Tag Archives: Virago Modern Classics

The Children by Edith Wharton

First published in 1928, The Children is one of Edith Wharton’s later novels, published when the author was in her mid-sixties. Like much of Wharton’s fiction, it explores the moral complexities of socially unacceptable relationship – in this instance, one between a middle-aged man and a teenage girl. Wharton herself cited the novel as one of her favourites, as Marilyn French notes in her introduction to the Virago edition – my copy is a beautiful ‘green spine’ from the mid-1980s.

As the novel opens, Martin Boyne, an unmarried consultant engineer in his mid-forties, is travelling by ship from Algiers to Venice. From there, Martin will journey to Cortina in the Dolomites to join Rose Sellars, the recently widowed woman whom he hopes to marry, even though they haven’t seen one another for five years. The best-laid plans, however, rarely come to pass…

During the passage, Martin encounters fifteen-year-old Judith Wheater, the surrogate mother to her six siblings, three of whom are ‘steps’ or half-siblings. The children – who range in age from two or three to fifteen – are a lively, outspoken bunch, largely kept in line by the delightful Judith and her former governess, Miss Scope. Judith’s parents, Cliffe and Joyce Wheater, are living it up in Venice, caring little for the welfare of their children and assorted ‘steps’, preferring instead to give themselves over to the demands of the ongoing social whirl. Over the past two or three years, Judith has successfully protected the children from the fallout of various Wheater marriages, divorces, liaisons and remarriages, fighting hard to keep the brood together despite her parents’ whims and desires.

Martin is captivated by the children’s happiness and spontaneity, so much so that he agrees to remain in Venice for a few days to assist Judith in discussions with the Wheaters, whose latest attempt at remarriage is in danger of floundering. Judith is fearful that another rift between Cliffe and Joyce will result in children being split up – with the steps going back to their own equally self-absorbed parents, and the toddler, Chip, being separated from Judith and the twins, Terry and Blanca.

In particular, Martin is drawn to Judith with her blend of childlike innocence and impressive maturity. At fifteen, she is on the cusp of adulthood and everything that represents. All too soon, Martin’s feelings for Judith begin to tip over into a kind of infatuation – a fascination he finds hard to fully admit, even to himself.

“Woman—but she’s not a woman! She’s a child.” His thinking of her as anything else was the crowning absurdity of the whole business. Obscurely irritated with himself and her, he stood up, turning his back impatiently on the golden abyss of the apse. “Come along; it’s chilly here after our sun-bath. Gardens are best, after all.”

[…]

But outside in the sunlight, with the children leaping about her, and guiding her with joyful cries toward the outspread tea-things, she was instantly woman again—gay, competent, composed, and wholly mistress of the situation… (pp. 35-36)

As Martin becomes further entangled with the Wheaters, his relationship with Rose Sellars begins to be impacted. With her quiet, orderly approach, Rose is a beacon of stability and respectability, very much in line with the Old New York society Wharton knew so well.  

Yes; if Mrs Sellars excelled in one special art it was undoubtedly that of preparation. She led up to things—the simplest things—with the skill of a clever rider putting a horse at a five-barred gate. All her life had been a series of adaptations, arrangements, shifting of lights, lowering of veils, pulling about of screens and curtains. No one could arrange a room half so well; and she had arranged herself and her life just as skilfully. (p. 38)

Martin becomes so wedded to Judith’s desire for the children to remain together that he agrees to act their trial guardian, at least for the duration of the summer. By now, the children have joined him in the Dolomites, installing themselves in a local guest house to be close at hand. However, it is this commitment to the children that proves to be the sticking point between Martin and Rose. While Rose likes the young Wheaters and can sympathise with their predicament, she is also keen to formalise her new life with Martin, potentially moving to Paris with the aim of settling there. In effect, Martin must choose between two conflicting desires: Rose, the woman he has loved from afar for many years, and Judith, whose spontaneity and freedom from conventional norms have opened his eyes to new possibilities.  

In a world grown clockless and conscienceless, Boyne was still punctual and conscientious; and in this case he had schooled himself to think that what he most wanted was to see Rose Sellars again. Deep within him he knew it was not so; at least, not certainly so. Life had since given him hints of other things he might want equally, want even more; his reluctance to leave Venice and his newly-acquired friends showed that his inclinations were divided. But he belonged to a generation which could not bear to admit that naught may abide but mutability. He wanted the moral support of believing that the woman who had once seemed to fill his needs could do so still. She belonged to a world so much nearer to his than the Wheaters and their flock that he could not imagine how he could waver between the two. (pp. 81–82)

What Wharton does so well here is to illustrate the position in which Martin finds himself, caught as he is between two worlds, neither of which feels entirely comfortable. As a consequence of his experiences with Judith, Martin is reluctant to return to the moral world into which he was born, that of Old New York with its conventional principles and codes. And yet he cannot fully enter the children’s world either, characterised as it is by a lack of such constraints.

The degree to which Wharton enables the reader to sympathise with Martin is also very impressive. He feels a genuine sense of concern for the children’s welfare and emotional well-being, much more than their biological parents ever seem to demonstrate. The scenes where Martin is trying to negotiate with the Cliffe and Joyce Wheater are brilliantly observed, the couple proving to be virtually impossible to pin down for any length of time before the next social engagement beckons. The children too are beautifully portrayed in a way that is both entertaining and touching – at times their directness can be very comical.

