Tag Archives: Virago Modern Classics

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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My Brilliant Career by Miles Franklin

My Brilliant Career, written by 16-year-old Stella Maria Sarah Miles Franklin and published in 1901, is the start of a new series on the blog. This precocious writer grew up in New South Wales and knew something of the hardship of pioneer life. The title is ironic, the career of her main character, Sybylla, like her own, was not brilliant at the end of the novel.

Welcome to the Bookword 2020 Decades Project. This year I return to adult fiction and to my pleasure at rereading and discovering previously published novels. To shape my choices I am using 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. I will choose one from each decade every month. My choices will include rereads, classics and some new discoveries. I hope you enjoy this as much as I plan to.

My Brilliant Career

Sybylla’s story forms the narrative thread of this novel, told in the first person. Her circumstances change dramatically several times before she is 18, starting with the idyll of her early life in the bushlands, the family’s decline due to her father’s dissolution. The poverty that the family endure on a selection, trying to run a dairy farm, is grinding and Sybylla escapes when her grandmother invites her to live in her house, Caddigat. Here she meets Henry Beecham, who is as good a man as any and they are attracted to each other. But Sybylla refuses to commit to marrying him, preferring to retain her freedom. 

Her mother soon requires her to work as a governess to a family who have lent her father some money. She leaves the comfort of her grandmother’s house and takes up her position. But she finds the conditions too awful and has a breakdown. She returns home and Henry follows her, vowing he still wants her. She tells him that she does not want the servitude of marriage. She wants a brilliant career!

The main driver for this story is how this uppity, not beautiful young girl will evade or succumb to marriage. Her mother, aunt and grandmother all pressure her to make the best marriage she can. Her grandmother makes her views very clear, as here when she responds to a young man suggestion that Sybylla has the talent for a career on the stage.

‘Career! That’s all girls think of now, instead of being good wives and mothers and attending to their homes and doing what God intended. All they think of is gadding about and being fast, and ruining themselves body and soul. And the men are as bad to encourage them.’ (64)

Soon after Sybylla explains to her grandmother why she has rejected an offer of marriage.

‘… I would not marry him or any one like him although he were the King of England. The idea of marriage  even with the best man in the world seems to me a lowering thing,’ I raged; ‘but with hum it would be pollution – the lowest degradation that could be heaped upon me! I will never come down to marry any one –‘ here I fell victim to a flood of excited tears. (72)

It seems surprising to me that a sixteen year old writer dared to put these thoughts into the mouth of another young woman in 1901. This sentiment was hardly expressed until much later in the century I believe. At times Sybylla’s life is very hard, but she is never tempted to escape the drudgery of a woman’s lot in Australia in the 1890s by making a favourable marriage.

Another theme is the grinding difficulty of surviving, as a family and as an individual. One’s standing in the community matters and is guided by known truths (eg that women will marry or that a clean home is a godly home). Assistance when necessary comes from community and family although no one has much to spare. Another notable feature of the book is the political implication of the struggle to make a living in very difficult circumstances. She has a sympathetic reflection on those who pass through Caddagat as tramps, for example.

Sybylla appears to be a headstrong and opinionated girl, who  believes she knows better than those who are more experienced and educated than she is. To some extent she voices every girl’s experience of chafing the norms of girlhood, but Sybylla lives by her principles and will not marry. Her brilliant career was nowhere in sight at the conclusion of the book. Miles Franklin never missed an opportunity to send up her protagonist’s ambitions and failure to achieve them.

Stella Maria Sarah Miles Franklin

Google Doddle 2014

Miles Franklin was born in New South Wales in 1879. She lived a long life, publishing many novels before she died in 1954. My Brilliant Career was assumed to be her autobiography and she refused to allow it to be republished following its first reception. She went to America and Britain before returning to Australia in 1932. She never married. 

