Tag Archives: Virago Modern Classics

The Corner that Held Them by Sylvia Townsend Warner

Sylvia Townsend Warner wrote seven novels, each one very different. The Corner that Held Them was published just after the war in 1948. You may have read Lolly Willowes, a curious but engaging story about a single woman who escapes dependence on her family by becoming a witch, published in 1926. This book is quite different, except that it also considers women’s lives, this time in the fourteenth century, in a convent in Norfolk. 

But this is not your run-of-the-mill historical novel. There are no velvet-clad heaving bosoms, not much sex and no romance, but instead we read of daily lives, a murder, a running away, the collapse of the newly built spire and several loose ends. I was very taken with it.

The Corner that Held Them

For neither might the corner that held them keep them from fear [The Wisdom of Solomon xvii 4]

This is history, but not the royal progress of male actions, not the events that made Britain great, not even the plucky pulling together of the war just won. Instead it is a view of women’s lives, and not of one heroine, but of a community. 

Nor is it a religious history. While they observe the rituals of convent life, the concerns of the nuns are mainly to do with survival and comfort. Their convent is not well endowed. It was set up in dubious circumstances, to do with adultery, murder and grief by the very impious Brian de Retteville on the death of his wife Alianor in 1163. The convent was established on a small rise near a stream and some villages  in Norfolk. The nuns depended upon any dowries brought by novices and the rents from a few local properties, which were far from reliable. 

After a shocking first chapter the novel settles down to relate the events of the three decades following the Black Death, the rise of each prioress, the arrival of a new priest (who wasn’t) and several bailiffs, and novices. The nuns may individually have admirable skills, embroidery or writing, but they disappear with the nuns’ eyesight, senility or death. Indeed, Oby has nothing going for it.

The Black Death was fearsome. It carries off many of the villagers who have to serve the convent, and sees the flight of their priest. In the decades that follow its terrible cull in 1349 we see the coming and going of four or five prioresses, the careers of novices as they become nuns, the arrival of Ralph Kello who claims to be a priest and stays until his death, the building of a spire, its collapse, the changing bishops and their treatment of the nuns, a sympathetic custos and a runaway. There is a murder, attempts at levitation, a vision and a rape.

There is always the necessity of finding more funding. This takes one prioress to a Christening, the custos to a parish that owes rent, the non-priest to find a new hawk and one nun to the death bed of a relation who is a bishop. Far from being cut off from life around them, the ‘corner that held them’ is exposed throughout the novel to the changes of the time, in society, traditional relationships, music and literature. 

In historical fiction events often hold great significance. But in this novel Sylvia Townsend Warner almost plays with the reader to suggest that this event was no more significant than any other. Small episodes reveal aspects of daily life, relationships within the community that continually change, the worries about funding, the economies or the luxuries. At page 310 novel simply stops. 

It is importantly a view of women’s history. Sylvia Townsend Warner had no sympathy for the established church, but the community of women, mostly without vocation, mostly living in Oby through convenience to them or their family, provide interesting material for this novel. We read of the everyday business of living and dying. For example, as a bishop’s visitation approaches a villager is drowned in the Oby fish pond. The carp will no longer be suitable to present to the bishop. There is a storm.

The storm broke the drought. But on the morrow it was as hot as ever – a steaming, oppressive heat. Everything began to go wrong. The cream soured. The food in the larder spoiled. Doors stuck. Patches of mildew came out on walls. The house was invaded by ants. Feeling as though she had been hit over the head by a pole-axe the prioress drove on through these various calamities, hearing of each new disaster with the grinning patience of despair. (176)

One of the charms of this novel is that it is without the prithhees and other anachronisms we imagine inhabited the speech of medieval people. They do use metaphors and images from their daily lives. For example, on his arrival the bishop meets the prioress and… 

… saw what he was prepared to see: a burly old woman whose air, at once imperious and jovial, made her seem better fitted to rule a brothel than a nunnery. (177) 

Another example:

William Holly was one of those small, tight men like a knot of wood, his cross-grainedness seemed a warrant of longevity. (219)

And her descriptions of the countryside are joyous as she describes some of the inhabitants of the nunnery as they strike out on their journeys. 

The Corner that Held Them by Sylvia Townsend Warner was first published in 1948 and reissued as a Virago Modern Classic in 1988. This is the version I read, which includes an introduced by Claire Harman. 320 pp

Some other observations on The Corner that Held Them

On Vulpes Libris blog in January 2010 Hilary posted her reactions. She refers to Sylvia Townsend Warner‘s exuberant power’ as a novelist.

Kate Macdonald, of Handheld Press, wrote a very interesting post on her blog in 2017 exploring how innovative Sylvia Townsend Warner was in her historical fiction writing. Here is the link

There is an annual Sylvia Townsend Warner Reading week hosted by A Gallimaufry blog. You can find the round up for 2020 here

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Dusty Answer by Rosamond Lehmann

What pleasure! Another Twentieth Century female novelist to get stuck into. Dusty Answer was Rosamond Lehmann’s first novel and her most successful in that it became a best-seller. Some were scandalised by it, for in 1927 young women were not supposed to write about such sensuality, and hardly to experience it. Some thought this novel would pervert the young and campaigned for it to be withdrawn from sale.

It’s hard to understand these fears and criticisms today. We know that women were not supposed to be concerned with sex. But this is not a sexy book. There are certainly overtones of homosexuality, male and female, as well as young people behaving in a headstrong manner. There is very little overt sex. What is very heady is that the text and the story are suffused with the protagonist’s emotional responses.

Cover of first US edition

Dusty Answer

Judith is the only child of an eminent and well-off father and a distanced mother. They live in a large and beautiful house on the banks of the river (?Thames). The next door house is occupied occasionally by the Fyfe family, a large group of cousins, 4 boys and one girl. Judith longs to be included in their circle and her life seems to switch on and off with their arrivals and departures. The first part concerns the time they spent together as children and is most romantically described.

