20 May 2022

The Gentlewomen by Laura Talbot

I'm whipping the dust sheet, so to speak, off my blog.  Early last autumn the realization that being tempted by interesting books being written about on blogs  was pulling me away from books already on my shelves.  It is absolutely true that you can have too much of a good thing so I stopped reading blogs on a daily basis.  Then the cooler temperatures reignited an interest in honing my basic sock knitting skills.  Rather than settling for socks that fit well enough, a customized fit was the goal and learning how to knit a short row heel has been so rewarding because, for me, it's a better fit.  But I've also really missed the blogging community and sharing a good read.

Four years ago I had a copy of The Gentlewomen in my hands at a secondhand shop but knowing several Virago titles were still unread at home, I left it behind.  Later that day, curiousity made me look up reviews - a big mistake.  There were glowing comments and, equally frustrating, I read that Laura Talbot was once married to Patrick Hamilton, a writer who wrote scenes of wartime London so vividly the reader feels as though they're in the room.  A full-blown case of FOMO was brewing. 

Passive searching in the hope of stumbling across another copy wasn't working, so I turned to AbeBooks.  Thankfully, The Gentlewomen turned out to be well worth the effort.....    

   "Miss Bolby, I see, or rather, I hardly see, out here it is so dark.  After India you must find these damp fogs rather trying, Miss Bolby.  This peculiar white intensity is rather special to the Midlands, though during the Blitz is was singularly absent - you can hardly have experience enough of it to have become accustomed to it.  But I see you are in a hurry, and so, as a matter of fact, am I, and as we have already gone through our farewells I shall bid you, once again, my dear Miss Bolby, au revoir, but not goodbye."  He shot down the stairs, bushing past Elsie.  He did not pause to offer her any help with the bags, he was in too much of a hurry; but it flashed through his mind that Miss Bolby might at least have carried one of her own bags.

A boarding house, wartime London and fog so thick it catches in the throats of those housed within.  We're off to a brilliant start.

Miss Bolby is in her late fifties and recently employed by Lord and Lady Rushford as governess to their children.  Barby and Louisa are Lady Rushford's daughters from her first marriage, Jessy and Ruth are her stepdaughters and Bella is the daughter Lord and Lady Rushford have had together.  Their grand home features a stretching lawn and a much thumbed copy of Peerage.  Doing their bit for England during the war, the family has taken on a few land girls and two Italian prisoners of war, Otello and Nino.  Mrs Williams cooks for the family, old Benn is the butler, Reenie and Elsie help out as required.

Miss Bolby is a keen stickler when it comes to the rules of society, so much so, she soon alienates those around her with her pedantic ways and airs.  When Miss Bolby learns that Lady Rushford has hired a new secretary she can not resist asking a burning question....

   "Well, thank you very much for letting me know." At the door Miss Bolby paused: "Forgive me for asking such a question, Lady Rushford, but is Miss Pickford a gentlewoman?".  Elizabeth, too, paused.  "I understand so, Miss Bolby.  Her father was a vicar of somewhere - Stonechurch."  

And then comes the reply that leaves no room for doubt about Miss Bolby's character.....

   "I always think it helpful to know from what milieu people come, especially in these days when one so frequently finds the unexpected."

Never slow to let those around her know that her sister married into the upper classes while in India, she seethes with anger and embarrassment when relatives of the Rushfords delve into the six degrees of separation to reveal a minor scandal.  And when the new secretary requests a different bedroom and is offered one that King Edward VII had slept in, Miss Bolby swiftly offers to take the 'King Edward' room as part of a convoluted swap.  That Miss Pickford should have one up on Miss Bolby must not be allowed.  In short, this is humour crossed with the unflattering aspect of envy. 

The Gentlewomen is filled with situations where the class divide is highlighted, such as the riveting topic of whether milk is to be added to the cup before or after tea is poured.  With a snide grin, Miss Bolby remembers seeing Lady Alice pour the milk last.  And there are other transgressions concerning the family, carefully mentioned in private, involving previous lovers and affiliation with suffragettes.

At every opportunity, Miss Bolby tries to gain a further foothold into the realm of the Rushhold family, unfortunately the only person being fooled is herself.  At first, her snobbishness is entertaining in the same way that Hyacinth Bucket is, but a situation involving her missing bracelets reveals a frightening psychological aspect of Miss Bolby's character.

A brilliant read that I'm adding to my list of favourites!

Ann by Prudence Heward (1942)

8 October 2021

Quartet in Autumn by Barbara Pym

A book with the word 'Autumn' in the title simply begs to be read during this time of year.  Which isn't to say the topic has anything to do with seasonal delights, this is a story about four people in their sixties on the brink of retirement and what lies ahead.

