Tag Archives: Virago Modern Classics

Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier

Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again. (1)

These are the famous opening words of the fourth novel in my Decades Project, and we are into the 1930s. It’s the era of the talkies, threats of European war, the country house and its hierarchical servants. We have moved from the cosy village whodunit of The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, set in an unchanging village society in Devon to a large house in the next county. Cornwall is the setting for this psychological-romantic thriller.

The Story

A young girl, (we never know her name) is plucked from nothing. She narrates the story of her marriage to Maxim de Winter and the brief period when they lived at Manderley. From her dream in the first chapter we know that something bad happened here and that she no longer lives in the beautiful house. And from the second chapter we learn that she is still devoted to her husband, Maxim de Winter, but they live a solitary life in continental hotels. ‘Manderley is no more’.

The narrator met Maxim in Monte Carlo while she was employed as a companion to the most awful Mrs Van Hopper. Her employer is a snob, who sees the narrator as a nothing. Indeed, the narrator looses no opportunity to tell us she is poor, unremarkable to look at with lank hair and a flat chest, and with awkward social manners resulting from shyness. Maxim is 42 but despite the difference in their ages they enjoy each other’s company while Mrs Van Hopper is ill.

Maxim rescues the girl from her employer, marries her and takes back to Manderley. In her new home everything serves to emphasise the young bride’s differences to the previous Mrs de Winter, who died about 9 months earlier in a boating accident.

The most sharply drawn character is Mrs Danvers, the Manderley housekeeper. Our heroine is disempowered by Mrs Danvers, the expectations of their social group, and the unfamiliarity of a large country house. In her mind she builds the picture of Maxim’s previous idyllic marriage, and lives in her mousey way under Rebecca’s spell, increasingly believing that Maxim does not love her and is still in love with Rebecca.

When Rebecca’s boat is recovered, her noxious cousin and lover raises the possibility that Maxim murdered her. Maxim tells his new bride what actually happened and that he loathed Rebecca and loves his new bride. Eventually the tensions are allayed when it became clear that Rebecca was gravely ill and engineered her own death.

Reading the story the reader is caught up with the naivety of the young bride, feeling her gaucheness, her uncertainty about her new life, the pernicious influence of Mrs Danvers, and her inability to understand Maxim’s behaviour towards her. It is a kind of Jane Eyre, Cinderella, or imposter syndrome story. The poor wee little girl gets her man and his wealth in the end.

There is an alternative way of looking at this story, and readers who wish to retain the idea that Rebecca is a lovely romantic novel should read no further.

Menabilly House, Fowey, Cornwall, in 1920s – the inspiration for Manderley. via WikiComons

What Daphne du Maurier asks us to believe in Rebecca

The romantic view of Rebecca asks the reader to accept the following more cynical and less romantic reading might lead one to asks how the author gets us to accept the following:

Maxim is a neglectful and unkind older man who picks an innocent young woman to marry. Maxim is a man of the world, and at 42 on a few weeks’ acquaintance marries a gauche girl with very little polish or anything else to recommend her. He gives her very little help in her new responsibilities at Manderley. This is left the agent Frank Crawley.

The hero treats his wife badly. He is bound up with himself and his concerns and gives her no help in unfamiliar social engagements, the running of the house, her relationship with Mrs Danvers or, crucially, the nature of his previous marriage. He allows her to founder and she suffers.

Maxim is a murderer. He murders a woman who has just told him she is pregnant.

The narrator is especially feeble when confronting the house that has been moulded by Rebecca. She does not change the furniture, the food, the flower arrangements, acquiesces to everything Mrs Danvers or Maxim has arranged. Rather prone to imagining how things might be, she never even drams of putting her mark on the house or on Maxim’s life. I found her very feeble, always twisting her handkerchief in her fingers.

When Maxim confesses to murder his second wife hears only that he did not love Rebecca. He is a murderer. He is a wife murderer. But he loves her not Rebecca. She stands by him, excuses his crime, supports him in the efforts to pervert the course of justice.

They run away to Europe despite being exonerated. The house is destroyed by fire, probably by Mrs Danvers at the instigation of Rebecca’s foul cousin, so the De Winters go abroad and hide, desperate for news and the old rituals of Manderley. They are not happy.

