Policy and Passion by Rosa Praed

The name ‘Praed’ speaks to me of home: because it is very much a Cornish name, and because we have a number of paintings of familiar places, painted by an artist of that name, in out home. That was why the name of Rosa Praed, 19th century author, caught my eye. I couldn’t find a Cornish connection, indeed she came from the opposite side of the world, but when I read about her, and about her books, I was intrigued.

RosaPraedPic-576x1024Rosa Praed was an Australian author, maybe the first to be acclaimed at home and internationally, and though her husband’s career took them to England she continued to write novels set in her homeland. She published more than twenty books between 1880 and 1916, and I liked the look of any of the, but ‘Policy and Passion’ was the book that caught my eye. It filled a year in my 100 Years of Books project, and that title made me think of my beloved Mr Trollope ….

It might well have been influenced by him, but Rosa Praed was the daughter of a cabinet minister and this story is firmly rooted in her world.

At its centre are a father and a daughter.

Thomas Longleat had risen from humble origins to become Premier of Leichardt’s Land (Queensland). He was charismatic, he was respected by his parliamentary colleagues, and he was popular, particularly with the working-classes. A knighthood from Queen Victoria should have been his for the taking, but he made a fatal misstep. He fell in love with the wife of a colleague, Constance Vallancy, and he made use of his position to send her husband away travelling so the he could spend time with his wife. Passion blinded his political judgement and of course there would be consequences ….

Honoria was the Premier’s elder daughter, and she was poised between childhood and womanhood. She was beautiful, she was headstrong, and she lacked a mother to guide her. She turned away an a very eligible suitor, a rising politician loyal to her father, when she was charmed by Hardress Barrington, a visiting English aristocrat. She didn’t know that he would never contemplate marrying the colonial daughter of a self-made man, and that he had it in mind to set her up as his mistress in an establishment of her own. She would find out …..

The characters of father and daughter, and the relationship between them, are beautifully drawn. They were utterly believable and understandable, the products of their lives, their circumstances and their times. I felt for them, and at ties I was infuriated by them. The dialogues between them – as each saw the failings of the other and their beloved that the other was blind to – were marvellous.

The others around them and the world that they moved through were just as well drawn. I never doubted that I had been pulled into a very real time and place.

I appreciated that nothing was too black and white. Hardress Barrington behaved badly, but he did care, he just hadn’t learned to think about and understand how others might feel. And, though Constance Vallancy behaved badly too, she was an abused and unhappy wife, and she found comfort in masculine attention and in lovely things ,,,,

The writing was both clear and lovely, the storytelling was wonderfully engaging, and so I had to keep turning the pages; I was always involved, always anxious to know what happened next.

The two storylines were distinctive, but of course they overlapped, and they were woven together, they worked together beautifully.

The father’s political crisis and the daughter’s coming of age would coincide. The story came dangerously close to melodrama, but it worked because everything that every character said and did rang true. It was fate that maybe overplayed its hand ….

‘Policy and Passion’ is a very fine drama – I’m not sure if it’s ever been dramatised, but it would work beautifully on stage or screen.

I loved it on the page, and I definitely plan to find out more about Rosa Praed and her other books.

The Innocent and the Guilty by Sylvia Townsend Warner

1327035This is a very slim volume, it holds just nine short stories, and it is a little gem. Because Sylvia Warner was so very good at short stories; a mistress of the art. She brought such imagination to stories set in a very real world; she crafted, she distilled, to produce perfect miniatures.

These stories – seven written for the New Yorker and two specially written for this book – are diverse, but they all spin around the theme of innocence and guilt. Not in such black and white terms of course; Sylvia Townsend Warner was much more subtle and much more clever than that.  She wrote with such lovely irony and understatement.

That worked so well for ‘Bruno’, the story of an elderly Scotsman with a very handsome younger companion. He thought that when they went home to his family estate his companion would play nicely, but that wasn’t in his nature.

“Where did Cousin Gilbert find you?”
“He picked me up on a beach.”
“Like a shell?”
“Like a beautiful shell. And sometimes he puts an ear against my ribs and listens to the noise of the sea.”