This is not a sophisticated novel. The storyline follows the history of the writer, written with a great deal of energy and brashness. According to the introduction by Carmen Callil, the author said that she ‘conceived and tossed it off in a matter of weeks’. I am tempted to describe the writing and the main character as ‘spirited’, but I am conscious that only girls get described in this way. 

In her later life Miles Franklin encouraged other writers and especially Australian writers. She left a bequest that initiated the Miles Franklin Award in 1957. This award is given annually to a work of fiction of high literary merit which promotes Australian life. 

There is a second award in her name: the Stella Award for Australian women writers. 

Two blogs with reviews of My Brilliant Career:

Heavenali reviewed it on her blog in November 2013, noting its extravagant expression.

BookerTalk also reviewed it, in January 2019. She enjoyed it but regrets a tendency for Miles Franklin to get on her soap box in this novel.

The Virago collection: Brilliant Careers: The Virago Book of 20th Century Fiction includes an extract from the opening pages of the book where she describes the excitement of being a girl in the bush with her father.

My Brilliant Career by Miles Franklin, first published in 1901 and published as a Virago Modern Classic in 1980. 232pp

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A Far Cry from Kensington by Muriel Spark

A Far Cry from Kensington is one of Muriel Spark’s later novels, published in 1988. It is set, however, in the 1950s in London. One of the chief pleasures of this short novel is the deft way in which she introduces and deploys so many characters. There are the residents of the boarding house, eight of them including the narrator, Mrs Hawkins. And there are no less than three different workplaces that employ her and their staff and many would-be authors who visit. There are cousins, friends, neighbours, handymen and their wives, printers, priests and visitors and there is Hector Bartlett around whom the action dances. Yet she never looses track, and the reader is never confused and always entertained.

A Far Cry from Kensington

At the start of the novel we are introduced to the inhabitants of the Kensington rooming house, in particular to Milly, the landlady with a big heart, and to Wanda the Polish seamstress. Our narrator Mrs Hawkins still lies awake at night, sometimes thinking about the events she is about to relate. In those days she was everybody’s confidante because she appeared very unthreatening.

I was a war widow, Mrs Hawkins. There was something about me, Mrs Hawkins, that invited confidences. I was abundantly aware of it, and indeed abundance was the impression I gave. I was massive in size, strong-muscled, huge-bosomed, with wide hips, hefty long legs, a bulging belly and a fat backside; I carried an ample weight with my five-foot-six of height, and was healthy with it. It was, of course, partly this physical factor that disposed people to confide in ne. I looked comfortable. (6-7)

But it was exactly this Mrs Hawkins who told Hector Bartlett that he was a pisseur de copie– a very rude way of trying to dissuade him from pressing his awful writing on her. When he tells her that he takes great pains with his prose she comments,

He did indeed. The pains showed. His writings writhed and ached with twists and turns and tergiversations, inept words, fanciful repetitions, far-fetched verbosity, and long, Latin-based words. (44)

[I was unfamiliar with the word tergiversations and had to look it up. It means ambiguities or evasions and is a Latin-based word.]

Hector Bartlett is offended by her description of him and as he is well connected he begins to plot his revenge on her. She looses two jobs in publishing because she refuses to back down from her assessment. The humour turns dark as Hector Bartlett continues his machinations, and at least two people die before the end of the story, and another flees to America.

Reading Muriel Spark

This is my fourth contribution to #ReadingMuriel2018 and I have come to understand that she was a very moral writer. In A Far Cry from Kensington she is concerned with integrity. She shows us the necessity of acting with integrity in one’s life and in one’s work. Many of the people in the novel do not act with integrity: they are fraudsters, con artists, over-indulgent parents, irresponsible young things, manipulated by others and so on. There are also many good people among her characters.

Her depiction of the publishing world in the 1950s, which she knew, reveals how few people care about the written word and how many of them are more concerned with their reputation, connections or just hanging on to their job. Hector (note the name) Bartlett and the people who espouse the radionics Box earn the grief that lands on them. She depicts Radionics as a kind of cult, preying on people’s weaknesses.

