Category Archives: Elizabeth Bowen

Short Stories – More Treats

This week I am spoiling you with recommendations for two more collections of short stories. Over the years on Bookword blog I have recommended many collections. Some of these are listed below, with links to my posts about them. The form is very appealing to me. I often read short stories when I am between novels, or at night when sleep is hard to come by. And sometimes I read them just for pleasure. The two collections featured here are highly recommended.

A Different Sound: stories by mid-century writers edited by Lucy Scholes (2023)

There are eleven stories in this collection, chosen and introduced by Lucy Scholes. They are connected by being the era in which they were written – during the Second World War or just after. And they are all by women. The introduction introduces stories that are different, as the title suggests. 

The church clock struck seven. The chimes had a different sound, coming across water instead of grassy meadows. (From The Thames Spread Out by Elizabeth Taylor (252). 

What is different, perhaps, is that women are finding their voices in a more confident way, expanding their experiences during the war, and being taken seriously in the literary world. Many of the writers were regularly published in the New Yorker, for example.

The collection is very varied, including some creepy stories, such as Three Miles Up by Elizabeth Jane Howard, and Daphne Du Maurier’s The Birds. I have to admit that I didn’t read it, as I did not want to replay Hitchcock’s horror movie in my head. He transposed the setting from Cornwall to California by the way.

Shocking Weather, Isn’t It? by Inez Holden contrasts attitudes in peace- and war time. Bullied and neglected and in prison for theft before the war, Swithin Silas is considered a hero when his cousin goes to visit him a second time in hospital. Now a wing commander, he is considered a hero, the only patient that’s been awarded the D.F.C. with two bars. Inez Holden has written some interesting fiction: There’s No Story There is a novel set in an ammunitions factory where Inez Holden reveals the irony of her own title. 

For me, the two outstanding stories are by the Elizabeths Taylor and Bowen. The Thames Spread Out, quoted above, is a classic story, set on the banks of the Thames, which has flooded. She describes a swan swimming into the house, up to the foot of the stairs. A ‘kept’ woman finds herself reviewing her situation, trapped not just by the river, but also by the routine of the Friday night appearances of her lover. When the Thames recedes, she copies the swan and leaves.

Summer Night by Elizabeth Bowen is set in neutral Ireland, during the war. It contains many complicated characters, is full of people deluding themselves about their lives: a woman driving through the early night to meet her lover; the lover entertaining neighbours unwillingly; the guests are a brother and sister who have an unusual relationship as she is deaf and he would normally be touring Europe; and the home situation of the driver is uneasy too, her husband, their two children and his aunt. As in so much of Elizabeth Bowen’s fiction, nothing is straight forward. The other stories are also worth reading.

Thanks to JacquieWine’s Journal for the recommendation.

A Different Sound: stories by mid-century writers edited by Lucy Scholes (2023)published by Pushkin Press. 270pp

Dance Move by Wendy Erskine (2022)

I was impressed by the craft that went into Wendy Erskine’s first collection of short stories, Sweet Home. Her characters are ordinary people, living unremarkable lives in and around present-day Belfast, but buried in each life is failure, or disappointment or loss. Many of her characters are acutely lonely. All are unable to improve their lives.

In this second collection of short stories, Dance Move, we are again in the territory of unrealised dreams and gloom lowering over their attempts. Each story is told with a precision in the writing that reveals much more than it says. If you haven’t yet become familiar with Wendy Erskine, let me tell you, you will be bowled over.

Dance Move by Wendy Erskine (2022)published by Picador. 223pp

Related posts on Bookword

Sweet Home by Wendy Erskine (March 2021)

Even more praise for short stories (September 2021)

More Praise for Short Stories (January 2017)

Complete Short Stories by Elizabeth Taylor (June 2016)

Wave Me Goodbye: stories of the Second World War, Ed Anne Boston (November 2020)

There’s No Story There by Inez Holden (March 2021)

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Summer reading over ten years

I began blogging just over ten years ago. Recent Twitter lists of summer reading encouraged me to look back over those years and see what I was blogging on 7th July in those years. Here are just seven posts from the 787 that I have produced over that time. Some themes emerge from those years: the older women in fiction series, translations, thematic posts, and the established fiction which I preferred to chasing the new. I have included links in this piece to all the posts mentioned. Happy summer reading!