‘The Perfect Setting’ is a lovely social satire. The widow of a poet is sure that she has uncovered important documents that will enhance his reputation, but the three interested parties who visit her all have very different ideas.

There’s a short story that plays out like a scene from ‘Play for Today.’ ‘The Quality of Mercy’ has two roughly-hewn young men help home a young woman who had had far too much to drink. They are kind, she is grateful, but her family blame them for the state she is in and hurl abuse. It’s simple and its perfectly executed.

So is ‘The Truth in the Cup’. A middle-aged group of hotel guests in putting the world to rights while a storm rages. One man steps outside and finds himself in the eye of the storm, until he finds sanctuary in a phone box. His experience is so vividly captured that this conclusion feels entirely right:

“I’m Crichellow 626,” he said. “Can you hear me?”
The voice encouraged him to go ahead. After a pause, it offered him the alternatives of the Fire Brigade, the Police, the Ambulance Service. None of those seemed perfectly to apply. But it wouldn’t so to sound unappreciative.
“It’s hard to say. You see, the sea’s broken in.”

It’s a fragment – several of these stories are – but fragments that must have been broken away from a whole that was exquisite.

One story though is exceptional, and I think it is one of the finest short stories I have ever read.

‘But at the Stroke of Midnight’ moves from formality to wildness; from domesticity to freedom; from safety to danger. It’s beautifully observed and understood by its author. Some authors would have turns the material into a whole novel – and it could be ‘Lolly Willowes’, reimagained when the author was thinking about the world rather differently – but here it is the perfect miniature.

I can’t explain it – I shouldn’t try to explain it – what I should do is tell you to read it. Don’t look it up; go in cold and be dazzled as I was.

This volume is out of print I’m afraid, but Open Library has it, and I’m told that it’s in the volume of collected short stories that Virago has in print.

I struggle to write about short stories, but I do know that Sylvia Townsend wrote them very, very well.

The Romance of A Shop by Amy Levy

This is a lovely story of four sisters, set in Victorian London.

They are the daughters of a photographer, and when he dies and leaves them with very limited means they decide that, rather being separated to make their homes with different relations they will use what capital they have to open a shop and follow in his footsteps.

Gerty was twenty-three years old and, though she dreamed of being a writer, she was bright enough and loved her sisters enough to put her own dreams aside so that they could live and work together.

Next came Lucy, who at twenty-years old was both sensitive and sensible. She was also the sister who showed the most skill as a photographer.

Seventeen year-old Phyllis was the youngest and the prettiest of the sisters. Because of that, and because her heath was fragile, she was spoiled and she was incline to be mischievous.

Fanny was half-sister to the other three, and though she dreamed of marriage and a home of her own she knew that at thirty her chance of catching a husband had probably gone. But she willingly offered up the small legacy she had from her mother to help the new household.

Romance of a shopI liked all four, and I believed in them. Amy Levy captured their individual characters and the sisterly bonds between them.

Whenever I find four sisters in a novel I’m inclined to draw parallels with Louisa May Alcott’s March sisters. In the case of the Lorrimer sisters I saw parallels but I also saw significant points of difference; and I appreciated a nice touch late in the novel that suggested that Amy Levy was acknowledging the influence of the older author.

A photographer friend of their fathers’ made practical suggestions for the sisters’ new venture, as well as giving Lucy practical training. Family friends helped them to find suitable premises, a studio with a flat above, in Baker Street, and helped with the move and introducing potential clients too.

That was what kept them going in the difficult early days, when many potential customers were unwilling to offer work to women, or if they were willing expected to pay left. In time though they made contacts, and their professionalism and the quality of their work helped to establish them in London’s artistic circles.

‘The Romance of a Shop’ illuminates both the joys and the perils that faced independent women in London at the end of the 19th century. I learned a great deal about photography: that there was a fashion for photographing corpses; that artists wanted their work to be photographed; that many doors would be opened to the right photographer.

But there’s more to this book than photography; it balances the concerns of a new women novel with the concerns of a new woman novel very well, and there are as many ups and downs  and as many incidents in the emotional lives of the four sisters as there are in their professional lives.

