Tag Archives: Virago Modern Classics

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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Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier

Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again. (1)

These are the famous opening words of the fourth novel in my Decades Project, and we are into the 1930s. It’s the era of the talkies, threats of European war, the country house and its hierarchical servants. We have moved from the cosy village whodunit of The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, set in an unchanging village society in Devon to a large house in the next county. Cornwall is the setting for this psychological-romantic thriller.

The Story

A young girl, (we never know her name) is plucked from nothing. She narrates the story of her marriage to Maxim de Winter and the brief period when they lived at Manderley. From her dream in the first chapter we know that something bad happened here and that she no longer lives in the beautiful house. And from the second chapter we learn that she is still devoted to her husband, Maxim de Winter, but they live a solitary life in continental hotels. ‘Manderley is no more’.

The narrator met Maxim in Monte Carlo while she was employed as a companion to the most awful Mrs Van Hopper. Her employer is a snob, who sees the narrator as a nothing. Indeed, the narrator looses no opportunity to tell us she is poor, unremarkable to look at with lank hair and a flat chest, and with awkward social manners resulting from shyness. Maxim is 42 but despite the difference in their ages they enjoy each other’s company while Mrs Van Hopper is ill.

Maxim rescues the girl from her employer, marries her and takes back to Manderley. In her new home everything serves to emphasise the young bride’s differences to the previous Mrs de Winter, who died about 9 months earlier in a boating accident.

The most sharply drawn character is Mrs Danvers, the Manderley housekeeper. Our heroine is disempowered by Mrs Danvers, the expectations of their social group, and the unfamiliarity of a large country house. In her mind she builds the picture of Maxim’s previous idyllic marriage, and lives in her mousey way under Rebecca’s spell, increasingly believing that Maxim does not love her and is still in love with Rebecca.

When Rebecca’s boat is recovered, her noxious cousin and lover raises the possibility that Maxim murdered her. Maxim tells his new bride what actually happened and that he loathed Rebecca and loves his new bride. Eventually the tensions are allayed when it became clear that Rebecca was gravely ill and engineered her own death.

Reading the story the reader is caught up with the naivety of the young bride, feeling her gaucheness, her uncertainty about her new life, the pernicious influence of Mrs Danvers, and her inability to understand Maxim’s behaviour towards her. It is a kind of Jane Eyre, Cinderella, or imposter syndrome story. The poor wee little girl gets her man and his wealth in the end.

There is an alternative way of looking at this story, and readers who wish to retain the idea that Rebecca is a lovely romantic novel should read no further.

Menabilly House, Fowey, Cornwall, in 1920s – the inspiration for Manderley. via WikiComons

What Daphne du Maurier asks us to believe in Rebecca

The romantic view of Rebecca asks the reader to accept the following more cynical and less romantic reading might lead one to asks how the author gets us to accept the following:

Maxim is a neglectful and unkind older man who picks an innocent young woman to marry. Maxim is a man of the world, and at 42 on a few weeks’ acquaintance marries a gauche girl with very little polish or anything else to recommend her. He gives her very little help in her new responsibilities at Manderley. This is left the agent Frank Crawley.

The hero treats his wife badly. He is bound up with himself and his concerns and gives her no help in unfamiliar social engagements, the running of the house, her relationship with Mrs Danvers or, crucially, the nature of his previous marriage. He allows her to founder and she suffers.

Maxim is a murderer. He murders a woman who has just told him she is pregnant.

The narrator is especially feeble when confronting the house that has been moulded by Rebecca. She does not change the furniture, the food, the flower arrangements, acquiesces to everything Mrs Danvers or Maxim has arranged. Rather prone to imagining how things might be, she never even drams of putting her mark on the house or on Maxim’s life. I found her very feeble, always twisting her handkerchief in her fingers.

When Maxim confesses to murder his second wife hears only that he did not love Rebecca. He is a murderer. He is a wife murderer. But he loves her not Rebecca. She stands by him, excuses his crime, supports him in the efforts to pervert the course of justice.

They run away to Europe despite being exonerated. The house is destroyed by fire, probably by Mrs Danvers at the instigation of Rebecca’s foul cousin, so the De Winters go abroad and hide, desperate for news and the old rituals of Manderley. They are not happy.

