Wild Strawberries by Angela Thirkell

Oh, this is lovely!

‘Wild Strawberries’ is the story of one aristocratic English family and one glorious summer in between the wars. And it is set in Angela Thirkell’s Barchestershire, a place where every single person, however high or low their situation, is happy and accepting of their situation and the role they are to play.

You need to be able to accept that – and I can understand that some might not be able to – but I can, and if you can too, you will find much to enjoy in this light, bright and sparkling social comedy.

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Lady Emily is the matriarch, of the Leslie family of Rushwater House. who happily manages everything for her family, even when it doesn’t need managing. She is sweetly oblivious, and wonderfully good natured, so the servants and the family have learned to listen, nod, and carry on managing things themselves.

Sir Henry and Lady Emily lost their eldest son in the Great War, and they still feel his loss, but they are happy with their home, their lives and their family around them.

The story wanders through the summer with just enough narrative threads running through the picture to make it feel like a story.

Agnes, the Leslies’ only daughter had come home for the summer, with her children, because her husband was abroad. She is had a week and tranquil nature, but she could be rather vague, and I suspected she might turn into her mother when she was a little older. It was lovely though to watch her with her children; she found such joy in being a mother, and her offspring gave the story such natural charm and comedy.

Mary was Agnes’s husband’s niece, and Agnes had invited her to Rushwater House for the summer, while her mother was abroad for the sake of her health. She was lovely, and she clearly enjoyed having a place in a large, extended family, and spending her summer in a big house set in glorious countryside. Agnes hoped that Mary would be a companion for her mother, and she also planned a little match-making so that Mary might become an in-law.

The most likely match seemed to be between Mary and David, the younger of her two surviving brother. David was handsome and charming and Mary was soon smitten, but I was not happy with the proposed match. Because David was so caught up with his own interest in concerns and he was terribly thoughtless. There was no malice in him and nothing that couldn’t be fixed by a little more life and experience: he was so blithely confident and it never occurred to him that others weren’t and could be hurt by his thoughtlessness.

Mary was hurt, when David brought another woman to lunch on her day out in London, when he completely forgot the basket of wild strawberries he had promised to bring home for her ….

David’s elder brother, John, saw the situation. He was a wonderfully sensitive and practical man; a widower whose wife died after just one year of marriage; the very model of a quiet hero. John made sure that Mary got her wild strawberries, he saw that David did not understand their significance to Mary, and yet but he let David assume the credit.

Meanwhile, the Leslies’ beloved grandson and heir was home from school for the holidays. There had been a plan for him to go to France for the summer, to learn the language, but he had wiggled out of it when he discovered that a French family would be staying at the vicarage for the summer. The elder son of the family became his tutor, and the younger son became his partner in crime.

The mix of characters – family, staff, visitors – and incidents keep things moving along nicely; the comedy rises and falls beautifully too, from laugh out loud to gentle smile; there are so many wonderful dialogues; and the quiet sorrow, from the loss of a son and a wife, bring just enough balance to stop the story feeling too frivolous.

It’s a world perfectly realised, and it was lovely to watch it for a little while.

There are high jinks at the estate party at the start of the summer, but it is at the end of the summer, at the birthday dance held on Martin’s seventeenth birthday that future paths are set ….

The ending was right; of course it was.

And the next book in the series is lined up.

The Classics Club Spin Spun Me ‘Black Narcissus’ ….

…. and I couldn’t be more pleased.

I fell in love with the cinema adaptation of ‘Black Narcissus’ – by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger – many years ago, but it was only a few years ago that I noticed Rumer Godden’s name among the credits, and realised that the book that had been adapted was written by an author whose works for children I had loved.

‘Black Narcissus’ was Rumer Godden’s third novel and her first best-seller.

