Sculptor’s Daughter by Tove Jansson

Magic. There is no better word for this book.

My expectations were high. I loved the Moomin books as a child, and when I discovered Tove Jansson’s adult fiction I was bedazzled.

But this memoir …. as I said, magic.

A collection of childhood memories seen through the eye’s of the sculptor’s daughter, mixing fantasy and reality, darkness and light quite perfectly.

A whole world of childish emotions and perceptions expressed with crystal clarity. The words, the phrasing, everything is exactly right.

I lack the words to explain just what makes this book so special, so I shan’t say too much more.

But I must share some of Tove Jansson’s wonderful words.

“One Sunday I taught Poyu how to escape from the snakes in their big carpet. All you have to do is walk along the light-coloured edges, on all the colours that are light. If you step on the dark colours next to them you are lost. there are such swarms of snakes there thay tou just can;t descibe them, you have to imagine them. Everyone must imagine his own snakes because no one else’s snakes can ever be as awful.”

“Explosion is a beautiful word and a very big one. Later I learned others, words that you can whisper only when you’re alone. Inexorable. Ornamentation. Profile. Catastrophic. Electrical. District Nurse. they get bigger and bigger if you say them over and over again. You whisper and whisper and let the world grow until nothing exists except the word.”

“it was a light night, but it was the first time I had been out alone at night and I thought about the iceberg all the time so that I wouldn’t get frightened. I didn’t light the torch. The landscape was just as forbidding as before and looked like an illustration in which for once they had printed the grey shades properly. Out at sea the long-tailed ducks were carrying on like mad singing wedding songs to one another.”

“Once at twilight when Daddy was standing outside the house a bat flew straight into his arms. Daddy stood quite still and it crept into his jacket and hung upside down and went to sleep. Daddy didn’t move. We carried his dinner outside to him and he ate it very carefully. No one was allowed to speak. Then we took his plate away and Daddy stayed where it was until it got dark. Then the bat flew around for a while and came back to him again. This time it only stopped for a moment – a kind of courtesy call.”

“I crept into the wardrobe underneath the skirt and looked up inside it and now it was a light shaft that faded away into the darkness. I pulled the hem a little. Then the tulle skirt drifted out on top of me with a quiet swish. I hear the clothes hanger swing and scrape the top of the wardrobe and the skirt came after me.”

“If you stood in the furthest room you could see through all the other rooms and it made you feel sad; it was like a train ready to leave with its lights shining over the platform. The last room was dark like the inside of a tunnel except for a faint glow in the gold frames and the mirror which was hung too high on the wall. All the lamps were soft and misty and made a very tiny circle of light. And when you ran you made no noise.”

“The smaller you are the bigger Christmas is. Under the Christmas tree Christmas is vast, it is a green jungle with red apples and sad, peaceful angels twirling around on cotton thread keeping watch over the entrance to the primaeval forest. In the glass ball the primaeval forest is never-ending. Christmas is a time when you feel absolutely safe. Thanks to the Christmas tree.”

You see, magic!

Now if only some one would magic up a reissue – this is a book that really should not stay out of print.

Translated by Kingsley Hart

Love of Seven Dolls by Paul Gallico

A trip to Truro led to a most interesting turn for my Paris in July. I recalled a small bookshop in a side street, so of course I had to take a look. A secondhand bookshop with massed ranks of paperbacks lining the staircase and a good few yards of shelves of older hardback fiction upstairs is not to be missed.

There were so many books that I would have loved to provide a new home for but I was horribly restrained and came away with just the one. loudly as the others called, this one called that little bit louder. Love of Seven Dolls by Paul Gallico. The author, that title, the concept – completely irresistable!

The story opens on the banks of the Seine where a young girl, Mouche, is planning to throw herself in.

Why? The war left Mouche an orphan. She dreamed of the stage and so she worked and save until she could come to Paris. But she found that she had neither the talent nor the looks needed to succeed. She looked like the simple country girl she was. And so she found herself at the age of twenty-two with no money, no home, and no friends to help her.

