24 June 2018

The Rare and the Beautiful by Cressida Connolly

A few weeks ago, an adventure in sofa shopping coincided with a book sale at the Oakville Public Library.  A better way to prime the mind for looking at fabric swatches I can't imagine.  The books at the sale are sold for $1.50 per pound, which keeps you guessing as to how much the total will be once your stack hits the scale bit it's usually less than expected.  On this visit, I came away with only five books, but one that will be a favourite of the year.

Raised in a passionately religious family near Birminham, the Garmans had an unusually laid-back approach towards discipline for the turn of the nineteenth century.  Walter Garman was the local doctor as well as being involved in the church.  Their mother, Marjorie, loved Beethoven, reading and the natural world.  All of the Garman's nine children were strikingly exotic looking, with a few of the girls being compared to Cleopatra, down to their prominent cheekbones and almond-shaped eyes.

Kathleen Garman

While young, the siblings grew up in idyllic circumstances with picnics, holidays at the shore, education and servants.   Their parents were lenient when it came to matters of childhood tomfoolery, but morality was a different matter.  When Mr Garman caught Mary and Kathleen reading Madame Bovary, he swiftly summoned the rest of the children to the nursery so they could watch as the book was thrown into the fire.

The outbreak of the First World War drew many of the young men away from the village.  When Walter Garman expressed his hope that the older girls would eventually marry into the clergy, Mary and Kathleen were having none of it.  Without very much thought as to how they would cope, the young women packed up what they could carry and ran away to London.

Without means, Kathleen worked as an artist's model and helped with the horses that pulled the Harrod's carriage.  Mary drove a delivery van for Lyons' Corner Houses.  A small allowance was soon granted by their father but the young women were admirably resourceful when it came to  getting by.  Once introduced into the society of Bohemian London,  and as regulars at CafĂ© Royal it wasn't long before they were in the company of Roger Fry, Wyndham Lewis, E M Forster and Lytton Strachey.  The sisters were eventually able to afford a small flat in Regent Square on the edge of Bloomsbury.  

The trajectory of the young women's lives makes for incredibly riveting reading.  At a time when women were considered to be prostitutes for being outside without a hat, the Garman sisters wore their hair long and flowing.  Their clothing was bohemian and full of colour; they favoured the look of dark kohl accentuating their eyes.  Shortly after becoming the muse of sculptor Jacob Epstein, Kathleen became his lover.  His wife seemed to accept his various affairs, even raising his daughter by another woman as her own, but she was intensely jealous of his latest muse.  Summoning Kathleen to her home on Guildford Street, Epstein's wife drew a pistol and shot her rival.  In an attempt to quash any scandal, Mrs Epstein then proceeded to invite Kathleen (once she had recovered) to join her in an open taxi through Hyde Park...which Kathleen accepted.

The biographies of Kathleen's siblings are equally fascinating and have gone a long way to pique my interest in this Bohemian circle of family and their counterparts.  I was also fascinated by the Garman's determination to live their lives as they pleased despite what anyone thought.  Which is not to say there weren't recriminations.  Lorna had her first child at seventeen, then, while still married, had a long-term relationship with Laurie Lee (he lived in a trailer near Lorna's home).  In fact, the lovers had a daughter, Yasmin, who was graciously raised by Lorna's husband as his own.  Lorna's much-revered blue-eyed gaze was eventually turned by the artist Lucien Freud, leading Laurie Lee to the brink of suicide.

Lorna Garman with Lucien Freud

There were times when I wondered where the money to survive was coming from, but perhaps such details were politely overlooked in letters and other communications.  Writing articles or producing art on lazy days in sunny gardens would scarcely pay the bills that came about through moving house, feeding and clothing children or setting off to join the Civil War in Spain.  But through their many adventures, the Garmans always seemed to scrape by.  Financial matters and household responsibilities lagged far behind artistic pursuits, reading, letter writing, or political conversation.  Mary, Kathleen and Lorna didn't seem to be weighed down by the portrayal of an ideal wife or mother during the 1920s or 30s. 

   'Like her mother, Kathleen serenely avoided housework.  She never took to blacking grates and Liquid Gumption, and is remembered as doing the washing-up with her coat on, as if to escape it as soon as she could.  'I never saw my mother in an apron,' says Kitty.  'She didn't even know what over gloves were for.'  

The Rare and the Beautiful
is a must read for anyone interested in the social history of women during the interwar period and beyond.  As much as I find the nuances in domestic fiction to be endearing and educational, I was enthralled with these young women who grabbed life with both hands.  The Garman sisters ventured forth despite risk, indulged their curious minds, toyed with convention, and apologies were rare.  Fabulous right to the very end....

