15 June 2017

A Room of One's Own by Virginia Woolf

Virginia Woolf had much to say about women living in a man's world.  Women could be bought and sold, forced into marriage, work in slavery under the title of 'wife', have education and the vote beyond their reach.  Avenues and opportunity available to sons were nothing more than fantasy for their sisters.  When an aunt dies and leaves Virginia the sum of £500 a year, it's a key that opens a door.

'However, as I say, my aunt died, and whenever I change a ten-shilling note a little of that rust and corrosion is rubbed off; fear and bitterness go.  Indeed, I thought, slipping the silver into my purse, it is remarkable, remembering the bitterness of those days, what a change of temper a fixed income will bring about.  No force in the world can take from me my five hundred pounds.  Food, house, and clothing are mine for ever.  Therefore not merely do effort and labour cease, but also hatred and bitterness.  I need not hate any man; he cannot hurt me.  I need not flatter any man; has nothing to give me.'

There were times while reading A Room of One's Own when I struggled to understand what Virginia was trying to say.  Sections rich with a stream of consciousness narrative can be difficult to wade through, but there were so many times when she expressed exactly how I feel.  That this book was first published in 1928, and I'm nodding in agreement in 2017, starkly illustrates there's still room for improvement.

Asked to deliver a paper on the topic of women and fiction, Woolf blends essay with fiction, She expresses the frustration of women who yearn to be educated as equally as their male counterparts.  Today, my contemporaries are still fighting for wage parity with their male colleagues - this in societies where women are 'allowed' to work outside the home.  The freedom to earn money still eludes many women around the world.  But Woolf has room to see the situation from another angle.

'Moreover, in a hundred years, I thought, reaching my own doorstep, women will have ceased to be the protected sex.  Logically they will take part in all the activities and exertions that were once denied them.  The nursemaid will heave coal.  The shopwoman will drive an engine.  All assumptions founded on the facts observed when women were the protected sex will have disappeared - as, for example (here a squad of soldiers marched down the street) that women and clergymen and gardeners live longer than other people.  Remove their  protection, expose them to the same exertions and activities, make them soldiers and sailors and engine-drivers and dock labourers, and will not women die off so much younger, so much quicker, than men that one will say, 'I saw a woman today', as one used to say, 'I saw an aeroplane'.'

I was also struck by Woolf's observation that much of the history of women was never documented because it was mundane.  While men were acknowledged for exploring, inventing, ruling, and acquiring medals in battle, women were raising children, cooking, and cleaning the home.  Raising the next generation to be contributing citizens is taken for granted.  I'm reminded that many women were not paid for the added responsibility and workload of taking in young evacuees during the Blitz in WWII.  Why, it's just women do.

In the last few pages Virginia expresses the importance of being oneself.  Despite outside influences no one holds the key to your mind.  Assigning a fictional sister named Judith to Shakespeare, the author wonders if her creative skills would be encouraged as her brother's were.  Women must continue to support each other and strive to be recognized.  Despite her statement that freedom to write comes with a room of one's own and £500 a year, Woolf acknowledges that 'to work, even in poverty and obscurity, is worth while'.

A Room of One's Own is a book I'll return to again and again.  It's bold, sad, clever, and poignant.  And I was very impressed with Penguin for publishing this book with four blank pages at the back for jotting notes.

Virginia Woolf's desk

26 May 2017

Virginia Woolf by Nigel Nicolson

Visiting Virginia and Leonard Woolf's home, Monk's House, this summer is high on my wishlist.  It has been interesting to read the reviews of visitors who have already made their way to this area of the South Downs.  For some it was a pilgrimage, for others it was simply something to do.  It has struck me as odd to visit such a place and the only comment is about a lack of parking.  A couple of weeks ago I started reading A Room of One's Own, but by page 26 I found myself wondering more about Virginia as a person than concentrating on the words on the page.  There isn't time to read Hermione Lee's detailed biography but Nicolson's book hit the mark perfectly,  And being the son of Vita Sackville-West, the details feel warm rather than clinical.

'Nothing has really happened until it has been described.  So you must write many letters to your family and friends, and keep a diary.'  Virginia Woolf to Nigel Nicolson

I love the image of Nicolson as a young boy, catching butterflies with Virginia Woolf, while she shares her thoughts and ideals.  At one point, while visiting Vita at Long Barn, she questioned the boys in detail about their morning, not accepting short quips in reply.  Observing in detail was a lesson Nicolson never forgot.

Perhaps it was the lack of a smile in photos, her strong opinions, and intimidating writing style that created an image in my mind of a steely no-nonsense woman.  But reading descriptions of Virginia's personal anguish while waiting for reviews, her desire to be heard but shying away when asked to speak, and struggling with a 'constant roar' in the background of her thoughts, reveal the depths of her fragile nature.  Both Virginia and her sister Vanessa endured the loss of their parents, brother, and knowledge of a half-sister in a mental institution.  Left in a household with two stepbrothers who abused the girls, to what degree isn't clear, must have been incredibly unsettling, to say the least.

With a sum of money and property left to the Stephens adult children, they were finally able to cut familial ties with the Duckworth brothers and buy a home in Gordon Square, Bloomsbury.  Although, Virginia was far from ready to join the ranks of party-goers...

'She remained devoted to her few women friends, and only once did she consent to attend a party in the smart world she had renounced.  "I went to a dance last night," she told Violet, "and found a dim corner where I sat and read In Memoriam, while Nessa danced every dance till 2:30."'

Virginia eventual marriage to Leonard Woolf, and their creation of the Hogarth Press was a testament to commitment and perseverance.  I was surprised to learn that in four years of operation the company had a net profit of only £90.    Virginia's journalism was bringing in £100 annually and Leonard's wages as a writer on international affairs were meagre.  But somehow they managed to afford the purchase of Monk's House in 1919 for £700.

