Tag Archives: Virago

You’ll Enjoy it When You Get There by Elizabeth Taylor – stories from The Blush

I’ve been reading some of Elizabeth Taylor’s stories over the last month or so, dipping in and out of her collections in between novels and other things. Even though I already had some of the old green Viragos, I couldn’t resist buying this beautiful NYRB edition of a selection of her stories curated by Margaret Drabble. The NYRB – You’ll Enjoy it When You Get There – comprises twenty-nine stories from different phases of Taylor’s career including seven from her 1958 collection The Blush. These are the stories I’m going to cover in this piece. (I’ve already written about her earlier collection, Hester Lilly – link here.)

As regular readers of this blog will know, I’ve written before about my admiration for Taylor – in particular, her ability to capture a character in one or two perfectly judged sentences. In almost every case, these individuals are drawn in such a way that conveys an acute understanding of their immediate situation – their hopes and dreams, their day-to-day preoccupations and concerns.

Even though these stories were written sixty years ago, the emotions they portray are still universally recognisable today. Here we see people facing up to dashed dreams, acute social embarrassment and the realities of their lonely, marginalised lives.

In The Blush, a respectable middle-class woman, Mrs Allen, gets inadvertently drawn into the private life of her daily help, the ever-grumbling Mrs Lacey. It is only when Mrs Allen receives a visit from the woman’s husband that the depth of Mrs Lacey’s deception of those around her becomes truly apparent.

He was a man utterly, bewilderedly at sea. His married life had been too much for him, with so much in it that he could not understand. (p. 117)

This is an interesting story, quite short but very effective.

Next up we have The Letter-Writers, which is probably my favourite piece here. In this story, a lonely middle-aged woman named Emily is preparing to meet a man she has been writing letters to for the last ten years. Over the years, she has confided such intimacies in Edmund – at a distance he had seemed so approachable and attentive.

As she waits for Edmund to arrive at her cottage for lunch, Emily worries that their meeting will be a mistake. Can she live up to the impressions created by her letters? Will Edmund be disappointed by the real Emily once he meets her in the flesh? Will he ever write to her again?

She had been so safe with him. They could not have wounded one another, but now they might. In ten years there had been no inadvertent hurts of rivalry, jealousy, or neglect. It had not occurred to either to wonder if the other would sometimes cease to write; the letters would come as surely as the sun.

“But will they now?” Emily was wondering now. (p. 123)

Somewhat inevitably, the lunch is rather strained – the atmosphere made all the more difficult by the most awkward of starts and the interference of a nosy neighbour, the pushy Mrs Waterlow. The story itself is quietly devastating, and yet there is a glimmer of hope at the end. One of Taylor’s best, I suspect.

In a somewhat similar vein, we have Summer Schools, a story that focuses on the experiences of two middle-aged sisters who live together but who seem to have very little in common. The emptiness and quiet tragedies of their respective lives are thrown into sharp relief when they take separate holidays, neither of which live up to their hopes or expectations.

In The Rose, the Mauve, the White, three young girls – all friends from school – attend a formal dance. As the plainest of the three, Frances feels the most exposed – the embarrassment of being left on the sidelines as her friends are whirled around the dancefloor is all too acute.

Frances had attached herself to Charles and Natalie, so that she would not seem to leave the floor alone; but she knew that Mrs Pollard had seen her standing there by the door, without a partner, and for the last waltz of all things. To be seen by her hostess in such a predicament underlined her failure.

“Did you enjoy it, Frances?” Myra asked. And wasn’t that the only way to put her question, Frances thought, the one she was so very anxious to know— “Did you dance much?” (pp.170-171)

Other stories feature a pair of newlyweds whose first night together is scuppered by the husband’s fondness for drink; a young girl whose best friend is now married to her father, thereby putting both girls in very difficult positions at home; and a young girl who ends up making a massive faux-pas at an important function.

While much of the subject matter may sound very melancholy, there are flashes of dark humour in quite a few of these stories – particularly The Blush, The Letter-Writers and Perhaps a Family Failing (that’s the one about the newlyweds). Taylor’s ability to balance these tones so effectively is one of her key strengths.

In summary, these are beautifully understated stories full of insight, nuance and compassion. Overall, The Blush seems to be a stronger, more even collection of pieces than Hester Lilly, which may be a reflection of Taylor’s development as a writer. Highly recommended for lovers of character-driven fiction and short stories in general.

