Category Archives: Books

The Sleeping Beauty by Elizabeth Taylor

Two novels by Elizabeth Taylor focus on thoroughly unlikeable characters: Angel and The Soul of Kindness. Both titles are freighted with irony. Angel is a monster, and Flora is monstrously selfish. As a result these novels are not comfortable to read, although full of acute observations.

Of her other novels I find The Sleeping Beauty the least enjoyable. I think it is because the main character, Vinny, appears to be what in my childhood was called a spiv. The novel was published in 1953, just when I was learning to avoid spivs! But actually, Vinny is the Prince Charming of this novel, in the unlikely role of the prince charming who awakens a sleeping beauty.

The Sleeping Beauty

We first meet Vinny, who has come to Seething, a town on the coast, to bring consolation to Isabella whose husband has been drowned. Vinny seems to be an accomplished consoler, ready with words, patient in the presence of tears, and altogether useful to the bereaved. Here are the opening lines of the novel.

“There’s Vinny going in with the wreaths,” Isabella had once said.
Now that her own time to be consoled had come, she was glad of him. The wreaths she had mentioned were a figure of speech – her way of associating Vinny with condolences and gloom; for disaster could always bring him to a scene. He went with sympathy professional in its skill; yet adept and exquisite. (1)

Isabella speaks of him as inevitable, and he appreciates the description. I am not sure why Vinny appears to me to be a spiv. Perhaps it’s the name. Or that he appears at this difficult time for Isabella and her adolescent son Laurence, ready to exploit the new widow. 

But it is not Isabella who is the sleeping beauty. In fact she is a silly woman. Rather, gazing out of the window while Isabella cries, Vinny spots the Tillotson family on their way up the cliff to their holiday guest house. Close behind them are a child and a woman.

It was too dark to see the woman’s face, but he was certain, from her walk, that it was beautiful. She went on slowly and dreamily along the shore. Beautiful women do not need to hurry. Then she turned and paused, looking back: the girl came nearer to her, and together they crossed the sands and began to climb the rustic steps, the private way up to the house above, where a light or two was switched on in upstairs rooms. (7-8)

Vinny is captivated by this woman, Emily. He discovers that she is the sister of the Rose who runs the guest house. She suffered badly in a road accident and was now protected from the world by Rose. The child, Philly, is Rose’s mentally challenged daughter who is cared for by Emily. Vinny brings his mother, Mrs Tumulty, to stay in the guest house so that he can form a closer relationship with Emily.

Vinny’s mother, Mrs Tumulty, is a larger-than-life character and much that the reader needs to know about her is captured by Elizabeth Taylor on her arrival at the guest house:

Vinny and the gardener brought in the most curious weather-beaten luggage – an old leather hat-box; a round-topped trunk with labels of countries which no longer existed, hotels which had been shelled in 1916 and never risen again; a Gladstone-bag; a wicker hamper. There were also Mrs Tumulty’s bird-watching glasses and a black japanned box in which she collected fungi; for she was a great naturalist. (52)

Vinny faces the many challenges to a satisfactory outcome with Emily, not the least of which is that he is already married. His wife is another great character, described in this way:

To say that Vinny’s wife was not above telling a lie – and she would not have been his wife at all if that had been so – would be to underestimate her inventiveness. She had in fact a great distaste for the truth and was for ever tidying it up or turning her back on it. …Vinny’s desertion she had disposed of by moving to a new place and saying he was dead. She even changed Vinny himself into a Fighter Pilot and gave him a D.F.C with bar. (109)

Laurence thinks that Vinny is in Seething for his mother. He is an awkward young man, in the army and often on his way back to Aldershot. He too is awakening, into manhood and love, but he does not make things easy for Vinny.

Rose, Emily’s sister, has much to lose if Emily marries Vinny: her child’s carer, her companion, someone who relied on her, the end of a period when she didn’t compete with Emily, and so forth. 

I found it hard as a reader to find much sympathy for either Emily or her suitor, Vinny. Emily is not a lively character, always a weakness in the fairy tale – the heroine is asleep! We are asked to believe in the magic of Vinny’s love, but I did not find Emily to be a very interesting or attractive character. I would have preferred to spend more time in the company of the rather spoiled Tillotson children. Elizabeth Taylor writes about children so well. In this example Betty, the children’s nursemaid, takes them down to the Regatta.

“Why are there flags on the steamer?” Benjy asked.
“It’s dressed all over for Regatta Day,” Betty said.
“How do you know that that is what it is called?” asked Constance. “Over all, I mean.”
“I happen to have a cousin in the Navy.”
“You are always boasting. I think you are getting too big for your boots.”
“It is what Nannie said you were,” her brother reminded her.
“I bet you wouldn’t have the nerve to take us on a boat,” Constance said, but casually and without optimism. Benjy looked quickly up at Betty’s face, and then away again, seeing that the idea had not had her attention. (218)

The children do not play a big part in the drama of the novel, but they are there, part of the picture at Seething.

Elizabeth Taylor

Names are always interesting in Elizabeth Taylor’s novels: Seething (the town), Mrs Tumulty (a women of chaos) and as usual a derivative of Elizabeth, in this case in the naïve nursery maid Betty.

The Sleeping Beauty by Elizabeth Taylor, first published in 1953. I used my copy of the Virago Modern Classic (1983) which has an introduction by Susannah Clapp. 250pp 

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Jacob’s Room by Virginia Woolf 

I thought I had read all the novels by Virginia Woolf and was enjoying re-reading them. But I can find no record of my reactions to Jacob’s Room, there is no entry in my reading record, begun in April 2006, and no post on Bookword blog. When I began reading it, all I could recall was that some of it was located in Scarborough, and that Jacob had died in the First World War. I had not read it before.