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It tells the story of a small group of nuns from the Order of the Servants of Mary, who had has been invited to form a new community in an old, disused palace, the former home of the harem of an Indian general, high in the Darjeeling hills. It was a place that had a certain reputation with the local population, but the sisters were to run a dispensary, and a school to offer education to native

Sister Clodagh was to lead the community; Sister Philippa was to manage the gardens; Sister Briony was to run the dispensary; Sister Honey was to teach the local young women to make lace; and Sister Ruth was to give lessons to the younger children.

It was a wonderful plan, but nobody was interested; nobody came.

Mr Dean, the general’s agent, an Englishman gone native, offered practical help that the sisters accepted, and sensible advice that they did not.

The altitude, the isolation, the unemployment, began to affect the sisters. One dreamed of motherhood; one longed for romantic love; one dwelt her life as a young woman, before she took her vows; and one realised that an interest was turning into an obsession.

But as the nuns fell in love with the strange beauty of their surroundings, with the village children whose families were paid by Mr Dean to send them to school, with Mr Dean himself, they began to fall out with each other. Long buried emotions had come to the surface.

Sister Clodagh lacked the experience, and maybe the understanding to manage the situation. And, of course, there were consequences ….

Rumer Godden sets out every detail. She is subtle, gentle, but she makes it clear that everything that happens is inevitable. It comes from the characters, their situations, their emotions.

There is a wonderful depth to the women, their relationships, their stories, and yet the narrative feels simple, natural and it is utterly compelling.

There is little plot: a young man is allowed too close to a young woman; a sick child is brought to the nuns; one sister leaves and another snaps …. But it is enough to move the story forward while keeping the focus on the members of the community, and their lives.

The prose is lovely, the atmosphere and the descriptions are gorgeous.

But there was enough space for me to realise that this wasn’t just the story of a group of nuns; it was the story of the British in India.

The book and the film are very different pleasures – the book is gentle and absorbing; the film is striking and melodramatic – I wish I could have read the book without knowing what would happen, but it didn’t really matter, because the book held me in the moment from start to finish, and I didn’t pull away remembering that I knew what would happen once.

I would have liked to now a little more about each woman, but this is a very short – maybe too short – novel. But sometimes it’s best to be left wondering.

And I’m so curious now to see how Rumer Godden grew as writer with the many books she wrote after this very early novel.

Which book should I read next …. ?

Lolly Willowes by Sylvia Townsend Warner

Laura Willowes was a much loved daughter, she grew up happily in the country, and she became the kind of countrywoman whose life moved with the rhythms of nature in the way that lives had for generations. But when her beloved father died she became a ‘spare woman’ and her life was taken over by her brothers and their wives.

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Such was the way of the world in the 1920s, when Sylvia Townsend Warner told her story.

“Caroline spoke affectionately, but her thoughts were elsewhere. They had already journeyed back to London to buy an eiderdown for the bed in the small spare-room. If the washstand were moved towards the door, would it be possible to fit in a writing-table between it and the fire-place? Perhaps a bureau would be better, because of the extra drawers? Yes, that was it. Lolly could bring the little walnut bureau with the false handles on one side and the top that jumped up when you touched the spring by the ink-well. It had belonged to Lolly’s mother, and Lolly had always used it, so Sibyl could not raise any objections. Sibyl had no claim to it whatever, really. She had only been married to James for two years, and if the bureau had marked the morning-room wall-paper, she could easily put something else in its place. A stand with ferns and potted plants would look very nice.”

The world was changing though, I knew it and there was something in the tone, in the rhythm of the words that told me too. There was a wonderful mixture of delicate observation, wry knowingness and love for the story being told; all of that made it feel very special.

Laura accepted her family’s decision, accepted it as the natural way of things, and settled into a new life. She was absorbed by her family, and even her name was changed to Lolly, because one of one of her young nieces cannot pronounce “Laura” and that was the name she came out with instead. Nobody thought to as Laura if she minded. She was a wonderful aunt, she was loved, but she wasn’t valued.

