Tag Archives: Persephone

More praise for short stories

In November 2013 I wrote a post called In praise of short stories. It has maintained a modest readership ever since. Here is an updated version, with new recommendations.

Now is the time of the short story

Alice Munro

Short stories are flourishing. Both the winner of the 2013 Nobel Prize for Literature (Alice Munro) and the 2013 International Man Booker Prize Winner (Lydia Davis) were applauded for their outstanding achievements in short stories. Penguin tried out a new publishing format with: The Embassy of Cambodia by Zadie Smith in an electronic as well as small hardback. I am not aware of repeats or intentions to continue this experiment. On-line you can find many journals that publish short stories, and there are many on-line competitions throughout the year.

I love the form, writing them and reading them. They are not novels-lite, although the stories of Alice Munro are as rich as any novel, and the reader can have the experience of a novel in one story. William Boyd suggests that the form’s strength derives from its roots in our oral traditions (see his article in Prospect from 2006 called A Short History of the Short Story).

According to William Boyd:

The great modern short stories possess a quality of mystery and beguiling resonance about them – a complexity of afterthought – that cannot be pinned down or analysed. Bizarrely, in this situation, the whole is undeniably greater than the sum of its component parts.

Nadine Gordimer said that short stories should ‘burn a hole in the page’. That’s another way of putting it.

Reading short stories

I love reading short stories, especially in anthologies. They can introduce us to new writers; give us a great experience of creative writing in a nugget; provide us with insights into different writing in a digestible form. A friend introduced me to a collection called In a Fertile Desert: modern writing from the United Arab Emirates, translated and selected by Denys Johnson-Davies. For me, the stand-out story of the anthology was The Old Woman by Maryam Al Saedi, which provided a painful insight into the treatment and expectations of an older woman. One sentence burned a hole in the page for me.

Her children only became aware of her name when they had to obtain a death certificate.

It is not clear why large publishers don’t like to publish anthologies or collections of short stories, unless they are by established authors. But smaller and independent publishers are doing their bit (let’s hear it for them AGAIN! They do seem to listen to what the reading public say they want.)

Writing short stories

Short stories have provided a platform for writers not visible in other forms. This is especially true for novice writers, and for women: think of the numerous short story competitions by Fish Publishing International Short Story Award, the Bridport Prize, The Asham Award, Costa, to mention a few. I refer to my own modest success in 2016 in Exeter Short Story Prize, organized by Creative Writing Matters.

Most how-to-write-fiction books assume novels, but I recommend Short Circuit: A guide to the Art of the Short Story, edited by Vanessa Gebbie (published by Salt). Not only is the guidance relevant and helpful, but the writers all recommend further reading, further delights. [My apologies for misspelling in the earlier version of this post.]

My recommendations

My recommended short story writers (with some links):

And five collections to recommend:

Dorothy Whipple

Elizabeth Day’s top ten short stories, in the Guardian in 2014, draws attention to collections by well-known novelists: Julian Barnes, Jon McGregor, Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche, Jhumpa Lahiri, as well as some I have listed, who are better known for short stories.

When I originally wrote about short stories, readers recommended the following:

  • Tim Moss – Close to the Edge
  • Gabriel Garcia Marquez – Leaf Story
  • Alice Hoffman – The Red Garden
  • Katherine Mansfield
  • Margaret Drabble – A Day in the Life of a Smiling Woman

Over to you

Which stories and writers would you recommend? What have you enjoyed? Are you a writer of short stories?

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Filed under Books, short stories, Writing

Dear Diary, today I wrote …

Why are writers so often advised to keep a diary or journal? How can regular entries support your writing? I always wanted one of those 5-year diaries with a key, kept in a box or a slipcase, bound in padded faux leather, edged with gold. Instead, every Christmas I was given an adult’s one-year pocket diary, with rice-thin paper and four or five lines per day. They were often business gifts my father had received at work, so they bore the trademark of the company and details of relevant business organisations inside.

I diligently made entries for a few weeks: ‘went on a walk’, ‘snowed’, ‘went to see the Bennetts and played charades’, that kind of thing. Then around the time I went back to boarding school (mid-January) the entries would tail off. After all, every day was more or less the same. Got up, had breakfast, made my bed, did English/Maths/Geography and Games. Rained.’ and so forth. It became boring to write, it is boring to read. But I was learning a useful skill: recording in words.

Writers’ diaries.

