19 May 2019

Eleanor O. and an Itinerary

There are a few women in my neighbourhood who are good friends because dogs brought us together.  Letting the dogs play has evolved into wine on the patio (as it will) every now and then.  Just over a year ago we talked about starting a book club with my choice of The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry as the book to start things off.  At the inaugural meeting it turned out that two of us had finished the book (in my case, a reread) while the other four members bailed before the ending.  As a way to smooth things over, I was asked to suggest something else for further down the road.  'The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters is a wonderful read!' I said.  Our host shouted 'What?!'  Apparently her other book group were not at all keen when they read it earlier that year.  To be fair, I wasn't excited about their choices either so I bowed out gracefully.  We still chat about the dogs and drink wine on the patio but when it comes to books I break from the pack. 

A few weeks ago, one of the book club members asked me to join in for their next read.  It was Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine and my friend just so happened to have two copies at home.  'Oh alright then'.  To be Completely Honest I wasn't expecting to like it.  

With over 39,000 reviews on Goodreads and more than 6,000 on Amazon there can't possibly be many readers out there who don't know what this book is about so I'll take a pass on repeating the synopsis.  What I will say is the same message was often relayed on podcasts I listen to....woman leaves work on Friday, spends her weekend drinking alone, then goes back to work on Monday.  Yes, loneliness plays a part in the story but after only a few pages I was smiling....and slightly worried because, just like Eleanor, I also enjoy the Daily Telegraph and The Archers and am very okay with my own company. 

Talking about the book with a colleague at the library I said 'I'm laughing but something tells me I shouldn't be'. Eleanor is doing her best under circumstances that can sometimes crush people; you can't help but root for her.  Gail Honeyman has done a wonderful job of portraying an unsettling aspect of the human psyche while still allowing the sun to shine through the clouds.  Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine was an unexpected reading pleasure and I'm very glad my arm was twisted to read the book. 

Reading time is competing with trip planning as I'm going to London in September!  On my list so far is a tour of the London Library, Tate Britain, The Guildhall Art Gallery, Churchill War Rooms, Fenton House and Burgh House in Hampstead, Dulwich Village, and mulling day trips to Charleston Farmhouse or Knole.  Persephone Books is hosting a talk on Anna Gmeyner and Elisabeth de Waal that sounds very interesting, and I'm watching the British Library's events page for their talks. 

No one wants to wish away the next few months of glorious weather but I'm so looking forward to being in London again.

Fenton House
Hampstead

3 May 2019

The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro

The cover art of the Vintage edition of this book grabs my attention every time it crosses the desk at the library.  I was probably first in line when the film came out but the details have blurred.  It's time to revisit this story, and to do it properly.

The Remains of the Day begins in the summer of 1956.  Mr. Farraday has offered Stevens, his butler, the Ford so he can take a holiday while he's away for several weeks in the United States.  Stevens, unaccustomed to an offer to enjoy the countryside in such leisure, replies that he has seen the beauty of England from within the walls of Darlington.  After much cajoling from Mr. Farraday about seeing the world, Stevens relents and gratefully accepts the kind gesture.   The arrival of a letter from a former housemaid, Miss Kenton (now Mrs. Benn) seals his plan for a destination.

Darlington Hall was once a noble country house filled with dozens of servants to wait on family and  guests.  Modern times and new ownership have meant sweeping change and Stevens now heads a staff of only a few.  Reading between the lines of the former housemaid's letter, Stevens wonders if perhaps she would like to return.  What becomes apparent by this point is that this is very much a novel about the things that are not said.

I will admit that it wasn't until I reached the 80 page mark that I started to feel invested in this story.  The rigidity of language, absence of emotion, and lack of description when it came to soft-furnishings kept me at arm's length from the characters, vast rooms and hallways at Darlington Hall.  Then it all became clear....that's exactly Ishiguro's point.  Stevens' English reserve and pinpoint execution of his position as Head Butler come through loud and clear.

When Stevens' narration turns to retrospection, it's back to just before WWII.  An important conference is about to take place at Darlington Hall with an American senator, a German ambassador, and a gentleman from France with political ties.  Oswald Mosley's backshirts and Nazi sympathizers have circled around Lord Darlington causing much concern for members of Lord Darlington's family and other political figures.

One aspect of being an excellent butler is to see all but say nothing, at times to the point of detriment.  Stevens' stiff upper lip is exhibited in the extreme when he's told his father is dying in a room upstairs...