The First World War intervenes and the most attractive of the boys, Charlie, is killed. Just before he left for the Front he had married Mariella and she has a son, Peter, although she still acts like a child herself. Judith continues to live in the shadow of the Fyfes, as she anticipates her time at Girton College.

The first evening at college Judith is crippled with social embarrassment and finds herself quite unprepared to live with other young women. Her isolated and privileged upbringing is evident in her reaction at her first evening meal. She finds her fellow undergraduates to be boorish and ugly. The crucial difference is that they are not self-absorbed as she is.

Trips. Labs. Lectures. Dons. Vacs. Chaperons. The voices gabbled on. The forks clattered. The roof echoed.
‘Ugly and noisy,’ muttered Judith. ‘Ugly and noisy and crude and smelly …’ You could go on for ever.
There were eyes staring from everywhere, necks craning to look at her …
‘But I can abstract myself. I can ignore their rudeness …’
[…] She studied the row of faces opposite her, and then more rows, and more, of faces. Nearly all of them plain, nearly all with a touch of beauty: here and there well-cut heads, broad white placid brows, young necks; white teeth set in pleasant smiles; innocent intelligent lovely eyes. Accepting, revealing faces they were with no reserves in them, looking at each other, at things – not inward at themselves. But just a herd, when all was said: immature, untidy, all dull and all alike, commonplace female creatures in the mass. How boring it was! (110)

But in the very next paragraph she finds Jennifer and for two years they are inseparable. It is a very intense relationship. Then Jenifer abandons Judith for another woman and leaves the college. Judith finishes her degree, aware that she has become more and more in love with Roddy Fyfe.

After gaining a good degree Judith drifts around and becomes more involved with the Fyfes cousins. Each of them finds reasons to be close to her. She reveals her love to Roddy and is again rejected. She agrees to marry Martin, on the rebound, then tells him she won’t. Mariella confides in her about her marriage and son. Judith goes abroad with her mother. Julian meets up with them and offers to knock the edges off her as his mistress. She has made up her mind that she will do this when Martin dies in a sailing accident.

Everything is resolved in a flurry of grief and letters, including a promise to meet from Jennifer, who does not appear.

Judith returns home to an empty house a little wiser and more experienced and able to shake off the Fyfes’ influence. 

She was rid at last of the weakness, the futile obsession of dependence on other people. She had nobody now except herself, and that was best. (303)

The epigraph suggests that Judith will deceive herself if she feels that she understands.

Ah, what a dusty answer gets the soul
When hot for certainties in this our life? (George Meredith)

It’s a complex set of relationships with a large number of characters, which I found quite difficult. I never managed to differentiate the Fyfe boys until the final section.

Rosamond Lehmann

The author lived until she was 89 (born 1901 died 1990) and she drew on her childhood for this novel. She was brought up in Buckinghamshire, her father a Liberal MP and her family high achievers in the Arts. She was first educated at home and then won a scholarship to Girton College, Cambridge, graduating in English Literature and in Languages. 

The success of this first novel enabled her to escape from her first marriage and she went on to write six more novels, a play and some short stories. She had two children in her second marriage, but when her daughter died of polio in 1958 her life took a new direction. She became interested in psychic matters.

Dusty Answer by Rosamond Lehmann, first published in 1927 republished in the Virago Modern Classics in 1996, which I used for this post. 303pp

Related links

My Bookword review of Invitation to the Waltz by Rosamond Lehmann appears immediately before this post.

Heavenali wrote an excellent review of Dusty Answer last month on her blog. You can read it here.

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Invitation to the Waltz by Rosamond Lehmann

Set in the social milieu of the well-to-do and being saturated with the raw sensitivities of the protagonist, a girl of 17 one might think that Invitation to the Waltz would not appeal to many readers. The main character, Olivia Curtis, is a girl on the cusp of adulthood and about to attend her first important social event – a dance. Nevertheless, for all readers it is an easy book to get into. The structure is simple, and everyone can identify with the awkwardness, doubts and surprises of an important social event.

I thought I had read this book, but I was remembering its sequel Weather in the Streets, which I seem to no longer possess. I enjoyed my first read of Invitation very much, and still have the sequel to reread.

Invitation to the Waltz

Olivia wakes up on her 17rth birthday. The Curtis family are moderately well off and accepted by the high ranking families in the neighbourhood. One of these families is giving a ball in honour of the coming out of their daughter, Matilda, a childhood friend of Olivia and her older sister Kate. The event hangs over the first half of the novel.

In Part 1 we follow Olivia Curtis through her birthday. It turns out, like most birthdays, to be a mixture of anticipation for Olivia and the everyday necessities for everyone else. We are introduced to her family through their presents: a china ornament from her young brother, a roll of flame coloured silk from her parents, money from her uncle, a diary from her sister. She takes the fabric to be made into a dress for the upcoming dance. Olivia is a sensitive young person, meeting with many of the people in the locality, aware the social hierarchies and those who require her consideration. 

However, she lacks confidence in her taste and her judgement about how to deal with people. She finds herself unable to risk offending people, not Mrs Robinson with her grudging and pessimistic tone, relating the same catalogue of complaints every time; not her daughter the seamstress who is not as skilled as Olivia would like in designing the all-important dress, and would rather gossip about their neighbours; not the social outcast Major Skinner with the dubious wife; not even the sweep’s children who shout after her in the street. And she finds herself relieved of her birthday money by a travelling salesgirl against whom she has no defences. 

Part 2 is concerned with the day of the party, and especially with Olivia and Kate as they prepare. One pressing problem has been to acquire at least one partner, and a godson of mother’s is summoned. They are very unsure if he will do the right thing. All the anticipation involving in bathing,  doing one’s hair and dressing … Here Rosemond Lehmann inserts a magical and believable moment. Putting on her new red frock Olivia is dismayed to see that it is terrible.