249 Jrnl of a novel

On writing courses I have been recommended to read writers’ diaries, specifically John Steinbeck’s Journal of a Novel from the time he was writing East of Eden. In this collection of letters you learn that Steinbeck was a keen amateur woodworker. He wrote in pencil and really did have a pencil sharpening routine as a prelude to his writing. He planned a fixed amount to write everyday and which scenes. It was all mapped out in advance. Nothing I read in his diary has any relevance to my writing, except it was often very hard work for Steinbeck as well.

Journal of a Novel by John Steinbeck, published by Penguin Classics. 192pp

Virginia Woolf in 1902 by George Charles Beresford via WikiCommons

Virginia Woolf in 1902 by George Charles Beresford via WikiCommons

Virginia Woolf kept diaries. They have been edited by her husband and published, with an eye to illuminating her writing practices. When I posted about To The Lighthouse as part of #Woolfalong recently I greatly enjoyed looking up the references to the novel in the diary. The entries cast light on her writing processes, what she saw as her innovations, how she felt she was dealing with the new approaches she was trying. Recommended!

A Writer’s Diary: being extracts from the Diary of Virginia Woolf, edited by Leonard Woolf, first published in 1953. One edition was published by Persephone Books in 2012. 372pp.

Reasons to keep a diary

I mentioned my desire for the locked 5-year diary. Two features of my thwarted wishes indicate important reasons to keep a diary:

  1. To make a record over time. I grew up to read a history degree. Perhaps you can see the connection.
  2. To have a secret or at least a private place. An interesting piece in the New Yorker in March referred to the importance of diaries as secret places in a review of What is Not Yours is Not Yours by Helen Oyeyemi: Black Women Writers and the Secret Space of Diaries by Morgan Jenkins.

And I can think of a number of other reasons why I still do have a journal of sorts:

3. As I indicated above, it is a place to make sense of the world through words.

4. It’s a place to make sense of my writing through reflection, comments, experiments, notes, mistakes.

249 deardiary

I have a daily weekday routine of getting up, making coffee and writing two A4 pages by hand, intending to focus on my writing. But it often turns out to be a reflection on activities of the previous day: a play, an exhibition, a conversation, a walk, a book or a dilemma not connected to writing. How is it helping my writing? Perhaps it just gets my writing mojo going. A way to loosen the ligaments, to use Virginia Woolf’s phrase (April 20th 1919, p13).

The benefits according to others

Writing about traumatic experiences and the associated emotions for 20 minutes a day speeds up the healing of wounds, it is claimed. Research on this was reported by Oliver Burkeman in his Guardian Blog in July 2013.

Michael Palin has an instrumental reason for keeping his diaries: a record of his days, helping him remember things he would otherwise have forgotten. But he also has this to say

I’ve tried to approach each morning’s entry as a story of the day that’s just passed, without limits and without self-censorship. And composing a story a day is not a bad discipline for any would-be writer. (The Guardian, Do Something supplement, September 2015.)

Journaling to help learning

249 blank pages

I think the most useful aspect of my regular writing is that it is part of my reflective process. I record my successes – a story completed and entered for a competition; the MS of The New Age of Ageing sent to the publishers; a target number of words achieved and so on. I record my frustrations. Periodically I review the pages of my journal, focusing on what I did, and what I learned from my actions. And sometimes I plan what I will do in future in the light of this learning.

On my tbr pile

What is Not Yours is Not Yours by Helen Oyeyemi

Diary of a Notable Woman by Jean Lucey Pratt

Journals of Sylvia Plath

Over to you

How does writing a journal help your writing? Are there any journals by writers that have influenced your writing?

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Filed under Learning, Reading, Virginia Woolf, Writing

Sisters in Fiction

Why do fiction writers so often use sisters in their novels? Is it because sisters usually have good relationships, certainly long ones, and allow authors to explore a variety of themes: growing up, marital prospects, contrasting experiences, enduring relationships or rivalries. Here are some thoughts on sisterly novels.

What little girls must learn? Little Women by Louisa May Alcott

Everybody’s favourite gives us the lessons that must be learned about how little girls turn into grown ups. Who doesn’t identify with Jo Marsh, and who doesn’t yearn for the simplicities of 19th Century New England childhoods? We learn that sisters must grow up right, and that more than two of them ensures terrible trouble for the family.

The marriage market: Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

Five sisters, again a problem for their parents, and here specifically in the meat market that was an un-moneyed middle class Georgian England search for husbands. How will the sisters get their men? They are beautiful (Jane), intelligent and with bright eyes (Elizabeth), wanton (Lydia), boring (Mary) and stay-at-home (Kitty).

The delights of this novel include the mutually supportive relationship between Jane and Elizabeth Bennet, and the satisfaction in them both getting nice (rich) husbands.

