15 February 2020

Night and Day by Virginia Woolf

Oh how I loved this story.  Blend together a literature-loving middle-class family in Cheyne Walk, a large and loving family of lesser means in Highgate, and a feminist campaigning from Russell Square for the right to vote.  Then add five characters who are either eager to propose, be proposed to, or questioning the point of marrying at all.  With Woolf's clever prose and some snort-inducing scenes of razor-sharp wit, Night and Day is one of my favourites by this author.  And it begins with a tea party.....

'A single glance was enough to show that Mrs Hilbery was so rich in the gifts which make tea-parties of elderly distinguished people successful that she scarcely needed any help from her daughter, provided that the tiresome business of teacups and bread and butter was discharged for her.'

Ralph Denham is a young lawyer, working at Lincoln's Inn.  His invitation to take tea with the Hilbery family in Cheyne Walk is through his association with Mr Trevor Hilbery, for whom he has written a few articles.  As the other guests are over the age of forty, Ralph and Katharine Hilbery are drawn together as young allies.  As the young lady of the house, she provides a short tour of the lounge, pointing out works on the shelves by her esteemed grandfather, the poet Richard Alardyce.  Ralph is quietly awestruck as he would love nothing more than to write.  Katharine has a passion of her own, one that would surely come as a shock to her literary family.....she loves maths, science and physics.

Elsewhere in London Mary Datchet, in her mid-twenties, readies her flat for a gathering of 'free thinkers'.  It's possible that Woolf''s snobbery comes out while describing Mary's clumsiness as a suggestion of country birth and a descent from respectable hard-working ancestors.  Or we can give Woolf the benefit of the doubt and label her description as a humourous one.  Mary is the counterbalance to many Edwardian women in that she is fiercely independent, loves going to work in an office each day, and would rather be a spinster than marry a man for the sake of it.  Ralph Denham appears at her door as a member of the free-thinkers group.  The banter between Mary and Ralph flows easily; they're the best of friends. 

And then there's William Rodney.  He works as a clerk in a government office.  During his time out of office he is a frustrated poet.  He scores full marks with Katharine's parents in this regard but oh he comes across as one of the wettest characters I've stumbled across for some time.  It's been ages since a character has reminded me so much of Austen's Mr Collins.  After some hesitation and inner turmoil (and my silent pleas of 'Oh dear god, no!') Katharine becomes engaged to William.  Being a 'good' daughter during the Edwardian era wasn't easy; her head and her heart are all over the place.  She heeds the words of her parents, but since her acquaintance with Ralph that day over tea he has become unforgettable.  But Katharine's fate is not solely based on a man, she also considers the possibility of a future in the world of equations, something her mother describes as ugliness.  This comes from a woman who swoons over all things to do with Shakespeare.

Another character I thoroughly enjoyed was Aunt Celia.  She pops up now and then to meddle with other people's children because she's got none of her own.  Also, as a point of interest when it comes to London's tea shop history, this is the first time I've come across an A.B.C. tea shop in a novel.  There were at least two hundred of these shops in which a lady could rest and enjoy a cup of tea or small meal without a male escort but it's usually the Lyons Corner Shops that get the mention.

Night and Day is a brilliant novel for anyone looking for an undemanding introduction to Woolf's writing.  Which might be part of the problem.  When it was published in 1919, critics and friends found it to be slightly lacking, a bit light.  It doesn't even rate a mention in my copy of The Reader's Companion to the 20th-Century Novel which is such a shame.  I will be doing my bit to spread the word about this novel, and why a producer at one of the studios hasn't taken a look at this story as a series to get us through the winter, I'll never know.

    Edwardian Portrait of a Woman by F. H. Michael

21 January 2020

After the Party by Cressida Connolly

One of my favourite reads of 2018 was The Rare and the Beautiful.  A non-fiction book about the Garman sisters and their relationships with members of the artsy elite between the wars in London is fantastic.  When I found out that Connolly had a new fiction novel coming out I was interested to see if it would measure up.  Once again the focus is on sisters.

With dual timelines of 1938 and 1979, After the Party tells the story of Phyllis Forrester, her family and the events leading up to her incarceration at Holloway prison.  Unlike the usual path for most inmates, no charges or trial preceded her imprisonment.  A knock at the door followed by police rifling through cupboards and then a hurried push into a police car.  She's horrified to learn that her husband has been hiding a gun in the house.  Both Phyllis and Hugh have been identified as active members of Oswald Mosley's British Union of Fascists. 