Their relationships with family and old friends change. They will cross paths with a neighbouring newspaper engraver, a widowed peer of the realm, a celebrated but amoral artist …..

This is a short novel, but there’s plenty going on. Amy Levy manages her plot beautifully, and she tells her story well, in pose that is simple, clear and lovely.

I was just a little disappointed that she – and her three sisters – were rather hard on poor Fanny.

The story, and the four sisters, were always engaging though. I loved sharing their emotions and their experiences.

The ending was beautifully judged. The afterword told me what happened next, and it was exactly as I would have wanted.

I can’t say that this is a lost classic; but I can say that it is a lovely little book, and that it has something to say.

The Far Cry by Emma Smith

In September 1946  23-year-old Emma Smith set sail for India, to work as an assistant with a documentary unit making films about tea gardens in Assam. She was dazzled by India …

‘I went down the gangplank at Bombay, and India burst upon me with the force of an explosion.’

… and she wrote down as much as she could about her experiences because she so wanted to pin down the wonder of it all.

A few years later she would use what she remembered and what she wrote as the foundation for a wonderful, wonderful novel that would go on to with the James Tate Black Award for 1949

‘The Far Cry’ tells the story of 14-year old Teresa Digby. She’s an introspective and rather award child, and I think it’s fair to say that she is what her circumstances made her. When her parents’ marriage broke down her mother left her to go to America and her father left her for his sister to bring up. Teresa’s aunt wasn’t unkind, she was bringing her up as well as she could, but she lacked warmth and she lacked empathy.

When he learned that his wife was returning to England, and that she wanted to see her daughter, Mr Digby decided that he would take her to India, to visit his daughter from an earlier marriage, who was married to a tea planter. It wasn’t that he was interested in his daughter, it was just that he didn’t want his wife to have her.

He was a self-absorbed, dull-witted man who could never be the man he wanted to be or have the roles in life he wanted to play, but who would never acknowledge that, even to himself.

It’s telling that he remains Mr Digby from his first appearance to his last,

His sister knew his weaknesses, knew what he was lacking, but she believed that she had played her part and  it was time for him to play his.

“He polished off this diplomacy and his visit with a kiss that landed haphazard on the nearest part of her face, and so left. Such kisses are interesting. For it might be thought that lips which had once, so any years before given off those dark flames of roses must always at a touch bestow a scent, the merest whiff, a pot-pourri of passion. But no, nothing like it.”

The relationship between between father and daughter is awkward, they are uncomfortable with each other. They don’t know each other, they don’t particularly want to know each other. He disdained her awkwardness as she dealt with so much that was unfamiliar – getting in and out of taxis, eating in restaurants, holding on to things like gloves and tickets  – but she struggled through, and she came to realise that in attaching so much importance to such things and in not understanding how new and strange things must be for her it was her father who was lacking.

“Teresa, who had watched defeat and then recovery first line and then illuminate his face, observed the breach in his armour: he was old, and therefore weak. And she was young, with her strength growing. Age shook him as fiercely as he had yesterday shaken her in the street. Thoughtfully she ate her breakfast. That she had seen his weakness and was bound to take advantage of it was a tragedy, and a tragedy that the only alternative to his conquering her seemed to be for her to conquer him.”

When they set sail for India Teresa find a role and her confidence grows a little more. She helps with young children, and she formed a tentative friendship with Miss Spooner, an elderly spinster who was travelling to visit her sister. Her father lacks a role, and is left to worry over mosquito nets and play the occasional game of piquet.

In India though the story that had played out in London would play out again. Teresa was overwhelmed and that made her awkward, leaving his father to organise and mange their progress. He was ineffectual, and so Teresa stepped forward, with the interest in the strange new world they were encountering.

 

The endpapers of the Persephone Books edition of 'The Far Cry'

The endpapers of the Persephone Books edition of ‘The Far Cry’

 

The early pages of this novel were an intriguing character study, so well done that even seemingly unsympathetic characters became interesting, but in India there would much more. Through Teresa’s eyes I saw the wonders of India, and I was as smitten as she was and as Emma Smith had been. She caught so many impressions so very, very well.

