Tag Archives: Virago

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.

Some Tame Gazelle by Barbara Pym

Barbara Pym began writing Some Tame Gazelle back in 1934 when she was just twenty-one, an impressive feat considering that the novel’s main protagonists – Belinda Bede and her sister Harriet – are both in their fifties. The characters are loosely based on Barbara herself and her elder sister, Hilary. In essence, she imagines what their lives might be like in another thirty years, both sisters unmarried and living together in a house in a quiet little village in the countryside. In this early novel, Pym begins to map out her territory, creating a world populated by unassuming gentlewomen, impressionable young curates, slightly fusty academics, and one or two more spiky characters – often women. This is a world where the most pressing concerns are what to serve the Archdeacon and other notable guests at supper and what to wear to the forthcoming church fete. Naturally, 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.

The novel’s set-up is fairly straightforward yet rather delightful. Belinda and Harriet Bede are both spinsters in their fifties, living together in a quintessentially English village at some point in the 1930s or ‘40s. Their lives revolve around the day-to-day business of the community, most notably those activities connected with the church.

Belinda has been in love with the Archdeacon Hoccleve for the past thirty years, a man she first met and dated in college where they enjoyed a mutual appreciation of the English poets; but now that the Archdeacon is married to the formidable and efficient Agatha, Belinda must remain content with worshiping him from a safe distance, fantasising over whether he still retains some affection for her after all these years. On the other hand, Belinda’s sister Harriet is more preoccupied with the sequence of curates – all young, pale and undernourished – who pass through the parish on a regular basis. She lavishes her attention on them, inviting them for supper and afternoon tea whenever the opportunity arises – this in spite of the fact that she has received several proposals of marriage from the charming Count Bianco, a somewhat melancholy Italian gentleman who remains faithfully devoted to her in spite of a string of gentle refusals over the years.

In short, both sisters take comfort from having someone to cherish – which brings us to the novel’s title, a quote from a verse by the English poet Thomas Haynes Bayly.

Some tame gazelle, or some gentle dove:

Something to love, oh, something to love! (p. 11)

On the surface, very little appears to happen plot-wise in the first third of this novel, but as ever with Barbara Pym, the devil is in the detail. The characterisation is spot-on, often deeper and more subtle than it appears at first sight.

Belinda is the main focus here, and in some ways, she is almost a forerunner to Mildred, the central protagonist in Pym’s follow-on novel Excellent Women. Belinda is a hugely sympathetic but slightly meek woman who often puts the needs of others before her own desires. Guided by the social conventions of the day, she is forever conscious of doing and saying the ‘right’ thing, especially when in the company of others. Nevertheless, deep down, Belinda longs for a slightly more fulfilling life, one where she could share a few more moments with the Archdeacon, if only Agatha were not in the way. I love this next quote, one that conveys so much about Belinda as a character – and Pym as a writer, concerned as she is with the little details that reveal so much about the trials and tribulations of day-to-day life.

When we grow older we lack the fine courage of youth, and even an ordinary task like making a pullover for somebody we love or used to love seems too dangerous to be undertaken. Then Agatha might get to hear of it; that was something else to be considered. Her long, thin fingers might pick at it critically and detect a mistake in the ribbing at the Vee neck; there was often some difficultly there. Agatha was not much of a knitter herself, but she would have an unfailing eye for Belinda’s little mistakes. And then the pullover might be too small, or the neck opening too tight, so that he wouldn’t be able to get his heard through it. Belinda went hot and cold, imagining her humiliation. She would have to practice on Harriet, whose head was fully as big as the Archdeacon’s. And yet, in a way, it would be better if Harriet didn’t know about it, she might so easily blurt out something…Obviously the enterprise was too fraught with dangers to be attempted… (pp. 78-79)

By contrast, Harriet is much more flamboyant and outgoing than her sister, her personality coming through loud and clear in this next quote on her choice of outfit – Mr Donne, the new curate, has just arrived at the Bede’s for dinner.