Paul Gallico, as ever the consummate storyteller, sets the scene perfectly.

 “Hello there, you with the suitcase! Where are you going and what’s your hurry?”

“It’s cold at the bottom of the river, little one, and the eels and crayfish eat your flesh.”

“What’s the big tragedy? Your boyfriend give you the air? There’s plenty more fish in the sea.”

“Well? Cat got your tongue? Speak up when you’re spoken to.”

Who called Mouche back? At first all that she could see was an empty puppet booth with a sign announcing “Captaine Coq et sa Famille.” Then she saw a puppet. She would see seven, they all came out to see what was going on and to talk to Mouche.

First would be Carrot Top, careworn and caring manager of the show. Later there would be Dr Duclos, a pompous penguin. Mr Reynardo the scallywag fox, a loveable rogue…

It was magical and it was real. Seven puppet with characteristics so human that you could forget what they were.

Mouche was caught up. She had found friends, and she had found the warmth and magic of theatre of her dreams. such a contrast from the world she had wanted to escape minutes before. She quite forgot that there was a man behind the theatre working the puppets.

A crowd gathered to watch the interplay between girl and puppets. They were charmed, and so was I.

The girl joined the show.

But what of the puppeteer? The man who created such wonderful characters. He was an orphan like Mouche, but he was a troubled and unhappy man who would ill treat his new protegé and the young boy who worked for him?

How can you reconcile the character of the man and the characters of his creations?

How can Mouche reconcile her love for the seven puppets and her distaste for the man who brought them to life?

A wonderful story unfolds, and a resolution seems impossible, but then Paul Gallico brings the story to a conclusion that is unexpected but entirely right.

Along the way is joy, pain, and so many wonderful things are said about life, love, and the simple truths that are so important.

Love of Seven Dolls is both charming and utterly moving.

There is so much I more could say about this book, but I won’t ramble and I will add just three more words: read this book!

(And it would be lovely if someone would reissue it too…)

Roots and Stars by C C Vyvyan

“In an attempt to tell the story of any human life there is a balance to be kept, for every one of us, whether that be hero, villain or nonentity, is destined to grow roots and look at stars.”

“Some discover early, and others late, that the purpose of growing roots is not only to confront destiny, it is also to afford balance for looking up toward the sky.”

Isn’t that a lovely way to explain a title, to introduce a volume of biography? And this is a lovely volume of autobiography.

Clara Coltman Rogers, later to become Lady Vyvyan, was born in Cornwall in the later years of Queen Victoria’s reign. She had a happy childhood with her brothers and sisters and the opening chapters are filled with lovely memories, viewed with the wisdom of greater years.

“A child is so near the ground that his horizon is restricted and flowers are his natural associates. I remember once finding the orange pistil in the cup of a deep purple crocus and gazing at it with awe. the double daisies in our own gardens were always greatly admired, they were pink and fat and sturdy, yet they did not, like the purple crocus, make one forget the earth all around and the garden wall and the sky overhead and the governess and lessons and meal times, to become only a little pin-point of awareness registering a tip of gold within a purple flower.”

There are many lovely details. Walks on the moors. Tree climbing. Visits to friends. All of the usual things that Cornish children do.

And a love of books is clear from the start and colours every chapter.

“A love of books came early in that experience of ‘something beautiful’. I was always a reader. By ‘always’ I mean as long as I could remember anything. I do not recall how I discovered that I could find magic between the pages of a book, nor when I realised that, by the help of such magic, I could escape from my own self into somebody else’s mind.”

This book most certainly holds that magic.

Clara clearly loved her roots, in Cornwall and in her family, but she also wanted to reach for her own particular stars. She wanted a purpose in life, and found it first as a social worker in London. Her parents are strongly opposed, but it is easy to understand what drew Clara, and how she found fulfilment in her career.

And she loved travelling, and was always drawn to the open air, the open road and solitary places.