'Lorna was a guest at the wedding, and all eyes followed her instead of the bride, as she had doubtless intended.  To the few who didn't come under her spell, she seemed cold, manipulative.  Her gift for intuition could be perceived as witch-like.'

As Cressida Connolly describes the end of each Garman's life, I couldn't help but think of all they had seen and done.  Weaving through the lives of well-known members of London's cultural, artistic and political landscape, I find it hard to believe their story is not more widely known. 

As I wrote earlier, this book will rate as one of my favourites of the year!

Kathleen Garman

7 June 2018

Dear Mrs Bird by AJ Pearce

We're in the middle of a minor war zone of our own at the moment.  Removing all of the carpet to make way for new flooring sounded easy peasy...at the time.  And moving every piece of furniture shouldn't be a big deal for two able-bodied adults.  Five bookcases neatly lined with books looks lovely...those same books scattered in piles and boxes is a bit of a mess.  But a nice mess.  What choice do we have but to just get on with things!  A sentiment perfectly timed with the Blitz Spirit of this wonderful new book set during World War II.

My good friend Mary, at Mrs Miniver's Daughter, sent me the link to Dear Mrs Bird last winter.  Soon after that, the book was mentioned on a podcast.  Learning there had been a seven-way bidding war between publishing companies was all I needed to know before promptly placing a book order.  Congratulations to Picador for coming out on top. 

Just about everyone in the blogsphere knows the synopsis of this book, but just in case someone has been on a long break without social media....

'When I first saw the advertisement in the newspaper I thought I might actually burst.  I'd had rather a cheerful day so far despite the Luftwaffe annoying everyone by making us all late for work, and then I'd managed to get hold of an onion, which was very good news for a stew.'

Twenty-two year old Emmeline Lake lives with her best friend, Bunty, in an attic flat in London.  Since childhood, Emmeline has dreamed of a career in journalism.  With the war on, her dream now centres around becoming a War Correspondent.  An advertisement for a Junior connected with The London Evening Chronicle sets Emmeline's heart racing....but she's failed to read the ad carefully.  After landing the position and packing in a perfectly respectable job, Emmeline is left embarrassed when she realizes her new job will be sorting through the incoming mail for Mrs Henrietta Bird, an Agony Aunt.  A more delightful caricature of the uptight tweed persona would be hard to find....

'The desk was almost entirely bare, apart from an untouched ink blotter edged with green leather, a telephone, and a large framed photograph of Mrs Bird in front of an ornamental lake.  Dressed informally in a thick woollen getup and leather gloves, she was surrounded by a large group of gun dogs, all of whom were gazing up at her with quite fanatical devotion.' 

Soon realizing that Mrs Bird's stubborn refusal to entertain any Unpleasantness from letter writers seeking advice, Emmeline grabs an opportunity.  Secreting letters from young ladies who have fallen in love with European soldiers, women tempted to have an affair, or the lonely, Emmeline writes back under the guise of Mrs Bird.  It's not all that difficult as Mrs Bird finds all sorts of excuses to leave the office early, my favourite being the Cat Evaculation Meeting.

The first person narrative is key in making the reader identify with Emmeline's struggle with the morals and ethics of impersonating her senior at work.  But with each passing night of the Blitz and the thought that each day might be her last, Emmeline feels she has nothing to lose. 

Dear Mrs Bird is not a book to be pigeon-holed.  There was a moment when, after a few pages of jolly hockey sticks-type linguistics I wondered if I had bought something perhaps too sickly sweet.  But then the story deals with heartbreak, the horrors involving London's Fire Service, smashed windows, craters in the road, and the 'crump' of German bombs exploding in the distance.  Pearce's  description of ghost-like citizens, covered in the dust from the bombed out ruins of their own homes paints a devastatingly real picture.  And then, in stiff-upper lip fashion,  she would make me laugh...

   'Bunty, who I knew had been practising looking casual, was in the living room, standing with one hand on the mantelpiece while staring into mid-distance.  she looked as if she was modelling a pattern for Vogue.'
I loved my time spent reading Dear Mrs Bird, coincidentally while listening to 1940s swing which is my background music of choice while at home.  Sprinkled with nuggets of social history I enjoyed the mention of knitting patterns, herring pie, paste sandwiches, and wartime rations, and the peripheral characters are fantastically well-drawn.  Also, the author's message of the importance of women being confident and in control of their circumstance was hit home in one of my favourite lines....

'Granny didn't spend half her life chaining herself to railings for today's woman to moon around waiting for some chap to look after her.'

The rights to this story have been sold, so stay tuned for the television program....I can't wait!