In summary, this is a fascinating novel. Not quite as morally complex or intricate as The Age of Innocence or The House of Mirth, but absolutely worth reading if you’re a fan of Wharton’s work – there are elements here that will resonate, for sure.

Wave Me Goodbye, Stories of the Second World War, Part 1 – Jean Rhys, Elizabeth Taylor, Rose Macaulay and more.

Much as I love novels, there are occasions when I’d rather read a complete story in one sitting, particularly if time is short or my attention span is brief. Recently reissued by Virago, Wave Me Goodbye has proved to be a godsend in this respect. It’s is a fascinating anthology of stories by women writers, most of whom were writing during the Second World War (or the years immediately following its end).

Viewed as a whole, this collection offers a rich tapestry depicting the different facets of women’s lives during this period – from stoic mother and caregiver, to headstrong Land Girl or factory worker, to intrepid journalist or correspondent. We see individuals anxiously awaiting the return of loved ones; women grieving for lives that have been lost, and marriages that have faded or turned sour. The mood and atmosphere on the Home Front are vividly conveyed, through stories of nights in the air raid shelters and the emotional impact of the Blitz. Plus, there are glimpses of Europe too, from the ravages of war-torn France to the tensions in Romania as the conflict edges ever closer. 

As with other story collections I’ve reviewed, I’m not going to cover each piece in detail – there are twenty-eight of them in total! Instead, my aim is to give you a flavour of the highlights and what to expect from the book as a whole. Luckily, there are some real standouts here, well worth the entry price of the collection alone. (This is the first of two pieces about this anthology, with the second to follow later this week.)

I’ve already written about two of my favourite stories included here. In Elizabeth Taylor’s Gravement Endommagé a married couple – Richard and Louise – drive through the war-ravaged countryside of France, the destruction of the buildings around them only serving to mirror the damaged nature of their relationship. This excellent story appears in Taylor’s collection Hester Lilly, which I can highly recommend.

Goodbye My Love by Mollie Panter-Downes is another familiar piece. Here, a young woman must face the agonising countdown to her husband’s departure for war, only for the clock to be 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. You can find this and more of MPD’s excellent stories in Good Evening, Mrs Craven – another stellar collection of fiction from WW2.

In Rose Macaulay’s Miss Anstruther’s Letters, we are plunged straight into the titular character’s pain as she must come to terms with the loss of her most treasured possession – a collection of letters from her lover of more than twenty years, the papers now charred and turned to ashes following a bombing raid in the Blitz.

Miss Ansthruther, whose life had been cut in two on the night of the 10 May 1941, so that she now felt herself a ghost, without attachments or habitation, neither of which she any longer desired, sat alone in the bed-sitting-room she had taken, a small room, littered with the grimy, broken and useless objects which she had salvaged from the burnt-out ruin round the corner. It was one of the many burnt-out ruins of that wild night when high explosives and incendiaries had rained on London and the water had run short; it was now a gaunt and roofless tomb, a pile of ashes and rubble and burnt, smashed beams. Where the floors of twelve flats had been, there was empty space. (p. 50)

In the days following the bombing, Miss Anstruther embarks on a search for any remaining traces of the letters, desperately scrabbling around among the ashes and rubble, but to very little available. Other, less precious items have been salvaged, but not the missives she so badly desires. As this heartbreaking story unfolds, we realise the depth of her loss – not just for the letters themselves, but for the life they once encapsulated.

Jean Rhys’s I Spy a Stranger is another standout, a story that highlights the damaging effects of suspicion, prejudices and small-town gossip, issues that remain all too relevant today. In this brilliantly-executed story, Laura has returned to England to stay with her cousin, Mrs Hudson, Laura’s former life in Europe having been decimated by the war. Partly as a consequence of her ‘foreignness’, and partly because she is emotionally damaged, Laura is viewed as a threat by the locals, someone to be feared and despised. Suspicion is rife – slurs are cast, arguments erupt, and poison-pen letters are pushed through the door. There comes a point when the townsfolk cannot take any more, especially when there are residents’ reputations to consider.

[Mrs Hudson:] “…Somebody has started a lot of nasty talk. They’ve found out that you [Laura] lived abroad a long time and that when you had to leave – Central Europe, you went to France. They say you only came home when you were forced to, and they’re suspicious. Considering everything, you can’t blame them, can you?” “No,” she [Laura] said, it’s one of the horrible games they’re allowed to play to take their minds off the real horror.” That’s the sort of thing she used to come out with. (pp. 110-111)

This is a powerful, distressing story of the hidden trauma of war. As ever with Rhys, the technique is masterful. The tale is relayed by Mrs Hudson to her sister following the outcome of events, with a gradual reveal of the full tragedy of Laura’s history and subsequent situation.

The return home on leave is a recurring theme in a number of the stories here. Dorothy Parker’s The Lovely Leave is a great example of this, as a young wife battles with her conflicting emotions during her husband’s lightning visit. On the one hand, the woman knows she must try to make the most of their brief time together, while on the other, she is jealous of the companionship and camaraderie her husband is experiencing among the air corps. In truth, these feelings are born out of a sense of fear or insecurity, a natural consequence of a disrupted marriage.

