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.


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 …..

High Rising ….. and then Christmas at High Rising …..

I have had a selection of Angela Thirkell’s books on my shelves for a few years now, but I have been reluctant to read them. Because I knew that they were part of a series, albeit loosely linked, that it seemed would be difficult to collect in its entirety. Because I haven’t read Trollope’s Chronicles of Barchester – despite making a few attempts on the first book in the series – and I know that Angela Thirkell borrowed Trollope’s setting, and there are links and references for lovers of both authors to appreciate.

But my resolve weakened when Virago added a couple of Thirkells to the Modern Classics list, and then a couple more, and I believe there are another couple coming in the spring. Suddenly the books seemed more gettable. And I dismissed the Trollope argument. I’ve started the first of his Palliser novels – as a long, slow read – and I’m not prepared to let these lovely new editions sit unread while I work my way through the Palliser novels and then go back for another attempt at the Chronicles of Barchester. After all, there’s always the possibility of re-reading if I fall in love with both.

high rising VMCAnd the final, winning, argument to pick up ‘High Rising’ – Mrs Thirkell’s first Barchester novel – was that it was published in 1933. Both of my parents were born in that year, and so I wanted something special to fill that year in my Century of Books.

Now I have read ‘High Rising’ I can say, firmly and clearly that I did the right thing -I loved it!

I really can’t think of another author who has mixed charm, wit, cosiness and sparkle to such wonderful effect.

The lynch-pin of the story is Laura Morland, the widowed mother of four sons. Three have grown and flown the nest, leaving just young Tony, who is the very model of an enthusiastic, infuriating, schoolboy at home to entertain and frustrate his mother. When her husband died she took up writing middlebrow novels to support her family.

She achieved a level of success that left her very comfortably off.

I was so taken with Laura; I found her warm-hearted, thoughtful, capable in the very best of ways, but not to much so. She is fallible, she is self-deprecating, and it is so easy to feel that she is a friend.

The story comes from an outsider being thrown into – or I really should say elbowing her way into – a settled society in High Rising and the neighbouring Low Rising.

There’s Miss Todd, who cares for her elderly mother who is physically and mentally frail, and who makes pin money as Laura’s secretary. There’s Laura’ maid, Stoker, who is loyal, seemingly incurious but actually all knowing There’s George Knox, a successful biographer,  a wonderful raconteur, and a dear friend of Laura. There’s his daughter Sibyl, who Laura views as the daughter she never had, and who is smitten with Laura’s publisher, Adrian Coates. As he is with her ….

A whole raft of wonderful characters.

The outsider is Miss Grey, who becomes secretary to Mr Knox. She is wonderfully capable, she can be charming, but she has set her sights on becoming Mrs Knox, and will use whatever means she can to achieve her objective. Some are fair but most are foul, and George’s friends are quick to label her ‘The Incubus’ and he himself is completely oblivious.

It falls to Laura to sort out the problem of Miss Grey, and to bring Sibyl and Adrian together.

It’s a simple story, but it plays out beautifully, because it is adorned with so many lovely dialogues, so many interesting incidents; and because everything works beautifully with the characters and their situations.

I do so hope that I will meet some of those characters again, in other books in the series.

I can’t say that ‘High Rising’ is perfect. The story is uneven; there are one or two racial references that would have been acceptable then, but not now; and there were one or two moments when I realised that Angela Thirkell could only see the world from the perspective of her own class. But none of those faults were unforgivable, especially in an early novel, and I am so looking forward to reading more stories set in Barsetshire.

It’s a wonderful recipe: charm, wit, cosiness and sparkle!

18593020And that’s why I picked up ‘Christmas at High Rising’ this afternoon, when I was stretched out on the sofa, woozy from a visit to the dentist in the morning.  It’s a slim volume, containing  seven previously uncollected short stories and an essay about dinner parties in Shakespeare’s plays.

I read it from cover to cover!

It was lovely to reencounter an authorial voice that felt so familiar, and to encounter characters I had already met, and new characters too. I wonder if I will meet them again in stories still to come. I do hope so.

The right book is sometimes the best medicine, and this was definitely the right book at the right time.

Painted Clay by Capel Boake

This is one of those books I spotted and, though I knew nothing of the author, though I could read nothing into the title, I picked it up because it was an original green Virago Modern Classics.