Uneven hem; armholes too tight; and the draping – when Olivia looked at the clumsy limpish pointless draping a terrible boiling-up, a painful constriction from chest to forehead started to scorch and suffocate her.
‘It simply doesn’t fit anywhere …’ The words burst from her chokingly. ‘It’s the most ghastly – It’s no good. I won’t go looking like a freak. I must simply rip if off and burn it and not go to the dance, that’s all.’ She clutched wildly at the bodice, as if to wrench it from her.
Kate cried suddenly: ‘You’ve got it on back to front!’ (131)

And right way round it will do. Kate is beautiful and wears her clothes with ease.

And in Part 3 (about half the book) we follow Olivia at her first dance with all its awkwardness, false starts, gaps in her dance programme and uncoordinated partners. She has hoped that Tony Heriot will remember her and her evening will end in his arms and in happiness. But it is Kate he has eyes for.

Olivia wanders around the assembly, being introduced to a very awkward young man who claims to be a poet and behaves badly to her. And has to be rescued from a creepy old man – an ‘old fogey’ – who dances with all the young ladies. Marigold confides to Olivia that she calls him ‘a dirty old man’. And finally Timmy, about whom Marigold warns her in an inaudible whisper, so Olivia must find out for herself that he is in fact blind. She escapes to the terrace where Rollo, Marigold’s handsome older brother is also escaping the fray and he takes her to the library where his father shows her rare books and she begins to enjoy herself, contrasting the warmth of the library to the unreal world of the dance. 

By the end of the evening, Olivia has made the transition to adulthood, been a little scarred and hurt but also complemented. And she is aware that Kate is moving on and she herself has learned more about adults and their fragilities than one would want for a girl of 17.

Rosamond Lehmann

The author lived until she was 89 (born 1901 died 1990). She was brought up in Buckinghamshire, her father a Liberal MP and her family high achievers in the Arts. She was first educated at home and then won a scholarship to Girton College, Cambridge, graduating in English Literature and in Languages. 

Her first novel Dusty Answer was a best seller, and she never achieved such financial or popular success again. It was considered scandalous, to have been written by a sex maniac. She was able to escape from her first marriage with the income from it and went on to write six more novels, a play and some short stories. Invitation to the Waltz was her third novel. She had two children in her second marriage, but when her daughter died of polio in 1958 her life took a new direction. She became interested in psychic matters.

Invitation to the Waltz by Rosamond Lehmann, first published in 1932 and republished in the Virago Modern Classics in 1981, which I used for this post. 301pp

Comments on two other blogs

Heavenali reread The Invitation to the Waltz in 2012 and in her post noted how Rosamond Lehmann draws attention to class differences in 1920s English society.

In 2016 Tredynas Days also reviewed the novel, looking in particular at the work done by descriptions of clothes. It’s an interesting and effective approach.

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The Magic Toyshop by Angela Carter

It was more than a little shocking in the 1960s that this novel began with a 15 year old’s awakening sexuality, and a girl’s at that. Angela Carter was excellent at shocking people into questioning their assumptions, and she certainly did this in The Magic Toyshop.

It was her second novel, first published 1967, and reissued by Virago in 1981. This is my choice for the 1960s in the Decades Project 2020 (see below). Feminism is being openly canvassed from this decade which can be seen in the emergence of new writing by women.

The Magic Toyshop

Melanie (15) has lived a comfortable life with well-off parents, a younger brother (Jonathon 12 who is mad on model shops) and Victoria (5 but still babied). At the start of the novel their parents are absent in America. Melanie discovers her mother’s wedding dress and tries it on one evening and exults in its sensuality. The dress is ruined when she is locked out and has to climb back in up a pear tree. When her parents are killed in the Grand Canyon she sees herself as responsible.

The children are sent to live in London with their Uncle Philip who carves toys in wood and who runs the toyshop. They soon find that the household is larger than they knew: he has married Margaret, who became mute at her marriage. That is such a powerful image. Her two brothers also live in the house above the toyshop, and Finn is apprenticed to the toymaker. Francie is a fiddler. 

Phillip is a patriarchal bully. He believes girls should not wear trousers or speak unless spoken to. His word is law, and he browbeats all the household. His passion is to make nearly life-size puppets and to enact playlets with these. The only audience is the household. 

The Freudian undercurrents are many. One of the enactments is the swan’s rape of Leda, played by Melanie. To look smart Margaret wears an unflattering grey dress and a silver choker made by her husband.

The dress fell straight from her shoulders to a hem mid-way down her shins in a long, vertical line. It fitted her badly, barely skimming her body and catching on her bony hips. It was difficult to imagine she bought the dress on purpose, had one fine day long past go into a shop and tried on dress after dress and, finally, taking this grey and unbecoming tube of cloth from a rack laden with many-coloured garments, slipped it over her head, examined herself fore and aft in the changing room mirror, smiled with pleasure, clapped her hands in approval and said to herself: ‘This is lovely, this is the very thing,’ while a curled, perfumed salesgirl hovered, saying: ‘But it’s perfectly you madam.’ (111-112)

The choker is designed to fulfil its function if she moves too much. ‘It was heavy, crippling and precious …’ (112). 

The story follows the developing relationship between Finn and Melanie, as they observe how Philip treats each of them: physical abuse for Finn and neglect and then sexual abuse for Melanie. The two take tentative steps towards their own relationship, and find strength with each other to finally rebel.

At night, in the garden, they faced each other in a wild surmise. (200)

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. Even the title has an ambiguity or two: a commercial venture that is magical, simultaneously of the adult and the juvenile worlds. The title also indicates that this is not a story of social realism. It’s powerful, rich and very imaginative. 

I loved its magic, its sensuality and the creative way in which abusive behaviour is revealed and gets its comeuppance.

Angela Carter

Angela Carter (1940 – 1992) was born in Eastbourne, UK. She spent some of her childhood with her grandmother in Yorkshire as an evacuee. After school she followed her father into journalism, and then, having married and moved to Bristol, went to Bristol University. 