'Monk's House would never rate more than one star for bed and breakfast.  O remember it in the Woolfs' days as a simple place, rather larger than a cottage, rather smaller than a house, not shabby exactly, but untidy, with saucers of pet food left on the floor and books on each tread of the narrow staircase.'

I particularly enjoyed finding out the Woolfs referred to the WC as Mrs Dalloway, and Vita Sackville-West's opinion regarding Leonard's plans for the garden by stating 'you can't recreate Versailles on a quarter-acre of Sussex'.  Another wonderful discovery was that Elizabeth Bowen had visited Virginia at Monk's House.  Being slightly in awe of Bowen's writing, knowing she sat by the fire will make my visit there even more meaningful.

As the years moved closer to 1939, and Virginia's depression crept back, it's unbearable to imagine the 'constant roar' coupled with anxiety and uncertainty.  Bombs were collapsing homes in the blink of an eye, there was rationing, the evacuation of women and children, and bleakness.  But even through all this, Virginia uses poetical phrases to describe the scene....

'You never escape the war.  Very few buses.  Tubes closed.  No children.  No loitering.  Everyone humped with a gas-mask.  Strain and grimness.  At night it's so verdurous and gloomy that one expects a badger or a fox to prowl along the pavement.  A reversion to the middle ages with all the space and silence of the country set in this forest of black homes'.

Less than two years later, Virginia drowned herself in the River Ouse, not far from Monk's House.  Her ashes are interred in the garden.

Virginia Woolf, 1939
Photograph by Gisèle Freund

11 May 2017

Howards End is on the Landing by Susan Hill

'A book which is left on a shelf is a dead thing but it is also a chrysalis, an inanimate object packed with the potential to burst into new life.'

I remember the day this book arrived in the mail and can't believe it was 2009.  Not long after I found a group of people in this blogsphere who had years of experience with authors such as Elizabeth Bowen, Muriel Spark, Penelope Lively, Marghanita Laski, and Dorothy Whipple.  These were the authors hiding in plain sight.  While looking for something to read set in the English countryside there is any number of classics, at the other end of the spectrum, plenty of chic lit.  Once introduced to this Aladdin's cave of literature I ordered title upon title and bought more bookcases.  Now the books sit and wait.

Susan Hill imposed a challenge upon herself to read from her shelves for a year.  As she meanders through her home, browsing titles and pulling out books for a closer look, she recounts the memories associated with her acquisitions.  Being a well-known author, the people Hill comes into contact with take Howards End is on the Landing to a level higher than just a snoop around her shelves.  While on a sleeper train from London to Manchester in 1961....

'But this time is was only Manchester after all, in the company of Katherine Whitehorn, Elizabeth David and Elizabeth Jane Howard, grand-seeming ladies all, and terribly grown-up beside a student in a Marks & Spencer V-necked sweater.  Elizabeth Jane was very kind about my book, and then I talked about student-cooking-on-gas-ring, with Katherine, who had written a book about just that, and Elizabeth David, who had not.'

Like Susan Hill, I rarely read books featuring Australia or Canada, and laughed when just yesterday a customer at the library expressed the same view.  The fact that we were standing in a Canadian library meant we assumed the body language of people sharing a sordid secret, but...you like what you like.  At one point though, I took exception to Hill's broad statement about short stories...'Nobody reads them but people go on buying them'.  I love short stories and stock plenty on my shelves.  Hill mentions that she reads certain stories over and over again from her many volumes so perhaps she meant to imply they're not a popular item.  In any case, she had me reaching for the smelling salts.

Howards End is on the Landing is a book you will want to read with a notebook and pen nearby to jot down interesting titles.  Although, the author would simply underline anything she found interesting but this is something I would never do.  Marking a book, folding down a page, or leaving the book open while face down are activities that separate readers into opposite camps...I digress.   Hill considers The House in Paris by Elizabeth Bowen to be her masterpiece (which I've read) and The Last September as a favourite (which I haven't).  This also brings to mind one of the intricacies of stocking books - the act of saving books you desperately want to read, but don't, because you can't bear the thought of having an undiscovered piece of writing by an author.  Although, thinking back to a 'find' from Harper Lee's estate, as well as Stella Gibbons' Pure Juliet, perhaps I shouldn't be so precious.

Another behaviour we book lovers seem to have in common is the shelf of books that seemed like a good idea at the time, but don't get much attention after a week.  

'Small hardbacked books bought in the run-up to Christmas or Valentines's or Mother's Day are non-books.  They are about Everything Being Rubbish or how to microwave a budgerigar or where to go before you die, or why Slough is the armpit of the universe, they are little anthologies of love poems or things read at funerals or cartoons about politicians.'

This made me laugh and think of the books I bought on the art of tea, when what I probably wanted at the time was a nice hot cuppa.  There's also a small chapter called Things that Fall out of Books, as a case in point, hiding in my book was a ticket stub from a local theatre for See How They Run.  A reminder of a lovely day out on September 30, 2012.  I know my books will one day end up in someone else's home so I'm passing on the small thrill that comes from a bit of ephemera from the past.  Ticket stubs are tucked into random books on my shelves, read or not, and sometimes the person finding a surprise is me.

If you own a copy of Howards End is on the Landing consider taking it along with you while on holiday this summer.  It's a book lover's delight, particularly if you're a fan of twentieth-century literature.

1 May 2017

Christopher and Columbus by Elizabeth von Arnim

During a thorough weeding exercise a couple of years ago, one of the few green spine Virago Modern Classics the library owned was chosen to be pulled.  It's such a shame when a book is discarded due to lack of circulation when the binding is still tight.  This was not the case with Christopher and Columbus.  I can barely make out the title along the spine for white lines running end to end as the book has been wrenched during readings.  And the pages are yellow, but still more than good enough for another read, or two.