In Sylvia Townsend Warner’s Poor Mary, the traditional marital roles are reversed as a conscientious objector husband (now working on the land) awaits the return of his wife from her role in the Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS). It is four years since these two individuals have seen one another, a gap that has magnified their differences rather than diminishing them in any way. 

Three hours earlier the bed had not seemed his own, now his living-room was not his either, but some sort of institutional waiting-room where two people had made an inordinate mess of a meal. (p. 236)

That’s it for today, but I hope this post has whetted your appetite for this wide-ranging collection of women’s fiction from WW2. Join me again later this week when I’ll be covering some of the other stories in the collection, including pieces from Barbara Pym, Beryl Bainbridge, Olivia Manning and Elizabeth Bowen. I can promise you flashes of dry, darkly comic humour in some of these stories, particularly those by Bainbridge and Pym. 

The Weather in the Streets by Rosamond Lehmann

The English writer Rosamond Lehmann seems to fall somewhere in the intersection between Elizabeth Taylor and Virginia Woolf, her modernist style and piercing insight into character marking her out as a writer of great skill and distinction. The Weather in the Streets (1936) is a sequel to Lehmann’s earlier novel, Invitation to the Waltz, in which seventeen-year-old Olivia Curtis is captivated at her first society ball by the dashing Rollo Spencer. Nothing much comes of their meeting on the terrace at the time. Rollo belongs to a higher social class than Olivia and remains somewhat out of her reach, and yet she is mesmerised by him all the same.

In Weather – which is set ten years later – a chance encounter brings Olivia into contact with Rollo once again, and an illicit relationship soon follows, forming the focus of the narrative. While Invitation is a very good novel – encapsulating the blend of excitement and apprehension we feel when we’re young – Weather is on an entirely different level altogether. It’s a remarkable book, one that expertly captures the cruelty, frustration and devastation of a doomed love affair in the most glittering prose.

As the novel opens, Olivia is working as a photographer’s assistant in London, where she lives with her cousin, Etty. Having separated from her husband, Ivor, two years earlier, Olivia now has a dull, unfulfilling marriage behind her; the couple, however, are not legally divorced.

While travelling home to see her father who is seriously ill with pneumonia, Olivia has the misfortune of being seated opposite Rollo on the train – a chance encounter that rekindles longstanding emotions within Olivia as she recalls their previous meeting at the ball. Rollo is wealthy, privileged and attractive. He is also married, but the marriage is not a particularly happy one – his wife, Nicola, is delicate, fragile and highly strung, an earlier miscarriage having precipitated something of an emotional withdrawal on her part.

Lehmann excels at conveying the rush of conflicting emotions Olivia experiences on seeing Rollo again, the desire to open up vs the tendency towards self-protection. The author holds the reader close to Olivia, giving us near-direct access to her thoughts alongside the couple’s conversation.

[Rollo] “…You going home, too?”

[Olivia] “Yes…Yes, I’m going home. Just for a few days.”

“D’you often come down?”

“No–-not very often really. No, I don’t.” She stopped, feeling stubborn, choked by the usual struggle of conflicting impulses: to explain, to say nothing; to trust, to be suspicious; lightly to satisfy natural curiosity; to defy it with furious scorn and silence; to let nobody come too near me… (p. 18)

When Rollo contacts Olivia again, the inevitable affair swiftly follows. While there are a few halcyon days in the country, the liaison is largely a frustrating one. It’s a clandestine relationship played out in fragments of time snatched here and there; of secret meetings in dark, secluded restaurants and stuffy, sordid hotel rooms. Once again, Lehmann’s portrayal of this world is brilliant, the dampness of the London winter providing the perfect backdrop to the dispiriting, claustrophobic tone of the affair. 

Beyond the glass casing I was in, was the weather, were the winter streets in rain, wind, fog, in the fine frosty days and nights, the mild, damp grey ones. Pictures of London winter the other side of the glass–-not reaching the body; no wet ankles, muddy stockings, blown hair, cold-aching cheeks, fog-smarting eyes, throat, nose…not my usual bus-taking London winter. It was always indoors or in taxis or in his warm car; it was mostly in the safe dark, or in half-light in the deepest corner of the restaurant, as out of sight as possible. Drawn curtains, shaded lamp, or only the fire… (p. 145)

On the surface, Rollo seems to be attracted to Olivia, calling her ‘darling’ and buying her expensive jewellery now and again; and yet for the reader, the warning signs are plain to see. Alongside his admiration for other women, Rollo clearly dislikes any unseemly displays of emotion on Olivia’s part. Moreover, when Olivia finally expresses her frustration with a relationship in which she comes second to Nicola every time, Rollo is shocked and surprised. In short, he seems blind to the idea that Olivia might not be happy with the existing arrangements, their occasional meetings by secrecy and stealth. 

We were silent. What was plain was what hadn’t been said. Never once, not even in the joyful, grateful, amazing beginning days, had he…no, not once…put her second–-broken a plan made for, by, with her to stay with me…Not once. Nothing explicit ever said. Nothing crude or marital to hurt my feelings, but–-well, there it is…I should have thought of it all before, I should have gone on being content with a half-share. I shouldn’t have gone to that house… (p. 194)

While Olivia lives a relatively independent, bohemian life, spending her days with artists and photographers, she is at heart a very vulnerable, sensitive woman – someone who craves reassurance and approval from others. Her love for Rollo is absolute and unshakable, blinding her to the damaging consequences of this ill-fated affair.

