Posts Tagged ‘coming-of-age novels’

The Far Cry

August 5, 2013

The past couple of weeks have been an Indian summer for me, reading first The Far Cry by Emma Smith and then Rummer Godden’s Breakfast with the Nikolides, which we discussed in Emily’s Walking Book Club yesterday. They are both wonderful novels written in the 1940s about a girl going to India. Each one captures something of India’s strange push-pull – the allure of the exotic matched by a shrinking from the unknown. Each one shies away from being an unthinkingly romantic Raj novel to reveal the horror that lies beneath the veneer, the cracks that riddle the surface.

Breakfast with the NikolidesI feel somewhat talked out about Breakfast with the Nikolides, after yesterday’s illuminating walk-talk across the Heath, but, briefly, I think this novel particularly fine because it masquerades as a slender coming-of-age story, and yet touches on many deeply uncomfortable ideas, such as domestic abuse, a mother not liking her child, as well as the acute political unease of British India just before Independence. It is deceptively simple, and acutely affecting. Thank you Virago for republishing so many of Rumer Godden’s novels earlier this year, this one has whet my appetite!

The Far CryIn her Preface to The Far Cry, Emma Smith relates the inspiration for her novel. In 1946, aged twenty-three, she went to India as dogsbody to a documentary film group – whose scriptwriter, incidentally, was Laurie Lee (see here) – to make educational films about tea in Assam. She stepped off the gangplank at Bombay and ‘India burst upon me with the force of an explosion’ and, from then on:

Each moment was vibrant with the thrill of a discovery that had to be recorded, and because such youthful impressions have no store of similar memories to refer to or compare them with, they can be as vivid as the rising of the sun at the dawn of a cloudless newly-created summer’s day, glittering, unique … I scribbled, scribbled accordingly.

Luckily for us, this scribbled diary became the basis for this brilliant novel, which was first published in 1949 and was an The Far Cry endpaperinstant hit. Luckily for us, again, Persephone Books rescued it from the oblivion into which it had unjustly sunk by republishing it in 2002, with especially pretty endpaper.

Teresa is an awkward young teenager, living with her stern Aunt May when her father, the rather pathetic Randall Digby, who thinks his estranged wife is coming to England to reclaim Teresa, decides to cart her off to India and out of her reach. He decides they will stay with Ruth, his elder daughter from his ‘first brief and nearly happy marriage’, who has married a tea-planter.

It is immediately clear that Teresa and her father haven’t spent much time together and indeed barely know each other. While this leaves the plot ripe for sentiment and a nauseating burgeoning father-daughter relationship, Smith avoids this and sets them, quite brilliantly, against each other. Mr Digby despises Teresa’s gawkiness and tiresomeness, the way that when he takes her to London she is always:

pinching her fingers in taxi doors, losing her ticket, dropping her gloves, being, last and most terrible mortification, sick in a restaurant.

Teresa, rather than quailing under his harsh disapproval, despises the ridiculous fuss her father makes over all the preparations. Then:

Teresa, who had watched defeat and then recovery first line and then illuminate his face, observed the breach in his armour: he was old, and therefore weak. And she was young, with her strength growing. Age shook him as fiercely as he had yesterday shaken her in the street. Thoughtfully she ate her breakfast. That she had seen his weakness and was bound to take advantage of it was a tragedy, and a tragedy that the only alternative to his conquering her seemed to be for her to conquer him.

Having realised her advantage, Teresa thrives with her newfound independence and the boat becomes an adventure:

She was a traveller… and her father, in consequence, seemed to her redundant.

Their relationship soon dwindles to an occasional game of cards. It is indeed a ‘tragedy’ – a perfectly observed minor tragedy, which is transformed by Smith’s light touch into something almost as funny as it is sad.

Teresa’s story is engaging, and I enjoyed following her on the boat across to India, especially the quiet friendship she strikes up with the spinster Miss Spooner, who has the quiet wisdom and self-assurance of E.M. Forster’s Mrs Moore. The novel becomes something extraordinary, however, when Teresa and Mr Digby arrive, at last, at Ruth’s bungalow.

Ruth is one of the most chilling, distressing, affecting characters I have ever come across. Smith introduces her right at the start of the book as the endpoint of the journey, and yet we don’t meet her until we’re more than halfway through the novel. Even then, Smith cleverly teases us with another delay, and it is Ruth’s husband Edwin who meets the train, explaining that:

“I’m afraid Ruth’s away. She’s staying with some friends of ours on a neighbouring Garden … But I’m driving over tomorrow to fetch her back, so you’ll see her then.”