Daphne du Maurier’s writing

Rebecca is a classic novel, loved by many. But it invites the reader to collude in the unassertive behaviour of the narrator and in the acceptability of a heinous crime. It is a crime even if Rebecca was a monster. (We never get to see her except through Maxim’s and Mrs Danvers’ accounts.) It is a crime even if it is suicide by enraged husband (a variation of the American suicide by police) Maxim did not know that Rebecca was ill and that she feared a slow and painful death above all else.

Perhaps we are distracted by Mrs Danvers and the other vivid characters. Mrs Van Hopper is a delight, a stupid version of Mrs Catherine de Burgh. Each of the Manderley servants, Maxim’s sister are all believable characters, and sometimes very humorous.

I got a little fed up with the endless speculations of the narrator on the possible explanations or outcomes of every situation. It’s a long novel and many of her fears could have been reduced or avoided I felt.

Hitchcock’s film

Any reading of Rebecca is influenced by the 1940 Hitchcock film starring Joan Fontaine and Laurence Olivier. Hitchcock did not allow his hero to shoot Rebecca, by the way. Her death during a struggle was accidental.

Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier (1938) Virago Modern Classics (2003) See the afterword by Sally Beauman 441pp

The Decade Project

I took my idea for the Decades Project from my library’s Reading Passport scheme. To encourage readers the passport is stamped on completion of a book from a different decade. I like the idea of selecting a book from every decade from 1900 onwards. I am reading one a month, from 1900s in January, from 1920s in February and so on and review them here.

Previous posts in the Project

The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie, published in 1926

O Pioneers by Willa Cather, published in 1913.

The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton, published in 1905.

The next decade: 1940s

I am still musing on what to read from the 1940s for May’s choice. I am tempted by They were Sisters by Dorothy Whipple. Please make suggestions for subsequent decades, 1950s and 1960s.

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A Footman for the Peacock by Rachel Ferguson

It’s great to find that a book blog can have influence. Dean Street Press have collaborated with Scott of Furrowed Middlebrow blog to republish lesser known British women novelists and memoirists of the Twentieth Century. Dean Street Press says

The Years 1910 – 1960 were an unprecedented and prolific era for female authors, documenting – eloquently, humorously, poignantly (or frequently all of the above) – the social change, upheaval and evolving gender roles of a volatile era.

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I have been sent two of the series to review by the publisher. Here are my thoughts on A Footman for the Peacock by Rachel Ferguson.

The author

Rachel Ferguson (1892-1957) was a suffragette and after the First World War published 12 novels among other works. Furrowed Middlebrow is republishing three: Evenfield (1942) and A Harp in Lowndes Square (1936) and A Footman for the Peacock (1940). She wrote for Punch magazine.

291-fergusonGiven it is published under the middlebrow banner one should not expect great literary experiences from this novel. One might expect, indeed, that given the time of its publication, this novel would be intended as a diversion from the significant national events. But what you get is not that either. The author reveals the attitudes of the fading landed classes and their circumstances in the 1930s. Barely recovered from the Great War they appear to be sleep walking into the next. Of course, readers today have the benefit of hindsight, not least into the social upheavals accelerated by the conflict. These upheavals included the demise of the large country house such as Delaye, the centre of this story.

The story

At one level, it is a mystery or even a ghost story concerning the footman and the peacock. This aspect of the novel rather takes over towards the final pages as the local vicar and the youngest daughter of Delaye inquire into past events. This mystery rather distracts from the reactions to war that has just been declared.

The Roundelay family is a large one and they live in a very large house, Delaye, but they and the house have all seen better times. The house is in a poor state of repair and the gardens neglected. The peacock is the only survivor of a more glamorous past. The family has very little money, no car for example. Yet they maintain the superior attitudes of their class. For example, they have to make complicated arrangements with tradesmen so that orders can be delivered, passing from bike to bus to cart to van. They are energetic in resisting the consequences of the declaration of war. The bother of attending to the blackout of their many windows is superseded by the threat of evacuees billeted upon them.

The characters

For a short book there are rather a lot of characters. The family include Edmund, his wife Evelyn and their three children: Angela who is frequently sent to live with relatives, Margaret down to earth and running the guides and their brother Stacey who studies land maintenance. In addition three of Edmund’s five sisters and a cousin are also resident. In such a household the servants are worked hard since members of the family cannot even make themselves a cup of tea: cook, housemaid and the dependable Musgrave the butler. The ancient family nurse no longer has all her marbles and still occupies an uneasy place between family and servants.

