5 April 2018

The Voyage Out by Virginia Woolf

If you're considering a good book to read while on your summer get-away, let your quest end here.  Oh sure, the latest bestseller might keep you occupied, but if you want to be swept away...look no further.

Published in 1915, the first pages of Virginia Woolf's first novel set the scene of a London filled to bursting with people.  The pavement is so busy you can forget walking side by side with your partner.  Mrs Helen Ambrose is on the verge of tears...

'...she only felt at this moment how little London had done to make her love it, although thirty of her forty years had been spent in a street.  She knew how to read the people who were passing her, there were the rich who were running to and from each others' houses at this hour; there were the bigoted workers driving in a straight line to their offices; there were the poor who were unhappy and rightly malignant.  Already, though there was sunlight in the haze, tattered old men and women were nodding off to sleep upon the seats.  When one gave up seeing the beauty that clothed things, this was the skeleton beneath.'

Helen and Ridley Ambrose are making their way to a steamship owned by Helen's brother-in-law, Willoughby Vinrace.  Their destination is South America, a voyage which will take several weeks.  Mr Vinrace asks Helen to take his twenty-four year old daughter Rachel under her care.  Since her mother's death when she was eleven, Rachel has been raised by aunts in Richmond.  With her environment and reading material censored by her caregivers, Rachel remains ignorant about the emotions that bring two people together in a loving relationship.  And then the Dalloways board the ship when it stops in Lisbon.  There is a moment of frisson between Richard and Rachel that reveals much to the young woman.

If you have read Mrs Dalloway, and loved it as much as I did, you must The Voyage Out.  The way Woolf describes the couple in toe-curling delightful detail....their clothes, the snobbery...it is absolutely brilliant.

    'Ridley engaged her to come to-morrow.    "If only your ship is going to treat us kindly!" she exclaimed, drawing Willoughby into play.  for the sake of guests, and these were distinguished, Willoughby was ready with a bow of his head to vouch for the good behaviour even of the waves.'

Turning to a personal moment, I raised an eyebrow while reading a paragraph that mentions Portuguese fathers marrying Indian mothers and intermingling with the Spanish.  My results from one of those ancestry DNA kits revealed my background as 21% Iberian Peninsula with a smidge of South Asian.  The rest is Western Europe, but who knows...perhaps Virginia Woolf has provided a clue!  I digress....

As is so often the case when thrown together in a claustrophobic setting, friendships occur.  Two young men, Hewet and Hirst, are on a voyage of discovery, Miss Allan plays the part of the spinster, Hughling Elliot, Miss Warrington, Mr Venning (loves tea!), Mr Perrott - a barrister who secretly wishes to be a pilot instead, and Evelyn Murgatroyd seems to fall in love at the drop of a hat but what she really craves is someone to care for, and the Flushings.  At the young end of middle-age, Mr Flushing is a collector with a very interesting character as his wife.

'They had moved out into the garden, where the tea was laid under a tree, and Mrs Flushing was helping herself to cherry jam.  She had a peculiar jerking movement of the body when she spoke, which caused the canary-coloured plume on her hat to jerk too.  Her small but finely cut and vigorous features, together with the deep red of lips and cheeks, pointed to many generations of well-trained and well-nourished ancestors behind her.'

I've read that Woolf was a terrific observer of people, as I suspect most exceptional writers are, which leads me to think she has seen this very woman somewhere about London.  It's also why I savoured every page in this book - it's so rich with detail, spoiling the chances of anything else on the shelves today.  The heat, the villas, the countryside, the picnics, not to mention the sheer loveliness of a holiday that goes on for weeks and weeks of leisure time.  

I could go on and on about the many reasons why I love this book, from Woolf's statements about the unfair treatment of women in education, marriage and society, to the moments of humour that made me laugh out loud such as when Miss Allan has Rachel taste fresh ginger for the first time.  And then there was the sadness when I wasn't expecting it.  

The copy I read caught my eye while emptying the return bin at the library, but I'm going to buy one to call my own.  

The Pilgrim's Rest in Burma, circa 1900

20 March 2018

A Start in Life by Anita Brookner

Several years ago a colleague at the library, performing a bit of collection maintenance (weeding), handed me a copy of The Closed Eye.  What followed was a statement along the lines of...you might enjoy this but don't read too many, they're depressing.  Perhaps some people may find a bit of brutally honest introspection to be depressing, but I've come to enjoy the fact that not all stories end happily or the way I would like them to.  If you've never ready anything by Anita Brookner, this is an excellent place to start.  Contrary to the opinion of how some people view Brookner's novels, this book made me laugh out loud several times.  Well, during the first half.

'Dr Weiss, at forty, knew that her life had been ruined by literature.   In her thoughtful and academic way, she put it down to her faulty moral education which dictated, through the conflicting but in this one instance united agencies of her mother and father, that she ponder the careers of Anna Karenina and Emma Bovary, but that she emulate those of David Copperfield and Little Dorrit.'