“Caroline resigned herself to spending the rest of her evenings with Laura beside her. The perpetual company of a sister-in-law was rather more than she had bargained for. Still, there she was, and Henry was right—they had been the proper people to make a home for Laura when her father died, and she was too old now to begin living by herself. It was not as if she had had any experience of life; she had passed from one guardianship to another: it was impossible to imagine Laura fending for herself. A kind of pity for the unused virgin beside her spread through Caroline’s thoughts. She did not attach an inordinate value to her wifehood and maternity; they were her duties, rather than her glories. But for all that she felt emotionally plumper than Laura. It was well to be loved, to be necessary to other people. But Laura too was loved, and Laura was necessary. Caroline did not know what the children would do without their Aunt Lolly.”

As her nieces and nephews grew up Laura began to feel the gap in her life, and the country and its traditions began to call her back. All she could do though was fill the house with flowers. Until one magical day when the stars aligned, and Laura realised that she could have the life she wanted, a life of her own.

Sylvia Townsend Warner had painted her gradual awakening to the call of the countryside beautifully, and she makes Laura’s final realisation quite glorious:

“Laura looked at the bottled fruits, the sliced pears in syrup, the glistening red plums, the greengages. She thought of the woman who had filled those jars and fastened on the bladders. Perhaps the greengrocer’s mother lived in the country. A solitary old woman picking fruit in a darkening orchard, rubbing her rough fingertips over the smooth-skinned plums, a lean wiry old woman, standing with upstretched arms among her fruit trees as though she were a tree herself, growing out of the long grass, with arms stretched up like branches. It grew darker and darker; still she worked on, methodically stripping the quivering taut boughs one after the other.”

 “As Laura stood waiting she felt a great longing. It weighed upon her like the load of ripened fruit upon a tree. She forgot the shop, the other customers, her own errand. She forgot the winter air outside, the people going by on the wet pavements. She forgot that she was in London, she forgot the whole of her London life. She seemed to be standing alone in a darkening orchard, her feet in the grass, her arms stretched up to the pattern of leaves and fruit, her fingers seeking the rounded ovals of the fruit among the pointed ovals of the leaves. The air about her was cool and moist. There was no sound, for the birds had left off singing and the owls had not yet begun to hoot. No sound, except sometimes the soft thud of a ripe plum falling into the grass, to lie there a compact shadow among shadows. The back of her neck ached a little with the strain of holding up her arms. Her fingers searched among the leaves.”

Laura knows then that she must answer the call of the country, and fate guides her to the village of Great Mop, in the heart of Buckinghamshire. He family are astonished, they protest, but she goes anyway.  And she finds happiness, she finds her place in the world, in the country.

It was lovely to watch her quiet, simple transformation.

But then the story changes.

When Laura’s family intrude on her new life, when the balance is upset, the mystical thing that had been calling her towards her destiny became rather more tangible. And, for me, it didn’t quite work. The spirit of the story, the direction of the story was right, but it felt heavy-handed. The best books that dabble with things that may be real or may be fantastical are so captivating that I don’t stop to think about what is going on, and which it is. This part of the story didn’t quite catch me, it wasn’t quite subtle enough and I couldn’t love it as I’d loved what came before.

I came unstuck near the end the first time I read ‘Lolly Willowes’ but not this time

I realised that I might be judging the book a little unfairly, because I’m comparing it with books that were written so much later, and with many of the books that I love the best of all.

I have to cherish a book that, three years before Virginia Woolf published ‘A Room of One’s Own’, said:

“One doesn’t become a witch to run around being harmful, or to run around being helpful either, a district visitor on a broom stick. It’s to escape all that, to have a life of one’s own, not an existence doled out to you by others, charitable refuse of their thoughts, so many ounces of stale bread a day ….”

And I found so much to love that it was easy to let go of small disappointments.

I loved the arc of the story, I loved the telling of the story, and I loved the spirit of the story.

The Diary of a Provincial Lady by E M Delafield

I must admit that I have have been shy of meeting the Provincial Lady for such a long time.

