Tag Archives: Virago Modern Classics

A Game of Hide and Seek by Elizabeth Taylor

Rereading novels by Elizabeth Taylor is my indulgence. This one I read and reviewed on Bookword blog nearly ten years ago. I must admit that I have enjoyed it less than her other novels. The characters seem rather pathetic, which is hinted at by the title, two people forever missing each other. But as an exercise in following characters for nearly twenty years it demonstrates Elizabeth Taylor’s versatility as a writer. Both In a Summer Season and A Wreath of Roses take place over a span of weeks. This novel begins in the early thirties and ends in the fifties, after the Second World War.

A Game of Hide and Seek

Harriet and Vesey spend time together during childhood. Caroline is Vesey’s aunt, and he goes to stay with her every summer. Caroline is also the best friend of Harriet’s mother, and they live near each other. Harriet has taken on some light secretarial and childcare responsibilities for Caroline so she cycles there every day. Harriet’s mother, Lilian, was imprisoned as a Suffragette and met Caroline as they faced their sentences together. Theirs is a glorious past, but Harriet is almost indifferent to her mother’s achievements. She does not see herself as brave as the previous generation.

Vesey is in a perpetual state of not knowing what he should be doing or what his future will be. His father has abandoned his mother, and she is happy for him to be out of the way of her London business during the summer. Vesey is always a little sickly, not a sportsman, nor an intellectual. The two young people are uncertain and shy in each other’s company. 

The two of them go for walks together, rather uncertainly. And they play hide and seek with Caroline’s two children. One day they go to a deserted house, and they have a rather hurried embrace in the empty bedroom before the younger children disturb them. At the end of the summer, Vesey goes up to Oxford and Harriet’s dreary social round continues. Vesey does not keep in touch.

Harriet takes a job in a shop selling gowns. Some of the best scenes in the novel come from this part of her life, as the more experienced women try to educate her in the ways of the world. 

Harriet’s virginity they marvelled over a great deal. It seemed a privilege to have it under the same roof. They were always kindly asking after it, as if it were a sick relative. It must not be bestowed lightly, they advised. It must not be bestowed at all, Miss Brimpton said. It was a possession, not a state; was positive, not negative. (61)

Harriet meets and is courted by Charles, ‘an elderly man of about thirty-five’. He is a solicitor. He is very sensible and well-regarded, and partly because his mother is a former actress, and very actressy, he is not very dramatic. Eventually Charles and Harriet marry, and they have a daughter, Besty. 

The relationship between Harriet and Vesey is sustained on and off over the decades. He joins the army during the war. After the war he becomes an actor in a touring company and comes to perform at a theatre near Harriet in Buckinghamshire. The relationship between Charles and Harriet is strained, and Vesey and Harriet continue to fail to commit to each other. Betsy develops her own crush on Vesey and eventually is convinced that he is her father. Harriet and Vesey meet in London, or he visits her house in the afternoon. 

As always, Elizabeth Taylor is brilliant at revealing the small emotional ripples between people, the shift in mood in a room, the moment when someone fears they will give themselves away. In this scene, for example, it is the evening after Harriet has spent an afternoon with Vesey in the park and she is thinking about it as she sews. Charles is reading Persuasion.

As he read, he passed his hand over his hair, with the impatient quick gesture Harriet knew. His hair was greying but, as with many fair people, without much altering his appearance. At irregular intervals, he turned pages; once or twice he glanced at the fire, but never at his wife. Harriet sat still, and wary. Her needle plucked at the cloth. However hard she tried to concentrate on her task, the blue park with its blurred vistas rose before her, its magic engulfed her as if it were the park she was in love with. When Charles turned a page, her eyelids lowered, her mouth tightened. She wondered if he were reading the chapter on women’s constancy; for the book became a reproach all by itself. (155-6)

There is a splendid cast of secondary characters: Caroline and her husband, Hugo; their children; Charles and his friends Tiny and Kitty; a very clumsy Dutch maid; the local woman who comes and ‘does’; the other women in the dress shop; Betsy’s teacher and her school friend. The children are especially well observed, but every character is believable and reflects everyday life, and draws attention to the strained relationship between Vesey and Harriet. The ending is somewhat ambiguous.

A Game of Hide and Seek by Elizabeth Taylor, first published in 1951. I used the Virago Modern Classic edition, published in 1986, with an Introduction by Elizabeth Jane Howard. 260pp

The first review of A Game of Hide and Seek on this blog was posted in August 2013. You can find it here. I have reviewed all her fiction on Bookword blog, and I am currently rereading the novels.

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Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont by Elizabeth Taylor – again

Mrs Palfrey was the first in the series on the blog called Older Women in Fiction, posted ten years ago in March 2013. This review has been followed by another 63 in the series. When I read and posted about Mrs Palfrey I did it under the mistaken impression that older women were rare in fiction. While they may form a small proportion of the fiction market here in the UK, I have discovered that the reader can find many books in which the older woman is the main or a significant character in a novel. 

In addition to the 64 reviews, there are another 50 recommendations from readers for inclusion in the series. Please find this list of reviewed and recommended books here. You can make recommendations in the comments box.

Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont

We are introduced to the unlikely hero in Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont with this description.

