Monthly Archives: April 2019

Henry James, Elizabeth Taylor and me

So normally I wouldn’t pick up a novel by Henry James. However, as regular readers of the blog will know, I am intending to eschew the pursuit of new books in favour of rereading some, and reading books already published. The relevant post can be read hereThe Spoils of Poynton by Henry James falls into the second category. 

I found a copy of The Spoils of Poynton by Henry James a few weeks ago in a second-hand bookshop. I had planned to read it at some point because I came across references to it in a novel by Elizabeth Taylor. Now I had access to a copy. (It never seemed pressing enough to request a copy from the library, but of course I could have done that some time ago.)

What follows are my thoughts about The Spoils of Poynton and its relationship to In a Summer Season  by Elizabeth Taylor.

The Spoils of Poynton  by Henry James

This novel was first serialised and then published as a book in 1897. It’s a tightly plotted exploration of a widow’s obsession with the contents of the grand house called Poynton, and of the dilemmas encountered by her young friend, Fleda Vetch, when Mrs Gereth steals her former belongings. 

Mrs Gereth had spent her adult married life acquiring and loving the contents of Poynton. But when she is widowed all is left to her son. When he becomes engaged to the unappreciative Mona Mrs Gereth must leave the house and its contents and live in a maiden aunt’s cottage, Ricks. Her young friend Fleda also appreciates the finer things in life and is seen as a hanger-on by others. Mrs Gereth tries to get her son to marry Fleda so that her possessions will be in the care of someone who appreciates them. The young people do fall in love but only reveal this after Owen’s engagement to Mona. Fleda refuses to be with Owen until Mona has released him. 

Mrs Gereth steals the spoils and installs them in Ricks. Much of the book concerns the battle to return them, in which Fleda acts as go between for Mrs Gereth and Owen. In the end they are all caught out by what they don’t say, and Mona gets her man and the spoils. But Poynton burns down.

Mrs Gereth is a strong, opinionated and obsessive character, who places her own interests before all others. Fleda tries to do right, and in the end Mona defeats her because of it. Owen is a simple soul, but the most honest of the trio, although he too looses out, married to the wrong woman.

In A Summer Season by Elizabeth Taylor

The action of In A Summer Season takes place over one summer and concerns a wealthy widow who has remarried. Her husband Dermot is somewhat younger than her. One of the charms of her novels is that Elizabeth Taylor frequently makes references to works of fiction. The Spoils of Poynton appears as a clever, quiet device to show Dermot’s ignorance of literature and the awkwardness of his marriage.  He does not recognise the reference to Mrs Gereth’s name, when it comes up and assumes she is a neighbour. His mistake is glossed over by those present and when he realises this he feels humiliated. The Spoils of Poynton had been the favourite novel of Kate’s first husband. He inscribed her copy so that the book is a link to him and to Kate’s previous life in a way that Dermot resents. My full comments on the novel can be read here.

Henry James and Elizabeth Taylor

As I read his novel, I became aware that the two novelists share a very sharp eye for imperfect characters for their, social difficulties, unarticulated dilemmas and shifts of understanding. You can say the same for Edith Wharton I believe.

Both Henry James and Elizabeth Taylor write exquisite sentences, with balance and flow. James’s are long and languorous, full of Latinate words, and psychological shifts. Hers are usually a little shorter, but we know that she took great trouble with the rhythm and flow of her sentences.

And both are concerned with moral issues. In The Spoils of Poynton  we see the effects of obsession and not being open. In a Summer Season  is concerned with different types of love and a fair bit of lying

And I am pleased to have read some Henry James and to have caught up with the references in the other novel.

In a Summer Season by Elizabeth Taylor. First published in 1961. I read the Virago Modern Classics edition from1983. 221pp

The Spoils of Poynton by Henry James, first published in 1897. I read the Penguin Modern Classic edition from 1963. 192pp

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Ballet Shoes by Noel Streatfeild

The Fossil girls have talent and are enrolled by Madame Fidolia in the Children’s Academy of Dancing and Stage Training. The three girls have been adopted by Great Uncle Matthew and left in the care of his niece Sylvia while he goes off on another expedition. He is absent a long time and the money he leaves runs out, so their guardian takes in boarders and the girls find work on the stage. How will this work out for them? Published in 1936, Ballet Shoes  is a classic of children’s literature.

