Tag Archives: Virago

Blaming by Elizabeth Taylor  

As some of you may know, this week is all about the #1976Club, Karen and Simon’s celebration of books first published in 1976. For my first read, I’ve chosen Blaming, Elizabeth Taylor’s final novel, written when the author knew she was dying of cancer. There is a particular poignancy to it, a consequence perhaps of Taylor’s impending mortality. It is, nevertheless, an excellent novel, a characteristically perceptive story of blame, guilt and selfishness – more specifically, what we do when our selfishness catches up with us and how we sometimes try to shift the blame for our failings onto others.

The novel revolves around Amy Henderson, whom we first encounter in the middle of a holiday with her husband, Nick. The Hendersons are typical Taylor protagonists, drawn from the middle-class world that she knew so intimately. Well into middle age, the couple have a comfortable lifestyle, a married son, James, and two granddaughters, Dora and Isobel.

To aid his recovery from an operation, Nick has embarked on a Mediterranean cruise with Amy – a trip that is proving rather trying for various reasons. While Nick is determined to make the most of various sightseeing opportunities, Amy would much rather stay on the ship, passing the time by reading and relaxing. As a result, there is an unmistakable note of tension in the air as Amy tries to control her frustration with Nick and a packed timetable of outings to various Turkish mosques.

And so it had been in some ways a trying holiday – she fussing over him with the patience of a saint, but inwardly quick to be bored, or irritated by such prolonged sight-seeing; and he determined to miss nothing, as if it were his last chance. (p. 10)

Things take a turn for the worse when Nick passes away in his sleep while onboard the ship, leaving Amy in shock and with no family nearby for support. The one person to hand is Martha, a young American novelist who has already attached herself to the Hendersons as the only other English-speaking passengers on board. (In truth, Amy has already spent a little time with Martha, before Nick’s death, albeit out of politeness rather than any desire to be friends.)

Martha gallantly steps in, abandoning her plans for the remainder of the cruise to accompany Amy back to London, where both women happen to live. On their arrival in London, Martha delivers Amy into the hands of James, who together with a family friend, the gentle widower, Gareth Lloyd, will take care of Amy and the funeral arrangements for Nick.

Back in London, Amy is reluctant to maintain any kind of friendship with Martha, despite the latter’s kindness in supporting her on the journey home. James, in particular, sees the selfishness in his mother’s behaviour, irrespective of her grief.

[James:] “I will write to thank her [Martha]. It was a great act of friendship to cut short her holiday like that – and all the extra expense.”

“I paid that, and she really only missed Ephesus,” Amy said ungraciously. “But, oh yes, she was very kind.”

Mourning seemed to give the go-ahead to every sort of rudeness and selfishness, he thought, fearing more of the same thing to come. (p. 36)

At first, Amy neglects to return Martha’s calls, pretending she has mislaid the number, fully aware of her shameful behaviour in the face of this woman’s kindness. Finally, however, Martha writes to Amy, virtually inviting herself to come and visit – a trip that eventually takes place. Once inside Amy’s house, Martha is careful to observe everything, mentally noting specific phrases that Amy uses in conversation, together with all the attendant details of English life. We quickly get the sense that Martha is using Amy to a certain extent, possibly gathering information that might prove useful for a novel.

As the story plays out, an unlikely friendship develops between the two women, although we’re never quite sure of either character’s true feelings towards the other. There comes a point when the tables are turned, when Martha finds herself in need of help from Amy, offering the latter an opportunity to return the favour. Amy, to her shame, puts her own feelings first at this point, virtually abandoning Martha in her hour of need. It’s a failing that will come to haunt Amy in the months that follow, compounding the sense of guilt she feels while also trying to absolve herself of blame.

When viewed overall, Blaming is rather poignant in tone. Nevertheless, there are some wonderfully amusing moments for readers to enjoy, especially those involving Amy’s male housekeeper, the brilliantly named Ernie Pounce. A bit of an old woman at heart, Ernie persists in measuring himself against Gareth Lloyd’s housekeeper, who is clearly not averse to cutting corners in the kitchen, much to Ernie’s horror. In this scene, Amy and her son’s family are just about to be served their Christmas dinner, which Ernie has lovingly prepared.  

It was the meal of the year at which Ernie was always present as part of the family, wearing the black corduroy jazz-club jacket and a pink bow tie. Having brought in the turkey and set it before James, he whipped off a fancy apron and stood by to pass plates and vegetables. The sausages were in one long string and draped about the bird like a coronet. James, whose father had always done the carving, was annoyed by all this cluttering up of his job. He tried to lift the sausages away, but with a knife blade-side up, so that they lay scattered all over the carpet. Dora laughed quietly, with her eyes shut, her lips pressed together. Isobel was furious. (pp. 120-121)

James’ daughters, Dora and Isobel, are terrific value too, perfectly capturing the kinds of behaviours one might observe from a mature, intelligent seven-year-old (Dora) and her insufferable younger sister (Isobel). Children often ask the funniest or most awkward questions in challenging situations, and Taylor captures this brilliantly when the girls are told that their grandfather, Nick, has died. All too soon, the children are musing on who (or what) has the right to go to heaven. After all, people must go somewhere when they die, otherwise we’d run out of room for everyone on earth!