She was a tall woman with big bones and a noble face, dark eyebrows and a neatly folded jowl. She would have made a distinguished-looking man, and sometimes, wearing evening dress, looked like some famous general in drag. (2)

We already know that Mrs Palfrey is a genteel widow, needing to live somewhere, not invited and not minded to share a home with her daughter in Scotland. She moves into the Claremont Hotel on the Cromwell Road in London, joining a small group of elderly residents. Upon this group Mrs Palfrey practices a deceit. Having fallen in the street, she is rescued by Ludo, a young writer. Her grandson Desmond has failed to visit her at the Claremont. Ludo, who is lonely himself and attracted by the adventure of play-acting agrees to stand in as Mrs Palfrey’s grandson. Mrs Palfrey achieves a grandson and a visitor and thereby establishes her status among the residents. It allows Ludo an opportunity for some research as he is writing a novel about an old people’s home called We Aren’t Allowed to Die Here. One of the charms of the novel is how Mrs Palfrey and Ludo cope with the risks and difficulties that this deception gives rise to, including a visit by le vrai Desmond. 

In Mrs Palfrey Elizabeth Taylor explores the behaviour of older men and women forced to live in institutions. ‘As they aged, the women seemed to become more like old men, and Mr Osmond became more like an old woman.’ They experience loneliness, neglect, boredom and financial problems. At the Claremont they are concerned to keep up appearances. As Elizabeth Taylor deftly shows, such a life infantilises them through the routines of mealtimes. The similarity to boarding school is explicit. They are aging and it is inconvenient and embarrassing. Mrs Arbuthnot’s incontinence, for example, is the cause of her slipping further into dependence, moving to a shared room in a nursing home for the elderly. She tries to pass it off as a welcome move to a quieter place.

On the blogs I sampled ten years ago, the reviews frequently suggested that Elizabeth Taylor has placed ‘eccentric’ residents at the Claremont. I don’t think it is so much eccentricity that she is describing. Rather, she has a penetrating ability to pinpoint a mannerism or gesture or foible, an ability to present characters with their warts. I think she is much admired by writers as well as readers because she is so economical, her details telling us so much about a character. Neither comic nor patronising, she has an awareness of the ludicrousness of people’s behaviours and attempts to hide the truth. 

Mr Osmond is a bore because he is lonely. He is also afraid that the world is changing and writes letters of protest to the newspapers about being treated by foreign doctors. He hates the accents of the weather forecasters. He is sour and has an old-fashioned fruity, male sense of humour. He likes Mrs Palfrey and suggests marriage. The scene of his botched proposal has comic aspects because he handles it so badly. But it is also an authentic conversation resulting from his lack of perception and insight into another person.

Lady Swayne has ‘another irritating mannerism – all her most bigoted or self-congratulatory statements, she prefaced with ‘I’m afraid. I’m afraid I don’t smoke. I’m afraid I’m just common or garden Church of England. … I’m afraid I think the fox revels in it. I’m afraid I don’t think that’s awfully funny.’

These are ordinary people, observed without whimsy or exaggeration. Take this little scene where Mrs Arbuthnot, who has ears ‘sharpened by malice’, has asked Mrs Palfrey to change her library book.

It was like being back at school again and asked to run an errand for the head girl. She was just going out for one of her aimless walks, to break up the afternoon, and was delighted to be given an object for it.
‘Something by Lord Snow, perhaps,’ Mrs Arbuthnot said. ‘I cannot stand trash.’ 
’But if you’ve already read it …’ Mrs Palfrey began nervously.
‘One can always read a good book twice,’ Mrs Arbuthnot snapped. ‘In fact one always should read a good book twice.’
Mrs Palfrey took the rebuke quite steadily. After all, Mrs Arbuthnot was the one who was doing the favour. (p23-4)

A small pleasure is the mention of books read by the characters. Mrs Arbuthnot ‘got Elizabeth Bowen muddled with Marjorie Bowen and could never remember that there were two Mannings and two Durrells and a couple of Flemings.’

Elizabeth Taylor frequently explores the theme of loneliness in her fiction. She is quoted on this subject on the now disappeared blog Dove Grey Reader Scribbles in a review of The Soul of Kindness:

I think loneliness is a theme running through many of my novels and short stories, the different ways in which individuals can be isolated from others – by poverty, old age, eccentricity, living in another country – even by having committed murder…

Another comment on the blog reviews was how the readers had found the topic of ageing and death difficult and referred to their own grandparents or parents. But we need more books that explore this difficult area. There are other very good older characters in Elizabeth Taylor’s novels, such as Aunt Sylvie in The Marriage Group, who rewrites the labels indicating who will inherit what, despite having forgotten that some of the recipients had themselves died. She blamed them for neglecting her.

I still haven’t seen the film of Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont, starring Joan Plowright. There will undoubtedly be more films dealing with later life, as there’s money to be made from us older folk. It’s my experience that films rarely offer as much as the original text, and older people get played for laughs: forgetfulness, incontinence, men pursuing young women and vice versa. Have you seen Quartet or The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel?

After reading Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont I went on to read and review all her novels. Loneliness is a theme in all of them. Some of her characters deal better with it than others. Mrs Palfrey seems stoic to me. 

Elizabeth Taylor

Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont was Elizabeth Taylor’s last novel published in her lifetime. It appeared in 1971. She died in 1975 aged 63 having produced 12 novels as well as five short story collections. 