She left her husband and began travelling, spending two years in Tokyo, and visiting other parts of the world. She returned to write professionally, novels, short stories, articles, as an editor and translator and in TV, film and radio. 

Her biographer Edmund Gordon refers to her ‘subversive intelligence’ which  contrasted with the sober social realists who dominated fiction in the ‘60s in the UK. She continued to write, combining  her taste for playful, gothic, humorous, science fiction, fairy tales, and fantastical surrealism. 

She was not a joiner, but energetically pursued her individual values and beliefs in her writing. Edmund Gordon suggests that she has been subjected to mythmaking since her early death, and I think I have been afraid of reading her work because of the myths. The Magic Toyshop has changed my mind. She has so much to say still today. 

See also: 

Angela Carter: A Portrait in Postcards by Susannah Clapp on her website: www.angelacarter.co.uk

The Invention of Angela Carter by Edmund Gordon (2017)

The Magic Toyshop by Angela Carter, first published in 1967. Virago Modern Classic edition released in 1981, which is the edition I used. 200 pp

The Decades Project 2020

This year I am exploring previously published novels by women. I am 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. This collection reproduces an extract from one hundred books, one published in each year of the century and reissued by Virago. My choices include rereads, classics and some new discoveries. 

The most recent  choices for the project are

Passing by Nella Larsen (1929)

Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston (1937) 

A Stricken Field by Martha Gellhorn (1940)

The Dud Avocado by Elaine Dundy (1958)

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The Street by Ann Petry

For some groups of people the American Dream has always been a lie. And for some of them it’s a nightmare. In the 40s if you were a single mother, black, living in New York you were at the bottom of the bottom of the heap. In The Street Ann Petry describes the life of the urban poor, revealing the tensions that existed for them all and how their hopes and intentions were blasted. 

The Street

New York, during the Second World War, a young single mother moves into a few rooms on 116th Street in Harlem. She has left her husband, who was unfaithful while she was away working and moved away also from her father and his girlfriend who showed little care for the boy. Lutie Johnson has brought her son, Bub, who is eight, to live here. 

Lutie wants to make a better life for herself and the boy and has already studied and worked hard and saved to get this far. She believes that the street is no more than a staging post. She has to leave Bub alone so much he is taken under the wing by the vengeful Super of the block, Mr Jones. Everyone in the street is hustling to get something from everyone else. There’s Mrs Hedges, who keep a brothel and offers Lutie work. She is the white man Junta’s right hand woman and protects Lutie for his benefit. 

It amused her to watch the brawling, teeming, lusty life that roared past her window. She knew so much about this particular block that she came to regard it as slightly different from any other place. When she referred to it as ‘the street,’ her lips seemed to linger over the words as though her mind paused at the sound to write capital letters and then enclosed the words in quotation marks – thus setting it off and separating it from any other street in the city, giving it an identity, unmistakable and apart.

Looking out of the window was good for business, too. There were always lonesome, sad-looking girls just up from the South, or little girls who were tired of going to high school, and who had seen too many movies and didn’t have the money to buy all the things they wanted. (231)

Then there’s Min who lives with the Super, but their relationship becomes vitriolic and violent. She seeks the help of a root doctor to keep him from throwing her out. Although in the end she leaves him. And the school teacher, a white woman who hates the children. And the girl Mary who work for Mrs Hedges and falls for a sailor. 

Lutie reflects on the situation she finds herself in.

Streets like the one she lived on were no accident. They were the North’s lynch mobs, she thought bitterly; the method the big cities used to keep Negroes in their place. And she began thinking of Pop unable to get a job; of Jim slowly disintegrating because he, too, couldn’t get a job, and of the subsequent wreck of their marriage; of Bub left to his own devices after school. From the time she was born, she had been hemmed into an ever-narrowing space, until now she was very nearly walled in and the wall had been built up brick by brick by eager white hands. (297)

Lutie has maintained a faith in the American Dream up to this point. If she can just work hard enough, or sing for the band, or save enough money, she and Bub can get out of the street and into a better life. No good will come of Lutie’s efforts. She is a single woman who is black, so at the bottom of every heap and considered fair game by many. Everyone wants to take something from Lutie. But in the end she she commits a grievous crime, abandons Bub to juvenile detention and escapes from the street and the city. The world will close over her brief stay in this street. The reader has a strong sense that Lutie will find herself in a different but similar street again soon.

Underlying all the action is the difficulty for black men to find work, or work that is not demeaning. The Superintendent of the block is black, but he is half crazy with being inside all the time. Boots, who leads a band, and is a fixer for Junta, has worked as a Pullman Car porter, resenting being at the beck and call of every person, and being called ‘Boy!’

Although Lutie is the main character, we are given a good look at many of the people she meets, and to understand how they are also caught by the other people on the street. The street is any street. The tragedy written into the story from the outset is more than Lutie’s tragedy. Hustle, give in, fight back, there are opportunities to do all of these. But in the end the street is a dead end. For everyone.

I originally chose this novel for the Decades Project, for the 1940s. I was so impressed by A Stricken Field by Martha Gellhorn that The Street will not be included. The Street was the first novel of the black American female writer Ann Petry, published in America in 1946. It is highly recommended.

Other Blog Reviews

A Life in Books blog reviewed it in January. She regrets that the novel is still relevant today. You can find it here.

Heavenali says that the novel is compelling and devastating and praises Virago for reissuing it, here.

The Street by Ann Petry, first published in 1946 and by Virago in 1986 and reissued with a smart new cover in 2019. 403pp

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A Stricken Field by Martha Gellhorn

My god she was angry. Martha Gellhorn was most angry about Spain, where she had been reporting on the Civil War. But she became angry about the Allies’ betrayal of Czechoslovakia in 1938 which she had visited earlier in the year. She had seen the determination of the Czechs to fight the German ambitions for Sudetenland. On returning after the Munich Agreement in September she found that Germany had taken Sudetenland and more as it increased control over the country.