Ultimately though, this is Amy’s story, a thoughtful exploration of selfishness, blame and guilt. Once again, Taylor shows her innate ability to catch her characters off guard, observing them in their most private of moments, laying bare their inherent flaws and failings for the reader to see.

Mycopy of Blaming was published by Chatto & Windus, but it’s currently in print with Virago Press.

Black Narcissus by Rumer Godden

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Ghost Stories of Edith Wharton – subtle, sophisticated and richly imagined.

I have long been a fan of Edith Wharton, a fascination that started with Ethan Frome, Wharton’s brilliant yet brutal novella of the fallout from an intense love triangle. The Age of Innocence and The House of Mirth are favourites too, along with the New York Stories which I wrote about in 2019.

Wharton’s Ghost Stories – collected together in this beautifully-produced book from Virago’s Designer Collection – are probably closest in style to some of the more unsettling pieces in the New York book, characterised by the tensions between restraint and passion, respectability and impropriety. Here we have narratives rooted in reality, with the ghostly chills mostly stemming from psychological factors – the fear of the unknown, the power of the imagination and the judicious use of supernatural imagery to unnerve the soul. As one might expect with Wharton, the writing is first class and the characters brilliantly drawn – with sufficient depth and subtlety to appear fully convincing.

The book opens with The Lady’s Maid’s Bell, one of the most unnerving tales in this excellent collection. Narrated by the maid herself, it is a classic ghost story in which the protagonist is haunted by the appearance of a spectre, the identity of which becomes clear as the story unfolds. There are several familiar elements here: a dark gloomy house; a feverish young lady of the manor; servants who refuse to speak of the maid’s predecessor; and a ghostly image that only the protagonist herself is able to detect. However, perhaps the most frightening element of the story is Wharton’s use of sound – the terrifying ring of the maid’s bell after hours, piercing the intense silence of the house as it rests at night.

Silence also plays a key role in All Souls, another highlight and possibly the most terrifying story in the collection. It tells the tale of a widow, Sara Clayborn, who believes she has spent a horrific weekend at her home, Whitegates, a lonely, remote house in the wilds of Connecticut. Having spotted an unknown woman heading towards her house, Sara breaks her ankle and is confined to bed for the night. On waking she discovers that the servants are nowhere to be found. The house appears to be deserted; an eerie silence having replaced the normal bustle of activity during the day. In this story, it is not the unexplained creaks and groans that strikes terror into the heart of the protagonist; rather, it is the ominous lack of any sound at all, especially as the house appears to be completely deserted.

More than once she had explored the ground floor alone in the small hours, in search of unwonted midnight noises; but now it was not the idea of noises that frightened her, but that inexorable and hostile silence, the sense that the house had retained in full daylight its nocturnal mystery, and was watching her as she was watching it; that in entering those empty orderly rooms she might be disturbing some unseen confabulation on which beings of flesh-and-blood had better not intrude. (p. 348)

It’s a tale in which Sara begins to doubt her own sanity and perception of reality, with time appearing to expand and contract before the servants finally reappear.

Afterward is another highlight, a vividly-imagined story that feels all too believable and real. The Boynes, and American couple living in England take a country house in Dorset as their home – a property already known to their friend, Alida Stair. When the Boynes enquire about the possible presence of a ghost, they are told by Alida that there is a ghost, although its appearance does not become clear to the house’s inhabitant until ‘afterward’, whatever that may mean. At first, the Boynes take this conjecture in their stride, laughing it off in a light-hearted manner. It is only once a mysterious figure is seen approaching the house that the supernatural happenings swing into action…

Then of a sudden she was seized by a vague dread of the unknown. She had closed the door behind her on entering, and as she stood alone in the long silent room, her dread seemed to take shape and sound, to be there breathing and lurking among the shadows. Her shortsighted eyes strained through them, half-discerning an actual presence, something aloof, that watched and knew; and in the recoil from that intangible presence she threw herself on the bell rope and gave it a sharp pull. (p. 91)

Once again, the fear of the unknown is crucial here, the abject terror that stems from the zealous nature of our own imaginations. Overall, this is a very nuanced story, one that alludes to a sense of retribution – a kind of reckoning for past misdemeanours and nefarious deeds.

Also very impressive is Pomegranate Seed in which Charlotte Ashby, a newly-married young woman, is haunted by the spectre of her predecessor – her husband having previously been widowed following the death of his first wife. In this piece, the haunting comes as a series of mysterious letters, always enclosed in grey envelopes and addressed in the faintest of hands. As a consequence, Charlotte is left shaken; it would appear that the first Mrs Ashby retains an unhealthy hold over her husband, something that Charlotte is determined to break. There are shades of du Maurier’s Rebecca here, albeit with a more supernatural element. (Interestingly, Wharton’s story actually predated the du Maurier, first appearing in 1931, a good seven years before the publication of Rebecca.)

Finally, a mention for The Triumph of Night, which shares something with the opening story, The Lady’s Maid’s Bell. This is another story in which a spectral presence makes itself known to one individual in particular – in this instance, Faxon, a man who is offered shelter by a fellow traveller when his carriage fails to show. Over dinner with his benefactor’s family, Faxon realises that the ghostly figure is fixated on the young man, the very one who invited him to stay. As a consequence, Faxon’s hold on reality begins to slip, a development that is brilliantly conveyed in the following passage.