You’ll Enjoy It When You Get There is published by NYRB Classics, The Blush by Virago; personal copies.

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

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

The Dud Avocado by Elaine Dundy (1958)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Simon has reviewed this book here.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Crowded Street by Winifred Holtby (1924)

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

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

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

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

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

How tragic is that?

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

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.

Jane and Prudence by Barbara Pym

I have written before about my love of Barbara Pym’s novels, populated as they are by ‘excellent’, well-meaning women, amiable clergymen, fusty academics and one or two more spiky characters – usually female. It’s a world that seems at once both rather absurd and strangely believable, full of the sharply-observed details of a genteel English community in the 1950s. Jane and Prudence is another sparkling addition to Pym’s oeuvre, a charming story of unrequited love, the blossoming of unlikely relationships, and the day-to-day dramas of village life.

In this novel, first published in 1953, we are introduced to Jane Cleveland, the forty-one-year-old wife of Nicholas Cleveland, an Anglican minister, and her close friend Prudence Bates, a twenty-nine-year-old spinster who lives on her own in London. (The two women first met one another at Oxford Uni where Prudence was a pupil in Jane’s English Literature class.)

Towards the beginning of the novel, Jane, Nicholas and their eighteen-year-old daughter, Flora, are in the process of moving to a new parish in the country, clearly hoping that they will be greeted by a gaggle of eager parishioners. While Jane is amiable and well-intentioned, she is less than ideally suited to the role of a clergyman’s wife, liable as she is to mild indiscretions and a touch too much honesty. Her frumpy, ill-matched clothes give her the appearance of a farmer’s wife all set to feed the chickens, and her down-to-earth style means she lacks some of the social graces of her predecessor, the wife of the much-revered Canon Pritchard. Nevertheless, Jane and Nicholas love one another dearly, and they seem happy enough in their new home. If only they didn’t have to get embroiled in those petty disagreements amongst the more opinionated members of the parish council, then everything would be fine.

Jane’s real area of interest is in finding a desirable match for her friend, the bright, elegant and relatively independent Prudence. Much to Jane’s dismay, Prudence seems to have slipped into a sequence of unsatisfactory, shallow love affairs – mostly with unsuitable men.

As the novel opens, the primary object of Prudence’s attention is her boss, the rather remote academic/publisher, Arthur Grampian. For some months now, Prudence has been worshipping Dr Grampian from afar in spite of the fact that he is married and entirely unsuitable for her. (In reality, she is far too good for him.) Jane, however, has other ideas for Prudence, especially once she meets Fabian Driver, a handsome if somewhat vain young widower who lives in the village. In this scene, Jane tries to casually mention the existence of Fabian to Pru without appearing to have an agenda for doing so. Prudence, however, intuits quite clearly what Jane is hoping to seed by the comment…

Jane was too wise to appear anything but casual in her tone as she mentioned this eligible widower. She knew that the pride of even young spinsters is a delicate thing and that Prudence was especially sensitive. There must be no hint that she was trying to ‘bring them together’.

‘Yes – you said something about him eating the hearts of his victims,’ said Prudence, equally casual. She realised that Jane might have some absurd idea in her mind about ‘bringing them together’, but determined not to let her see that she suspected or that she entertained any hopes herself. So they were both satisfied and neither was really deceived for a moment. (pp.74-75)

In time, Prudence pays a visit to the Clevelands, the village whist drive being touted as the main social attraction of the weekend. Here she meets Fabian, and the pair slip away for a quiet drink together at the local pub. With her natural distrust of good-looking men, Prudence is a little wary of Fabian at first, but after a few dinners and trips to the theatre back in London, their relationship soon starts to develop.

Fabian himself is a very interesting character, perhaps more complex than he appears at first sight. I love this quote about his late wife, Constance, a passage that says as much about Fabian as it does about his former partner.

She had been a gentle, faded-looking woman, some years older than Fabian. She had been pretty when he had married her and had brought him a comfortable amount of money as well as a great deal of love. He had been unprepared for her death and outraged by it, for it had happened suddenly, without a long illness to prepare him, when he had been deeply involved in one of the little romantic affairs which he seemed to need, either to bolster up his self-respect or for some more obvious reason. The shock of it all had upset him considerably, and although there had been several women eager to console him, he had abandoned all his former loves, fancying himself more in the role of an inconsolable widower than as a lover. (p. 56)

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 with the most unlikely of potential partners.