The characters provide plenty of entertainment. Nursie throws her dinner tray out of the window, angry that she has not been served enough meat. She unwittingly protects the family from the billeting officer. Two of the sisters do not talk to each other. They enact a pantomime of ignoring each other every evening as they descend to dinner.

The self-absorption of the Roundelay family, their efforts to maintain their past social position and their ignoble response to the worsening situation in Europe and to the outbreak of war are robustly held up to criticism here.

One can’t help wondering how typical their reactions were, however. Few people would have welcomed evacuees, despite the fears of bombardment. People do leave necessary arrangements to the last minute, causing shortages of blackout material, and this seems to be human nature. People are unrealistic and draw on their experience, I this case of the previous hostilities, when the Home Front was spared the horror of the trenches.

The dreadful fate of the running footman, (a servant who ran in front of the coach to clear its way of obstacles and people) sits awkwardly beside all this realism. He died in 1792 and is reincarnated in the peacock. A rather arcane and sinister running song has been learned by Evelyn, the lady of Delaye, who appears not to notice that the quarry is not animal, but human.

Male Peacock by Alex Pronove (alexcooper1) via Wikicommons

Male Peacock by Alex Pronove (alexcooper1) via Wikicommons

The character of the bird is rather unpleasant and malign. He has a dreadful shriek. He is not afraid to peck and wound people who do things he doesn’t like. And Angela observes him in the moonlight, perhaps in communication with the enemy.

Round the corner from the shrubbery the peacock swept, taking the stage as she watched: Slowly, deliberately – or were peacocks always leisured in the process? – he displayed himself and paraded the lawn, sometimes pausing to look at up at the sky.

Waiting? Listening? The exact word elided her until it came with an impact of incredulity and a dismay that was not lessened by her own self-ridicule.

Guiding. No. Signalling. (139)

The peacock’s only friend is the servant girl, one of a long line from the same village family.

Her writing

I experienced Rachel Ferguson’s writing much as I might have been struck by a 6th former, bright, clever, sparkling wit, but not yet polished. This novel has so many irrelevant byways that I was irritated at times because they blunted the criticism of the unpatriotic attitudes. We get the BBC, the tabloid press, a mysterious village called Rohan, the history of the Roudelay family, people’s reactions to the last war. It’s all very merry, but also tiresome.

Yet there is charm and the novel captures that time when uncertainty descended upon the rural population. War was an unknown quantity and social mores could be expected to change, but no one knew in what way.

291-brontesDespite my reservations about this novel it’s a grand project to reissue women’s writing from the past. We note that both Persephone Books and Virago Modern Classics have republished Rachel Ferguson’s novels.

 

A Footman for the Peacock by Rachel Ferguson; first published in 1940 and reissued by Furrowed Middlebrow Books in 2016. 206pp

Related Posts

Furrowed Middlebrow is the blog of Scott in California, who reviewed this book back in September 2013, when the new imprint was just a distant ambition. Here is that review.

Alas Poor Lady has been reissued by Persephone Press, and is described on their website here.

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In a Summer Season by Elizabeth Taylor (again)

Restrictions in novels can produce interesting tensions and plot lines for the novelist to work with. Elizabeth Taylor took the restrictions of one English season, Summer, and showed us a number of characters, all in love, during that limited time. The restrictions of In a Summer Season, published in 1961, are not heavy handed or forced. It is the work of a writer coming into her own.

A version of this review was first published in November 2013 and has remained popular with visitors to this blog. This is a revised and reformatted version.

The themes

This is a novel about love of many kinds. It is also about love’s tendency to appear and disappear over time – indicated by the title. For all the characters in this novel, the summer season changes their experience of love and their path in life. Elizabeth Taylor knew what she was doing in this, her eighth novel. She manages a complex cast of characters and has the confidence to let her story unfold.

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The story

Kate Heron is the main character. She is around forty and has recently married for the second time after being widowed. As she is well off, her new husband Dermot is able to be unemployed for stretches of time, although he tries his hand at growing mushrooms and at entering a partnership in a travel company in London. Kate has a sixteen year-old daughter, Lou, back from boarding school for the holidays, and a son, Tom, who is working his way up in his grandfather’s business. At the start of the novel one feels that Kate and Dermot are doomed, but not for the traditional reasons which they separately suspect are harboured by Kate’s former friends: she married a younger man, and perhaps he married her for her money. Something more complex is implied to the reader.