Contrasts: 1. Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen

Fiction is full of examples of sisters who grow up differently in the same household. The convenient contrast allows authors to look at the effects of birth order: the older having more responsibility than younger sisters. That is certainly true of the saintly Eleanor who is thwarted by Marianne’s gullibility in Sense and Sensibility. Jane Austen’s novels are full of contrasting sisters: Anne and her sisters, (patient, selfish and grasping) in Persuasion, and the play-acting rivals Maria and Julia Bartram in Mansfield Park.

Contrasts: 2. Easter Parade by Richard Yates

248 Easter Parade Cover


Richard Yates took the contrast between two sisters’ lives from before the war to the 60s to tell a sad story of alcoholism and marriage failure.

Sarah, the older sister, quickly settles for the most classy man her mother finds for her. He turns out not to be classy, and also turns out to be a wife beater. His attitudes are typical blue collar American despite his English education.

Emily, the younger sister, chooses lots of men, and also ends up lost, without success and unemployed. Only her nephew, who is an ordained minister, seems to offer any hope or understanding. Everyone else has been consumed by drink.

Easter Parade Richard Yates (1976) Published by Everyman 188pp

For a very good review check out Jacquiwine’s Journal on Easter Parade.

Contrasts 3: They were Sisters by Dorothy Whipple

248 Dorothy Whipple

I haven’t read this yet, but the Persephone catalogue describes it as ‘A 1943 novel by this superb writer, contrasting three different marriages’. Dorothy Whipple has a good eye for family relationships. See my review of Greenbanks.

They were Sisters by Dorothy Whipple, published by Persephone.

Loyalty: Housekeeping (1980) by Marilynne Robinson

This novel defies description. The sisters, Ruthie and Lucille, live in a weird and rather isolated environment, called Fishbone, in the American Mid-West. They are orphans and a succession of relatives fails to look after them. Finally, their aunt cares for them until the younger sister breaks away. The scene of the flooded house lives in my memory.

Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson, published in the UK by Faber & Faber 224pp.

Long-lasting: Elizabeth is Missing by Emma Healey

The central mystery of this successful novel is Maud’s attempt to find out what happened to her sister since she disappeared at the end of the war. She pursues the clues, despite the passage of time and her own fading mental powers.

Elizabeth is Missing by Emma Healey (2014) published by Penguin Books. 275pp

For more on this novel see the post in the older women in fiction series.

Rivalry: The Looking Glass Sisters by Gohril Gabrielsen.

248 Lglass Sisters cover

The unrelenting horror of this story of a co-dependent relationship turned worse and more destructive by the page is a contrast to the other novels mentioned here.

The story is set in the remote far north of Norway. Two sisters live in a house, their parents have died. They are middle aged but the narrator recalls their earlier lives. She is younger and disabled, having lost the use of her legs in childhood, an outcome she partly blames on her sister for not alerting her parents to her worsening illness. The younger sister riles and deliberately provokes and annoys her older carer. The situation is changed by the arrival of Johan, and his inability to cope with the invalid and the invalid’s jealousy of her sister. The situation declines and declines and in the end everything is terrible.

The Looking-Glass Sisters Peirene (2008) 183pp

Translated from the Norwegian by John Irons

Sisters in fiction always a happy ending?

Sisters are doing it themselves!

On the whole, sisterhood is good in fiction, as in life. It is not surprising that the second wave of feminism took to calling all women sisters.

But there is ambivalence in these novels (and perhaps life). The relationship is not always easy. In novels, especially from the 19th century it seems that there is always a fear that one woman’s marriage/achievements will spell another’s poverty.

Over to you

Have you any suggestions about why sisters appear so often in novels? What other fictional sisters would you recommend?

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Filed under Books, Older women in fiction, Reading, Reviews

The Craft of Blogging (2) … types of posts

I have written over 80 posts and read many other blogs, so I have come across many types of posts. Which form to use? Lists are very common. Have you come across titles like these?

  • 5 ways of selling yourself on-line
  • 10 things every writer needs to know
  • The 12 best book blogs
  • 6 good books about rabbit breeding
  • My 100 most successful world record attempts

This post is an example of the format: a list of types – so I shouldn’t mock. Anyway lists, in particular, have the advantage of inviting the reader in – a hook! What will be on it? Will the reader share the choice, the order?

69 ten moreLists appeal to me (I once made a list of all the lists I had on the go at that moment!) and to many bloggers and readers. But they don’t suit every theme. Form needs to match purpose! A complicated argument does not lend itself to a list. A story is best told as a story.