Twins, Anna-Rose (older by twenty minutes) and Anna-Felicitas are seventeen and sailing across the ocean on the St. Luke to America without the benefit of an escort.  Orphaned, and then relinquished by relatives in England, they're on their way to New York and yet another family.  The Great War is underway so the journey is a treacherous one with German submarines lurking beneath the water.  The girls sit wide-eyed, with blankets pulled up to their chins, as they watch the ships population move within their respective class sections.

Having led a sheltered life, the girls are unsure about everything, but emanate a sense of joie de vivre that is utterly irresistible.  Another passenger on the ship, Mr Twist, takes it upon himself to act as a guardian of sorts to the girls.  The two extremely naive sisters have won the lottery when it comes to serendipitous friendships.  Mr Twist has made a fortune from his design of a non-dribble teapot and is the best of men.  His fortune has also enabled Mr Twist's mother and sister to move up through the classes...

'His mother passed from her straitened circumstances to what she still would only call a modest competence, but what in England would have been regarded as wallowing in money.  She left off being middle-class, and was received into the lower upper-class, the upper part of this upper-class being reserved for great names like Astor, Rockefeller and Vanderbilt.  With these Mrs Twist could not compete.  She would no doubt some day, for Edward was only thirty and there were still coffee-pots....'

I laughed out loud several times while making my way through this book.  The only drawback is that after awhile, at five hundred pages long, it all gets to be a bit too syrupy.  Mr Twist goes to all sorts of lengths for the sake of the girls and it becomes obvious they'll never be happy to part ways.  Published in 1919, this sort of situation garners all sorts of gossip amongst guests in the hotels the trio visit along the way.  It's apparent to the reader, long before the characters, what the eventual outcome must be. 

Christopher and Columbus is a fitting title for a story about adventurous sisters, and it's thoroughly charming.  Perfect as a summer read or when you're in the mood for something light.

Two Sisters by Pierre-August Renoir

19 April 2017

Love Has No Resurrection by E. M. Delafield

At long last...snow is a thing of the past and the ground is drying up.  The back garden was off limits to Kip this past month as he was churning up enough mud to create the look of a cattle paddock.  Each call of nature meant grabbing the leash and eventually we stopped caring who saw us in our pajamas.

Spring is also a time to take stock of things that need attention around the house.  The curtains covering a palladian window didn't survive this year's annual wash so my sewing machine saw the light of day for the first time in a few years.  A new front door is arriving any day, and I decided to say goodbye to my twelve year old car before it said goodbye to me...on the side of the road, late at night.  I'm quite certain the first space ship to the moon had fewer computerized capabilities and a slimmer owner's manual.

A busy month was the perfect time to grab a short story collection from my shelves.  When I found this book at an antique show in Elora a couple of years ago, I knew nothing about it other than it was by E. M. Delafield and cost three dollars.  Once back at home, a quick search on a book site made my eyes widen as Love Has No Resurrection is not easy to come by and prices range anywhere from sixty to eighty-five dollars.

Published in 1939, a few years before Delafield's death in 1943, this anthology is a wonderful pick and mix of styles and themes.  Some of the stories had previously appeared in Time and Tide, Good Housekeeping and The Radio Times.

One of my favourites is called The Reason.  In the blush of an affair, Oliver and Catherine are vacationing in Brittany.  Oliver's wife has been told he's staying with his family in Wales for the month of September.  For awhile, the situation is idyllic...romantic dinners, strolls on the beach, and  the sharing of inside jokes about the other vacationers.  Two spinsters are cruelly given the nicknames of Miss Lump and Miss Dump; pitied for their blandness.  But then Oliver announces he's been called away.  Catherine spends her days writing to Oliver while waiting for a reply...

'To be frantic over a delay, over the non-arrival of a letter, the breaking of an appointment, is the privilege of the secure, for whom the unutterable bliss of reassurance is waiting on the morrow.But to be frantic with no underlying expectation of relief is to court madness.'

Not all of the writing in these stories is as brilliant as the above, but with those two sentences there can be no doubt of Delafield's brilliance as a writer.

Dipping into a bit of crime writing in They Don't Wear Labels, Delafield portrays the danger of assuming that all is as it appears to be.  The Peverelli's seek lodging at a boarding house.  Mrs Peverelli seems to be the weak sort who languishes in bed, her pallor is ghostly, and she weeps.  Her husband, a commercial traveller, can't seem to do enough for her.  The landlady, Mrs Fuller, has definite opinions about the sort of woman who relies on being catered to.  One night, Mrs Peverelli goes too far...while her husband is out she sends another resident, a little girl, to the kitchen for a cup of hot cocoa.  Mrs Fuller is in just the mood to have her say, so with cocoa in hand, she heads up the stairs.  But instead, Mrs Peverelli unburdens herself with a horrifying story  - she's being poisoned by her husband.  Mrs Fuller is shaken and left to decide which Peverelli is to be believed.

The mindset and circumstance of the aging woman is a thread carried through several of the stories in this collection.  I had forgotten that Delafield died in her early fifties, surely not old enough to have felt invisible, but clearly she felt she had some insight.  In The Young Are In Earnest, Oliver Innes lives alone in a flat in Jermyn Street.  His constant companion is the beautiful Mrs Bannister, widowed and living in Chelsea.  Yes, this is a story filled with descriptions of how the other half live...the sort of people who wonder what a weekend is and announce luncheon with a gong.  Mrs Bannister has an invitation to join the Russels at their seaside property and wonders if Oliver would like to come along.  Ever so secure in the knowledge that she's an independent woman with a handsome companion, the countryside whizzes past during the drive and life couldn't be any better.  Then the Russels stunning daughter, Sylvie, shows up in a dazzling bathing suit with a sun-kissed face.  Suddenly I hear the age-old directive...'Mirror, mirror on the wall....'.  Delafield keenly paints a picture of jealousy, insecurity, and the fear of loneliness.