Daphne du Maurier’s writing

Rebecca is a classic novel, loved by many. But it invites the reader to collude in the unassertive behaviour of the narrator and in the acceptability of a heinous crime. It is a crime even if Rebecca was a monster. (We never get to see her except through Maxim’s and Mrs Danvers’ accounts.) It is a crime even if it is suicide by enraged husband (a variation of the American suicide by police) Maxim did not know that Rebecca was ill and that she feared a slow and painful death above all else.

Perhaps we are distracted by Mrs Danvers and the other vivid characters. Mrs Van Hopper is a delight, a stupid version of Mrs Catherine de Burgh. Each of the Manderley servants, Maxim’s sister are all believable characters, and sometimes very humorous.

I got a little fed up with the endless speculations of the narrator on the possible explanations or outcomes of every situation. It’s a long novel and many of her fears could have been reduced or avoided I felt.

Hitchcock’s film

Any reading of Rebecca is influenced by the 1940 Hitchcock film starring Joan Fontaine and Laurence Olivier. Hitchcock did not allow his hero to shoot Rebecca, by the way. Her death during a struggle was accidental.

Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier (1938) Virago Modern Classics (2003) See the afterword by Sally Beauman 441pp

The Decade Project

I took my idea for the Decades Project from my library’s Reading Passport scheme. To encourage readers the passport is stamped on completion of a book from a different decade. I like the idea of selecting a book from every decade from 1900 onwards. I am reading one a month, from 1900s in January, from 1920s in February and so on and review them here.

Previous posts in the Project

The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie, published in 1926

O Pioneers by Willa Cather, published in 1913.

The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton, published in 1905.

The next decade: 1940s

I am still musing on what to read from the 1940s for May’s choice. I am tempted by They were Sisters by Dorothy Whipple. Please make suggestions for subsequent decades, 1950s and 1960s.

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A Footman for the Peacock by Rachel Ferguson

It’s great to find that a book blog can have influence. Dean Street Press have collaborated with Scott of Furrowed Middlebrow blog to republish lesser known British women novelists and memoirists of the Twentieth Century. Dean Street Press says

The Years 1910 – 1960 were an unprecedented and prolific era for female authors, documenting – eloquently, humorously, poignantly (or frequently all of the above) – the social change, upheaval and evolving gender roles of a volatile era.

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I have been sent two of the series to review by the publisher. Here are my thoughts on A Footman for the Peacock by Rachel Ferguson.

The author

Rachel Ferguson (1892-1957) was a suffragette and after the First World War published 12 novels among other works. Furrowed Middlebrow is republishing three: Evenfield (1942) and A Harp in Lowndes Square (1936) and A Footman for the Peacock (1940). She wrote for Punch magazine.

291-fergusonGiven it is published under the middlebrow banner one should not expect great literary experiences from this novel. One might expect, indeed, that given the time of its publication, this novel would be intended as a diversion from the significant national events. But what you get is not that either. The author reveals the attitudes of the fading landed classes and their circumstances in the 1930s. Barely recovered from the Great War they appear to be sleep walking into the next. Of course, readers today have the benefit of hindsight, not least into the social upheavals accelerated by the conflict. These upheavals included the demise of the large country house such as Delaye, the centre of this story.

The story

At one level, it is a mystery or even a ghost story concerning the footman and the peacock. This aspect of the novel rather takes over towards the final pages as the local vicar and the youngest daughter of Delaye inquire into past events. This mystery rather distracts from the reactions to war that has just been declared.

The Roundelay family is a large one and they live in a very large house, Delaye, but they and the house have all seen better times. The house is in a poor state of repair and the gardens neglected. The peacock is the only survivor of a more glamorous past. The family has very little money, no car for example. Yet they maintain the superior attitudes of their class. For example, they have to make complicated arrangements with tradesmen so that orders can be delivered, passing from bike to bus to cart to van. They are energetic in resisting the consequences of the declaration of war. The bother of attending to the blackout of their many windows is superseded by the threat of evacuees billeted upon them.

The characters

For a short book there are rather a lot of characters. The family include Edmund, his wife Evelyn and their three children: Angela who is frequently sent to live with relatives, Margaret down to earth and running the guides and their brother Stacey who studies land maintenance. In addition three of Edmund’s five sisters and a cousin are also resident. In such a household the servants are worked hard since members of the family cannot even make themselves a cup of tea: cook, housemaid and the dependable Musgrave the butler. The ancient family nurse no longer has all her marbles and still occupies an uneasy place between family and servants.

The characters provide plenty of entertainment. Nursie throws her dinner tray out of the window, angry that she has not been served enough meat. She unwittingly protects the family from the billeting officer. Two of the sisters do not talk to each other. They enact a pantomime of ignoring each other every evening as they descend to dinner.