Fortunately at this moment, for the conversational going was heavy, a firm step was heard on the stairs and Harriet came into the room, radiant in flowered voile. Tropical flowers rioted over her plump body. The background was the green of the jungle, the blossoms were crimson and mauve, of an unknown species. Harriet was still attractive in fat a Teutonic way. She did not wear her pince-nez when curates came to supper. (p. 6)

The Archdeacon too is another delight, a rather pompous man prone to quoting lines from obscure poems and works of literature in his sermons, much to the bemusement of most of his parishioners. A bit of a martyr at heart, the Archdeacon is forever complaining about the amount of work he has to do in his job, despite the assistance of his curate and the little coterie of diligent church helpers. Heaven knows what Belinda actually sees in him, but there must be something there – perhaps it’s a sense of comfort and familiarity, akin to the attachment to a favourite pair of slippers?

Pym is also very astute when it comes to observing the small slights in life, those casual little put-downs that can have an impact on a person’s feelings, especially someone as sensitive as Belinda. In this scene, Belinda is wo-manning the vegetable stall at the church garden party. With only newspapers at her disposal, she has chosen The Times as the most suitable wrapping for Lady Clara’s marrows, a decision which is soon overturned when Agatha Hoccleve appears on the scene.

‘What’s this?’ asked Agatha sharply, pointing to the Times-shrouded parcel which Belinda had put into a corner.

‘Oh, that’s Lady Clara’s marrows,’ Belinda explained.

‘Wrapped in newspaper?’ Agatha’s tone was expressive. ‘I’m afraid that won’t do at all.’ She produced some blue tissue paper from a secret hiding place and began to undo Belinda’s parcel.

‘Oh, dear. I’m so sorry, I didn’t know there was any other paper,’ said Belinda in confusion. ‘I saw them lying there and I thought perhaps they ought to be wrapped up and put aside in case anybody sold them by mistake.’

‘I don’t think anybody would be so stupid as to do that,’ said Agatha evenly. ‘They were the two finest marrows on the stall, I chose them myself.’

‘Oh well…’ Belinda gave a weak little laugh. All this fuss about two marrows. But it might go deeper than that, although it did not do to think so. (pp. 29-30)

Belinda dislikes Agatha but feels rather guilty and ashamed of herself for doing so. After all, everyone has their individual flaws and shortcomings, even Belinda herself.

Then, just as we think that nothing of any consequence will happen in this sleepy community, a sequence of events come together to unsettle the lives of the Bede sisters. Firstly, Agatha goes away on her own for as few weeks to enjoy the waters at a European spa, leaving the way clear for Belinda to see a little more of the Archdeacon on his own should she so wish. Then Nicholas Parnell, a University Librarian and old friend of Belinda’s, arrives in the village with his assistant, the dashing Mr Mold – a bit of a ladies’ man by all accounts – a development that puts Harriet in a bit of a spin. And finally, a Bishop from Africa, who turns out to be a former curate of the parish, comes to visit the Archdeacon, a trip that results in surprising developments for more than one lady in the village.

By the end of this charming, beautifully observed novel, a number of marriage proposals will have been issued, but how many (if any at all) will have been accepted? After all, as one of the Bede sisters reflects on her personal situation, ‘who would change a comfortable life of spinsterhood in a country parish, which always had its pale urate to be cherished, for the unknown trials of matrimony?’ Who indeed.

Some Tame Gazelle is published by Virago Books; personal copy.

Deep Water by Patricia Highsmith

Deep Water is another top-notch novel from Patricia Highsmith, up there with the best of the Ripleys for me. The book 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.

Vic and Melinda Van Allen have been married for around eight years. They live with their six-year-old daughter, Trixie, in the suburban community of Little Wesley where Vic owns a small publishing business dedicated to the production of high-quality, specialist books. The Van Allens’ marriage has been toxic for some years; there is no real love left in the relationship, only jealousy, sniping and needling as the couple rub up against one another whenever they are at home together. (Vic no longer shares a bedroom with Melinda, choosing instead to spend his nights in a separate room on the other side of the house.)

Right from the start, Highsmith lays the blame for this situation firmly at Melinda’s feet. For the past three or four years, Melinda has been seeing a steady sequence of men, flaunting her conquests in Vic’s face by inviting them home in the evenings for copious drinks and some intimate dancing. (Vic rarely dances himself; in fact, he actively abstains from dancing simply because Melinda enjoys it so much.) These soirees often extend late into the night, prompting Vic to stay up as long as possible to keep an eye on Melinda, spoiling the cosy atmosphere she is aiming to create.