Annexation of Sudetenland 1938

Martha Gellhorn knew what she was writing about, knew that the expansion of Germany into Czechoslovakia after Munich, would be the start of something terrible in Europe. The book is critical of French and British policy towards Hitler’s ambitions. She called Chamberlain’s approach ‘kid-glove fascism’.

How horrible, fantastic, incredible it is that we should be digging trenches and trying on gas-masks here because of a quarrel in a far-away country between people of whom we know nothing. 
[Chamberlain‘s Speech on Radio on 27th September 1938, before he flew to Munich.

‘Peace in Our Time’ – Munich Agreement 1938

Her book warned of the Gestapo methods, and the despair of the refugee Germans, Jews and other ‘undesirables’ who had found sanctuary in Czechoslovakia, and of the Czechs who opposed Germany’s annexation.

A Stricken Field was the first novel of the American correspondent Martha Gellhorn. It was published in America in 1940, and in London in 1942. With this choice for the Decades Project 2020 (see below) we enter another dark period of the Twentieth Century.

A Stricken Field

By the time Mary [Martha] arrived in Prague the country had become a stricken field, a field that has been the scene of a battle, in this case a battle that had not even been fought.

There were young knights among them who had never been present at a stricken field. Some could not look upon it and some could not speak and they held themselves apart from the others who were cutting down the prisoners at my Lord’s orders, for the prisoners were a body too numerous to be guarded by those who were left. Then Jean de Rye, an aged knight of Burgundy who had been wounded in the battle, rode up to the group of young knights and said, “Are ye maidens with your downcast eyes? Look well upon it. See all of it. Close your eyes to nothing. For a battle is fought to be won. And it is this that happens if you lose.” 
[from a Medieval Chronicle, quoted at the start of the book]

As an American correspondent she was privileged to witness, but also powerless, even when she had information. The novel follow Mary Douglas in Prague as she becomes incensed by the betrayal of the people of Czechoslovakia and the danger to the German refugees there. 

Through her friendship with Rita, a German refugee who has been living in Prague, she sees the worsening situation, the people who have become homeless, stateless, and without protection except for underground organisations such as Rita’s. Peter, Rita’s partner is another Germany activist, part of the communist party and he also assists refugees. He is picked up by the Gestapo. 

Mary tries to obtain a small amount of leeway for the refugees who have been ordered to leave immediately and have nowhere to go. She uses her position to get access to the British Commissioner for Refugees of the Society of Nations, Lord Balham, and a French general who has resigned his commission , shocked by the way in which his country abandoned their Czech allies. They fail in their combined attempts to get the Czech prime minister to grant more time. Despite being the stuff of thrillers this incident is based in real events. The French general comforts Mary:

“There is never one injustice alone, but always many others which follow naturally. If you live, you will see many  more and worse. And if you live long enough, you will see it change.” (197)

But Rita is lost because she has no spirit left after her partner Peter is tortured. Mary prepares to leave and is asked by an unknown woman to take evidence of atrocities with her. 

It is not just a bundle of papers that I am going to have an awful time hiding. It is the proof that everyone is not beaten yet. (285)

She considers her role. Should she carry these papers out to Paris? What good will it do? We already know that she does, because we are reading the novel. But the question that lingers is – so what difference did it make? What difference can truth-telling make? Events moved on. The Munich Agreement was consigned to critical history, Germany took over Europe and millions died. No wonder she was angry. And although we know that it is important that truth is spoken, that people do not give up, we are also reminded that there will be dark and terrible days.

Martha Gellhorn

She was an extraordinary woman, and a brave one. She was the only correspondent to land on D Day in Normandy, having hidden herself in a hospital ship. She had been in Spain, Czechoslovakia, Paris and London and reported on the war from all these places.

The novel shifts points of view, and is not entirely satisfactory in its construction. But the burning fury of author is evident. Peter, Rita and Czechoslovakia succumb, but the foreign correspondent flies out to Paris. She can still write. I found it very powerful. 

A Stricken Field by Martha Gellhorn (1940) Chicago University edition. 314 pp. It was published in the Virago Modern Classics series in 1986.

The Decades Project 2020

This year I am indulging my pleasure at rereading and discovering previously published novels. I am 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. This collection reproduces an extract from one hundred books, one published in each year of the century and reissued by Virago. My choices include rereads, classics and some new discoveries. 

The first four choices for the project were

My Brilliant Career by Miles Franklin (1901)

Mary Olivier: A Life by May Sinclair (1919)

Passing by Nella Larsen (1929)

Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston (1937) 

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The House on the Strand by Daphne du Maurier

Daphne du Maurier is a highly respected writer. Her novels are much enjoyed by readers whose opinions I admire. Her reputation rests largely on Rebecca, a novel she published in 1938. Through the brooding good looks of Laurence Olivier and the happy fortune of Hitchcock’s film (1940) this writer has remained very popular. I think her reputation today is based on that film, and especially upon the creepy character of Mrs Danvers. The novel has a slightly different plot denouement from the film. I find it difficult to enjoy a book that depends on the reader’s sympathy for a murderer. I wrote about this here.

So what to choose for the Daphne du Maurier reading week, organised by HeavenAli for 11-17th May? I had a choice of four novels which had been on my mother’s shelves. I asked for help from book-tweeters and back came the recommendation for The House on the Strand. 

My choice for the Daphne du Maurier Reading Week 2020

I experienced nostalgia as I read it, a nostalgia based on the smell of the pages, and the appearance of the browning pages. This was one of those regular arrivals from the World Book Club. Sight, feel and smell all brought back my teens, reading from among these books in the school holidays. Katherine by Anya Seton (1954) was another, as was Dr Zhivago by Boris Pasternak (1957) and Catch-22 by Joseph Heller (1961). The House on the Strand fits right in, published in 1969.

The House on the Strand

Richard Young, our hero and narrator, is staying in a house in Cornwall near Par. He is on his own, the house having been lent by his great friend the biophysicist Professor Magnus Lane. But his American wife and two stepsons will join him in a few days.