The self-absorption of the Roundelay family, their efforts to maintain their past social position and their ignoble response to the worsening situation in Europe and to the outbreak of war are robustly held up to criticism here.

One can’t help wondering how typical their reactions were, however. Few people would have welcomed evacuees, despite the fears of bombardment. People do leave necessary arrangements to the last minute, causing shortages of blackout material, and this seems to be human nature. People are unrealistic and draw on their experience, I this case of the previous hostilities, when the Home Front was spared the horror of the trenches.

The dreadful fate of the running footman, (a servant who ran in front of the coach to clear its way of obstacles and people) sits awkwardly beside all this realism. He died in 1792 and is reincarnated in the peacock. A rather arcane and sinister running song has been learned by Evelyn, the lady of Delaye, who appears not to notice that the quarry is not animal, but human.

Male Peacock by Alex Pronove (alexcooper1) via Wikicommons

Male Peacock by Alex Pronove (alexcooper1) via Wikicommons

The character of the bird is rather unpleasant and malign. He has a dreadful shriek. He is not afraid to peck and wound people who do things he doesn’t like. And Angela observes him in the moonlight, perhaps in communication with the enemy.

Round the corner from the shrubbery the peacock swept, taking the stage as she watched: Slowly, deliberately – or were peacocks always leisured in the process? – he displayed himself and paraded the lawn, sometimes pausing to look at up at the sky.

Waiting? Listening? The exact word elided her until it came with an impact of incredulity and a dismay that was not lessened by her own self-ridicule.

Guiding. No. Signalling. (139)

The peacock’s only friend is the servant girl, one of a long line from the same village family.

Her writing

I experienced Rachel Ferguson’s writing much as I might have been struck by a 6th former, bright, clever, sparkling wit, but not yet polished. This novel has so many irrelevant byways that I was irritated at times because they blunted the criticism of the unpatriotic attitudes. We get the BBC, the tabloid press, a mysterious village called Rohan, the history of the Roudelay family, people’s reactions to the last war. It’s all very merry, but also tiresome.

Yet there is charm and the novel captures that time when uncertainty descended upon the rural population. War was an unknown quantity and social mores could be expected to change, but no one knew in what way.

291-brontesDespite my reservations about this novel it’s a grand project to reissue women’s writing from the past. We note that both Persephone Books and Virago Modern Classics have republished Rachel Ferguson’s novels.

 

A Footman for the Peacock by Rachel Ferguson; first published in 1940 and reissued by Furrowed Middlebrow Books in 2016. 206pp

Related Posts

Furrowed Middlebrow is the blog of Scott in California, who reviewed this book back in September 2013, when the new imprint was just a distant ambition. Here is that review.

Alas Poor Lady has been reissued by Persephone Press, and is described on their website here.

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In a Summer Season by Elizabeth Taylor (again)

Restrictions in novels can produce interesting tensions and plot lines for the novelist to work with. Elizabeth Taylor took the restrictions of one English season, Summer, and showed us a number of characters, all in love, during that limited time. The restrictions of In a Summer Season, published in 1961, are not heavy handed or forced. It is the work of a writer coming into her own.

A version of this review was first published in November 2013 and has remained popular with visitors to this blog. This is a revised and reformatted version.

The themes

This is a novel about love of many kinds. It is also about love’s tendency to appear and disappear over time – indicated by the title. For all the characters in this novel, the summer season changes their experience of love and their path in life. Elizabeth Taylor knew what she was doing in this, her eighth novel. She manages a complex cast of characters and has the confidence to let her story unfold.

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The story

Kate Heron is the main character. She is around forty and has recently married for the second time after being widowed. As she is well off, her new husband Dermot is able to be unemployed for stretches of time, although he tries his hand at growing mushrooms and at entering a partnership in a travel company in London. Kate has a sixteen year-old daughter, Lou, back from boarding school for the holidays, and a son, Tom, who is working his way up in his grandfather’s business. At the start of the novel one feels that Kate and Dermot are doomed, but not for the traditional reasons which they separately suspect are harboured by Kate’s former friends: she married a younger man, and perhaps he married her for her money. Something more complex is implied to the reader.

The young girl and the chaplain

During the summer season Lou falls for the chaplain, a Father Blizzard. She hangs about places and undertakes parish chores, such as sorting shoes for the jumble sale, hoping to bump into him. One morning he asks her to help him buy a birthday present for his sister.