This is the fourth post in the Bookword 2019 Decades Project. One theme has emerged and is continued in this classic. This theme is the absence of parents. A second theme is the economic precariousness of girls’ lives in the inter-war years.

Ballet Shoes

The novel is set in London in the period between the world wars. Three orphan girls are collected by Great Uncle Matthew like fossils (after whom he names them). He leaves them in the care of his niece, Sylvia, who is helped by Nana, Cook and the maid, Clara. Pauline was rescued from a sinking ship, has acting ability and very good looks; Petrova’s Russian parents left her to GUM, and she can act but prefers cars and aeroplanes; Posy’s mother cannot look after her while following her career so she leaves her a pair of ballet shoes and gives her to GUM’s care. Posy is an exceptionally talented dancer.

GUM expected to be away for 5 years, but his absence extends much longer. When the money he provided runs out the girls and their guardians must make difficult decisions. All along they have known how important it is not to show that you are poor, but now they have to face losing their home. The girls find they must decide to do things they don’t want to do, like accept parts they don’t want or approach adults about parts they need.  

Each has lessons to learn about not getting too bumptious (Pauline), or finding ways to follow her interests (Petrova); or to seize every occasion to further her passion (Posy). 

The girls are assisted in their struggles by the boarders that Sylvia takes in: Theo who introduces them to the Dancing Academy and assists with their practice sessions; the two female academic doctors who teach them what they are missing by not being at school; Mr and Mrs Simpson who own a garage and a car and ferry them about from time to time. The sewing skills of Nana are frequently called upon for outfits for classes and auditions.

In the final pages, after several years of penury, taking parts for the money, scrimping and making do, the girls go their separate ways: Pauline to Hollywood with Sylvia, Petrova to learn about aeroplanes with GUM and Posy to Prague to study with a ballet master accompanied by Nana.

Ballet Shoes  reveals to young readers that hard work, loyalty to your aims, not being selfish and willingness to learn are essential to achieving your ambitions.

Ballet shoes in a shop window near Covent Garden

Noel Streatfeild

Noel Streatfeild was another prolific writer, like the others in this series, producing nearly 30 books for children and 16 novels for adults as well as many non-fiction books. She lived from 1895 – 1986. She spent time in the theatre but later turned to writing. She also did war work during both wars. 

Ballet Shoes was her first book for children, and it was an instant success. It has never been out of print. 

Despite what my spellchecker keeps telling me, that is how you spell her family name.

1st edition, 1936

Ballet Shoesby Noel Streatfeild was published in 1936. I used the Puffin edition from 2015. 326pp. Illustrations are by Ruth Gervis, who was Noel Streatfeild’s sister.

The Decade Project in 2019

In 2019, the third year of my Decades Project, I am exploring changing aspects of children’s fiction from the start of the 20thcentury through my monthly choices of a book from successive decades. Next month it will be a choice from 1940-49. Suggestions for decades are welcome.

Here are the links to the first three books in this year’s Decades Project, which were 

Five Children and It by E Nesbit (1902)

The Secret Garden  by Frances Hodgson Burnett (1911) And just a small note, that at one point Sylvia reads The Secret Garden  to the Fossils in Ballet Shoes

Joan’s Best Chum  by Angela Brazil (1926)

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Books and the pursuit of the new

I thought my blog was getting a little tired. And then I noticed that it was me that was getting a little tired of the blog. But I can see that the blogger who is tired of blogging is tired of … Later, it occurred to me that what I am actually tired of is the relentless pursuit of the new book. 

So here’s a slight rant and a resolution.

The Pursuit of the New

Early this year I wrote a post called Six ways to choose books to read. You can link to it here. I stand by these sources, but I have come to see that I might be unnecessarily chasing too many new books. Many of my ideas for books to read and comment on come from those who are obviously going to promote the new:

  • Publishers
  • Prizes
  • Reviews in newspapers
  • Bookshops
  • Lists of bestsellers.