As I mentioned earlier, not all of the stories will remain with me for a lifetime but this collection is perfect as a description of 1930s nuance and surprisingly bold at times in terms of sexuality.  If you spot a copy going for a song in a dusty bookstall - buy it!

Kip...he's one year old next week!  And no, this isn't our home...but it is a pretty background.

 The side-view of a home in Roseland this past Easter weekend.  A fun-filled afternoon of gathering eggs, no doubt!

27 March 2017

Pure Juliet by Stella Gibbons

When Pure Juliet was published in 2016, it was surrounded by the faint whiff of a consolation prize for fans.  Apparently found amidst Gibbons' belongings after her death, there is also a train of thought that perhaps the novel wasn't quite up to scratch, or desperately needed revising.  Whatever the case, it's a good thing I don't pay much attention to critics.

'The person described as giving Miss Roberts the creeps proceeded at a swift pace ahead of the two teachers.  She was noticeable for this unusual quickness of movement; for her hair, which was so fair as to look silver in certain lights; and for the expression in her eyes, small and so full of light that their colour was hard to name.'

Juliet Slater has finished school with five A levels in science and maths, but has almost no concept of social graces and no time for relationships.  She is wholly consumed by the reading of textbooks and unravelling the mystery of coincidence.  Juliet's mother, Rose, spends her day making pots of tea, preparing meals and cleaning the house.  George Slater's day is spent driving a train between St Pancras and Standish, picking up a copy of the Evening News on his way to grab a couple of pints before dinner.  The concept of Juliet attending university is seen as a complete waste of time when she could easily start earning money as a secretary.

While there is no obvious label of Juliet being on the autism spectrum, there are all sorts of clues.  The lack of a label also allows the reader to sink into the notion that Juliet simply marches to the beat of her own drum and chooses to sidestep social convention.  I found her fascinating.

A chance encounter (or as Juliet would favour, a coincidence) involving the elderly Miss Adelaide Pennecuick results in an invitation to spend a year at her manor house called Hightower in the countryside.  Echoing an era from the past, Juliet arrives with her suitcase....

  'A long face, irresistibly suggesting that of a sheep, below silver hair, smiled at her from a wheelchair drawn up to an electric fire.  The room was stiflingly hot, in spite of the summer heat outside; the occupant of the chair's skeletal arms were bared to the elbow by a long dress of blue silk.
Juliet went up to her, sank to her knees beside the chair and, putting her arms round the thin old body, lifted her face passively to receive kiss after lingering kiss, while she shut senses against the odour of verbena toilet water and eighty-year-old flesh.'

The image is positively Gothic, isn't it.  But standing in the background are five entertaining Spanish servants from the same family that form a perfect juxtaposition to the dated manor house.  And then there's Addy's nephew, Frank, with a fondness for fays and water-sprites and devoted to the movement called the Association for the Investigation of Edible Grasses.  While a vegan lifestyle is nothing new, I delighted in Stella Gibbons being ahead of her time, because in Frank she has written a vegan warrior equal to any like-minded blogger you could find today.  And I adored Frank for his ability to accept Juliet's differences and support her genius.  He encourages Juliet to consider a place at Cambridge University, and considering her lack of social skills, passing the interview could be one of many roadblocks.

Pure Juliet is pure magic and I thoroughly enjoyed reading it; in fact, the ending made my eyes well up.  It wasn't because of any particular event, but that Juliet's character had grabbed my heart.  Pure Juliet is a story that conjures up images of working class England in the seventies, with a sprinkle of the Edwardian era, and a dash of the whimsical Durrells in Corfu.  I highly recommend this as a book to enjoy on the patio this summer or take along on a holiday.  Well done, Stella Gibbons!

Reading at a Table by Pablo Picasso

9 March 2017

Imagined London by Anna Quindlen

Planning my trip across the pond this summer has pulled my attention towards lots of travel books.  I've also signed out Hermione Lee's biography on Virginia Woolf and Charles Dickens' wonderful collection of stories and observations in Sketches by Boz.  For anyone interested in reading something by Dickens without his extreme ability to pad out a sentence, this is an excellent starting point.  And another book that has crossed my path before, but I had forgotten about, is Anna Quindlen's Imagined London.

Published in 2004, Imagined London is a non-fiction piece about Anna's discovery of London, first through the stories she read as a child, then in her forties when she visited the city for the first time.  Her experience felt so familiar to mine that it made me laugh.  Both of us stood in amazement at the tomb of Elizabeth I during our first trip to Westminster Abbey.  It's all the wonder of documentaries, stories, and film, and most importantly the woman herself, right there before you.

Anna's book is only 160 pages long but each page will delight the anglophile or anyone planning a trip across the pond.  In the last few paragraphs, Anna perfectly puts into words my fascination with London....

   'For that you must come down to Earth and wander aimlessly.  Maybe just off Sloane Square, or in Cheval Place, or on Burnsall Street, or Elgin Crescent.  Maybe Notting Hill or South Kensington or Bloomsbury.  Finally you will reach it: a house with a handsome gate or a small garden.   Around it, a street or two away, swirls the clamor of one of the busiest cities on Earth.  Inside is - what?  Did a debutante once wait there for her car?  Did a maid slip out to meet her lover?  Did street peddlers sell ribbons here, or fruit and flowers?  Does it stand on the ruins of an older house, or a cow pasture, or even a Roman fort?  Did the bombs shake its foundation and the modern real estate boom triple its value?  Behind every door in London there are stories, behind every one ghosts.  The greatest writers in the history of the written word have given them substance, given them life.   And so we readers walk, and dream, and imagine, in the city where imagination found it's great home.'