Onward, Old Legs (2013)

Several novels featuring older women had already appeared on my blog by July 2013: Stone Angel by the Canadian writer Margaret Laurence and Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont by Elizabeth Taylor, and I listed more than thirty others. Many of them I have now read, and some have been dropped from the list for various reasons. The full list for the series can be found at this link

Ways with Words (2014)

2014 was the year that Retiring with Attitude was published. I wrote it with my friend and colleague Eileen Carnell. We were asked to do a presentation on our book at the Ways With Words festival at Dartington that year. We have written one book since then, The New Age of Ageing with our colleague and friend Marianne Coleman. Our writing careers have slowed down since then!

Island Novels (2016)

Two years later I wrote a post on the theme of novels set on islands. It was a rich subject and I referred to Night Waking by Sarah Moss, To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf, The Summer Book by Tove Jansson, and four other novels. I enjoy putting together themed posts.

To The North by Elizabeth Bowen (2019)

To the North was the seventh of Elizabeth Bowen’s ten novels reviewed on Bookword blog. In 2019 I was in a phase of reading novels that had been published for some time. It’s something I have continued with, and Elizabeth Bowen is a writer for whom I have great admiration. On a train travelling north from Italy the recently widowed Cecelia meets Markie, and is nearly taken in by him, but he transfers his attentions to her sister-in-law …

The Magic Toyshop by Angela Carter (2020)

For several years I had followed a theme, reporting on a book every decade. In 2020 I picked publications by Virago, and in July this was the choice from the 1960s. I wrote,

This fantastic tale, which ends in incest and a conflagration and the possible death of the two younger children, is not a simple contrast between goodness and wickedness, youth and age, or even wicked masculinity vs the goodness of femininity. It has complexity in its themes of love and abuse, adult and adolescent sexuality, play and life, reality and magic.

Summerwater by Sarah Moss (2021)

I read most of this short novel when I was trapped on Pewsey station, following a walk with a friend. There were no trains, no taxis and no room at the inn. The novel, like the others by Sarah Moss that I have reviewed, mitigated the dire circumstances. A train eventually arrived.

[Summerwater] is bleak, and harsh and almost apocryphal. It captures the current generally depressed mood and seems to be a comment on the modern world.

The Art of Losing by Alice Zeniter (2022)

This novel, translated from the French by Frank Wynne, was first published in 2017. It follows one family through three generations, beginning in Algeria just after the Second World War and ending in the banlieues in the present day. I learned a great deal from this novel and thought about it again when France erupted earlier this summer.

And the others?

BTW in 2015 it was A Spool of Blue Thread by Anne Tyler, and in 2017 a themed post about novelists called Elizabeth. In 2018 I posted my thoughts about Missing by Alison Moore.

At the moment I am reading about the last months of the German High Seas Fleet (for a thing), and Between the Acts by Virginia Woolf (for another thing), essays in Space Crone by Ursula le Guin, and enjoying the catalogue of the exhibition at Dulwich Picture Gallery of paintings by Berthe Morisot, which I saw last weekend.  

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Filed under Books, Elizabeth Bowen, Elizabeth Taylor's novels, Older women in fiction, Publishing our book, Reading, Reviews, translation, Women in Translation, Writing

Even more praise for short stories

More praise for short stories was the title of a post on this blog in January 2017. It updated an earlier post (November 2013). It has maintained a modest readership ever since, so I decided it was time to revise the second post and recommend more short stories for those who love reading them, as I do.

I love the form, writing them and reading them. They are not novels-lite, and the stories of Alice Munro are as rich as any novel, giving the reader the experience of a novel in one story. William Boyd suggested that the form’s strength derives from its roots in our oral traditions. He said:

The great modern short stories possess a quality of mystery and beguiling resonance about them – a complexity of afterthought – that cannot be pinned down or analysed. Bizarrely, in this situation, the whole is undeniably greater than the sum of its component parts. (in Prospect 2006, A Short History of the Short Story)

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

Reading short stories

I love reading short stories, especially in anthologies. They can introduce us to new writers; give us a great experience of creative writing in a nugget; provide us with insights into different writing in a digestible form. 

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

A selection from Bookword 

In the last year I have reviewed the following collections, with links included:

Olive, Again by Elizabeth Strout

Wave Me Goodbye: stories of the Second World War, Edited by Anne Boston

The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter

Sweet Home by Wendy Erskine

Refugee Tales IV Edited by David Herd & Anna Pincus

And in the next few months I plan to read these: 

Hitting a Straight Lick with a Crooked Stick by Zora Neale Hurston

Elizabeth Bowen collection

Shirley Hazzard collection

Where the Wild Ladies are by Matsuda Aoko, translated from the Japanese by Polly Barton, Tilted Axis press (2020). A present from my daughter.