The ending reminded me of those paintings by Van Gogh of empty shoes, or William Nicholson’s painting of Gertrude Jekyll’s boots, which say so much about the absent wearer. Jacob’s mother is clearing his room:

‘What am I to do with these, Mr Bonamy?’
She held out a pair of Jacob’s shoes. (168)

Post card of ‘A Pair of Leather Boots’ by Vincent Van Gogh, 1889. Amsterdam.

These painters were in their way doing on their canvases what Virginia Woolf was doing in Jacob’s Room, her third novel. She was breaking away from the traditional narrative and portrait of a character. Conventional fiction showed appearance, motivation, action, consequences and so forth. Rather she was evoking a sense of Jacob, his times, and the loss of the young men in the war through glimpses of Jacob. And she was presenting these glimpses as we might experience meeting a new person: incomplete, with restricted context, mediated through others.

Jacob’s Room

In her diaries Virginia Woolf recorded that ‘I think Jacob was a necessary step for me, in working free’ [October 14th 1922]. At that time she was beginning work on Mrs Dalloway and had just decided upon the name of her shell-shocked character. In the later novel she famously used a new style of writing from the interior of her characters: sometimes called stream of consciousness.

In Jacob’s Room she is introducing a different innovation in the writing of fiction. The reader is invited to draw their portrait of Jacob from glimpses, observing how other people react to him, starting with a reference in a letter from his mother describing his behaviour on the beach in Cornwall. This is followed up by a painter who indicates to his brother, sent to find him, where Jacob is among the rocks. Finally we see him exploring rock pools and crabs. 

And so we follow Jacob through the eyes of others, growing up, going to Cambridge, later in rooms in London, on holiday in the Scilly Isles and in Greece. We meet his friends, his lovers, and see his mother becoming more and more distant from him.

Before it was published, Virginia Woolf confided in her diary that she feared people would think it was ‘mad, I suppose: a disconnected rhapsody’ [June 23rd 1922]. The idea of a rhapsody is useful. Passages are poetic, lyrical, such as the view from the boat sailing to the Scilly Isles.

Strangely enough, you could smell violets, or if violets were impossible in July, they must grow something very pungent on the mainland then. The mainland – not so very far off – you could see clefts in the cliffs, white cottages, smoke going up – wore an extraordinary look of calm, of sunny peace, as if wisdom and piety had descended upon the dwellers there. Now a cry sounded, as of a man calling pilchards in a main street. It wore an extraordinary look of piety and peace, as if old men smoked by the door, and girls stood, hands on hips, at the well, and horses stood; as if the end of the world had come, and cabbage fields and stone walls, and coast-guard stations, and, above all, the white sand bays and the waves breaking unseen by any one, rose to heaven in a kind of ecstasy. (45-6)

Some of the passages set in London are also elegiac.

The lamps of London uphold the dark as upon the points of burning bayonets. The yellow canopy sinks and swells over the great four-poster. Passengers in the mail-coaches running into London in the eighteenth century looked through leafless branches and saw it flaring beneath them. The light burns behind yellow blinds and pink blinds, and above fanlights, and down in basement windows. The street market in Soho is fierce with light. Raw meat, china mugs, and silk stockings blaze in it. Raw voices wrap themselves round the flaring gas-jets. Arms akimbo, they stand on the pavement bawling – Messrs Kettle and Wilkinson; their wives sit in the shop, furs wrapped round their necks, arms folded, eyes contemptuous. Such faces as one sees. The little man fingering the meat must have squatted before the fire in innumerable lodging-houses, and heard and seen and known so much that it seems to utter itself even volubly from dark eyes, loose lips, as he fingers the meat silently, his face sad as a poet’s, and never a sing-song. Shawled women carry babies with purple eyelids; boys stand at street corners; girls look across the road – rude illustrations, pictures in a book whose pages we turn over and over as if we should at last find what we look for. Every face, every shop, bedroom window, public-house, and dark square is a picture feverishly turned – in search of what? It is the same with books. What do we seek through millions of pages? Still hopefully turning the pages – oh, here is Jacob’s room. (92)

Such a passage, such a rich text, rich in imagery, and references, and movement! And then just at the end she reminds us that we are readers. 

It appears that Virginia Woolf modelled Jacob in part upon her much-loved brother Thoby. When their father died in 1904, she joined with her sister Vanessa and Thoby moving to a house in Gordon Square, where they entertained Thoby’s Cambridge friends. It was the start of the Bloomsbury Group. Thoby died of typhoid in 1906 after a trip to Greece. The young men of his generation bore the brunt of the First World War, and Jacob’s Room pays homage to them and that world and the people who were destroyed by the war. 

She was nervous about the reception of Jacob’s Room, as for all her novels. But she reflected in her diary after she had shown it to her husband, and most significant critic, Leonard:

There is no doubt in my mind that I have found out how to begin (at 40) to say something in my own voice; and that it excites me so that I feel I can go ahead without praise. [July 26th 1922]

First edition cover

Jacob’s Room by Virginia Woolf, published in 1922. I used my copy of the Penguin Modern Classic edition (1965). 168pp

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Mother’s Boy by Patrick Gale

As some of my friends know, I am writing a story – very slowly – that begins with a young boy leaving his mother in war time because there is not enough food for both of them. He joins the navy. This opening impressed my friend Barbara and to encourage me she lent me her copy of Mother’s Boy.

My story and the narrative of this novel have almost nothing in common beyond the separation of mother from son by war. Nevertheless I am grateful to Barbara for the loan of this novel as I have very much enjoyed reading it.