The glass was so full that it required an extraordinary effort to hold it there, brimming and suspended, during the awful interval before he [Faxon] could trust his hand to lower it again, untouched, to the table. It was this merciful preoccupation which saved him, kept him from crying out, from losing his hold, from slipping down into the bottomless blackness that gaped for him. As long as the problem of the glass engaged him he felt able to keep his seat, manage his muscles, fit unnoticeably into the group; but as the glass touched the table his last link with safety snapped. He stood up and dashed out of the room. (p. 162)

This is a very unnerving story, one that explores themes of guilt, manipulation and the preying on others’ weaknesses – a sobering tale with a tragic twist.

Other pieces in the collection feature mysterious individuals who are not quite what they seem; the dead seemingly brought back to life; and an eerie pack of dogs who reputedly appear on a certain day of the year.

These wonderfully chilling stories are subtle, sophisticated and richly imagined, tapping into the darker side of American history and human relationships. My thanks to the publishers for kindly providing a review copy.

Potterism by Rose Macaulay

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Sleeping Beauty by Elizabeth Taylor

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Sleeping Beauty is published by Virago; personal copy.

A Suspension of Mercy by Patricia Highsmith

The novels of Patricia Highsmith, with their focus on the darker side of the human psyche, continue to be a source of fascination for me. First published in 1965, A Suspension of Mercy is another of this author’s domestic noirs – probably not quite in the same league as the marvellous Deep Water or The Cry of the Owl, but still very enjoyable nonetheless.

The novel revolves around Sydney Smith Bartleby, an American writer of crime fiction, and his wife, Alicia, who dabbles in painting. The couple have been married for around eighteen months and live in a quiet neighbourhood near Framlingham in Suffolk – the idea being that a remote countryside cottage would prove a suitable environment for them to engage in their creative pursuits.

While the Bartlebys’ lifestyle may on the surface sound very appealing, it soon becomes clear that the marriage itself is far from ideal. Following a series of rejections from publishers, Sydney is struggling to finalise his latest novel; furthermore, the TV scripts he has developed with his writing partner, Alex Polk-Faraday, have also proved difficult to place. Moreover, Alicia has little faith in her husband’s ability to write successful fiction. This, together with the Bartlebys relatively meagre income – mostly the allowance Alicia receives from her devoted parents – means relations between the couple are somewhat strained.

Sydney, however, has a very active imagination, perhaps too active given the nature of his fantasies. He is continually thinking up scenarios for the demise of both Alex and Alicia, the latter proving to be a particularly rich seam of morbid fabrications.

Alex had died five times at least in Sydney’s imagination. Alicia twenty times. She had died in a burning car, in a wrecked car, in the woods throttled by person or persons unknown, died falling down the stairs at home, drowned in her bath, died falling out the upstairs window while trying to rescue a bird in the eaves drain, died from poisoning that would leave no trace. But the best way, for him, was her dying by a blow in the house, and he removed her somewhere in the car, buried her somewhere, then told everyone that she had gone away for a few days, maybe to Brighton, maybe to London. Then Alicia wouldn’t come back. The police wouldn’t be able to find her. (p. 33)

The couple’s problems are evident to those closest to them, their quarrels having being observed by Alex and his wife, Hittie, during their occasional trips to Suffolk – and by Mrs Lilybanks, the gentle old lady who has just moved in next door.

Now and again, Alicia goes away on her own for a few days, just down to London or Brighton for a breather from Sydney. It is on her return from one of these trips that she wonders if a more extended break might be in order, particularly when she suspects Sydney of deliberately refusing to come to a party just to annoy her.

‘You’d really like to kill me sometimes, wouldn’t you, Syd?’

He stared at her, looking tongue-tied.

She could tell she had touched the truth. ‘You’d like me out of the way sometimes – maybe all the time – just as if I were some character in your plots that you could eliminate.’

He looked at the half-peeled potato in her left hand, the paring knife in her right. ‘Oh, stop being dramatic.’

‘So why don’t we pretend that for a while? I can be gone for weeks. Work as hard as you like—’ Her voice shook a little, to her annoyance. ‘And we’ll see what happens, all right?’

Sydney pressed his lips together, then said, ‘All right.’ (pp. 69–70)

Having floated the plan, Alicia insists that Sydney should not try to contact her while she is away; she will get in touch with him when she wants to, but not before. Somewhat nonchalantly, Sydney agrees.

With Alicia gone, Sydney is free to immerse himself in the mindset of a murderer – possibly for research purposes, possibly for more sinister reasons. Allowing his fantasies to play out to the full, Sydney imagines that he has killed Alicia by pushing her down the stairs on the day of her departure. Moreover, the following morning, Sydney gets up at the crack of dawn, carries a rolled-up carpet (large enough to conceal a body) to his car, drives five miles to a secluded spot of woodland and buries it in a shallow grave. All the while, he behaves as if the carpet contains Alicia’s body, stiff and heavy following a night in the house.

As the weeks go by, many of the couple’s friends begin to express concern at not having heard anything from Alicia – surely she would have called or written to them by now? At first, Sydney implies that his wife has probably gone to stay with her parents, the Sneezums, down in Kent; but it turns out they haven’t heard from her either. (Alicia, as it happens, is holed up near Brighton, happily playing ‘house’ with her new lover, Edward Tilbury, whom she first at met a party some months earlier.)

