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 …

The Land of Green Ginger by Winifred Holtby

I love Winifred Holtby’s writing, and I love the covers of the new Virago editions of her work so much that I pounced on a bargain copy of The Land of Green Ginger, even though I already owned the original green VMC edition.

But my feelings about this book were a little mixed – much more positive than negative, but definitely mixed.

the-land-of-green-gingerI really loved the heroine, and she carried me through the story.

Joanna was born in South Africa, the daughter of Edith, who had dreamed of romance and adventure,  and who had married a missionary. But when her mother died she was sent home, to be raised in Yorkshire, by her three spinster aunts. They cared for her, they did their very best for her, but they didn’t understand the romance, the spirit of adventure, and the sheer joie de vivre that made their niece so very special.

Her friends shared her dreams, and their futures seemed so very full of promise.

But Joanna’s dreams of romance derailed her. She met a young man – Teddy – the man of her dreams, who had as much romance in his soul as her. They were quick to marry, before he had to had to go away to war.  He survived, he came home again: but the war killed the romance his soul.

Teddy was consumptive – he hadn’t told his wife that – and the war destroyed his health too. he needed to live in the country, in the fresh air, and so the young couple took up farming.

It was a hard life, it wasn’t a life that suited them, and they had a terrible run of bad luck.  Joanna struggled with practical difficulties, social expectations, financial difficulties, and of course all of that took its toll on the couple’s marriage. Taking in a dispossessed Hungarian as a paying guest seemed to be a wonderful idea, but Joanna’s head was still full of romance and dreams, and she didn’t see what her neighbours saw. A woman with a sick husband moving in another man …

Winifred Holtby brought the world that Joanna lived in to life wonderfully well. I saw that Joanna and Teddy were isolated, caught between the gentry and the working classes, and seen as outsiders, newcomers by their neighbours. I saw how small-minded villagers could be, and I saw how Joanna’s high principles were so dreadfully misunderstood.

I admired Joanna’s spirit, her willingness to do everything she could for her family. I understood her frustration with her husband, with their situation. And I loved that she held on to her hope for the future. But the best thing of all was that she was a real, fallible, three-dimensional human being, so very vividly painted.

I also appreciated that Winifred Holtby said so much about so many big things – the consequences of war, the problems of society and the class system, the problems facing women, wives and mothers – through this story. And that she said them with such passion.

I was less taken with the men in Joanna’s  life – both husband and paying guest were completely wrapped up in their own problems. I understood, but it disappointed me, and I think it unbalanced the story.

That lack of balance was a problem. Sometimes I saw the shifts between storytelling, character development and points being made, and that made the book feel rather unpolished. It was heartfelt, it was heart-rending, but I couldn’t help feeling that it might have been more. That was maddening when so much was done so well.

But I could never give up on Joanna, and I was so pleased that her ending had roots way back in the story; and that it wasn’t really an ending at all, but a suggestion of future possibilities.

It left me wondering if Winifred Holtby had plans for the Burton clan – Joanna in this book and Sarah in ‘South Riding’ shared a surname – and what more stories of Burton women she might have written, if only she had not died so very young.