Despite many champions, Elizabeth Taylor remains relatively neglected. Perhaps one reason for that can be discerned from the title of her biography by Nicola Beauman The Other Elizabeth Taylor, published by the champion of neglected C20th writers, Persephone. And it may also be that because of her Home Counties life, neglect of the London literary scene, and classic good looks she has the undeserved reputation of writing about and for middle class women.

I have reviewed all her novels and her short story collection on Bookword. I have been rereading them, in no order, in the last few months. My admiration for her writing keeps on growing.

Related links

You can find the complete list of the Older Women in Fiction series here.

You can find my original post about Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont here (from March 2013)

Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont by Elizabeth Taylor was published in 1971. I used the Virago Modern Classic edition, with an introduction by Paul Bailey, thought to be the model for Ludo.

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Reading Palladian again by Elizabeth Taylor

Some days only reading Elizabeth Taylor will do. I am sad to have read all her fiction – and reviewed it here on Bookword. But I am rereading them again when that mood takes me. I first read Palladian for a post in May 2013. I enjoy rereading her novels and find that I can concentrate more on her superb writing and less on the plot when I do so. In rereading Palladian, I am impressed by how she has conceptualised a large number of characters and how the story is narrated in her precise and elegant prose.

Palladian

The novel was published in 1946 and was her second novel after At Mrs Lippincote’s. This novel has the feel of a small section of society, very much engaging with the post-war austerity. The decaying Palladian house is perhaps the most obvious example of this. 

Cassandra Dashwood is an orphan and as she finishes school her headteacher finds her a place as a governess for a young girl, daughter of a widower and the owner of a grand house, Cropthorne Manor. She leaves what she has known to work in a strange household: Marion Vanbrugh is the widower, his cousins Tom and Margaret are also staying there with their mother, Tinty Vanbrugh. In the house also is Sophy, a precocious and wilful child and Nanny who acts as cook and housekeeper and is poisonous in her speech.

It has been suggested that this is Elizabeth Taylor’s homage to Jane Eyre, and while there are some surface parallels, and literature permeates the novel, I think this is only meant as a nod. There is no mad woman in the attic and Cassandra is not asked to join in a bigamous marriage. Cassandra is, however, quite ready to fall for the widower and does. 

Daphne du Maurier published Rebecca in 1938, and the story of Palladium has some similarities with it: the handsome but distracted leading man; a beautiful house, an innocent, naïve girl and an older woman servant who remembers the first wife. Nanny is no Mrs Danvers, however. She is not threatening, merely small-minded and a bully.

Nanny had disapproved of Violet, but she disapproved of Cassandra even more. She had always loved her boys and was not above setting the girls against one another; whether dead or alive. It delighted her to bring Cassandra to the edge of despair about Violet.

Readers discover that Nanny is frequently wrong, for example when she gossips about Cassandra pilfering money (it’s Tom) and food (it’s Margaret) and a brooch (it’s a gift from Marion). 

The members of the household are all lonely – this is Elizabeth Taylor, after all. No-one does loneliness quite as well as she does. Marion lost his wife; Tom (his cousin) also loved Violet and has not, after ten years, recovered; Margaret is married to an absent sailor, but will eventually leave the house to give birth to her child; Sophy has no one of her age to play or socialise with; Nanny is poison. 

Cassandra observes the others in the household. Tom is an alcoholic and frequently visits the Blacksmith’s Arms, where he has been carrying on with Mrs Veal. Margaret has no friends and is a bit of a bully. Nanny makes difficulties for everyone. And then a disaster strikes, and everyone has to reassess their situation. Only Tom is still adrift after the accident.

Names in the novel

Look at the names she gives her characters. First: Marion. Mrs Turner, the headteacher, explains to Cassandra that despite a name usually given to women Marion is a man:

‘I discovered that it was one of those names like Evelyn or Hilary or Lindsay that can be either. With an “o”, you see. But “o” or not, I think it rather girlish for a grown man.’ (9)

And it is true that Marion Vanbrugh is delicate and not at all aggressive as many of the men of the time were required to be.

Cassandra Dashwood: Cassandra was famously the Trojan princess who made true prophecies but was never believed. Rather a portentous first name to saddle someone with. And it was the Dashwood family that were the subject of Sense and Sensibility, Marianne the impetuous sister, and Eleanor the more circumspect. Like Cassandra, they lost their father and had to live at the mercy of others.  

The title of the book, Palladian, refers to a popular style of architecture of the 18th century, where the façade was precise and balanced, featuring classical columns and symmetry. The façade is the important thing. All kinds of horrors can hide behind it, as Nanny points out. In any case the house has been badly neglected. But the title might refer to the attributes of those who, like the goddess Pallas Athene, acquire wisdom and knowledge. And it is Cassandra and Marion who gain these qualities.

Literature in literature

As well as a reference to Jane Eyre, I counted no less than eleven novels or other literary works that are quoted or referred to in Palladian. In addition, the setting of the library is a key location for some of the action.

A Month in the Country by Turgenev

The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins

Tom Jones by Henry Fielding

The Duchess of Malfi by John Webster

Tristram Shandy by Laurence Sterne

Homer, Sappho, Ruskin and Shakespeare are quoted 

Nanny takes Sophy to a showing of the film of Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

I love how Elizabeth Taylor weaves these texts into her novel. She did something similar in her first novel, At Mrs Lippincote’s in which a small boy ‘snuffs up’ novels. Elizabeth Taylor is reminding us that readers are as influenced by their imagination as they are by their physical environments.

