12 January 2021

A Bite of the Apple by Lennie Goodings

I have Claire, at The Captive Reader, to thank for bringing this memoir to my attention.  Her Library Loot posts are just the thing for highlighting new titles or getting me to take a closer look at others.  As luck would have it my library had A Bite of the Apple on the shelves, just waiting.  What was supposed to be a quick skim of the first few pages turned into a two hour reading session.

Soho, London, early evening, late 1970s, and the sounds of Friday night revelries rise up to our window on the fourth floor in Wardour Street where I'm still working my way through piles of paperwork in the Virago office.  I am not alone. We do everything ourselves in this company--including the dusting and vacuuming of our one largish room and small kitchen/bathroom--and it is Callil's turn to clean.

Lennie Goodings traded Canada for London shortly after university.  Drawn to the world of books she worked incredibly hard in a field that has struggled through takeover bids, market slumps, recession, and the digital age.  There's something about paper, ink, and the written word that drives people in many ways.  The women behind the success of Virago were, and still are, the very definition of tenacious.

Broken into four sections:  A New Kind of Being, The Books, The Politics: Office and Otherwise and The Power to Publish is a Wonderful Thing. each section has subsections relating to aspects of the business, the staff and their relationship with various authors.  As the publishers of novels by women, standing their ground when it came to equality and turning the gaze of booksellers was part of their agenda.  Goodings mentions browsing in a high street bookshop and seeing a table featuring Great American Novels.  Not one had been written by a woman.  Another moment that gave me pause for thought is how often we hear the term 'female author' while the description of  'male author' is practically unheard of.  

Shoving politics aside for a moment,  I enjoyed the personal tidbits about authors such as Rosamund Lehmann, Elizabeth Taylor and Sarah Waters.  One morning, Goodings was collected from her small flat in Stoke Newington in a car carrying Lehmann for an interview in Manchester.  Scanning the neighbourhood Lehmann asked 'Is this bohemia?'   The image of spending time with Rosamund Lehmann in social settings AND collecting a wage are 'pinch me' moments, and Goodings had plenty of them.

To my shame, as a Canadian, I have yet to read a single book by Margaret Atwood.  Yes, I know she has goddess status but her writing missed the mark with me in high school.  Regretfully, I never looked back.  Goodings writes with such affection for Atwood, not only as an author but as the clever and funny woman she is.  Apparently Atwood reads palms.  At one point Goodings writes about a takeover and some issues, large and small, behind the scenes.  She quotes a saying Atwood has....'In my experience, the smaller the cheese the fiercer the mice.'   

The women who managed Virago through its many changes, from those in the office to its authors, are incredibly inspiring.  And while it would be easy to slide into reams of self-praise, Goodings is unflinching in her admission of the times when the team at Virago got it wrong.  But having said that, something they have been keenly aware of is the importance of publishing books by women of colour and people from the LGBTQ community.  For decades, Virago has received letters and emails from people writing to say that a certain book has changed their life. 

It would be fair to say that Virago played a large part in my life when their fetching edition of The Diary of a Provincial Lady by E M Delafield (with the Cath Kidston cover) caught my eye several years ago.  I spent ages trying to find something that fit between Jean Plaidy and Jane Green and found a world of books hiding in plain sight.  I owe the women behind Virago, as well as Persephone Books, an immense amount of gratitude.

The only downside of borrowing this book from the library is being a few days late in returning it and someone is next in line.  I'm tempted to leave a grovelling note inside.  An excellent and informative read that will keep you from doing other things in your day.  Highly recommended and thoroughly enjoyed....thanks, Claire!

Lennie Goodings

7 January 2021

The Swiss Summer by Stella Gibbons

 An invitation to spend the summer in a chalet with a view of the Alps.  During this time of lockdown when grocery shopping is now an adventurous outing, such escapism could not be more perfectly timed.  First published in 1951, The Swiss Summer has been reissued by Dean Street Press.  I am delighted.  

Lady Dagleish lives in Waterloo Lodge, a mansion in Barnet.  As a woman of means before her marriage, Lady Dagleish is comfortable in her extravagant surroundings but as an elderly widow she yearns for the company of interesting young people.  Sir Burton Dagleish died before the First World War; still considered a young man in his sixties.  He was widely known for his work in alpine science and was an ardent mountaineer.  In a grand gesture, the Swiss government presented him with a chalet.  Rarely used these days, Lady Dagleish plans to send her housekeeper Mrs Blandish to Switzerland to do an inventory of Sir Burton's books, writings and diaries.  Enter Mrs Cottrell.

While visiting a friend who suggests a visit to Waterloo Lodge, Lucy is intrigued by Lady Dagleish and sighs at mention of the chalet.  She spent her honeymoon in the Alps over twenty years ago and would love to return one day.  Before another cup of tea can be poured, Lady Dagleish makes the suggestion that Lucy accompany Mrs Blandish on her mission.  Surely her husband can spare her three months.....