To make matters worse, Melinda usually manages to wangle an invitation for her latest man whenever the Van Allens are invited to the home of one of their neighbours – a fact that Vic finds particularly infuriating, although he is scrupulous in concealing his true feelings from their mutual friends. In this scene, Joel Nash, Melinda’s current beau, is accompanying Melinda and Vic to a get-together at the Mellers’ house – Horace and Mary Meller are the Van Allens’ closest pals.

Horace had tactfully refrained from mentioning Mr Joel Nash. Hadn’t said Joel was nice, or welcome, or asked anything about him or bothered with any of the banalities. Melinda had manoeuvred Joel’s invitation to the party. Vic had heard her on the telephone with Mary Meller the day before yesterday; ‘…Well, not exactly a guest of ours, but we feel responsible for him because he doesn’t know many people in town…Oh, thanks, Mary! I didn’t think you’d mind having an extra man, and such a handsome one, too…’ As if anyone could pry Melinda away from him with a crowbar. (pp. 4-5)

Every few months or so, Melinda seems to have a new love interest in her life, each one as foolish and ineffectual as the last. Actually, it is their idiotic nature that Vic really takes issue with – well, this and the fact that Melinda makes no secret of her fascination with these men by parading them all over town.

It was not that he objected to Melinda’s having affairs with other men per se, Vic told himself whenever he looked at Ralph Gosden, it was that she picked such idiotic, spineless characters and that she let it leak out all over the town by inviting her lovers to parties at their friends’ houses and by being seen with them at the bar of the Lord Chesterfield, which was really the only bar in town. (p. 17)

Vic himself is a quiet, respectable chap, highly regarded in the town of Little Wesley and well-liked by virtually everyone who knows him. He has time for people, taking care to stop and listen to their preoccupations and concerns – in short, he seems a generous, kind-heartened man, willing to support others wherever possible. His interests are somewhat insular and nerdy, activities such as breeding snails, studying bedbugs, gardening and stargazing; but then again, there’s nothing particularly unusual about this, they’re just innocent hobbies, things he can do without any interference from Melinda. Vic’s real pride and joy is his daughter, Trixie. In fact, he probably spends more time with her than Melinda, playing with the young girl and giving her extra tuition for school – she’s a very bright kid, remarkably well adjusted considering the state of relations between her parents. Melinda, for her part, pays little attention to Trixie, choosing instead to spend her afternoons and evenings in the company of her boyfriends, drinking and dancing and generally making a fool of herself.

As a consequence of all this, the Van Allens’ friends – especially their closest allies, the Mellers and the Cowans – feel very sympathetic towards Vic, but less so towards Melinda. They can see all too clearly what Vic has to endure when he is out with Melinda; in fact, it’s a wonder that Vic puts up with it at all, especially considering how long the whole business has been going on.

The fact that Melinda had been carrying on like this for more than three years gave Vic the reputation in Little Wesley of having a saintlike patience and forbearance, which in turn flattered Vic’s ego. Vic knew that Horace and Phil Cowan and everybody else who knew the situation – which was nearly everybody – considered him odd for enduring it, but Vic didn’t mind at all being considered odd. In fact, he was proud of it in a country in which most people aimed at being exactly like everybody else. (p. 18)

Quite near the beginning of the novel, Vic decides that he’s had enough of the likes of Joel Nash and Ralph Gosden for a while, so he decides to invent a story to scare them off. Vic tells both men, albeit on separate occasions, that he killed one of Melinda’s former lovers, an advertising exec named Malcolm McRae. (A few months earlier, McRae was found dead in his Manhattan apartment, murdered by an unknown assailant; the perpetrator is yet to be identified.) Both Joel and Ralph are visibly unnerved by Vic’s disclosures, and so they back away from Melinda – but Little Wesley is a small place, and word of Vic’s alleged involvement in the McRae case soon starts to spread. Those who know Vic well don’t believe a word of it. They can see exactly what Vic is doing, trying to frighten his wife’s lovers by hinting that he is not the mild-mannered doormat he appears to be. Nevertheless, there are other residents of Little Wesley who are less familiar with Vic, people like Don Wilson for example – recently arrived in town and a little outside of the Van Allens’ circle of friends – who are more suspicious of him, more willing to believe that he might have killed McRae in cold blood.