We suspect that there might be trouble in paradise. Smith affects a clever and pronounced change in the narrative when she introduces Ruth. Suddenly we see things from her perspective:

It seemed impossible, right up to the last minute, that they should have come … The worst had happened: there they were, faces turned expectantly towards her.


“Father!” she said aloud in her pleased and pleasant voice…

So we know instantly that Ruth is not what she seems. She can feel that her father’s arrival is ‘the worst’ that could happen and yet she can greet him in a ‘pleased and pleasant voice’. All we knew about Ruth until this point is that she is beautiful. She may be indeed beautiful on the exterior, but inside she is something altogether different. A little later, she reflects:

Relations, she realised, were as easy to deceive as anyone else: they came no nearer, they saw no deeper.

One wonders what is she hiding, why must everyone be deceived, what is underneath? And we learn:

Long ago, at an age when most little girls are more concerned about the appearance of their favourite dolls than their own, Ruth had discovered her beauty and marvelled at it. There and then she had decided on the sort of character that would display this beauty best, and not only did she choose her part but she devoted herself to it through all the stages of her growing up. Every person she came across unwittingly strengthened the lie: “Ruth never loses her temper” – and she was at pains never to lose her temper …

Ruth has spent her entire life fabricating a personality to match her appearance, a fascinating and unusual example of the dangers of beauty and vanity. It is so powerful that the book could almost be called ‘Beware of Beauty’! As Smith explains:

There is a difference, and a profound one, between trying to be good because goodness is a virtue, and trying to be good so that people may think you good. Ruth revolved in a world of mirrors…

Ruth is so caught up in maintaining her perfect reflection, that inside she withers and suffers. Achieving the perfect surface means she has lost her interior, her lack of sincerity, and she realises, when marrying Edwin, that she is ‘a fraud’. She longs to confess to him that she’s not like this, that she doesn’t know what she’s like:

‘I’ve forgotten. But not like this – this is pretence. Help me.’

But she doesn’t. Instead, this pretence ruins her and seeps out and infects her marriage. When ‘the far cry’ of the title eventually comes, it is Ruth’s cry of despair, overwhelmed by the impossibility of her life:

There is no solution, her mind cried out within her. It is useless to flee. Where can we fly? We are victims of our own absolute weakness.

This cry must go down among the great feminine cries of literature – next to Wanda’s in A Far Cry from Kensington (see here) and Rosamund’s in The Millstone (see here). (Further suggestions are welcome!)

Really this is an astonishing book. Smith has an uncanny way of penetrating to the heart of each of her characters, with all their myriad differences. One feels one absolutely understands Teresa, Mr Digby, Ruth and Edwin, as well as the minor characters. The only one who remains a mystery is quiet, enigmatic Miss Spooner. Like Forster’s Mrs Moore, she’s the one that slips through your fingers, somehow refusing to be contained by her particular fiction, leaving you wondering about her and longing for more.

Emma Smith in 1949

Daphne also enjoyed The Far Cry. (And you can read five important life lessons from Daphne here.)

Daphne and The Far Cry

The King of a Rainy Country

June 10, 2013

The King of a Rainy CountryAs some of you will have by now discovered, there are few things I love more than reading a book in its setting.

So it was a wonderful coincidence that when I began reading The King of a Rainy Country on Thursday morning, immersing myself in the bohemian world of Susan ‘somewhere off the Tottenham Court Road’, I remembered I was heading down to Soho that very evening for a friend’s birthday party. I decided that if I hurried down to Soho after my day at work in the bookshop, I might just have time to sit in a café for half an hour or so and read a little bit more before joining my friends.

After work, I hopped on the tube, hopped off at Tottenham Court Road and decided to treat myself to an unbelievably expensive coffee at Bar Italia, not least because I think the till they have there is so extraordinary and I wanted to have another peek at it. You could imagine my delight when I sat down with my coffee, feeling peculiarly on holiday with the background noise of Italian radio and the unusually warm evening, when I read in the novel that by extraordinary good fortune, Susan and Neale – her sort of but not quite boyfriend – stumble into a travel agents and end up getting jobs as ‘couriers’, i.e. tour guides, and going to Italy.

I felt as though, just for a moment, my world had collided with Susan’s. Although, as I emerged from the café and headed to the party, finding that everyone was now speaking English and the temperature had dropped rather, the illusion swiftly passed.

