The Dressmaker by Beryl Bainbridge

Some years ago I read a few books by Beryl Bainbridge, and, after being quite taken with one and much less taken with the others, I consigned her to the box labelled ‘A Great Author But Not For Me.’ I was inspired to take her out of the box earlier this year by the enthusiasm of others – Annabel in particular – and by the publication of some of her lesser known works as Virago Modern Classics.

And now I have read three of her books I can say that she’s not going back in that box. I can’t quite put her in the box labelled ‘love’ but I can happily put her in the box marked ‘like.’ And the box marked ‘admire.’

And of the three books I’ve read this year, the one I like most is Sweet William, and the one that I admire most is ‘The Dressmaker.’

dressmakerThe story is set in Liverpool in 1944,  a time when the city was worn down by the war and all that it meant, and when the end wasn’t quite in sight. And it tells of  two middle-aged women and their seventeen year-old niece. They brought her up, because their brother couldn’t manage after his wife died.  They are ordinary, unremarkable, working class women, but, seemingly effortlessly, Beryl Bainbridge makes their story fascinating, and suggests that something is going to happen.

Something is.

Nellie learned dressmaking when she was young, and she realised it gave her a role, a position in life. She liked that, and she took charge of the household, managing the ration books and keeping things as they should be, exactly the way her mother had things when she was a child.

Margo was different. She had been married – and widowed – and she wanted to be married again. She worked in a munitions factory. She liked to dress up, to go out, to have a drink; but maybe she liked it rather to much, and maybe that impaired her judgement.

It was a wonderful study in contrasts and in sisterly love: one  was joyless and domineering, the other was outgoing and tolerant. They suited each other, they understood each other, but maybe they wouldn’t always.

Rita wanted to see life too, and her head was turned by a little attention from an American GI. He was ordinary, unremarkable, but Rita saw a romantic hero, and she thought she had a great romance. She didn’t. Her aunts could see that, her father could see that, but of course Rita couldn’t.

Rita’s father – who had retreated to become ‘Uncle Jack’ when his sisters took his daughter in – didn’t like the Americans at all. and he wasn’t the only one. They were resented for being different, being more comfortably off, for being needed, for being liked ….. because, of course, they were popular with many.

Valerie lived a few doors away. Her family had money, and she was engaged to an American officer. She and Rita were friends – but only up to a point – and there, of course was another study in contrasts.

This is one of those stories that doesn’t feel like a story, it feels like life happening. Beryl Bainbridge dropped me into the story on page one, she left me to get up to speed – which I did pretty quickly – and she held me there to a conclusion was startling. And yet the clues had been there. That’s very clever writing.

Characters were brought to life, their world was brought to life, and a story unravelled. It all felt entirely natural.

And there’s much to think about – both in the story and in the real history.

It isn’t comfortable, but it is compelling.

Over Sea, Under Stone by Susan Cooper

I was sure that I had read Susan Cooper’s books as a child, but I was equally sure that I didn’t really remember them. When I ordered a copy of ‘Under Sea, Under Stone’ from my library’s fiction reserve – a copy old enough that it could have been the copy I read back in the day – I began to understand why. In the case of this book it is for the very best of reasons: it is built on such classic lines, with elements familiar from many stories for children, that I found that I knew it without realising that I did, that it had almost become a part of my consciousness, something I always knew.

This is the story of three children – Simon, Jane and Barney – whose summer holiday to Cornwall turned into an extraordinary adventure.

1248128It begins with their arrival in Cornwall, and it was clear from the start that Susan Cooper knew and understood Cornwall. She caught it perfectly, and that reassured me that I was in the safest of hands.

The children and their parents had been invited by their Great Uncle Merry – an architect and traveller, with a habit of disappearing for long periods of time – to stay with them in the house he has rented for the summer, in a Cornish seaside village.

What starts as a classic summer holiday changes on a rainy day. The children notice that there seems to be space unaccounted for between two rooms, and when they move the furniture they find a door. A door that leads into a dusty, disused storeroom where, among the debris, they find an old manuscript.