Mother’s Boy

This is a fictional account of the poet Charles Causley’s early life. Born and brought up in Launceston in Cornwall Charles was known to be close to his mother. Laura Causley was widowed when Charles was young, her husband died as a result of being wounded in WW1. While her husband was away at war, she had earned her keep by assisting her mother who did laundry. And when she died, Laura took on her mother’s business herself, and supported her son as he grew up. 

There is not much money in the family, or in the town. Charles, although he does well at school, goes into a boring local office job. He enjoys playing piano in a band and putting on amateur dramatics. As war approaches again in 1939, Charles signs up for the Navy. He becomes a coder, a new naval role which requires quick and methodical thinking, but not great eyesight.

He is not especially suited to naval life, and he suffers unrelentingly from sea sickness. The novel opens with a violent episode, and nothing else quite lives up to the drama of that scene in this novel. Some of his war is spent on naval bases, in Gibraltar and Malta and in the Far East. He finds love and sexual experience (gay), loses friends, and acquitted himself well.

Laura, at home in Launceston, notes the changes brought by the war to the town: Plymouth is bombed, evacuees are taken in, soldiers from the US are based locally and the colour bar brought by the US troops results in violence in the town. After D Day Launceston hosts some POWs. Finally Charles returns to teach at the local school and Laura keeps house for him.

The themes explored in this novel relate to the lives of British people in the early twentieth century: separation by war, expectations based on gender and class, learning tolerance of others. Evacuees bring the values of the city to rural Cornwall; other nationalities and ethnic groups must mix in too; Charles is gay and this is also something to be understood and accommodated. 

One theme, indicated by the title, which runs through this novel is the affection and regard between mother and son. After his return, Laura kept house for Charles until her death. Their regard, tested and perhaps strained during the war years, was resilient enough for them to spend her final years together. Charles Causley remained in Cornwall, a generous and popular poet until his death in 2003.

I enjoyed reading this novel as the central relationship is tenderly depicted. In addition, both characters are made vivid by the details of their lives: the routines, practices and equipment of a laundress, and the naval regime for Charles. The details of the local communities are very attractive. Some of the novel is set in Teignmouth, not far from my home. While this is a story based on the poet’s life, Mother’s Boy is definitely a novel, imagined and explored by a respectful writer. 

Thank you, Barbara, for the loan of this novel, but it rather held me up than encouraged my own story-writing!

Mother’s Boy by Patrick Gale, published in 2023 by Tinder Press. 406pp 

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I Belong Here by Anita Sethi 

I thought about this book earlier today as I was on my morning walk with the dog. It was rather an overcast day in south Devon, the kind where you can’t tell whether it is raining or not. I picked a favourite route, through woodland along a riverbank for about a mile and a half. It was quite muddy underfoot, especially in places where the path isn’t well drained. The fallen leaves are beginning to rot and can be quite slippery. In these woods we see many primroses later in the year, and wild garlic (ransoms). Today there were no wildflowers. I had to make do with the sight of snowdrops in the hedges of the lane on my way out of my village.

I love walking this route. It is always changing. When I first discovered it, I had no dog, and it was not well walked. You rarely met anyone. Since Covid we meet plenty of dog walkers. As people in Devon do, we greet each other and pass on. The river has a strange name: the Lemon. I haven’t been able to establish where it rises, but it collects the water from many hillsides and eventually joins the Teign just before that river widens into its estuary. 

The river undermines trees all the time, and those on the banks often fall. Some create barriers across the path; some create bridges across the narrow river; others lie where they have fallen. But one that I previously relied on for a seat has been removed. It was perfect for sitting and watching the dog leaping into the water, so I had to find another. The dog loves swimming, even in January. She has an absorbing hobby: collecting stones from the bed of the river and taking them away onto the dry bank. I can sit until I feel the cold, watching her leap into the water and emerging after some bottom exploration with a huge wet stone. I don’t know why she does this. She did it yesterday at the beach as well.

Walking with the dog, rain or shine, twice a week has been part of my life for about five years. Even before I moved down to Devon from London I would frequently go out on my own. I have walked around the LOOP (the London Outer Orbital Route, which encircles London without going beyond the M25). It took two years to complete all the segments, but I understood London and its edges so much better when I had completed it.

With my friend Sarah I have also walked the Thames Path, from the source of the river near a patch of snowdrops in a soggy field in Gloucestershire to the Thames Barrier. That was in about 15 stages. Given that we were following the route of one of England’s greatest rivers, I am not quite sure how we got lost on one section. Our current walking and musing often takes place high above the Vale of Pewsey, in the area of Salisbury Plain – think white horse of Westbury and Eric Ravillious.

Walking is a such a good activity, on your own, with a dog or with other people. It puts one in touch with the landscape, especially a familiar landscape when one can notice the small changes of the seasons or the topography. And it is an excellent social activity, bringing people together, creating shared experiences, providing opportunity for interaction, reflection and quiet togetherness. 

As I walked this morning I noticed a new perspective on a ridge, and how some foresters had been clearing some of the scrub and hedge material that had previously hidden the river along sections of the path. I considered as I walked, the notion of belonging to a place. This summer it will be eleven years since I moved to this part of the world. I have walked some part of it every week. Do I belong? How does walking help me to belong?

I Belong Here: a journey along the backbone of Britain

This book was a Christmas present from the previously-mentioned Sarah.  Thank you Sarah!

Anita Sethi experienced nasty racial abuse on a train in the north of England. She reported it to the train officials and the man was prosecuted and found guilty. Upset by the incident and previous experiences of racism and sexism, she seeks to gain equilibrium through hiking in the north, specifically the Pennines as she was born and brought up in Manchester. Some of this walking she does alone, sometimes she has some support.