Writing short stories

Short stories have provided a platform for writers not visible in other forms. This is especially true for novice writers, and for women: think of the numerous short story competitions by Fish Publishing, the Bridport Prize, and the Costa Award. And you can find local competitions too, for example here in the South West there is the Exeter Short Story Prize, organized by Creative Writing Matters. These competitions are not usually limited to contestants in the area, although this one has an additional award for local writers. Online you can also find many journals and sites that publish short stories.

Most how-to-write-fiction books assume the reader is a novelist, so I recommend Short Circuit: A guide to the Art of the Short Story, edited by Vanessa Gebbie (published by Salt). Not only is the guidance relevant and helpful, but the writers all recommend further reading, further delights.

I say no more about writing them at the moment as I have been stuck on one for months and months and months.

Other recommendations 

Some other recommendations (with some links) are:

Elizabeth Taylor (Virago)

 

Raymond Carver (Vintage)

Alice Munro (Virago and Penguin)

Edith Pearlman (Pushkin)

Hilary Mantel (4th Estate)

Persephone Book of Short Stories

Dorothy Whipple (Persephone)

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

More Praise for Short Stories appeared in January 2017 on this blog.

Over to you

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

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Filed under Books, Elizabeth Bowen, Reading, Reviews, short stories, translation, Women in Translation

Table Two by Marjorie Wilenski

Elizabeth Bowen caught the essence of Table Two when she said in her review for the Tatler in 1942 that it was 

the most striking novel about women war workers that this war has, as far as I know, produced.

The location of the action is the Ministry of Foreign Intelligence in central London, where translators sit at designated tables. It is early September 1940 and Londoners are convinced that the RAF will not allow the Luftwaffe through to bomb the city. 

While the plot is not very strong, there is plenty to engage the reader in this novel, the only one written by Marjorie Wilenski. It was clearly written from first-hand experience of the Blitz and of war work.

Table Two

The table of the title is the workstation for the women who feature in this novel.

The Translation Department of the Ministry of Foreign Intelligence made all the translations of the Ministry’s foreign documents and letters. Everyone on the staff of the Department knew some foreign languages and most of them knew several and knew them well. The Department worked in a large room on the first floor of the Ministry’s new building in Lincoln’s Inn Fields. The room had windows down both sides and it looked like a schoolroom because it had groups of flat-topped desks, set nine together on each side of a central gangway. Each group of desks was used by nine translators known as a Table, and what looked like the teacher’s desk at the top was used by the Language Supervisor. (11)

It is late summer in 1940 in London and Table Two is about to receive a new translator. Many of the women who work there, all women, had supported themselves in various jobs abroad. On their return to London they need the money. Some women are doing their bit for the war. Marjorie Wilenski is interested in how this group of women do and don’t get along.

There are a range of characters: Mrs Jolly who can’t stop talking; Mrs Doweson with aristocratic connections who likes fresh air; Mrs Just, the deputy who ensures order in the work despite Mrs Saltman the disorganised Supervisor. There are those who love disaster, a childish woman in dress and behaviour, a woman who can’t stop eating and so on.

Two women are the focus of the story. Elsie Pearne is much despised for her sour disposition, and she believes herself suited for better work, with some justification. 

Elsie was a tall gaunt woman of forty-eight. She carried her head forward and her shoulders were rounded because she was always stooping to talk to people less tall than herself. She walked with a long ungainly rather mannish stride and there was something mannish in her clothes – the plain black coat and skirt, white bouse with collar and tie, and round felt hat. She had a long thin face, long thin nose and a long thin mouth with lips set in a straight line that turned down at the corners, and her eyes under wide brows were small. […]

Elsie Pearne was not much loved at the Ministry of Foreign Intelligence. She was generally referred to as rude and difficult to get on with. Most people thought that her long mouth turned down simply from bad nature and ill-temper though there were some more kindly who guessed at disappointments and hard times, neither opinion being in fact quite right. (1-2)

In contrast, Anne Shepley-Rice, is the new translator, younger and prettier than the others, and with the prospect of dinners with young servicemen and even marriage ahead of her.

Although they are in contrast to each other, Elsie takes Anne under her wing, and then becomes possessive. Unfortunately, when she doesn’t get her way Elsie can be rather nasty and Anne does not wish to be controlled by her older colleague. This is not a happy friendship.