As the affair plays out, Lehmann perfectly captures the agony Olivia experiences as she waits for Rollo to contact her; the desperation of being caught in limbo, awaiting a letter or phone call, is keenly felt.

Third time of ringing up Rollo’s house: third time unlucky. These voices speaking for him made him mythical, removed him far out of reach, guarding him like a public personage in an artificially important world. This time it was a different voice again: the muted voice, benevolent, of an old retainer…Familiar somehow, surely…Who could it be?

There was nothing to do but wait for a letter. Surely he must write. Why hasn’t he?…He’ll write the moment he gets my letter, or, anyway, my wire…Who forwarded that? Uncomfortable thought…signed Liv.

It doesn’t matter. (p. 262)

The story of an extramarital affair may seem like a numbingly familiar one, but what sets this novel apart from others in the genre is Lehmann’s understanding of character, her ability to convey the rush of conflicting emotions on the page. In Lehmann’s hands, this becomes a devastating portrait of a woman who loves someone desperately but is unable to express her feelings openly due to the constraints of society. There is a terrific appreciation of the cruel nuances of the class structure here, particularly in the exchanges between Olivia and Lady Spencer, Rollo’s openly warm but inherently class-conscious mother. Nothing must be seen to taint the respectability of Rollo and Nicola’s marriage; reputation and social standing are everything in this world, not unlike the kind of society Edith Wharton portrays in her New York novels, The Age of Innocence and The House of Mirth.

This a story that will resonate with anyone who has found themselves being swept up by the passions and disappointments of an illicit affair. The modernity of Lehmann’s prose, with its passages of stream-of-consciousness and fluid style, makes the novel feel fresh and alive, certainly well ahead of its time for the mid-1930s. And yet, Lehmann doesn’t shy away from tackling the harsh realities and unpleasant consequences of a liaison in this era. There are scenes here that would have seemed shocking in 1936, elements that Lehmann insisted should remain in the book despite the impassioned concerns of her transatlantic publishers.

In short, this is a beautiful, devastating, deeply affecting novel that captures the cruelty and desolation of Olivia’s situation to perfection. One of the very best novels I’ve read so far this year.

The Weather in the Streets is published by Virago Press; personal copy

A Wreath of Roses by Elizabeth Taylor

Readers of this blog will be familiar with my love of Elizabeth Taylor’s fiction, the perfectly executed stories of human nature, the small-scale dramas of domestic life, typically characterised by careful observation and insight. First published in 1949, A Wreath of Roses is one of Taylor’s earliest novels – and quite possibly her darkest too with its exploration of fear, loneliness, mortality and lies. It also feels like one of her most accomplished works, a novel in which the characters seem credible and fully realised in light of the interactions that take place during. (In short, I adored it.)

As the novel opens, Camilla – an unmarried secretary at a girls’ school – is travelling by train to Abingford where she will spend the summer with her friend, Liz, and Liz’s former governess, Frances. The holiday is an annual tradition, hosted by Frances – now a mature spinster – in her cottage in the country.

The novel’s unsettling tone is evident right from the start when a horrific incident occurs at the station as Camilla is waiting for her train. As a consequence, Camilla is drawn into conversation with a stranger – also a witness to the event – even though he is the type of man she would generally avoid. Their exchange is prickly, somewhat terse in fact; and yet Camilla finds herself strangely attracted to this man with his air of mystery and good looks.

The stranger is Richard Elton, a man who claims to be travelling to Abingford on a sort of nostalgia trip, having visited the location as a child. The reader, however, will soon begin to doubt the veracity of Elton’s account, peppered as it is with clues to the man’s true background and persona. While Camilla doesn’t like Elton, she is drawn to him – enough to make a mental note that he will be staying at The Griffin pub during his visit.

Once the two friends – Liz and Camilla – are installed in Frances’ cottage, it becomes clear that the lives of all three woman are in flux. Concerned that she has wasted too much of her life teaching children, the aged Frances is preoccupied with thoughts of the transience of life and her impending mortality.

‘No one ever came to me,’ she [Frances] thought. ‘I never lay in bed and talked to anyone. But I felt tenderness for people, and love. Hid it, though, with my prim ways as soon Camilla will, and from the same motives, fear and pride. Pride does not come before a fall. Nothing happens after pride. It closes the way. Life does not come to us. Or comes too late…’ (p. 144)

Painting remains a significant interest for Frances, something she has cultivated for many years. Recently, however, her style has changed dramatically from the gentle portraits and scenes of still life to more ferocious, abstract works. Camilla is particularly worried about the degree to which Frances has aged over the past year, now viewing her host as rather frail and diminished in spirit.

As for Camilla’s relationship with Liz, there are worrying signs of change here too. Much to Camilla’s annoyance, Liz is wrapped up in the care of her baby, a new arrival on the scene since the friends’ last holiday together the previous summer. To make matters worse, Camilla has taken a dislike to Liz’s husband, Arthur, whom she views as rather boring and self-important, especially as he seems to be more interested in the women of his parish than in Liz.

In truth, the two friends are opposites of one another. While Liz is warm, outgoing and capricious, Camilla is cold, sarcastic and self-contained. In her defence against life’s disappointments, Camilla has surrounded herself with a kind of protective armour, a shell that accentuates her withdrawal from the world. If she is not careful, Camilla may end up like Frances – a rather forthright older woman preoccupied with her artworks.