They realise that it is a map. A treasure map, maybe?

They realise that there are people, ruthless people, trying to get their hands on that map. And so it must lead to something extraordinary?

The story of the hunt for the treasure plays out beautifully, with just the right amount of twists and turns, and Simon, Jane and Barney were utterly believable and wonderfully engaging. It was a little predictable maybe, that Simon was sensible and took charge, that Jane was thoughtful and practical, that Barney was bright and curious, but it didn’t matter because everything they spoke, they behaved like real children.

They’re scared of what might happen, but they aren’t prepared to give up, and the dangers they face are greater than they know …..

I cared about them, I worried about them, and I was anxious to know what would happen. There were moments when I saw what was going to happen, when I wanted to warn them, but of course I couldn’t. I could only keep turning the pages, and keep hoping for the best.

There’s a hint of magic, a hint of something fantastical, but no more than a hint. it’s enough though to make it clear that this story is a beginning, not an end.

I had one or two niggles: some of the characters were rather predictable, some things fell into place a little too easily, and I couldn’t believe that the children’s parents didn’t notice that something was going on.

But the good things more than outweighed them. The writing and the storytelling was lovely. The evocation of Cornwall was lovely, and I was so very taken with the way Susan Cooper wove local myths and legends into her story, and with the way the she used nature and the character of the Cornish coast.

‘Over Sea, Under Stone’ is one of those timeless stories for children that also works very well for grown-ups. And now that I have read it again I am going to have to go back to the library catalogue to look for the rest of the series …..

When All is Done by Alison Uttley

I loved Alison Uttley’s books as a child. She was such a wonderful storyteller, and she wrote about the natural so beautifully. I was particularly fond of Little Grey Rabbit, and the story of ‘Little Grey Rabbit’s Washing Day’ is the first beloved book that hearing her name brings to mind.

It was only recently that I learned that Alison Uttley wrote two novels for adults, and when I found that the library had copies in reserve stock I had to order one in to try.

The opening of the ‘When All Is Done’, first published in 1945, was so promising. I looked forward to a lovely story of a house, its history and the lives it saw.

“The house stirred in its sleep and stretched its ancient limbs. It slowly awakened and raised the covering of darkness and the web of years from its body. Its old heart beat so loudly that it seemed to be a heavy pulsating rhythm slowing out to the fields, rising to the hills, shaking the trees to music in the surrounding woods. The air vibrated with its waves and a fine dust sifted from the beams of the great barns alongside the building. It breathed deeply, and a sigh came from its antique roots, from those strong foundations that were part of the earth itself.”

The descriptions were lengthy, but they were simple, they were beautiful, and the story looked rather promising.

In an English farmhouse, in the 18th century, an old woman, Charity, lay in her bed, gravely ill. He son, William,  sat by her bedside, and in a moment she asked him to fetch her granddaughter, his niece to her. He protested, because it was night and because the child, Virginia, was very young, but she was insistent and he felt that he had to comply.

3528174758Charity wanted Virginia to hear the house speaking, because she was the custodian of the house, she understood it as few others did, and she knew that Virginia was the same as her, that Virginia would inherit her role when she was gone.

William didn’t understand, but Charity and Virginia did.

In time Charity recovers from her illness, and the story follows her for the rest of her life, and it follows Virginia from the beginning to the end of hers.

Charity loves her home, she has become part of its fabric, and she finds great joy in being its custodian and the matriarch of her family for the rest of her days; and as she grows up Virginia discovers the same joy. In her home, in the world around her, in the changing seasons, in the way that lives are lived, have been lived, for generations. Life pulls Virginia away from the farm, but it always brings her back. She will, like Charity, be its custodian, and her life and the life of the house will be knotted together.

Its a simple tale and sometimes it is wonderfully effective, when lives are changing and when the descriptions are pitch perfect.