The form or type also needs to take account of the on-line platform: ie be immediate and accessible, interactive and connective (as discussed in the first post on the craft of blogging).

Here is my list of some possible types of posts, with mainly literary examples of how it might be used.

  1. List

Ten things you never knew about blogging

5 recommended books on blogging.

  1. Story

What happened after I read this book …

A case study81 JA Carpe d

  1. How to …

Practical advice on a writing technique eg before and after editing.

Analysis of some aspect of writing.

  1. Photo or other illustration

The star of the post is an image, as in the Write One Picture exercise, or a daily image such as the Persephone Post, or occasional and interesting images, like Desktop Retreat.

Comparison between images; such as book covers.

81 platform 9

  1. Opinion or Point of View

Your individual ‘take’ on a topic, such as an author.

A topic on which you are passionate, eg libraries.

  1. Controversy

An addition to a debate on a topic – easy if you are a feminist.

Being provocative about a contentious topic. Ditto

  1. Review/Preview

Your response to a specific topic; eg an author, fiction from one country, words as therapy.

  1. Giveaway or Competition

I have no experience of giveaways or comps. Sometimes it’s a lucky dip: we’ll pick one lucky person to receive a copy of my brilliant novel – just leave a comment. It might be something that the blogger will judge: nominate your favourite book by X and we’ll send you Y. Hmmm?

81 boots

  1. Interview or profile or guest post

The subject could be another writer, or reader, or publisher. I have co-written several posts with Eileen on the subject of writing collaboratively.

  1. Prediction

An obvious form in January but also useful to announce or raise interest in forthcoming events, such as prizes, publications.

  1. Round-up

A cross between a review and a list: a collation of articles you’ve read, people you met at an event, talks, etc on a theme.

81 woman reding

  1. Something different

A variation on your most frequently used format: eg including video if you mostly produce static posts; a very short post; a conversation with a colleague; a comment on previous content …


(This list is adapted from Robin Houghton’s (2012) Blogging for Creatives, published by ILEX: Lewes Sussex.)


And did that work? Was a list the best way to present the information in this post? My own response to my list will be to try some different forms over the next few months.


Next post in the series The Craft of Blogging will be in April and will look at a checklist for a post – another list!


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Filed under The Craft of Blogging

Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont by Elizabeth Taylor

I chose this novel for the blog’s first reading group for two reasons: first because I think Elizabeth Taylor is a great writer; and second, because the main character is an older woman and this is unusual. Can you think of others? How does this wonderful novelist deal with an older woman?

mrspalfrey green

Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont was Elizabeth Taylor’s last novel, published in 1971. She died in 1975 aged 63 having produced 12 novels as well as five short story collections. 2012 was the centenary of her birth, celebrated with reissues in the Virago Modern Classic series. David Baddiel talked about this novel on 5th July 2012 for Radio 4’s Bookclub, and there have been a couple of films adaptations of the novels Angel and Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont. Despite this attention Elizabeth Taylor remains relatively unknown, relative to the quality of her writing that is. Perhaps one reason for that can be discerned from the title of her biography by Nicola Beauman The Other Elizabeth Taylor, published by the champion of neglected C20th writers, Persephone. And it may also be that because of her Home Counties life and classic good looks she has the undeserved reputation of writing about and for middle class women.

E.Taylor 1

She was a tall woman with big bones and a noble face, dark eyebrows and a neatly folded jowl. She would have made a distinguished-looking man, and sometimes, wearing evening dress, looked like some famous general in drag.

Not a conventional heroine then. Mrs Palfrey is a genteel widow, needing to live somewhere, not invited and not minded to share a home with her daughter in Scotland. She moves into the Claremont Hotel on the Cromwell Road in London, joining a small group of elderly residents. Upon this group Mrs Palfrey practices a deceit. Having fallen in the street, she is rescued by Ludo, a young writer. Her grandson Desmond has failed to visit her at the Claremont. Ludo, who is lonely himself and attracted by the adventure of play-acting agrees to stand in as Mrs Palfrey’s grandson. It also allows him an opportunity for some research. Mrs Palfrey achieves a grandson and a visitor and establishes her status among the residents. One of the charms of the novel is how Mrs Palfrey and Ludo cope with the risks and difficulties that this deception gives rise to, including a visit by le vrai Desmond.