“Teresa’s head was full of sound and colour. Her head was a receptacle for tumbled rags of impression, rags torn from exotic garments that could never be pieced entirely together again; but the rags were better.”

The sea voyage, the journey though India, the feelings of strangers in a strange land are caught perfectly; every detail, every description feels so right.

In Assam Teresa meets the older half-sister her father adores.

Ruth is a beauty, she had been told that since she was a child, but her tragedy was that she was so caught up in presenting that image to the world, that she had lost the woman  she really was. Edwin, her husband adored her, she wanted to tell him how she really felt, but she lacked the courage to tarnish the façade she had worked so hard to create.

It’s a compelling, heart-breaking, horribly believable portrait.

The presence of her father and her half-sister unsettles Ruth’s world; Teresa didn’t realise, she was caught up with new experiences and impressions.

There was a tragedy and Ruth thought that it might offer her an escape. Maybe it did ….

Sadness and hopefulness mingle in the end of this story

There is so much that makes it special.

Smith’s prose really is gorgeous. It’s distinctive, it’s right, and the descriptions so lovely and they catch every sensation. She follows the journey and she manages the both the day-to-day and the  set pieces wonderfully well.

“Lights, no bigger than the candles on a Christmas cake, fringed every balcony, every wall, every stall, every hovel, a multitude of tiny red flames flickering alive in the huge dark night. They were still being lit: glistening haunches bent forward, hands poured a trickle of oil into saucers…The warm air was soft with sorrow. They trod among the muddy unseen ashes of the dead. Widows lay along the slushy steps, prostrate in grief, or crouched forward silently setting afloat their candles in little boats of tin the size and shape of withered leaves.”

The characters and relationships are captured beautifully; with the understanding and the empathy that they lack.

The direction that the plot takes is unpredictable; it isn’t contrived, it twists and turns as life does,

And everything works together beautifully, in this profound story of people alive in the world.

“India went on and on, on and on, as though it had no end, as though it had no beginning, as though seas and shores and other continents were only part of a feverish dream, as though this was the whole world and nothing exited beyond it; a world fat and dry on whose immense surface, far apart from one another, dwelt men and their beasts, living and dying together, generation after generation.”

Marianne Dreams by Catherine Storr

Catherine Storr’s 1958 novel Marianne Dreams is one of those classic children’s stories that passed me by, but luckily I spotted a Puffin copy from the 1970s, I picked it up, I thought it looked lovely, and so I brought it home.

It was lovely, it was spooky, and it was the kind of book that brought out the child who loved books inside me.

Marianne is confined to bed with an illness that will keep her their for several months. Bored, she starts to draw to pass the time, using an old pencil she found in her grandmother’s workbox.  She draws a house, with a garden, set in rough moorland.

When she falls asleep she dreams that she is standing outside the house she drew. She goes to the door but she finds that she can’t get in, because she didn’t draw a door knob. She adds that the next day, and after the next night’s dream she adds a staircase, so that she can go upstairs to meet the boy she drew looking out of a window.

The next day she goes back to her drawing, and she adds a door handle, and a boy looking out of an upstairs window. That night’s dream makes her realise that she needs to add stairs, and when she has added those she meets Mark. he tells her that he has trapped, because he has been ill and he can’t use his legs properly.

Marianne had been having lessons with Miss Chesterfield, a tutor who gave lessons to sick children in their own homes; and she realised that Mark was another pupil Miss Chesterfield had told her about, who had polio. That intrigued Marianne, but it also upset her when her tutor was a little late on her birthday, explaining that it was because Mark had arranged for his mother to buy her flowers; many more flowers than Marianne had own mother buy.

Later that day, still upset, Marianne drew bars across Mark’s window, and sinister eyes on the boulders that she had drawn to fill the spacce on the page outside the house and garden. Later she regretted what she had done, but the marks that the pencil made couldn’t be arased, and all Marianne could do was add more to her drawing.