“Autumn came, with its rich heady smells of walnut leaves decaying on the paths, of moss damp by the troughs, of golden bracken bending to the earth ready for its death. It was the time of colour and sadness, of regrets for the old and longings for the young, of preparation for winter and home-keeping. But winter seemed far away on that bright day when Virginia started her new education at the night school. Earth showed her bravest colours, a last flaunting beauty, before the winds destroyed so much. The fields glittered with sparkling drops, the woods were clothed in splendour. High on the hilltops the mountain ashes were loaded with orange clusters, each berry sent out its own light to add to the conflagration in the woods. The beech trees were ruddy gold, the silver birches were filigree of delicate gold, the blackberry trailer made crimson arches trough which rabbits and field-mice ran to their holes.”

But there are times, particularly at the start of the story, when it is weighed down by too much description, the same things were described over and over again. It was lovely, but it was too much, and I grew weary of reading of the same domestic details, the same copper pans in the kitchen …

In the end though the story came through; a simple charming old-fashioned story.

Just one thing undermined that story; it was never quite clear what drew Virginia back to the house. Alison Uttley suggests that it is the house itself, she suggests that it is something more mystical, she suggests that it is simply fate, but she doesn’t commit. This would have been a much better book if she had.

At least, it would have been if she had chosen fate – that would have worked – the house – that could have been wonderful, especially if she had written a little more about its past and its future – but not the mystical. The writing about the mystical is very weak; the kind of writing that drove Stella Gibbons to write ‘Cold Comfort Farm.’

And so I have to say that ‘When All is Done’ is not Alison Uttley’s best work, but I am glad that I read it, because it captured the country and the lives that were lived in it quite beautifully.

“Hawthorns were geometry trees, said Richard, and he showed Virginia the right-angled branches, and the straight lines of boughs. Soft warm showers and a burst of hot sun had brought forth the miracle of creation. It was almost unbelievable that the earth could move its old limbs so quickly and bring out such hidden treasures from under its dark brown shawl. The spotted curling sheaths of cuckoo pint, the airy wind flowers, the clusters of primroses suddenly flew out of the earth, the cowslip buds raised their palest green knobs from the stiff loam of the pasture, and over all the rich scent of the larches drifted, sweeter and more aromatic than any smell for the farm’s pleasure.”

10% Report: Reading the 20th Century

My 20th Century Reading Project is nearly over!

This is my ninth update, so I’ve read and written about ninety books, and I have the final ten lined up. One is read, two are in progress and so the century will be complete by the end of the month

My previous reports are here and the full list is here.

I’m so pleased that I’ve reached the point where the difficult years have been dealt with, and I’m even more pleased that I saved some particularly lovely books and authors for the very end of the project.

Edith Wharton, Angela Thirkell, Elizabeth Goudge, Dorothy Whipple …..

But, for tonight, here are those last ten books:

1901 – My Brilliant Career by Miles Franklin

If you took equal amounts of Becky Sharp, Cassandra Mortmain and Angel Devereaux, if you mixed them together, with verve and brio, and you might achieve a similar result, but you wouldn’t quite get there, because Sybylla Melvyn is a true one-off. She’s also nearly impossible to explain; a curious mixture of confidence and insecurity, tactlessness and sensitivity, forthrightness and thoughtfulness …. She’s maddening andshe’s utterly charming …

1903 – The Daughters of a Genius by Mrs George Horne de Vaizey

Philippa was sensible and practical, but she struggled in stressful situations and needed her sisters to help her through; Theo was the confident one, the one who went out and made things happen; Hope was quiet and thoughtful, doing her best to support her sisters, while she pursued her own goals; and Marge was the bright bubbly sister, determined to hold things together and to sell her art and pay her way. They all had their ups and downs, and it was lovely to watch them. I was drawn into their home and into their lives, because so many moments, so many details, were captured so beautifully.