Dick has agreed to undergo an experiment for Magnus, which pitches him back in time to the early 1300s amongst the families of the district, and particularly beside one man, Roger, who is steward to one of the rich women. Dick returns several times to this world, coming to see it as more interesting. Gradually he becomes obsessed with it and would rather be in that world than with his wife in the present day. 

The reader follows Dick in his first experience of taking the drug. He finds himself in a vivid medieval world, full of politics, passion and underhand doings centred on the local gentry. The setting of the novel is vividly realised, the place names link old and current names, the tides and other topographical details are exploited. For example, a man is killed because in his consciousness he is on an empty hillside, but physically he is on a railway track still in the current day.

At each visit to the past Dick finds himself a little further on with the story he has been witnessing, especially as it concerns the beautiful and adulterous Isolde. There is a suspicious death, a brutal murder, community events and eventually a visit by the Black Death. 

As for Dick, he has severely endangered his own marriage, and put his health in jeopardy too. The doctor who treats him suggests that there is a Freudian explanation for what he has experienced, but aspects of it are not accounted for by this theory. 

Daphne du Maurier

Born in 1907 Daphne du Maurier lived a long and productive life, writing many novels as well as short stories and plays. Most of her life was spent in Cornwall, where she died in 1989 at Fowey. From 1965 she lived in Kilmarth, the house on the strand. 

She is usually characterised as a romantic novelist and there are often dark shadows of the paranormal in her plots. Although there is a fair amount of pseudo-science to explain the drug and its time-travelling effects, enough for one reviewer to claim it falls into the science fiction genre, the drug’s effects are more mystical especially as the traveller is not physically present in the medieval world, and experiences bad reactions when he touches a person from the past, including being catapulted back into the present. She is also famed for her ambiguous endings, the calculated irresolution. In this novel it is unclear what the lasting physical effects of Dick’s misadventures will be.

What are we to make of this book? She seems to be implying that drugs that mess with your brain are damaging. This was the time when LSD was becoming widely known and used. Or was she suggesting that science was getting out of hand? There is an eccentric professor to create the drug complete with a basement laboratory where monkeys’ heads are kept in jars along with phials labelled A, B and C.

Any ideas of class are completely ignored. Apart from Mrs Collins the benevolent housekeeper (an antidote to Mrs Danvers) all the characters are firmly in the well-to-do bracket. Dick’s wife is a widowed American who brings two step-sons and ambitious plans for Dick to emigrate to a job in the USA. And in the medieval period all the main players are people of substance, engaged in local and national battles for power.

It was hard to have sympathy for any character. Dick is weak and manipulatable; Vita is too energetic and has beastly friends; Magnus creates the concoction that initiates the whole mess and then disappears; and the bloodletting among the medieval characters, the jockeying for positions, the unpleasant relationships, none of these characters are sympathetic. Roger, a steward, who is the main character that Dick always follows has the redeeming feature of loyalty to his employer. But even he switches employer.

So …?

I am not much impressed by this book. It seems dated to me in its class assumptions, its focus and the narrative was hard to follow with all the place names (the all begin with Tre-) and the family names. Unless another blogger in this reading week manages to convince me, I think I shall leave the rest of Daphne Du Maurier’s oeuvre on the shelves.

What did you think of it?

Heavenali loved it and she has a much more positive review on her site than I have posted here. Happy Birthday!

The House on the Strand by Daphne du Maurier (1969) I read my mother’s hardback edition from World Book Club. 285pp. Virago Modern Classics published an edition in 2003

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Excellent Women and A Glass of Blessings by Barbara Pym

Prompted by praise on a Backlisted podcast, I revisited Barbara Pym and read two of her novels in succession. She is an excellent observer of small social groups, and her main characters are curious about other characters in their circles. This makes for lively rather than dramatic scenes in her novels. It is probably for this kind of social observation she has been compared with Jane Austen. If you haven’t experienced her writing yet I recommend you start with Excellent Women or Quartet in Autumn.

Excellent Women

Written immediately after the Second World War and published in 1952, Excellent Women was Pym’s second novel. The drabness, the greyness of that time, especially of food, clothing and décor are well captured. But people went on behaving in interesting and sometimes unexpected ways. This is observed by the narrator Mildred Lathbury. Although she appears to be a repressed spinster, we soon realise that she is more than she seems for she had been in censorship during the war

Mildred Lathbury is 31, single, and lives on her own after the death of her parents (father a clergyman), and her school friend Dora’s decision to leave their shared rooms to pursue a career in teaching. Mildred’s days are spent working in a charity for impoverished gentlewomen in the morning and attending to church matters, jumble sales, flower arranging, and such matters in the afternoon. She is one of those excellent dependable women, whose lives are considered to be at everyone’s disposal because they are single. 

Into this settled life come Rocky and Helena, moving into the flat below her. Helena is an anthropologist and Rocky has recently come out of the navy where his job seemed to be to manage an admiral’s social life by being nice to Wrens in Italy. Rocky is attractive and charming but the couple are not happy. Also unsettling is the news that, Allegra Grey has moved into the spare rooms in the rectory and has quickly becomes engaged to the priest, Father Malory. 

All these people make demands upon Mildred, and they all make assumptions about her. She navigates through, keeping as far as possible to the morally right path as well as trying to correct false assumptions. It is assumed that Mildred has always wanted to marry Julian Malory. They all assume that they can make demands upon her. Mildred is clearly an excellent woman, so she will undertake these tasks efficiently: writing letters, dealing with tradesmen, comforting the bereaved and so forth.

Even as Mildred is being put upon it is clear that she has trouble saying no, and towards the end one wishes she would. But her observations about the behaviour of others are precise and frequently amusing and depend on them treating her as an ‘excellent’ woman. 

