The Young Pretenders by Edith Henrietta Fowler

The Young Pretenders, a story for children that dates from 1985, is a lovely and intriguing book.

It’s intriguing because it works beautifully as a story for children, it sees the world from a child’s place in the world. And it does something else too. It speaks profoundly to the grown-up reader about how magical childhood is and how that magic can be bent out of shape by adults who fail to understand.

Babs and Teddy had been sent to live with their grandmother in the country while their parents – “Father-and-Mother-in-Inja.” – were overseas. Grandmother was elderly, Nurse was elderly, and so the two children were allowed to run and play just as they liked. They spent their days in the garden, under the watchful eye of Giles the gardener, and they played such wonderful games, full of imagination, casting themselves in a glorious array of roles.

Teddy was eldest but Babs was the leader – and the leading lady of the story – and they were both happy with that.

Their idyll ended when their grandmother died and it fell to an uncle and aunt they had never met to care for them.

yp1It doesn’t occur to the children to worry. They had always been safe, they had always been cared for, they had always been free to speak and behave openly and honestly. Why would they even think things might be different.

Aunt Eleanor is ill-suited to be in charge of Babs and Teddy. She doesn’t expect them to change her life, she expects them to be good and quiet, and to be a credit to her in front of visitors. The innocent but terribly tactless chatter of the children, who of course have never learned to dissemble, horrifies here and a governess is quickly procured to knock them into shape.

She was so disappointed that Babs was plain and sturdy; she had hoped for a pretty little girl to dress up and show off.

Uncle Charlie is more sympathetic; he is amused by the children and there are times when he enoys being amused by them. But he is inconsistent, there are times when he is distracted and cross, and the children don’t understand that.

It’s heart-breaking, watching two grown-ups – three when the governess arrives – getting things so terribly wrong. Thank goodness that the children had each other, that they were resilient, that in their innocence it didn’t occur to them that anyone could ever have anything other than good intentions, however inexplicable their actions might be.

I couldn’t help thinking how wonderful their lives might have been in the hands of the right grown-up; somebody with the wisdom to gently guide them, to tactfully explain things, to understand the magic of childish imagination and play.

While I was thinking that though I was royally entertained by adventures in the nursery, in the schoolroom, in the drawing room, and sometimes a little further afield. Babs makes so many social gaffes and she has so many brilliant lines.

Teddy learns to conform and to say the right thing, but Babs never does. She understood why she was a disappointment to her aunt, but she had the wisdom to know that she could never be anything else.

Edith Henrietta Fowler was always on the side of the children, and her painting of their lives, her understanding of the injustices they felt and their incomprehension of the ways of adults was perfect, and that must have made this book wonderfully entertaining for the children who read it a century or more ago.

Today I think it speaks more to the adult reader; though it would also work as a book to be read allowed and discussed with a child.

There’s a little too much baby talk, there’s a little preaching,  but I found that easy to forgive.

The original illustrations reproduced in the Persephone edition are just right, and the endpapers are particularly lovely.

The story ended when “Father-and-Mother-in-Inja” returned, and took their children back to their home in the country.

The future looked promising; and I did hope that the children’s promise was realised.

The Shuttle by Frances Hodgson-Burnett

There’s a lovely passage in Frances Hodgson-Burnett’s childhood memoir – ‘The One I Knew the Best of All’ – that recalls the joy of imagining what wondrous stories might be inside the books on the highest shelf that she couldn’t quite reach.

‘The Shuttle’ is exactly the right book for that child to have written when she became a grown up author. An author who understood the magic of the story; the very special kind of magic that captures children and makes them into life-long readers. This book has that magic in abundance, and I was utterly captivated, from the first page to the last.

The Shuttle

‘The Shuttle’ is set early in the twentieth century, at a time when wealthy American heiresses married into the British nobility. They gained titles and social standing, and their husbands gained the funds that they desperately needed to maintain their family estates.

Rosalie Vanderpoel, the sweet and naïve elder daughter of a New York millionaire, married Sir Nigel Anstruther, and she had no idea that all he wanted was her fortune. She soon learned that the man she had married was cruel, selfish and dissolute, but, because he was her husband, because she was already sailing across that Atlantic, away from her family and everything that she had ever known, there was nothing she could do.