Mrs Lilybanks too has her doubts, particularly as she was birdwatching from her bedroom window on the morning of the carpet episode, something she hints at when she drops over to see Sydney one evening. In this scene, Mrs L is enquiring about the carpet that used to be in the Bartlebys’ lounge, the very one she’d seen Sydney take to the car the morning after Alicia’s disappearance.

Mrs Lilybanks sat down slowly on the sofa, watching Sydney. ‘I really quite liked the old one you had here. I’d buy that from you,’ she said, forcing a chuckle.

‘But we haven’t got it. I took it–’ he smiled. ‘I took that old carpet out and dumped it. We didn’t want to give it house-room, and I doubt if anyone would’ve given ten shillings for it.’

Mrs Lilybanks heard her heart pounding under her green cardigan. Sydney had turned a little pale, she thought. He looked guilty. He acted guilty. Yet her unwillingness to believe he was guilty was keeping her from labelling him guilty, definitely. Now he was watching her carefully. (p. 116)

Soon the police become involved, and the finger of suspicion falls squarely on Sydney. The Polk-Faradays and Mrs Lilybanks are questioned about the nature of the Bartlebys’ marriage and Alicia’s state of mind at the time of her disappearance. The deeper the police dig, the worse it begins to look for Sydney: reports of the couple’s quarrels emerge, the burial of the carpet – albeit empty – comes to light; and Sydney’s notebook is found, a book which contains all manner of macabre fantasies on how to do away with one’s wife.

That’s probably all I ought to say about the plot; to reveal any more would spoil it, I think…

What I like about this novel and this author’s work in general is the exploration of the characters’ psychology and motives. In her 1954 novel, The Blunderer, Highsmith considers the possibility that any of us might resort to murder if pushed far enough. There is perhaps an element of that here too, although Sydney is not quite the ‘everyman’ we see in The Blunderer. There is something unhinged about Sydney and his overactive imagination, a blurring of the margins between the fantasies of his crime fiction and the mundane realities of everyday life.

While I couldn’t quite rationalise some of Sydney’s behaviour – there are several opportunities when Sydney could put a stop to the game that he and Alicia are playing, and yet he refuses to do so – I ended up going with it, largely under the assumption of there being some troubling mental health issues at play. Alicia ends up getting out of her depth, too. There comes a point when she can no longer face the shame of admitting she has been living in sin for several weeks, knowing that it would ruin her reputation and cost Edward his job.

In summary, this is a very intriguing novel, one that explores the dangers of allowing one’s fantasies to play out in real life. Definitely recommended for fans of this writer’s work.

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

My books of the year, 2020 – part 3, short stories

As if you weren’t fed-up of seeing books-of-the-year lists by now, here I am, back again with another instalment of my own! But before we get to the books themselves, a little explanation… My original intention, with these annual round-ups, had been to post two pieces – the first on my favourite novellas and non-fiction from a year of reading and the second on my favourite novels. Nevertheless, as I was looking back at my choices earlier this week, I noticed that I had neglected to include any short stories in my final lists. Not because they weren’t good enough to make the cut – I read some truly excellent collections in 2020 – but for some reason they’d been squeezed out, mostly by other, more prominent books.

So, in an effort to redress the balance, here are my favourite short story collections from a year of reading – all highly recommended indeed. While a couple of these collections are relatively recent publications or reissues, the vast majority of the stories themselves hail from the mid-20th-century – a pattern that reflects my general reading preferences. A longing perhaps for a simpler, less manic world, despite many of the difficulties encountered by women in those less enlightened times.

As ever, I’ve summarised each book below, but you can read the full reviews by clicking on the appropriate links. Hopefully, you’ll find something of interest in the mix.

Dark Tales by Shirley Jackson

A collection of seventeen of Jackson’s stories, several of which first appeared in The New Yorker, McSweeney’s and other publications in the 1960s. As the title suggests, the tales themselves are rather creepy and unnerving, illuminating the sense of darkness that lurks beneath the veneer of suburban society. Confinement and entrapment are recurring themes, from the explicit physical state of being trapped in a room to the more subtle psychological sense of being constrained within the limits of domesticity. In some respects, Jackson was highlighting the relatively limited roles woman were allowed to play in society at the time – wife, mother, homemaker and supporter, with precious little opportunity for personal fulfilment. An excellent selection of stories with a serious message.

After Rain by William Trevor

Once again, William Trevor proves himself to be an incredibly astute chronicler of human nature. Here we have stories of bittersweet regrets and missed opportunities, of the acceptance of life’s disappointments and duties, of crushed hopes and dashed dreams. Moreover, Trevor writes brilliantly about the sense of duty or stigma that guides his protagonists’ lives. Like much of the best short fiction, these pieces leave enough space for the reader to bring their own reflections to bear on the narratives, opening up the possibilities beyond the words on the page. What is omitted or left unsaid is just as important as what is explicitly expressed. A superb collection of stories, possibly up there with Eleven Kinds of Loneliness as an all-time favourite.

The Breaking Point by Daphne du Maurier

A characteristically unsettling collection of eight stories, many of which blur the lines between the real and the imaginary. They’re wonderfully creepy, often tapping into our deepest fears and suspicions, our latent sources of restlessness and anxiety. As the title suggests, each story pivots on a moment of crisis in an individual’s life, a time when the protagonist’s emotions are stretched to the extreme. Whether that person snaps or survives remains the critical question, something du Maurier leaves for the reader to ponder and decide. She also excels at building atmosphere and tension, a style that seems particularly well suited to the short story form.