1916 – Come Out of the Kitchen! by Alice Duer Miller

Mr Crane and Miss Falkener were inclined to be entertained, but Mr Tucker and Mrs Falkener were inclined to be severe. After a number of wonderful incidents – including the escape of the cook’s cat, a rather pushy suitor and a dispute over a fashionable hat – three of the servants had been dismissed and the house party fell apart. Only the host and the cook were left, and that was most improper …

1917 – Painted Clay by Capel Boake

A new friend drew her into a Bohemian circle of aspiring artists. She was painted, and she was drawn into a relationship with the man who bought her portrait. Helen loved the freedom, the independence, the joy in living, that she found in her new world, but she had a nagging fear that she was becoming ‘painted clay’,  just like the mother who had abandoned her.

1970 – The Young Ardizzone by Edward Ardizzone

The pictures in words were lovely, and the sketches, so distinctively Ardizzone echoed them beautifully. But there were only hints of emotions, because this is a book of memories as pictures. And, as that, it works beautifully.But this isn’t a book to explain, it’s a book to love for what it is.

1979 – If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller by Italo Calvino

An intriguing story began in the next chapter, and the chapter after that came back again to address the reader searching for the right book, and searching for understanding of the writer and his writing. And the story kept bouncing back and forth. Reader. Story. Reader. Story. Reader. Story ….. I started going back and forth too, happy to read the wonderful words addressed first to one and then to two readers over and over again, and trying to work out how the different chapters of the story fitted together. I couldn’t make the pieces fit together, but in time I learned that I wasn’t meant to. I was reading openings, turning points, from a wealth of different stories.

1982 – The Sunne in Splendour by Sharon Penman

The story begins with Richard as a small child and follows him through the course of his life, in exile when the House of Lancaster is in the ascendancy, and at court when the House of York rises. He becomes a formidable battlefield commander; he becomes a trusted lieutenant of the brother, Edward IV; he becomes the husband of Anne Neville, daughter of Warwick the Kingmaker, who he has loved since child; and eventually, of course, he comes king.

1988 – The Upstairs People by Jennifer Dawson

It speaks profoundly of the damage that families can do, the damage that war can do, and, most of all, of the damage that a damaged mind can do. The first part of the story is most effective, with the children aware that something is wrong but not at all sure what, or what they could do; the latter part of the story drives the point home, but it is a little too chaotic. Though there are moments of utter clarity, that shine all the more against that chaos.

1995 – Touch and Go by Elizabeth Berridge

The story of Emma’s mother, Adela, was quietly heart-breaking. Adela’s marriage had been happy and strong, but since her husband’s death she was struggling with a future that she hadn’t planned for, that she didn’t want. She knew she had to make changes, but she wanted things to stay as they were; she was troubled but she knew that she had to keep going, that she had to so the right thing. I saw elements of my mother in Adela, and I was sorry that maybe she was so very real, so very alive, because Elizabeth Berridge became a widow a few years before this book was published.

1998 – 253 by Geoff Ryman

A train on the Bakerloo line can seat 252 passengers, and so, if there is nobody standing, the driver makes 253. This is the story of those 253 souls, at one particular moment on one particular day.  Or rather it is 253 stories, each told in 253 words that explain how they appear, who they are, and what they are thinking.  It was a remarkable feat, to create 253 different stories, to show so many different aspects of life, and to show how many different threads linked different passengers, sitting in different seats.

If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller by Italo Calvino

I knew the names, the author and the book, but for a very long time this was one of the books that was out there in the world but nothing to do with me. Because there are only so many books that one person can read in a single lifetime, and because nothing that I read or heard offered anything that said it was a book for me.

But maybe this book and I were destined to meet. When I complained that I couldn’t find a book from 1979 to read for my Century of Books, ‘If on a winter’s Night …’ received two very warm endorsements. Enthused, I went straight to my library’s website and placed an order. And then, just days after I picked up the book, I discovered that Care and Melissa were hosting a readalong this month

51XtSrJYagL__Now that I’ve turned the last page and put the book down I can safely say that this is an extraordinary book, that is like nothing else I have ever read. There were moments when I wanted to hug the book and there were moments when I wanted to hurl it at the wall.