But this is not a story about Dr Weiss the academic, it's about a young woman who reaches the level of Ph.D against the odds.  As Brookner takes the reader back to the setting of Ruth's childhood, it's clear that parts of the story are autobiographical.  Ruth is an only child whose grandmother (Mrs Weiss) has left her 'sad European past'  behind in Berlin.  She cooks and cleans for her son and his family despite being less than approving of her English-born daughter-in-law Helen, the stage actress.  It is apparent that both Helen and George are happy to leave Ruth's upbringing to her grandmother.

George Weiss owns a small bookshop on Mount Street in Mayfair.  His assistant Miss Moss, is also his confidant.  George panders to Helen's whims while hoping other women will pander to his.  When George's mother dies, Mrs Cutler is hired to perform the housekeeping duties.  Quite quickly, formality is cast aside and Maggie (as she's now known) is serving up drinks to George, Helen....and herself.  Simple cooking and very light housekeeping is performed while a cigarette dangles between her lips.  Ruth watches from the periphery....

    'She did not like Mrs Cutler.  She knew, without understanding, that Mrs Cutler was one of those louche women who thrive on the intimacy of couples, who are the cold-eyed recipients of many a confidence, who then repeat it to the other party in the interests of both....'

While at school, Ruth becomes friends with Anthea.  Edgy and wise to the ways of the world she is Ruth's polar opposite.  Inviting Anthea to dinner is the setting for comic brilliance...Helen dons '...a caftan, gold earrings and a great deal of scent.'  George buys a cake from Fortnum's and the tea is ready half an hour before Anthea's scheduled arrival.  The reader is very aware that this is the most excitement the Weiss's flat has seen in some time.  Once Anthea leaves, Ruth's parents comment...

    'What a delightful girl,' said George, when Ruth returned to the drawing room.    'Quite pretty,' said Helen, blowing smoke down her chiselled nostrils, 'but not your type, darling.  She has the soul of an air hostess.'

The relentless complacency, selfishness and lack of support from her parents threatens to quell Ruth's ability to seek the higher learning she craves.  She must strike out if she ever hopes to achieve something of a normal life.  An opportunity to stay with acquaintances of her parents leads her to Balzac's Paris where she can immerse herself in study.  Her path to personal growth has a few pitfalls that had me cheering her on or a bit disappointed in turns.  The point being that Brookner has written these characters in such a rich and skillful way as to make me care.  Ruth's journey from naivety to awareness and the choices she's faced with are ones that most people will, in part, will have encountered at some point in their lives.   

A Start in Life is the perfect introduction to Anita Brookner's writing.  It will make you laugh (a lot) and wince, but you will thoroughly enjoy it.  I loved it.

Reading Woman on a Couch by Isaac Israels

11 March 2018

The Windsor Faction by D J Taylor

While out on one of our book buying trips to support independent bookshops, it was the cover that drew me to this book.  A black and white photograph of a woman wearing a hat low enough on her brow to hide her eyes, her lips are tinted red.  The blurb on the back was interesting and the setting is England, 1939.  On the way home, with a keener eye, I clued in that this was one of those 'in an alternative world' stories, which is not in my wheelhouse at all. There was a possibility this book could die a slow death on my tbr pile.  While in the mood for something difference a few weeks ago I decided to read the first few pages and found myself backing onto a chair.  This book is wonderful!

The scene described in the prologue features drizzling grey skies, dignitaries, policemen, and a Romanesque church with tolling bells.  The bells toll for Wallis Simpson, whose death from heart failure while on the operating table, has left the King despondent.  It's 1936, before the King's abdication and their subsequent marriage, which means that the course of history as we know it never happens.  Are you hooked yet?

Next in the cast of characters is Cynthia Kirkpatrick.  Barely into her twenties, she lives with her parents in Ceylon as her father is in the tea trade.  Politically, there is unrest in Europe centering around activitity in Germany's Nazi Party.  England is calling its expats home, which is just as well for Cynthia....

   'She was a tall, thin, pale-faced girls of twenty-one who, although she had been spoiled since birth, frequently told herself that she had not had much of a life.  Sometimes she thought she would like to mannequin in one of the big department stores in Oxford Street, and at other times she thought she would like to be an undergraduate at Cambridge and bicycle to lectures in a black stuff gown...'

A devastating accident while out with a young man her parents are keen to see Cynthia married to, drives a wedge between both families.  Change, even in the form of a possible outbreak of war, spares Cynthia from playing the role of heartbroken girlfriend.  Arriving back in Bayswater, the young woman takes a job at the office of a magazine located in Gordon Square, Bloomsbury.

Blending fictional characters with historically significant individuals, D J Taylor weaves an incredibly entertaining story.  I loved the office scenes, the cups of tea at Lyons, the strolls on Tottenham Court Road and cabs to Kensington, there's also dealings with Heywood Hill bookshop.  For someone whose experience with political thrillers is almost nil, I found myself on the edge of my seat at times.  Cynthia's relationship with Tyler Kent, working at the American Embassy, draws her into the world of spies, louche characters, and plenty of gin.  What she discovers once it's too late to remove herself will test her reserves of willpower and trust.