Palladian by Elizabeth Taylor, first published in 1946. Republished in the Virago Modern Classics series. 191pp

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A Lost Lady by Willa Cather

Readers of my blog have previously enjoyed O Pioneers! and My Antonia. Both these novels by Willa Cather were from her early period when she delighted in the people who turned the vast prairies of middle America into vast wheat fields and made themselves a good living. The families she described came from the European diaspora, chasing some kind of idyll. By the time she came to write A Lost Lady in 1923 the world had turned, and new generations, new values and new enterprises were changing the mid-west again. This short novel is concerned with these changes.

A Lost Lady

The novel is set at the end of the 19th century, in a town that had been key to the great railroad building enterprises of that century. The story opens with a description of the Forrester Place just outside Sweet Water, and of its social importance to the ‘railroad aristocracy of that time’. The novel is chiefly told from the point of view of Niel, a young citizen of Sweet Water, an observer of the comings and goings at the Forrester Place on the hill. Think The Great Gatsby. Niel observes the Forresters’s summer visits and their many wealthy guests, and when they come to live permanently in Sweet Water he is of service to the couple. 

Captain Forrester is twenty-five years older than his wife. It is his second marriage. He made his money as a railroad entrepreneur and came to live at Sweet Water because he was attracted by the hill where he built his house. The Captain and his wife represent the old ways, the pioneers, with values of trust and decency. The Captain loses his fortune because he insists that the board of his bank honours the small investors, and so loses everything. Later he has a series of strokes and comes to depend on his wife and a decreasing circle of friends.

Mrs Forrester is very beautiful and charming and very popular with everyone. She is a generous hostess and does not dismiss the young boys of Sweet Water. Niel is a boy when he first meets her, and he falls under her spell. He is a frequent visitor with his uncle, the Forresters’s lawyer. As a young man he goes East to study architecture and on his return 2 years later he finds the Captain is very frail and puts off his studies for a year while he helps care for him. The reader, as well as Niel, has noted that Mrs Forrester likes to drink and that she is not above having affairs with men she attracts. 

Niel’s generation are keen to make a quick profit, especially Ivy Peters, who is known to be cruel and have no respect for money and class. As the Forresters’s fortunes decline Ivy takes advantage, first he rents and then he buys the land and the house and even becomes intimate with Mrs Forrester. 

The difference in the values between the generation of pioneers, represented by the Captain and his friends, and the profiteers such as Ivy Peters is starkly explained in a passage where Niel meditates on his return to Still Water.

The Old West had been settled by dreamers, great-hearted adventurers who were unpractical to the point of magnificence; a courteous brotherhood, strong in attack but weak in defence, who could conquer but could not hold. Now all the vast territory that they had won was to be at the mercy of men like Ivy Peters, who had never dared anything, never risked anything. They would drink up the mirage, dispel the morning freshness, root out the great brooding spirit of freedom, the generous, easy life of the great landholders. The space, the colour, the princely carelessness of the pioneer they would destroy and cut up into profitable bits, as the match factory splinters the primeval forest. All the way from the Missouri to the mountains this generation of shrewd young men, trained to petty economies by hard times, would do exactly what Ivy Peters had done when he drained the Forrester marsh. (104-5)

Mrs Forrester is the lost lady. She has been brought up to act as a charming social hostess, but she resents the restrictions of her life in Still Water. She does not flaunt her affairs, but her lack of faithfulness to her husband is shocking to Niel, especially when he understands that her husband knows. She drinks, and this too marks her as something of a fallen woman. 

Niel never had hopes or desires of becoming anything to Mrs Forrester, but he has valued the pioneer spirit and what it brought to that part of the country. He prefers the idea of Mrs Forrester to the realities of her life.

Willa Cather

Willa Cather in 1912 via WikiCommons

Born in 1873, Willa Cather’s family moved to Nebraska when she was young, and she received her education there. She adopted her first name from an uncle who died in the Civil War. She had a career as a journalist even before she began her novels. She was well-established by the time A Lost Lady was published in 1923. It was her 6th novel; she wrote 12 in all between 1912 and 1940. She travelled in Europe, Canada and the US. Her talents were acknowledged in her lifetime. She received the Pulitzer Prize in 1923. Her most significant relationships were with women, living with Edith Lewis from 1907 until her death in 1947. 

Her qualities as a writer were often ignored in the second half of the twentieth century, but she has a strong following today. AS Byatt is among her admirers. Readers have a high regard for her evocation of place. It plays its part too in A Lost Lady.

A Lost Lady by Willa Cather, first published in 1923. Reissued as a Virago Modern Classic 1983, with an introduction by AS Byatt. 178 pp

Related posts

O Pioneers! by Willa Cather (October 2018)

My Antonia by Willa Cather (January 2018) 

Book Snob’s review of A Lost Lady from May 2010

HeavenAli’s blog review of A Lost Lady from December 2014

AS Byatt’s article in the Guardian about Willa Cather, American Pastoral, from December 2006

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The Life and Death of Harriett Frean by May Sinclair

The Life and Death of Harriett Frean has been on my shelves for some time, bought soon after I reviewed another novel by May Sinclair, Mary Olivier: a life, on this blog. It is curious that there was interest in May Sinclair in the previous decade, but not much recently. I find it curious because she has much to say about the traditional way in which middle-class girls in England were brought up in preparation for the life their parents hoped for them, and it still has relevance today. 