Her younger sister, Betty, was still a child when Rosy married, and she saw Sir Nigel with the clear-sightedness of a child. She was suspicious of her new brother-in-law, and when Rosy failed to keep in touch with her family Betty feared the worst, and she began to make a plan. When she grew up she would go to England and rescue her sister.

When Betty arrives in England, ten years later, she finds her sister a pale shadow of her former self, abandoned with her young son in a crumbling mansion at the centre of a neglected estate while her husband fritters her family money on a life of debauchery.

There is a great deal that needs to be done to put things right, and Betty is the woman to do it. She has the same clear-sightedness that she had as a child, she has the understanding of business of what makes people tick that she learned at her father’s kmee, and she appreciates both American initiative and British tradition.

You have to love and admire Betty; she has intelligence, she has enthusiasm, she has empathy, and she is ready to spend money and to do whatever has to be done. She begins in the garden, with the gardener, and as the garden responds to love and care, so does the estate and the village around it.

The transformation of Rosy and of the estate that her young son with inherit is always at the centre of the story and it’s wonderful, rich in description, rich in understanding of humanity, but there is far more going on here.

An American typewriter salesman on a bicycling tour of Britain has a small but significant part to play.

The neighbouring estate over belongs to another impoverished nobleman, who loves his house and the country around it, but who doesn’t know how to save it and is far to proud to ask for help.

And back in America a proud and anxious father waited for news of his daughters.

Oh, this is a wonderful story, a big, old-fashioned book that makes it so easy to just read and read and read.

I loved the wonderful cast of characters: Rosy was lovely, and I really did feel for her; Betty was wonderful, the very best kind of heroine; their father was exactly the right kind of father; Mount Dunstan, from the neighbouring estate appeared weak but proved to be the best kind of hero; and Sir Nigel was a villain worthy of booing and hissing …..

It’s not subtle, but it is so lovely. Think of it as a story for a grown-up reader still on touch with their inner reading child ….

I loved that it was rooted in real history, and that the story explored the strengths and weaknesses of the British and American ways, and how they can work together for the greater good of both.

I loved that the author drew so very well on her own experiences, of life on both sides of the Atlantic and of marital abuse, and on her love of family, home and garden.

I loved the house and the garden that were described so beautifully and so lovingly that they came to life. I could see them, I really could.

And there’s a robin – if you’ve read ‘The Secret Garden’ you’ll appreciate that.

I loved that this was the story of the most wonderful heroine – and that the damsel in distress was rescued not by a knight in shining armour, but by her little sister!

I was a little disappointed that the end of the story lurched into melodrama, but in the end it was right. It was the ending that I had expected from quite early in the story, but the route there proved to be nicely unpredictable, and I loved every step of the journey.

Wilfred and Eileen by Jonathan Smith

I have read ‘Winifred and Eileen’ before, years and years ago. The details had gone from my mind when I learned that the book was to be added to the Persephone list, but I did remember that I had been very taken with it, and that I looked for a long time, without success, for other books by the same author.

Some time later, when I’d given up looking, I found a copy of ‘Summer in February’ in a charity shop. But that’s another story for another day ….

untitled

The story opens in 1913, as Wilfred Willett is coming to the end of his studies at Trinity College Cambridge, and looking forward to taking the next steps towards becoming a surgeon. He meets Eileen Stenhouse at a May Ball, and they begin to talk while they both, superstitiously,  sitting out the thirteenth dance of the evening. It would be the beginning of a love affair.

Their relationship met with disapproval from each side of the family. Neither thought that the other was good enough for their child. And so Wilfred and Eileen married secretly, and they planned to keep their secret until Wilfred finished his training and they could be financially independent of both families.

Of course their secret came out, and then a ‘proper’ wedding was forced upon them.

They were happy. He was an idealist and a worker; she was quiet, patient and supportive; they understood each other.

And they were utterly real.

And that wasn’t just because this is a novel inspired by a real story, by a real Wilfred and Eileen. It is because Jonathan Smith; writing made them real. He observes them carefully and sensitively, picking up just the right details to explain their lives, their times, their relationships, without ever seeming intrusive.