In the first days of Anne’s employment there are frequent air raid warnings which force the workers into idleness in the basement. The translators are very frustrated because they do not believe that the German bombers will penetrate central London. They are wrong and at the end of the first week in September the Blitz begins and does not let up until May the following summer. The author describes how the population adapts to the new situation.

For the next week the guns were rarely silent. Sometimes they seemed to go on without stopping for the whole twenty-four hours. Soon their sounds became the background to ordinary life – that ordinary life that was so extraordinary but which Londoners had to pretend was ordinary because only in that way was it possible to live at all. For the extraordinary had to be tamed as quickly as could be done; conditions were chaotic but chaos had to be conquered. The first thing everywhere and all the time was to get the small things straight. There was no time to stand and stare, there were too many practical problems to solve. True, a country cousin up for the day to look at London’s ruins might gape and gaze at the great craters in the streets; these immense fantastic holes only astonished Cockneys on Monday – by Friday they were just a familiar and tiresome obstruction to the traffic, there were too many other things to think of – how to get to work, how to get hoe again, how to cook the breakfast on the faint glimmer of gas that was all most people could coax from their burners, how to make the tea, let alone how to wash or bath, when there was no water at all in the pipes. Scrambling over the broken houses, through the dust and the rubble, picking their way through the broken glass and the broken pavement stones, few people had time to look up at the battle that went on by day and by night. (108-9)

Meanwhile Anne is falling in love with Seb, an injured RAF pilot who is working in the ministry while he recovers. Their relationship is a source of anguish to Elsie.

Mrs Just plans to leave her position as deputy supervisor and every woman, except Anne, thinks they are the most suited to the post. The ability of the women to delude themselves is amusing. Elsie, who could do it, is given a trial and is hopeless as she has such a forbidding way with others. Anne is chosen for promotion. 

Everything seems to be going well for Anne: she has become engaged, she narrowly misses being badly hurt by a collapsing building, she is to be promoted to deputy supervisor. But then she is entrusted with a confidential Portuguese document, and it goes missing. She is suspended.

While the plot weaves its way to provide happiness to both Anne and Elsie, the other women get on with their chatter, stories about getting to work, knitting, raising money for the Spitfire fund, and supporting each other in their difficulties. 

I enjoyed the account of London in the Blitz and how it affected the women workers. The paragraph quoted above impressed me because I saw parallels with the current need in the face of a pandemic to adapt to an impossible situation. Great obstacles have become familiar and tiresome obstructions to how we would rather live.

Table Two by Marjorie Wilenski, first published in 1942. Reissued by Dean Street Press in 2019. 224pp

Other novels on Bookword from the Home Front

The House Opposite by Barbara Noble

There’s No Story There by Inez Holden

A Footman for the Peacock by Rachel Ferguson

Mrs Ranskill Comes Home by Barbara Euphan Todd

Other reviews of Table Two

Furrowed Middle Brow blog (August 2016)

Heavenali blog (August 2019)

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Wave Me Goodbye: stories of the Second World War, Ed Anne Boston

What can we learn from the experiences of women in the past? How can their reflections help us think about the occurrences of our own lives? The so-called Blitz spirit has been evoked since the Coivid-19 pandemic began to take hold earlier this year. We even celebrated the 75th anniversary of VE Day in May at a distance with scones and little union flags.

In Wave Me Goodbye there are 28 stories, all written in English and from the experience of women from the UK or the ‘colonies’. All the stories were written at the time of the second world war (except one). This is a special and important collection. This is a special and important addition to the posts of the Decades Project 2020 (see below)

Wave Me Goodbye

Different experiences

The first thing to say about them is that these stories reflect the very wide range of women’s experiences of the war. They were not all staying at home and making do and mending, or fire watching, or working in war jobs. And the experiences here range from the so-called Phoney War, while everyone waited for the war to start, through to the first post-war visits to war-ravaged Europe. 

There are stories about

Working in a field hospital
The Blitz
partners leaving for active duty, and home on leave
adventures abroad in the Balkans
land girls
losing treasured things, such as letters from a lover
living with other women
the war in Africa
fantasy 
the aftermath.

In writing their stories they drew upon their experiences and reflected what was happening and how it affected their different lives. Some are about the acute experiences of departure and loss, others provide insights into the arrangements made by women in the absence of so many men.  

Quality of writing

The second thing to note is the quality of the writing, almost every mid-century writer of note wrote a short story that was included in the collection.