Once again, Pym shows her keen eye for a humorous scenario and an interesting personality or two. There is an opportunity to revisit the formidable Miss Doggett and her sharp-witted companion, Jessie Morrow, a wonderful pair of characters who were first created by Pym for her delightful social comedy, Crampton Hodnet. (The novel was originally written in the late 1930s but published posthumously in 1985.) There is also the gossipy Mrs Glaze, a sort of daily woman/help who seems to enjoy busying herself around the Clevelands’ house. Her observations on the comings and goings in the village are a real delight. Finally, there are Prudence’s work colleagues, the rather parochial Miss Clothier and Miss Trapnell, both of whom appear to be more interested in trying to take the moral high ground over their time of arrival at the office than in the duties they are to carry out once they get there.

Pym’s trademark descriptions of food and clothing – hats in particular – are also in evidence. In this passage, she manages to convey Miss Doggett’s self-assumed superiority over the other ladies who help out at the church while also describing their headwear.

It seemed that there was a particular kind of hat worn by ladies attending Parochial Church Council meetings – a large beret of neutral-coloured felt pulled well down to one side. Both Mrs Crampton and Mrs Mayhew wore hats of this type, as did Miss Doggett, though hers was of a superior material, a kind of plush decorated with a large jewelled pin. Indeed, there seemed to be little for the ladies to do but observe each other’s hats, for their voices were seldom heard. (p. 143)

While there is no curate here for the ladies of the village to fuss over and cherish, Pym does offer us a kind of curate substitute, the rather charming Edward Lyall, the local MP. Lyall proves to be an admirable replacement for the young innocent when he captures the villagers’ attention at the whist drive.

All in all, Jane and Prudence is another marvellous novel from Barbara Pym. Once again, she gives us an insight into the lives of her characters, women in particular, and their desire to feel valued.

In many respects, several of Pym’s central protagonists are women living on the fringes, their lives feeling somewhat unsatisfactory and unfulfilled – almost as if they have become accustomed to waiting in the wings, observing others from a distance. Nevertheless, by the end of her novels, one usually gets the sense that these individuals are somewhat better off, more content with the world and their place within in it. I certainly feel that’s the case here with Prudence – and with Mildred in Excellent Women, too.

Jane and Prudence is published by Virago Books; personal copy.

My books of the year, 2017 – favourites from a year of reading

As I’ve been off the grid for most of last few months, I didn’t get a chance to post a list of my favourite books from 2017. So, in the spirit of better late than never, here it is. Enjoy!

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Like its predecessor, 2017 turned out to be another strong reading year for me. I read fewer books than usual this time (around 70 books, mostly older/blacklisted titles) but the majority were very good. Once again, it proved very difficult to finalise a shortlist for this post, so I’ve gone overboard with a top fifteen – that’s two more than the baker’s dozen I usually aim for. These are the books I loved, the books that have stayed with me, the ones I’m most likely to recommend to other readers. I’ve summarised each one in this post, but you can read the full reviews by clicking on the appropriate links.

Crampton Hodnet by Barbara Pym

It’s getting to the point where I need to reserve a permanent spot for Barbara Pym, such is the quality of her writing. This year’s slot goes to Crampton Hodnet, a delightful comedy of manners set in North Oxford in the late 1930s (Some Tame Gazelle came a very close second). What a joy it was to return to this author’s territory, a familiar world of charming curates, mildly ridiculous academics, amorous students and gossipy women. Probably the funniest Pym I’ve read to date.

Goodbye to Berlin by Christopher Isherwood

A series of six interlinked short stories/sketches inspired by Isherwood’s time in the city during the early 1930s. I really loved this book with its striking cast of characters and wealth of engaging vignettes. As one might expect, the author’s portrayal of a Berlin in flux is truly wonderful, capturing the atmosphere of everything from the seedy underground bars and nightlife to the magnificence and glory of the glamorous side of the city. A most evocative read.

The Soul of Kindness by Elizabeth Taylor

Here’s another author worthy of a permanent place my end-of-year lists, Elizabeth Taylor – I just can’t seem to get enough of her work. The storyline in this book revolves around Flora Quartermaine, a beautiful young woman who seems to have the perfect life. While Flora considers herself to be the very soul of kindness, in reality this is far from the truth, her best intentions often causing more harm than good. A novel full of little insights into various aspects of human behaviour – lovers of character-driven novels should enjoy this one.