Letty, Marcia, Norman and Edwin work in an office (my guess is somewhere in Holburn) but their desks are moving closer to the exit, so to speak.  In the workplace, they're already on their way to being irrelevant.  In fact, we never discover the company name or what it is they do.  It's more a case of gathering around the tea/coffee station and tidying up desks.   Grouped together they form something of a work family but there is a fairly solid line no one is willing to cross.  Pym hones in on the social dance of making sure people know they are cared for - but keep your distance.

All four main characters are single....Letty was renting a room in a home recently bought by a Nigerian priest who hosts festive gatherings featuring regional dishes.  Sadly, it's all beyond Letty's traditional English ways.  Through his involvement in the church, Edwin matches her up with Mrs Pope, an elderly woman who thought the company would be nice.  She can't resist a snoop at the first opportunity, though...

   The first thing that struck Mrs Pope was tidiness and order.  This was a slight disappointment for she had hoped to find interesting things lying about in the room.  Naturally she would expect somebody recommended by Mr Braithwaite - she did not think of him as 'Edwin' - to be respectable, even a churchwoman, but she was surprised to find that there was no devotional book on the bedside table, not even a Bible, just a novel from the Camden library.  Mrs Pope would have respected a biography but she was not interested in novels......

 Norman lives in a tiny bedsit in Kilburn Park, and Marcia owns a semi-detached house with a garden growing wilder by the day.  

Marcia is a tragic figure in this story.  Having gone through a diagnosis of breast cancer and subsequent mastectomy she thinks of her follow-up visits to the hospital as outings.  She is quite taken with her surgeon, Dr Strong while her support worker Janice is considered a nuisance.  Marcia hoards tins of food, compulsively stores used milk bottles and keeps a stash of new nighties....because you never know.    

Norman frequents the British Museum and the library, Edwin lives for the next church service and Letty has her friend's love life to brood over.  Marjorie was looking forward to having Letty as a companion in her country cottage until a new vicar shows up in the village and her head is turned.  

The concern Norman, Edwin and Letty have for Marcia brings them together with the realization that, for better or worse, relationships and the intrusions that go with them, are necessary.  Being alone doesn't necessarily equate with loneliness but our lives are richer for having others to lean on during difficult times.

When I bought this book it was to support an independent bookseller in my community; you can't go wrong with a Barbara Pym novel.  I had no idea what Quartet in Autumn was about but happily, my choice turned out to be a very good one.   

Published in 1977 Quartet in Autumn was shortlisted for the Booker Prize.

The Sock Knitter by Grace Cossington Smith

27 September 2021

The Last September by Elizabeth Bowen

Reading a novel by Elizabeth Bowen is to steep in the most magnificent pages of prose.  And then there is the period of recovery once you've turned the last page because you're bereft at there being no more.  But let's cast aside the drama for now....

About six o'clock the sound of a motor, collected out of the wide country and narrowed under the trees of the avenue, brought the household out in excitement on to the steps.

Yes, dear reader, The Last September is very much a country house novel.  Set in 1920, Hugo and Francie Montmorency have arrived at Danielstown in County Cork, the manor house belonging to Sir Richard and Lady Naylor, with windows across the front resembling eyes to see all.  It has been twelve years since the Montmorencys visited last so there is much catching up to do.  Their cases are brought into the house amidst a flurry of questions about friends and relations in common.  Hoping to avoid the visitors, Lois travels through the back halls which smelt of scrubbed wood, limewash, and the ducks already roasting for the Montmorencys' dinner.  

Sir Richard's niece has been in his care since her mother's tragic death at a young age.  Mysteriously, the only clue we're given as to what happened is a brief line....without giving anyone notice of her intention, Laura had died.  In her late teens, Lois has the attention of several young men but enjoys the company of only one.  Gerald Lesworth is a member of the British Army and therefore on the other side of The Troubles in Ireland.  The Anglo-Irish will tolerate these young men and their wives at parties or games of tennis, but marriage is out of the question.  Secret engagements among those too young to press forward with their intentions do have their place in being a distraction or thrill.  

Also staying at Danielstown is Lady Naylor's nephew Laurence.  Between terms at Oxford he seems to stealthily meander from his room to the library, succinctly commenting when absolutely necessary.  Oblivious to his privilege, Laurence grizzles with frustration regarding his lack of available funds while other young men are battling unrest. 

"I have no money; where do you expect me to get any money from?  I was to have gone to Spain this month with a man and last year I should have gone to Italy with another man, but what do yo expect me to go on?  I have to eat somewhere, don't I, and here it is simply a matter of family feeling."