The two books mentioned here go together. Mary Oliver defied her parents and insisted on educating herself and refusing marriage. The protest against a life of sacrifice for women has a long history. The pressures from social convention, religious beliefs, and the lack of alternative role models for young women are also the background to this second novel: The Life and Death of Harriett Frean. Unlike Mary Oliver, Harriett Frean sacrifices herself to her parents’ beliefs about the role of women. 

The Life and Death of Harriett Frean

The title, which hints at her not very happy last years, can be read as a cautionary tale about the dangers of self-sacrifice and denial. Harriett lives her life in loneliness, justifying her own behaviour as beautiful. As a child she sought her parents’ approval, and this influence is so strong that it endures even beyond their graves. As a child she resists greed and selfishness and any other behaviour that would displease her parents, encouraging the development of a mean-spirited girl of small imagination.

The family is self-satisfied. Her father speculates to make money and takes no responsibility for their neighbour’s financial downfall alongside his own. He publishes one book, The Social Order. Its lack of value is evident from May Sinclair’s description.  

He dreamed of a new Social State, society governing itself without representatives. (65) 

Harriett assumes an air of superiority as a result of this book and refers to it long after the author and the book have been forgotten by everyone else. 

In fact, nothing any of the Freans do is generous or productive, but they are all self-satisfied. Her father dies while they are in reduced circumstances. Later, her mother also falls ill, but dies in agony refusing treatment. Harriett denies herself the love of her friend’s fiancé, which does no one any good. When she visits her friend and the husband, she is unaware of the damage she has done. 

Harriett continues living in the same house, and in the same way, seeing her friends in a regular round. She falls ill and on recovery finds herself living a very small life.

She lived by habit, by the punctual fulfilment of her expectations. (162)

The habitual life contains no affection, no generosity, and no diminishing of the sense of superiority. And she dies in the same state of mind. Her own final thought is that she has behaved beautifully.

This is a devastating take down of Victorian standards of behaviour for women.

May Sinclair 1863-1946

May Sinclair was born in Cheshire, her father was a Liverpool shipowner. Her mother was a strict Christian. He father became bankrupt and died soo after. She moved with her mother to Ilford near London. May’s education was interrupted by her mother’s demands that she care for her brothers who had heart disease. She began publishing to earn money to support her mother and herself and became a successful writer. Her first novel, published in 1897, was Audrey Craven.

She was a suffragist and many of the 23 novels she wrote were concerned with issues that affected women.Mary Olivier: a life was her 13th published novel and The Life and Death of Harriett Frean was her 16th. She also wrote essays and poetry. She stopped publishing in the early 1930s as she was suffering from Parkinson’s but went on to live until 1946. During her lifetime she was highly regarded, moved in literary circles in London and with such achievements she deserves to be rescued from obscurity.

The Life and Death of Harriett Frean by May Sinclair, first published in 1922 and reissued in the series Virago Modern Classics in 1980. 181pp

Related Links

Mary Olivier: a life on Bookword

Heavenali’s review of The Life and Death of Harriett Frean from 2013 can be read here

An article in the Guardian in August 2013 by Charlotte Jones condemns the neglect of this ‘accomplished writer’. It can be found here.

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My Career Goes Bung by Miles Franklin

I had known about this book for many years, but I had been put off reading it by the rather colloquial title: I got the sense of going bung, but in my prim way thought it was a bit vulgar. I found a copy in a second-hand bookshop soon after I had reviewed My Brilliant Career and was intrigued. I so wish I had come across it earlier, because it was fun and I would have enjoyed it as a much younger woman too.

My Career Goes Bung

My Brilliant Career was not a sophisticated novel. The storyline follows the history of the Australian writer, written with a great deal of energy and brashness. According to the introduction by Carmen Callil, Miles Franklin said that she ‘conceived and tossed it off in a matter of weeks’. It was published in 1901. The reception of this novel caused her to refuse to allow it to be reprinted. 

She wrote My Career Goes Bung in 1902, when she was in her early 20s, but felt that it would be unacceptable to readers until much later. It wasn’t published until 1946.

In My Career Goes Bung the first novel having earned much notoriety for its young author, Sybylla has to deal with the reactions of people within her limited community, and then later from the cultural set in Sydney. Both novels are based on what happened to Miles Franklin. 

I loved this second volume. The heroine/narrator exposes so much hypocrisy about the role of young women at the start of the twentieth century in Australia, even though women had gained the vote by 1902. The surprising success of her first novel is regarded as below comment in ‘Possum Creek, although she becomes the centre of gossip and attention. There is no local person who takes her talents seriously, except her father. He is not a successful businessman and is interested in politics, but not very successful at that either. 

Her mother tells her that if she is against marriage she will have to take up a profession. Sybylla considers her options:

This brought me to consider my prospects and to find that I hadn’t any. I loved to learn things – anything, everything. To attend University would have been heaven, but expense barred that. I could become a pupil-teacher, but I loathed the very name of this profession. I should have to do the same work as a man for less pay, and, in country schools, to throw in free of remuneration, the speciality of teaching all kinds of needlework. I could be a cook or a housemaid and slave all day under some nagging woman and be a social outcast. I could be a hospital nurse and do twice the work of a doctor for a fraction of his pay or social importance, or, seeing the tremendously advanced age, I could even be a doctor – a despised lady-doctor, doing the drudgery of the profession in the teeth of such prejudice that even the advanced, who fought for the entry of women into all professions, would in practice “have more faith in a man doctor.” I could be a companion to some woman appended to some man of property.
I rebelled against every one of these fates. (20-21)

Sybylla finds it impossible to stay at home, for there is no one with whom she can be friends.