“… a ruling passion that was to lead me far from the ecstasy of sitting alone in some little Cornish field or on some granite boulder that crowned a hill, to wander in distant lands and sometimes even to recapture man’s lost intimacy with dark night and dawn. It led me to sleep out on Irish hills with newspaper for a blanket and the rucksack for a pillow; to camp beside many a brown-peat river among the mountains of Wales; to paddle a canoe down river in the Arctic solitudes of Alaska; to find beauty in the desolate mangrove swamps of Australia; to walk beside the Rhone, day after day, and week after week, from the glacier source to the Mediterranean delta. On all these journeys I was seeking escape from the haunts of men into the sanctuaries of nature.”

The course of Clara’s life was, inevitably changed by the Great War. She was travelling in Germany when war broke out, and had a perilous journey home. And then when a sister and a brother both died she realised that she must leave her work and go home to support her parents. She accepted this with good grace.

She wrote – and soon became a published author.

She travelled. Much of this is passed over briefly – I imagine it is covered in other books – but she writes at length of a stay with her surviving brother on his sheep farm in Australia. Her words convey a love of the country and the people she meets, and paint wonderfully vivid pictures.

And this particular volume closes with her marriage.

I loved so much about this book. Clara writes so beautifully about so many things I love, and the balance of memories and reflection is just perfect.

Indeed, I have fallen in love with Lady Vyvyan. I will be seeking out her Cornish books, her travel writing, her second volume of autobiography …and there’s a novel too … I am happily looking forward to spending more time in her company.

Love in the Sun by Leo Walmsley

I picked up Love in the Sun purely by chance, as I browsed local fiction in the library. I am so, so glad that I did. it is a gem.

The first clue was Daphne Du Maurier’s introduction:

“”‘Love in the Sun’ will make other writers feel ashamed. And, curiously enough, old-fashioned too. It is a revelation in the art of writing and may be one of the pioneers in a new renaissance which shall and must take place in our time if the novel is to survive at all. While we struggle to produce our complicated plots, all sex and psychology, fondly imagining we are drawing modern life while really we are as démodé as jazz and mah jong, Leo Walmsley gives the reader a true story, classic in its simplicity, of a man and a girl who possessed nothing in life but love for each other and faith in the future, and because of these things, were courageous and happy…”

How could I not bring it home after reading that?!

The story is indeed simple.

A man and a woman from Yorkshire are in love, and they run away to Cornwall. Life had become complicated, and they just want to build a life together and be happy.

“We were in love and we knew what we wanted. To have a little house close to the sea, a garden, a boat…”

They lease an old army hut – previously only used as temporary shelter – for their home. They create a garden and grow vegetables; they catch fish too; they collect driftwood to burn for fuel, and so they survive and build that life. So that he can write his novel and she can have their baby.

Yes, it really is that simple. But it works beautifully, because it is honest and true.

There are little incidents, and many ups and downs, along the way. A roof that cannot keep out the Cornish rain. A kitten rescued. A boat lost to strong tides. Desperate attempts to avoid a familiar face from home. An unexpected friendship. A failed attempt to sell surplus produce. All things that you can imagine the couple recalling fondly in later life.

A baby arrives, and so does a book. There are dark shadows: the man struggles to come to terms with the time and attention that the woman must give to the child, and with the pressure to produce a second book after the first is published.

But all of that falls away when the couple’s future is threatened. Their love comes to the fore, and with a little luck they will pull through.

It is impossible not to care: the man and the woman are utterly real, and every detail rings true.

We make life complicated, when it could be so simple.

Love in the Sun is simply lovely.

“”Yes,” she cried. “Yes, I’m certian of it. Everybody will want to read it. Everybody will want to buy it. How could people not help  liking it? It’s so real. There’s nothing dull about it… It’s a grand book.”

“God!” I cried. “You’re right. It ought to go. It ought to sell in thousands.”

Words from Love in the Sun, but they could equally well be said about this sadly out of print novel. I plan to email the Leo Walmsley Society, and I’ll see where that takes me.

Martha, Eric and George by Margery Sharp

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. Loudly!