When they were sitting together in the bus, she felt completely happy, without knowing that to feel so is such a rare experience that it might never come to her again. The very knowledge would have made something else of it. This morning was something she recognised as having been waited for, but with wavering degrees of hope. As the miracle had come about she simply accepted it, but was taking it in little sips, blissfully restrained: for instance, she had not yet raised her eyes to look at his face. (56)

Elizabeth Taylor is able to capture such adolescent feelings without implying they are inferior to adult love. As autumn approaches Father Blizzard makes a decision to leave the village and join a Catholic monastery in France. Lou returns to school. I love the description of Waterloo station as mothers see off their children. I was catching trains to and from school at the same period (she was writing in the early ‘60s). She has captured the scene at the start of term.

All over Waterloo Station groups of schoolgirls flocked together – their cries, their movements birdlike, as was their way of keeping to their own kind. Other uniforms drew only glances of scorn. Schoolboys, returning too, were less gregarious. They stood alone at the bookstalls or thoughtfully put pennies into slot-machines, unimpressed by so much feminine gaiety. (206)

A young man’s first love

Tom is used to having girls at his beck and call, has become practised in letting them down gently as he moves on to the next one. But he is smitten with Araminta, when she returns with her father to the village. She is ruthless but cool with ambitions to become a model, vividly attractive and sexy, but able to control Tom through her unresponsiveness. The reader feels for him in his unsuccessful pursuit. She is a prototype for the anorexic size 0 models of our time.

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Love for an older woman

Dermot loves Kate, but he can’t quite live up to his own intentions for himself, preferring to allow the truth to be obscured so that he doesn’t appear smaller in her eyes and those of her friends. This leads him into a series of lies. He feels his inferiority; it is moral, educational, cultural and he resents it. This resentment is the catalyst for the tragic climax of the story.

One of the delights of Elizabeth Taylor’s novels is the references to other novels, in this case The Spoils of Poynton by Henry James, which Dermot does not recognise. I admit to not having yet read this book, which is about possessions and a widow’s battle to retain her spoils – antique furniture. As Susannah Clapp points out in her introduction, ‘piles of discarded, unused and unlovely objects are strewn throughout In a Summer Season. … They carry some force as reminders of the inhibitions and consolations of memory and habit’. The Spoils of Poynton was Kate’s first husband’s favourite novel, and links Kate to him and to her previous life in a way that Dermot resents. It’s a clever, quiet device that also shows up Dermot’s ignorance (and mine!).

Kate Heron

260 Elizabeth_Taylor_(novelist)Kate is more aware of each person, including herself, than any of the other characters and because she is central to the plot we often see people mediated through her sensitivities. She learns to manage her relationship to Dermot. Elizabeth Taylor lets us know, in this early scene, that Kate understands Dermot very well.

On the way home they quarrelled – or, rather, she listened to Dermot quarrelling with an imaginary Kate, who supplied him with imaginary retorts, against which he was able to build up his indignation. Then, when they were nearly home, he began to punish himself, and Kate realised that the more he basked in blame, the more it would turn out to be all hers; her friends, for close friends of hers they would become, would seem to have lined up to aggravate him, and her silence would be held to account for his lack of it. (34)

As readers we are encouraged to have some hope for the couple for the evening ends thus:

He ran his knuckles down her spine. ‘You taste of rain,’ he said, kissing her. ‘People say I married her for her money,’ he thought contentedly, and for the moment was full of the self-respect that loving her had given him. (40)

This is pure Elizabeth Taylor: the temporary relaxation of the tension, and the quiet revelation of Dermot’s character.

As summer ends …

It is Dermot’s lack of fibre (as they would say) that pushes the story to its conclusion. While there is tragedy, sudden and brutal, all does not end badly for Kate in a conclusion that does not satisfy all readers. We are unsure what kind of future Kate will have, but the final short chapter allows us to see where love leaves her and the other characters, a year on from that summer season.

As always in her novels there are some great comic moments (preparing for the jumble sale, watching tv, Dermot’s mother). Great tenderness is shown towards Lou’s ‘calf ’love and Tom’s hopeless infatuation with Araminta.

But the uncertainties of love are also revealed with tenderness: Kate’s dream about Charles, Dermot’s desire to do better by Kate leads him to lie and deceive; Lou’s growing up so that the departure of Father Blizzard is not such a blow; Lou crying about her mother and Dermot after he has accused Kate of being ‘bloody smug’; Charles’s comfort; Tom’s inability to recover from Araminta’s death.