From ‘Possum Gully to Spring Hill and round about the Wallaroo Plains there wasn’t a real companion of my own age, nor any other age. The dissatisfaction of other girls stopped short of wondering why life should be so much less satisfactory to them than their brothers, but they accepted it as the will of God. None of them was consumed with the idea of changing the world. (31)

The opportunities for a feminist are limited at home, especially for one who does not wish to marry and would rather change the world. So Sybylla’s mother arranges for her to spend time in Sydney with an old lady who would be pleased to have her to stay. Here her notoriety is the object of considerable interest, and Mrs Crasterton’s standing in Sydney society is enhanced by the presence of her curious guest. Men seem to find her fascinating, and it takes her a little time to work out how to deal with them, their attentions and their offers of marriage. 

She demonstrates great perceptiveness at the hypocrisy of the society which still believes that a woman’s duty and calling is marriage and motherhood, while playing court to her originality. She is determined not to marry and escapes all attempts to lure her. Most of them think she will grow out of writing when she is married. But it was to stand up for herself, young, female and without much ‘EXPERIENCE’. She rejects all their suggestions and returns home, her writing career going nowhere.

Warned by a loyal suitor back home that she might become despised as an old maid Sybylla responds:

Despised for being an old maid, indeed! Why are men so disturbed by a woman who escapes their spoilation? Is her refusal to capitulate unendurable to masculine egotism, or is it a symptom of something more fundamental? (227)

Finally, she decides to go wider than Sydney, to the world beyond Australia, to London.

One my strongest pleasures in this vibrant, heart-felt novel is the language she uses, with such freshness. Here’s a favourite as her mother pours cold water on any idea of Sybylla going on the stage.

She finished me to squashation like a sucked gooseberry. (44)

I loved her observations and wit, her determination not to be seduced by the dominant ideas about women, love, marriage and motherhood. Miles Franklin largely kept to that. She never married and before returning to settle in Australia in 1932, encouraging Australian writing, she spent more than two decades in America and in England.

My Career Goes Bung: purporting to be the autobiography of Sybylla Penelope Melvyn by Miles Franklin, first published in 1946. Republished by Virago Modern Classics in 1981. 234 pp

Related posts

My Brilliant Career by Miles Franklin on Bookword January 2020

Heavenali included a review of this novel on her blog in September 2015.

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Jamaica Inn by Daphne du Maurier

I picked Jamaica Inn for my contribution to the #1936 club because I had a copy sitting on my shelves, and I had forgotten my first reading of it, which may have been about 50 years ago. I have been critical of Daphne du Maurier, specifically of Rebecca, but also of The House on the StrandJamaica Inn was her fourth novel, published before those two and in it I found a writer who can write a good old fashioned suspense story, with some romance. Wuthering Heights lite anyone?

Jamaica Inn

We are in Cornwall in the far south west of Britain in the 1820s. 

The heroine Mary Yellan is as she should be: youngish, but not so young as to be foolish; independent, but not by choice as she had promised her widowed and dying mother to live with her aunt at Jamaica Inn; pretty, but not so attractive that all the men will do anything for her; and with spirit to stand up to people, but a soft heart as well. The story begins as she makes her way from the peaceful town of her childhood, Helston, to the wilderness of Bodmin moor. It is night and the coachman is reluctant to set her down at this infamous hostelry.

The villain is Joss Merlyn and as villainous as a reader could wish. He is the landlord of Jamaica Inn. He drinks, he is a bully, he is violent and we know at once that he is up to no good. 

He was a great husk of a man, nearly seven feet high, with a creased black brow and a skin the colour of a gypsy. His thick dark hair fell over his eyes in a fringe and hung about his ears. He looked as if he had the strength of a horse, with immense, powerful shoulders, long arms that reached almost to his knees and large fists like hams.  (20)

He married Mary’s aunt Patience and has reduced her to a frightened dependence. It is not long before Mary discovers that he is the leader of a band of ruffians and cutthroats who are engaged in smuggling. Jamaica Inn is the perfect isolated place to store the contraband. Later when he is drunk he tells Mary that he and his band are also wreckers They deliberately lure ships onto the rocks to steal their cargo, killing any witnesses.

The hero Jem Merlyn is as he should be despite being the younger brother of the landlord: independent, a little wild but not with malice; handsome but in a rural and rugged way; with a reckless and adventurous outlook, and some mystery about him.

Daphne du Maurier tells a good story, full bloodied, daring heroine, ghastly baddies and set in a dramatic landscape that adds to the suspense. The story is set up well. We join Mary at the end of her coach journey in the late evening, the last passenger. She must be set down at Jamaica Inn despite the coachman’s reluctance, for respectable folk no longer go to the inn. Darkness continues to be the background for much of the action, in the inn, on the seashore and on the moor. This darkness is contrasted with the peaceful, bright little town of Helston where Mary was brought up, and the jollity of the Christmas fair at Launceston, where Mary and Jem spend a happy Christmas Eve. 

In the darkness sounds play a crucial role in the story: the sounds of horses, carts and men carrying heavy goods into Jamaica Inn rouse Mary to first notice the wrong-doing. Horse hooves on the roads announce the arrival in the scene of a new character. There is a clock that ticks, but one night it has stopped. There is rain and hail against the windows, and wind around the house. And when Mary is taken one night by the gang and left unconscious in a carriage on a narrow path, she wakes to hear the sea. 