Rosamond Lehmann
Jan Struther
Mollie Panter-Downes
Rose Macaulay
Olivia Manning
Elizabeth Bowen
Elizabeth Taylor
Barbara Pym
Sylvia Townsend Warner …

It reads like a combined Virago and Persephone catalogue! 

In the introduction Anne Boston quotes Elizabeth Bowen:

All war-time writing is…  resistance writing. (xxi)

In a sense the resistance is oblique: it is to the distortions that war brings with it; distortions in relationships, time, clothes, food, careers, homes, life itself. And that is one of the parallels with the pandemic: that too is distorting our lives as well as killing thousands of people.

Some stories of resistance are triumphant. I loved Sweethearts and Wives by Sylvia Townsend Warner, which concerned a household of women managing their domestic arrangements, largely without men, in a haphazard and cheerful manner. 

Short stories and the war

And thirdly the short story was the genre of those days. Many of the writers were established novelists, but turned their attention to short stories during the war. The fragmentary nature of short prose captured the disconnected experiences that war handed out, rapid and catastrophic change. An example is Miss Anstruther’s Letters by Rose Macaulay, in which Miss Anstruther frantically tries to find her dead lover’s letters after she has been bombed out. This was Rose Macaulay’s experience, and it reflects the fragility of material belongings. With the quality of writing, it is easy to find insights, description, experiences narrated with great skill.

The depth of damage resulting from six years of war is beautifully captured in Elizabeth Taylor’s story of a couple visiting France and trying to reconnect after their different experiences of the war. It is called Gravement Endommagé and considers damage at many levels.

I can’t review individual stories here, but refer you to JacquieWine’s blog (see below) where she looked at many individual stories in two posts when she explored this collection earlier this year. 

Covid-19?

So what can we learn from the Second World War that might help us with Covid-19? We need to be resourceful and resilient. We need to adapt our lives to the profoundly anti-social aspects of the response to Covid-19. We can expect experiences as different as people are. We can expect great responses and more feeble ones. Humans, women have done it in the past. We can do it again. The values that underpin the good life must be held onto in difficult times: community, care for others, decency and integrity.

Related posts

On HeavenAli’s blog she recommends this quite marvellous collection in her review in June. 

Another enthusiastic reader is JacquiWine who provided two posts on her blog to do justice to the collection. 

Novels from the Home Front (on Bookword in November 2019)

The War-Time Stories and Letters of Molly Panter-Downes. (January 2019)

Mrs Miniver by Jan Struther (November 2018)

Wave Me Goodbye: stories of the Second World War, Ed Anne Boston, first published in 1988 by Virago and republished in 2019. 360pp

The Decades Project 2020

In 2020 I explored ten novels by women, one a month, framing my choices from the Virago collection: Brilliant Careers: The Virago Book of 20th Century Fiction, edited by Ali Smith, Kasia Boddy and Sarah Wood. For November I have added this important collection. In December I will review the year’s blogs and consider a theme for 2021.

The post war choices for the project have been:

The Dud Avocado by Elaine Dundy (1958)

The Magic Toyshop by Angela Carter (1967)

Benefits by Zoe Fairbairns (1979)

The Transit of Venus by Shirley Hazzard (1980)

In a Country of Mothers by AM Homes (1994)

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Themed review: novels from the Home Front in WW2

One might expect wartime fiction to provide comfort, escapism, even propaganda. Many no doubt did. However the four novels featured here written and set in Britain during the war also took the opportunity to reveal something new and different about the human condition and to record some of their bizarre and unusual experiences. 

Setting novels on the Home Front of the Second World War

Setting novels in wartime brings the writer many opportunities. Unexpected locations, events, characters and relationships arise in wartime. Motives can be unclear. Characters, especially heroines and heroes, are often required to find resources within themselves that they did not know they had. 

For me, the ultimate war novel will probably always be Catch-22 by Joseph Heller. The protagonists face some dreadful and nonsensical situations, meet officers who are completely out of their depth, and try to survive however they can. Much of the novel points up the craziness of the war. It was set on a Mediterranean island in the Second World War, but not published until 1961. 

In the Heat of the Day by Elizabeth Bowen

1st Edition

This novel is a thriller, set in war-time London, centred on the Regents Park area. Stella is approached by the mysterious and rather malevolent Harrison at an open air concert. He appears to know things about her lover Robert, questioning his commitment to the war effort. Allegiances to people and countries of birth are under suspicion. The description of an air raid is vivid and exciting. And this passage about the presence of the dead in London is moving.