In A Far Cry from Kensington Muriel Spark displays a consciousness about writing and good writing in particular. In the first place her main character works in publishing and is happiest editing text and preparing it for publication. Muriel Spark uses this device to offer advice about writing a good story. She suggests it should be undertaken as if writing privately to a friend and without thought of the general public. Not bad advice. And she makes frequent references to the events of the plot which is placed in the past, as if to provide shape and reflection upon the events, as a writer does.

By noting these aspects of the novel I by no means wish to deny the fun and vivacity of this novel. It’s a good read.

More Muriel Spark

This is my fourth contribution to #ReadingMuriel2018, hosted by Heavenali. You will find reviews of Memento Mori, The Girls of Slender Means  and The Abbess of Crewe  on this blog.

A Far Cry from Kensington by Muriel Spark, published in1988. I read the Virago Modern Classics edition 194pp. It has an introduction by Ali Smith.

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So much more than an amusing Provincial Lady – EM Delafield

It would be easy write off EM Delafield as a one-hit wonder. Her most famous work is Diary of a Provincial Lady and it is very funny and very to the point. First published in instalments in the feminist periodical Time & Tide, it has been republished by both Persephone and Virago Books.

EM Delafield is another neglected and underappreciated woman writer. She deserves more recognition especially as she wrote so much more. Consequences is also republished by Persephone Books, and the short story Holiday Group was included in the Persephone Book of Short Stories. This writer still has a great deal to say to us.

Let’s celebrate her 138thbirthday on 9thJune.

E.M. Delafield by Howard Coster. Bromide print 1930s. NPG x 10670. Used under Creative Commons Agreement, with thanks to the National Portrait Gallery.

Consequences by EM Delafield

I chose to read this book because I did not know this writer well enough. It is the earliest of her works that I have now read, published in 1919, just after the end of the First World War. This was the moment when women’s lives were changing, when expectations for women were widening. Consequences is hard to read, kept me awake at night, because the protagonist, Alex, was damaged by her family and her education. In its quiet way this is a feminist novel as well as a tragedy.

Alex Clare is born into an upper-class family, not especially rich, with a catholic father and is the oldest child of 5. She is required to be obedient to Nurse and her parents who hold old-fashioned views about what girls should be, do and look like. She is expected to grow up as they require, come out as a debutante, find a husband and repeat the cycle for her own daughters.

But Alex is not able to follow this trajectory. Not especially beautiful, clever, or able to see what her parents want of her she craves affection, not given at home, and when she causes her younger sister to have an accident she is sent off to a convent in Belgium to be put right. Throughout her life Alex fastens onto people as objects of desire, wanting only their affection. This brings her up against the nuns when she has a ‘pash’ for Queenie Torrance, and later she transfers affection first to Mother Gertrude and then to her sister-in-law.

She tries to get it right, but receives no guidance. Her sisters Barbara and Pamela learn to do what’s expected and embrace it with enthusiasm. Alex does not enjoy the debutante scene in London, resolves her discomfort by becoming engaged, realises that engagement to such a vapid young man would not be right, but runs off to become a nun under the influence of Mother Superior Gertrude.

After 10 years as a nun the Mother Superior is posted to South America and Alex comes to see that again her life has been fixed on the approval of one person. She revokes her vows and returns to London, but is quite incapable of managing for herself. She is 27 years old, has no understanding of what an independent life could or should be.

Endpapers fror Consequences: Thistle, a Liberty Art Fabric, Whitworth Art Gallery, University of Manchester

While one may wish that the wretched and miserable girl had taken some responsibility for her life and for changing it for the better, we are in no doubt that Alex has had no support or guidance of any worth to achieve this. It’s a searing and feminist account of a damaging upbringing. It is hard to read because one can only imagine all the many young women who were as oppressed as Alex.