The young girl and the chaplain

During the summer season Lou falls for the chaplain, a Father Blizzard. She hangs about places and undertakes parish chores, such as sorting shoes for the jumble sale, hoping to bump into him. One morning he asks her to help him buy a birthday present for his sister.

When they were sitting together in the bus, she felt completely happy, without knowing that to feel so is such a rare experience that it might never come to her again. The very knowledge would have made something else of it. This morning was something she recognised as having been waited for, but with wavering degrees of hope. As the miracle had come about she simply accepted it, but was taking it in little sips, blissfully restrained: for instance, she had not yet raised her eyes to look at his face. (56)

Elizabeth Taylor is able to capture such adolescent feelings without implying they are inferior to adult love. As autumn approaches Father Blizzard makes a decision to leave the village and join a Catholic monastery in France. Lou returns to school. I love the description of Waterloo station as mothers see off their children. I was catching trains to and from school at the same period (she was writing in the early ‘60s). She has captured the scene at the start of term.

All over Waterloo Station groups of schoolgirls flocked together – their cries, their movements birdlike, as was their way of keeping to their own kind. Other uniforms drew only glances of scorn. Schoolboys, returning too, were less gregarious. They stood alone at the bookstalls or thoughtfully put pennies into slot-machines, unimpressed by so much feminine gaiety. (206)

A young man’s first love

Tom is used to having girls at his beck and call, has become practised in letting them down gently as he moves on to the next one. But he is smitten with Araminta, when she returns with her father to the village. She is ruthless but cool with ambitions to become a model, vividly attractive and sexy, but able to control Tom through her unresponsiveness. The reader feels for him in his unsuccessful pursuit. She is a prototype for the anorexic size 0 models of our time.

65 Winifred cover

Love for an older woman

Dermot loves Kate, but he can’t quite live up to his own intentions for himself, preferring to allow the truth to be obscured so that he doesn’t appear smaller in her eyes and those of her friends. This leads him into a series of lies. He feels his inferiority; it is moral, educational, cultural and he resents it. This resentment is the catalyst for the tragic climax of the story.

One of the delights of Elizabeth Taylor’s novels is the references to other novels, in this case The Spoils of Poynton by Henry James, which Dermot does not recognise. I admit to not having yet read this book, which is about possessions and a widow’s battle to retain her spoils – antique furniture. As Susannah Clapp points out in her introduction, ‘piles of discarded, unused and unlovely objects are strewn throughout In a Summer Season. … They carry some force as reminders of the inhibitions and consolations of memory and habit’. The Spoils of Poynton was Kate’s first husband’s favourite novel, and links Kate to him and to her previous life in a way that Dermot resents. It’s a clever, quiet device that also shows up Dermot’s ignorance (and mine!).

Kate Heron

260 Elizabeth_Taylor_(novelist)Kate is more aware of each person, including herself, than any of the other characters and because she is central to the plot we often see people mediated through her sensitivities. She learns to manage her relationship to Dermot. Elizabeth Taylor lets us know, in this early scene, that Kate understands Dermot very well.

On the way home they quarrelled – or, rather, she listened to Dermot quarrelling with an imaginary Kate, who supplied him with imaginary retorts, against which he was able to build up his indignation. Then, when they were nearly home, he began to punish himself, and Kate realised that the more he basked in blame, the more it would turn out to be all hers; her friends, for close friends of hers they would become, would seem to have lined up to aggravate him, and her silence would be held to account for his lack of it. (34)

As readers we are encouraged to have some hope for the couple for the evening ends thus:

He ran his knuckles down her spine. ‘You taste of rain,’ he said, kissing her. ‘People say I married her for her money,’ he thought contentedly, and for the moment was full of the self-respect that loving her had given him. (40)

This is pure Elizabeth Taylor: the temporary relaxation of the tension, and the quiet revelation of Dermot’s character.

As summer ends …

It is Dermot’s lack of fibre (as they would say) that pushes the story to its conclusion. While there is tragedy, sudden and brutal, all does not end badly for Kate in a conclusion that does not satisfy all readers. We are unsure what kind of future Kate will have, but the final short chapter allows us to see where love leaves her and the other characters, a year on from that summer season.

As always in her novels there are some great comic moments (preparing for the jumble sale, watching tv, Dermot’s mother). Great tenderness is shown towards Lou’s ‘calf ’love and Tom’s hopeless infatuation with Araminta.