Having been told to ‘go back where you belong’ she asks the question, where do I belong, and how do I know. She considers the experiences of Black people in the countryside, of women walking alone, of the meaning of belonging. Along the way she meets people, talks with them, is rescued and helped by them. She considers literature of walking. I especially enjoyed her descriptions of the geology of the areas she walked in, including Hadrian’s Wall. This is a fusion of memoir and nature writing, justly popular and prize-winning.

Of course she belongs. I do too. Belonging is not in the gift of White male racists. Belonging is a function of living.

I Belong Here: a journey along the backbone of Britain by Anita Sethi, published in 2021 by Bloomsbury. 320pp

Shortlisted for the Wainwright Prize for nature writing in 2021 and winner of the Books Are My Bag Readers’ Non-Fiction Award 2021.

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Hotel du Lac by Anita Brookner

Hotel du Lac won the Booker Prize in 1984. I first read it in the same year. And since I have read many of Anita Brookner ‘s other novels. But then I stopped paying attention, until I wanted to reacquaint myself with her writing in the depth of this winter.

On this second reading I was aware of how this novel features people and things that are putting on a brave appearance but crumbling behind the veneer. Even the comfortable hotel is trying to appear as if it retains its grandeur as the height of the season. This, for example, is the opening sentence.

From the window all that could be seen was a receding area of grey. (7)

In two long and beautifully balanced sentences, Anita Brookner reveals that in late September the fog can obscure the little town and its lake for days. Here is the second sentence, followed by a wry comment that should warn the reader.

For it was late September, out of season, the tourists had gone, the rates were reduced, and there were few inducements for visitors in this small town at the water’s edge, whose inhabitants, uncommunicative to begin with, were frequently rendered taciturn by the dense cloud that descended for days at a time and then vanished without warning to reveal a new landscape, full of colour and incident: boats skimming on the lake, passengers at the landing stage, an open market, the outline of the gaunt remains of a thirteenth-0century castle, seams of white on the far mountains, and on the cheerful uplands to the south a rising backdrop of apple trees, the fruit sparkling with emblematic significance. For this was the land of prudently harvested plenty, a land which had conquered human accidents, leaving only the weather distressingly beyond control. (7-8)

Hotel du Lac

Into this beige, genteel and forlorn situation enters Edith Hope, her name like a needle. We quickly learn that Edith has been exiled to the hotel following an incident of gross social abomination in London, and required to repent, atone and change.

In the airport she had looked in the mirror and seen a woman out of place.

‘Milling crowds, children crying, everyone intent on being somewhere else, and here was this mild-looking, slightly bony woman in a long cardigan, distant, inoffensive, quite nice eyes, rather large hands and feet, meek neck, not wanting to go anywhere, but having given my word that I would stay away for a month until everyone decides that I am myself again. For a moment I panicked, for I am myself now, and was then, although this fact was not recognized. Not drowning, but waving.’ (10)

This is from a letter she sits down on her arrival and writes to David. She signs off. 

‘My dear life, as my father used to call my mother, I miss you so much.’ (12)

The sin of which she has been accused, we are led to believe, involves an affair of the heart. The hotel she has been sent to has been carefully chosen by her friend Penelope.

What it had to offer was a mild form of sanctuary, an assurance of privacy, and the protection and the discretion that attach themselves to blamelessness. (14)

Over the next few days she meets the other guests, few in number, at mealtimes, in the public areas, and out an about on walks and in the local shops and café. Each of them appears to Edith as one thing, but over the course of the next few days reveals themselves to be a different person, some more sympathetic than others. 

The woman she met as she entered is not a Belgian confectioner’s widow, but a lonely, deaf old countess who has been parked in the hotel by her negligent son and daughter-in-law. ‘A tall woman of extraordinary slenderness’ who feeds many morsels from her plate to her ill-disciplined lapdog turns out to have an eating disorder and to be on notice from her husband to get fit for pregnancy or be abandoned. The rich mother and daughter, always positive, always sweeping Edith into their orbit are less easy to understand. And then there is the urbane and good-looking Mr Neville who makes a proposition to which she finds herself attracted.

I have quoted several times above from the opening chapter to illustrate the careful and precise choice of words and phrases that Anita Brookner uses to describe the scene and to alert the reader to both the façades of the hotel and the people and the human experiences that lie behind all this careful production. Anita Brookner frequently writes long balanced sentences, conveying a sense of nothing awkward or out of place. But Edith feels both awkward and out of place and wants very much to return to her life in London. Of course, by the end of the novel Edith finds her feelings rather than appearances to be the more reliable guide to behaviour.

I am thrilled that my reading group has agreed to read this later this year, so we can discuss the writing and her subject matter together. And I shall be reading and re-reading more novels by Anita Brookner, having appreciated this one again. Any suggestions of which novel of hers I should not miss?

Hotel du Lac by Anita Brookner, first published in 1984. I used the Penguin edition published in 2016. 184pp. This novel won the Booker Prize in 1984. 

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Army without Banners by Ann Stafford

Until recently, in written history, war has been a male occupation: the political approach to it, the armies and combat, and reluctance to include women in the services on the same basis as men. In the British Army, for example, they have served only since 2018 on the same basis as men. Auxiliary service has been open to women for much longer.

Of course women have always been affected by war, and sometimes involved with the events of war, even if written history has not put them in the foreground. They kept families and homes together in the absence of the men, they took over the running of estates, of jobs, of responsibilities; they cared for the men who were wounded, buried and mourned the dead, followed armies in baggage trains as cooks, nurses and prostitutes. One or two we know of disguised themselves as men to join the forces, such as James Barry (1789-1865). Identified as a female at birth, Barry lived his/her adult life as a man in the medical corps of the army, becoming Inspector General of the military hospitals. 