The Cost of Living: Early and Uncollected Stories by Mavis Gallant

In short, these stories are excellent. The very best of them feel like novels in miniature; the kind of tales where everything is compressed, only for the narratives to expand in the reader’s mind on further reflection. Several of Gallant’s protagonists – typically women – seem lost; cast adrift and unmoored in the vast sea of uncertainty that is life. Here we have stories of terrible mothers and self-absorbed fathers, of isolated wives and bewildered husbands, of smart, self-reliant children who must learn to take care of themselves. Central themes include the failings of motherhood, the heartache of adolescence, the emptiness of false happiness and domesticity, and ultimately, a sense of isolation and abandonment. These are marvellous stories, beautifully observed. I loved them.

Wave Me Goodbye, Stories of the Second World War

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). When 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. Includes pieces by Jean Rhys, Elizabeth Taylor, Olivia Manning, Barbara Pym and many more.

The Garden Party by Katherine Mansfield

What to say about this collection of fifteen of Mansfield’s short stories, other than to highlight its brilliance? A much-anticipated garden party is tainted by news of a fatal accident, for one member of the family at least; a man longs to be alone with his wife following her return from a trip, only for their closeness to be disturbed by the shadow of a stranger; a lady’s maid remains devoted to her employer, forsaking the offer of marriage for a life in service. These are just a few of the scenarios Mansfield explores with great insight and perceptiveness. Moreover, there is a beautiful fluidity of emotion in these stories, as they move seamlessly from happiness and gaiety to sadness and loneliness in the blink of an eye.

Saturday Lunch at the Brownings by Penelope Mortimer

Mortimer drew on some of her own experiences for this collection of sharply unnerving stories of motherhood, marriage and family relation – many of which uncover the horrors that lie beneath the veneer of domestic life. There are similarities with the Shirley Jackson and the Daphne du Maurier, particularly in the opening story, The Skylight, where much of the horror in this chillingly tense tale stems from the imagination. There is a strong sense of foreboding in many of these stories, a feeling that flashes of rage, violence or cruelty may erupt at any moment. Nevertheless, Mortimer also has a sharp eye for humour, something that comes through quite strongly. In summary, these are pitch-perfect vignettes, subverting traditional images of marriage and motherhood with a spiky precision.

So that’s it from me for 2020. I wish you all the very best for 2021, wherever you happen to be.

Barbara Pym – Unfinished Novels and Short Stories

A couple of months ago, I wrote about Civil to Strangers, an early novel by Barbara Pym – written in 1936 but published posthumously in 1987. My copy of the book also contains three novellas/unfinished novels (edited down by Pym’s biographer, Hazel Holt) and four short stories.

In this post, my aim is to give you a flavour of the unfinished novels and stories – the former run to around 40-50pp each while the stories clock in at 10-15pp per piece. Even though some of these pieces are minor works, everything is beautifully observed in typical Pym fashion; she has a wonderful eye for social comedy, tempered with touches of poignancy here and there, qualities which give the reader much to enjoy.

Unfinished Novels/Novellas

My favourite of these pieces is Home Front Novel, a story set in a small-town community at the beginning of WW2. This is textbook Pym, a delightfully comic sketch of individuals adjusting to the arrival of a group of evacuees for the duration of the war. As is often the case with Pym, the vicarage is the centre of the community, with the ladies diligently practising their Red Cross demonstrations.

Spinster cousins Agnes and Connie share a house together and will be taking in four evacuees. While Connie is meek and subservient, Agnes is bossy and controlling, traits that soon become apparent as the cousins consider the practicalities of the situation.

“It will mean a lot of extra work, having evacuees here,” said Agnes. I think I’ll tell Dawks tomorrow to dig up the front lawn.”

“Whatever for?” asked Connie.

“To plant vegetables, of course. Now, let me see. The vicarage has a very big lawn and there is that herbaceous border at the Wyatts’.”

By the time they had finished their work in the kitchen, Agnes had already, in imagination, commandeered all the gardens in the village and planted them with vegetables. “Oh God,” prayed Connie that night, “don’t let there be a war.” But at the back of her mind was the thought that a war might be rather exciting. It would certainly make a difference to the days that were so monotonously the same. (pp. 225–226)

What a pity Pym didn’t develop this novel further as the opening is full of potential. There are hints of love blossoming between the charming spinster, Beatrice Wyatt, and the local curate, Michael Randolph. Moreover, the cast of idiosyncratic supporting characters points to some trouble ahead.

So Very Sweet sees Pym dipping her toes into spy story territory, as Cassandra Swan – an excellent woman in typical Pym fashion – follows a trail of clues left by her friend, Harriet, a brilliant individual who works for the Foreign Office. The plot is quite absurd, but no less enjoyable for that – a little bit like the Hitchcock film, The Lady Vanishes (1938), with upstanding ladies practising their bandaging skills for good measure.

Perhaps the slightest of these unfinished works is Gervase and Flora, a story of unrequited love set in Finland amongst the British ex-pat community. There are hints of something autobiographical in this story of Flora Palfrey, a young woman who has been love with Gervase Harringay, an English lecturer from Oxford, for the past few years.