My notebook has pages full of notations marking atmospheric sentences, wonderful description, or witty sentences that made me read certain lines twice....

'People already talked about 'before the war' as if the phrase was a guillotine, severing at a stroke any connection that the past might have with the present'

'He wonders what Wallis would have made of all this.  Sometimes she was fascinated by the protocols of the life he loved; at other times merely bored.  He woke up the other morning trying to remember the last words she ever spoke to him.  He has a feeling they were 'I'm not having that bitch Lady Carpenter to dinner'.

'Mr Woodmansee's arrival in the outer office had had once unlooked-for effect, which was to dispel the faint air of moral laxity that had hung there since the previous autumn.  In fact, the girls were quite daunted by his presence.  For some reason nobody, seeing him at his desk in the far corner of the room, felt like discussing the party they had been to the previous night or the man they had danced with the previous weekend.  Conversation either became anodyne or lapsed altogether.  For his own part Mr Woodmansee ate occasional pink-wafer biscuits out of a tine kept in his briefcase, looked at the cartoons in Punch with an expression of absolute passivity and did his best to laugh at the jokes.'

'As Cynthia went to follow her, Mrs Bannister laid a restraining arm on her elbow.  'My dear, you mustn't mind Hermione.  She isn't quite herself.'   This warning had been uttered so many times during Cynthia's adolescence, had been pronounced over so many variegated female heads, that its implications were unguessable.  It could mean that the person referred to was clinically insane, mildly unwell, or simply in a bad temper.'

The Windsor Faction is heartily recommended for anyone drawn to fiction centred around London and /or World War II.  Not exactly a 'Home Front' novel but a fabulous way to introduce a bit of British Secret Intelligence, as well as background into Mosley's Fascist Party into your feminine middlebrow-style fiction.  Wonderful!

Tower Bridge by Eve Kirk

19 February 2018

Concluding by Henry Green

Why did I think this book was going to be a cosy read?  This is Henry Green after all, and now that I've read three of his novels it's apparent you end up with far more than you bargained for.

Published in 1948 the plot of this pastoral scene reads like something from an episode of Midsomer Murders.  It's the day of the Founder's Ball at a girls' boarding school in the English countryside and two of its pupils have gone missing.  Mr Rock, a retired scientist, lives in a cottage on the grounds and occupies himself with his mini-collection of white animals - a pig, a goose, and a cat.  He's afraid of the dark and never opens his mail.  Two aging spinsters, Miss Edge and Miss Baker, run the school and are sometimes referred to as 'harpies'.  But then the reader discovers that the two women have 'risen in the State Service...'.  Is Henry Green portraying a socialist community post World War II?  Also, as each pupil is introduced I realized their names all began with the letter M, possibly as a way to illustrate uniformity.

Despite Green's political views or any ulterior motive behind this story, his humour continually shines through...

As a result, this receding vista of white and black lozenges (tiles) set from the rugs to four feet up the walls, in precise and radiating perspective, seemed altogether out of place next British dragons in green and yellow; while the gay panelling above, shallow carved, was genuine, the work of a master, giving Cupid over and over in a thousand poses, a shock, a sad surprise in such a room.

Miss Edge and Miss Baker are desperate to get their hands on the cottage occupied by Mr Rock.  They're also keen to be rid of Sebastian Birt, a twenty-seven year old economist and tutor at the school.  The fly in the ointment, so to speak, is that Mr Rock is entitled to live in the cottage until he dies.  His daughter Elizabeth is frequently ill and has moved into the cottage after suffering a nervous breakdown.  Sebastian and Elizabeth have fallen in love and spend many delightful hours in each other's arms in the dappled shade of trees in the surrounding woodland.  Both characters seek outcomes from the relationship but lack sincerity.

You can see how a novel set in a single day can be padded out to fill 245 pages.  Now cue the missing girls - Mary and Merode.  In a surreal atmosphere, swags of azaleas to decorate the hall are being constructed while Miss Edge and Miss Baker tell the students not to go near the weedy pond.  The insinuation being they might stumble upon a body.  Watching the heads blissfully distract themselves while hoping the girls will turn up safe and sound is both frustrating and unsettling.  But as Eudora Welty states in her introduction....

Particularly do you stand a chance of being left in the power of Concluding - of all that has deliberately not been said, has been mysteriously implied.  The spell comes each time from his style, a fact which explains nothing, for style is as mysterious a thing as any spell.

As the dance gets underway the pupils, who have previously been portrayed as innocents, involve Mr Rock in an event that could be deciphered in several ways.  Looking back at my notes, I scribbled a bit of swear-y language down to unexpected twists and turns.

I read this book with mixed emotions.  It is fascinating, strange, beautiful, clever, unsettling and ridiculous in turns...and unforgettable.  If you go into this novel, as I did, looking for a twee bit of distraction you'll wonder where it all went wrong, but as speculative fiction it's absolutely brilliant.  I'll most definitely be reading this book again.

Separating Fighting Swans by Stanley Spencer (1891 - 1959)