In the First World War (1914-18) the impact of the mass armies, and mass deaths, meant that huge numbers of men were required to volunteer for armed service, and later were conscripted into the armed services, not least for the trench warfare on the Western Front. Women were required to fill many of their jobs. We read of women bus conductors, posties, munitions workers, radio operators and mechanics.

The Second World War (1939-45) saw the destructive action of war visited upon Britain’s cities through aerial bombardment – the Blitz – especially London. Women were mobilised, and by 1944 a third of the civilian population were engaged in war work including 7 million women. In London and other cities, the emergency services and air raid responders played a vital role in rescuing, caring for, rehousing and protecting the populations. Army without Banners is a novel that celebrates the role so many women played in supporting the community in the face of the destruction. Ann Stafford foregrounded the role of the ambulance service, but she also celebrates 

a full range of civil defence and women’s voluntary service personnel, post-raid and welfare services, caterers in tea cars and British restaurants, salvage collectors and a hospital librarian. (From the introduction pxii)

The experience was recognised as significant both for individual women and for their shared attitudes. Towards the end of the Blitz (and of the novel) some of the female ambulance crew (with male nicknames) are outside watching the dawn

‘I guess earning good money and getting on and having swell friends and a good time – that sort of stuff don’t seem real any more. But having good pals does. And sticking by each other and having a job of work you mind more than you mind about yourself.’
Mark said, ‘Yes we’ve come to feel that way in the blitz.’
‘If only,’ Penny said anxiously, ‘we can remember …’
‘We will,’ I said. The sound of my own voice surprised me but I couldn’t stop. ‘We will; there are so many of us, all in this together, all feeling the same way. Mark’s right; we’ve grown real. We – we know the things that matter now, I think. Kindness and courage and loveliness, and that queer feeling of belonging to each other, minding about each other. I’m pretty sure those are everlasting things.’ (183-4)

Army without Banners

The narrator, Mildred, is a middle-aged woman who lives at the start of the novel in a village, and whose husband and son are both away in the war. Like many women in September 1940 she was busy with local voluntary activities to support the war effort: ‘the First Aid Post in the village, the knitting groups and the committees and all the local nonsense’ (6). Her friend Daphne writes from London, telling her that she has been a driver in the ambulance service for six months, but now the Blitz has begun they need drivers. After some equivocation Mildred joins her friend and begins work as a driver. 

We learn about the training, the preparation, waiting and going out on call and the terror of being nearly hit. We get dramatic descriptions of driving out in the ambulances, the coordination with other services, and the dangers that they work in. They love it, that and the camaraderie in the Ambulance Centre. They hate the down time, and from time to time when action is less brisk Mildred looks at other services and wonders if she would have more interesting occupations in these: mobile canteen, hospital librarian, East End Settlement worker, Thames River ambulance, and in administrative jobs that coordinate it all. By this device we get a view of the many volunteer opportunities, as well as the details of the shifts, uniform, tasks and so forth available to women during the war. For this enthusiastic historian it’s a real treat.

Ann Stafford valued ‘kindness and courage and loveliness, and that queer feeling of belonging to each other, minding about each other’ brought by the shared experience of volunteering. While it was openly calling for women’s solidarity after the war, and praising the work that women did in the war, this novel is also a good read. There are also some charming line drawings by the author, which capture the tone of the writing. The action concludes in April 1941.

Ann Stafford

Ann Stafford was a most prolific writer. Her first publication was Business as Usual with Jane Oliver. She wrote four novels with Jane Oliver, 36 romance novels under another pseudonym with her and 25 novels on her own. She was awarded a PhD in Russian History and also studied art and rose to a high rank in the Red Cross. If you want something done …

Business as Usual by Jane Oliver & Ann Stafford published in 1933, a post on Bookword blog from April 2020.

Army without Banners by Ann Stafford, first published in 1942 and re-issued by Handheld Press (2024) 194pp with an introduction by Jessica Hammett.

Thanks to the publisher, Handheld Press, for the advance review copy. Publication date: 16th January 2024. 

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The Adventures of Elizabeth in Rügen by Elizabeth von Arnim

In 1901 the writer, Elizabeth von Arnim, made a visit to the island of Rügen, the largest German island which lies in the Baltic. She had visited before and was equipped with maps and guidebook and a friend. They brought along a carriage with four horses, maids and baggage. Nothing much happened on the trip, although Elizabeth had hoped it would prove the basis of her next book. She had published Elizabeth and her German Garden to some acclaim in 1898. Undaunted by the lack of adventures she chose to invent some, along with a cast of truly awful characters, and sometimes pay lip service to the idea she was writing her own visitor’s guide. 

The Adventures of Elizabeth in Rügen

Rügen is an island off the Pomeranian coast, renowned for its sandy beaches (and jelly fish apparently). In the novel, the guidebook she found in the library quickly proves to be inadequate for Elizabeth’s requirements, and after a few misdirections and silences Elizabeth takes pleasure in doing the opposite of what it suggests. She is enjoying the freedom to choose what to do and where to go. However events interrupt her idyll and her adventures take a different form.

She is a writer with a sense of the dramatic as well as the absurd, and we are invited from the outset to enjoy the vagaries of her trip. It begins when her carriage barely fits into the ferry across to the island but takes a turn for the worse when their young coachman, August, does not notice that his two passengers, Elizabeth and her maid Gertrud, have alighted. He has been warned not to turn around to look at the women, and so he travels on and on without them. When they finally catch up with him a challenge comes from one of the bystanders as he tells his story.