275 In a Summer Season new cover

In a Summer Season by Elizabeth Taylor. First published in 1961 Republished by Virago Modern Classics. Quotations in this post are taken from 1983 edition 221pp

Related posts

Some other blog reviews of In a Summer Season:

Dovegreyreader

Of Books and Bicycles

All Elizabeth Taylor’s novels and her short stories have been reviewed on this blog. You can find them by clicking on the category button or on Elizabeth Taylor in the tag cloud.

 

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Mossy Trotter by Elizabeth Taylor

The most awful thing in Mossy Trotter’s life is the prospect of being a page boy at Miss Silkin’s wedding. Mossy is seven years old. This should not happen to him. He will have to wear velvet trousers and a frilled blouse. His reputation is at stake.183 Mossy Totter ET cover

Mossy Trotter was Elizabeth Taylor’s only book for children. It was first published in 1967 when childhoods were less supervised. Her other twelve novels were all written for adults. You can find the reviews of them by clicking on the category Novels of Elizabeth Taylor.

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The Story

The short novel takes the reader through some adventures and some changes in Mossy’s life. He has his tonsils removed, becomes lost with his sister, gets into scrapes, nearly sacrifices his birthday party, has a new baby brother and attends Miss Silkin’s wedding – yes as a pageboy.

This is life as a boy of seven would live in the outskirts of London in the late 60s. The characters are authentic. Here is a description of Mossy’s mother.

Like many mothers, Mossy’s was rather changeable. He could not always be sure where he stood with her. Although she tried very hard never to break promises, she broke threats, which in a way are a kind of black promise. She would send Mossy to his bedroom for having misbehaved, and then in a minute or two, tell him he could come down; or he would be told that if he were naughty he could not have chocolate cake for tea, and be given it for supper instead. It was a shocking way to bring up children, he once heard his father say. (12)

But we know that Mossy is being well brought up. He is miserable to think he had worried his mother when he gets lost with his three-year-old sister Emma. And his mother brings him exactly the right present when he is in hospital after having his tonsils out.

Mossy has to deal with some difficult dilemmas, again reflecting the reality of children’s lives: what to do about the threatened birthday party; telling lies that help out his grandfather; telling lies that multiply and result in humiliation and so on.

Mossy the boy

Mossy’s real name was Robert Mossman Trotter. The middle name was after his Grandfather Mossman Trotter, and he was called Mossy to avoid muddling him with his father, who had the same name. (42-3)

During the story Mossy develops his understanding of his world and especially of the adults in his life. We see Mossy more clearly because he is set against his mother’s friend Miss Silkin, an adult who understands little of children. Indeed the novel begins with her comment that the Common must be paradise for children. Mossy is bemused for he knows that ‘Standing where she was she could not possibly see the beautiful rubbish dump among the bracken’. (1) Readers of all ages would know that Miss Silkin’s and Mossy’s ideas of paradise are at odds.

Indeed Miss Silkin and Mossy are at odds about yet more important things: he hates the furs she wears. This is what he sees:

… two long, thin dead animals with yellow glass eyes in their heads. Mossy wondered if they had once upon a time been rats. One head peeped over Miss Silkin’s shoulder, and little paws hung limply down her back. (2-3)

Not only does she wear rat-like furs, but her favourite cake is seedy cake, and she is going to get married and wants Mossy to be the page boy. He learns to tolerate her presence.

Mossy’s relationship with his parents is happier. His father is rather distant but sometimes his accomplice; his mother is in consistent but the most comfortable adult in his life; and with his grandfather he shares excitement and pleasure in fast cars.

Mossy does things wrong, gets lost with his little sister, tells lies, gets messy with newly laid tar. When he’s punished for one bit of bad behaviour he takes revenge by drawing he draws a picture of his teacher and his father on the side of a drawer, believing it will never be found.

… he drew the nastiest face he could for Miss Blackett, with crooked teeth and spots all over her, and hair like a mop, and his father with a long nose and crossed eyes, and fleas the size of bumble-bees swarming out of his fuzzy hair. Then he slid the drawer back and felt better. (115-6)

183 E.Taylor

Children in Elizabeth Taylor’s writing

Elizabeth Taylor knows children and she writes well both for and about them. The extracts demonstrate that she writes simply but does not simplify Mossy’s complex emotions and responses. Here is Mossy’s experience as he lay in bed with a fever one summer’s evening.