I was disconcerted to find that the first chapter was written in the second person, that it addressed a reader reaching out for a much wanted new book … and that the book in question was ‘If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller’ by Italo Calvino. Yes, I was disconcerted, but I was quickly swept away by the magic that the words wove. The words were lovely, I felt that a tide was rising and falling, and the love of words, of writing, of reading, of handling books shone from the page so very, very brightly.

An intriguing story began in the next chapter, and the chapter after that came back again to address the reader searching for the right book, and searching for understanding of the writer and his writing. And the story kept bouncing back and forth. Reader. Story. Reader. Story. Reader. Story …..

I started going back and forth too, happy to read the wonderful words addressed first to one and then to two readers over and over again, and trying to work out how the different chapters of the story fitted together. I couldn’t make the pieces fit together, but in time I learned that I wasn’t meant to. I was reading openings, turning points, from a wealth of different stories.

It was strange that I kept turning the pages when I realised that, but there were so many styles, so many flourishes, so many things to captivate me. So many beginnings that could have grown into something more were cut off. It was maddening, but I realised that I had to keep reading, and that I had found a book that told me more clearly than any before that I was a reader, always in search of a story.

The story of the readers became stranger as it advanced, the shifts in style became more noticeable, and yet I felt I was in safe hands. The love words and books, reading and writing, continue to shine. And the book somehow, I can’t quite explain how, pulled that love back from me. That is such clever, clever writing.

But I can’t quite find the words, I can’t quite make a whole out of this book, and that’s what makes it maddening.

I suspect that I might need to read it again, but for now I’m glad I read it and I’m glad I came to the end.

The Upstairs People by Jennifer Dawson

Jennifer Dawson is one of those rare authors who has had both old work and new work published in Virago green. Her 1961, James Tait Black prize-winning, debut novel, ‘The Ha Ha’ was revived as a Virago Modern Classic, and two later novels, ‘Judasland’ and ‘The Upstairs People were published as Virago New Fiction in the 1980s.

I spotted ‘The Upstairs People’ in a charity shop because the spine was a very familiar shade of green, a shade that always, always catches my eye. The author’s name was familiar, the words printed on the back cover were intriguing, and so I brought the book home. And now I am very glad I did, because it is a little gem.

It tells the story of Cossey, a mother who is so eager to please her children, so eager to teach them, so eager that they will not suffer as she did.

“Ransome Street ran off Ransome’s Fields at a right angle, and when we asked Cossey, our mother, what Ransome meant, she said: ‘Something like this,’ and jumped up and down violently on the bed and laughed and bounced more. Our mother loved violent motion. She said her parents had never given her any love when she was a child, and when a fair came to Ransome’s Fields she was always first on the Big Dipper and the Chairoplanes, and was tipped upside-down laughing. She had a taste for it and was never as sick as we children were …”

But maybe Cossey was too eager; maybe Cossey was damaged.

Her story is told by her middle child, Alma, and her childish perspective, her clear-sightedness, suits that story perfectly.

05fcc8150f24edb5939554f5551444341587343She recalls Cossey’s stories, stories of her strict upbringing and of the coming of the Great War, picking out such telling details and painting in such vivid colours, making them utterly compelling. And she recalls the life that the led, in London, between the wars.

War was Cossey’s greatest fear, and war came again. It took away her husband, the man who had saved her from her terrible childhood, the man who kept the family on an even keel, and things fell apart. She dragged her family from pillar to post, trying to keep them together trying to keep them safe.

But maybe she tried too hard; maybe she was too single-minded.

One child tried pulled too hard and one clung too hard. They were both punished, and it was the middle child, the child who had the wisdom to simply watch and listen, who prevailed.

This is a very dark story, and a very difficult story to try to explain.

It speaks profoundly of the damage that families can do, the damage that war can do, and, most of all, of the damage that a damaged mind can do. The first part of the story is most effective, with the children aware that something is wrong but not at all sure what, or what they could do; the latter part of the story drives the point home, but it is a little too chaotic. Though there are moments of utter clarity, that shine all the more against that chaos.

But what makes the story sing is the quality of the writing. Jennifer Dawson had an idiosyncratic way with worlds, a distinctive view of the world, and it suited this story perfectly.