Flora often wondered what would become of her. She had been in love with Gervase for so long that she could not imagine a life in which he had no part. Nor, on the other hand, could she imagine a life in which he returned her love. That would somehow spoil the picture she had made of herself. It was an interesting picture, very dear to her, and she could not bear the idea of it being spoilt. Noble, faithful, long-suffering, although not without its funny side, it was like something out of Tchekov, she thought. (p. 192)

Short Stories

I’ve already written about Goodbye Balkan Capital as featured in Wave Me Goodbye – a marvellous anthology of short stories about WW2, all by women writers. However, this is such a great piece that it warrants another mention here. It’s quintessential Pym, a beautifully observed tale of two spinster sisters sharing a house together, the protagonists reminiscent of the Bede sisters from Some Tame Gazelle, another early work.

As Laura listens to news of the war on the radio, she is reminded of a night spent in the company of Crispin, a dashing young man who captivated her heart at a ball back in her youth. While Laura has not seen Crispin since that event, she has followed his successful career in the Diplomatic Service over the years, his most recent role having taken him to the Balkans.

As reports of the Germans’ advance across Europe come in, Laura envisages Crispin fleeing his office at the British Legation, possibly travelling to Russia and beyond via the Trans-Siberian Express. The excitement Laura experiences vicariously by way of these imaginings contrasts sharply with the mundane realities of her life in the village. Nevertheless, her role as a volunteer in the Air Raid Precautions (ARP) unit makes Laura feel useful and valued and – much to the annoyance of her sister, Janet, always the more formidable of the two. In fact, the sight of Laura in her new tin hat proves almost too much for Janet to bear…

Janet seemed rather annoyed when she saw it. It made Laura look quite important and professional. “I should think it must be very heavy,” she said grudgingly. “I’ll leave the thermos of tea for you, though I suppose you’ll get some there.”

“Well, expect me when you see me, dear,” said Laura, her voice trembling a little with excitement. Going out like this and not knowing when she would return always made her feel rather grand, almost noble, as if she were setting out on a secret and dangerous mission. The tin hat made a difference, too. One felt much more splendid in a tin hat. It was almost a uniform. (p. 349)

There are some lovely scenes of ordinary folk pulling together here – disparate individuals brought together by the camaraderie of ARP duty, sharing tins of biscuits and slabs of chocolate with their night-time cups of tea.

So, Some Tempestuous Morn is another favourite, a charming story of matchmaking and romantic introductions featuring three characters from Pym’s late ‘30s novel, Crampton Hodnet. The individuals in question are the formidable Miss Doggett, her paid companion, Jessie Morrow, and her nineteen-year-old niece, Anthea. Miss Doggett is on the lookout for a suitable young man for Anthea, however previous candidates have fallen somewhat short of the mark.

Anthea would marry, naturally, but it must be a suitable marriage. There had already been one or two disappointments, not only in Anthea’s failure to impress the young men, but in the young men themselves. Canon Bogle’s son had turned out to be a grubby young man in corduroy trousers; Lady Dancy’s nephew was too small and apparently interested in nothing but archaeology. That had been a great disappointment; even Miss Doggett could see that there was little future in dry bones and fragments of pottery. (p. 334)

In The Christmas Visit, two friends who were at Oxford together meet up again after thirty years, having taken radically different career paths in the interim. It is a story of uneasy reunions, the awkwardness of people with little in common coming together to spend Christmas under the same roof.

The collection is rounded off with Finding a Voice, a transcript of a radio talk given by Pym in 1978, in which she reflects on the development of her literary style. It’s a fitting end to a delightful collection of works.

My hardback copy of Civil to Strangers was published by Macmillan, but the book is currently in print with Virago. Should you wish to buy a copy of this book, you can do so via this link to Bookshop.org (see the disclosure on the home page of my website).

The Constant Nymph by Margaret Kennedy

The Constant Nymph (1924) was Margaret Kennedy’s most commercially successful novel, spawning both a play featuring Noel Coward and a film starring one of my favourite actresses, Joan Fontaine. As a book, it shares much with another of my recent reads, Edith Wharton’s 1928 novel, The Children: a man who enters into a relationship with an underage girl; an unconventional family living a bohemian lifestyle; and a brood of rather engaging, precocious children to name but a few. While the Wharton explores these issues from the male perspective, Kennedy’s novel places a young girl at the centre of its narrative. The individual in question is Tessa, the fourteen-year-old daughter of Albert Sanger, a brilliant yet difficult composer who lives in a rambling chalet in the Austrian Alps.

As the novel opens, Lewis Dodd, a young English composer of some promise is travelling to Austria to visit the much-feted Sanger, whom he views as something of a mercurial genius. With his rather conventional upbringing, Lewis finds himself attracted to Sanger and his ‘circus’ – an assortment of children from various marriages, Sanger’s current wife, the beautiful but lazy Linda, and various hangers-on. Their lifestyles are free-spirited and unconventional with little regard for the customs of the broader society at large. For instance, it is Sanger’s eldest daughter, Kate, who manages the household, her desire for some degree of organisation far outweighing that of Linda.

Young Tessa is the constant nymph of the novel’s title, a wonderfully unfiltered, warm-hearted girl, who at fourteen is already wildly in love with Lewis and his passion for the arts. Lewis, for his part, is also attracted to Tessa with her wild, unfettered innocence, viewing her as the most interesting of Sanger’s daughters.