I suppose an unmarried woman just over thirty, who lives alone and has no apparent ties, must expect to find herself involved or interested in other people’s business, and if she is also a clergyman’s daughter then one might really say that there is no hope for her. (1)

‘This may sound a cynical thing to say, but don’t you think men sometimes leave difficulties to be solved by other people or to solve themselves?’ (231) 

I wondered that she should waste so much energy fighting over a little matter like wearing a hat in chapel, but then I told myself that, after all, life was like that for most of us – the small unpleasantnesses rather than the great tragedies, the little useless longings rather than the great renunciations and dramatic love affairs of history or fiction. (123)

There are many good comic scenes and characterfs, perhaps the best is the awful Mrs Bone with her hatred of birds, which she devours with the enthusiasm of vengeance achieved, and her silent companion.

A Glass of Blessings

This was Barbara Pym’s fifth novel, published in 1958. For some it is their favourite, but I found it much less interesting than Excellent Women. This probably has a lot to do with the main characters. Wilmet is very different from Mildred. She is about 30, was a Wren in the Italy and married a major, now a Civil Servant. She does not work, or occupy herself with household matters (they live with their mother in law) and nor does she have any interests beyond herself and nosiness about others. She does share with Mildred an interest in the Church, Catholic but not Roman.

With no paid work, hobbies, occupations or housework Wilmet is attentive to what goes on in the clergy house, with the new priest who is in danger of going over to Rome, and with their housekeeping arrangements. She also becomes preoccupied with her best friend’s brother, Piers, and she fancies that he is in love with her. Also the same friend’s husband pays her improper attention. These minor flirtations are about self-regard, and (a bit like Emma) Wilmet is rather surprised to find that Piers is gay and the handsome new priest will marry the very dowdy Mary and her mother-in-law will remarry and want the house they currently share for herself and the professor. 

The title indicates that Barbara Pym wants the reader to see that whatever one’s circumstances life is full of interest and ‘blessings’. Wilmet thinks that, ‘perhaps it always had been without my realising it.’ (p277)  The title comes from a line in a  George Herbert poem, The Pulley. The blessings of the poem are strength, beauty, wisdom, honour, pleasure and, left in the bottom of the glass, rest.

Barbara Pym

She lived from 1913-1980 and was successful with her early fiction, such as these two novels. But her publisher dropped her in 1963 because she wasn’t modern enough and her reputation languished. It was revived when Philip Larkin and Lord David Cecil both nominated her as the most under-rated author in 1977 in the TLS

She knew much of what she wrote about, for example she had been a Wren in Italy in the war. She never married or had children, so perhaps she knew what it was to be seen as an excellent woman. She observed closely small lives, noted important and telling details, and could communicate the gap between what was said and what was meant with sympathy. 

Today she is considered one of the great English novelists of the post-war period. A podcast by Backlisted team was released soon after I completed this post about this book and Barbara Pym. It is very enjoyable and the knowledge that it was on its way was the stimulus to my rereading of Excellent Women. . 

Excellent Women by Barbara Pym, first published in 1952 and reissued as a Virago Modern Classics in 2008. 288pp

A Glass of Blessings by Barbara Pym first published in 1958 and reissued by Virago Modern Classics in 2009. 277pp

Related posts

Three reviews of Excellent Women can be found on these blogs.

JacquiWine’s Journal

Tredynas Days

Vulpes Libris

Quartet in Autumn by Barbara Pym from the older women in fiction series on Bookword.

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Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston

It was the title that I had first noticed, although I can’t remember when. It took up residence in my consciousness as a book that I should read. Had I read anything else by the author Zora Neale Hurston? Nothing at all. But I was aware that she was a woman, black and American. And I was aware that this book in particular was recommended by readers I admire. So this was an obvious choice for the Decades Project.

Their Eyes Were Watching God was published in 1937 and is the third book in the Decades Project for 2020 (see below for more details), from the decade 1930-1939 highlighted in the Virago collection called Brilliant Careers.

Their Eyes Were Watching God

At the start of Their Eyes Were Watching God Janie returns home to Eatonville, Florida, and the town is agog to hear what has happened to her third marriage, this time to Tea Cake. Everyone assumes that he has dumped her because she is older than him. But this is not the case as we find out. The novel is framed as the story that Janie tells her best friend Pheoby about her life and three marriages.

As a child she was brought up by her grandmother, who had been born a slave. Like other women who had been slaves, she had a child by a white man and she has brought the child up on her own. The daughter, Janie’s mother had her own child, Janie, by Lord knows who. She disappeared leaving the grandmother to raise Janie. The grandmother decides when Janie is in her teens that it is time for her to marry and packs her off to her first husband, Logan, who is a farmer who simply wants her to work for him.

She is rescued by the smart-talking Joe Starks who is determined to make something of himself and has been doing well in Georgia. Now he is on his way to a town in Florida.

But he was making money where he was. But when he heard all about ‘em makin’ a town all outa colored folks, he knowed dat was de place he wanted to be. He had always wanted to be a big voice, but de white folks had all de sayso where he come from and everywhere else, exceptin’ dis place dat colored folk was buildin’ theirselves. (37-8)

The two leave Logan’s farm, get married and travel to Eatonville, where Joe sets up a store and becomes its first mayor and becomes rich. Although Joe treats Janie better than Logan had, he stifles her, wanting to possess her, to make of her what he wants. In the end she finds it oppressive.

But Joe dies, too stubborn to seek medical help and after his death Janie becomes a woman of substance. She meets and falls for sweet-talking, kind Tea Cake. They can’t quite believe they love each other. He treats her right, and she loves him. They marry and move to the Glades, and for the first time Janie feels valued and loved and is able to feel she can do what she wishes. But their lives are disrupted by a Hurricane. This is a vivid episode, and the title is taken from the moment when the wind begins to blow.

The wind came back with triple fury, and put out the light for the last time. They sat in company with the others in their shanties, their eyes straining against crude walls and their souls asking if He meant to measure their puny weight against His. They seemed to be staring at the dark, but their eyes were watching God. (211-212)

The friendly community is destroyed and Tea Cake dies. This too is vividly described, as is Janie’s anguish. She returns home with her story.