I learned that  that Capel Boake was Australian, a poet and the author of four novels, and that this, her first novel, drew on her own experiences as a shop-girl and an officer-worker in Melbourne, in the years leading up to the Great War.

And I learned that the title was taken from a poem:

“Shall we weep for our idols of painted clay,
Salt dews of sorrow the sere blooms wetting?
Gods of the desert of dreadful day,
Give us the gift of a great forgetting.”
(Marie Pitt)

Helen Somerset had a lonely childhood, living with her troubled, embittered father, in a suburaban home that was just a little less well kept, just a little less well loved than the houses that stood around it. His actress wife had left him, he dismissed her as ‘painted clay’,  he was determined that his daughter would not go the same way; and so he educated her at home, he kept her close, and he let her believe that her mother was dead.

When Helen learned that her mother was alive, that her father took her away from her mother, and did everything in his power to keep them apart,  she was devastated. She lost all of the faith that she had in her father, she railed against him; she blamed him, and she blamed her mother for not trying hard enough to keep her. And she realised that she was alone, that she had to work toward getting a job, and becoming independent.

3151541Suddenly, and quite unexpectedly, Helen’s father died.  She leant on the family next door, who she knew a little, and grew to love being in a warm family home for the first time. She chose to board with them rather than with her uncle who wanted her and his wife who clearly did not. They drew her into their world; she formed a close bond George, a cousin who was close to the family, she was treated as another sister by two daughters who were close to her in age, and she appreciated the care and concern that Mr and Mrs Hunter gave her.

She realised that her job as a shop-girl would not bring her the independence she craved, and that she and the Hunter girls faced the same limited choices, between marriage and restricted lives spent in shops, offices and boarding houses. But she believed that there was something out there for her. She found a better job in an office, and she moved into a boarding-house.

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.

This is a very readable story, told with wonderful clarity in straightforward sentences, and more than once I put the book down surprised at how much I had read. It walks the line between ‘ordinary’ and ‘interesting’ beautifully.

Helen was a rather prickly character, but I understood why, and I always understood what drove her and why she did the things she did. It was the same with the characters around her. The relationships were very well drawn, especially the relationships between Helen and the different members of all, and I think the finest writing in the book came as the relationship between Helen and the man who bought her picture became strained.

But it was the setting that brought the story to life, and they were so real, so naturally and effortlessly described. Time and place were beautifully realised. The themes, of isolation, of restricted lives, were threaded through the story just as naturally.

AusReading Month badgeI was only disappointed that just as I was preparing to describe this book as ‘a simple, quiet story, very well told’ it stumbled into melodrama. Helen recognised her mother’s name on a theatre poster, and though their meeting and their subsequent, difficult relationship rang true, the telling was too fast too overwrought. And then the ending, with the coming of war, came much too quickly.

But I’d still say that this was a very good book, for the picture it paints of a particular place, a particular time, and a particular young woman, as she looks for her path in life and her place in the world.

My Brilliant Career by Miles Franklin

In 1901 a remarkable heroine made her debut, in a book that purports to be her autobiography.

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 …

But the most important thing about Sybylla, the thing that she doesn’t ever quite say, is that she wants to set her own path in life, to be mistress of her own destiny.

15806080That’s not easy when you’re the daughter of a poor farmer from Possum Gully. It was a hard life; you were either working or you were sleeping; there was nothing else. Her mother came from a good family and her father, a working man. had tried to improve his family’s situation, but he gambled and lost. And then he turned to drink. It was hardly surprising that Sybylla’s preoccupation with books, music and drama drove her poor mother to distraction.

In the end she decided to send Syblla to her own mother on the family farm. It was a much bigger, much more prosperous farm, and it was much closer to society. Sybylla was in her element, with time to indulge her love for the arts and performing, and with an appreciative audience; her grandmother, aunt and uncle were amused and entertained. She blossomed, and her insecurity about her appearance and her disappointment with the world began to slip away.

She might have gone to Sydney, to become a performer, guided by a family friend, lawyer Everard Grey. She might have married Harry Beecham, the owner of the neighbouring farm, who was well-off enough and indulgent enough to allow her the freedom to write her book. But she dithered, and as soon as anyone got to close she pushed them away. She still had insecurities, and she still wanted to be in charge of her own fate, and to dream her own dreams.