Eleven Kinds of Loneliness by Richard Yates

My favourite of the collections of short stories I read in 2017 (Saki’s Improper Stories came a close second). Yates’ canvases may be small and intimate, but the emotions he explores are universal. Here are the frustrations and disappointments of day-to-day life, the loneliness that stems from rejection, uncertainty or a deep feeling of worthlessness. Once again, this will appeal to lovers of character-driven fiction. A superb set of stories, quite varied in style in spite of the overriding theme.

Hangover Square by Patrick Hamilton

Set largely in the seedy bars and boarding houses of London’s Earl’s Court, Patrick Hamilton’s 1941 novel Hangover Square centres on the tortured existence of George Harvey Bone, a thirty-four-year-old man who is obsessed with a beautiful yet vindictive young woman named Netta Longdon. It is an utterly brilliant portrait of a man on the edge, perfectly capturing the sudden changes in mood and mindset of a lonely and tormented soul, driven to distraction by the heartless woman he so deeply desires. This might just be my favourite book of the year.

The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton

A beautiful and compelling portrayal of forbidden love, characterised by Wharton’s trademark ability to expose the underhand workings of a repressive world. Set within the upper echelons of New York society in the 1870s, a culture that seems so refined on the surface, and yet so terribly brutal, hypocritical and intolerant underneath once the protective veneer of respectability is stripped away. There is a real sense of depth and subtlety in the characterisation here – classic literature doesn’t get much better than this.

School for Love by Olivia Manning

A highly compelling coming-of-age story set in Jerusalem during the closing stages of the Second World War. It’s a brilliant novel, one that features a most distinctive character quite unlike any other I’ve encountered either in literature or in life itself. In Miss Bohun, Manning has created a fascinating individual, one that is sure to generate strong opinions either way. Is she a manipulative hypocrite, determined to seize any opportunity and exploit it for her own personal gain? Or is she simply deluded, predominately acting on the belief that she is doing the morally upstanding thing in a changing and unstable world? You’ll have to read the book yourself to take a view.

Our Spoons Came from Woolworths by Barbara Comyns

One of several reads featuring a highly distinctive female narrator – in this case, Sophia, a young woman who is looking back on her unhappy marriage to a rather feckless artist by the name of Charles. In writing this book, the British-born author Barbara Comyns has drawn heavily on her own life experience. It is, by all accounts, a lightly fictionalised version of her first marriage, a relationship characterised by tensions over money worries and various infidelities on her husband’s part. Although it took me a couple of chapters to fall into line with Sophia’s unassuming conversational style, I really warmed to her character, particularly as the true horror of her story became apparent. This is a wonderful book, by turns humorous, sad, shocking and heart-warming.

The Enchanted April by Elizabeth von Arnim

Enchanted indeed! What a delightful novel this turned out to be – telling, as it does, the story of four very different English women who come together to rent a medieval castle on the Italian Riviera for the month of April. Without wishing to give away too much about the ending, this utterly charming story has a touch of the fairy tale about it as the lives of these four women are altered in various ways by their time at San Salvatore. A truly magical read, guaranteed to lift the spirits.

One Fine Day by Mollie Panter-Downes

In this beautifully written novel, we follow a day in the life of the Marshalls, an upper-middle-class family struggling to find a new way to live in an England irrevocably altered by the Second World War. Several threads and encounters come together to form a vivid picture of a nation, a country trying to come to terms with new ways of life and the accompanying changes to its social fabric. A little like a cross between Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway and an Elizabeth Taylor novel, this was a wonderful discovery for me.

Deep Water by Patricia Highsmith

This novel was published in 1957, two years after The Talented Mr Ripley with which it shares a focus on the psychological – in other words, the motives that drive certain individuals to behave in very sinister ways. Once again, Highsmith encourages us to side with an outwardly respectable man who secretly harbours psychopathic tendencies. The way she does this is so clever; she knows exactly how her readers will respond to each of her characters, thereby creating a situation where we feel sympathy for a murderer and contempt for the woman who has made his life so difficult. A thoroughly delicious read.