But, the primary focus of The Last September is from Lois's perspective.  Aware of guns outside the front gate and reminders not to stray off the main road, she is troubled that men are dying while she cuts material for dresses.  She is also confused by her feelings for Gerald and whether or not she is in love with him.  Bowen skillfully pulls back the curtain on this era of stoic behaviour in the drawing room to reveal her characters' fragility once closeted in their room.

Also a study in contrast, while the family eat raspberries and cream on the lawn during tennis games, tanks and uniforms surveil the countryside.

  "Autumn," pronounced Sir Richard.  "There should be less of this ambushing and skirmishing and heyfidaddling now that the days are drawing in."

Toward the end of the story, Lady Naylor and Mrs Trent comment that the house looks its best in the autumn.  But this is the last autumn for many of the grand Anglo-Irish households in Ireland.   

Elizabeth Bowen reduces me to a heap time and time again.   

Portrait of the Hon. Lois Sturt (later Viscountess Tredegar) by Ambrose McEvoy

14 September 2021

The Reading Cure: How Books Restored My Appetite by Laura Freeman

 Laura Freeman has been a guest on a couple of the podcasts I listened to recently and I enjoyed her essay Brain Work in In the Kitchen by Daunt Publishing.  Having similar tastes in reading material and the world of just about all things having to do with Bloomsbury, my tbr pile was shoved aside so I could finish it by its due date.  Library books are wonderful but looming due dates can be such a menace...and I work there!  

Authors who devote luxurious paragraphs of writing to the description of the contents of a picnic hamper, pantry cupboard or breakfast table are among my favourite.  Diagnosed with anorexia at fourteen years of age, Freeman navigated her way through her illness with the help of her family, doctors and therapists with varying degrees of success.  While spending periods of time in bed another avenue of therapy came from reading about the lavish, and not so lavish, meals found in the writings of Charles Dickens.  

When a planned supper at Davey Copperfield's lodging goes awry (his cook, Mrs Crupp, is taken ill while frying the soles), it is Micawber to the rescue.  Mr Micawber's Mustard Mutton would not disgrace the menu in any cookhouse.

By page twenty-six I was adding the ingredients for a beef stew to my grocery list.  From hearty chophouse meals to the trenches of The Great War, it was the simple pleasure of soft-boiled eggs that sustained Siegfried Sassoon during moments of a hurried meal.  Suddenly nothing is more necessary than joining along from the distance of more than a hundred years.  And I must read A Month in the Country by J L Carr again because the bounty of food offered to Birkin while working in the church has completely slipped from my memory.  My only explanation is that I must have been so taken by this book as a whole that the food quietly slipped into the background.  I digress....

Freeman read her way through all five volumes of Virginia Woolf's diaries, recognizing certain aspects corelating weight with mental well-being.  Reading about Leonard's attempts to make sure his wife was properly nourished resonated with Freeman in the extreme patience shown by her mother at mealtimes.  I laughed at the descriptions of structured eating so popular today and yes, Freeman is right...Virginia Woolf, as cautious as she was regarding her weight...never ate a goji berry.  

As someone who was once referred to a psychiatrist because of OCD, I smiled at our mutual understanding of therapy and when it can become something of a hindrance...  

After a certain point, therapy and its talking made me feel trapped.  I need to find something that would take me out of my thoughts, not that asked me to return to them time and again.

Therapy made my issue worse as I went from scrubbing corners with toothbrushes to fine-tuning it by using cotton buds.  People who have Type-A tendencies can become consumed with being the best at something, even if it is the thing you're in therapy for.  I questioned where the line was between personality and syndrome, and who has the authority to define normal behaviour, anyway?  I decided to out myself for the traits that were particularly mine and felt better for it.  My friends laugh at the fact that it makes me happy to iron pyjamas and that I might be caught out washing the kitchen cupboards at work on my break, but we laugh together.  

Finally, Laura Freeman is also spot on in knowing that distraction plays such an important role in the process of coping and/or healing.

Learn something.  It is the best medicine.  It is the only thing that never fails.  In my case that has meant reading, most of all.  Galleries and church-haunting, too.  But it needn't be book-learning, it might be a language, an instrument, the names of wildflowers, the calls of town-garden birds, fifty years of county cricket scores, or how to make bread, mix watercolours, thread a needle, anything that takes you out of yourself.

A brave memoir that shines a positive light on the many paths to healing of all kinds.  And next week I'm trying mushrooms on toast!

 La tasse de chocolate by Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1841 - 1919)
(circa 1912)