You see she was so popular, I read so much praise for her wit and her charm, that I became the bookish equivilent of the shy child, who was so often tongue-tied and could never quite keep up with the leading lights.

provincial-ladyI resisted a green Virago Modern Classics omnibus containg this book and its three sequels; I resisted a lovely anniversary edition clothed by Cath Kidson; but when a new Persephone edition appeared I could resist no more.

Three copies of a book I hadn’t read would be too silly!

Now that I have met the Provincial Lady I am inclined to say that the dove-grey Persephone garb suits her best. And that the I found her such wonderful company that I quite forgot my shyness.

I should explain first that the Provincial Lady wrote her diary in the 1930s, and that she lived in a very busy life in a lovely village in the south west of England. She had a lively household to manage, and a welter of social obligations.

 “Query, mainly rhetorical: Why are nonprofessional women, if married and with children, so frequently referred to as “leisured”? Answer comes there none.”

I loved the way the diary seemed to capture her thoughts almost as she thought them, almost as she might have reported events on her own head. And I loved that it was witty and funny in the friendliest of ways. I never doubted that the Provincial Lady understood, that she cared, and that she poked fun at herself just as much as she did at others.

the-diary-of-a-provincial-ladyThe household was a joy to watch. There was a taciturn husband, usually to be found behind a newspaper. There was a son away at school, and a daughter being educated at home by a French governess, who was sometimes highly capable and sometimes terribly sensitive. There was a cook who had to be carefully managed, and there was usually a parlour maid, though good parlour maids were dreadfully difficult to find and even harder to keep.

And I sympathised with the Provincial Lady’s social struggles. She never seemed to have read the book, seen the play, visited the exhibition, that everybody else was talking about. Her indoor bulbs never seemed to do quite as well of those of her neighbours. And he children never seemed quite as well behaved, quite as accomplished, as other people’s children. She took it all with good humour, but there were moments, particularly when she was patronised by Lady Boxe:

“Find myself indulging in rather melodramatic fantasy of Bentley crashing into enormous motor-bus and being splintered to atoms. Permit chauffeur to escape unharmed, but fate of Lady B. left uncertain, owing to ineradicable impression of earliest childhood to the effect that It is Wicked to wish for the Death of Another. Do not consider, however, that severe injuries, with possible disfigurement, come under this law – but entire topic unprofitable, and had better be dismissed.”

I noticed that the Provincial Lady’s social circle brought different things to the story, Her dear friend Rose showed the value of friendship, of somebody who could offer sensible and practical support and advice. Mrs Blenkinsopp, who missed her newly-wed daughter and had to cope with the ridiculously hearty Cousin Maude brought pathos. And old school-friend Cissie Crabbe, who lived in a bedsit in Norwich brought a different kind of humour.

But there is much more here than humour. A certain generation, a certain class, and a way of life that would very soon be gone, is captured beautifully. It is dated, especially in its attitude to money and to domestic staff, but I accepted that it came from a different ages, and there were more than enough good things for me to let go of that.

Especially a lovely strain of bookishness, and the knowledge that the Provincial Lady was an aspiring author.

“Notice, and am gratified by, appearance of large clump of crocuses near the front gate. Shold like to make charming and whimsical reference to these, and to fancy myself as ‘Elizabeth of the German Garden’, but am interrupted by Cook. saying that the Fish is here, but he’s only brought cod and haddock, and the haddock doesn’t smell too fresh, so what about cod?”

In the 1930s my grandmother lived in a big house, with a young family and  a small staff, She loved to read and I do hope she read this book, because I am sure she would have loved it too.

A Dog Blogs: It’s Virago Secret Santa Time

2011-12-24_14-41-48_284Hello bookish friends! It’s me Briar!

I am here because today is our opening day for this year’s Virago Secret Santa. It’s a very lovely and clever thing where members of the LibraryThing Virago Modern Classics Group send each other presents all around the world, and nobody knows who will be giving them a lovely present until it arrives. We have been doing it for quite a few years now -since I was a young puppy – and it works very, very well.

We sent our package off, back in November, and we waited to see what the postman brought.