But Sybylla’s fate wasn’t in her own hands; her father had taken out a loan and, in lieu of interest, he had given his daughter’s services as a governess. In a place so much poorer and starker than Possum Gully. She pleaded to be rescued, but she was stuck there. She tried to hold on but it was a struggle, and I think it would be fair to say that Sybylla was not cut out to be a governess.

Sybylla’s story ended where it started – at Possum Gully. That sounds downbeat, but it wasn’t entirely, because she had lived and learned.

As a story, ‘My Brilliant Career’ is much like it’s heroine; brilliant but infuriating. Because, of course, Sybylla is the story, and though the other characters are well drawn and the story is well told everything else is in her shadow.

I had unanswered questions. Why was her mother quite so hard on her? How did Sybylla become quite so accomplished? And why did nobody ever really lose patience with her?

But I loved following Sybylla’s journey, watching her grow up, and it was lovely to see her gaining a little tact and diplomacy, maturity even along the way. The writing is overblown and melodramatic, but it suits the heroine and it paints her world wonderfully well. And, best of all, it shows the restrictions that her gender and the times she lived placed on her, and it shows that none of that can break her spirit.

It’s a coming of age story – no more and no less – but it’s a coming of age story like no other.

AusReading Month badgeMiles Franklin wrote ‘My Brilliant Career’ when she was just sixteen years-old. It’s a wonderful achievement, and though she was upset that it was read as autobiographical, it’s unsurprising that it was taken that way. I suspect that there’s a grain of truth a vivid imagination has turned into a compelling story.

Certainly that’s what Sybylla would have done …

The Vet’s Daughter by Barbara Comyns

I’ve read The Vet’s Daughter three times, in three different Virago editions, and I’ve loved it every time.

The first time, some years ago, it was a free copy with a magazine. It might seem unlikely today, and I don’t know what happened to that particular copy, but it really did happen, I remember it quite clearly. A free Virago Modern Classic with I forget which magazine!

The second time was when I spotted the original green Virago Modern Classic edition in Any Amount of Books in Charing Cross Road. I had to bring it home, and I had to read it again to make sure that it was as wonderful as I remembered. It was!

1844088383_01__SX450_SY635_SCLZZZZZZZ_And the third time was last week. A brand new Virago Modern Classic had come my way, and although I thought that no edition could be as lovely as the original green, and that there could be no better match of author and cover painting artist than Barbara Comyns and Stanley Spencer, the new edition won me over. It was lighter and brighter, the cover art reflected the story, and if a new edition can draw more readers to a wonderful book I’m all for it.

And it is a wonderful book.

A drama with a pinch of realism, a dash of the surreal, a splash of gothic, and something else, something that I can’t put a name to, that gives Barbara Comyns’ writing, and this book, a special quality that is entirely its own.

Alice is the vet’s daughter, living in south London at the beginning of the twentieth century, with her domineering, controlling father, and her cowed, sickly mother, in a house that is full of less that happy reminders of her father’s profession.

‘Before the fireplace was a rug made from a skinned Great Dane dog, and on the curved mantelpiece there was a monkey’s skull with a double set of teeth. The door was propped open by a horse’s hoof without a horse joined to it’.

The vet is a monster, but he is a very human monster. An utterly selfish man, oblivious to the feelings and concerns of other, who feels that life had let him down and so he is owed the best of everything, and everything that he wants. He treats his daughter as a servant, he sells pets he has promised to put to sleep to a vivisectionist, he refuses to see his wife as she is lying in her bed upstairs, dying …

Barbara Comyns tells all of this so well, at times painting pictures with every sentence, and balancing the commonplace and the highly improbable so well that I was completely captivated by a story that was somehow dark and colourful at exactly the same time.

c2bb2ff0de38773597865475451444341587343The stories that the vet’s wife told her daughter, stories of her childhood in the Welsh countryside, were wonderfully naturalistic, and a lovely contrast to the story that was happening around her.

Alice was strangely passive, hoping for another life, waiting for someone to rescue her.

‘Some day I’ll have a baby with frilly pillows and men much grander than my father will open shop doors to me – both doors at once, perhaps’.

