20 April 2016

Consequences by Penelope Lively

A love story set during World War II in the hands of Penelope Lively...well, it's bound to be good, isn't it.  Something I didn't expect though is this book's epic scale.  At just over 250 pages my impression was that this story would encompass all the stereotypes of rationing, evacuees, air raids, and emotional upheaval within the time frame of the 1940s.  In Consequences, Penelope Lively follows a nuclear family through future generations up to just past the year 2000.  The constant in the story, albeit at times as a memory, is a small rustic cottage in Somerset that is two centuries old.

Lorna and Matt meet on a bench in St, James's Park.  It's 1935 and Matt is sketching birds as a commission for a book.  Lorna stays away from her parents' white-terraced home in London's Brunswick Gardens to avoid talk of her future.  She's always been attracted to the idea of a bohemian lifestyle and fills the walls of her bedroom with art.  Her parents want what's best for her which means marriage to an Oxford-educated man.  Matt couldn't be further from their ideal portrayal of a future son-in-law with his working class upbringing near the Welsh border.  Lorna and Matt weigh their options and decide to elope. Setting out to find a tranquil space to nest and paint they discover the cottage...

'Square and squat, cob and thatch, dug solid into the red Somerset earth, the small building had seen out generations of farm laborers.  People had been born here, died here, had heard rumors of wars, had achieved the vote, had sweated over the same patch of landscape and stared at the same sky.  Now, the place stood empty, bar the mice and the black beetles and the spiders.  Empty, and two pounds a month.'

The toilet is outdoors and there's no running water.  I couldn't wait to find out how dedicated Lorna was to her dream of a bohemian life, but I have to hand it to her...she copes brilliantly.  Matt paints frescoes on the walls that in my mind's eye looked a bit like art by Eric Ravilious.  Soon, a baby girl comes along, and so does the war.  Matt packs a bag, answering the call to duty.  I was crushed when I turned to the front leaf and found out that Matt is killed.  Sorry! but it's right there for all to see early on.

What follows is Lorna's wonderful spirit and ability to wade through adversity with the help of those who love her.  She smiles at the independent nature of her daughter, Molly, and marvels at the changing times.  Molly goes on to admire those same character traits in her own daughter, Ruth.  Long gone are the days of little choice for women.  This new order rings the changes in more tolerance of homosexuality, birth control, less concern about class structure, pregnancy outside of marriage, and divorce.

As a personal aside, there is a description of Molly's short career as a librarian's assistant from a 1960s persepctive that I am going to photocopy and hand to my branch manager.  Discussing banned books is outrageous, Trustees look down very long noses, and the circulation area is referred to as the 'issue' desk.

Penelope Lively admirably takes the reader through through sixty years of history with crafty leaps of season and hormonal milestones.  And while I initially chose to read Consequences for its World War II theme, the fact that the story veered off in another direction ended up being something quite wonderful.

Sussex Landscape by Eric Ravilious

14 April 2016

Spring edition of Town & Country...Calling All Rampant Anglophiles

Made a quick stop at Chapters last night to pick up a couple of cards and spotted the Spring edition of Town & Country.  They've outdone themselves with article after article to send any anglophile worth their salt running for a cup of tea and some quiet time.

What's inside. you may ask?  Emma Bridgewater, beekeeping, the portraiture of Vanessa Garwood, three new independent bookshops in London, Sotheby's auction of articles belonging to Deborah Devonshire (by Juliet Nicholson), restoration of a Hawksmoor-designed estate, recipes for a delicious lunch fit for the Queen, and a beautiful set of photographs of the Queen from past to present.  There's also a page highlighting fashion to wear to the Hay Festival but personally, I wouldn't sit on damp grass in trousers from Holland & Holland that cost £225.

Pardon the glare on the photo...the sun is out today!

7 April 2016

Carlyle's House and Other Sketches by Virginia Woolf

I confess there are times when a book sounds wonderful but the page count is too low or the font is too large and all will be over in a sitting.  Who doesn't want value for their reading dollar?  I also confess to spending $12 on a British magazine that is flipped through once or twice and passed on in pristine condition.  At a mere sixty-five pages including the foreword, introduction, note on text, acknowledgements, Woolf's writings, commentary, and biographical note, this publication could slip under the radar.  And that would be a shame...it's brilliant.

The foreword is by Doris Lessing and begins with a perfect description...'These pieces are like five-finger exercises for future excellence.'  While many writers have contributed to the idea that Woolf's writings are intimidating, I love that Lessing describes Woolf and her close circle of Bloomsbury artists as 'that lot'.  Rather than being disrespectful I found the comment to be a joyous leveller.  She also brings together the polarizing views of Virginia Woolf as a snob and depressive with the fun-loving woman who enjoyed picnics and parties when she wasn't ill.

Moving on to the actual sketches, most are just two pages in length and taken from very early notebooks.  For the most part, they're exercises in observation but after reading Woolf's scathing description of Amber Reeves I can see why acquaintances would be a tad nervous to get too close.  Virginia's keen eye scanned for every detail...