Susan is a sympathetic character in more ways than just this accident of circumstances. At one point, she asks another character why she likes her:

O, sympathy of some sort. Tu sei molto simpatico.

It is a huge achievement for a writer to create a character who one feels so instinctively aligned to, in sympathy with. Perhaps it is helped by the honest, confiding opening:

I had been scared for a fortnight. Concentrating on my fear, I became dogged and literal. At once another fear seized me; fear that I might bore Neal.

I recognized the day, the moment I woke, as the day of the interview. Only secondly did I remember I was moving house.

Who hasn’t woken up with that stomach-clenching realisation of terror – that feeling of argh today’s the day, the horrid sweaty nerves of a job interview? And how often has that day of terror collided with a completely different reason to be nervous – moving house or some such – when the fear doubles up on itself? It made me think of the awful morning I awoke to face my final A-level exam, followed by meeting my then boyfriend, who had been wanting to break up with me but had ‘thoughtfully’ decided to wait until I’d finished my exams. The double dread of having to go into that exam hall for an English paper and then walk down to St James’s Park to face the music with him was completely horrific.

You can’t help but sympathise with poor Susan, and admire the way she gets on with it in spite of her nerves, taking a taxi to Neale’s flat, then anxiously taking a bus to the interview:

My mouth was so dry that it caused me a palpable pain to ask for my ticket.

The moment I knew I was utterly committed to her was a couple of paragraphs later when she is walking down Park Lane to the interview and gets lost ‘in autobiographical fantasy’:

I told some imprecisely imagined interlocutor that each year I hoped to have outgrown being moved by the autumn and each year I hadn’t.

It’s just the sort of pretentious idle fantasy in which I indulge when wandering along. Mine usually goes along the lines of imagining what records I’d choose for Desert Island Discs, or what I’d say when asked about the inspiration for my first novel on The Culture Show. Far too long is spent in such vain, idiotic, autobiographical fantasy, and it is cringingly embarrassing to admit to. I loved Susan’s disarming honesty in telling us this straight up.

Of course when Susan then gets a job working for a bookseller, I essentially decided we were versions of the same person, and so shouldn’t really have been so surprised by the coincidence of my going to Italy via Tottenham Court Road that evening.

On the face of it, Brigid Brophy sets up a straightforward narrative. A young woman gets a job and moves in with her boyfriend. But Brophy is too playful and clever for this. The bookseller turns out not to be just a bookseller. just as his name turns out not really to be Finkelheim. The boyfriend turns out not really to be a boyfriend. It’s not long before they move settings and go to Italy to try out a whole new scenario.

Brigid Brophy wrote The King of a Rainy Country in 1956, a time when, I suppose, people’s narratives were beginning to seem particularly changeable. Brophy’s own life certainly twisted and turned, resisting a straightforward path. She went up to Oxford only to be sent down for ‘unspecified offences’. She married an art historian, but then had an open marriage, enjoying affairs with men and women. Like her creator, Susan doesn’t settle into a straightforward life.

It is the ambiguity of Susan and Neale’s relationship and their sexuality that is so exciting. One is always wondering, are they sleeping together? Are they about to sleep together? Are they falling in love? Is Neale going to sleep with the young French man he picked up, who knows no English other than the word ‘quair’? Is Susan still in love with Cynthia, her crush from school?

There is a casualness to gender and relationships that is refreshing today and must have been strikingly unusual in 1956. Susan and Neale are trying things out for size, experimenting with different roles, finding their feet with an innocence and naivete which is very endearing. It is no coincidence that the other works alluded to in the novel include As you Like it and The Marriage of Figaro – with their cross-dressing and ambiguous, playful treatment of gender.

I shall leave you the enjoyable, twisty-turny plot to discover for yourself. Be assured that it is peppered with very funny moments, as well as acute observations. There is an overarching poignancy for being that age, so free and open, and the vulnerability which that entails.

When they pass through Paris, Neale looks up at the shuttered windows:

“Anyway, what is it about the shutters?”

“The slats,” I said.

“Yes, it’s clever. They give an impression you can see in, though in fact you can’t. And isn’t that the whole of romance?”

Perhaps, then, this is the ultimately romantic book, teasing us with its subtle, playful opacity. You think you can see in to Neal and Susan’s relationship, but in fact you can’t. You think you can see into Susan’s feelings about Cynthia, but you can’t. It isn’t that Susan is wilfully hiding from the reader – as I said, she is winningly sympathetic – but she is still discovering her feelings and sexuality herself. We join Susan as she gradually prises open the shutters, and share the spirit of discovery, excitement and pain that it brings.