When her mother died her father didn’t even wait a decent interval before he moved his mistress, a brash barmaid, ready to seize whatever chances life might throw her, into his home. And when Alice realised what the couple had planned for her it was too much to bear.

Rescue came: her father’s locum took her to the country. Alice thought it would be romantic, but she found herself in a dilapidated farmhouse, looking after his maudlin mother, and trying to manage two insolent servants with eyes to the main chance.

It was a different kind of strange, but it was just as wonderful as what had gone before.

It was in the country that Alice discovered that she had an extraordinary gift:

“In the night I was awake and floating. As I went up, the blankets fell to the floor. I could feel nothing below me – and nothing above until I came near the ceiling and it was hard to breathe there. I thought “I mustn’t break the gas glove”. I felt it carefully with my hands, and something very light fell in them, and it was the broken mantle. I kept very still up there because I was afraid of breaking other things in that small crowded room; but quite soon, it seemed, I was gently coming down again. I folded my hands over my chest and kept very straight, and floated down to the couch where I’d been lying. I was not afraid, but very calm and peaceful. In the morning I knew it wasn’t a dream because the blankets were still on the floor and I saw the gas mantle was broken and the chalky powder was still on my hands.”

Enentually, inevitably, life in the country fell apart, and Alice had to go home to her father. She had nowhere else to go. Her father discovered Alice’s gift, and he saw it as a route to the fame and fortune that he believed was his due. That pushed Alice to her destiny, in an extraordinary finale on Clapham Common.

The story is strangely, magically, wonderful, but it is the inventiveness of the writing that really elevates this book. The details, the images, the turns of phrase, the characters …

But I really can’t explain any more.

I can just say that Barbara Comyns was a genius, an English eccentric in the very best sense, and that anyone who appreciates the wonders that words can hold really should try her books.

They have a distinctive taste – and I know that distinctive tastes aren’t for everyone – but they really should be tried, at least once in a lifetime.

(For the sake of balance I should mention that Barbara Comyns is a little inconsistent, but with this book, or with ‘Sisters by a River’ and ‘Our Spoons Came From Woolworths,’ which have both been reissued too, demonstrate just what she can do wonderfully well.)

The Willow Cabin by Pamela Frankau

When I searched for the source of the title of Pamela Frankau’s 1949 novel, it was lovely to remember how lovely it was, and to realise that it suited the book that I had just read quite beautifully.

“Make me a willow cabin at your gate,
And call upon my soul within the house;
Write loyal cantons of contemned love,
And sing them loud even in the dead of night;
Halloo your name to the reverberate hills,
And make the babbling gossip of the air
Cry out ‘Olivia!’ O, you should not rest
Between the elements of air and earth,
But you should pity me…”

From Twelfth Night by William Shakespeare

This the story of Caroline Seward, a young actress who had just had her first taste of success on the stage. Wonderful possibilities opened up for her, but she didn’t take them. Because she had fallen in love – with Michael Knowles, a successful, middle-aged doctor – and she built her life around him.

He loved her.

“He came over to the chair, pulled her out of it and stood holding her hands. ‘If I were really grown-up now, I should say good-bye to you and walk out of your life. And yet I cannot bear to go.'”

But Michael was married. He and his wife were estranged, and he made it clear from the start that that there could be no divorce. Caroline accepts the situation, she lives for the moment, but it casts a shadow over their relationship. How could it not?

The Willow CabinWhen war came, and Michael was called up, Caroline signed up for military service so that she would be as close to him as she could be. But Michael did not survive the was. Caroline, grieved for him, but it was only when she finally met her lover’s estranged wife that she fully understood and could come to terms with everything that had happened.

You could call this a love story, and of course it is a love story, but it is so much more that those simple words suggest.

It is the story of a young woman who changes, and whose understanding grows. And it is the story of her relationships. With theatre friends and colleagues, who appreciate her talent, who want to work with her, but are often infuriated by her.  With Michael’s friends and family, who were also friends and family of his estranged with. With her best friend, who was practical, sensible, and just the friend she needed.

Every character, every relationship is carefully and beautifully drawn, with rich detail and understanding that gives the story wonderful depth and power. Period detail, and a lovely writing style, made it very readable. So many different scenes played out so very well; the story lived and breathed.