A delicious smell of wet garden came into the bedroom, and then Mossy heard the swish-swish of water against the wall below his window. Father was hosing the hot bricks which had stored up the day’s sun, and a coolness began to come off them. There was the sound of dripping leaves, as the water spattered on the climbing rose. (78)

And here is Mossy as he realises he is lost with his little sister on the Common.

In some ways, having Emma with him made him braver. But in different ways it made him feel more fearful.

‘Listen,’ he said comfortingly to her. ‘This is a very exciting adventure. It’s like Babes in the Wood.’

‘I don’t like being Babes in the Wood.’

It was certainly the wrong thing to have said, for at once she began to boo-hoo more loudly. ‘There might be wolfs.’

‘”Wolves”,’ he said, to correct her. But she thought he was just agreeing with her, and shrieked louder than ever. (63)

As several extracts show, there is affectionate humour in the telling of this story.

In her other books we might remember the children are interesting characters in their own right. In At Mrs Lippincotes, A View of the Harbour, Angel (as a child), the children are real people.

89 ET list

And as if to prove this, her son, in his introduction tells us that recently

I was moving some furniture that had been handed down by my parents and I happened to open a chest of drawers. Inside I found a pencil drawing of a man’s head, with lots of dots hovering over it. Beneath in childish writing were the words ‘John Taylor has fleas’. (iv)

I recommend you get this book to share with a child and/or to enjoy yourself.

The lively illustrations by Tony Ross exactly capture the spirit of Mossy Trotter.

 

Mossy Trotter by Elizabeth Taylor, first published in 1967, republished in 2015 by Virago Modern Classics 144 pp

Related link: review of Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont

Furrowed Middlebrow reviewed Mossy Trotter earlier this year, with some of the original illustrations.

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Learning about Ageing from Mrs Palfrey

Mrs Palfrey is the main character in Elizabeth Taylor’s 1971 novel – Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont. She featured in the very first post about older women in fiction on this blog, which considered how an older woman was represented in fiction. Here I want to explore what we can learn from Mrs Palfrey about how older people are treated.

mrspalfrey green

The story

Mrs Palfrey is a widow, whose daughter does not want her to share her life in Scotland. Mrs Palfrey finds an advert for residential accommodation in the Claremont Hotel, Cromwell Road, London. When she arrives she finds that a group of similarly aged people are already in residence. They share no connection beyond the hotel, but they have loneliness, reduced economic resources and declining physical capacities in common.

External contacts feature large in the social life of the older people at the Claremont, and Mrs Palfrey is pleased to have a grandson working at the British Museum, and she confidently expects an early visit. Not only will this provide her with company but also enhance her status in the residents’ small world.

When Desmond fails to visit she encourages Ludo to stand in for him. Ludo rescued Mrs Palfrey when she fell outside his bedsitter, and he willingly agrees to act as her grandson. Inevitably le vrai Desmond appears and confusions abound. Much of the narrative is concerned with Mrs Palfrey’s relationship with Ludo.

This novel offers a stark reminder of what it is to be old, and especially how the old are treated. But it is not depressing. There are cheerful spirits, warmth and enjoyment to be experienced.

Let us count the ways old people are treated.

  1. Family neglect

None of the old people would live in the Claremont if their families had taken them in. They all rely on their families for visits, trips out and material for social interactions. But the families for the most part see the old people as a duty.

Mrs Post is waiting anxiously for a cousin, but it is raining.

A summer’s evening drive had been promised, with a picnic. It was a yearly occurrence, and gave the cousin, who was ten years younger than Mrs Post, a sense of duty done which might last her, with any luck, for the following twelve months. [Mrs Post said] ‘As one gets older life becomes all take and no give. One relies on other people for the treats and things. It’s like being an infant again.’ (129-130)

Mrs Arbuthnot leaves the Claremont for alternative accommodation ‘Her indefatigable sisters had found it for her, and much humiliation she had borne while they were doing so.’ (102). She needs a place where ‘someone must be paid to dry up after her’ for she has wet her bed on several occasions.

When her grandson does not turn up at the Claremont Mrs Palfrey makes unsuccessful attempts to invite old friends who find excuses not to visit her.

  1. Economic exploitation

Choosing to provide care for the elderly as a commercial enterprise does not guarantee the quality of the care, or attention to needs. The management of the Claremont barely welcomes the older people, treating them as an inconvenience rather than guests.