Most of all the dead, from mortuaries, from under cataracts of rubble, made their anonymous presence – not as today’s dead but as yesterday’s living – felt through London. Uncounted, they continued to move in shoals through the city day, pervading everything to be seen or heard or felt with their torn-off senses, drawing on this tomorrow they had expected – for death cannot be so sudden as all that. Absent from the routine which had been life, they stamped upon that routine their absence – not knowing who the dead were you could not know which might be the staircase somebody for the first time was not mounting this morning, or at which street corner the newsvendor missed a face, or which trains and buses in the homegoing rush were this evening lighter by one passenger. (p91-2)

Elizabeth Bowen wrote most of the novel during the war, but apparently found it hard to complete and it was not published until 1948.

In the Heat of the Day by Elizabeth Bowen (1948). You can find the full post here.

A Footman for the Peacock by Rachel Ferguson

This novel considers a formerly wealthy landed family confronting the changes of the 20th century. The story includes their energetic efforts to resist the advancing demands of the war, for example, to take in evacuees. And is it possible that the peacock is signalling to enemy aircraft?

It is both a social commentary and a thriller set against the background of the first months of the war.

A Footman for the Peacock by Rachel Ferguson (1940) reissued by Furrowed Middlebrow Books (2016). My comments on this novel on Bookword can be found here.

Night Shift by Inez Holden 

Night Shift is a novella first published in 1941. The episodes are framed as six night shifts in a factory in East London during the Blitz. The workers, mostly women, make surveillance cameras for aircraft. There is little story, but the people who work, supervise, or relax in the canteen reveal their separate lives as they work together. Each person is given a name or nickname, and they interact in a way that demonstrates a sense of community, but they are not connected to their important work. They are strangely isolated on their night shifts. The novella strongly conveys the daily interactions of Londoners, the inconveniences of Blitz damage, the noise, the concerns about women’s wages and the sense of so many individuals being involved in these events.

Reading it one felt it was a record of a strange and unusual time. The novella has been republished with Inez Holden’s wartime diaries so in a sense that impression is justified.

Blitz Writing: Night Shift & It was Different at the Time by Inez Holden (1941/5), published by Handheld Press 2019. The second half of this book is extracts from her diaries. Thanks to Heavenali and JacquiWine’s Journal for drawing my attention to this volume.

Mrs Miniver by Jan Struther

It is a bit of a stretch to call this a wartime novel. To begin with although the characters are fictional it is more a collection of articles from The Times about everyday middle class life in pre-war Britain. And secondly it hardly features the war. But it has the reputation of a wartime novel largely because of the famous film which can be seen as propaganda. The character of Mrs Miniver was considered very successful and Churchill claimed it contributed to the entry of the USA into the war.

There is a comforting feeling about Mrs Miniver despite the looming violence. Perhaps the pieces were gathered together and published as war began to remind people of what could be lost.

Mrs Miniver by Jan Struther was published in 1939 and by Virago (1989). My thoughts about it on Bookword can be found here

And you might be interested in The Love-Charm of Bombs: Restless Lives in the Second World War by Lara Feigel (2013), published by Bloomsbury. This book explores the varied effects of war upon the following writers: Elizabeth Bowen, Rose Macaulay, Hilde Spiel, Henry Yorke (Green) and Graham Greene.

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To The North by Elizabeth Bowen

I came late to Elizabeth Bowen’s writing. But since I first acquired a copy of The Last September I have been reading and reviewing her books at a pleasurable and slow pace. This is how, six years ago, I introduced my approach to her writing:

Do you keep a cache of chocolates after Christmas, so that you can savour again the pleasures of treating yourself? The novels of Elizabeth Bowen are like that. She is a novelist I am glad to have come across late in my reading career. I picked up a copy of The Last September recently in an Oxfam secondhand shop and in February it came to the top of my reading pile. 

I have already reviewed six of the ten novels by Elizabeth Bowen on Bookword. (For links see the end of this post). She is central to my desire to avoid pursuing new books and to read and reread more of books published for some time ago. I wrote about this recently in a post called Books and the pursuit of the new.

I found an old Penguin copy of To the North among my mother’s books. I took it on my travels and admired her all over again. 

To The North by Elizabeth Bowen

The novel’s story takes place over a short period of time. It is set mostly in London and the time is between the wars.