These would have been ordinary lives, beautifully illuminated, had it not been for the times.

Wilfred went to war, and Eileen was lost without him.  And yet, when Wilfred was terribly injured, she found the strength to fight, to bring him home, and to make sure that everything possible is done for him, to give him a chance, to give him his life back.

The writing is simple and understated, but it has such depth and power that it could not fail to move any reader.

I caught my breath at several points, because I was so caught up in the world of this man and this woman, because I so felt for them and their situation.

Their story could not have been better told. It is beautifully written, perfectly paced, and utterly true to its period.

It speaks profoundly of love, courage and the consequences of war.

And I’m not going to write any more, because I lack the words to do justice to the story – and the real lives – of Wilfred and Eileen

Except to say that is a very fine, and very timely, addition to the Persephone list ….

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.

Lady Rose and Mrs Memmary by Ruby Ferguson

Oh, this is lovely.

It begins with three people, an English couple and an American friend, on holiday in the Scottish Highlands. They see a sign, on grand wrought-iron gates, advertising a magnificent residence to be let. They are intrigued and the gatekeeper invites them to look more closely, assuring them that the housekeeper, Mrs Memmary would be only too pleased to show off the house.

“He unfastened a side-gate and they ran their car along a mile of carriage-drive, through a plantation where rabbits sat in the shaded roadway unafraid, hopping to one side to let them pass, and blackbirds sang a pure, clear song from the thicket; then across a vast park covered with grazing cattle and rows of pheasant coops. From here they could see the house and it took their breath away.

It was a classic white mansion of the late eighteenth century, glittering white , with pillared facades and sweeping terraces, standing in a formal garden to which long marble steps ran down.”

They were honest, they explained to Mrs Memmary that they weren’t potential tenants, that they were simply curious visitors, but she was still delighted to show then the house, a house that she so obviously knew and loved.

53-LadyRoseMrsMemmaryAs they walked through beautiful empty rooms, room that cried out for the lives to be lived in them as they had in the past, Mrs Memmary told them stories of the house’s owner.

Lady Rose was the only child and the heir, thanks to the good graces of Queen Victoria, of the Earl of Lochule.

She was pretty, warm, bright,  and her open heart, her boundless curiosity, her love of life, charmed everyone she met. And she grew into a proud Scot and a true romantic, inspired by the writings of Walter Scott, the history of Mary Queen of Scots, and, most of all, her beloved home and lands.

It was lovely, Lady Rose was lovely, and I felt that I had fallen into a fairy-tale,

Lady Rose’s parents were distant figures.  That wasn’t unusual, for their class, for their times, for Queen Victoria’s courtiers, but it worried me. Because Lady Rose’s idyllic childhood was no preparation for the life she would be expected to lead when she became first a debutante, then a wife, then a mother.

Her head was full of dreams

“Rose indulged in the most romantic dreams about marriage. Of course they were all delightfully vague and abstract, and for practical purposes they began and ended with white satin and pearls and sheaves of flowers at St, Georges’s and red carpet in front of Aunt Violet’s house in Belgrave Square, and tears, and hundreds of presents. After that came a kind of ideal and undefined state in which you lived blissfully under a new name, and had your own carriage, and didn’t have to ask permission from Mama when you wanted to go out. Floating airily through all of this, of course, was a man. He was not like any other man you had ever seen; they were just men. This man – your husband, queer, mysterious word – was hardly human at all. He was dreadfully handsome, and a little frightening but, of course, you didn’t see very much of him. When you did see him there were love scenes. He always called you “my darling” in a deep, tender voice, and he gave you jewels and flowers, and sometimes went down on his bended knee to kiss you hand. All of this came out of the books you had read. Some day, almost any day after you were presented, and began to go about with Mama, you would meet this marvellous being. You would be in love. You would be married. And that was the end, except that, of course, you would live happily ever after.”

It was a lovely dream, but was Lady Rose ready to adapt, to deal with the strictures of Victorian society, to find that happy ending?