'She has dark hair, an oval face, with a singularly small mouth: a lone is pencilled on her upper lip.....her taste and insight are not fine; when she described people she ran into stock phrases, and took rather a cheap view.  She seemed determined to be human also; to like people, even though they were stupid.'

In the commentary, Miss Reeves is described as someone of 'great passion and intellect'.  She was also much-talked about while at Cambridge for her fondness of breaking rules and sexual liberation.  An affair with H. G. Wells resulted in a child but that's a story for another day.  Around this time (early 1900s), Virginia was hoping for marriage and a child herself so were her observations of Amber Reeves seen through green eyes?  As an aside, I had one of those 'Squee!' moments yesterday when I noticed that Persephone Books will soon be publishing an early book by Reeves, A Lady and Her Husband.

Other topics explored by Woolf are Cambridge, Hampstead, and Divorce Courts which is a devastating account of the petition for separation between Alice Mary Fearnley-Whittingstall and her husband.  Finding out that her abusive and controlling husband was the local, and long-time, reverend made me shudder all the more.  There is a suggestion that Alice Mary came under the spell of another woman, Miss Lewis, but perhaps she was simply offering the poor woman a means of escape.  In any case, Woolf writes about sitting in on the proceedings.

'She, no doubt, was the less conventional of the two; though the more unjust.  He was obviously consoled by the complete vindication of his character, and the consciousness that he had acted rightly and spoken the truth.  She will flounder along for a time, one suspects; there will be a disillusionment, when Miss Lewis deserts her for another woman' and then she will come back, and be received with due Christian charity; and some penance will be assigned her, to last her life.'

Virginia was right, at least when it came to Alice Mary returning home.

If I haven't tempted you to find a copy of this slim, but rich, collection by now then there's simply no point in continuing.  I'm off for a nice long walk before going to work.  Enjoy your day!

Virginia Woolf

31 March 2016

Noonday by Pat Barker

It's a bit of a risk to begin a series with the last book but with London during the Blitz as a backdrop I was excited to dive in and see if it would work.  The first few pages did feel a bit like walking into a house full of strangers but isn't that how we usually begin most stories?

Elinor's extended family have gathered at a cottage where her mother lies in an upstairs bedroom, eking out her last breaths.  Outside there are soldiers in the lane and toy soldiers on the carpet of another bedroom as Kenny, an evacuee, plays in his own little world while picking his cuticles and scabs.  He isn't the sort of boy people warm to easily so when he announces he's heading back to London, even it it means walking, Elinor's husband gives him a lift.  It's also the excuse Paul needs to leave the cloying atmosphere of death and family tension.

The first book in this series  Life Class then followed by Toby's Room centres around a romantic triangle involving Elinor, Paul, and Neville.  Within the first few pages I know which character is on the outside, still looking in.  Neville has eventually gone on to marry and have a child but things didn't worked out.  It has been awhile since he has seen his daughter as she's living with her mother in America.  World War II has brought the three friends, together since art school, close again as members of the volunteer service.

Any shortfall in the back story of these characters is filled by the descriptions of Bloomsbury.  My home away from home while in London comes to life with its flats on Gower Street (rooftop ones at that), Russell Square, the British Museum, a volunteer depot on Tottenham Court Road, and strolls along Guildford Street.  Persephone Books wasn't even a twinkle then but I couldn't help visualizing a turn onto Lamb's Conduit Street.

My favourite parts of the book were when Elinor, an artist whose work hangs in the Tate, was narrating the story.  Back in London after the death of her mother, she decides to surprise her husband at his studio and sees him on the doorstep with a woman.  Their body language leaves no doubt as to an affair.  She has overlooked his roving eye in the past but as she's matured Elinor has become more independent.  This is where the rooftop flat on Gower Street comes in - the rent is cheap because who wants to be that close to the direct hit of a bomb?  Elinor is also a voice for other women artists (Laura Knight gets a mention) who are frustrated with being paid only for their commissions rather than a salary as their male counterparts are.  The offer of a job on the War Artists Advisory Committee will hopefully allow Elinor some sort of leverage.

Descriptions of nightly bombing raids are vivid as are the images of bodies torn apart and people, still in a state of shock, searching for loved ones.  In particular, it's the children lying like rag dolls on the pavement that leave the most lasting memories.  At one point Kit Neville remembers his daughter...

'...there was the gap, the all-important gap, the visit from the tooth fairy, Anne smiling, baring her teeth.  And for a long time afterwards, he'd noticed her running her tongue along the edge of the grown-up tooth, which was uneven, not smooth as adult teeth are after years of biting and grinding.  That little girl, last night - Livvy, was it?  Her two precious grown-up teeth would never be worn smooth.'

The almost daily scenes of devastation, long hours on very little sleep coupled with isolation and fueled by alcohol is probably not the best foundation for turning a friendship into something more.  Some may disagree.  But in Neville's case a feeling of desperation that leads to a violent act changes the bond between friends forever with a tragic result.

definitely works as a stand-alone novel.  But who wouldn't want to go back to the beginning?...to find out how this trilogy of characters came to mean so much to one another, for better or worse.

Corporal J.D.M. Pearson, GC, WAAF by Laura Knight (1940)
(first woman to receive the George Cross)