For example, I look at the list in the Guardian Review of the bestsellers of 2018 called Chart of the Year. I amuse myself with the table. 27% of books in the chart are by women The #1 seller is one of those: Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine  by Gail Honeyman. I have only read three of the books on that magic 100 chart. And the feeling that I might be missing something was itself disappearing.

Then I listened to some comments from a group of travellers who expressed their opinion of much new fiction: “tosh”. I removed several novels from my tbr pile. And it felt good.

The enjoyment of the established

Elizabeth Bowen

And then I found myself doing the following

  • rereading some books
  • reading unread books by familiar authors, published some time ago
  • enjoying the blog’s Decades Project of children’s classics from 1900 
  • agreeing with the editors of the excellent Slightly Foxed periodical about the attractions of books published some time ago
  • enjoying perusing Persephone Books lists
  • Visiting second-hand bookshops
The Second Self

One bookshop I have been keen to visit is The Second Selfin Soho, London, specialising in early editions of women’s writing. I spent a very happy hour there recently and a lot of money. I was shown Jane Austen’s best friend’s copy of Sense and Sensibility. Very foxed, very beautifully bound in three leather volumes and very pricey of course.

My haul from The Second Shelf

Resolution

Muriel Spark

So here’s my resolution. I am going to read more Muriel Spark, some Henry James, Elizabeth Bowen, some classics, Sanditon by Jane Austen, The Juniper Tree  by Barbara Comyns and as few new titles as the whim takes me. And of course, more children’s literature from the twentieth century. And you can expect to read more of the old on this blog.

Happy reading.

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Book Aid International Changes Lives

Here’s an organisation that in 2018 sent 128 million new and carefully selected books to libraries, schools, universities, refugee camps, prisons and hospitals around the world. 

You can help Book Aid International by making a donation, and/or by buying a ‘reverse book token’. Here’s why it matters.

Child Refugees in Kenya

Boys at a secondary school in Kakuma

24,000 children in Kakuma Refugee Camp in northern Kenya now have books in their schools. The teachers have also been trained in using books in their classrooms.

Before the training I never used to know how to organise books for learners and how to captivate interest among pupils. I now understand the level of children’s understanding. Each of them is different from the other. (Isaac Ubur, headteacher Kalobeyei Early Childhood Centre)

See below for a link to hear Ben Okri say more about the supply of books to the Kakuma Refugee Camp.

Children in South Sudan

18,684 books were sent to South Sudan, where the economy is predominantly rural, but farming needs to improve.

Our farming is quite basic so we need a profound change and this can be gained through books where research has been done on improved farming methods. But there is a lack of books. We have universities, we have schools, but we badly need books. (Professor Dr Jacob Lupai, at the University of Juba)

READ Bhutan 

5106 books were sent to READ Bhutan, a project that aims to offer all children the chance to read. 

The only public library is situated in the capital, Thimphu and most children living in other districts have no access to the public library. READ Bhutan is the only organisation working to build community libraries. We now have nine community libraries. Many children cannot travel outside Bhutan so the books will be an opportunity for them to see a new world, build their creativity and learn about different cultures. (Kezanger, READ Bhutan project manager)

Other 

Donkey mobile library in Zimbabwe

Books have also been sent recently to these destinations:

  • to rebuild the library in the University of Mosul, 
  • to schools in Liberia, 
  • to women in a community garden and for donkey-drawn mobile libraries in Zimbabwe
  • to medical professionals around the world,
  • to displaced children in Cameroon,
  • and to libraries in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. 
Choosing books in a school in Malawi

Ben Okri’s appeal

Ben Okri, the Nobel Prize winning writer from Nigeria, presented the Radio 4 Appeal for Book Aid International on Sunday 31stMarch. You can listen to him talking about the charity’s help given to Yvonne in Kakuma Refugee Camp here.

Reverse Book Tokens

These special Book Tokens are a great idea for presents to support Book Aid International: you pay the money and someone else gets the books. For only £6 Book Aid International can send out three books. So a Reverse Book Tokenmakes an excellent present and it supports Book Aid International. You can also join the Reverse Book Club to send a regular donation to the charity. A reader will thank you.