Consequences by EM Delafield, first published in 1919. Republished by Persephone Books in 2006. 421pp

Holiday Group by EM Delafield

Holiday Group is short story, first published in 1926. Again we read of women’s restricted lives. The Reverend Herbert Cliff-Hay comes into a modest legacy and takes his wife and three young children on holiday. It is a holiday for everyone except his wife, who is exhausted by ensuring that her husband’s ambitions for this rest time are realised. Her name is Constance. He has no idea that it is so bad for her, and indeed EM Delafield deftly shows this, does not tell us.

The Persephone Book of Short Stories, published by Persephone Books in 2012. 427pp

Diary of a Provincial Lady by EM Delafield

In this lively, funny and well-known novel some of the same themes emerge. The protagonist, the provincial lady, has wit, perception and skill as a writer, but the life she portrays is every bit as limited as Alex’s in Consequences or Constance in the short story. Here is a middle class lady living in the provinces (Devon) whose spirit clashes with expectations of social deference and behaviour and rebels against the mundaneness of her domestic life. Here is no self-pity or sentimentality, yet she manages to convey the limits of her life with lively self-deprecation. Here are the opening paragraphs.

November 7th

Plant the indoor bulbs. Just as I am in the middle of them, Lady Boxe calls. I say, untruthfully, how nice to see her, and beg her to sit down while I just finish the bulbs. Lady B. makes determined attempt to sit down in armchair where I have already placed the bulb-bowls and the bag of charcoal, is headed off just in time, and takes the sofa.

Do I know, she asks, how very late it is for indoor bulbs? September, really or even October, is the time. Do I know that the only really reliable firm for hyacinths is Somebody of Haarlem? … (1)

Published in 1930, there were further novels in the sequence.

Diary of a Provincial Lady by EM Delafield, first published in 1930 and reissued by Persephone Books in 2014. The complete collection of Diaries has also been published by Virago Modern Classics in 1984.

EM Delafield

EM Delafield was a pen name. The writer was born Edmée Elizabeth Monica de la Pasture on 69hJune 1890. Like Alex she spent some time in a convent before the First World War. However at the start of the war she became a VAD nurse in Exeter and married Arthur Dashwood in 1919. After some years in the Malay States they settled in East Devon, in Kentisbeare. She was a prolific writer. I counted 49 works on her Wikipedia page, including many non-fiction works, such as biography, and short stories. She died before the end of the Second World War in December 1943.

Jane on beyondedenrock blog posted A Birthday Book of Underappreciated Lady Authors which caught my eye. This post represents my support for her celebration of the birthdays of the more neglected women writers.

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Miss Mole by EH Young for her birthday

A Birthday Book of Underappreciated Lady Authors. That’s the kind of title that catches my attention. The post by Jane on beyondedenrock blog was about celebrating birthdays of the more neglected women writers, so I decided to join in, in an ad hoc way. Here’s my first offering – some thoughts about EH Young’s novel Miss Mole to celebrate her birthday. She was born on 21st March in 1880, and this novel was published in 1930. This is a revision of my original post from June 2015.

Emily Hilda Young by Howard Coster 1932. National Portrait Gallery (22909) used under Creative Commons Agreement

Miss Mole by EH Young

Miss Mole is an unlikely heroine, especially for the 1930s. She is not very young, pretty, innocent or socially well placed. At the start of the novel she seems to delight in being less than straightforward and we wonder what will become of her over the next 288 pages. But she quickly captivates us and we are charmed by her resilience and resourcefulness.

The novel is set in Radstowe, modelled on Bristol. Although Miss Mole loves the city, she was brought up on a farm, and now must find her living among people who have tight rules about what is appropriate behaviour, especially for women.

The Story

We meet Miss Mole as she is about to be dismissed from her position as a lady’s companion. She has more or less engineered the dismissal, as she is bored and unhappy to be reduced to living at the beck and call of an old woman with restricted interests. Miss Mole does not like to be demeaned.