Michael was an elusive character, and I’m inclined to think that Pamela Frankau was much better at women that men. Certainly it’s the women – Caroline;  Michael’s estranged wife, Mercedes; Caroline’s best friend Joan; Michael’s sister, Dorothy – who make the story sing.

Caroline was not the most likeable heroine. She was often heedless to the consequences of her actions, and insensitive to the feelings and concerns of others. But she was utterly believable, and I found that I felt for her, even when I was shocked or disappointed by her actions.

Her story and its telling might seem a little dated now, but it is so well done that it more than repays slow and careful reading. And now I’m very interested to find out who I might meet in Pamela Frankau’s other novels …

Lucy Carmichael by Margaret Kennedy

The story of Lucy Carmichael, written and set in the early 1950s, opens with high drama. Lucy is getting married to the man of her dreams, and Margaret Kennedy captures her excitement, her nerves, her energy, her joy, quite beautifully.

I was inclined to love Lucy just as much as her best friend Melissa did. This is how Melissa describes her friend to her own fiancé:

“She is incautious and intrepid. She will go to several wrong places and arrive at the right one, while I am still making up my mind to cross the road. She is cheerful and confident and expects to be happy. She taught me how to enjoy myself … Lucy forced me to believe that I might be happy. I don’t expect I’d have had the courage to marry you, to marry anybody, if it hadn’t been for Lucy”.

There was no wedding: Lucy was jilted, and of course she was devastated.

She knew she had to carry on, and she knew she had to get away. She hated watching people being tactful, knowing she was being talked about, seeing reminders everywhere. And so, when she saw on opening for  a drama teacher at an arts institute, she grabbed it with both hands.

Lucy made a wonderful success of the job, she built wonderful relationships with students, colleagues and townspeople, and she became part of a community with principles and values that she really admired. But she soon found that she was in a minefield, having to deal with the machinations of one or two ruthlessly ambitious individuals, and aspersions cast by certain individuals who thought she was rather too friendly with the aristocratic patrons. Lucy fought the good fight, but in the end she realised that it was a fight she could not win.

She found another job, revitalising a community centre, and she made a success of that too.

Lucy CarmichaelIt’s a relatively simple story, but Margaret Kennedy tells it so very well. A quarter of a century after her greatest success – The Constant Nymph – her understanding of characters and relationships was in full bloom. She understood that Lucy would hide her heartache, that she would tell the world that she was alright, but of course she wouldn’t be. Every aspect her character was just a little muted, and there were certain things, certain situations, that she found difficult to deal with. She understood that the friendship between Lucy and Melissa would be strong, but that the would both be treading warily as Melissa made her own wedding plans. She understood every character, every relationship, every nuance, and that made this book a joy to read.

Along the way  Lucy was offered a second chance of love and romance, but her experiences had made her realise that she wanted more. She still wanted to be married, she still wanted a family, but she wanted a life and she knew that she should not, could not, accept second best.

I do wish that Virago had published Lucy Carmichael along with the four books by Margaret Kennedy that they republished. She is out on the world again as a Faber Find, which is lovely, but I can’t help thinking that she could have – should have – been in the first rank of Virago heroines.

When I began reading Lucy Carmichael I thought that I would be writing that this is my favourite of the four books by Margaret Kennedy that I’ve read over the last twelve months. I’m not sure that it is now. That drama at the start of the story was so very, very well done that what followed couldn’t quite live up to expectations that were raised sky-high. The rest of the book was a quieter, more subtle, pleasure.

I can’t help thinking that Lucy’s story would dramatise beautifully, and make wonderful Sunday evening television.

Though they were apart for most of the story, exchanging letters and meeting just occasionally, the friendship between Lucy and Melissa was the finest, most beautifully wrought aspect of this story.

And Melissa wrote about Lucy to her brother, Hump. He wasn’t sure that he liked the sound of her, but when they finally met, by chance, towards the end of the story he thought he might change his mind. Though I was inclined to think that Lucy changed it for him.

There was the suggestion of a happy ending, but no more than that. And that was exactly right.

And now I’m thinking that this might be my favourite Margaret Kennedy novel after all. Though I think that same when I recall The Fool of the Family and The Feast. I just know that the book that was by far her greatest success – The Constant Nymph  – is my least favourite.

But thank goodness I liked that enough to want to read her other books. And that I have a good few more still to read …