We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson

I read this in advance of Halloween, and it proved to be a highly appropriate read for the season – atmospheric, unsettling and at times quite humorous in a darkly comic way. What really sets this book apart from so many others is its highly distinctive style, much of which stems from the curious nature of the narrator’s voice, that of young Merricat Blackwood. A novella with much to say about our suspicions, our prejudices and, perhaps most importantly of all, our treatment of people who seem strange or different from ourselves. The sense of being an outsider – or society’s mistreatment of the outsider – is a prominent theme.

The Artificial Silk Girl by Irmgard Keun (tr. Kathie von Ankum)

Several of the books in translation I chose to read in 2017 were disappointing, but this one really stood out for the distinctiveness of its central character, Doris. A striking young woman whose voice I found utterly engaging right from the very start, particularly in the way it reflected her complex personality – a glorious mix of the naïve and the streetwise, the vivacious and the vulnerable. Reputedly inspired by Anita Loos’ Gentleman Prefer Blondes, Keun set out to write a response from the German perspective, one that ultimately shows us the darker side of life which lies beneath the glamour of the capital city, Berlin. Another very evocative read for me.

The Shooting Party by Isabel Colegate

Set on an Oxfordshire country estate in the autumn of 1913, The Shooting Party provides a terrific insight into the dying days of the Edwardian era, the beginning of the end of a time-honoured way of life for the English upper classes. Essentially a tale of ‘upstairs and downstairs’, this is a wonderful ensemble piece with a sting in its tail. Fans of L. P Hartley’s The Go-Between will likely enjoy this one.

Ride the Pink Horse by Dorothy B. Hughes

Dorothy B. Hughes made my 2016 highlights with her classic noir novel In a Lonely Place, the story of a damaged ex-Air Force pilot named Dix Steele. And here she is again in 2017, this time with the existential noir Ride the Pink Horse. Written in a tough, hardbitten style, Pink Horse is a slow burn tale of pursuit, the tough, streetwise guy who comes looking for a final payoff from his former boss before hightailing it to Mexico and the life he envisages there – only things don’t quite go to plan. It’s probably my favourite of the dozen or so crime novels I read last year.

So there we are – a pretty satisfying year of reading all told.

Hester Lilly by Elizabeth Taylor

Originally issued in 1954, Hester Lilly was Elizabeth Taylor’s first volume of stories. (It’s also my first experience of her short fiction.) There are some brilliant stories here, up there with some of the best scenes from her longer works. The titular piece, in particular, encapsulates many of this writer’s key trademarks: her ability to create nuanced characters with real emotional depth; her acute observations of the subtleties of human interactions; and her capacity to elicit the reader’s sympathy for difficult individuals in spite of their inherent flaws. I’ll come back to this story at the end of my review; but first, a few words about the collection itself.

Hester Lilly comprises seventeen stories of varying length, from brief sketches lasting a couple of pages to the novella-sized titular piece which opens the collection. As with other collections I’ve reviewed, I’m not going try to cover every story; instead, I’ll try to focus on a few favourites to give you a flavour of the volume as a whole.

In the aptly titled story Spry Old Character, a lively veteran horse-trader named Harry has no alternative but to move to a Home for the Blind following the death of his sister/carer. An odd-man-out among the genteel residents of the care home, Harry is left feeling lonely, grumpy and neglected, deflated as he is by the patronising ministrations of Matron and the anodyne environment she seems intent on encouraging.

“You’ll have the company of others like you,” his neighbours had told him. This was not so. He found himself in a society, whose existence he had never, in his old egotism, contemplated and whose ways soon lowered his vitality. He had nothing in common with these faded seamstresses; the prophet-like lay-preacher; an old piano-tuner who believed he was the reincarnation of Beethoven; elderly people who had lived more than half a dim life-time in dark drapers’ shops in country towns. Blind they might not have been; for they found their way about the house, its grounds, the village, with pride and confidence. Indoors, they bickered about the wireless; for the ladies liked a nice domestic play and thought some of the variety programmes ‘suggestive’. The racing results were always switched to something different, hastily, before they could contaminate the air. (pp. 84-85)

In time, Harry makes friends with the local bus drivers and conductors who ferry him around the district on a regular basis – if nothing else, it’s a brief respite from the atmosphere of the home. This is a bittersweet story; the central character is at once both comic and tragic.