She understood Cossey, and she understood the consequences of what she was and what she did.

And along the way Jennifer Dawson made me think of a number of other Virago authors: Molly Keane, Ursula Holden, and, most of all,  Barbara Comyns.  A distinguished company, but this book alone has me thinking that Jennifer Dawson belongs there.

And now I’m very curious to read more of her work …

Touch and Go by Elizabeth Berridge

‘Touch and Go’ was published in 1995, by Black Swan, and I suspect that if I had seen in back then, in a bookshop or in the library, I would have passed it by, seeing a cover that suggested it was probably just another ‘aga saga.’ I remember that Black Swan published a lot of those sort of books …..

But since 1995 I have seen Persephone Books reissue Elizabeth Berridge’s wartime short stories, I have seen Faber Finds reissue a number of her post-war novels, and so, of course, when I spotted a copy of that paperback book from 1995 I reached out for it.

995601I did find a hint of the ‘aga saga’ – and two agas in the first chapter – but I found much more, and I found qualities that elevated this book above many similar works.

Emma was at the centre of the story. She was nearly forty and she was nearly alone: she was newly divorced, her daughter was travelling the world in her gap year, and her mother was dealing with widowhood by filling her life with journeys and activities. And so when Emma was, quite unexpectedly, left a house in the Welsh border country – in the village where she had grown up – she decided to move there, to start a new chapter in her life.

That chapter came about as the result of a childhood illness. The local doctor had asked Emma what she would like as a treat, and she told him that she would love his shell house. He admired her taste, he told her that it would be hers one day, and he kept his word; years later he left her the shell house and the house in which it stood. That made me think a little of another book where a legacy leads to a new life – Elizabeth Goudge’s ‘The Scent of Water’ – but I was soon to find myself drawn into a very different story.

I watched Emma meeting old friends, and others she had known as a child; I watched her settle into a new way of life; and I watched her putting so much energy into that art that was her livelihood, and into restoring her somewhat dilapidated inheritance. There were moments when I thought that everything was falling into place rather easily, but the author’s wonderful understanding of the world she was writing about, of her characters and their relationships and interactions, and the beauty of her prose, made that seem unimportant. Sometimes in life things do work out nicely, and Emma did have concerns about how her daughter was coping, so far away from home, and about her mother.

One incident – a burglary at Emma’s London flat – changed the story, and took it to another level. Emma went back to London, and when she contacted her estranged husband to tell him that some of his possessions had been lost, the response made her realise that her marriage was truly over, and that she was glad. She couldn’t stay in the flat, and so she went to stay with her mother.

The story of Emma’s mother, Adela, was quietly heart-breaking. Adela’s marriage had been happy and strong, but since her husband’s death she was struggling with a future that she hadn’t planned for, that she didn’t want. She knew she had to make changes, but she wanted things to stay as they were; she was troubled but she knew that she had to keep going, that she had to so the right thing. I saw elements of my mother in Adela, and I was sorry that maybe she was so very real, so very alive, because Elizabeth Berridge became a widow a few years before this book was published.

Emma and Adela came to understand each other a little better; Adela gained strength from being needed as a mother, and she helped Emma to come to terms with her relationship with her absent daughter, Charlotte. There were some wonderful moments, some happy and some sad, and I was particularly taken with Adela’s perception of Emma’s situation.

Emma persuaded Adela to come to Wales with her for Christmas, but she didn’t quite realise how difficult that would be, that Adela’s life as a young mother in the same place that she lived now had not been quite as simple as she thought.

The later chapters of ‘Touch and Go’ work quite beautifully as a study of mothers and daughters, of love and loss. I was sorry that there were distractions from that story – a little too much country life, one or two loose or undeveloped plotlines – because they made a story that was both beautiful and profound feel just a little fuzzy.

‘Touch and Go’ was Elizabeth Berridge’s last book, and though it has weaknesses that detract only a little from a very fine novel. And a final novel this good leaves me eager to read her earlier novels, and her short stories.