In Mrs Palfrey Elizabeth Taylor explores the behaviour of older men and women forced to live in institutions. ‘As they aged, the women seemed to become more like old men, and Mr Osmond became more like an old woman.’ They experience loneliness, neglect, boredom and financial problems. At the Claremont they are concerned to keep up appearances. As Elizabeth Taylor deftly shows, such a life infantalises them through the routines of mealtimes. The similarity to boarding school is explicit. They are ageing and it is inconvenient and embarrassing. Mrs Arbuthnot’s incontinence, for example, is the cause of her slipping further into dependence, moving to a shared room in a nursing home for the elderly. She tries to pass it off as a welcome move to a quieter place.

Elizabeth Taylor’s economic style and close observance of the individual characters and their relationships with each other brings automatic comparison with Jane Austen. But as Philip Hensher suggests here

Any woman novelist who writes grammatically, it sometimes seems, will sooner or later be compared to Jane Austen, but in Taylor’s case, the comparison is peculiarly inappropriate; … What she loved best, I think, were outbreaks of vulgarity, embarrassingly improper behaviour, people saying or doing exactly the wrong thing.

On the blogs I sampled, the reviews frequently suggested that Elizabeth Taylor has placed eccentric residents at the Claremont. I don’t think it is so much eccentricity that she is describing. Rather, she has a penetrating ability to pinpoint a mannerism or gesture or foible, an ability to present characters with their warts. I think she is much admired by writers as well as readers because she is so economical, her details telling us so much about a character. Neither comic nor patronising, she has an awareness of the ludicrousness of people’s behaviours and attempts to hide the truth.

Mr Osmond is a sour bore, because he is lonely. He is also afraid that the world is changing and writes letters of protest to the newspapers about being treated by foreign doctors. He hates the accents of the weather forecasters. He is taken with Mrs Palfrey and suggests marriage. The scene of his botched proposal has comic aspects because he handles it so badly. But it is also an authentic conversation resulting from his lack of perception and insight into another person.

Lady Swayne has an ‘irritating mannerism – all of her most bigoted or self-congratulatory statements, she prefaced with “I’m afraid”. I’m afraid I don’t smoke. I’m afraid I’m just common or garden Church of England. … I’m afraid I think the fox revels in it. I’m afraid I don’t think that’s awfully funny.’

These are ordinary people, observed without whimsy or exaggeration. Take this little scene where Mrs Arbuthnot, who has ears ‘sharpened by malice’, has asked Mrs Palfrey to change her library book.

It was like being back at school again and asked to run an errand for the head girl. She was just going out for one of her aimless walks, to break up the afternoon, and was delighted to be given an object for it.

‘Something by Lord Snow, perhaps,’ Mrs Arbuthnot said. ‘I cannot stand trash.’

’But if you’ve already read it …’ Mrs Palfrey began nervously.

‘One can always read a good book twice,’ Mrs Arbuthnot snapped. ‘In fact one always should read a good book twice.’

Mrs Palfrey took the rebuke quite steadily. After all, Mrs Arbuthnot was the one who was doing the favour. (p23-4)

A small pleasure is the mention of books read by the characters. Mrs Arbuthnot ‘got Elizabeth Bowen muddled with Marjorie Bowen, and could never remember that there were two Mannings and two Durrells and a couple of Flemings.’

Elizabeth Taylor frequently explores the theme of loneliness in her fiction. She is quoted on this subject on the blog Dovegrey reader scribbles in a review of The Soul of Kindness:

I think loneliness is a theme running through many of my novels and short stories, the different ways in which individuals can be isolated from others – by poverty, old age, eccentricity, living in another country – even by having committed murder…

Another comment on the blog reviews was how the readers had found the topic of ageing and death difficult, and referred to their own grandparents or parents. But we need more books that explore this difficult area. There are other very good older characters in Elizabeth Taylor’s novels, such as Aunt Sylvie in The Marriage Group, who rewrites the labels indicating who will inherit what, despite having forgotten that some of the recipients had themselves died. She blamed them for neglecting her.

I haven’t seen the film of Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont, starring Joan Plowright. There will undoubtedly be more films dealing with later life, as there’s money to be made from us older folk. It’s my experience that films rarely offer as much as the original text, and older people get played for laughs: forgetfulness, incontinence, men pursuing young women and vice versa. Have you seen Quartet or The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel?

What’s your view of Mrs Palfrey? Perhaps, as Eileen noted here, not a book for the Desert Island, but I would strongly recommend it, and others by Elizabeth Taylor.

And to finish here are links to the walking book group, including a radio programme in which Clare Balding joined a group discussing our novel.

Link to Clare Balding’s walk with Emily Books.

Emily Books walking book club.



Filed under Books, Elizabeth Taylor's novels, Older women in fiction, Reviews