The novel follows Cecelia, a young widow who is considering remarrying. She is a lively and attractive woman, is economically independent and she enjoys lunches and dinners and meeting up with her aunt by marriage, Lady Waters. At the start of the novel Cecelia is travelling north from Italy, returning to St Johns Wood, near Abbey Road in London.

She shares her house with her sister-in-law Emmeline. She is younger than Cecelia, and also independent. She has a car and she is a partner in a travel bureau that she and a friend have established. She is very beautiful and stylish in her own way.

On the train from Italy Cecelia meet Markie, a self-centred barrister, who is predatory and always wants what seems distant. After a mild flirtation with Cecelia he becomes obsessed with Emmeline. She normally holds herself aloof from love affairs, but Markie is an expert. They form a liaison although they agree not to marry but then he treats her very badly. Meanwhile Julian is waiting in the wings, patiently and with understanding for Cecelia.

There are some excellent supporting characters. The Blighs are friends of Lady Waters’s and provide a contrast to the intensity of Cecelia and Emmeline’s relationships. They are indulging in being unhappily married. Then there is Pauline, the adolescent orphan that Julian has responsibility for. Her interaction provides another ingenuous perspective. Elizabeth Bowen writes child characters very well. The typists, who work for the travel bureau, provide some comic interludes, as Enmeline and her partner are unable to deal with the hapless Miss Tripp and her replacement.

Elizabeth Bowen’s skill is in the minute description of the psychological shifts of each character as they interact with the others. We are presented with a number of different relationships: several marriages, a few romances, employer-employee, child- adult, and friendships between men and women and between women. One couple will self-destruct, the other will find comfort in each other.

Emmeline drives north at the end of the novel after a failed reconciliation with Markie. Their relationship is doomed.

This was the 4th of Elizabeth Bowen’s novels. She wrote 10. I have 3 more to read.

To The North by Elizabeth Bowen, first published in 1932. I used the Penguin edition, published in 1945. 286pp

Elizabeth Bowen

Heaven Ali wrote an excellent review in 2015 on her blog of To the NorthHere’s the link.

Links to reviews of novels by Elizabeth Bowen on Bookword

The Last September

The Hotel

The Heat of the Day

The House in Paris

Friends and Relations

Eva Trout

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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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Pre-loved books, really?

What a terrible euphemism is ‘pre-loved’. You can find it attached to clothes, and furniture and handbags and, of all things, books. They are SECOND-HAND people, second-hand, not necessarily pre-loved. Many of us bookish people do not give away books that we love.

I’ve recently had cause to think about second-hand books a great deal. I know that many bookish bloggers indulge themselves in second-hand bookstores. I am among them. But I had a problem with second-hand books, or rather seven problems.

Second-hand book sale

To raise some funds for our writing group we recently held a small event for families in the hall next to the library, hoping to catch some passing trade from Saturday morning book borrowers. I volunteered to collect and sell second-hand books.

I have done this before, in aid of Rwandan teacher education. The funds raised were to buy some textbooks for the Ministry Library so that two of our students from Rwanda could help improve the education system as the country emerged from the horrors of its recent past. They were studying Educational Assessment at the Institute of Education, University of London (as it was then). They had scarcely enough funds to support their studies let alone provide stock for teachers back home. On that occasion we encouraged our staff and students to donate books they no longer needed and to buy those that interested them. It worked well. I myself bought a huge and much used French-English dictionary. The students bought the textbooks they needed. We did it twice.

I lay awake, the night before the writing group book sale, worried that we wouldn’t have enough books to sell. I needn’t have wasted any time tossing and turning. Many members of the group brought in books for the stall. Sadly few of them wanted to buy any. And the attendance at the event was poor. Having brought two bags of books myself, I found myself having to take away seven, count them, SEVEN bags for life, of unsold books. We did make some money on the event.

I was left with all those bags of books to dispose of in the local second-hand and charity shops, and it took me two months. At least there were no copies of Fifty Shades of Grey or of The Da Vinci Code. It seems that no one wants these best sellers. They may have sold in their millions but they are also the most disposed of books (see my post on the subject of unwanted and abandoned books here).

The allure of the second-hand book

I love rootling around the shelves of passed-on books. There is always the chance of finding a treasure, by which I mean a book you always wanted to read but you didn’t know it. Here are four finds that I would describe like that:

  • The Soul of Kindness by Elizabeth Taylor
  • The House in Paris and Friends and Relations by Elizabeth Bowen
  • Elizabeth and her German Garden by Elizabeth von Arnim

And I am always on the lookout for Virago editions in the old green covers, interesting both inside and for the covers. The paintings used on those books were an education. The contents introduced me to some previously neglected authors, mostly women.