   'I'm proud of you.  A good son.  I hope I've been a good father to you.  I suppose I haven't.'  
 'I'm afraid we're extremely busy now, but we can talk again in the morning.'

At day's end, Stevens triumphs in the fact that every detail of his responsibility to Lord Darlington and the conference was a success.  Is Stevens devoid of sentiment or overflowing with a sense of duty? 

During his car journey to Cornwall to meet with Miss Kenton, Stevens is neglectful of details such as water in the radiator and petrol in the tank.  Whether ignorant in the ways of motor vehicles or on the slippery slope to sloppiness, he's losing his edge.  He questions what remains of this next phase of his life and how to move forward.  Has he been too rigid, spent too much time pleasing and trusting others....and what does he have to show for it?

As Stevens sits on a pier, watching the lights turn on and brighten the dark sky, he realizes it's not too late to change.

Ishiguro's patient storytelling unfolds beautifully in The Remains of the Day; it's a masterclass in the art of 'show' rather than 'tell'.  And while I didn't have the best of starts with this novel, by the end I was completely won over.

Portrait of Alexander J. Cassatt by Mary Cassatt 
(1880)

26 April 2019

The Perfect Summer by Juliet Nicolson

Two major themes running through this book are the heatwave of 1911 and the relatively carefree atmosphere in Britain prior to The Great War.  While the pall of an approaching war that would result in the deaths of millions was as yet unimaginable, the intense heat of that summer was ever present.  With only basic sanitation and a lack of refrigeration the air would have been full of wafts of unpleasantness and rot.  The Times ran a column listing people whose deaths resulted from the record heat, and thousands walked off their jobs due to the oppressive conditions.

For the wealthy and aristocratic The Season was the time from May to September.  Young ladies were debuted and invitations to dozens of balls flooded their hall tables.  The Coronation of King George V and Queen Mary took place on June 22, while crowds lined the streets in high-neck dresses and wool suits.  I watched a video of the event on youtube and took pity on the Horse Guards in their uniforms.

Moving through the ranks of society, Juliet Nicolson pulled snippets from the archives. filling the pages with social history tidbits and lots of name-dropping.  I noted a description of Clementine Churchill's choice of wall colour....

'The decoration of the house reflected Clemmie's gentle but elegant taste, though while briefly under the influence of Art Nouveau she had had her own room painted green, brown and orange, with a large orange tree laden with oranges appliqu├ęd all over the walls.  The French Ambassador, visiting one weekend, winced at the sight.'

While everything is relative, it's impossible not to imagine how many properties in leafy squares we could buy with today's currency.  Winston Churchill bought a new car for £610, an outrageous expense in the early 1900s, in fact, three times the annual rent on their home in Eccleston Square.

The socialite Lady Diana Manners (later Lady Diana Cooper) features throughout this book, mostly for her exuberant personality and teen antics.  She even managed to be banned from Lady Desborough's home for excessive behaviour.  I would argue her heart was in the right place though as she thought her prize of 250 guineas for Best Costume at a ball....would come in useful for buying books.    

Away from the stark pavement and stone buildings of London the scene moves to the green and pleasant lands of Kent.  I haven't read anything by Siegfried Sassoon but I will now!

'Sitting under the Irish yew, we seemed to have forgotten that there was such a thing as the future.'

In one sentence he's conveyed the feeling of staying in the moment and just how heavenly (not to mention infrequent) that can be.

While The Perfect Summer largely centres around the world of political figures, the aristocracy and celebrities of the day there are sections on the fight for workers' rights and the suffrage movement.  One heartbreaking story mentions a young girl, borrowed from the workhouse, who arrived for work weighing an already slight 76 lbs but left weighing even less, only 62 lbs.  But another member of house staff, Eric Horne, made the bold move of secretly noting what went on behind the closed doors of his employers at various country houses.  His book What the Butler Winked At: Being the Life and Adventures of Eric Horne, Butler pulled back the curtain on the secret lives of the wealthy.  Horne's plan was to make enough money to feather his nest in retirement.

Other readers of The Perfect Summer have been irritated by the patchwork feeling of the batches of information.  I think that's a fair complaint.  This books doesn't flow in a continuous timeline and never immerses too deeply into any one event but sometimes that's just the sort of non-fiction read you want.  This is a book I'll be keeping on my shelves as a resource and has piqued my interest in reading more about Lady Diana Cooper!

Portrait of Lady Diana Manners by Sir James Jabusa Shannon
(1900)

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)