MARGERY SHARP IS A WONDERFUL AUTHOR AND IT IS DISGRACEFUL THAT ONLY ONE OF HER ADULT NOVELS IS IN PRINT. WILL SOMEBODY PLEASE REISSUE SOME MORE?!

And now I’ve got that off my chest I must say something else before I get to this book.

Martha, Eric and George is the third book in a trilogy. To talk about it and to do what little I can to promote both book and author I shall have to talk about the two books that came before, and the nature of the story is such that to make sense of this third books there will inevitably be spoilers for books one and two.

So if you don’t want to know, please look away now.

Martha, our heroine, made her first appearance in The Eye of Love. She was a young orphan taken in by her spinster aunt Dolores. The main story belonged to Dolores, but Martha played an important role as her artistic talent was spotted and her inclination to plough her own course became clear.

This is the one Margery Sharp in print, and for that I must thank the Virago Press. And I must also ask them to reissue the two sequels. It is unlikely that anyone else will while you have the first book in print, and those sequels are not just wonderful, they also match the ideals that you stand for beautifully.

Martha took centre stage in Martha in Paris. I missed Dolores, but it was lovely to get to know her niece better. A true individual. She is bright, she loves her home comforts, but she has little time for social conventions. It isn’t that she’s a rebel, it’s that she follows her instincts, focused only on what is important to her. Her art and those home comforts. That might not make Martha sound appealing, but believe me she is. She is honest and she is in most definitely a woman taking charge of her own destiny. And how can you not cheer that?!

Martha’s sponsor, the man who spotted and took in upon himself to nurture her talent, sent her to art school in Paris. There she fell into a comfortable arrangement with Eric, an English bank clerk. He had a girlfriend to present to his mother and she had a few important home comforts not provided by her French landlady. Eventually Martha and Eric fell into bed, and Martha fell pregnant. Martha, of course, did not take any of the expected routes for a young woman in that position. She had the baby in secret, deposited it with the concierge of Eric’s apartment block – Eric did tell Martha that he would shoulder her burdens for her –  and returned to England and her art. Startling, but completely in character, and, strangely, it felt completely right. Book two ended right there.

You see now why I said there would be spoilers? But there had to be for me to be able to talk about the next book and make any kind of sense!

And so, at last, to Martha, Eric and George. It picks up where Martha in Paris stopped. Eric arrives home for lunch and is presented with a baby by the concierge. It’s a quite wonderful scene. Eric is stunned, but his mother’s shock quickly turns to joy. She has a grandchild to spoil and show off, with none of the inconveniences of a daughter-in law!  Her reaction is unexpected and quite delightful.

Meanwhile, back in England, Martha is achieving success as an artist. Everyone is happy. Well everyone except Eric. The presence of baby George stall his career, and what on earth does he tell his very proper new girlfriend Edith?

When George is ten years old Martha comes back to Paris for an exhibition. And of course she bumps into Eric. He thinks that things will be put right now, but of course Martha thinks otherwise. And they have some wonderful dialogues, with Martha’s very different perspective completely flooring Eric.

But, of course, they aren’t the only interested parties. Eric’s mother has her say. And so, most unexpectedly, does Edith. Most importantly there’s George, who shows himself to be a young man just like his mother. That’s a wonderful revelation, and the relationship that develops between mother and son is fabulous. Has Martha finally met her match?!

How will it all end. It didn’t seem possible that there would be an ending that was perfectly in keeping with this tale, but there was. It was unexpected but absolutely right. In one sense it was an ending, but in more ways it was just a departure. I shall miss Martha terribly now that I know there will not be another chance to drop into her life. But I am so glad that I did get to spend time with her.

Her story is strangely charming. And strangely charming is something that Margery Sharp does particularly well. This book, and indeed the whole of Martha’s story, is populated with wonderful human characters, who maybe didn’t behave and talk quite how I might have expected, and yet what they did and what they said was exactly right. I couldn’t help warming to them, understanding them, those ordinary, but somehow very special people.