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(The black and white illustrations in my copy are really effective.)

I saw that the pencil captured Marianne’s intent as she drew as well as the marks she made on paper. She didn’t notice that, because she was too caught up in the adventure and the practicalities that presented themselves. I would have been the same if I read the book as her age; and I would have been as disturbed as she and Mark were by the watchers.

The eyes that Marianne drew onto the boulders when she was angry with Mark had turned them into sinister, sentient beings that she knew would harm the two children if they tried to leave the house. But she knew that they had to leave the house, because their health and happiness in the waking world reflected their health and happiness in Marianne’s dreams.

What could she draw to give Mark the strength to escape, and to allow them to escape the watchers ….. ?

The idea behind this book was inspired, and the execution was perfect. The internal logic held, and Catherine Storr had the wisdom to not explain so much. She focused her story on her characters; I liked Marianne and Mark, I felt for them and I believed in them; they behaved exactly as children their age would. I do wish I’d met them when I was their age, but I’m glad that at least I’ve met them now.

What I wouldn’t have noticed when I was that young is that the writing is elegant, the story-telling is lovely, and that the book has hardly dated at all.

Marianne’s story was adapted for television in the 1970s, it was modernised for the cinema in the 1980s (Bernard Rose’s ‘Paperhouse’); and a few years ago it was adapted for the stage.

It would sit very nicely among the children’s classics on anyone’s bookshelves; and I understand that it is still in print …..

As Far as Jane’s Grandmother’s by Edith Olivier

Edith Olivier’s first novel, ‘The Love Child’, published in 1927 is a small masterpiece; telling the story of a woman who has led a cloistered life, who reaches for something more, something that maybe she cannot quite reach.

I love it, I know other who love it too, and it is one of those books that I know I would rescue from a burning building or take with me to a sojourn on a desert island.

‘As Far as Jane’s Grandmother’s’ was published a year later; it tells a very similar story in a quite different way; it’s as odd and as distinctive as its title, and it’s another story that I want to hold close to my heart.

Objectively it isn’t nearly as good a book as its predecessor; but. subjectively, I did like it.

As a child Jane was expected to be good and quiet, to read and to help with her mother’s needlework; because her mother played the role of an invalid and had her whole household spin around her, even though she had no real infirmity. Jane’s one touch of freedom came on the weekly walk to her grandmother’s with her friend and their nurses:

“Jane’s delight was to linger till the nurses had disappeared round the curve in the road, and then she had her own way of swinging herself up the gate and on to the top of the wall. Taking the handle in her hands, she kicked vigorously, then, with a sudden leap she stuck her feet into the handle, and at the same time threw her hands over the gate. One more swing of her body brought her out onto the top, in a curve like a caterpillar making a journey. A cat climbs in much the same way. Then Jane was happy. She ran and danced along the wall. She made an unforgettable picture against the sky – a thin little figure with very long legs and very short skirts. Her hair, the colour of honey, tossed about her face, which was always strangely pale, like a little white flame, vivid for all its pallor”

Jane was is such trouble when she was spotted on the wall but she carried out; keeping her naughtiness secret and playing the good girl; learning how the world worked from novels.

I had to feel for her; and to fear for her.

When Jane’s parents were killed in an accident she went to live with her grandmother, and then she really had to be good; Jane’s grandmother was a formidable woman who held firm to her Victorian values and had no time for anyone who didn’t do the same, who centred her life on her family estate and expected Jane, her heiress, to do the same.

jane's grandmother

As time passes life presents Jane with possibilities: marriage, friendship, wartime service, convent life …. but they never grew into more than possibilities, because Jane could never find the courage and strength to face uncertainties, the approbation of others, and most of all the disapproval of her grandmother.

Jane told herself that those things weren’t important, that she had enough of a life:

“I don’t think my life has been empty. I was content. But perhaps I like emptiness.”

But she was lonely, she was fearful, and she was horribly resentful of anyone who had more in their life than she did,

This probably isn’t sounding like a book to love, and it certainly isn’t a book for everybody. I can understand why many people would find her infuriating. But as a Jane who was a painfully shy bookish child I understood, and I cared.