The receptionist was coldly kind, as if she were working in a nursing-home, and one for deranged patients at that. (2)

Mrs Palfrey considers the outlook from the room she has been allocated.

From the window she could see – could see only – a white brick wall down which dirty rain slithered, and a cast-iron fire-escape which was rather graceful. She tried to see it that it was graceful. The outlook – especially on this darkening afternoon – was daunting; but the backs of hotels, which are kept for indigent ladies, can’t be expected to provide a view, she knew. The best is kept for honeymooners, though God alone knew why they should require it. (3)

And of course, the quality of the food, served in a three week menu rotation, is very poor, despite mealtimes being important markers in the institutional day.

And when Mrs Palfrey falls just outside the hotel, the manager Mr Wilkins wants her out of sight, more concerned to remove this embarrassment from the pavement than with her best interests.

  1. Regard them as Eccentric

It can be dismaying to consider the darker side of old age, the loneliness, physical decline, neglect and ultimate death. To distance themselves from these aspects of age many of the reviews of this book on other blogs describe the residents as eccentric. They are not.

Mrs Arbuthnot is malicious, spikey and unkind. She is also crippled with pain from arthritis, and suffering the humiliation of incontinence.

Mrs Post is anxious, always out of her depth, especially beyond the walls of the hotel, getting the right library books for Mrs Arbuthnot, or dealing with sharing the fare for a taxi.

Mr Osmond tells dirty jokes in a loud whisper to any man he can buttonhole, and likes to hold himself aloof from the ladies. He writes complaining letters to the Daily Mail of the ‘It would never have happened in former times …’ He is hopelessly out of his depth in dealing with slight acquaintances at a Masonic dinner and in his expectations of Mrs Palfrey.

Lady Swayne makes the most appalling prejudiced and bigoted announcements, prefacing them 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’d like to see the Prime Minister hanged, drawn and quartered. I’m afraid I think the fox revels in it. I’m afraid I don’t think that’s awfully funny. (81)

Mrs Burton who loves to drink with her brother-in-law, or without him.

These people are all trying to cope with the difficulties of ageing. And while we might not condone some responses, they can hardly be described as eccentric – that is unusual or strange. Elizabeth Taylor’s craft is in revealing why they behave in these ways.

The film adaptation (2006) locates the story in the early 21st century, makes much less of the privations of age, and rather encourages the idea of eccentricity. I didn’t like it at all.

  1. Having respect

The delightful Ludo is respectful, attentive and helpful to Mrs Palfrey in a way that none of her family manages.

Mrs Palfrey grey

Learning from Mrs Palfrey

Despite all this, Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont is both a funny and an uplifting book. There is plenty of comedy narrated in Elizabeth Taylor’s controlled and wry style.

Mrs Palfrey has a three-part code of behaviour:

Be independent; never give way to melancholy; never touch capital. (9)

She struggles with all three and frequently has a word with herself when she begins to feel down. To be old and alone may be difficult, suggests Elizabeth Taylor, but there is dignity and new experiences to be had at any age.

In this delightful novel Elizabeth Taylor does a great job of respecting older people and sympathetically revealing the challenges they face. She doesn’t lump all older people together, shows us individuals coping in the face of difficulties. She uses wit and humour to point up how people respond to each other to protect themselves from these difficulties.

168 AgeUKWriting 40 years ago she identified an enduring feature of old age. Loneliness is still a killer for old people, even in a busy city like London. (God bless the Freedom Pass). There is a campaign end loneliness and AgeUK has also highlighted the issue.

Elizabeth Taylor did not live to be old herself, she died of breast cancer aged 63, her family still close to her. Yet she knew what it was to be treated with disdain, impatience, contempt and neglect in old age. We see all of these in this book.

§§§

I must thank my book group for enhancing my understanding of this book.

I have reviewed all of Elizabeth Taylor’s novels on this website. You can access them by clicking on the category Novels by Elizabeth Taylor or Elizabeth Taylor in the Tags.

Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont was the first book to be reviewed in the older women in fiction series. You can see the complete list here.

Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont by Elizabeth Taylor published by Virago Modern Classics 206pp

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

South Riding by Winifred Holtby

Mrs Featherstone occupied the corner chair in our staffroom, a specially imported armchair unlike the institutional ones provided for the rest of us. I was frightened of her at first, then in awe, then respectful and finally missed her when she retired. She sat throughout the lunch hour, and if children needed to speak to her they were allowed to enter. The rest of us had to speak to children at the door. Mrs Featherstone let it be understood that in her day colouring hair with henna (as I did) was a sign of loose morals. She also told us that before the war she had been required to give up teaching when she married. And she and her husband had bought their first house for £60. No-one, staff, students, headteacher was able to get anything passed Mrs Featherstone. This was in the first days of my teaching career in the 1970s.