Boys in a Syrian school

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The Vet’s Daughter by Barbara Comyns

Many years ago I read Our Spoons Came from Woolworths, and earlier this year I read and reviewed Who was Changed and Who was Dead. The Vet’s Daughter  is another novel I have reread. And I am enjoying rediscovering what Graham Greene called the ‘offbeat talent’ of Barbara Comyns. I was also nudged into rereading The Vet’s Daughter when I found it on a list of the scariest books by women, which I found through Twitter (I think). 

The scariness of this novel lies in the evil behaviours of many of the characters. The vet, father of the narrator, is the worst. But there is also the wannabe rapist Cuthbert, encouraged in his assault by Alice’s father’s girlfriend. There are the Gowleys, who keep house for a depressed older woman and treat her with routine cruelty. And there are the many people who would exploit Alice’s naivety and helplessness. 

It’s a strange and macabre novel, well worth the rereading.

The Vet’s Daughter 

The novel is set in Edwardian times, when the motorcar and horse carriages coexisted. The vet, his wife and daughter live in Clapham, South London. The vet is disappointed in his wife, and regards his daughter as worse than an inconvenience. The animals in his care are not well looked after either, the parrot consigned to the toilet, and every week a taxidermist arrives to remove unwanted animals. The vet’s casual neglect provides a backdrop of menace. Here is the second paragraph of the book.

I entered the house. It was my home and it smelt of animals, although there was lino on the floor. In the brown hall my mother was standing; and she looked at me with her sad eyes half-covered by their heavy lids, but did not speak. She just stood there. Her bones were small and her shoulders sloped; her teeth were not straight either; so if she had been a dog my father would have destroyed her. (1)

The much-quoted opening paragraph introduces the reader to a random conversation that Alice has with a man on the street, who tells her his wife belongs to the Plymouth Brethren. It establishes her naivety and her gentleness. In this paragraph I notice how things are paired with no obvious connection: home/ animals’ smell; brown hall/mother; and so on. The text, ending with the brutal statement about her father, establishes the lurking danger. As it happens, the crooked teeth are explained later. Their crookedness resulted from the vet’s violence.

Alice’s mother is feeble, ill and dying. She cannot stand up to her husband and recalls to Alice her idyllic childhood in Wales. After her death Alice’s father loses no time in bringing into the house the strumpet from the Trumpet. Alice describes Rosa as having clown make-up and rolling her eyes when she speaks. Rosa puts on a refined accent which slips under any pressure. She encourages a friend called Cuthbert in his attentions to Alice, and engineers the situation in which the girl is almost raped.

Alice is rescued from the hell that is her home by her father’s locum, who arranges for her to be the companion to his severely depressed and suicidal mother who lives on an island in the Solent. With Mrs Peebles life is better for a while. Alice meets Nicholas, who leads her on and then ignores her, behaviour which distresses and puzzles her. When Mrs Peebles is found drowned Alice must return home. 

Alice has discovered that she has a special ability, and when it is revealed to her father he plans with others to exploit her powers for financial gain. Alice has her own form of resistance, but it does not end well. The final scene is horrific.

Alice’s character is naïve, artless and this makes the cruelty to her all the worse. Her narration of events emphasises her lack of worldliness. She observes odd things, gives wrong attention to some things and none others. She is lyrical in happiness and wretched in misery and has little of the first and much of the second. Here is an early paragraph in which she sums up her typical day and her passivity.

The day was nearly over and it was like most of the days I could remember: all overshadowed by my father and cleaning the cats’ cages and the smell of cabbage, escaping gas and my father’s scent. There were moments of peace, and sometimes sunlight outside. It was like that all the time. (4)

She is shown kindness by several people in the novel, but the abusive neglect of her father makes him one of the most monstrous characters in fiction.

Barbara Comyns

Barbara Comyns (1907 – 1992) was brought up in Warwickshire on the banks of the River Avon. She wrote many novels, published after the Second World War, perhaps the best known being Our Spoons Came from Woolworths (1950) and The Vet’s Daughter. Her early adult life was characterised by poverty, and she tried to earn her living by dealing in poodles, upmarket cars, antiques and by renovating pianos. This was her fourth novel. 