After living in Belgium for several years while Hugh worked for British Rubber, the Forresters and their three children have moved back to Sussex.  Both of Phyllis's sisters have offered to house the family while they look for a new home.  Patricia is a middle-class snob, consumed by appearances and etiquette, whereas Nina is carefree but extremely busy running a camp.  In actuality, it is a camp for Party members.  During the summer it is portrayed as an outlet for summer fun but older children are given pamphlets to hand out while wearing Cadet uniforms.  It's all dressed up as jolly good family fun but the message is clearly the promotion of Fascist ideals.

One of my favourite things about the book is how authentic the restraint of certain characters comes across.  Which is not to say there is a lack of outbursts.  When Phyllis is certain about a dalliance between her husband and someone close to her, but bears it in silence, that sense of a stiff upper lip is portrayed brilliantly.  Many times, when the family is together, it is what's left unsaid that creates the most atmosphere.  And class, status, and labels are everywhere.  A slash of red lipstick on someone considered ever so slightly too young is enough to bring out the smelling salts. 

The more I read, the more it seemed that Phyllis was on the outside looking in.  Except with Jamie, a childhood friend from a working class family.  Playful visits were begrudgingly allowed but he was never going to be appropriate as anything more.   

The combination of sisters, familial conflict, and living in the countryside during World War II reminded me of The Cazalet Chronicles.  I didn't quite feel as though I was sitting in the midst of the room as I did with Elizabeth Jane Howard's sublime novels, but I did enjoy being back in an atmosphere reminiscent of it.  The subject of Mosley, and the inescapable connection with the Mitfords, has piqued my interest enough to do a bit more reading.  That biography on Diana that I found in a church book sale should do the trick.

There are a couple of ways to interpret the title.  After the party might refer to changes in Phyllis's life as a direct result of being involved in Mosley's politics, or a tragic event following a misunderstood encounter at an exclusive gathering.  Either way, I like that the interpretation is yours to decide.

   Oswald Mosley with members of the British Union of Fascists 

24 December 2019

Party Going by Henry Green

Henry Green was raised in privileged surroundings during the early years of the twentieth century.  Attending both Eton and Oxford he became friends with Anthony Powell, Evelyn Waugh, Bryan Guiness and others from the world of hyphenated last names and titles.  Green (whose last name was actually Yorke) was a recognized member of the Bright Young Things.  A reasonably sophisticated Brat Pack of 1920s London, if you will.  So when he sat down in 1931 to write a story featuring a group of friends taking a trip to the South of France, you just know it will be telling.

Mr Robert Wray, a director of the train line, calls the station master to ask if he'll look out for his niece Julia and her friends as a thick fog inches near.  Miss Fellowes, who only means to wave off her niece Claire, has found a still-warm dead pigeon.  For reasons only known to herself, she washes it carefully in the station's restroom and wraps it in brown paper.  Angela Crevy arrives with her boyfriend Robin, who finds this new circle of friends she's attached herself to, revolting.  Robin is trying his best to keep a lid on his feelings but wonders how Angela could leave him for three weeks, just when they're on the verge of getting engaged.

Meanwhile, Max Adey has been cruelly trying to detach himself from his girlfriend Amabel, by giving her the run around.  He's doesn't come across as very likable and yet he's just the sort of man some women want to be around and some men admire.

   'Max was dark and excessively handsome, one of those rich young men who when still younger had been taken up by an older woman, richer than himself.  Money always goes to money, the poor always marry someone poorer than themselves but it is only the rich who rule worlds such as we describe and no small part of Max's attraction lay in his having started so well with someone even richer than himself.'

Amabel is no shrinking violet but the toxic relationship she has with Max has shattered her nerves.  She tells Max the doctor thinks some time away from London and the fog would do her the world of good.  To complicate things further, Julia is on her way to Victoria Station to join the group....and everyone thinks Max and Julia are destined to be together.

The fog thickens....

   'While these others walked all in one direction, the traffic was motionless for long and then longer periods.  Fog was down to ground level outside London, no cars could penetrate there so that if you had been seven thousand feet up and could have seen through you would have been amused at blocked main roads in solid lines and, on the pavements within two miles of this station, crawling worms on either side'.  

 Suddenly, Miss Fellowes takes a turn, worrying everyone in the group to varying degrees.  Some think she's been drinking, including the doctor.  Carried off to a room to recover, the others start moving about the station in ones and twos which creates chaos about who has the tickets and worry about missing the train.  This is very much a novel that wouldn't exist in today's world of cellphones and text messaging.

Waiting out the fog has created such crowds that it's decided to lower the gates around the station.  Mr Wray advises his niece and her friends to take rooms at the station hotel so they will be more comfortable.  In a scene that leaves no doubt as to the level of entitlement that exists in this group, Amabel instructs her maid to find her luggage, dig out the bath salts, and run her a bath.  Max and Julia lean out of the window to watch the crowds below and are glad they're not among them.