He has always thought her the pick of the bunch. She was an admirable, graceless little baggage, entirely to his taste. She amused him, invariably. And, queerly enough, she was innocent. That was an odd thing to say of one of Sanger’s daughters, but it was the truth. Innocence was the only name he could find for the wild, imaginative solitude of her spirit. The impudence of her manners could not completely hide it, and beyond it he could discern an intensity of mind which struck him as little short of a disaster in a creature so fragile and tender, so handicapped by her sex. She would give herself to pain with a passionate readiness, seeing only its beauty, with that singleness of vision which is the glory and the curse of such natures. He wondered anxiously, and for the first time, what was to become of her. (p. 68)

Tessa longs for a time when she is grown-up, a point when it will be possible for her to enter into a more fulfilling relationship with Lewis; and while nothing is explicitly said, there is a sense that Lewis understands this too, casting an air of destiny over their connection.

Nevertheless, when Albert Sanger dies, this idyll is fractured, and the family is at risk of being split up. The two eldest children, Caryl and Kate, are old enough to fend for themselves, leaving their younger siblings – Tessa included – to be catered for elsewhere. As a consequence, Florence and Robert Churchill – who are related to Sanger’s second wife, now deceased – travel to Austria with a view to bringing the children back to England.

With her traditional breeding and refined lifestyle, Florence is enchanted by the young Sangers. Nevertheless, their wild, unconventional existence proves something of a surprise, prompting Florence to decide that the children should be sent to boarding school where they will receive a proper education.

In a further unexpected twist, Lewis is drawn away from Tessa by the beautiful Florence with her sophisticated lifestyle and strong standing in society. Florence, for her part, is seduced by Lewis’s artistic temperament and role as a musician. However, their sudden marriage is not a great success, primarily as a consequence of unrealistic expectations and subsequent frustrations for both parties. While Lewis feels constrained by the conventions of London society, Florence finds her new husband rather challenging to fashion. It’s a conflict captured in the following passage, which touches on the balance between art and civilisation/humanity – one of many sets of opposing forces in the novel.

[Florence:] “Your attitude is completely wrong. You put the wrong things first. Music, all art…what is it for? What is its justification? After all…”

[Lewis:] “It’s not for anything. It has no justification. It…”

“It’s only part of the supreme art, the business of living beautifully. You can’t put it on a pedestal above decency and humanity and civilization, as your precious Sanger seems to have done. Human life is more important.” (p. 209)

Meanwhile, Tessa and her siblings are also finding it difficult to adapt to a new life, highlighting the tension between an ordered, conventional lifestyle and an unstructured, bohemian one. The constraints of boarding school prove unbearable for Tessa and her sister, Paulina, prompting them to run away with their brother, Sebastian. The relationship between Lewis and Tessa is rekindled when the latter returns to the Dodds’ London home, a move that reveals the intensity of Florence’s jealousy towards her young cousin.

As the novel’s denouement plays out, Tessa must try to reconcile her love for Lewis – something she views as her destiny – with other complicating factors, most notably her ties to the family and the constraints of a conventional society. By the end of the narrative, Tessa is only fifteen, a factor that dictates society’s view of any sexual relationship she may wish to have with Lewis.

While Kennedy has created a very interesting moral dilemma here, I feel she could have gone a little further in exploring the psychology of her characters, particularly in the case of Lewis. It’s something Wharton delves into quite deeply with The Children, probing Martin Boyne’s state of mind in her characteristically incisive style. Nevertheless, Kennedy’s central characters are recognisable, believable and beautifully drawn, factors that add an extra layer of poignancy to the novel’s ending which I would rather not reveal.

There is some terrific humour here, too. Kennedy has a sharp eye for an amusing scene, highlighting the absurdities of the Sangers’ unfettered existence and the moral outrage of Florence’s family at the prospect of her marriage to Lewis.

[Robert:] “I can’t think what her father will say. If he’s got any sense, he’ll forbid it! He’ll forbid it! But I suppose he’ll blame me. How could I have prevented it? How could I have foreseen it? Who could have thought that Florence, FLORENCE, a sensible woman like Florence, not quite a young girl either, would dream of doing such a thing. A delicate-minded, well-bred girl, to take up with a wretched mounteback, a disagreeable, ill-conditioned young cub, with the manners of…of…well, he hasn’t got any manners. And goodness knows if he ever washes.” (p. 154)

Tessa’s siblings are another source of joy, especially Paulina, whose wonderfully unfiltered letter to Lewis on the trials of boarding school life is one of the book’s most amusing highlights.

If you’re interested in hearing more about this novel, the marvellous Backlisted team covered it in one of their recent podcasts, which you can find here. It’s well worth a listen to hear more about some of this novel’s rather controversial elements, particularly the depiction of an underage relationship and the anti-Semitic sentiments the book contains. (Very much a reflection of the era in which it was written, but it’s certainly something for contemporary readers to bear in mind.)

The Constant Nymph is published by Virago Press; personal copy.

Civil to Strangers by Barbara Pym

Regular readers of this blog will be aware of my fondness for the novels of Barbara Pym, with their gentle social comedy and musings on day-to-day village life. Civil to Strangers is an early Pym, written in 1936 when the author was just twenty-three. However, it lay dormant until 1987 when it was published alongside three unfinished novels (edited down by Hazel Holt) and four short stories.