The storytelling is traditional, with much warmth and wit, but there is much that is modern in this book. The outlooks and positive, proactive approaches of the women in particular. It’s subtle, but it’s definitely there. Wrapped up in a wonderfully readable and highly entertaining story.

And so I’m going to say it again:

MARGERY SHARP IS A WONDERFUL AUTHOR AND IT IS DISGRACEFUL THAT ONLY ONE OF HER ADULT NOVELS IS IN PRINT. WILL SOMEBODY PLEASE REISSUE SOME MORE?!

Martha in Paris by Margery Sharp

When you’re in a big crowd, do you ever look around and find it extraordinary that there are so many people, seemingly quite ordinary, all with their own complete life-story, relationships and world-view, and all quite different. I do. Often!

Those are the people Margery Sharp write about. With warmth, with empathy, and with wit. And it makes her books so very special.

Martha is one of those people.

She made her debut in The Eye of Love – sadly the only one of Margery Sharp’s books in print – and when I read it I knew that I had to track down the out of print sequels.

Martha is bright, but maybe a little dull, and has little in common with her contemporaries. But she has an extraordinary talent for art, and she has a sponsor who wants to nurture that talent.

He wants to send her to art school in Paris. The history and romance of Paris aren’t a big draw for Martha, and she is concerned about the loss of her home comforts. But art school is a draw and none of the alternatives open to her are too appealing.

And so Martha is off to Paris. Her landlady is bemused – Martha is quite unlike the other English girls who have lodged with her. No boyfriends, no late nights, no noise. Just a hearty appetite – well Martha does like her food and her home comforts.

But don’t think there isn’t romance – of course there is. But Martha is not seduced by a Frenchman – she falls into a relationship with an English bank clerk while lunching on a park bench. He takes her home to meet his mother and a relationship develops.

Not so much a great love affair as a comfortable arrangement. Eric is pleased to have a girlfriend to present to his mother. She is pleased that he has finally brought somebody home. And Martha? Well she’s happy to have a good meal and access to lovely English bathroom facilities. Sad, but true.

I’m struggling to make this sound appealing, but please believe me when I say that it is. There is such honesty and clarity. And the story is told beautifully with all of the warmth and wit I expected from Margery Sharp, and with lovely observations and some wonderful details.

But of course that isn’t all. There is a sharp twist. Eric’s mother is called away, Eric and Martha find themselves together in bed and, of course, there are consequences. How Martha deals with those consequences is unexpected, startling, but at the same time totally in keeping with her character.

Some authors couldn’t pull off a turn like that, but Margery Sharp could. Capturing the magic of real life.

And now I must track down the third volume of Martha’s story – I really must find out what happens next!

Marraine: A Portrait of my Godmother by Oriel Malet

Yvonne Arnaud

Yvonne Arnaud

“Marraine” is best known to the world as actress and musician Yvonne Arnaud.

But this is not a record of Yvonne Arnaud as a public figure. It is much better than that – a goddaughter’s memoir of the warm, loving woman who was a major influence during her formative years

“Every morning, Marraine sits at her desk, writing letters. She is a little, fierce dumpy figure in a plum-coloured dressing-gown. She covers page after page with bold green handwriting, underlining heavily, flourishing exclamation marks, dots and dashes, but hardly ever crossing out. For she knows what she wants to say, and says it.”

Oriel Malet

Oriel Malet

Oriel Malet writes of her godmother with wonderful warmth and empathy. Her devotion and closeness to her subject is clear, and she paints a rounded and convincing picture of a very real woman.

“”I don’t like children,” Marraine said, more than once. She calls me Puss, as if hoping to produce an affinity with the animals which she loves, and does understand. But it is her instinct for giving the right kind of care to anything which she cherishes, plant or animal, that makes her able to help me.”

This is a very personal and very charming book and it was a joy to read.

“There are relationships in life which, by their very nature, can only come once; People who stretch down into one’s early life like taproots and to whom we owe all that we later possess. Marraine was like that.”