Over the course of several hours, the 'frenemies' watch each other, create drama, and speculate.  We never really know what any of them is truly feeling about the situation they find themselves in as much is conveyed through dialogue with others.  

I've picked this book up a couple of times over the past few years but didn't get past the first few pages.  A case of right book, wrong time I suppose because it was the perfect book at this time of year when everyone is rushing about somewhere. 

Henry Green's novels have yet to make me feel the need to clutch them to my chest when I finish, but they always stay with me for a very long time.  In fact, they're unforgettable.  I finished Party Going a couple of days ago and would happily start it all over again today.  But there's too much to do!

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

Victoria Station (1927) 

13 December 2019

Mudlark by Lara Meiklam

During my last two trips to London I have climbed down a set of stairs not far from Millenium Bridge to scan the foreshore for bits of crockery.  The smallest bit of crockery instantly conjures up images of a family at the breakfast table.  A piece of pipe stem is even more exciting as plates are still everyday items but it's been decades since I've seen someone enjoy a pipe.  Clay pipes are most definitely from the past.  And then there are the mysterious things you have absolutely no idea about, but passing them around with friends for ideas is good fun.

July 2017 finds.

Lara Maiklem has been mudlarking for several years, feeling more at peace along the Thames than just about anywhere else.  The focus of searching for bits of history churned up by the tide easily blocking out any intrusions.  

'When I was by the river, I was somewhere else, disconnected from the city and a world away from my problems.  It was my escape, from people, work, awkward situations, even sometimes from myself.'

I can attest to that.  One of the most basic rules (and seemingly obvious one) is to be aware of the rising tide and your escape route.  During my two adventures on the foreshore I was lost in my task within minutes, creeping farther away from the stairs, drawn by what could lie just beyond arm's reach.  The very near sound of a wave lapping right behind me was fright-inducing before I realized it was simply the wake from a boat sailing past.  

What did I learn about the Thames and mudlarking from Lara's book?  Two thousand years ago the river was twice as wide and more shallow.  That spitting on a heavily rusted item and then wrapping it in tinfoil will move along the cleaning process quite nicely.  Hindus toss coconuts into the river to deliver blessings (which could very well explain why we found one floating near the shore in Lake Ontario a handful of years ago).  The Crown has strict rules about what is considered 'treasure'.  For instance, the item needs to be over 300 years old and contain a percentage of precious metal.  I can only imagine that staff on the Treasure Valuation Committee pinch themselves regularly for having such an interesting position. 

September 2019 finds.

Maiklem's sentimentality regarding the past is endearing, not to mention an inherent personality trait.  Her great aunt believed that robins are the souls of the departed so they're greeted warmly when they come near.  And I loved Lara's take on the scenario that might have led to each find being cast or lost to the river.  Especially scorned lovers tossing their posy rings from a bridge or boat.  Pity the person (or perhaps even the thief) whose bag of gems or jewellery was discovered (too late) to have had a hole.  It's clear that for Maiklem this isn't hoarding or fortune hunting but a genuine interest in London's past.   She also spends countless hours searching online to connect the dots, beginning with small clues such as initials on a token or military badge.  Typing her own last name into a website listing people transported to Tasmania, Maiklem even discovered that one of her relatives, guilty of forgery, was aboard the Strathfieldsay in 1831 during a journey which lasted nearly four months.

During my last trip to the foreshore in September I was wearing white Converse running shoes, the time before that, a dress.  That tells you how discriminate I was while making my way across the pebbles.  Maiklem is much wiser when it comes to outfitting herself for a few hours of kneeling in sucking mud.  While I wouldn't mind getting down and dirty in my quest to find an apothecary bottle or old farthing, I shivered at the image of Lara wearing a headlamp while mudlarking at 2 am.  Even though I sighed while reading about the gorgeous clay pipe she found, decorated with roses and thistles entwined around the bowl, nothing could tempt me to do that.  But Maiklem doesn't spook easily, writing about her collection of bottles with faces....

'My motley crew sit side by side in a cabinet at home, a line-up of broken misfits and odd bods.  I like to think of them coming to life when the house is asleep, like a group of old men in a tavern, bragging and swapping tall tales.'

I loved every page of Mudlark and all of the vivid images that Lara Maiklem brought to life through her passionate storytelling and adventures. 

*If anyone has any ideas about the piece of obsidian? at the top of my second photo, please tell me!  The lighter colour in the, what I think is hydration rind, makes me wonder if it was once a tool.  It looks as though it could have been sculpted, or simply ended up like that through one hundred years of tumbling over rocks.  Thanks!