He brought a box, all the way from Pennsylvania, and Jane knew straight away who our Santa was. It was Laura! We were very pleased, because we like Laura; she has dogs and Jane was her Santa back in the very first year.

The box said it was safe to open, and so Jane opened it and found a lot of things. There was a card in a red envelope. There were two green book-shaped packages. There was a little green package. And there was a little gold package addressed to me. I didn’t know I had a Secret Santa too.

Jane put all of the things on the Virago bookcase for safekeeping. On the top shelf, which I can’t reach.

2013-12-24_15-20-31_898The opening season begins on 19th December. We would have liked to open our presents on Christmas day, but as we will be having Christmas here and Christmas at Mother’s nursing home we thought we should do it today, so we have time to say thank you on the computer box.

2013-12-24_15-42-52_679We opened my present first. It was a little green lizard! I have never met a lizard before, but we have spent a little time getting to know each other and I think we are going to get along very well.

(I’m sorry I’m looking a little tousled in the picture, but we went out for a little run on the beach at low tide and I got rained on. It is very wet and wild here at the moment.)

2013-12-24_15-38-34_828Jane opened the little green package next. There was a very nice stitch-marker – Laura is a knitter like Jane – and there was a very nice bookmark with a terrier dog just like me.

Jane put bookmark dog to work straight away.

We were both very pleased, and we hadn’t even got to the books yet!

Laura did very well with the books. She sent a green Virago Modern Classic by one of Jane’s favourite authors that she didn’t have: The Reef by Edith Wharton. And she sent a book by an author Jane has heard a lot of praise for but never read: The Idea of Perfection by Kate Grenville.

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Thank you, Laura!

And now it is time for me to wish you all a very Merry Christmas and a wonderful New Year.

And lots of lovely books – Jane told me to say that!

The Custom of the Country by Edith Wharton

Oh Undine!

I have to address you, but I must confess that I am very nearly lost for words. I have never met anyone quite like you – in fact or in fiction – and you have made such an impression. You really are a force of nature. You had to be, to have lived the life that you have lived.

Looking back it’s hard to believe that you were the daughter of a self-made man, that you came from Apex in North Carolina. But, of course, you were the apple of your parents’ eyes, and they were prepared to invest everything they had, and to do without themselves, to help you reach the very highest echelons of New York society.

You always got what you wanted. Always.

The Custom of the CountryDid you appreciate what they did for you? Did you understand how much they sacrifice? I think not; there was nothing in your words, your actions, your demeanour to suggest that you did.

At first I was inclined to blame your parents for spoiling you, but I came to realise that it wasn’t them, it was you. I began to feel sorry for them.

You made some mistakes as you climbed the ladder, because you didn’t quite understand quite how that rarefied society worked, but you were a wonderfully quick learner. You changed your behaviour, your appearance, your expectations, to become the person you wanted to be, the person you needed to be, to achieve your ambitions.

And you succeeded. You drew the attention of Ralph Marvell, the son of one of the oldest, grandest families in New York. He loved your beauty, your difference; and you loved everything that he stood for. And so you married …..

Sadly, it wasn’t a happy ending.

You didn’t understand that the families at the pinnacle of society were not the wealthiest. You couldn’t understand that Ralph didn’t share your ambitions – I don’t think that you even realised that was possible – and certainly it was quite beyond your comprehension that he dreamed of a writing a novel. He never did, he had not one iota of your drive and ambition, and I suspect that he lacked the talent. Ralph drifted through life, disappointed that he could not expand your narrow horizons, that he could not open your eyes to the beauty of the art and literature that he loved.

He was part of an old order that was dying, and you were part of a new order that would adapt and survive. You learned how to bend and even change society’s rules to allow you to do exactly what you wanted to do. You really didn’t understand him, you broke him, and my heart broke for him.

I even began to feel at little sorry for you, despite your selfishness, because there was so much that you didn’t understand. There are more important things than money, luxury, fashion, and social position. Things can’t really make you happy, because there will always be other things to want, there will always be things beyond your reach. You learned so much, but you never learned that.