Swan-Moving is a very different type of story, one that demonstrates an element of range in Taylor’s work. In this piece, a young swan settles in a dirty pond in a rather shabby, neglected village, much to the fascination of the local residents. Somewhat surprisingly, the swan’s presence seems to spark a sense of change in the locality. As the swan blossoms and grows more resplendent, so do the villagers – for the very first time, they come together to spruce up their village, decorating their houses in bright (albeit rather garish) colours in an effort to improve their environment. This is a lovely story with a slightly magical touch, a delightful addition to the collection.

Taylor’s ear for dialogue comes to the fore in Nods & Becks & Wreathed Smiles as a group of women meet up for a gossip at the local tea shop. Naturally, the subjects under discussion are wide-ranging, from the trials of childbirth to the shortage of fish in the local shops to views on Mrs Liddell’s new ring. This is a short sketch, beautifully observed.

Other stories cover a child’s observations of an elderly woman on holiday from the hustle and bustle of London (The Idea of Age); a woman’s memories of her just-deceased mother as she sits by her side in hospital (First Death of Her Life); and the desperate disappointment of schoolboy’s day out with his mother, their individual worlds seemingly poles apart (A Red-Letter Day). What unites these stories, and many others in this excellent collection, is their ability to capture a scene so effectively, thereby giving the reader access to the thoughts and feelings of the central characters.

Where this collection really excels though is in its depiction of domestic stories: the palpable tensions between semi-estranged partners; the unspoken agonies of lifeless marriages; the painful attempts of a mother to outdo her neighbour.

In Gravement Endommagé, one of my favourite stories in the collection, a married couple – Richard and Louise – drive through the war-ravaged countryside in France, the destruction of the buildings around them only serving to mirror the damaged nature of their relationship. They have come to the continent for a holiday, a trip designed to ‘set things to rights’ between them, their petty bickering with one another having descended into more direct animosity. The years of hardship and isolation during the war have brought about a significant change in Louise, making her fearful and edgy. Now that the grand conflict is over, she remains damaged – intolerant, complaining and overly reliant on drink.

Her doctor, advising the holiday, was only conventional in his optimism. If anyone were benefited by it, it would be the children, stopping at home with their grandmother—for a while, out of the arena. What Richard needed was a holiday away from Louise, and what Louise needed was a holiday from herself, from the very thing she must always take along, the dull carapace of her own dissatisfaction, her chronic unsunniness. (p. 114)

Shadows of the World also falls into this category; it offers a brief yet highly effective snapshot of a family, each individual member orbiting in their own semi-isolated world. This is another beautifully observed story, each thread coming together to form a broader whole.

The star of the show is undoubtedly Hester Lilly, the longest story in the collection at 78 pages. In this piece, a middle-aged woman, Muriel, is dismayed at the prospect of the arrival of her husband’s cousin, a young lady by the name of Hester Lilly. Having been married to Robert for some years, Muriel now feels uncertain of her position in the relationship, and so she imagines Hester, with her undoubted youth and potential beauty, to be a significant threat. However, on Hester’s arrival at the boarding school where Robert works, Muriel fears are initially laid to rest; Hester is gauche, nervous and poorly dressed, every garment appearing to be either too small or too big for her frame.

Nevertheless, it is not long before Muriel realises that she must be on her guard against Hester. With this in mind, she decides upon a pre-emptive strike, casually dropping the following remark into a conversation with her charge: “Of course, you are in love with Robert.” Better to unnerve Hester by tackling the issue head-on before the girl gets a chance to develop any such notions of her own.

Muriel insinuated the idea into the girl’s head, thinking that such an idea would come sooner or later and came better from her, inseparable from the very beginning with shame and confusion. She struck, with that stunning remark, at the right time. For the first week or so Hester was tense with the desire to please, anxiety that she might not earn her keep. Robert would often find her bowed in misery over indecipherable shorthand, or would hear her rip pages out of the typewriter and begin again. The waste-paper basket was usually crammed-fill of spoilt stationary. Once, he discovered her in tears and, half-way across the room to comfort her, wariness overtook him. He walked instead to the window and spoke with his back to her, which seemed to him the only alternative to embracing her. (pp. 8-9)

A little later, Muriel tries to consolidate her position with the following comments, whereby she stresses the triviality of young love and its differentiation from a deeper, more lasting relationship.