164 cover S RidingMrs Beddows, from South Riding, seems to me to be very like Mrs Featherstone. She is the 13th in the series Older Women in Fiction on this blog.

Mrs Beddows

Alderman Mrs Beddows is 72 and like all the main characters in South Riding a rounded character. She is married to a man so mean that her own generosity is a form of repentance. She uses their social advantage to benefit the community through serving on the Council. In addition to the tedious work of inspecting cash-strapped mental hospitals, interviewing for a new headmistress of the grammar school and the countless committee meetings, Mrs Beddows also manages to dispense charity and find jobs and other solutions to the many difficulties of the inhabitants of her area.

Here is how Winifred Holtby describes her at the opening of the novel

She was a plump sturdy little woman, whose rounded features looked as though they had been battered blunt by wear and weather in sixty years or more of hard experience. But so cheerful, so lively, so frank was the intelligence which beaned benevolently from her bright spaniel-coloured eyes, that sometimes she looked as young as the girl she still, in her secret dreams, felt herself to be. Her clothes were a compromise between her spiritual and chronological ages. She wore day-to-day a dignified and beautifully designed black gown of heavy dull material; but she had crowned this with a velvet toque plastered with purple pansies. She carried a large bag embroidered with raffia work and had pinned on her rounded bosom the first crimson rose out of her husband’s garden. Actually, she was seventy-two years old, a farmer’s daughter, and had lived in South Riding all her life. (4-5)

There is a great deal of affection in this description. The character may well have been inspired by Winifred Holtby’s own mother.

In both her public and private life Mrs Beddows is loyal. She never complains about her husband’s freeloading and generously provides a home for her neighbour’s daughter. She loves this neighbour, Robert Carne, who is a gentleman farmer finding it hard to keep his farm viable. Not only is agriculture a difficult economic prospect but Carne has the expense of supporting his wife in an asylum.

Mrs Beddows also supports the innovative Sarah Burton, appointed to provide a better education for the girls of the area. Miss Burton attempts to improve the school in the face of lack of interest in girls’ education, weak and inappropriate teaching staff, inadequate buildings and depressed and troubled social backgrounds. She too is supported by Mrs Beddows.

164 S R green coverWinifred Holtby has given us a portrait of an active woman of the county, finding satisfaction and pleasure in being useful to the community. Mrs Beddows is not waiting for death, although aware of her age. ‘The consciousness of her three-score-years-and-ten arose and smote her. There was so much to do that she must leave undone.’ (335) This is her reaction to a tour of the mental hospital. There is an echo here of Winifred Holtby’s own mortality. She knew she was terminally ill with Bright’s Disease, even as she wrote South Riding.

South Riding

Mrs Beddows is only one of the strong characters in this novel, which is broad-ranging enough to have been compared to Middlemarch in its scope. South Riding is a fictional county. It always intrigued me as a child that while we had North, West and East Ridings of Yorkshire, there was no South Riding. And the idea of a Riding conjured up people on horses marking out the boundaries.

This is the story of a rural community in the 1930s, suffering during the depression years, with its inter-relationships, and ambitious people, and inhabitants trying to survive in the hostile economic climate. The community of the South Riding stands for the country in those dire days. Many people were still suffering from the effects of the First World War. Building the Land Fit for Heroes promised by Lloyd George was proving harder than anyone had imagined.

Despite the hardships, the members of the community do support each other, and this spirit may have been evident during the war that was to come within a few years.

Portrait of Winifred Holtby By Jburlinson (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Portrait of Winifred Holtby By Jburlinson (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

While South Riding is a campaigning novel it does not read like one. It is admirable in its scope and for the careful plotting. It was the final achievement of Winifred Holtby, who died before its publication (March 1936) at the age of 39.

Relevant links:

Reviews on the Age of Uncertainty

And on Booksnob

Review of Land of Green Ginger on this blog.

Winifred Holtby was also a poet. I referred to her in a post about women poets of the First World War.

 

South Riding by Winifred Holtby, published by Virago Modern Classics since 1988, first published in 1938. 515 pp

 

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Filed under Books, Older women in fiction, poetry