She made a wonderful match, exactly the match her parents had wanted. But she didn’t find that happy ending. Her conventional husband didn’t like her having her own independent wealth and title, he was aggrieved that she was so devoted to her own home and uninterested in his, and he didn’t understand her nature, her love of romance, fun, and life’s simple pleasures. It was sad, but it was understandable.

In time though Lady Rose saw a chance of ‘happily ever after’. She seized it, but there was a scandal, she lost everything and was driven into exile.

The fairy-tale had become an indictment of a society that cast women into restricted roles, that gave men control of their money, their homes, their children, and dealt harshly with anyone who stepped outside its conventions. That indictment was subtle, but it was powerful it lies in a story so full of charm.

Mrs Dacre was captivated by Mrs Memmary’s stories – the framing story worked beautifully – and so was I.

But that’s not to say I was happy with all of Lady Rose’s action. I understood her desire to love and be loved, of course I could, but I couldn’t believe that she was so heedless of the consequences of her actions for her beloved home, or for the two sons she adored.

But the story, and most of all, the heroine never lost their hold on my heart. I was involved, and I cared, so very much.

The visitors left, and Mrs Memmary was left in her beloved house.

There was a gentle twist in the tale, that wasn’t entirely surprising but was entirely right, and the final words brought tears to my eyes.

This is a beautiful, moving, romantic story, told by a consummate storyteller, and I am so pleased that I met Lady Rose, a heroine as lovely as any I have met in the pages of a Persephone book.

The Exiles Return by Elisabeth de Waal

I was intrigued by The Exiles Return as soon a I saw it written about, as a forthcoming Persephone Book last autumn. The authors name was familiar, because it was her grandson who wrote The Hare With Amber Eyes, a book that I think everyone in the world but me had read. But this was a book that hadn’t been read, though the author made every effort to get it into print.

And yet it holds stories that have been little told. Stories of  exiles returning to Austria after the war, when the country regained its independence. Fascinating stories, that are quietly compelling because they are much more than stories. They are testimonies created from the authors own experiences.

Persephone Endpapers

Persephone Endpapers

There are three main strands. There is a Jewish professor who had taken his family to America when he saw danger at home; they thrived in their new life but he did not, and has returned alone. There is an entrepreneur, of Greek descent, who is returning to a city where he believes he will find business and social openings. And there is an American girl, the daughter of immigrants, who has been sent to stay with relations in the hope that it would pull her out of what seemed to be apathy with her life.

And in consequence there are three very different stories, told in different styles. I questioned the shifting narrative at first, but as I read I came to realise that it was very, very effective. It emphasised that so many lives were affected, in so many ways, and that there would be countless consequences.

There are so many moments that I could pull out.

Professor Adler’s realisation that he really had come home. His later realisation that home had changed, in ways he had not anticipated. Most of all his realisation that there were people who had supported what he saw as an evil regime among his friends, neighbours and collegues.

For me Professor Adler was the emotional centre of the story. He was an intelligent and sensitive man, and he saw that the years he spent in exile could not be made up, that her would always be a little out of step with those who had stayed. The telling of his story was pitch perfect and utterly moving.

His experiences may have mirrored those of a German gentlemen who lived here on the promenade until he died a few years ago. He and his wife came to England during the war to try to raise awareness of what was happening in Germany, and they went home after the war but eventually they retired back to Cornwall. I am so pleased that this book has finally come into print, to shine a light on stories like his.

Resi’s story touched me too. She blossomed as she met her Austrian family, as she learned new things about her family background, and it was lovely to watch her living happily, in the country, with her cousins. It was the family’s move to the city that took the desperately pretty Resi out of her depth, and kicked off the plot that would bring the different strands of the story together.

That plot didn’t quite work, it felt a little over dramatic after the subtle and thought-provoking writing that has come before. And I was unconvinced that Resi would have acted as she did at the very end. But that by no means spoiled things, and I am more than ready to believe that a dramatic plot might have been necessary to sell a book about the consequences of war when it was written, years ago.

The Exiles Return is not the best written or the best structured novel on Persephone’s list. But it is as heartfelt, as honest, and as profound, as any of the one hundred and one titles it joins.

Essential reading.

An A to Z: 100 Persephone Books

What to do to celebrate the wonderful achievement of Persephone Books now that it has brought us one hundred different titles?