But the uncertainties of love are also revealed with tenderness: Kate’s dream about Charles, Dermot’s desire to do better by Kate leads him to lie and deceive; Lou’s growing up so that the departure of Father Blizzard is not such a blow; Lou crying about her mother and Dermot after he has accused Kate of being ‘bloody smug’; Charles’s comfort; Tom’s inability to recover from Araminta’s death.

275 In a Summer Season new cover

In a Summer Season by Elizabeth Taylor. First published in 1961 Republished by Virago Modern Classics. Quotations in this post are taken from 1983 edition 221pp

Related posts

Some other blog reviews of In a Summer Season:

Dovegreyreader

Of Books and Bicycles

All Elizabeth Taylor’s novels and her short stories have been reviewed on this blog. You can find them by clicking on the category button or on Elizabeth Taylor in the tag cloud.

 

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Mossy Trotter by Elizabeth Taylor

The most awful thing in Mossy Trotter’s life is the prospect of being a page boy at Miss Silkin’s wedding. Mossy is seven years old. This should not happen to him. He will have to wear velvet trousers and a frilled blouse. His reputation is at stake.183 Mossy Totter ET cover

Mossy Trotter was Elizabeth Taylor’s only book for children. It was first published in 1967 when childhoods were less supervised. Her other twelve novels were all written for adults. You can find the reviews of them by clicking on the category Novels of Elizabeth Taylor.

89 ET shelf

The Story

The short novel takes the reader through some adventures and some changes in Mossy’s life. He has his tonsils removed, becomes lost with his sister, gets into scrapes, nearly sacrifices his birthday party, has a new baby brother and attends Miss Silkin’s wedding – yes as a pageboy.

This is life as a boy of seven would live in the outskirts of London in the late 60s. The characters are authentic. Here is a description of Mossy’s mother.

Like many mothers, Mossy’s was rather changeable. He could not always be sure where he stood with her. Although she tried very hard never to break promises, she broke threats, which in a way are a kind of black promise. She would send Mossy to his bedroom for having misbehaved, and then in a minute or two, tell him he could come down; or he would be told that if he were naughty he could not have chocolate cake for tea, and be given it for supper instead. It was a shocking way to bring up children, he once heard his father say. (12)

But we know that Mossy is being well brought up. He is miserable to think he had worried his mother when he gets lost with his three-year-old sister Emma. And his mother brings him exactly the right present when he is in hospital after having his tonsils out.

Mossy has to deal with some difficult dilemmas, again reflecting the reality of children’s lives: what to do about the threatened birthday party; telling lies that help out his grandfather; telling lies that multiply and result in humiliation and so on.

Mossy the boy

Mossy’s real name was Robert Mossman Trotter. The middle name was after his Grandfather Mossman Trotter, and he was called Mossy to avoid muddling him with his father, who had the same name. (42-3)

During the story Mossy develops his understanding of his world and especially of the adults in his life. We see Mossy more clearly because he is set against his mother’s friend Miss Silkin, an adult who understands little of children. Indeed the novel begins with her comment that the Common must be paradise for children. Mossy is bemused for he knows that ‘Standing where she was she could not possibly see the beautiful rubbish dump among the bracken’. (1) Readers of all ages would know that Miss Silkin’s and Mossy’s ideas of paradise are at odds.

Indeed Miss Silkin and Mossy are at odds about yet more important things: he hates the furs she wears. This is what he sees:

… two long, thin dead animals with yellow glass eyes in their heads. Mossy wondered if they had once upon a time been rats. One head peeped over Miss Silkin’s shoulder, and little paws hung limply down her back. (2-3)

Not only does she wear rat-like furs, but her favourite cake is seedy cake, and she is going to get married and wants Mossy to be the page boy. He learns to tolerate her presence.

Mossy’s relationship with his parents is happier. His father is rather distant but sometimes his accomplice; his mother is in consistent but the most comfortable adult in his life; and with his grandfather he shares excitement and pleasure in fast cars.

Mossy does things wrong, gets lost with his little sister, tells lies, gets messy with newly laid tar. When he’s punished for one bit of bad behaviour he takes revenge by drawing he draws a picture of his teacher and his father on the side of a drawer, believing it will never be found.