The crowd waited breathlessly. ‘I turned round,’ continued August, ‘and I saw nothing.’
‘But you said you would never forget what you saw,’ objected a dissatisfied-looking man.
‘Never, never shall I forget it.’
‘Yet you saw nothing at all.’
‘Nothing, nothing. Never will I forget it.’
‘If you saw nothing you cannot forget it,’ persisted the dissatisfied man. (31-2)

Such conundrums and frustrations follow Elizabeth on her adventures. Soon after this inauspicious beginning Elizabeth goes swimming and enters the cold water more or less on top of another woman who turns out to be her cousin Charlotte ‘whom I had not seen for ten years’. Charlotte’s marital situation drives the plot: she married an eminent English professor, much older than herself. She now wants to free herself from him and has left him to promote the cause of women. Actually she appears to be promoting the cause of Charlotte and overlooks other women and has no time at all to consider the servant class, such as the long-suffering Gertrud. The women continue the trip around the island together.

Not long after this Elizabeth’s path crosses the professor’s. He is looking for his wife, but quite happy to be distracted by any women he meets. He is, in truth, a bit of a lech. When Charlotte departs, Elizabeth and the professor give chase, and Elizabeth contrives a plan to bring them together.

Everywhere they go they meet Ambrose (Bosy) and his mother Mrs Harvey-Browne. Bosy is a good-looking young man, but he pays no attention to what anyone says but himself. His mother, however, is horrendous, and Elizabeth tries to avoid the pair on her travels. Mrs Harvey-Browne is the wife of an Anglican bishop and expects to be treated as a person of some status. It has not dawned on her that there would be little understanding of her status on the island as the Germans do not have bishops, and furthermore her status is acquired by connection rather in her own right. Sadly she is often mistaken, for example, refusing to engage with the professor, when they first met, as she mistakes him for a tramp. But worse, she is determined to be critical of everything – landscape, language, service, food, transport, the weather … 

Her negativity puts Elizabeth’s character into relief. Elizabeth is witty, funny and resourceful, prepared to see the best in everyone, to help them, and to enjoy the adventures on Rügen. All is chaos and good humour from her side, but indignation, crossness and self-absorption from the others.

Rügen is clearly a beautiful island with exquisite views and beaches as well as bracing sea bathing and dense forests. I read a second-hand copy of this novel but I don’t recall where I bought it. I was delighted to find a postcard tucked in its pages, showing a watercolour of the church in Bobbin, featured on Elizabeth’s journey (246-249). The artists is W Teich.

Here are links to other posts on Bookword featuring novels by Elizabeth von Arnim:

Expiation by Elizabeth von Arnim (August 2021)

Father by Elizabeth von Arnim (July 2021)

Mr Skeffington by Elizabeth von Arnim (November 2020)

The Enchanted April by Elizabeth von Arnim (August 2017)

The Adventures of Elizabeth in Rügen: by the author of Elizabeth and her German Garden by Elizabeth von Arnim, first published in 1904. It was reissued by Virago in 1990 with an introduction by Penelope Mortimer. 199pp 

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William’s Wife by Gertrude Trevelyan

Last year I enjoyed reading Two Thousand Million Man-Power by Gertrude Trevelyan. It had been published in 1937 and reissued by Recovered Books in 2022. The story in that novel followed two ordinary, rather boring people from 1919 to 1936. William’s Wife also covers a long period. William’s wife is Jane, and we join her on her wedding day towards the end of the 19th Century, and the novel ends with her eventual decline between the wars. Jane is no-one special. She is 28 years old when she marries and has been a lady’s maid.

William’s Wife

William’s Wife considers what it means to be William Chirp’s wife, living close to London, in a small town. Jane Atkins marries William Chirp who is a widower and owner of a substantial greengrocer’s shop. There is considerable consciousness of social status in the town, and Jane is anxious to be recognised for the new status she acquires on her marriage. But from the start William shows himself as mean and miserly, and Jane must resort to subterfuge to find the few pence for repairs to her clothes, nice things in the house and so forth. He controls her money to the point of abuse, and when he retires it gets worse, for he controls her time as well. The First World War arrives and she joins a group to knit items (helmets) for the soldiers, which include his son-in-law. William begrudges her the money for the yarn and the time she spends with the knitting group but he will not be publicly shamed. When he dies as the war ends, Jane comes into his money, and the house, which will on Jane’s death be inherited by his daughter Emily. 

William’s meanness is not confined to money: he is ungenerous to his second wife, to his daughter and son-in-law, even when Jim goes into the army during the war. He denies Jane new clothes, even when she suggests that she could pay for them from money she brought to the marriage. But the Married Women’s Property Act was not passed until 1882 and William controls everything in their house and marriage.

“What d’you want now. What’s wrong with what you’ve got.”
“I only meant, I thought, if you could let me have some of my own money, William, that I saved from Mrs Minever’s, that you put in the bank.”
[…] “But I’ve worn it for so long, William. Best part of two years, ever since we was married, I feel so shabby in it for best, it would go on for everyday for years if I had something different for Sundays. And it isn’t as if I was asking you, I only thought, I wondered if you’d let me have a bit of my own money.” (40).

We can see that even this early in the marriage Jane has been beaten down. William does not ask questions. He makes statements. She answers in broken, tentative sentences, sure that she is in the right but frightened of her husband’s coldness. She is asking for her own money to get a better dress for Sunday best, and she is refused, in the same way that he delays making repairs to their home, refuses to invite his daughter around for Christmas, to have an officer billeted on them during the war – everything is controlled by him, including the information he gives her. He does not tell her when he has decided to retire, for example.