2 March 2017

Bond Street Story by Norman Collins

What a week.  I went home from work Monday with barely any voice and glassy eyes.  Once home and changed into appropriate dress for a consumptive patient, Kip proceeded to be sick...and there's no mistaking the fact he has roundworm.  Ick!  The vet's office closed ten minutes earlier (isn't that the way it goes?).  Well, nothing could be done until the morning so I took a cold pill and tried to sleep.  My fantasy of a sick day at home involved copious amounts of tea, books, my Slightly Foxed magazine but instead I dewormed the dog and was on 'worm watch'.  Then, my coughing turned into wheezing and my face felt slightly puffy.  By Wednesday morning my neck was covered in hives.  A quick look at the box of cold pills and symptoms to watch for said it all.  I've never been allergic to anything before...but there wasn't time to worry about that because Kip was busy outside providing a much-needed sample for the vet.  Drop that off, get back home...the kettle has died.

The bright spot over these past few days of first-world problems has been the companionship of perfect bedside reading material in Norman Collins' Bond Street Story.

Rammell's department store is the epicentre for the characters in this book, published in 1958.  The Second World War is only lightly touched upon and there's little mention of austerity.  In fact, at Rammell's department store, with its staff of over one thousand, and too many departments to mention, it's nothing short of a consumer's paradise.

The patriarch of Rammell's is Sir Harry.  At nearly eighty he is 'somewhere in the teenage of his second childhood' and full of ideas, some of which are ridiculous and raise the ire of his son and heir, Eric.  The junior Mr Rammell lives in Eaton Square with his wife, who in my mind closely parallels Hyacinth Bucket in the social climbing department.  As for her appearance, Collins is unforgiving...

'The door had opened by now, and Mrs Rammell was standing there.  She was undeniably a handsome woman.  Tall, fine-limbed, distinguished looking.  But distinctly unrestful.  Too much of the race-horse about her.  Even in the loose bathrobe that she was wearing there was something in the dark observant eye, the distended nostril, that suggested the starting-gate and photo-finishes.'

Their only son, Tony, is twenty-three years old and showing little interest in the position as the next heir apparent to the Rammell dynasty.

Mr Privett and his family live in a modest home on Fewkes Road in Kentish Town.  Husband and wife met while working in their respective departments, but as this is a story of its time, Mrs Privett left work once she had a husband and home to care for.  Their seventeen year old daughter, Irene, is showing signs of stretching her job search to places other than Rammell's which causes no small amount of upset at home.

And then there is Marcia,  the star model for the department store....

'Wherever you looked, she was there.  Superb.  Serene.  Indisputable.  The steeply arched eye-brows.  The long curve of the cheek.  The deep indecipherable eyes.  The wide gentle mouth.  The face smiled imperturbably on the public from all sides.  From boxes of face powder.  From the shiny pages of expensive magazines.  From Mayfair pageant programmes.  From the walls of the Underground platforms.'

Once the fancy department store clothes and make-up come off, Marcia goes home to her spartan flat.  Mind you, it's off Sloane Square.  It's not quite the life she sees for herself so when Mr Bulping, a chief buyer, shows an interest in her, she is mildly entertained.  But soon she's repulsed by his pawing, slurpy kisses, and sweaty brow.  Who wouldn't be?

Mr Privett from Kentish Town has a longtime friend in Mr Gus Bloot.  Their relationship is a touching one, more so since Gus's wife died and left him quite alone in a rooming house with only his prized budgies for company.  But that's about to change with the appearance of Hetty as he sinks into the sound of her voice....

'...still warm and caressing even when sending casuals and other wartime shop crawlers away from the shop totally unserved.  Or the perfume that she used - a thick musky scent that conjured up visions of palm trees and bright moonlight and scorching sun.  Or her hair - jet black and worn long, wound round the top of her head in a braid as thick as a ship's hawser.'

Hetty, from Finsbury Park, is the complete opposite of Gus's dearly departed Emmie and the poor fellow is losing sleep over what to do next.

Norman Collins shines brighter than anyone I can think of when it comes to creating characters and weaving them all together to create a story as closely woven as any fabric.  His dry wit and pin-sharp observations are irresistible and often hilarious....

'The film itself  the wildly popular one - was rather sad, Irene thought.  It was set in the Canabière district of Marseilles.  And it was all about a deaf and dumb girl who murdered her illegitamate baby when it tuned out to be blind like her lover.  But the photography, everyone agreed, was of of this world.  It was shot mostly at night.  Or in the rain.  With only the outlines of things showing.  These, however, were enough.  Rubbish bins, urinoirs, public wash-houses, seweres, horse-abbattoirs - they were all there.  In short, the film had Cannes Festival Award written all over it.'

For anyone who has read London Belongs to Me and wanted the story to go on and on despite its doorstop heft, a treat awaits you in Bond Street Story.  And speaking of treats, a cosy English novel that ticks a plethora of boxes would not be complete without the lusty description of a good tea.

'As soon as the room was to rights again, Mr Privett went through into the scullery and put on the kettle.  Then he arranged the tea tray with the cups and saucers.  And, going over to the cupboard he took out the large circular cake tin with the portrait of Queen Mary on the lid.  It was the remains of a chocolate cake that was inside.  Thick chocolate on top.  Then broad veins of brown sponge with white cream running thickly across it.  It looked rich and geologic.  Mr Privett cut two generous slices and put them on a plate beside the empty teapot.  Even so he was sorry that it was chocolate.  Fruit cake, he knew, was what Mr Bloot preferred.  Cut from the solid block.  The dark kind with preserved cherries in it.  Marzipan icing on the top if you like.  Even shredded coconut.  But definitely fruit.  And preferably cherry.'