   "It's on the way up to the Jungfrau, about five hundred feet above the station at Adleralp."  said Mrs Blandish.  "It's quite a climb, and you'll certainly see all the mountains you want.  Do you know Adlerwald?  That's the next station down, and the nearest large village.  At Adleralp there's nothing but one souvenir shop and a darned expensive out-of-date hotel."

Lucy Cottrell and Mrs Blandish book their travel tickets.  Mrs Blandish takes a quick flight but Lucy books economical train travel which makes for an epic adventure in itself.  Greeting her at the chalet is Utta, a woman of advancing years but strong and a stickler for doing things properly.  Utta visits weekly to dust, polish and sweep the chalet, taking great pride in her responsibility.  She doesn't care for Mrs Blandish, at all.  The plot soon pivots from that of a dreamy summer of sightseeing to several women keenly watching each other.  But let's take a moment for a food quote....

   Mrs Blandish's manner this morning was unchanged by the beauty of the view, the fine weather, or even by the large brown eggs, thick honey and rye bread, cherry jam and fresh milk; she had her usual air of self-absorption dashed with good-nature and impatience, and as usual it was impossible for Lucy to tell what she was thinking about.

The cunning Mrs Blandish has her hopes pinned on Lady Dagleish leaving the chalet to her in her Will.  To be fair, Lady D has taken some enjoyment from stringing her along.  Storylines begin to germinate....Mrs Blandish has a side hustle to make extra money by inviting guests to stay at the chalet under the pretext that she is the owner.  Lucy is torn between informing Lady Dagleish and not wanting to get involved.  Then the family Price-Wharton show up with their entitled teenage daughter who has something of a 'frenemy' relationship with Mrs Blandish's daughter Astra.  Eventually the chalet is practically heaving with people causing Utta to grow increasingly unsettled with what she feels is disrespect for Sir Burton's memory and his widow.

I'm very excited that Dean Street Press has reissued several novels from Stella Gibbons' oeuvre.  Her writing contains a wonderful blend of humour and insightfulness that I never fail to enjoy.  In The Swiss Summer, the relationship between Astra, a drifting teenager craving a mother's love, and Lucy who silently mourns her childless state, is incredibly touching.  Even more so for being the calm in a froth of deception at the chalet.  One tiny niggle is a point in the middle of the story where some editing would have tightened it a bit.  I will say the ending was extremely satisfying! 

Thank you to Rupert from Dean Street Press for sending along a copy.  A thoroughly enjoyable read and I look forward to reading the others!


22 December 2020

The Morville Hours by Katherine Swift

Oh this is such a beautiful book for so many reasons.  Won during my early days of blogging when dovegreyreader offered it up as a promotion on her blog.  In fact, it would have been in 2008 when The Morville Hours was first published.  While busily in the throes of discovering the work of various neglected female writers from the twentieth century, I promptly popped this book onto a shelf where it suffered the same fate - neglect.  Finally, the time came when a book about a garden called loudest from the shelves.  What took me so long!  This book offers so much more than that and has gone straight onto my list of favourite reads.

   I came here to make a garden.  In the red earth I find fragments of blue-and-white willow-pattern china, white marble floor-tiles, rusted iron nails.  A litter of broken clay pipes in the flower-beds, their air holes stopped with soil.  Opaque slivers of medieval glass, blue as snowmelt.  Flat wedges of earthenware dishes with notched rims and looping patterns of cream and brown.  Who drank from that cup, who smoked that pipe, who looked through that window?

Oh Katherine Swift....we are going to get along. 

Swift was commuting between Oxford and Dublin where she worked as Keeper of Early Printed Books at Trinity College.  Her husband owned a bookshop in Oxford and all of the toing and froing must have been arduous because, as Swift writes....Morville was his plan to lure me home.  The Dower House in Shropshire was taken on a lease for twenty years.  A short walk away from the house is a church built in the twelfth century where four wooden Evangelists sit, chroniclers of the village for four hundred years.  Rich with details about the history of both the house and land I absolutely wallowed in every tidbit from the arrival of the Anglo-Saxons via Mercia and how languages merged to the house's previous owners.  Before the history lesson could get too weighty, Swift turns the spotlight on her daily life, such as how her cats hate the snow, preferring the warmth of the Rayburn.

The cat flap in the kitchen door lifts open, horizontal: the cats flatten their ears and narrow their eyes before breasting the tide of freezing air like Christmas Day swimmers taking the plunge.

As a National Trust property, plans nurtured by Swift were closely scrutinized before she was allowed to put spade to grass.  She had ambitious plans involving a Cloister Garden and creating several large areas for other ambitiously themed plots.  Despite having a shy folder when it came to experience in a venture of this size, the people at the National Trust were won over.  And Swift also included three beehives which tied in nicely with a recent read about bees that I enjoyed very much.  Other anecdotes about butterflies and birds being welcomed into the Dower House through an open door made for warm images.  And I smiled at the notion of watering your lawn in the evening to conjure the worms so badgers can eat their fill.  We don't have badgers here in Ontario but it seems like a nice thing to do...unless you're a worm.