… he drew the nastiest face he could for Miss Blackett, with crooked teeth and spots all over her, and hair like a mop, and his father with a long nose and crossed eyes, and fleas the size of bumble-bees swarming out of his fuzzy hair. Then he slid the drawer back and felt better. (115-6)

183 E.Taylor

Children in Elizabeth Taylor’s writing

Elizabeth Taylor knows children and she writes well both for and about them. The extracts demonstrate that she writes simply but does not simplify Mossy’s complex emotions and responses. Here is Mossy’s experience as he lay in bed with a fever one summer’s evening.

A delicious smell of wet garden came into the bedroom, and then Mossy heard the swish-swish of water against the wall below his window. Father was hosing the hot bricks which had stored up the day’s sun, and a coolness began to come off them. There was the sound of dripping leaves, as the water spattered on the climbing rose. (78)

And here is Mossy as he realises he is lost with his little sister on the Common.

In some ways, having Emma with him made him braver. But in different ways it made him feel more fearful.

‘Listen,’ he said comfortingly to her. ‘This is a very exciting adventure. It’s like Babes in the Wood.’

‘I don’t like being Babes in the Wood.’

It was certainly the wrong thing to have said, for at once she began to boo-hoo more loudly. ‘There might be wolfs.’

‘”Wolves”,’ he said, to correct her. But she thought he was just agreeing with her, and shrieked louder than ever. (63)

As several extracts show, there is affectionate humour in the telling of this story.

In her other books we might remember the children are interesting characters in their own right. In At Mrs Lippincotes, A View of the Harbour, Angel (as a child), the children are real people.

89 ET list

And as if to prove this, her son, in his introduction tells us that recently

I was moving some furniture that had been handed down by my parents and I happened to open a chest of drawers. Inside I found a pencil drawing of a man’s head, with lots of dots hovering over it. Beneath in childish writing were the words ‘John Taylor has fleas’. (iv)

I recommend you get this book to share with a child and/or to enjoy yourself.

The lively illustrations by Tony Ross exactly capture the spirit of Mossy Trotter.

 

Mossy Trotter by Elizabeth Taylor, first published in 1967, republished in 2015 by Virago Modern Classics 144 pp

Related link: review of Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont

Furrowed Middlebrow reviewed Mossy Trotter earlier this year, with some of the original illustrations.

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Learning about Ageing from Mrs Palfrey

Mrs Palfrey is the main character in Elizabeth Taylor’s 1971 novel – Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont. She featured in the very first post about older women in fiction on this blog, which considered how an older woman was represented in fiction. Here I want to explore what we can learn from Mrs Palfrey about how older people are treated.

mrspalfrey green

The story

Mrs Palfrey is a widow, whose daughter does not want her to share her life in Scotland. Mrs Palfrey finds an advert for residential accommodation in the Claremont Hotel, Cromwell Road, London. When she arrives she finds that a group of similarly aged people are already in residence. They share no connection beyond the hotel, but they have loneliness, reduced economic resources and declining physical capacities in common.

External contacts feature large in the social life of the older people at the Claremont, and Mrs Palfrey is pleased to have a grandson working at the British Museum, and she confidently expects an early visit. Not only will this provide her with company but also enhance her status in the residents’ small world.

When Desmond fails to visit she encourages Ludo to stand in for him. Ludo rescued Mrs Palfrey when she fell outside his bedsitter, and he willingly agrees to act as her grandson. Inevitably le vrai Desmond appears and confusions abound. Much of the narrative is concerned with Mrs Palfrey’s relationship with Ludo.

This novel offers a stark reminder of what it is to be old, and especially how the old are treated. But it is not depressing. There are cheerful spirits, warmth and enjoyment to be experienced.

Let us count the ways old people are treated.

  1. Family neglect

None of the old people would live in the Claremont if their families had taken them in. They all rely on their families for visits, trips out and material for social interactions. But the families for the most part see the old people as a duty.

Mrs Post is waiting anxiously for a cousin, but it is raining.

A summer’s evening drive had been promised, with a picnic. It was a yearly occurrence, and gave the cousin, who was ten years younger than Mrs Post, a sense of duty done which might last her, with any luck, for the following twelve months. [Mrs Post said] ‘As one gets older life becomes all take and no give. One relies on other people for the treats and things. It’s like being an infant again.’ (129-130)

Mrs Arbuthnot leaves the Claremont for alternative accommodation ‘Her indefatigable sisters had found it for her, and much humiliation she had borne while they were doing so.’ (102). She needs a place where ‘someone must be paid to dry up after her’ for she has wet her bed on several occasions.

When her grandson does not turn up at the Claremont Mrs Palfrey makes unsuccessful attempts to invite old friends who find excuses not to visit her.

