11 April 2019

The Holiday by Stevie Smith

Where to start?  I bought this book on the strength of the blurb on the back cover, it had me at....Celia works at the Ministry in the post-war England of 1949, and lives in a London suburb with her beloved Aunt.  Over the past few years I must have picked this book at least four times before reshelving it in favour of something else.  That can't continue if I'm ever to understand the references to Stevie Smith's writing and, more specifically, this book.

Celia works for the Ministry as a special assistant, drafting jobs and decoding messages for two members operating at a high level.  I can't remember if her age was ever specified but my image is of a young twenty-something.  Celia laments that her job is a minor one compared with that of men risking their lives in Libya and Russia.  Her office work in post-war London serves mostly as a backdrop to the friendships Celia has with twins Clem and Tiny....one haughty and rude, the other quite nice.  Their sister, Lopez lives in Chelsea, and from what I could gather, works for the BBC.  And then there's Caz, short for Casmilus.  What Celia knows for sure is that Caz is her cousin and she is in love with him.  The sketchy bit is that, down to rumours, there is a very strong possibility that Caz and Celia share a father.

Very much like a stream of consciousness novel, Stevie Smith touches on such things as Homer, religion, the British in India, wages in England, while dotting a few pages with poetry (her preferred form of writing).  Depending which topic was being touched on I found myself either riveted or lost.  My knowledge of Greek classics would fit on a postage stamp and it's my downfall when reading some of Virginia Woolf's writing as well.

Where does the title come in?  'The Holiday' refers to Celia's time spent at her Uncle Heber's rectory in Lincolnshire.

  'I left the kitchen and walked all over Heber's house, looking into the old rooms and trailing the dark passages.  It is empty, it is very old and musty.  The furniture is simple, it is what one wants and no more.  There is a dagger over the fire-place in the hall.  There is an old chest where Uncle Heber keeps his clean surplices.  I go up to the back stairs where the servants used to tread, bringing trays and coal.  I am glad we have got rid of them.  I detest the servant class, they are the victims and the victimizers, there is no freedom where they are.'

The time away from London and the Ministry does nothing to quiet or lessen Celia's thoughts.  Caz and Tiny have joined Celia at the rectory but the bulk of their time is spent debating the world's troubles and scaring themselves witless when a horse drawn carriage passes by one evening at midnight.  Celia only seems able to quiet her mind while being comforted by Caz.

This novel worked best for me in the moments when Stevie Smith wrote about the minutiae of daily life and the mention of food on offer.  I enjoyed reading about the meals so much that I cornered off a section of my notebook to keep a list.  Foodstuffs such as cress and Spam sandwiches, ginger biscuits, raspberries in cream, cold lamb and cabbage, sour cheese milk, tea in mesh bags, semolina pudding, and....wait for it....whale-oil cake from Bethuns.  Are you tempted?

Did I hug this book to my chest when I finished it?  My reading experience wasn't as stellar as that.  But it was a remarkable way to peel back a layer of the workings of Stevie Smith's mind and, being quite autobiographical, the social history makes this a book absolutely worth reading.

Portrait of a Young Girl
(artist unknown) 

2 comments:

  1. Darlene, next time I see you - I promise you a spam and cress sandwich picnic! Not sure about the whale-oil cake. Would cod-liver oil be a substitute???

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  2. Sounds wonderful, Mary....make lots! We can share with everyone! I like Nigella's olive oil cake but somehow cod-liver oil cake just doesn't carry the same panache.
    (I've shivered three times while typing this!)

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