You can find my review of Who was changed and who was dead by Barbara Comyns here

Two blogs encouraged me to reread this book: Heavenali and Simon Lavery on Tredynas Days.

The Vet’s Daughter by Barbara Comyns, first published in 1959. I used the Virago edition, with an introduction by Jane Gardam. 159pp

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River by Esther Kinsky

River is a novel with very little narrative. A woman comes to live in London. She was born by the Rhine, but while staying in Hackney she explores the River Lea. This novel is about location, where poverty and migration are characteristic features and feature the changing patterns of the riverbanks, the paths, the marshes, unspecified marginal areas. Location is the emphasis of this novel.

I read River for two reasons. First it was recommended by a writer friend, who always makes interesting recommendations. And second, it is about the River Lea that I knew well for 25 years as it bordered my home territory, provided places to walk and a place t mingle with the mixed population. There is a peculiar pleasure in knowing this location, the shops (EGG store), Springfield Park, Hackney Marshes and Abney Road Cemetery. Esther Kinsky sees them as she passes through, they illustrated my life while I lived in London.

Translated from the German by Iain Galbraith

River  by Esther Kinsky

The novel is made up of 37 chapters, all linked in some way to a river, not all the Lea, several in other parts of the world: Germany, Canada, India. Some readers, including me, are reminded of WG Sebald. It is not just the walking, although it is that, or the long sentences, that too, but the meditative quality in the content, the narration of incidents on or near the river. There are even grainy photographs in the text, which may or may not relate to the chapter.

The narrator, a woman, moves to a room in north London. She is escaping or evading something unspecified and spends her days walking the River Lea. This brings to mind other rivers, the Rhine, which she grew up beside, and rivers in Canada and India as well as Europe.

It seems her life is perpetually on the move, nothing resolved, no focus, only scraps of contacts with people who are marginal and ignored like herself, and she views things from the river, and from the edges of London.

I returned on the path that looped around the filter beds and led back to the river between open terrain and the electricity pylons standing by as ever like lost, harmless giants frozen to the flat land, slender, immobile and delicate, their six arms splayed out to no conceivable purpose underlining their defencelessness, or their perplexity over the question of which way they should go next. The more familiar I became with this flat world in the milky winter light, the more I thought of the pylons as parts of the landscape that by some strange quirk of nature had surged out of the ground featherless, hairless and leafless in time immemorial, honest custodians of this intermediate realm between firm ground and a deceptive alluvial flood plain that was underwashed by countless waters; they were fine-boned guardians of the void uttering nothing but their spidery buzz and hum, a rarefied, highly-pitched song that was only audible in pauses between clattering trains, and which attempted again and again to subvert the city beyond the Lea whenever it drew a deep breath to roar. (162)

I draw your attention to a feature of this paragraph – it contains only two sentences. And its subject matter is electricity pylons.

The chapter describing the narrator’s experiences on the Hooghly River, a distributary of the Ganges, is one of the most vivid of the book. Perhaps this is because there is more of a narrative than elsewhere in the book. Some of the novel is fantasy, like the craters that appear, and other episodes may well be based on events such as the narrator’s meeting with the gypsy woman.  But mostly the reader accompanies the narrator as she observes the uneventful, storyless lives, people waiting, just getting through the day: the man at the charity shop door, the woman in the EGG store, the King making his ritual flights with the birds, passers-by, people leaving only the slightest indications of being here.

This is a novel about locations and lives that move away from the mainstream, often ignored, forgotten, in inconvenient places.

Every river is a border; that was one of the lessons of my childhood. It informs our view of what is other, forcing us to stop in our tracks and take in the opposite side. (171)

Esther Kinsky

She was born in Germany in 1956, and lived for a while in London. She is a linguist and has made a living as a translator.

River  by Esther Kinsky, first published in German as Am Fluss in 2014, and in English by Fitzcarraldo in 2018. 359pp

Translated from the German by Iain Galbraith. Winner of an English Pen Award.

A completely different novel set in Dalston, Hackney, is Mr Loverman by Bernadine Evaristo.

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