“Robert? Oh, yes! Don’t fuss, dear girl. At your age on has to be in love with someone, and Robert does very well for the time being. Perhaps at every age one has to be in love with someone, but when one is young it is difficult to decide whom. Later one becomes more stable. I fell in love with all sorts of unsuitable people—very worrying for one’s mother. But by the time I met Robert I was old enough to be sure that that would last. And it has,” she added quietly; and she chose a strand of white silk and began work on the high-lights of a rose petal. (pp. 13-14)

I suspect some readers might find Muriel a rather cruel and pathetic woman, eaten up with jealousy over the more vulnerable Hester. While I recognise these flaws in Muriel’s character, I couldn’t help but feel a degree of sympathy for her too. She is desperately isolated in her marriage to Robert, a rather cold man who has long revealed himself to be a stranger to her. He no longer displays any tenderness or affection towards Muriel, a fact that is only exacerbated when she finds herself drawn into a compromising position with one of the schoolmasters at a local dance.

This is a terrific story that will test your responses to each of the individual characters. There is also another player in the mix, a desperately sad old woman, Mrs Despenser, who tries to befriend Hester when she goes out for a walk one night. Mrs D is a hangover from a bygone age, a lonely individual living in abject squalor in a dilapidated cottage with only her cat for company. She is desperate for Hester to stay a little while to alleviate her loneliness.

All in all, this is a fine collection of stories, an excellent introduction to Taylor’s short fiction. While a couple of the shorter pieces didn’t quite fly for me, they were never less than well observed. A fairly minor point considering the high quality of the other stories here.

Hester Lilly is published by Virago; personal copy.

Tea at Four O’Clock by Janet McNeill

First published in 1956, Tea at Four O’Clock is a brilliant but desperately sad story of familial obligations, ulterior motives and long-held guilt, all set within the middle-class Protestant community of Belfast in the 1950s. It is the first of Janet McNeill’s novels that I have read, but on the strength of this I will definitely be seeking out more of her work – particularly her final novel, The Small Widow, which is still in print.

Tea at Four O’Clock centres on Laura, the youngest daughter and middle child of the Percival family. We first meet Laura – now a rather timid spinster in her forties – on the afternoon of the funeral of her elder sister, Mildred, a woman whose presence still looms large over the Percival residence, Marathon, in spite of her recent death.

Mildred had made her last exit through the gates of Marathon. There would be nothing heard of her again—no voice, no footstep, nor the insistent invalid bell. People would speak of her, of course, as they spoke of her father and mother; letters might still come addressed to her name; the house was full of her clothes and all the evidence of the fifty years she had lived there. Miss Parks, Laura knew, would be a tower of strength. Her distressed gentlewomen’s guild would gladly take over what lay in Mildred’s wardrobe and chest of drawers. Laura must arm herself against meeting a distressed gentlewoman coming along the street disguised as Mildred. But Mildred herself had gone. (p. 8)

Over the course of many years, any sense of joy or liberty had been systematically sucked out of Laura’s life, first by her puritanical father – long since deceased – and latterly by the tyrannical Mildred whose exacting standards governed the daily routine at Marathon. (The book’s title refers to Mildred’s insistence that afternoon tea should be served by Laura at precisely four o’clock – no sooner, and certainly no later.) Having nursed Mildred through the long illness that led to her death, Laura is now somewhat shell-shocked at the prospect of what the future might hold for her. She has known virtually no other life, the demands of Marathon and Mildred having dominated her day-to-day existence for so many years.

Laura’s current situation is further complicated by the presence of three seemingly well-meaning individuals, each one armed with their own particular motives for wanting to get close to her as the new owner of Marathon and sole beneficiary of Mildred’s will.

First, there is the pushy Miss Parks, Mildred’s old schoolteacher and recently rediscovered ‘friend’. For some years, Miss Parks had enjoyed the prestige of keeping house for her bachelor brother, a local clergyman, only to be dislodged from this position on her brother’s marriage to a usurper. In search of a new cause to champion, Miss Parks was only too willing to push herself forward at the time of Mildred’s illness. By doing so, she saw an opportunity to further her own position, worming her way back into Mildred’s affections and the Percival family home to boot. While her stay at Marathon was initially intended to be a temporary measure, to help support Mildred in the final weeks of her illness, Miss Parks is showing no signs of leaving now that her charge has passed away. If anything, this formidable woman is striving even harder to make herself indispensable to the household, taking charge of day-to-day matters whenever the opportunity arises. It will suit her proposes very well if Laura remains fragile and in need of careful management and direction, for who would be better placed to provide such a service than Miss Parks herself?

