8 October 2021

Quartet in Autumn by Barbara Pym

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Sock Knitter by Grace Cossington Smith

27 September 2021

The Last September by Elizabeth Bowen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

14 September 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

7 September 2021

Statues in a Garden by Isabel Colegate

It is the summer of 1914 but The Great War hasn't reached the Weston's home in Queen Anne's Gate, London just yet.  Sir Alymer and his wife, Cynthia have hired Miss Alice Benedict to act as chaperone for their daughter Kitty.  With their other daughter Violet recently engaged there will be plenty of distractions and appointments; too many occasions when the Suffragette cause could lure Kitty into unseemly behaviour.  With Sir Alymer as a Liberal politician and member of Asquith's cabinet, appearances and reputation are held in the highest esteem.

Imagine an episode of Downton Abbey, with family members gathering in the breakfast room, about to spoon out the kedgeree.  The atmosphere within the Weston's home has that sort of feel but on a modest scale.  Edward is reading for the Bar and takes after his father in his melancholy good looks and shows promise of turning into a fine young man. Sir Alymer and Cynthia have raised his nephew Philip as one of their own from the age of eight, when his parents died of cholera in India.  Although, Philip has always felt like the 'plus-one' son.  He watches the family through a lens of hatred but I suspect his feelings have more to do with envy.

Between London and Charleswood, their country home in Wiltshire, the Westons fill their day with the usual entertainment and Government meetings that are later debated during evening meals.  The plot begins to thicken when Philip, seeking to make a name for himself in the stock market, enters into dealings with a man named Horgan.  Anxious to get off to a rolling start, Philip approaches Sir Alymer about making a bold investment that is sure to result in a robust return.  Seeing this as an opportunity to show trust in their adopted son, Cynthia also releases an amount of money to be invested, as does Edward.

Away from family politics, the situation in Ireland over boundaries and Party policies are causing Cabinet members to wonder if civil war in on the horizon.  With Sir Alymer busy in the House of Commons, Cynthia is flattered by the attention she receives from Philip.  He seeks her out and grows bolder in his flirtation with the woman who has raised him as her son for over a decade.  He's not quite 30 years old, Cynthia is 41. 

We are born in a lucky age for people of our class.  We have such opportunities to be happy and to do good.  If we remember our responsibilities and can keep our self respect, what is there to spoil life?

What is there to spoil it, indeed.  Caught between etiquette, society, and what the heart desires, members of the Weston family will be treading through murky minefields in the days that follow.  Statues in the Garden is an enjoyable read and if you liked Colegate's The Shooting Party you will find the same satisfaction here.  My only quibble is that there are instances when punctuation is missing as in absent periods or what should be the start of a sentence without the presence of a capital on the first word.  I have no idea if this is as it appeared in Colegate's manuscript or something went wrong at Bloomsbury Publishing.  Either way, a bit strange but not a deal breaker for anyone interested in reading this book.

The Black Hat by Francis Campbell Boileau Cadell