He thought that a few people there tonight really believed that he had killed Malcolm McRae – the people who knew him least. That was what Mary had tried to tell him. If Mary hadn’t known him so well, or thought she knew him so well, she might be one of the people who suspected him, he thought. She had as much as said it that night of the party. ‘You’re like somebody waiting very patiently and one day – you’ll do something.’ He remembered the exact words, and how he had smiled at their mildness. Yes, all these years he had played a game of seeming calm and indifferent to whatever Melinda did. He had deliberately hidden everything he felt – and in those months of her first affair he had felt something, even if was only shock, but he had succeeded in concealing it. That was what baffled people, he knew. He had seen it in their faces, even in Horace’s. He didn’t react with the normal jealousy, and something was going to give. (p. 52)

At first, Vic’s actions have the desired effect on Joel and Ralph, and life with Melinda settles down for a bit. The Van Allens even have a fairly pleasant night out together, something that hasn’t happened for years. But then the police catch McRae’s real killer, blowing Vic’s claims out of the water; and before Vic knows it, there’s a new man in Melinda’s life – Charley De Lisle, the piano player at the Chesterfield bar. Vic cannot stand the thought of Melinda dragging De Lisle to various social gatherings in front of their friends; and when the Cowans decide to throw a fancy-dress party at their home, with Charley providing the music for the event, things come to a dramatic head.

Deep Water is a truly brilliant thriller – expertly structured and paced, it remains suspenseful right to the very end. There is a sense that something dreadful might happen at any moment, just when the reader is least expecting it.

One of the most impressive things about this novel is the way Highsmith draws on the reader’s natural emotions, prompting them to feel a great deal sympathy for an affable, downtrodden man who ultimately goes on to commit a terrible crime. The characterisation is uniformly excellent, from Vic and Melinda, right down to the minor players in the story. For years, Vic has been taking it on the chin from Melinda, calmly turning a blind eye to all her embarrassing antics. To their friends, Vic is a saint, is the model of patience, respectability and integrity; and yet inside he is privately seething, the tensions simmering away. For years he has been playing a game, appearing relaxed and indifferent on the outside, but bristling away on the inside. By contrast, we feel very little compassion for Melinda, largely on account of her outrageous behaviour towards Vic and her abject neglect of Trixie; there are times when she appears unhinged and deranged, especially to some of her closest friends.

I’m going to leave it there for fear of revealing anything more about the plot. All I can do is encourage you to read this terrific novel for yourselves – I doubt you’ll regret it.

Deep Water is published by Virago Books; personal copy.

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. While Britain has emerged victorious from the conflict, life in the country has not returned to ‘normal’, to the way things were before – and for many people, it never will. Set on a blisteringly hot day in the summer of 1946, the novel captures a moment of great social change as thousands of families find themselves having to adapt to significant shifts in circumstances. For some inhabitants of Wealding, a picturesque village in the home counties, the war has opened up fresh opportunities and pastures new; but for others like Laura Marshall and her husband Stephen, it has led to a marked decline in living standards compared to the glory days of the late 1930s.

Laura – sensitive, wistful, bohemian – is trying to maintain some semblance of domestic harmony around the house now that the family’s servants are now longer there to maintain order, the invisible ‘caps and aprons’ who worked the strings of their world so perfectly. The cook and nanny are long gone; the maids who left to help with the war effort will not be returning, lured away by the chance to work in a local factory with all the benefits this new environment has to offer.

Like young horses intoxicated with the feel of their freedom, Ethel and Violet had disappeared squealing into the big bright world where there were no bells to run your legs off, where you knew where you were, where you could go to the flicks regular, and where you worked to the sound of dance music pouring out continuously, sweet and thick and insipid as condensed milk dripping through a hole in a tin. (p. 13)

While Laura tries her best, she is a hopeless cook, forever pulling something unidentifiable out the oven, or leaving the milk to boil over, her thoughts often elsewhere. There is skeleton help in the form of Mrs Prout, a local charwoman who comes to the Marshalls’ a few mornings a week to ‘circulate the dust a little’. Mrs Prout likes Laura even though she considers her a daydreamer, prone to contemplation and reflection while the house slowly crumbles around her feet. A keen observer of people, Panter-Downes has a wonderful knack for capturing a character in just a few sentences, as evidenced by this brief portrait of Mrs Prout.