In her youth, discipline, over-niceness had isolated her [Camilla]. Shyness, perhaps, or pride, had started her off in life with a false step, on the wrong foot. The first little mistake initiated all the others. So life gathered momentum and bore her away; she became colder, prouder, more deeply committed; and, because she had once refused, no more was offered. Her habit now was negative. A great effort would be needed to break out of this isolation, which was her punishment from life for having been too exclusive; she must be humbled, be shamed in her own eyes, scheme and dissemble for what she wanted or it would be too late. (p. 82)

It is against this background – the sense that life is passing her by, a feeling of jealousy and exclusion from Liz’s new life – that Camilla falls prey to the charms of the sinister Richard Elton. Taylor is brilliant at capturing the deceptions we create for ourselves, the degree of tension in our emotions as they shift and change. There is a sense that Camilla is at least partially aware of Elton’s shortcomings, his insincerity and shallowness; and yet, she persists in making a play for him to counteract her loneliness. In part, she views her attraction to Elton as something of an adventure, a much-needed element of excitement in her life.

Others, however, are more suspicious of Elton, viewing him as a potentially dangerous influence on Camilla (and other women too). Perhaps the most significant individual here is the perceptive Morland Beddoes, a longstanding admirer of Frances’ paintings (and the artist herself), who has come to Abingford to meet the object of his desire. Mr Beddoes keeps bumping into Elton around the town, observing his behaviour with interest and suspicion. It is Beddoes whom Elton is most worried about, fearing him to be a member of the authorities or the police.  

He [Elton] had always told lies, always invented sources of self-pity. If he had an audience, he was saved. When he was alone, he was afraid. He had banished reality and now it was as if he were only reflected back from the mirrors of other people’s minds.

And he was frightened of Mr Beddoes. He felt him to be more than a match for him, with his quiet waiting game. But he would escape him. In two days, three days, he would slip away. And tonight the thought of meeting Camilla offered a temporary safety. (p.190)

There is a sinister undercurrent running through this novel, largely due to Richard Elton and our fears of his psychopathic tendencies. (It is clear – to the reader at least – that Elton is on the run from something terrible, possibly serious enough to be reported in the newspapers.)

Alongside this darkness, there is some brightness too, especially in Taylor’s slyly humorous portrait of Mrs Parsons, Frances’ gossipy charlady. Taylor is particularly good on chars, and Mrs Parsons is one of the best examples, replete with her worries over daughter, Euniss, being ‘in trouble’ – either as a consequence of her intended, Ernie, or the man who came to read the gas meter (name unknown). There are also some lovely descriptive passages in the portrayal of Abingford, a typically English town during a hot and oppressive summer.

Alongside the leading players, the minor characters are fully realised, too – most notably Morland Beddoes, Frances’ thoughtful admirer. Taylor’s insights into the ‘smallness’ of Beddoes’ life are beautifully observed, conveying a sense of the things this man has missed out on over time. Nevertheless, Frances’ paintings have been a source of great pleasure for Mr Beddoes, enabling him to see the beauty in life either differently or more clearly.

In summary, then, A Wreath of Roses is a brilliantly realised novel of deceptions, fears, loneliness and unsuitable attachments. The ending is especially unnerving, opening up a new seam of darkness in Taylor’s writing for me. As a consequence, this novel is right up there with my other favourites by Taylor: A View of the Harbour, The Soul of Kindness and, of course, Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont – any of which I would be happy to revisit at some point in the future.

A Wreath of Roses is published by Virago press; personal copy.  

Recent Reads – The Memory Police; Square Haunting; Excellent Women

One of the perverse by-products of the current lockdown is the fact that I have more time to read and write at the moment, even if my ability to concentrate isn’t the best. So, in the spirit of trying to keep a record of my reading, here are a few brief thoughts on some of the books that have captured my imagination over the past few weeks.

The Memory Police by Yoko Ogawa (1994), tr. By Stephen Snyder (2019)

A haunting, beautifully-written novel about memory, loss and the holes left in our hearts when memories disappear.

The novel is set on an unnamed island where specific objects have been vanishing from day-to-day life for several years. Birds, perfume, bells, stamps – these are some of the things that have been ‘disappeared’, no longer in existence either as physical objects or as memories in the minds of the islanders.

The disappearance of the birds, as with so many other things, happened suddenly one morning. When I opened my eyes, I could sense something strange, almost rough, about the quality of the air. The sign of a disappearance. […] I got up, put on a sweater, and went out into the garden. The neighbours were all outside, too, peering around anxiously. The dog in the next yard was growling softly.

Then I spotted a small brown creature flying high up in the sky. It was plump, with what appeared to be a tuft of white feathers at its breast. I had just begun to wonder whether it was one of the creatures I had seen with my father when I realized that everything I knew about them had disappeared from inside me: my memories of them, my feelings about them, the very meaning of the word “bird” – everything. (p. 10)

The disappearances are enforced by the Memory Police, an authoritarian group who go around looking for any remaining traces of ‘disappeared’ items. Moreover, the Police also play a role in tracking down any islanders who can recall erased items, rounding them up for further investigation.