‘Now, dat’s how everything was, Pheoby, jus’ lak Ah told yuh. So Ah’m home again and Ah’m satisfied tuh be heah. Ah done been tuh de horizon and back and now Ah kin set heah in mah house and live by comparisons.’ (256-257)  

Janie imparts her hard-earned wisdom to Pheoby, able to rest in the knowledge that while her three marriages were different, Tea Cake had enabled her to reach the horizon. 

Zora Neale Hurston

The author was born in Alabama in 1891 and raised in Eatonville itself. She died in Florida in 1960. Her grandparents had been slaves, but she was able to make the best of new opportunities becoming available in the 20s and ‘30s. Her name is often associated with the Harlem Renaissance (as was Nella Larsen’s, the subject of the previous choice in this series). She was not able to access higher education in her late teens so later she took ten years off her chronological age and entered college, becoming a noted anthropologist. She was also a teacher as well as a writer.

Their Eyes was her second novel and she had already published short stories. It is told in a mixture of phonetic colloquialisms or dialect and more conventional narrative style as can be seen from the quotations. This allows her to invent some excellent words and use turns of phrase that are enchanting. I thought I might find it difficult to read, but I soon got used to the rhythms and heard some of the voices in a slightly more authentic way. 

Janie’s story can be seen as the triumphant acquisition of a voice by a black woman. In her early years and first two marriages she had no voice, but with Tea Cake and after his death she was able to speak for herself. Its appeal is universal and, as Zadie Smith points out in her introduction, it is a novel of soulfulness.

Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston, first published in 1937and then as a Virago Modern Classic in 1986. 259pp  The latest edition is introduced by Zadie Smith and has an afterword by Shirley Anne Williams.

The Decades Project 2020

This year I am indulging my pleasure at rereading and discovering previously published novels. I am 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. This collection reproduces an extract from one hundred books, one published in each year of the century and reissued by Virago. My choices include rereads, classics and some new discoveries. 

The first three choices for the project were

My Brilliant Career by Miles Franklin (1901)

Mary Olivier: A Life by May Sinclair (1919)

Passing by Nella Larsen (1929)

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Our Spoons Came from Woolworths by Barbara Comyns

The world is a little out of kilter at the moment. A novel by Barbara Comyns seemed an ideal choice for the times. But although other books by her have very odd almost magical properties, this one, Our Spoons Came from Woolworths, is more straight forward than her later novels.

This is by no means the first of her books that I have reviewed on Bookword. You can find links to the others below.

Our Spoons Came from Woolworths

The central theme of this novel is poverty and the misery it causes. Here are the opening sentences of the novel, reassuring us that her story is grim but got better.

I told Helen my story and she went home and cried. In the evening her husband came to see me and brought some strawberries, he mended my bicycle, too, and was kind, but he needn’t have been, because it all happened eight years ago, and I’m not unhappy now. (1)

She frames the book as the story she told Helen, mentioning the importance of Sandro, how she regrets ‘lovely little Fanny’ and remembering ‘Charles’s white pointed face’. 

Having married another artist, Charles, very young and impetuously, Sophie lives in Bohemian London in the 1930s, in poverty. Her husband comes across as a selfish man, putting his own wants above others’, so she has to earn pennies sitting for artists while he stays at home and paints. There is no suggestion he should do the housework and cooking except as a favour. 

Sophie becomes pregnant which means she has to give up her work as a model. It also means that she has to endure childbirth in a charity hospital. The presence of their son, Sandro, puts a great deal of pressure on their finances and on their marriage. Charles’s family say that she is selfish to have a child and expect support from Charles. 

Their relationship, deteriorates and she begins an affair with the sleazy older art critic, Peregrine Narrow. She has a second child Fanny, fathered by Peregrine, but this child dies of scarlet fever just as Sophie leaves Charles and she has to stay in hospital to recover from the disease. This is her lowest point and Sophie only begins to recover when she finds a job as a cook for a farming family. She and Sandro live happily in the country for three years. It is here that she meets Rollo, another artist, and they live happily ever after.

Some of the most shocking passages concern the relatives who look after Sandro during a period of difficulty. They are Charles’s relatives and their strict rules are in contrast to the haphazard way in which he has previously been brought up. It proves hard to rescue him as Sophie rarely has the money for the fare.

In one sense this is a novel about a young woman gaining control over her own actions and decisions.

There is plenty in this novel about the lack of a public health service and the provision for people in poverty, expectations of women in marriage, child care and London in the 1930s.

Barbara Comyns

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

She knew about poverty and insecurity. There is a strange note on the copyright page:

The only things that are true in this story are the wedding and chapters 10, 11 and 12 and the poverty.

Chapters 10-12 are the ones set in the charity hospital and describe Sandro’s birth. Childbirth was not a subject dealt with in much detail in fiction at the time.

Then I was enveloped in a terrific sea of pain, and I heard myself shouting in an awful snoring kind of voice. Then they gave me something to smell and the pain dimmed a little. The pain started to grow again, but I didn’t seem to mind. I suddenly felt so interested in what was happening. The baby was really coming now and there it was between my legs. I could feel it moving and there was a great tugging in my tummy where it was still attached to me. Then I heard it cry, so I knew it was alive and I was able to relax. Perhaps I went to sleep. (52) 

Emily Gould in the Paris Review (in October 2015) suggests that her writing style was deliberately destabilising. There is a simplicity to her writing, but it has a dark side and more complexity that is largely masked. It was intended to knock the reader off balance. Perhaps it is a suitable book for our time, after all.

Our Spoons Came from Woolworths by Barbara Comyns first published in 1950 and republished as a Virago Modern Classic. I used the 2013 edition with an introduction by Maggie O’Farrell. 196pp

Other books by Barbara Comyns reviewed on Bookword

Here are links to reviews of some of her other books:

Who was Changed and Who was Dead (1954)

The Vet’s Daughter (1959)

The Juniper Tree (1985)

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