There could be no stillness where the sea broke upon the rock-bound shore. She heard it again now, and continually; a murmur and a sigh as the spent water gave itself to the strand and withdrew reluctantly, and then a pause as the sea gathered itself for a renewal of effort – a momentary fragment in time – and then once more the thunder and the crash of the fulfilment, the roar of the surf upon shingle and the screaming scatter of stones as they followed the drag of the sea. (162)

What follows is a terrible scene as a ship is lured to the beach and the gang go wild with violence and greed.

So Mary’s task is to bring her uncle and his gang to justice and to rescue poor Patience. It’s hard to achieve for he has the physical advantage and on their return from the wrecking he makes a prison of Jamaica Inn, locking Mary in her room. It soon emerges that there is another person that has been directing Joss Merlyn and the wreckers. He is not prepared to be caught and goes to desperate ends to evade justice. The final climax takes place at Roughtor high on Bodmin moor.

Daphne du Maurier

Born in 1907, Daphne du Maurier lived until 1989. Her most famous book was Rebecca, but she wrote 17 novels in all and many other plays, pieces of journalism, essays. She lived for much of her adult life in Cornwall which features in many of her novels. 

As with some of her other novels, Alfred Hitchcock made a film of Jamaica Inn in 1939 with many changes to the story. Daphne du Maurier was not pleased with it. Nor was Hitchcock. There was also a serial by the BBC in 2014 and ITV adapted it for television in 1983.

Jamaica Inn by Daphne du Maurier, first published in 1936. I read the Penguin edition of 1962. 268pp

Related posts

Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier

The House on the Strand by Daphne du Maurier

The #1936 Club led by Stuck in a Book and Kaggsy‘s Bookish Ramblings

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The Echoing Grove by Rosamond Lehmann

Rosamond Lehmann is one of the best writers I know for describing the feelings and anxieties of people in relationships. Sometimes her protagonists are outsiders, as in Dusty Answer and Invitation to the Waltz. In The Weather in the Street and in the subject of this post, The Echoing Grove, the relationships are more complex and changeable. The authenticity of the drama she narrates is never in question. It is, as I suggested in a previous post, as if ‘it’s our own story exactly’.

The Echoing Grove

My copy of The Echoing Grove has been sitting on my shelf for some time, a second hand orange, Penguin edition bought some time ago. Having read and reviewed three novels by Rosamond Lehmann over the last eight months I decided to read this fourth one. 

The novel is concerned primarily with a trio of characters: Rickie, his wife Madeleine and her sister Dinah.  It is the 1930s. Rickie falls for Dinah soon after he married her sister and they embark on an affair. But the course of their love is hardly smooth as Madeleine is badly hurt, Rickie leaves Dinah, then returns to her, she becomes pregnant, the baby is still born, she attempts suicide, and so on. The lives of these characters are interwoven until Rickie’s death in 1944.

Each of them has other lovers that we meet over the course of the novel, but it is with these three and their shifting and unhappy triangle that we are centrally concerned. When Madeleine and her sister Dinah meet at the start of the novel, after 14 years of separation it is in fact almost the end of the story. The author plays about with chronology throughout the novel, trusting the reader to pick up the hints and follow the shifts in time. She does the same with point of view; sometimes moving into the head of one of the three main characters, shifting from third to first person within a paragraph. 

All this shifting about reflects the changing nature of the triangle. Even when one of the three resolve not to see another they change their behaviour soon enough. It might be a suicide attempt, or a health crisis, or an accidental meeting. Rickie thinks of it as ‘a game that no one ever won’. (120)

The three characters are very different, and are more appealing or more worthy of sympathy at varying points in the story. They all possess human weaknesses: Rickie unable to resist temptation; Dinah always the rebel out to shock; and Madeleine stands upon her position as the wronged wife. I have over simplified, for this is a novel about human frailty and my summations do not do it justice.

It is pretty intense, as love affairs can be, with scenes of heightened drama, such as in the night club or when Rickie decides to follow up the wife of his best friend. In the end too many threads were self-consciously tied up: the burn on the bedside table; the £1 that is owed, the cuff links, the important scenes recollected and picked over by all participants. And the scene in the Blitz, when Rickie is talking to a new lover, made me think about all those men who think it is women’s job to listen to them go on and on. It is seventy pages long.

The title appears to reference the poem Broken Love by William Blake. The title of the poem seems apt, but the echoing aspect is not clear to me.

‘Let us agree to give up love, 
And root up the Infernal Grove;
Then shall we return and see
The worlds of happy Eternity. 

‘And throughout all Eternity 
I forgive you, you forgive me.
As our dear Redeemer said: 
“This the Wine, and this the Bread.”’ (From Broken Love by William Blake)

Don’t pick The Echoing Grove up for an exciting story. For a novel full of emotion and that pulls your sympathies around a bit, The Echoing Grove is excellent.

The Echoing Grove by Rosamond Lehmann, first published in 1953. I used the Penguin edition from 1958. 302pp. A more recent version was published in the Virago Modern Classics series in 2013.

