it may never be published. I don’t think we’re meant to take her entirely seriously, especially as there appears to be an element of unreliability in her narration. Maybe trying to disentangle ‘fiction’ and ‘reality’ is all part of the fun here.

Sir Quentin’s elderly mother, Lady Edwina, is another marvellous creation – complete with her glamorous tea gowns and immaculately painted nails, she has a penchant for the dramatic entrance. In spite of the fact that Sir Quentin and his housekeeper, the rather bossy Beryl Tims, believe Lady Edwina to be a little senile, Fleur quite correctly intuits that there is nothing wrong with this lady’s mind. Far from it; she is quite sharp with a wicked sense of humour to boot, all of which makes for some interesting interactions with Mrs Tims.

In this scene, Lady Edwina enters a meeting of the AA ‘as if it were a drawing-room tea party, holding up the proceedings with the blackmail of her very great age and of her newly revealed charm’. It’s a real delight.

She knew some of them by name, enquired of their families so solicitously that it hardly mattered that most of them were long since dead, and when Mrs Tims entered with the tea and soda buns on a tray, exclaimed, ‘Ah, Tims! What delightful things have you brought us?’ Beryl Tims was amazed to see her sitting there, wide awake, with her powdered face and her black satin tea dressed freshly spoiled at the neck and shoulders with a slight face-powder overflow. Mrs Tims was furious but she put on her English Rose simper and placed the tray with solicitude on the table beside old Edwina, who was at that moment enquiring of the unfrocked Father, ‘Are you the Rector of Wandsworth in civilian clothing?’ (pp. 30-31)

All in all, Loitering with Intent is another excellent novel by Muriel Spark, full of ideas and knowing nods to the power of fiction. (I find her a consistently inventive writer.) There are stories nested within other stories here: Fleur’s recollections of her time at the AA; the biographies of the AA members, ultimately augmented by various developments in the book; Fleur’s novel Warrender Chase, of which we learn more as Loitering unfolds.

I’ll finish with a final quote from Fleur as she reflects on her work as a writer, an observation that seems just as applicable to Spark herself.

When I first started writing people used to say my novels were exaggerated. They never were exaggerated, merely aspects of realism. (p. 65) 

I am a little early for Ali’s #ReadingMuriel2018 schedule, but you can discover more about her project to celebrate Spark’s centenary here.

Loitering with Intent is published by Virago; personal copy.