We should all be grateful to The Coelacanth Press for prising opening the shutters on Brigid Brophy herself. This remarkable woman who led an extraordinary life and, if this is anything to go by, wrote wonderful novels, is almost forgotten. The Coelacanth Press have republished The King of a Rainy Country as a labour of love – it being the only book they’ve published. I urge you to buy it and keep Brophy on the bookshelves. It might even encourage The Coelacanth Press to publish more work by such wrongly neglected, brilliant writers.

Brigid Brophy

The Song of Achilles

June 26, 2012

Last week I made my radio debut, talking about literary fiction on Fiction Uncovered’s pop-up radio station in Foyles. I admit I was more than a little nervous, mostly because – as many of you readers don’t know – I have quite a silly voice. I often sound more like an excited, posh fourteen-year-old from 1950s Somerset than a cool, calm, collected, terribly literary twenty-eight-and-a-half-year-old Londoner. I also have a tendency to gabble. And my arms and eyebrows flail around expressively. All of which is completely useless for the radio.

And I was anxious as to whether I was sufficiently qualified to talk about contemporary literary fiction. How ghastly if I were to make a hideous and obvious blunder live on air! I mean, yes of course I do read some new literary fiction, but rather a lot of my reading is taken up with lost classics as well. So I decided I had better read Madeline Miller’s The Song of Achilles, as it has just won the Orange Prize, so as not to come across as particularly idiotic with my finger miles off the pulse.

I am so pleased that I did! What a fun and brilliantly enjoyable book. Let me say straight away that it is not at all what I expected. I was bracing myself for a heavy classical thing, steeped in poetry, masses of over-my-head references, which would leave me longing for my beloved copy of Gods, Men and Monsters (see this old post) and despairing of my forgetful brain.

Well The Song of Achilles may be a classical story, but it doesn’t presume any knowledge at all. In fact, it’s pretty good at explaining, unobtrusively, little things, such as Menoitiades means Menoitius’s son, or the resonance of taking the pose of supplication before a King. I found the classical setting to be a welcome revisit to dusty corridors of my brain, nudging reminders of Odysseus and Hector, of centaurs and slaves, without needing to fret at not remembering all the details.

What I really love about The Song of Achilles is the fast-paced exciting plot. Reading it feels a bit like reading a teen novel – the Philip Pullman books, The Hunger Games or The Knife of Never Letting Go ­– rather than anything slow, descriptive and ponderous. The story is essentially a coming-of-age one (yes, my favourite type of story):

Young prince Patroclus is exiled to the court of King Peleus. Peleus’s son Achilles is half-god, fleet of foot, gifted on the lyre, and impossibly handsome with his golden curls. The unlikely pair make firm friends and then become lovers, in spite of the fierce disapproval of Thetis, Achilles’s goddess mother. They have adventures together, first in the palace, then on Mount Pelion (with a centaur), then the Island of Scyros, and, last of all, Troy. It’s very gripping. What’s going to happen next, I kept asking myself, so absorbed in the pages that once I even missed my tube stop.

I’m not sure that I found the language particularly beautiful. There aren’t passages that stand out in my memory as lyrical or special, lifted above the rest of it. But the story is told so clearly, holding one’s attention so fast, surely this is a skill in itself – the effective telling of a tale without drawing undue attention to the words that tell it.

Instead of the words, particular ideas and scenes remain stuck in my head. When Achilles decides to go to Troy, the gods, displeased with this oncoming war and all the blood that will be shed, make the wind cease, thus preventing the army from setting sail for battle. It’s such a subtle, clever and effective move. It’s a perfect example of the sideways logic of the Greek myths that I loved as a child – slicing through the Gordian Knot, using thread to escape the Minotaur’s labyrinth and a mirror to fight Medusa.

The other thing that stuck with me is that the Trojan War lasted such a long time. I had forgotten the scale of it. The soldiers are there for more than nine years before Achilles fulfils his destiny. Nine whole years! That’s a third of my life so far. The war soon changes from a brief episode into a long extended way of life, complete with routines and festivals. It’s so sad to think of all these soldiers fighting for Greece, while spending such a huge part of their lives in Troy.