Absolutely wonderful!

23 February 2017

Edward Bawden's London by Peyton Skipwith & Brian Webb

The world of Tirzah Garwood and the artists of Great Bardfield have stayed with me since finishing her compelling autobiography Long Live Great Bardfield.  As luck would have it, I own a book featuring some of Edward Bawden's work so off the shelves it came.

'It is unlikely that Bawden's parents ever took him to London, so he had had little or no experience of city life when he enrolled, as a distinctly gauche student, at the Royal College of Art in September 22.  On his first day he met and formed an enduring friendship with another 19-year-old, Eric Ravilious.  Like Bawden, Ravilious, who was also destined for the Design School, was a scholarship boy, having won a bursary from Eastbourne School of Art.  The two young men were diametrically different in character: Bawden was taciturn, monosyllabic and unsociable, while Ravilious was gregarious, fun-loving and outgoing - an attraction of opposites.'

This biography and collection of sketches, posters and paintings make a very nice companion piece to Tirzah's book.

 Painting of Bawden in his studio by Eric Ravilious

With a trip to London on the horizon, I looked on my shelves for a book that drops me right onto Piccadilly...minus the diesel fumes.  Bond Street Story by Norman Collins is fitting the bill nicely.  It has all the depth and richness of London Belongs to Me but instead of a boarding house as the central location, this book features Rammell's, a bustling department store.  It's wonderful, but a bit of a struggle not to visualize scenes from Are You Being Served?.  

15 February 2017

Terms & Conditions by Ysenda Maxtone Graham

As a Canadian, the English school system remains something of a mystery despite daily doses of the BBC, Woman's Hour, English novels, and The Archers.  During my last trip to London I asked Rachel (Book Snob) to explain O levels, A levels and GCSEs .  One morning, during breakfast at my B&B, a guest mentioned his gentleman's third degree followed by me asking what that meant.  In simple terms his education was heavy on fun and light on studying into the wee hours.  But girls' boarding schools, set in the countryside, well that sounds like a bit of heaven on earth, doesn't it.  Oh dear....

'For a start, entrance was through the back door, not the front door.  One of the first things my interviewees learned, on arrival at the actual school and as soon as their parents drive away, was that no pupil went up the main stairs.  The beautiful, beckoning, curvy-banistered staircase in the pot-pourri-scented hall of the main house, with its deep-ticking grandfather clock - this was not only out of bounds but rarely even glimpsed.'

Ysenda Maxtone Graham interviewed scores of women who stayed at boarding schools during the years between 1939 and 1979.  In a time ages before internet reviews, the decision to send your daughter to a certain school was often laughably esoteric.  In one case it mentioned that a father (and it was often the father who made the final decision) wanted his daughter to go to a school where the girls all seemed to be so pretty.  In some cases a well-toasted teacake was reason enough to sign up your children.  Another factor was the all-important matter of who your daughter would be friends with, and taking it one step further...did those girls have brothers.  Because while these girls were being educated in the gentler arts, their brothers were sent to academic institutions such as Oxford and Cambridge.  These young men would make perfect husbands and connect families.  If a title came with the package then so much the better.

Rigid rules such as carrying book bags on one shoulder on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays then the opposite shoulder on alternate days in the name of deportment remained with some ladies long after leaving school.  The residual effects of cringe-worthy head teachers stroking the hands of girls in the evening or asserting control by mandatory line-ups to say good-night most likely caused a shiver or two later in life.  One of the cruelest comments dreaded by most young ladies began with the words 'We've all been discussing....'  As a woman who wore glasses and braces in high school when the 'it' girls looked like Farrah Fawcett, I was instantly reminded of a time when confidence was in short supply.  At a boarding school there was no escape from demeaning comments and some students' parents were off in another country.

So, is it unusual to want your daughter to have socially well-rounded friends?  No.  Is it realistic to accept that some forms of bullying will always exist in society?  Yes.  But something that frustrates me is the void when it comes to stories of teachers taking young women aside who clearly showed an interest in academics.  I like to think there were teachers sprinkled here and there who fostered the notion of higher learning and a career.  At the very least, an independent life before deciding the course of your future.  I'm heartened to say there were a few girls whose parents were progressive enough to entertain the idea of higher learning but this wasn't the norm.

There were stories that did make me laugh such as the horror of fish night on Fridays when myth was that mackerel fed on the bodies of dead sailors.  And in highlighting the virtue of remaining a virgin until marriage an interesting metaphor was used...nice clean new books are so much better than the second-hand sort.  Bouts of boredom led to long sessions of reading, and lofty material at that, which may explain why there's such a wealth of sublime women writers from the twentieth century.

For me, the most touching paragraph of Terms & Conditions was near the end of the book...

'What struck me, after I had met all these women who went to girls' boarding-schools in the mid-twentieth century, was this: never had I met such a lot of well-educated under-educated women.  Especially the older ones.  Their book-filled houses, their radios tuned to Radio 4, their kitchen tables piled with old concert programmes and dog-eared copies of the Times Literary Supplement, their grand pianos with open music on the stand.....'

These life-long learners may have been shortchanged in their youth but they're making up for it in any way they can.  These are fabulous women!  Also, as a reminder that beneath the exterior of an aged person still lies the sentiments of youth, some former boarding school girls see an icy cold rain and feel glad they don't have to venture outside for afternoon sports.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book for its exposure of life in an English boarding school in the twentieth century, but it wasn't the book I was expecting.  Terms & Conditions certainly isn't the funniest book I'll read all year, as claimed on the cover, but it may well be the most thought-provoking.