What will it mean to be William Chirp’s widow? When William was still alive Jane learned how to hide every penny, to make only the most important purchases, and to reveal nothing to anyone else. On becoming a widow she continues her penny-pinching ways, afraid that her money will be taken away from her, especially by her step-daughter Emily. She leaves the house she shared with William for a smaller house, and then becomes more and more paranoid and secretive and suspicious. She moves to smaller and smaller places. Eventually, with no evidence she fears that her belongings will be stolen when she goes out and so she takes everything she can around with her, picks up abandoned vegetables, cat meat, coal and wood from the street and lives a life of horror and fear. She has no friends, resents any person who interacts with her (the bank, the street sellers, Emily and the police officer who asks if she is ok). She makes elaborate preparations for every trip out of her rooms.

Well, with her hat on, and her jacket and her mantle, there was only to get her things together. Undo her black bag, that was stood up against the wall so she could take it again easy, and feel down to see all was there. For she didn’t need to go looking, she could tell well enough by the feel. Her boots and her best bead slippers and her boa and her muff and her best black and her serge … Ah, you couldn’t deceive her. She knew which was which well enough by the feel, she would have known if there was so much as a pin missing, without even setting an eye inside. Tie up the string again, good stout cord, a lucky day when she came across that. And prop it back against the wall, all ready with her umbrella on top.
And spoons in her handbag […] (237-8)

In a third person narrative, but clearly from Jane’s point of view and in her idiom, we see her decline. The details she has paid attention to all her life now come to dominate her life as she prepares for her daily walk, gathering everything around her, her money sewn into the hem of her dress, and her suspicions of everyone on high alert. The transformation of Jane is a horror story. That is what Jane learned from becoming William’s wife. 

Gertrude Trevelyan

Portrait of Gertrude Eileen Trevelyan July 1937 by Bassano Ltd. from the National Portrait Gallery Licensed under Creative Commons agreement

Born in Bath in 1903, Gertrude Trevelyan aspired to ‘a position of total obscurity’. She attended Oxford University (Lady Margaret Hall) after the First World War and claimed to enter the Newdigate Prize for undergraduate poetry as a joke in 1923. Julia, Daughter of Claudius won. She was fortunate enough to have a small private income that allowed her to live independently in a flat in London where she wrote seven novels between 1932 and her death (from injuries received in the Blitz) in 1941. William’s Wife was her 6th novel. She was celebrated for her different experimental approaches in her novels, both the subject matter and her style. But she avoided the literary scene in London, took on no reviewing or teaching. This partly explains why she and her novels were so quickly forgotten.

Two Thousand Million Man-Power by Gertrude Trevelyan

You can also read the review of William’s Wife on Heaven Ali’s blog in September 2023, by clicking on this link. She describes it as ‘not a happy novel’ and she describes how it stays with you af6er you have finished it.

William’s Wife by Gertrude Trevelyan, first published in 1938. It has been reissued by Recovered Books Boiler House Press in 2023. 264pp 

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Letter from New York by Helene Hanff

Readers will be aware of the charming exchange of letters contained in 84 Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff. Two people who never met exchanged letters about books and life, in the post war era. Helene Hanff was in New York and Frank Doel worked at Marks & Co, the bookshop in London which she approached to supply her with the books she wanted. The two generous souls had exchanged letters for many years. After Frank died Helene created and published the book. It was 1970.

84 Charing Cross Road was immediately successful on both sides of the Atlantic largely for its charm and wittiness. Women’s Hour, a weekday programme on the BBC radio, commissioned Helene to produce a 5-minute letter from New York every month for six months. She began in October 1978 and the six months extended to nearly six years, until 1984. These contributions to the BBC have been collected into this lovely edition, published in 2023, Letter from New York.

Letter from New York

The background to all the letters is her studio apartment on East 72nd Street in Manhattan. She describes the community in the building, the friends and dogs who live there, and the surroundings, especially Central Park. She returns again and again to stories about her neighbours, their dogs, their approach to New York weather, and the daily life lived in ‘the last small town in America’.

The community in which she lived was strong, varied, and lively. Her cousin, in her introduction, describes how convivial Helen Hanff was, always entertaining friends and welcoming newcomers. Some of the connections in the building came from the shared use of food storage facilities, especially when it came to Christmas parties.

On Christmas Eve my pies will once more be up in 1-B in Nina’s freezer, and my sweet potato casserole and homemade cranberry sauce will be down at 4-F North, in Richard’s refrigerator. He will bring them up an hour before dinner, when he has to come up anyway to take the turkey out of the oven for me because one year I dropped that. I’m small and the turkey wasn’t. When he comes up to Christmas dinner Richard has to bring along his hot tray and his good carving knife. After dinner he or Arlene’s Mickey will wheel my tea cart full of dinner dishes up the hall, so I can put them in 8-E’s dishwasher, since Alan and Susan go to Susan’s mother’s on Long Island for Christmas. (165)

Spare keys are distributed in a similar way. Such arrangements reflect as well as foster good neighbourliness. Neighbours in summer sit together on the front steps watching life on the pavement and recommend services, shops and occasionally share dogs. If it sounds somewhat idyllic, that’s because she is constantly upbeat, never one to dwell on the difficulties of life, unless it’s finding the right clothes for a wedding.

She takes us around Central Park, and one episode persuaded English listeners to send wildflower seeds for a neglected area. She and her friends frequently attend concerts and services in churches, theatre performances, inside and in the open air, and the many parades and street parties that took place on New York Streets. She gives us some history and information about the geography of New York city and some of its notable inhabitants. 