The novel’s narrator is a writer; and her editor, R, is one of the few individuals with the ability to remember some of these things – namely, the existence of emeralds, perfume and other forgotten items. As the narrative unfolds, we follow the narrator’s attempts to conceal her editor from the authorities while simultaneously trying to work on her novel – the premise of which has a certain resonance with the broader story. 

Ogawa’s thoughtful, meditative novel has been widely reviewed elsewhere, so rather than wittering on about it here, I shall direct you to various other posts – particularly those by Claire, Eric and Grant – which cover it in more detail. When I think about this book, what strikes me most is how poignant it feels right now, at a time when so many of the things we have taken for granted for years are no longer accessible to us – at least for the foreseeable future. It’s a very thought-provoking read, particularly given the current global crisis – definitely recommended reading.

Square Haunting by Francesca Wade (2020)

I’ll keep this one brief, not because of any concerns about the book – it’s actually incredibly good! – but for other, purely personal reasons. In short, I’ve always found it harder to write about non-fiction than fiction, especially when a book is as meticulously researched as this.

Square Haunting is a fascinating collection of mini-biographies, focusing on five female inhabitants of Bloomsbury’s Mecklenburgh Square, primarily covering the interwar years. The women in question are:

  • Hilda Doolittle (H. D.) – modernist poet, in residence 1916-18;
  • Dorothy L. Sayers – writer of detective fiction, in residence 1920-21;
  • Jane Ellen Harrison – classicist and translator, in residence 1926-28;
  • Eileen Power – historian, broadcaster and pacifist, in residence 1922–40;
  • Virginia Woolf – writer and publisher, in residence 1939-40.

What I really like about this book is the way the author uses Mecklenburgh Square as a prism through which to view the lives of these pioneering women, painting a rich tapestry of life within London’s cultural milieu from the end of WW1 to the beginning of WW2. In addition to presenting a snapshot of each woman’s life, Wade also enables us to glimpse other notable figures of the day – writers such as D.H Lawrence and Lytton Strachey, for example – on the edges of various social circles. There are some surprising connections between the lives of the various inhabitants of Mecklenburgh Square, relationships that make this location seem all the more intriguing.

In summary, Square Haunting is an erudite, evocative and beautifully constructed book. Highly recommended for anyone with an interest in London’s social/cultural scene in the 1920s and ‘30s.

Excellent Women by Barba Pym (1952)

Finally, for this post at least, I’ve been revisiting Excellent Women, a novel I first wrote about back in 2016. The Backlisted Podcast team will be covering it in their next episode – due to land on Monday 13th April – hence the reason for my recent reread.

Once again, I’ll keep this brief – you can read my initial impressions of the book by clicking on the link above. What I will say is that it’s perfect lockdown reading. Reassuringly comforting and familiar, but with enough insight into the world of its protagonist to elevate it into the literary sphere.

In short, the novel is narrated by Mildred, a spinster in her early thirties, one of those ‘excellent women’ who can be relied on to offer a kind word or a cup of tea when needed. The trouble is, Mildred ends up getting drawn into other people’s messy business, particularly as it is often assumed that she has no real life of her own.

I suppose an unmarried woman just over thirty, who lives alone and has no apparent ties, must expect to find herself involved or interested in other people’s business, and if she is also a clergyman’s daughter then one might really say that there is no hope for her. (p. 1)

It’s a charming novel, one in which the most pressing concerns involve flower arranging and making plans for the forthcoming church bazaar. If only real life were as simple as this; we can but wish…Anyway, do tune into Backlisted once the podcast is up; it’s bound to be a good one.

The Memory Police is published by Harvill Secker; my thanks to the publishers for kindly providing a reading copy. Square Haunting is published by Faber & Faber, and Excellent Women by Virago Books; both personal copies.

The Skin Chairs by Barbara Comyns

The novels of Barbara Comyns continue to be a source of fascination for me, from the wonderfully matter-of-fact Our Spoons Came from Woolworths – widely considered to be a lightly fictionalised account of the author’s first marriage – to the evocative Mr Fox, a poignant tale set in the midst of WW2. My latest discovery is The Skins Chairs, first published in 1962 but sadly currently out of print. It’s vintage Comyns, shot through with a clever blend of the macabre and the mundane that characterises her work. Needless to say, I absolutely adored it.

The novel is narrated by Frances, a ten-year-old girl with just the right mix of wide-eyed innocence and active curiosity about the world around her. As the story opens, Frances – one of six children – is sent by her mother to stay with the Lawrences, a family of ‘horsey’ relatives who live in Leicestershire. Aunt Lawrence is a spiteful, domineering woman, intent on belittling Frances and her rather impoverished family, making light of their father and his work for a mattress company. (Frances’ father is in fact a legal adviser to the firm, a role that Aunt Lawrence appears to have forgotten, preferring instead to imply he is a lowly labourer. There is quite a lot snobbery in this novel, particularly amongst the Lawrences.) The Lawrence girls – eighteen-year-old Ruby and thirteen-year-old Grace – are little better than their mother, adding to the bleak atmosphere at the rather gothic Tower Hill.  It is only once Frances’ father dies that the Lawrences begin to show a degree of sympathy for the girl.