An A to Z maybe …

It would be difficult – no impossible – to fit in everything worthy of celebration, but I still thought it would be a nice way to pick out some highlights.

A is for Alas Poor Lady by Rachel Ferguson: the book at the very top of my Persephone wishlist.

B is for Biannually. It is always a red-letter day when the latest Persephone Biannually arrives, with articles, short stories, reviews, events, so much to peruse.

C is for The Carlyles at Home by Thea Holme. It really was lovely to be drawn into the domestic lives of Jane and Thomas Carlyle.

D is for Doreen by Barbara Noble. The story of a young evacuee, torn between her mother and the couple who take her in, is written with such wonderful insight and sensitivity.

E is for Endpapers. The dove-grey covers make books look alike, but the endpapers within, chosen to match the period and the style of each one, highlight the differences beautifully. I’ve chosen a few favourites to illustrate this post.

F is for Forthcoming. Novels by Helen Hull and Elisabeth de Waal have been promised for next year, and I am absolutely thrilled at the prospect.

G is for Greenbanks by Dorothy Whipple. A quite perfect recreation of family life by Persephone’s most published, and I think most loved, author.

H is for The Home-Maker by Dorothy Canfield Fisher. An absolutely astonishing piece of writing, and a story from the early years of the last century that still has much to say about family life.

I is for Isobel English, author of Every Eye. A coming of age story written with such wonderful observation and understanding.

J is for Jocelyn Playfair, author of A House in the Country. A book I really must read, because I can see similarities with my grandmother’s life.

K is for Kitchen Essays by Agnes Jekyll. I gave a copy to one of my aunts a few Christmases ago. She loved it, and she thought that the Persephone Classics edition was beautiful.

L is for Little Boy Lost by Marghanita Laski. The first Persephone book I read and it is a little gem, with maybe the best final line ever.

M is for Mollie Panter-Downes. Persephone has two volumes of her short stories in print and I hope that her London War Notes will join them soon. Her vivid reports of life in London in Wartime for The New Yorker really should be print.

N is for No Surrender by Constance Maud. A passionate account of the suffragette movement written by one who was there. It hit me emotionally, and it taught me a great deal that I hadn’t known.

O is for Oriel Malet, author of Marjory Fleming: a fictionalised biography of a literary prodigy. It is quite beautifully done, and I’m sorry it seems to be less read and less discussed that many other Persephone books.

P is for The Persephone Post, which offers daily treats to its readers.

Q is for Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother. Ruby Ferguson’s Lady Rose and Mrs Memmary was said to be one of her favourite novels. I read it on holiday a couple of years ago, and I can quite believe that.

R is for Round About a Pound a Week by Maud Pember Reeves. A remarkable work of social history, focusing on the lives of working class families in Edwardian London.

S is for Susan Glaspell: reporter, playwright, and an exceptional novelist, whose works included Fidelity and Brook Evans.

T is for Tea With Mr Rochester by Frances Towers. Quite simply the loveliest volume of short stories I have ever read.

U is for Ursula Roberts. She wrote Lettice Delmer, a novel in verse published under the name Susan Miles. I never thought that such a book could hold me, but it was utterly compelling.

V is for A Very Great Profession by Nicola Beauman. I book that I hardly dare pick up, because every time I do I find another book that I really must order straight away.

W is for William: An Englishwoman by Cecily Hamilton. The winner of the Prix Femina-Vie Heureuse in 1919 and the very first book to win dove-grey covers.

X is for The Expendable Man by Dorothy Hughes. A classic tale of the wrongly accused man, a crime novel with important things to say, and a twist so remarkable that I can say nothing more.

Y is for The Young Pretenders by Edith Henrietta Fowler. Another one on my wishlist, a novel for children that will speak to adults too, I’m told.

Z is for Zina, the heroine of The Hounds of Spring by Sylvia Thompson. Not a Persephone Book, but one of those books that I had to order after I read about it in A Very Great Profession.

I struggled to find a Z, but when I did I realised it was the right way to end. because there are still lost gems to be rediscovered and we are so lucky to have publishers like Persephone to find them for us.