Yesterday, after the funeral cortège had left the house Miss Parks had her first taste of power. It was at her reminder that the blinds had not immediately been drawn up, it was her refusal to drink tea at an hour when Mildred never drank it that had made Laura refuse tea also. And again, this morning, she had watched with satisfaction as Laura made her escape into the garden, and then put on Mildred’s apron, filled Mildred’s watering-can, and taken over the duty of watering the plants. She did not wish to return to her own small bed-sitting-room in Ashley Avenue. It seemed possible, probable even, that she would not have to do so. (p. 68)

Then there is George, Laura and Mildred’s younger brother, banished from the family home by his father some twenty years earlier, who reappears at Marathon on the afternoon of Mildred’s funeral. Following his dismissal from the Percivals’ linen business for being reckless with his father’s money, George managed to carve out a modest life for himself with his working-class, socially conscious wife, Amy, and their teenage daughter, Kathie. They live in a cramped, rundown house on the other side of the city where money is very tight. George still resents the fact that he has been excluded from the Percival family home for several years, first by his unforgiving father, and then by the domineering Mildred who made him feel small and inadequate when he called on her for some money at the time of Amy’s pregnancy. Now he has designs on Marathon itself. By getting close to Laura again, George hopes to be able to move back to the Percival residence, this time with Amy and Kathie in tow. However, to achieve this, he must get the better of the calculating Miss Parks in the battle for Laura’s trust and affection.

Even the Percival family’s longstanding lawyer and close confidant, Mr McAlister, seems to have his eye on Laura. At first, it would appear that he is out to protect his charge, primarily from the detrimental influences of the bossy Miss Parks and the equally unscrupulous George; but it soon becomes clear that McAlister has a motive of his own, a more personal reason for trying to distance Laura from these predatory influences.

To have any hope of moving forward, Laura finds that she must delve back into her past. Over the course of this short novel, she is forced to come to terms with a period of her life she has long since buried: a series of circumstances that had led to her stay at Marathon at a time when the possibility of freedom was so tantalisingly within her reach. Slowly but surely, McNeill reveals through a series of flashbacks the tragedy of Laura’s past, the incidents and circumstances that have blighted her life, making her the anxious, downtrodden woman she is today. There was a time when Laura was happy, the two years she spent at art college where she fell in love with Tom, a fellow student and friend of George’s. In this scene, Laura is watching Tom as he sketches the landscape during a day trip to the lakeside.

Laura did not take out her sketching book. She lay on one elbow, contented in the sufficiency of the moment, in the luxury of knowing that just by turning her head she could see Tom beside her, feeling the sun warm on her skin, hearing the waves., Here was richness. She hoarded every moment as it went by, each chaffinch’s flourish, each small lazy wave. It would have to last her a long time. (p. 111)

Laura’s memories of Tom are reignited when his son, also an artist, comes to the city to show his paintings, an exhibition which Laura attends.

Tea at Four O’Clock is a powerful, character-driven novel where the focus is on the psychology and underlying motives of different individuals tied together by familial or social bonds, however tenuous they might be. In this respect, it shares something with the work of other women writers of the mid-late 20th century, particularly Anita Brookner, Elizabeth Taylor and Elizabeth Bowen. The mood is intense, claustrophobic and ominous – deliberately so, I think. The weight of guilt is ever present in the story from Mr Percival’s regret over the death of his wife when she gave birth to George, the son and potential heir he so desperately desired, to Laura’s guilt over past events, the nature of which is unravelled over the course of the narrative. Without wishing to say too much about the ending, there is a secret at the heart of the novel, one which reveals the true extent of Mildred’s hold over Laura for the past twenty years. It is the reason I described the book as desperately sad in the opening paragraph of this post.

McNeill also finds time to make reference to the changing nature of Northern Ireland in the fifties: the proliferation of new housing estates encroaching on the grounds surrounding the Percival mansion; the slim pickings available at home for ordinary men like George; the swathes of people emigrating to America, the land of hope and opportunity.

At the end of the day though, this is Laura’s story. I’ll finish with a final quote, one that seems to typify her state of mind.

The gates of her prison were open, but she lacked the courage to go through them to whatever new country was waiting for her on the other side. (p. 176)

My sincere thanks to Mary at Goodreads who recommended this book to me.

Tea at Four O’Clock is published by Virago; personal copy.