Students from Howell's School for Girls
Summer of 1941

10 February 2017

Bookmarks for a Valentine and Other Nice Things

While scouting for a theme to dress up a display table at the library these bookmarks caught my eye.  In no time at all I made twelve and popped them into a mug in the staff work area with a note to help yourself.  They didn't last long!  The theme now gracing one of the shelves is 'Sweet Reads' decorated with a bunting of foam imitation sweetheart candies.  The large one saying 'Tweet Me' has disappeared but I can't say I'm surprised given it's a high school library.  Wonder who the lucky recipient is?

One of the nicest things about blogging is the opportunity to connect with wonderful people from all around the globe.  My post about Tirzah Garwood's compelling autogiography Long Live Great Bardfield led to an email from Kate Mears, an artist living in Somerset.

Kate humbly offered to send along a copy of her own book A Year Around Our House.  Each page features her cheery watercolours of their home throughout the seasons with charming handwritten notes describing events in daily life.  Caught in the depths of a Canadian winter, Kate's book couldn't have arrived at a better time.  I'm tempted to buy a watercolour set and try my hand but my attempts at anything so elegant can only end in disappointment....or a good laugh.  Kate's book is a fixture on our kitchen table and my husband and I are thoroughly enjoying it.

What is there to say about succumbing to the wonders of Hygge?  The photography, the recipes, the soothing colours....and support for what we booklovers know to be true, and that is that books (except perhaps Tolstoy) are most definitely Hygge.  I have to confess something though...I've had my eye on this book for a whole month before buying it in a most un-Hygge sort of place - Costco.  My apologies to Copenhagen.

And last, but surely not least, I've booked a trip to London for this summer.  At the top of my list is visiting every bookshop possible, going back to Cambridge, stroll around Primrose Hill, see a play or two and try my hand at mudlarking.

Planning a trip is half the fun so if you have a favourite spot to visit that's off the beaten path, please share!

1 February 2017

All Passion Spent by Vita Sackville-West

This was my first encounter with a novel written by Vita Sackville-West.  To come to this book during the depths of a Canadian winter, when reflection strikes often, was perfect timing.  The subject matter is all too familiar with themes of what if, expectation and duty.  While these topics are ones that just about everyone contemplates on a regular basis, I thrilled at the notion that at eighty-eight years of age a woman from the Victorian era sets the terms for living out the rest of her life according to her own wishes.  It begins with the death of her husband.

 Lord Slane, formerly the Viceroy of India, has died at the grand age of ninety-four.  The list of his accomplishments is a long one.  At the age of seventeen, Deborah (Lady Slane) dreamed of becoming a painter and fantasized about a life full of adventure.  During this fantasy she must shed her feminine image for that of a boy...which says a lot about the norm when it comes to a life of adventure.  Accidentally accepting a marriage proposal with a misread facial expression puts paid to a life of paintbrushes and canvas. 

While Lady Slane looks upon the body of her husband, her adult children make arrangements for her care without her knowledge, input or presence.  It's decided that she can move between their households for a period of a few months per stay.  A sentiment of martyrdom hangs in the air.

'Of course, she would not question the wisdom of any arrangements they might choose to make, Mother had no will of her own; all her life long, gracious and gentle, she had been wholly submissive - an appendage.  It was assumed that she had not enough brain to be self-assertive.' 

But Lady Slane has other plans.  A lovely Georgian house in Hampstead, described as a Constable painting, caught her eye thirty years ago and if by chance it's available, she'll take it.  I loved the way Sackville-West reveals the tube stops as Lady Slane rides the train to Hampstead and reminisces about her husband.  Once the details are taken care of, the move is made.  Of course, this decision also affects Genoux, a wonderful French housemaid to Lady Slane for over sixty years.  The description of one of her traits concerning undergarments is fantastic.

'Here Lady Slane's dreamy reminiscences were cut short as Genoux came in, rustling like a snake in dry leaves, creaking like a saddle, for, until May was out, Genoux would not abandon the layers of brown paper that reinforced her corset and her combinations against the English climate.'

Finally able to spend her days sitting by the warmth of the garden wall as she listens to the bees fly around the pear trees, Lady Slane sees this time as a reprieve before death.  But there's another unexpected chapter still to play out.  Mr FitzGeorge, who collects art pieces like a magpie, has kept abreast of Lady Slane's state of affairs while keeping his distance.  He's a man from her past.   

As far as the plot is concerned, that's all you're getting from me.

I so enjoy the extra pleasure of noting street names, companies, and clubs while reading novels set in London.  Learning about the history or location of places mentioned will undoubtedly be beneficial should they pop up again in another book, and you never know when they'll inspire a stop during a trip overseas.  This morning I looked up Mudie's book subscriptions, Boodles (where Kay Holland and Mr FitzGeorge met regularly for lunch), and Bernard Street, where Mr FitzGeorge lived.  It turns out to be the street bordering Russell Square tube station and the Brunswick Centre.  A place I've explored many times but apparently while too absorbed in the surroundings to notice street names.

This is a wonderful story told from the perspective of a woman of privilege.  While it's been described as a feminist novel, and in some respects that is true, I can appreciate that men also experience unrealized dreams for reasons beyond their control.

A dream of moving to a red-brick Georgian in Hampstead during my senior years is going to carry me through an afternoon of domestic duties.  I don't even have the benefit of Genoux!