Mrs. Prout obliged several ladies in Wealding, conscious of her own value, enjoying glimpses of this household and that, sly, sardonic, given to nose tapping and enormous winks, kind, a one for whist tables and a quiet glass at the local, scornful of the floundering efforts of the gentry to remain gentry still when there wasn’t nobody even to answer their doorbells, poor souls. (p. 18)

By contrast to Laura, Stephen is more troubled and dismayed by the loss of their servants, particularly the trusty gardener, Chandler – killed on the battlefields of Holland – who once tended their roses with such care and affection. Now there is only Voller from the village, a slow, plodding presence in the garden for one or two evenings a week, a man too old and weary to cope with any heavy work. As a consequence, the garden is hopelessly overgrown, the house tired and dilapidated, no longer filled with the gaiety and chatter of days gone by. Stephen longs for times past when everything ran efficiently, the house spick and span, the garden beautifully tended, their young daughter Victoria delivered to them fresh and clean in her towelling bath robe, cared for largely by the family’s nanny. Those days are but a dim and distant memory in the mind.

Meanwhile, here they were awkwardly saddled with a house which, all those pleasant years, had really been supported and nourished by squawks over bread-and-cheese elevenses, by the sound of Chandler’s boots on the paths, by the smell of ironing and toast from the nursery. The support, the nourishment, had been removed. Now, on this summer morning, when doors and windows stood open, it was possible to hear the house slowly giving up, loosening its hold, gently accepting shabbiness and defeat. (p. 13)

Recently returned from the war, Stephen travels to London for work each day, while his evenings are spent battling with the weeds in the garden. On top of the worries with the house, he is a little dismayed to find Laura looking middle-aged at thirty-eight, her hair grey, her face tired and weary. The couple’s ten-year-old daughter, Victoria, is a bit of a mystery to Stephen too, vastly changed from the inconspicuous child he left behind for the battlefield.

Laura too feels a little uncertain about her ability to adapt to this new life. She realises that her looks have faded, that others may see her as an ‘old sofa,’ worn but comfortable. Every now and again, Laura’s thoughts return to her mother, Mrs Herriot, a formidable woman who lives in Cornwall with Laura’s rather conservative father. Life for the Herriots has remained largely unchanged by the war. The new ideas have yet to catch on in St. Pol, the Herriot household still full of young girls willing to bow to the family’s every need. By contrast, Mrs Herriot bemoans the fact that Laura should be reduced to cooking, cleaning and looking after Victoria, unable to understand why the Marshalls’ servants have not returned to the fold. Moreover, she blames Stephen – whom she has never liked – for this sorry state of affairs, for not taking care of her daughter properly. As far as Mrs Herriot is concerned, Laura should have married her old flame, Philip Drayton, now a successful politician living comfortably in Westminster with his wonderful wife, Cicely, their old family cook and parlourmaid still firmly in position.

While Panter-Downes slips seamlessly between the minds of several of the characters, her main focus is always Laura; it is Laura’s thoughts that drive the narrative forward as we go through the day. By focusing on this one woman and her domestic situation, the author builds up a insightful picture of the inhabitants of a broader community, their lives touched and altered by the war in various ways. We follow Laura during her regular trip to the local town in an effort to buy food for the family’s dinner. Supplies are scarce, almost more so than during the war itself, as illustrated by this scene at Mr Kellett’s, Bridbury’s fishmonger.

It’s terrible, Mr. Kellett had grumbled, diving his scarlet hands into a bucket of goggling monsters, it’s never been worse, not even in the war, it hasn’t. The line of women had swayed and sighed, murmuring uneasily, staring with depression at the dwindling pile of fish, summoning up a false brightness when their turn came to step forward under Mr. Kellett’s angry little blue eyes. And to-night, chewing the dead slab which she would disguise as something or other, Stephen would say thoughtfully that it was odd what had happened to the soles. Had they disappeared from the seas, a war-time casualty? Not that this was not, of course, perfectly delicious, he would add kindly… (pp. 60-61)