Every now and then, the author shares stories from her childhood and the tenuous relationship she had with her parents.  At times both touching and sad, the writing is never syrupy or maudlin.  And I could so relate when Swift admits she can feel a bit fed up with all of the work in the garden by August.  Ignoring sections, leaving them to do what they will, Swift was often surprised to see that seeds blown from other beds nearby will create an unstructured beauty of their own.

I have a burning desire to find out what damsons taste like and will buy the next jar of jam I find.  Apparently doctors knew when it was damson season because villagers would start coming in with broken limbs from reaching for the fruit on weak branches.

Reading back through my notes it's so tempting to go straight back to the beginning and enjoy its pages all over again.  Previously housed in a bookcase in the spare room The Morville Hours will have a new home on the bookcase in my bedroom and I'll return to it often.  Find a copy for yourself and anyone else you know who will enjoy a book filled with rich history, wonderous nature, fascinating memoir and some trials and tribulations in the garden.  I loved this book more than I can say.

 Garden at Morville Hall
(photo credit here)

4 December 2020

Jacob's Room by Virginia Woolf

 My 'light' winter coat and boots have been pulled from the depths of the spare room closet.  There's a bit of snow on the ground and more Christmas trees in front windows than ever before this early in December.  It makes a cheery change!  Christmas will be different this year in many ways but for some, a slower pace just might mean it's better.  There was a case of Covid at the library but thankfully our staff member is having mild symptoms.  It's made me hate the idea of wearing both a mask and face shield a little less.  Perhaps it's not so bad to feel as though I'm working inside a terrarium if it means I'm protected.  Actually,  I've passed the point at which wearing a mask is weird....it will be a bit weird not to.   

Jacob's Room begins with Betty Flanders at the beach with her children.  She is writing a letter....

  Slowly welling from the point of her gold nib, pale blue ink dissolved the full stop; for there her pen stuck; her eyes fixed, and tears slowly filled them.  The entire bay quivered; the lighthouse wobbled; and she had the illusion that the mast of Mr Connor's little yacht was bending like a wax candle in the sun.

Flanders.  The word alone conjures a vision of poppies in a field, as described by John McCrae in his poignant poem published in 1915.  By giving Jacob the surname of Flanders, Virginia Woolf has suggested the image of wartime but the events of the Great War are still many years ahead.  In the meantime, Betty Flanders writes letters to friends and relations, mends her children's clothes and sees to the older boys' education.  In other words, life goes on from one day to the next.  

When Jacob is nineteen he leaves for Trinity College Cambridge.  As his circle of friends grows, Jacob becomes the centre point for a wider pool of characters.  Woolf explores the characters of those who form attachments of one sort or another with Jacob:  the friends he makes from various social circles, the women he has relationships with, his travelling companions while in Greece and Italy, Cornwall and London.   Indulge me in the joy of descriptive quote featuring a place I've explored many times....

   The rashest drivers in the world are, certainly, the drivers of post-office vans.  Swinging down Lamb's Conduit Street, the scarlet van rounded the corner by the pillar box in such a way as to graze the kerb and make the little girl who was standing on tiptoe to post a letter look up, half-frightened, half curious. 

Also, as you would expect from Woolf, there is commentary on the status of women in society.  One such character is Mrs Jarvis who is married to a clergyman.  She wanders the moors when she is unhappy and hides a book of poetry in her coat for reading when she is away from the house.  Mrs Jarvis contemplates leaving her husband but the scandal would ruin his career so she stays.  And another character, the feminist Julia Hedge, collects her books at the British Museum....

Her eye was caught by the final letters in Lord Macaulay's name.  And she read them all round the dome - the names of great men which remind us - 'Oh damn,' said Julia Hedge, 'why didn't they leave room for an Eliot or Brontë.'

Jacob's Room doesn't receive its share of the spotlight when it comes to Woolf's novels so I wasn't completely aware of what it entailed.  That it centred around a young man was obvious and the topic of the Great War was also attached to it but not much more than that.  But you won't find battlefield scenes, artillery or water-filled trenches.  In fact, at the halfway point I started to wonder whether I had muddled the synopsis of  Jacob's Room with something else.  The impact of the war does appear but not until the end of the book when Woolf's pen goes straight for the reader's heart.  For anyone who has read Kate Atkinson's A God in Ruins and was left feeling a bit pale when it was done, you'll recognize the feeling.  

Jacob's Room, Virginia Woolf's first experimental novel, exceeded my expectations.  I'm still on the outside looking in when she writes about Greek gods but that's okay.  For me, a novel by Virginia Woolf would make the best sort of desert island book because there are seemingly endless things to discover, learn and enjoy.  

Portrait of a Young Man by Reginald Grenville Eves (1876 - 1941)