And I keep an eye out for old orange penguin books. These are not hard to find, but I use the criteria that I must want to read the book if I am to buy it, or that I have enjoyed reading it and no longer have a copy. I will admit to having three copies of A High Wind in Jamaica by Richard Hughes and some other multiple copies (such as A Room of One’s Own), which I sometimes think I should try to put back into circulation.

Part of the allure of the second-hand book is imagining the possible pleasure of the previous reader/s. Occasionally one finds markings on the text, or inscriptions inside the cover. Even more rarely one finds things inside. I wrote a post about marking the page once, (here’s the link) and before it was even published on the blog I had found a lacy bookmark in a used book.

The mother of a friend of mine would not have liked the idea of previous readers. She baked library books to disinfect them so afraid was she of germs being passed on. I have met people who don’t like the idea of second-hand books for the same reason. ‘Ugh, you don’t know where they have been!’

The downside of second-hand books

While they are cheaper than new books, I wonder if the sale of second hand books doesn’t undercut both the publishing industry and, more importantly, the author who doesn’t get any royalties from the sale. I understand that royalties are paid on the first sale, but perhaps the second-hand copy prevented the reader buying a new copy and the author receiving more royalties. Perhaps the volume of sales is not big enough for this to matter. I don’t know but it worries me. On the other hand, in a charity shop someone is getting something for the sale of the book: part of a cow, some shelter, some assistance. And a book has moved on to a new home and to find new readers.

What are your great second-hand purchases?

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Must Writers live in Beautiful Places?

The association of writers and beautiful places seem boundless: Jane Austen in Bath, the Brontes in Howarth in Yorkshire, Wordsworth in the Lake District, Elizabeth Bowen in Bowen’s Court in Ireland and Elizabeth Taylor lived beside the Thames near Reading. One of the pleasures of moving to Devon is the wealth of lovely places to visit. On a recent trip to Greenway in South Devon I mused on the connection between writers and their homes.

Greenway

Greenway May 2017

On the heights near the mouth of the River Dart is the house that Agatha Christie built for her summer holidays, referring it to the most beautiful place in the world. Now a National Trust property, Greenway is an impressive place to visit. And the house is more or less as it was in the 1950s.

Hall in Greenway, May 2017

What this offers the writer

For the writer’s leisure the following delights are on offer

  • Tennis counts
  • Croquet lawn
  • Boating on the river
  • Garden walks
  • Local archaeology
  • Piano playing
  • Board games

The Greenway house is full of boxes, collections of decorative boxes of all sizes from snuff boxes in display cases to other boxes in all styles. This seems fitting for a writer of mysteries. Without the boxes Greenway would seem quite empty.

And for inspiration?

The house itself would have been a pleasure to write in; the library, the sitting rooms, the tables and chairs set up around the house, the gardens in fine weather, all these would be a delight.

Then there’s the view, the gardens and the sea less than 2 miles away.

Agatha Christie used the house in 1956 as the setting for one of her Poirot mysteries: Dead Man’s Folly, in which a local girl is found murdered in the boat house on the eve of the village fete.

Being a best-selling writer Agatha Christie enjoyed considerable wealth, which meant she could afford this level of luxury.

Other houses

Jane Austen’s Writing Table, Chawton

Few writers receive the rewards from their writing at the level of Agatha Christie. For example, Jane Austen lived off her brother’s charity in Chawton, Hampshire. It is pleasant, but not on a grand scale.

Elizabeth Bowen held her house in such regard that she wrote a history of Bowen’s Court in 1942. It featured in her early novel The Last September, which I reviewed.

Home of Emily Dickinson, Amherst, Mass in 2007

No writer was more closely associated with her home than Emily Dickinson, largely because she rarely stepped out of it. Now a museum, I visited the house in Amherst, Mass and was charmed.

For a collection of photographs of writers’ houses see this Guardian feature: Temples of Literature by Nick Channing.

I’m a bit of a romantic and like to imagine writers in garrets and humble rooms, suffering for their creative talents, penning their works of art, making beauty in difficult circumstances. But I can see that inspiration and creativity are fed by living in beautiful places, or just from the writer’s imagination.

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Filed under Books, Elizabeth Bowen, Travel with Books, Writing