  1. Economic exploitation

Choosing to provide care for the elderly as a commercial enterprise does not guarantee the quality of the care, or attention to needs. The management of the Claremont barely welcomes the older people, treating them as an inconvenience rather than guests.

The receptionist was coldly kind, as if she were working in a nursing-home, and one for deranged patients at that. (2)

Mrs Palfrey considers the outlook from the room she has been allocated.

From the window she could see – could see only – a white brick wall down which dirty rain slithered, and a cast-iron fire-escape which was rather graceful. She tried to see it that it was graceful. The outlook – especially on this darkening afternoon – was daunting; but the backs of hotels, which are kept for indigent ladies, can’t be expected to provide a view, she knew. The best is kept for honeymooners, though God alone knew why they should require it. (3)

And of course, the quality of the food, served in a three week menu rotation, is very poor, despite mealtimes being important markers in the institutional day.

And when Mrs Palfrey falls just outside the hotel, the manager Mr Wilkins wants her out of sight, more concerned to remove this embarrassment from the pavement than with her best interests.

  1. Regard them as Eccentric

It can be dismaying to consider the darker side of old age, the loneliness, physical decline, neglect and ultimate death. To distance themselves from these aspects of age many of the reviews of this book on other blogs describe the residents as eccentric. They are not.

Mrs Arbuthnot is malicious, spikey and unkind. She is also crippled with pain from arthritis, and suffering the humiliation of incontinence.

Mrs Post is anxious, always out of her depth, especially beyond the walls of the hotel, getting the right library books for Mrs Arbuthnot, or dealing with sharing the fare for a taxi.

Mr Osmond tells dirty jokes in a loud whisper to any man he can buttonhole, and likes to hold himself aloof from the ladies. He writes complaining letters to the Daily Mail of the ‘It would never have happened in former times …’ He is hopelessly out of his depth in dealing with slight acquaintances at a Masonic dinner and in his expectations of Mrs Palfrey.

Lady Swayne makes the most appalling prejudiced and bigoted announcements, prefacing them 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’d like to see the Prime Minister hanged, drawn and quartered. I’m afraid I think the fox revels in it. I’m afraid I don’t think that’s awfully funny. (81)

Mrs Burton who loves to drink with her brother-in-law, or without him.

These people are all trying to cope with the difficulties of ageing. And while we might not condone some responses, they can hardly be described as eccentric – that is unusual or strange. Elizabeth Taylor’s craft is in revealing why they behave in these ways.

The film adaptation (2006) locates the story in the early 21st century, makes much less of the privations of age, and rather encourages the idea of eccentricity. I didn’t like it at all.

  1. Having respect

The delightful Ludo is respectful, attentive and helpful to Mrs Palfrey in a way that none of her family manages.

Mrs Palfrey grey

Learning from Mrs Palfrey

Despite all this, Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont is both a funny and an uplifting book. There is plenty of comedy narrated in Elizabeth Taylor’s controlled and wry style.

Mrs Palfrey has a three-part code of behaviour:

Be independent; never give way to melancholy; never touch capital. (9)

She struggles with all three and frequently has a word with herself when she begins to feel down. To be old and alone may be difficult, suggests Elizabeth Taylor, but there is dignity and new experiences to be had at any age.

In this delightful novel Elizabeth Taylor does a great job of respecting older people and sympathetically revealing the challenges they face. She doesn’t lump all older people together, shows us individuals coping in the face of difficulties. She uses wit and humour to point up how people respond to each other to protect themselves from these difficulties.

168 AgeUKWriting 40 years ago she identified an enduring feature of old age. Loneliness is still a killer for old people, even in a busy city like London. (God bless the Freedom Pass). There is a campaign end loneliness and AgeUK has also highlighted the issue.

Elizabeth Taylor did not live to be old herself, she died of breast cancer aged 63, her family still close to her. Yet she knew what it was to be treated with disdain, impatience, contempt and neglect in old age. We see all of these in this book.

§§§

I must thank my book group for enhancing my understanding of this book.

I have reviewed all of Elizabeth Taylor’s novels on this website. You can access them by clicking on the category Novels by Elizabeth Taylor or Elizabeth Taylor in the Tags.

Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont was the first book to be reviewed in the older women in fiction series. You can see the complete list here.

Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont by Elizabeth Taylor published by Virago Modern Classics 206pp

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