In this early titular novel, Pym begins to map out her territory, creating a world populated by excellent, unassuming women, thoughtless husbands, bespectacled curates, and one or two spikier characters. This is a world where everyone knows everyone else’s business, where social occasions consist of sherry parties and bridge. Naturally, everything is beautifully observed in typical Pym fashion; she has such a wonderful eye for social comedy, tempered with touches of poignancy here and there, qualities which give the reader much to enjoy.

Civil to Strangers revolves around Cassandra Marsh-Gibbon and her rather self-absorbed husband, Adam, a writer who is struggling with his craft – his attempts to fashion a novel about a gardener are not progressing well. Twenty-eight-year-old Cassandra is warm-hearted and dignified, yet Adam seems somewhat blind to her qualities, preferring to play the part of the tortured genius, complete with velvet coat and suede shoes.

Living alongside the Marsh-Gibbons in the small town of Up Callow are the rector, Rockingham Wilmot, his wife, Mrs Wilmot, and their nineteen-year-old-daughter, Janie. Mr Gay, a bachelor in his fifties, shares a house with his niece, Angela, a thirty-year-old spinster constantly on the lookout for an eligible man. Her latest target is Mr Paladin, the new curate in the parish, a bright young man in his mid-twenties with a degree from Oxford, who seems to be proving rather resistant to Angela’s charms.

Mr Gay and his niece occasionally gave an evening party. Perhaps they were still hoping that there was a rich woman or an eligible husband in the town whom they had somehow missed in their search. Certainly there was more hope for Angela then for her uncle, as a new curate has just come to Up Callow. He was twenty-six years old and unmarried, and Miss Gay had seized upon him almost as soon as he had arrived. Ever since then he had been contriving to avoid her. (p. 32) 

Angela also has a soft spot for Adam Marsh-Gibbon, something that colours her rather spiteful behaviour towards Cassandra whenever the pair meet. Finally, for now at least, there is Mrs Gower, an amiable widow who, over the course of the novel, develops a rather touching relationship with Angela’s uncle, Philip Gay.

Into this sleepy community comes Stefan Tilos, a Hungarian gentleman with all the glamour and mystery of Budapest. Unsurprisingly, this rather unusual arrival sets the residents of Up Callow all of a flutter.

“Holmwood is let,” said Mrs Gower in tones of satisfaction, “and to a foreigner!”

“Oh!” Mrs Wilmot gasped. “Are you sure it’s true?”

“Oh yes,” Mrs Gower replied. “I saw him coming down the drive. Quite dark and wearing a black hat.”

“Really…” mused Mrs Wilmot, a smile stealing over her eager little face. After the black hat there could of course be no doubt. (p. 43)

When Angela Gay runs into Mr Tilos in the town, she is captivated by this handsome stranger, promptly dropping all thoughts of the eligible curate before you can say “knife”.

Cassandra, with her generosity of spirit, decides to throw a sherry party for Mr Tilos, giving him a chance to get to know the various residents in their circle. Naturally, Adam is not quite as enthusiastic as his wife – a creative talent should guard against such tiresome interruptions. As the occasion fast approaches, even Cassandra begins to doubt the wisdom of her decision.

“I’m beginning to wish we hadn’t asked this man,” said Cassandra to Adam as they were getting ready for the party. “After all, we don’t really know anything about him.”

“It is really very inconvenient to have invited anyone at all,” said Adam. “I am so busy, I really ought not to spare the time.”

Cassandra sighed. “Well, you can always rush out to your study if you’re suddenly inspired,” she said, for Adam’s inspiration was now coming very irregularly, and one never knew when to expect it. He had laid aside the novel about the gardener, as she had hoped, and was now at work on an epic poem, which was nearly as bad. (p. 65)

Mr Tilos it seems is smitten with Cassandra, forever bringing her gifts of flowers, Tokay wine and photographs of Budapest. Cassandra, for her part, has no desire to cultivate her admirer’s affections. Nevertheless, something must be done to give Adam a jolt. Perhaps if she went away on her own for a while, Adam might realise what is at risk. So, inspired by Mr Tilos’s love for Hungary, Cassandra decides to spend a fortnight alone in Budapest. Little does she know that Mr Tilos also happens to be travelling back to the city at the same time. In fact, as fate would have it, Cassandra and her admirer bump into one another on the train…

What follows is a gentle comedy as Cassandra tries to distance herself from Mr Tilos, hoping somewhat wistfully that Adam will ultimately decide to follow her to Budapest. To the residents of Up Callow, it looks as if Cassandra and Mr Tilos have run away together. So furious is Angela Gay at this development that she throws a pullover she has been knitting for Mr Tilos on the fire in disgust, leaving a detectable note of singed wool to linger in the house.

While Civil to Strangers is something of a minor Pym, there is a touch of The Enchanted April to the story with its themes of unappreciative husbands and a desire for transformation. As ever with Pym, the characters are lovingly drawn, particularly Cassandra with her observant nature and grounded approach to life. A thoroughly enjoyable story that will please fans of this author’s other work.

More Pym next month when I’ll be posting a second piece covering the unfinished novels and short stories – there really is quite a lot to appreciate in this lovely collection.

(My hardback copy of Civil to Strangers was published by Macmillan, but the book is currently in print with Virago.)