Being a monthly newsletter, the rhythms of the year, the seasons, the celebrations, the changes in the city are documented for us. We become familiar with her friends, and especially Arlene, who happily passes on clothes to Helene, and has the delightful habit of giving her twelve presents every Christmas. She describes the collection in January 1983:

I don’t remember when Arlene started giving me twelve Christmas presents, one for each of the twelve days of Christmas. She’s been doing it for years. (We fight about this every year. I always lose.) A few are expensive, all twelve are useful, but they always include three or four so far out they have to be explained to me. […]
Number 12 was two bright terry cloth mitts, each the size of a football, the two joined by a length of rope. First you wash your hair. Then you sling the rope around your neck, slip your hands into the enormous mitts and dry your hair with them. (141)

I haven’t visited New York since 1969, but this book made me feel nostalgic. And her cousin Jean Hanff Korelitz reports the same reaction in the introduction: 

These charming pieces bring back the New York of my childhood, the storefronts and fashions, the errands and quirks and tastes and smells of the city I grew up in. (16)

There are two other charming aspects of this book. One is the illustrations by Bruce Eric Kaplan on the covers, the bookmark as well as the chapter headings.

The other is that this is a lovely book in itself: the design, the paper and smart yellow livery of the binding. Well done Manderley Press. It’s another success for an independent small publisher.

Helene Hanff

Helene Hanff

She was born in Philadelphia in 1916 and was largely self-educated. The books she requested from Marks & Co were to feed her habit of self-education. She made her living as a writer. Her apartment block in New York was renamed Charing Cross House in her honour, after her death in 1997.

84 Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff. My thoughts on this earlier book on Bookword blog in August 2018.

Letter from New York by Helene Hanff, first published in 1992 and reissued by Manderley Press in 2023. 176pp 

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Dat’s Love by Leonora Brito

This collection of twelve stories originally appeared in 1995, but we have Bernardine Evaristo and Penguin Books to thank for their reappearance, together with two later stories, in the Black Britain Writing Back series.This innovative publishing project has brought several neglected Black British writers to readers’ attention. I recently reviewed Minty Alley by CLR James (link here) and I look forward to reading more from the series.

Dat’s Love

The variety in this small collection is astonishing. It is in the subject matter, the style, the length, the narrative structure, the voice, and the settings of the stories. I can’t help wondering what else she had in her files that she did not put forward for publication.

The stories are exuberant, a little wild, often inventive. Many of them are narrated by or from the point of view of young people, girls, and some by historical characters. Here for example, in a very dull setting, is a young girl from the story called Michael Miles has Teeth like a Broken-down Picket Fence:

It was November. The girl looked up at the cloudy sky and sighed like a housewife disappointed in the whiteness of her wash. Mine looks grey, she thought, using the voice of the woman on the advert as she walked along. That was what was meant by November, that time of year when all the colours had drained away by the third week and the world was left in black and white – no monochrome, she thought, preferring that word because it had more grey in it. Not much of black or white there wasn’t, when you had a look. She thought obscurely of cameras and washing machines and vacuum cleaners and fashionable clothing: they were all the same grey tones in the magazine pictures that showed them. Only the covers on the front were in colour. She expanded the word ‘monochrome’ until it fitted everything in it: ‘monochromatic’ was the word. It fitted everything. The girl turned her head and waited to cross to the bus stop on the other side of the road.
She saw the dog as she hurried across. (19)

It was a particular day, dreary as all days were: November 22nd 1963, hardly a monochrome day in world politics. I felt that Leonora Brito captured the greyness of the time, how young people wanted more from the world and their lives. It did not arrive for some time.

In a first-person narrative, a young woman reports about hospital staff ‘when it was over they gave me a doll.’ This is in a short story called Mother Country. The narrator rejects the idea that she is holding ‘a real doll’.

Who are you trying to fool? I asked the one standing in for the midwife, crossly. ‘A real doll!’ This, I shook my head and pointed, is not a real doll. Real dolls have short, chubby legs. Legs made out of laminated plastic; that stay up in the air when you push them up, and don’t just flop like these do. I gestured contemptuously. And another thing, I picked up one of its hands to demonstrate, the fingers and toes of a real doll are always stuck together, while these can be s-e-p-a-r-a-t-e-d out! (42)

Mother Country describes the transition from childhood to womanhood, from rejection of this new being to acceptance, from the trauma of childbirth and the infantilising words of the nurses to a visceral mother-baby bond. 

Leonora Brito was not afraid of playing around with narrative structure. The story called Dido Elizabeth Belle: a narrative of her life (extant) starts in the middle of the action. The narrator is a formerly enslaved young woman who was the great niece of Lord Mansfield, and she grew up in Kenwood House. But we hear a different side to her history in Leonora Brito’s account. She is running away through the woods and meets a man. His reactions and thoughts are interpolated with hers. It’s like the cinematic split-screen, and it works well.

Many of the stories are rooted in Cardiff, such as Digging for Victory set in 1955 when Mr Churchill visited the docks in his warship. Instead of hero worship the story turns into a celebration of community spirit as the great ship had caused the canal to empty and people were needed to lend a hand and deal with the damage.

Many of the most effective stories use children’s or young people’s voices with their naïve point of view. Music and popular songs of the time are also used in many stories, including the title story. Her titles are also delightful.

Leonora Brito

Leonora Brito

Leonora Brito was born in Cardiff in July 1954. Her mother was local and her father was a seaman from Cap Verde. She took some time to find her voice, studying law and history at Cardiff University, and eventually moving into writing for radio and tv, and her short stories. She won the Rhys Davis Short Story Prize in 1991 and it gave her the confidence to become a full-time writer. Dat’s Love was published in 1995 and was well-received and a second collection was commissioned, but Leonora died in June 2007 before it was completed. Sadly, given how good they are, we just have these 14 stories to admire.

Dat’s Love by Leonora Brito, first published in 1995 and republished by Penguin in 2023 in Black Britain Writing Back series. 169pp 

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