Arum and Tulips by Vanessa Bell

26 January 2017

This Week in Books: The Ups and Downs

I'm so excited about the arrival of a couple of items from Slightly Foxed.  Issue 52 of their quarterly magazine impressed me enough to commit to a subscription.  A personal message from Olivia on a gorgeous woodcut postcard tucked inside was a lovely surprise.  And while I'm not rushing to the end of Vita Sackville-West's All Passion Spent because it's too good for that, I can't wait to start Terms & Conditions.

A few days ago I woke up to the sound of Kip making strange noises around the bookcase in my bedroom.  I thought he had sniffed out an errant dog biscuit, but it was the glue binding my copy of E, H, Young's The Vicar's Daughter.  The one bought on Charing Cross Road and published in 1937...silly boy *sigh*.

18 January 2017

Long Live Great Bardfield: The Autobiography of Tirzah Garwood

During my last trip to London I visited the Dulwich Picture Gallery to see the Ravilious exhibit.  Knowing very little about the man, my interest in his work springs from its pleasant blending of English countryside, soothing colours, and war art.  When Persephone Books announced they would be publishing his wife's autobiography I ordered a copy.  To be perfectly honest, reading about Tirzah's life was meant to be a way of gleaning more information about Eric.  Now that I've mournfully turned the last page of Long Live Great Bardfield my interest has been completely turned around...and how could it not be?  While a picture may be worth a thousand words, to read Tirzah's thoughts on art, family, love, sex, and the war with such honesty is to feel as though you've been been welcomed into this sphere by Tirzah herself.

Tirzah Garwood was born into a life of privilege in 1908, although this shouldn't be misunderstood as 'stuffiness', although anything appearing to be 'common' is greatly avoided (and usually quite comic).  For every mention of something such as a man arriving to wind clocks there are chickens, bunnies, dogs, foraging, and a passion for collecting things like birds' nests and beetles.  Such passions can have their downside...

'My mother was unfortunate enough to have been married when the fashion for pewter pots was at its height.....'

Art figured prominently in Tirzah's family with both her mother and father taking up pencil and brush.  Mr Garwood's eye for sketching nudes from photography book caused no small amount of embarrassment.  In fact, there were many instances when Edwardian values turned to carefree adventure.  Aunt Rose arranged for the eldest three Garwood children to experience a ride in a seaplane while the younger two were compensated with a lunch out.  On the surface, Tirzah was mesmerized by the way the pilot's hair moved in the wind but a hand stained red from the ticket reveals a bit of anxiety.  And who could blame her?

Another fascinating aspect of this book are the references to health conditions and how they were treated during this era between the wars.  Eating too much can bring about a liver attack, another woman apparently went deaf because a bag had been popped behind her, and quinine is recommended towards the end of pregnancy.  At one point, while Tirzah is in hospital, she writes about a twenty-two year old woman who has been under observation for thirteen weeks because she has grown a beard.  It's obvious to us in 2017 that this is a hormone issue but there's another glaring point...today you wouldn't be admitted for half that time if you required a heart transplant.  And I did laugh at an ineffective way to beat sunstroke....

'It was a very hot day and my mother went bathing, which she occasionally did, wearing a voluminous alpaca bathing dress with a longish skirt.  She was always very careful to wet the top of her forehead first when she went in, I think her mother had told her always to do this.  It seemed a poor sort of reward for years of such caution that she should in spite of this get sunstroke, but there it was, she came home with her memory completely gone and kept offering Joe more helpings of rice pudding for lunch.'

As you can see, at barely a third of the way into Long Live Great Bardfield there is already much to recommend it.  By the time Tirzah's writing has moved on from her childhood to concentrate on her relationship with Eric Ravilious, my heart had been lost to her.  

Every book I read over the next eleven months will be judged against this one.  Each page comes alive with the minutiae of Tirzah's relationships and marriage, England's art scene during the thirties, and village life.  It's also the story of a woman who bravely faces the many challenges of raising a family with an often absent husband, having her creativity put on hold, standing up to others when she is firm in a decision and facing cancer as a young woman.  There's a remarkable lack of complaining despite situations, such as Eric's affairs, when it would have been perfectly understandable to unleash a tirade.  I'm left with the sense that Tirzah knew her value, kept a bit of her heart for herself, and admirably dealt with certain dire situations with an incredible amount of decorum.

To anyone interested in a long list of topics such as the interwar period, artists, social history, women's rights, village life, domestic history, World War II, England, etc., I can not recommend this book highly enough.  Also, for anyone contemplating a good read for a book group this would make a wonderful choice.  As I mentioned before, I knew very little about Eric Ravilious and nothing at all about Tirzah but was completely swept away.  A final bit of advice - have a box of tissues nearby for the last chapter.

 Duffy Ayres, portrait of Tirzah Garwood (1944)

1 January 2017

Five Favourites from 2016

This is the best time of year for increasing an already too long list of 'must-read' books.  It's especially good for highlighting reissues of books I never knew existed.  One title that jumps to mind is Fair Stood the Wind for France by H. E. Bates (thank you, Kim from Reading Matters).

While it wasn't my most prolific year for reading down to having lots of exhausting fun with a new pup, most of what I read was quite good.  It was impossible to narrow down the books I've read to one favourite, but each of my top picks had a pull that made me yearn to get back to them and left a lasting impression.  And it has just occurred to me that four of the five titles are by authors I've never read before.

This new year of reading is already off to an excellent start with Long Live Great Bardfield by Tirzah Garwood.  I'm only a few pages in but absolutely loving it so far.  Full of anecdotal tidbits of childhood perceptions and social mores from around the time of the Great War, it's tiding me over nicely until more copies of Terms and Conditions by Yselda Maxtone Graham are printed.  I placed my first order with Slightly Foxed the other day for Issue 52 of their quarterly magazine.  No doubt the start of another bookish obsession....Happy New Year!