20 April 2016

Consequences by Penelope Lively

A love story set during World War II in the hands of Penelope Lively...well, it's bound to be good, isn't it.  Something I didn't expect though is this book's epic scale.  At just over 250 pages my impression was that this story would encompass all the stereotypes of rationing, evacuees, air raids, and emotional upheaval within the time frame of the 1940s.  In Consequences, Penelope Lively follows a nuclear family through future generations up to just past the year 2000.  The constant in the story, albeit at times as a memory, is a small rustic cottage in Somerset that is two centuries old.

Lorna and Matt meet on a bench in St, James's Park.  It's 1935 and Matt is sketching birds as a commission for a book.  Lorna stays away from her parents' white-terraced home in London's Brunswick Gardens to avoid talk of her future.  She's always been attracted to the idea of a bohemian lifestyle and fills the walls of her bedroom with art.  Her parents want what's best for her which means marriage to an Oxford-educated man.  Matt couldn't be further from their ideal portrayal of a future son-in-law with his working class upbringing near the Welsh border.  Lorna and Matt weigh their options and decide to elope. Setting out to find a tranquil space to nest and paint they discover the cottage...

'Square and squat, cob and thatch, dug solid into the red Somerset earth, the small building had seen out generations of farm laborers.  People had been born here, died here, had heard rumors of wars, had achieved the vote, had sweated over the same patch of landscape and stared at the same sky.  Now, the place stood empty, bar the mice and the black beetles and the spiders.  Empty, and two pounds a month.'

The toilet is outdoors and there's no running water.  I couldn't wait to find out how dedicated Lorna was to her dream of a bohemian life, but I have to hand it to her...she copes brilliantly.  Matt paints frescoes on the walls that in my mind's eye looked a bit like art by Eric Ravilious.  Soon, a baby girl comes along, and so does the war.  Matt packs a bag, answering the call to duty.  I was crushed when I turned to the front leaf and found out that Matt is killed.  Sorry! but it's right there for all to see early on.

What follows is Lorna's wonderful spirit and ability to wade through adversity with the help of those who love her.  She smiles at the independent nature of her daughter, Molly, and marvels at the changing times.  Molly goes on to admire those same character traits in her own daughter, Ruth.  Long gone are the days of little choice for women.  This new order rings the changes in more tolerance of homosexuality, birth control, less concern about class structure, pregnancy outside of marriage, and divorce.

As a personal aside, there is a description of Molly's short career as a librarian's assistant from a 1960s persepctive that I am going to photocopy and hand to my branch manager.  Discussing banned books is outrageous, Trustees look down very long noses, and the circulation area is referred to as the 'issue' desk.

Penelope Lively admirably takes the reader through through sixty years of history with crafty leaps of season and hormonal milestones.  And while I initially chose to read Consequences for its World War II theme, the fact that the story veered off in another direction ended up being something quite wonderful.

Sussex Landscape by Eric Ravilious

14 April 2016

Spring edition of Town & Country...Calling All Rampant Anglophiles

Made a quick stop at Chapters last night to pick up a couple of cards and spotted the Spring edition of Town & Country.  They've outdone themselves with article after article to send any anglophile worth their salt running for a cup of tea and some quiet time.

What's inside. you may ask?  Emma Bridgewater, beekeeping, the portraiture of Vanessa Garwood, three new independent bookshops in London, Sotheby's auction of articles belonging to Deborah Devonshire (by Juliet Nicholson), restoration of a Hawksmoor-designed estate, recipes for a delicious lunch fit for the Queen, and a beautiful set of photographs of the Queen from past to present.  There's also a page highlighting fashion to wear to the Hay Festival but personally, I wouldn't sit on damp grass in trousers from Holland & Holland that cost £225.

Pardon the glare on the photo...the sun is out today!

7 April 2016

Carlyle's House and Other Sketches by Virginia Woolf

I confess there are times when a book sounds wonderful but the page count is too low or the font is too large and all will be over in a sitting.  Who doesn't want value for their reading dollar?  I also confess to spending $12 on a British magazine that is flipped through once or twice and passed on in pristine condition.  At a mere sixty-five pages including the foreword, introduction, note on text, acknowledgements, Woolf's writings, commentary, and biographical note, this publication could slip under the radar.  And that would be a shame...it's brilliant.

The foreword is by Doris Lessing and begins with a perfect description...'These pieces are like five-finger exercises for future excellence.'  While many writers have contributed to the idea that Woolf's writings are intimidating, I love that Lessing describes Woolf and her close circle of Bloomsbury artists as 'that lot'.  Rather than being disrespectful I found the comment to be a joyous leveller.  She also brings together the polarizing views of Virginia Woolf as a snob and depressive with the fun-loving woman who enjoyed picnics and parties when she wasn't ill.

Moving on to the actual sketches, most are just two pages in length and taken from very early notebooks.  For the most part, they're exercises in observation but after reading Woolf's scathing description of Amber Reeves I can see why acquaintances would be a tad nervous to get too close.  Virginia's keen eye scanned for every detail...

'She has dark hair, an oval face, with a singularly small mouth: a lone is pencilled on her upper lip.....her taste and insight are not fine; when she described people she ran into stock phrases, and took rather a cheap view.  She seemed determined to be human also; to like people, even though they were stupid.'

In the commentary, Miss Reeves is described as someone of 'great passion and intellect'.  She was also much-talked about while at Cambridge for her fondness of breaking rules and sexual liberation.  An affair with H. G. Wells resulted in a child but that's a story for another day.  Around this time (early 1900s), Virginia was hoping for marriage and a child herself so were her observations of Amber Reeves seen through green eyes?  As an aside, I had one of those 'Squee!' moments yesterday when I noticed that Persephone Books will soon be publishing an early book by Reeves, A Lady and Her Husband.

Other topics explored by Woolf are Cambridge, Hampstead, and Divorce Courts which is a devastating account of the petition for separation between Alice Mary Fearnley-Whittingstall and her husband.  Finding out that her abusive and controlling husband was the local, and long-time, reverend made me shudder all the more.  There is a suggestion that Alice Mary came under the spell of another woman, Miss Lewis, but perhaps she was simply offering the poor woman a means of escape.  In any case, Woolf writes about sitting in on the proceedings.

'She, no doubt, was the less conventional of the two; though the more unjust.  He was obviously consoled by the complete vindication of his character, and the consciousness that he had acted rightly and spoken the truth.  She will flounder along for a time, one suspects; there will be a disillusionment, when Miss Lewis deserts her for another woman' and then she will come back, and be received with due Christian charity; and some penance will be assigned her, to last her life.'

Virginia was right, at least when it came to Alice Mary returning home.

If I haven't tempted you to find a copy of this slim, but rich, collection by now then there's simply no point in continuing.  I'm off for a nice long walk before going to work.  Enjoy your day!

Virginia Woolf