Later, Laura calls in on a local family, the Porters, to ask if their son, George, would be interested in helping with the garden; but the young man in question has been offered a job at a garage in Coventry, lured away from the village by the promise of money and a livelier social life. We meet the Cranmers, a formerly grand family who have just sold the bulk of their vast estate as they can no longer afford to maintain it – the remaining members are to live more modestly in the stable wing. There is a fleeting visit to a shop where Laura encounters a young war widow – referred to here as Mrs Jim – a beautiful woman who, much to Laura’s dismay, seems all set to marry the stuffy and pernickety Stanley Rudge. As far as Laura is concerned, Mrs Jim could do so much better for herself, someone young and handsome like George Porter, for example. But Mr Rudge has prospects, he is a builder/property developer; and unlike Laura, whose husband returned from the war safe and sound, Mrs Jim cannot afford to be choosy, not since young Jim was declared lost at sea.

It is all very well for you, said Mrs. Jim’s eyes coldly. You are one of the safe ones, you have a roof and a child. Your man came back. One must take what one can. One is forced to make do, to pick up the crumbs, to be sensible., And all that, the other part, is gone for ever, sunk and drowned beneath the oily waters. (pp. 93-94)

There are other encounters too, all of which come together to paint 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.

Panter-Downes draws an astute contrast between the inner turmoil of Laura’s and Stephen’s thoughts and the peaceful nature of the idyllic landscape which surrounds them. Threaded through the novel are beautiful descriptions of the countryside on a hot summer’s day. The sunny is bright, the flowers and crops are flourishing in the fields. England is at peace, the land has survived in all its glory and is set to endure long into the future.

While this subtle novel is imbued with a strong sense of loss, of what has passed and will never return, the story finishes on an optimistic note. At the end of the afternoon, Laura climbs to the top of the local hill at Barrow Down. Enthused by the glorious views from the summit, she vows to reintroduce into her marriage some of the fun and intimacy that has been lacking lately. Stephen too seems ready to embrace a new beginning as he suddenly realises how preposterous it was to have become so dependent on servants for everything in the days before the war. While the couple’s future is left open to the reader’s imagination, the tone is undoubtedly hopeful; a fitting close for this lovely novel, sketched and coloured in an evocative, impressionistic style.

One Fine Day is published by Virago Press; personal copy.

The Very Dead of Winter by Mary Hocking

Like many other bloggers and readers, I first discovered Mary Hocking through Ali’s sterling efforts in championing her work over the past couple of years. While she seems very much her own writer, Hocking shares something in common with some of her forerunners and contemporaries – fellow British authors such as Barbara Pym and Elizabeth Taylor (possibly Beryl Bainbridge too, although I’m still relatively new to her work). In The Very Dead of Winter, she demonstrates a keen eye for social situations, especially those which highlight the tensions and mismatches that often emerge in family life. There is so much black humour in this novel too, but I’ll come back to that point a little later in my review.

IMG_2876

As the novel opens, Florence and her grown-up daughter, Anita, are driving to a fairly isolated country cottage where they will be joining the rest of their family to spend Christmas in the snow. The cottage has been in the family for several years and is now owned by Sophia, Florence’s sister – the two sisters have rarely spoken to one another in the last thirty years, a point that becomes quite significant as their story unfolds. Also present at the cottage are Florence’s husband, Konrad, and the couple’s son, Nicholas. Konrad has been ill for some time, and it is clear from the start of the novel that he has only a few days left to live.

Florence and Anita are both rather self-centred; they attack one another at every opportunity and give very little thought to Konrad as he lies in bed upstairs. Florence, a domineering and manipulative woman at the best of times, seems unable to face up to the fact that her husband is dying. All her life she has occupied a central position in the family – first as a daughter and then as a wife and mother. Now she is fearful of a future on the margins, the lonely existence of a widow cut adrift from the activity of life. Sophia, on the other hand, is very different to Florence; a more insightful and sensitive woman than her sister, Sophia is much more attuned to Konrad’s needs, tending to him as passes through the final phase of his life. As the story moves forward, old grudges, resentments and family secrets come tumbling out of the closet, all of which add to the tension within the cottage.