And there were things that illuminated the story.

The tone was lovely; it was demure but it was also bright and hopeful. So was the prose, especially the dialogue and the descriptions.

There are little hints of the fairy-tale. And there is a touch of autobiography; Edith Olivier’s life was constrained, but she found – she made – a new life for herself.

There are lovely glimpses of the part of the world that she loved; and I suspect that the lives of the social circle that Jane wasn’t a part of echoed the lives of the friends that the author made when she made that new life for herself,

In the end, after her grandmother’s death, Jane has a second chance of marriage when she met the man she had loved long ago.

But could Jane leave behind her grandmother’s principles and catch up with – and enjoy – a world that had moved on without her?

“It struck her as a most indecent spectacle, yet it really was a most a most delicious sight.

The long lean figures of the bathers shot like curved and living arrows through the stream’s uncertain and changing lights. They caught twinkling gleams and shadows. They were clothed in clear green water-colour, unearthly and magic. Beautiful fish they might have been, now diving and moving soundlessly through the water, and then coming to the surface, spluttering and splashing, real ragamuffins after all.”

Jane’s reaction to that scene answers the question, and leads the story to a natural conclusion.

It was a moving ending, to a story that really struck a chord.

Katherine Wentworth by D E Stevenson

When you need a book to be a security blanket, as I did this week, you could do well to turn to the work of D E Stevenson.

This isn’t her best book; it isn’t a book that would stand up to very much scrutiny; but it is mid 20th century romantic fiction done rather well.

Katherine Wentworth was a young widow, living in Edinburgh in the most genteel kind of poverty, and bringing up a teenage stepson and two young twins. She missed her husband terribly, but she knew that he would have wanted her to carry on and to make a happy home for their family, and she knew that was the very best thing for her to do with her life.

She did well, and I found that I liked Katherine and her family – her sensible step-son, and her adorable twins – very much.

Over the course of one spring and summer a great deal happened.

2730f1542f902e75970454e6a67444341587343Katherine met Zilla, an old school-friend. She was surprised at how delighted Zilla was to see her, as they hadn’t been close at all; and as she saw more of her she was disappointed that Zilla didn’t appreciate that lifestyle and choices that her wealth gave her, or the lovely home that she shared with her brother. That brother became a good, supportive friend to Katherine, and he clearly enjoyed visiting a family home, forming a lovely relationship with her children along the way.

When Simon, Katherine’s step-son, came home from school for the holidays received an invitation from his father’s family. Katherine was concerned, because though her husband had said little about his family she knew that he had not come from a happy home and that he had never had any thought of building bridges. She and Simom talked about that, and they decided that they would go as a family, leaving the twins with her aunt.

After what happened there, Katherine was glad that seized the chance of a family holiday, in a cottage in the Highlands. It was idyllic, her twins, Daisy and Denis, were in their element, and their mother loved seeing the enjoying themselves, as well as enjoying her own escape.

But, of course, real life – the good things and the bad things – caught up with Katherine, allowing things to be tied up nicely and the story to reach the conclusion that I had been expecting from the start.

That ending was a little rushed but it was a very good ending; a proper conclusion but plenty of potential for a sequel.

The story is predictable. I correctly predicted how each character’s storyline would play out as soon as they appeared; and I spotted so any familiar elements that appear in so many of D E Stevenson’s works.

But the emotions were real, and they rang very true. D E Stevenson was very good at emotions, and at families, and at places.

Storylines and character’s fates played out exactly as I wanted them too, but there was just enough depth to the story to make it interesting; and I have to admit that I rather like this idealised era when the war was long ago, the modern age was far ahead, and the world was so much simpler and nicer.

Some of the characterisation is less than subtle; and the parts of the story that deal with bad behaviour and mental health suggest that D E Stevenson had little experience of that side of life and didn’t do much in the way of research.

I’m inclined to think that she sailed blithely past those things because she liked Katherine and her family, and because she wanted to reached the Highland setting that she so clearly loved.

That allowed me to do just the same; and I have to say that this was a definite case of the right book at the right time.