There would be more marriages, more travels, more possessions ….

There would be more damage. My heart broke again, for the son you so often seemed to forget you had. And though you would never admit it, you were damaged by your own actions. But you were a survivor Undine, weren’t you?

You did learn a little;  I learned a little about your past, and I came to feel that I understood you a little better; most of all,  I do think that when you finally married the right man it made all the difference. It wasn’t quite enough for me to say that I liked you, but I was always fascinated by you.

Now I find myself wanting to do what Alice did at the end of ‘Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. I want to throw you in the air and say, “You’re just a fictional character!” But I can’t. Because you are so utterly real; not a heroine, not a villainess, but a vivid, three-dimensional human being, with strengths and weaknesses.

You are perfectly realised; your world and everything, everything around you is perfectly realised. The telling of your story is compelling, beautiful and so very profound. It speaks of its times and it has things to say that are timeless. Because, though times may change, human nature stays the same.

Edith Wharton was a genius – it’s as simple as that.

Conversation Piece by Molly Keane

Although it is in print, as a Virago Modern Classic, ‘Conversation Piece’ almost seems to be Molly Keane’s forgotten novel. I can only find aa passing mention in her biographical details, searching online I found only a handful of very brief reviews, and even the author interview that takes the place of an introduction in the copy I have just read only mentions it in passing.

I can almost understand the lack of attention. This is an early work – but not so early as to be interesting on that account – and it lacks some of the qualities that made many of her thirteen novels so special. But it paints a wonderful picture of life in an Irish country house at the start of the twentieth century – the world that Molly Keane grew up in – and it tells a simple story well.

Conversation PieceThat story is told by Oliver, the son of a younger son, who comes to visit his uncle and his cousins at the family home, a grand if rather shabby country house, known as Pullinstown.

“To be with these Irish cousins, their kindness mine and the quick fire of their interest changes me strangely, I think, so that all safe known values are gone for me and I am theirs.”

He is enchanted by the house, and by the cousins, and he describes them simply and beautifully. I really did feel that he was telling his story, speaking or writing, and he brought a house, a family, and a way of living to life on the page.

I was as taken as he was with his cousins, Dick and Willow. They were close, they were completely caught up with life and their shared interests, but as soon as they realised he was one of them, and not quite one of the grown-ups, they warmed to him and drew him into their circle. I liked their father, Sir Richard, who knew that he was growing old but wasn’t quite ready to be bested by his offspring. And I loved James, the unflappable butler who could turn his hand to almost everything.

When James fell ill it was Dick and Willow who cared for him, while the housemaids ran riot.

Times were changing, and Pullinstown was a country house in decline …

‘Conversation Piece’ isn’t so much a story as a telling of how life was, and of particular times that would always be remembered. That’s where the story almost fall down, because the family’s lives were centred around hunting, shooting, fishing and other country pursuits. The stories were well told, but there were too many of them, and they didn’t hold my interest.

There was an underlying story, of young and old, of how they, sometimes knowingly and sometimes unknowingly affect each others lives. That was engaging, and I wish it had been developed a little more, given a little more room to breathe.

When the story ended I wished that I could have spent a little more time with Oliver, Dick and Willow, and know a little more of what their futures held.

What I found most interesting about ‘Conversation Piece’ was that, although the style was recognisably Molly Keane’, although there were so many things – the country house, the lifestyle, the period – that can be found in her other novels, this book was different. The style was straightforward, the tone was often elegiac, and it was so clearly written with love.

I’m inclined to think that it has elements of autobiography, or that maybe it was inspired by friends and family.

I think that I need to read more of her work, so that I can really put it into context.   I love her writing, and I am struck by the variation in the stories she has spun around Irish country houses.

I can understand now why ‘Conversation Piece’ is nearly forgotten, but I am glad that is not completely forgotten. For its own sake, and for the sake of understanding the writing life of an intriguing author …..