While the novel contains a certain amount of plot – mostly revolving around Frances’ return to her family and their quest to scrape by in reduced circumstances – it is perhaps more concerned with Frances as an individual and her experiences of the things she encounters. There is such pleasure to be gained from seeing the world through this young girl’s eyes, complete with its inherent strangeness and curiosities. Naturally, Comyns conveys this vision with the most wonderful turns of phrase, ranging from the striking to the humorous to the downright surreal. At one point in the story, Ruby takes Frances to the General’s house to the see the ‘skin chairs’, a collection of artefacts brought back from the Boer War. As it turns out, five of the chairs were made from the skins of black men and one from white…

One chair certainly was lighter than the rest and I carefully sat on it, expecting something strange to happen; but it was exactly like sitting in any other uncomfortable chair. My bare arms touched the back and, remembering what it was made of, I stood up and wiped my arms with my handkerchief. With a feeling of awe I gazed at the chairs thinking of the poor skinless bodies buried somewhere in Africa. Did their souls ever come to see what had happened to their skins or had they forgotten all about them? How had the General brought the skins back? And did the workmen who covered the chairs know what gruesome work they were doing? (p. 19)

The narrative is studded with grotesque images, from the infamous skin chairs to the details of Frances’ nightmares to the General’s contorted face following a severe stroke. All these elements add to the rather morbid feel of the novel as the spectre of death is never far away.

Alongside the eerie imagery, there are various surreal touches dotted through the novel – weirdly off-kilter observations that feel so striking to the reader, particularly given the unvarnished nature of Frances’ tone of voice. As with Sophia in Our Spoons, it is the matter-of-factness of Frances’ delivery that makes these reflections seem so arresting. In the following passage, Frances is thinking about Mrs Alexander, an eccentric lady with ‘a kind of ravaged, fabulous beauty, like some old and exotic doll in a museum, glittering and dusty’. Mrs Alexander has taken a shine to Frances, much to the young girl’s concern, particularly given the unsettling nature of the Mrs A’s claustrophobic home.

There was a lot about monkeys: her house was full of them. And she had once kept a bear, but people had complained because it used to break into church during the services, and it had to be given to a zoo. ‘I sometimes wonder why I ever returned to England, so many unpleasant things happen here.’ (pp. 106-107)

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Lawrences consider Mrs Alexander to be quite mad; but in truth she is a lonely, unconventional lady, albeit one with outlandish ideas.

What Comyns captures so well in this novel is the way in which children can often be excellent, intuitive judges of character without fully understanding the complexities or underlying motivations at play. Frances knows that Vanda – a somewhat frivolous and careless young widow who lives nearby – is neglectful of her undernourished baby and yet she is not quite old enough to appreciate why this might be the case. Consequently, Frances grows quite attached to young Jane (and vice versa), visiting and helping to take care of her when she can.

Several of the adult characters are pretty frightful, from the venomous Aunt Lawrence with her pretentious ideals to the feckless Vanda whose disregard for Jane results in near tragedy. The most striking exception to this rule is Mr Blackwell, a kindly man who befriends Frances following his move to Springfield (the property once occupied by the General). Mr Blackwell’s friendship is a source of much brightness for Frances and her family, easing their money worries following several years of poverty.

Alongside the poignancy and dark humour, there are some beautiful descriptive passages here, packed full of detail on the intricacies of Frances’ world. In the following passage, Frances reimagines each room in her childhood home, a technique she uses to stave off the horrific nightmares after her father’s death.

To keep myself awake and to calm myself I would go through each room at home so that it almost seemed as if I was there. I tried to recall everything they contained: the yellow rug in the drawing-room, which we used to cut pieces from to make dolls’ wigs; the faded morning-room curtains with monkeys climbing up them – it was always a sign that summer was coming when they were hung; the enormous brass bedstead in the spare room, all draped in chintz curtains, with its feather mattress – sometimes we slept there when we were ill, because it was on the sunny side of the house, and Father used to thump the mattress to make a hollow for us to lie in. (p. 30)

In short, this is a magical novel in which a bright, curious girl must navigate some of the challenges of adolescence. It is by turns funny, eerie, poignant and bewitching. A spellbinding read, one that reminds me a little of Angela Carter’s The Magic Toyshop and Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle. I can’t recommend it more highly than that.

The Skin Chairs was published by Virago Books (currently out of print); personal copy.

In a Summer Season by Elizabeth Taylor

Longstanding readers of this blog will be aware of my fondness for Elizabeth Taylor and her beautifully executed stories of human behaviour – the small-scale dramas of a domestic nature, typically portrayed with great insight and attention to detail. In a Summer Season is no exception to the rule – a novel of love, family tensions and the fragile nature of changing relationships, all conveyed with this author’s characteristic economy of style.

The novel revolves around Kate Heron, previously widowed and now married to Dermot, a man ten years her junior. Also living with the Herons at their comfortable home in Denham are Kate’s children from her first marriage: twenty-two-year-old Tom, who is struggling to please his punctilious grandfather in the family business, and sixteen-year-old Louisa, a slightly awkward teenager home from boarding school for the holidays. Completing the immediate family are Kate’s elderly aunt, Ethel, a kindly, sharp-eyed woman who delights in noting the smallest of developments in the Herons’ marital relationship, and the cook, Mrs Meacock, who longs to travel and compile an anthology of sayings.