As she looked at her sister, Florence was aware of anger always simmering inside her, an anger which sometimes boiled up unaccountably. Ever since she could remember, Sophia had looked as if she had started late for an appointment the purpose of which she had already forgotten. It astonished Florence that despite this she had never actually come to grief. […]

And yet, they were not unalike. There were times, brief flashes rather than occasions, when Florence was aware that at some level they understood each other perfectly. This was not a comforting insight. (pg. 102)

In truth, Florence has shown very little interest in her husband’s life over the past thirty years. As a young boy, Konrad had arrived in England as a refugee from Germany, an experience that left him somewhat scarred for life. As an adult with a talent for languages, Konrad had joined the BBC World Service, but in spite of this achievement, he remained something of a disappointment to his wife. With an eye on the glamour of placements in exotic locations, Florence had hoped that her husband would join the Diplomatic Service, but alas this was not to be – as far as Florence was concerned, he had simply let the opportunity slip through his fingers. Moreover, Florence has paid very little attention to Konrad’s interest in painting over the course of their marriage, an activity he enjoyed during weekends away from the family and all the accompanying tensions at home.

The characters and set-up in The Very Dead of Winter provide Hocking with a plenty of opportunities for a macabre style of comedy. There are several acerbic exchanges between Florence and her daughter, Anita, a Child Psychologist who shows very little in the way of empathy or sympathy for other people, especially children. Anita also comes to the fore when her brother shows an interest in Frances, a young neighbour of Sophia’s whom the two siblings visit during their stay. Nicholas is a geologist, forever thinking of his next expedition to a faraway land. By nature he is something of a loner, wary of getting entangled with other people, both their lives in general and their emotions.

‘Cocoa will do nicely,’ Nicholas said.

Anita looked at him pityingly. What did he think he was going to get out of this – the thrill of entering a forbidden temple? As Frances heated  milk on the stove, Anita studied her, making mental jottings – unusually composed for her age: although she is nervous she doesn’t allow herself to be hustled; emotionally reserved, but she can still look at Nicholas as if she is making a votive offering of this bloody cocoa; sexually unfulfilled, neither child nor woman. I wouldn’t want to deal with her and Nicholas certainly shouldn’t be allowed to. (pg. 27)

The novel comes complete will a raft of darkly comic scenes in which members of this dysfunctional family rub up against one another in this time of heightened emotions.

Alongside the humour, there are quieter moments too, insightful reflections on the nature of life and the challenges of adapting to change and loss especially as one grows older. In the passage below, Sophia’s neighbour, Thomas, contemplates his own situation. Florence has taken rather a shine to this gentle widower, viewing him as a potential partner once Konrad has passed away. For his part, Thomas is still mourning the loss of his own wife and son, the latter from a tragic act that has left a deep mark. The aforementioned Frances lives with Thomas – a relative by marriage, she takes care of Thomas and his young grandson, Andrew. Both Frances and Thomas are rather vulnerable in their individual ways. Nevertheless, Thomas knows the time will come when Frances must be encouraged to leave the nest, however painful that experience might turn out to be.

Thomas, washing up the coffee cups, reflected that not the least of the things she [Frances] had done for him was to save him from such as Florence. He was a proud man whose independence was important to him. The possibility that Frances might go – indeed should be encouraged to go whenever the time was right for her – leaving him to become the object of pity and calculation was more than distasteful, it was frightening. There was Andrew to consider. He had known several men who had made disastrous second marriages for the sake of their children. For a moment, as he dried the cups and trod in Jasper’s lunch bowl, he felt threatened as never before. (pgs. 107-108)

While I didn’t love this novel quite as much as the Taylors and Pyms I’ve read to date, I did enjoy it a great deal. There is plenty of wicked fun to be had in the company of these rather fractured characters, all of whom are painted with sufficient depth and insight to make them feel lifelike (even if some of them are a little grotesque). The novel has a dark quality, almost like a macabre fairy tale, and there are several references to this genre throughout the story. Hocking’s charming descriptions of the snowy landscapes add to the novel’s atmosphere. I couldn’t help but wonder if the images of gnarled and twisted tree trunks devastated by the hurricane of 1987 were a kind of metaphor for these rather damaged individuals and their broken lives.

My thanks to Ali for the copy of this novel which I won in a giveaway – you can read her review here. Caroline has also reviewed it here. This copy was issued by Virago, but Bello will be publishing a lovely new edition on 14th July (one of another 12 novels by Hocking). The new covers are rather beautiful.