Related Links

Three other reviews of novels by Rosamond Lehmann on Bookword

Dusty Answer (1927) in July 2020

Invitation to the Waltz (1932) in July 2020

The Weather in the Street (1936) in November 2020

Simon Lavery reviewed The Echoing Grove in May 2020 on his blog, Tredynas Days and noted, as I have, the very long scene set in the Blitz. I enjoyed his reaction to it.

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Red Ellen – The Novels of Ellen Wilkinson

Ellen Wilkinson has long been a hero of mine. She was one of the first female Labour MPs, and had a reputation as a ‘firebrand’, probably because of her red hair. Most memorably, she was MP for Jarrow at the time of the famous hunger march (1936). You can find photographs of her leading it: a small figure in comparison to other marchers.

Born in 1891 into a working class family in Manchester, she got her education there and began her political activities by supporting female suffrage. She went on to work as a trade union organiser, and was first elected to parliament in 1924 when most Labour MPs lost their seats. She won Middlesborough East by a majority of 972. As a trade unionist she was involved in the General Strike of 1926 but she lost her seat after the failure of the second Labour Government in 1931, returning to parliament in 1935. 

While she was out of parliament she turned to writing, earning her keep as a journalist, and writing her two novels, the subjects of this post. Her return to parliament kept her too busy to continue with fiction writing. During the Second World War she served in the coalition government and became Minister of Education in the post-war Labour government. Sadly she died too young in 1947, having suffered from bronchial asthma, been a smoker and an overworker all her adult life.

It is with some sadness that I realise that my grandfather would have known her as he was also elected in 1935, albeit as a Liberal. Sadly I did not take the opportunity to ask him. I am sure he would have known her, full of energy, small, with red hair and a dramatic sense of colour and style in her clothing.

Clash by Ellen Wilkinson

Clash was published in 1929 and much of it is drawn from the author’s experiences of the General Strike, such a bold move, such exciting times, but ultimately a failure. The miners, in support of whom it was called, suffered for months in the lock out that followed. Joan Craig is the heroine, and her proximity to the leaders of the unions, her hard work to keep the strike going, and her support for the miners are all drawn from Ellen Wilkinson’s experiences. But Joan has black not red hair.

This is also a love story. Joan falls for the older Bloomsbury writer, Tony Dacre. Much of the second part of the novel is taken up with Joan’s dilemma: follow her heart or continue with her work supporting workers. 

The clash of the title is evident in so many aspects of the story. I was struck by how many of these tensions still exist 90 years later. There is the tension between the North and the South of England. All the excitement of the strike and the pleasure of intellectual company and activities is found in London. Joan is tempted. But in the North there is real poverty, exploitation of workers, and work that she is so good at to be done. 

The North-South divide is also a class divide. Tony Dacre offers Joan the possibility of more comfort and security. The passages describing the hardships of life when the miners were locked out are a strong as any in the novel. The ignorance of the middle class (in both senses of ignorance) is shocking. And the class divide is sharpest in the failed relationships of bosses and trade unions.

There is the male-female tension, played out as she considers the life offered by Tony. His view is that she would have to give up her work, dedicate her life to him if they were together. And he believes that romantic love is justification enough for this. It’s what women do. A clash between intellectual and romantic views of life is also shown. I won’t pre-empt your reading by telling you how Joan resolved these dilemmas. But like her creator she did not disappoint.

My interest in the history of the time was well rewarded by reading this novel, full of action and ideas. I enjoyed it. Thanks to HeavenAli for drawing it to my attention on her blog.

Clash by Ellen Wilkinson, published in 1932. It was reissued in the Virago Modern Classics series in 1989. 309pp

The Division Bell Mystery by Ellen Wilkinson 

This second novel also draws on Ellen Wilkinson’s experiences, this time in the House of Commons. She had been a PPS (parliamentary private secretary) to several ministers. The amateur detective in her novel  Robert West, is a young male MP, PPS to the Home Secretary, known as Flossie. I chose to read this as a relief from some books that had hard-to-read passages of abuse of women. It is a light read.

A gunshot is heard at the same moment as Big Ben struck and the division bell sounded. A rich American banker has been murdered in Dining Room J. Rob West is tasked with helping the police find the culprit. The Home Secretary was meeting with Oissel to negotiate a government loan but left for the division just before Oissel was found dead. The story features the beautiful but ice-cold grand-daughter of the murdered man, her fiancé who is also an MP, a female MP from the Labour Party, a journalist, the Scotland Yard detective, a Peer of the Realm and the chief Civil Servant in the Home Office. Who did it?

The story is slight, but one relationship caught my attention. Rob West asks Grace Richards MP for some help.

The attitude of Robert West to the modern young woman was typical of that of a very young man. He preferred the intelligent woman. He liked to be seen about with one who was also making a name for herself. But while he was interested in her he expected her to put her own affairs in the background, and devote herself to his. When she was no longer needed she might be permitted to pick up her own threads again, but she must not trouble him. This he called allowing a woman to lead her own life. (120)

He asks her for help.

“And why should I help you?”
Robert was positively shocked. Why should she help him! What did she think women were in politics for if not to be helpful? (123)

There is an edge in this little exchange which makes me think that Ellen Wilkinson had encountered this young man’s attitude many times. 

I would love to have met Ellen Wilkinson, heard her make a speech, watch her navigate male-dominated politics. I enjoyed her two novels, and that will have to do.

The Division Bell Mystery by Ellen Wilkinson, first published in 1932 and reissued in 2018 in the British Library Crime Classics series. 254pp

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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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