Hannah Mole has a cousin, Lilla Spenser-Smith who is anxious that her relationship with a mere domestic should not be known, and so finds Miss Mole a position as a housekeeper with a non-conformist widower, the Reverend Corder, and his children. The family would be called dysfunctional today. After some initial difficulties, Hannah finds ways to gain the trust of the children and to help them through their difficulties. Her position as a housekeeper provides her with the opportunity to do good within the Corder household.

The reader gradually understands that Hannah hides a secret, unknown even to Lilla. It is a secret such that if it were revealed she could not be employed as a domestic servant, and she would be ostracised in Radstowe. The tension of the novel increases as the revelation of this secret creeps closer, threatening to undermine her work within the Corder family.

Hannah understands how people judge others and make mistakes. Her secret results from her own mistaken judgement.

’Not the thing itself, but its shadow,’ she murmured, as she saw her own shadow going before her, and she nodded as though she had solved a problem. She judged herself by the shadow she chose to project for her own pleasure and it was her business in life – and one in which she usually failed – to make other people accept her creation. Yes, she failed, she failed! They would not look at the beautiful, the valuable Hannah Mole: they saw the substance and disapproved of it and she did not blame them: it was what she would have done herself and in one case when she had concentrated on the fine shadow presented to her, she had been mistaken. (9)

Miss Mole

Hannah Mole is not quite 40, a single woman with great independence of spirit, not always apparent to people she meets. She is described in the first chapter in this way.

She stood on the pavement, a thin shabby figure, so insignificant in her old hat and coat, so forgetful of herself in the enjoyment of the scene, that she might have been wearing a cloak of invisibility … (10)

We are soon made aware of Hannah’s resourcefulness, playfulness and creativity. We discover that she is a woman of integrity. In the first chapter she helps prevent a suicide. She is quiet about this event although it brings her into contact with people who appreciate her: Mrs Gibson who provides temporary lodgings and friendship, Mr Blenkinsop who is struck by her liveliness of spirit. Much of the pleasure of this novel derives from her approach to life, and especially her psychological insights into the Corder family. She is not without faults, getting locked into a battle with the Rev Corder, which she realises she has undertaken in order to score points.

Like many women of her age, situation and time she has a struggle to survive and time is not on her side. As she walks at night towards her new position in the Corder household she is visited by a brief moment of fear.

What was to become of herself? Age was creeping on her all the time and she had saved nothing, she would soon be told that she was too old for this post or that, and, for a second, fear took hold of her with a cold hand and the whispering of the dead leaves warned her that, like them, she would soon be swept into the gutter and no one would ask where she had gone, and her fear changed into a craving that there would be at least one person to whom her disappearance would be a calamity. ‘No one!’ the leaves whispered maliciously, while a little gust of laughter came from the bushes, and at that, Hannah paused and looked disdainfully in their direction. She was not to be laughed at! She was not to be laughed at and she refused to be frightened. (51)

The Style

EH Young’s style in Miss Mole reflects Hannah’s lack of clarity at the beginning and her increasing sense of herself and her own integrity. Episodes, fragments of memories, scraps of information are given to us in small pieces. We do not quite understand that Hannah has saved a life between stepping out to buy a reel of cotton and meeting with her cousin Lilla in the first chapter.

This mode of telling the story reflects Hannah’s character. While she is resourceful and lively, she has to guard herself, and her past, to live a little like the mole after which she is named. She is a complex character and develops through the novel so that by the final chapters we are aware of her true value.

The Themes

The book deals with the nature of morality and the contrast between received morality, socially accepted behaviour and Miss Mole’s integrity. She does good to so many. She knows that they would reject her if they learned about her secret, and so she is a challenge to the restrictive teachings of the church, the social attitudes of Lilla and Lilla’s social set.

EH Young herself had an unusual domestic arrangement – a ménage a trois. She kept this secret for 40 years. She knew something of the tensions between secrecy and truth, appearances and integrity.

Miss Mole by EH Young (first published in 1930) republished in 1984 as Virago Modern Classic with an introduction by Sally Beauman. 288pp

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