Kate’s relationship with Dermot is a very different affair to that of her previous marriage to Alan. Where Alan was cultured and dependable, Dermot is uninformed and aimless, failing to hold down any kind of job for more than a few weeks – a situation that frequently leaves him short of money when he most desires it. While Kate is aware of many of Dermot shortcomings, she accepts them relatively willingly, believing herself to be liberated in this new relationship. Dermot, for his part, also seems to be very taken with Kate, the emotion of love being a relatively new experience for him, albeit one that comes with its own anxieties.

Nevertheless, the marriage has its weak spots, a point that becomes abundantly clear when an old family friend of Kate’s returns following a period abroad. Into the mix comes Charles, an attractive widower who was previously married to Kate’s best friend, Dorothea, a woman much missed by those closest to her. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Dermot – who has never met Charles before – is destabilised by the presence of this newcomer with his easy, sophisticated charm and intimacy with Kate. Consequently, Dermot cannot resist going on the offensive with Charles, a development that Taylor conveys with her trademark intuition and skill.

‘What will you imbibe?’ he [Dermot] asked, smiling to himself as he took up the decanter. He picked these phrases with care and uttered them precisely and maliciously, watching keenly for a sign from Charles – for the slightest flicker of distaste; but Charles stayed bland and vague. As the glass of sherry was handed over, their eyes met for the first time that evening, and it was Charles who looked away first. (p. 184–185)

It’s a situation exacerbated by Dermot’s fondness for drink and predilection for petty quarrels. As the tension builds, the fault lines in the Heron marriage are exposed, with Kate adopting an air of edgy restlessness and Dermot responding to her mood accordingly.

There were voices in the kitchen, and then Kate came bustling in. Ever since a few evenings before, when Dermot returning drunk and late for dinner had spoken harshly to her, she had moved in a bright little whirlwind of her own making, with not a minute to spare for anyone. She was always on the wing, setting out on one errand after another, and no one could hope to detain her or say a word that would be listened to. Their words were what she dreaded – their thoughts she knew – and, trapped at mealtimes, she warded them off with a torrent of her own. The flow was more easily come by when she had had several drinks. In attaining this end, Dermot, full of uneasy contrition, was ready to encourage her. (p. 185)

Meanwhile, Kate’s children are experiencing relationship troubles of their own…

Having worked his way through a succession of casual relationships with attractive young women, Tom finds himself hopelessly in love with Charles’ daughter, the cool and glamorous Araminta – now utterly transformed from the uncomplicated girl he knew as a child. Araminta – sophisticated, distant and supremely comfortable in her own skin – looks set to drive Tom wild with her nonchalant behaviour and air of mystique.

‘Will she [Araminta] ever look like this again’, Tom wondered, ‘– in that frock and with her hair like that and the two of us alone?’ He wished that Dermot would be done with staring at her bosom. ‘This bloody, damned family gathering,’ he thought furiously. ‘The mix-up of the age-groups, the cramping fools the this, the that, the rubbishy tedium of it all, with the bloody everlasting chatter, sitting for hours at the table with pins and needles in my feet, all the sodding knives and forks. Aunt Ethel with her surreptitious pill-taking. “Have you seen anything of old so-and-so lately?” “No, old son, I can’t off-hand say as I bloody have.”’ (p. 129)

For Louisa, the challenges of growing up are somewhat different, attracted as she is to Father Blizzard, the local curate. With little fuss being made of her at home, Louisa finds solace in her friendship with the clergyman, even though she wishes it could be something more romantic. (In truth, she misses her father terribly, a loss that has destabilised her sense of comfort and security at home.) Father Blizzard, for his part, is also unsettled, relegated to visiting the least important parishioners while the Vicar keeps the most prestigious parish duties to himself.

Meanwhile, Aunt Ethel is busy observing developments from the sidelines, documenting every intricacy of Kate and Dermot’s relationship in a sequence of gossipy letters to her friend, Gertrude, a fellow suffragette from days of old. As far as Ethel sees things, Kate is far too colourful for her age one minute and rather irritable or over-tired the next.

In a Summer Season is an exquisitely observed novel of the different manifestations of love – from the muddles of Kate’s love for Dermot, to the anxieties of Tom’s adoration for Araminta, to the simplicities of Louisa’s affection for Father Blizzard. As ever with Taylor, the characters are perfectly drawn, complete with little idiosyncrasies and details that make them feel authentic and believable. She is an author adept at catching people in their most private of moments, exposing their anxieties and failings alongside their hopes and dreams. Even the supporting players are beautifully realised, from the watchful Aunt Ethel with her penchant for the cello to the genial young curate with his leanings towards Catholicism.

It’s a novel full of perceptive observations about the changing nature of relationships, the differences in attitudes between the generations, how productively (or not) we spend our time, and the challenges or fears of ageing. The heat and sensuality of an English summer are also beautifully evoked.

While the novel’s denouement is rather dramatic and sobering, much of the narrative is shot through with dashes of sly humour – as evidenced by the passage on Tom and Araminta quoted earlier. (There are some wonderful set-pieces in the novel, mostly revolving around family dinners and social gatherings, events that enable Taylor to flex her social observation skills to the full.)

As the narrative draws to a close, certain individuals find their lives altered forever, a fateful reminder of the transient nature of the seasons in more senses than one. This is an excellent novel, full of insight and lucidity about love and its various complexities. Very highly recommended indeed.

In a Summer Season is published by Virago; personal copy.

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.