Odysseus expresses this right of the book:

I have a wife. I have not seen her for ten years. I do not know if she is dead, or if I will die before I can return to her… My consolation is that we will be together in the underworld. That we will meet again there, if not in this life. I would not wish to be there without her.

Ten years without seeing your wife. Ten years of living in a strange land, so far from home.

Just after I’d finished The Song of Achilles, I got an email, out of the blue, from an ex-boyfriend of a very long time ago. I’d heard that he’d become an army doctor and had been in Afghanistan for a while. He said that his father posted him out copies of the Spectator and he’d had a nice surprise when he’d read my new column in it.

It was really odd to think of him out in Afghanistan doing something so serious and reading my silly little articles about books in such an English magazine as the Spectator. And, as it was so fresh in my mind, I couldn’t help but think of The Song of Achilles.

Patroclus, the narrator, goes to Troy with Achilles, but he soon stops fighting and instead puts to use all the medical training he learnt while up on Mount Pelion with the centaur. The first thing he has to do is remove a splintered arrowhead from a soldier’s shoulder. Then he helps in the medical tent more and more:

Everyone eventually made their way there, if only for smashed toes, or ingrown nails. Even Automedon came, covering the bleeding remnants of a savaged boil with his hand. Men doted on their slave women and brought them to us with swollen bellies. We delivered their children in a steady, squalling stream, then fixed their hurts as they grew older.

And it was not just the common soldiery: in time, I came to know the kings as well. Nestor with his throat syrup, honeyed and warmed, that he wanted at the end of a day; Menelaus and the opiate he took for his headaches; Ajax’s acid stomach.

There’s the feeling here of this being life, normal life, like at any doctor’s surgery anywhere. But, of course, this isn’t anywhere; this is Troy. In between the boils and the ingrown toenails, there are embedded arrowheads and spear wounds. It is uncanny to think of normal life existing around the war, worming its way in between the battles.

I suppose there was something of the same feeling when I learned that my ex was reading my little column while tending to soldiers fighting in Afghanistan. Magazines belong in newsagents, waiting rooms, and crowded tube carriages. They belong to normal life. It’s so strange to think of living out there, on the edges of a war, becoming normal enough to include them.

Anyway, you’ll be pleased to hear that the radio programme went very well and I don’t think I made any truly dreadful blunders. However, there was a funny moment before it even began, when they were checking the mic levels and we were each asked to say what we had for breakfast. Of course this isn’t on air, the lady said, at the moment we’re playing a recording of Colm Tóibín.

It was only at the end of the day, when the husband, who had dutifully tuned in, informed me that in the midst of Colm’s beautiful reading, a silly little voice piped up announcing, rather proudly:

I had muesli and apple juice for breakfast. And it was delicious.

My Achilles’ heel.


November 14, 2011

She only said, ‘The day is dreary,

He cometh not,’ she said;

She said, ‘I am aweary, aweary,

I would that I were dead!’

Today was particularly dreary. Grey, foggy, bleak, chilly. It was the perfect day, really, to finish reading Mariana – not Tennyson’s poem, but Monica Dickens’ marvellous novel.

Monica Dickens alludes to Tennyson’s poem, not just in the title but also on two specific occasions in the book. Once when the main character, Mary, has to recite it at drama school, and again, towards the end when there’s a terrible storm which finds her stranded in a house in Essex, awaiting some terrible news.

But the pleasing thing about reading Mariana (the book) is that however dreary the day, however aweary one feels, one cannot possibly read it and would that they were dead. It is the most wonderful, wonderful book. I cannot recommend it highly enough. Perhaps, though, it particularly appeals to me.

An editor recently told me that she had a guilty love of crime novels. She asked me about my own favourite type of book; if I could read absolutely anything, what would it be?

‘I love coming-of-age novels,’ I replied. ‘Things like I Capture the Castle, and A Long Way from Verona, and The Go-Between. I absolutely adore them. They are just so comforting.’

She raised an eyebrow. ‘I see. That’s psychologically quite interesting.’

I’d never thought about it like that before. Why do I love to revisit this time? The falling in love, the having a heart broken, the discovering something about oneself, the falling in love with someone better. It’s glorious. But perhaps it is psychologically interesting, or, indeed, alarming. Oh well, surely not as alarming as having a secret love of crime novels.

But, in case you too find yourself fond of a coming-of-age novel, of a certain mid-twentieth century language, peppered with words like ‘ravenous’, ‘thrilling’, ‘ghastly’ and ‘rather’, then, well you might adore Mariana too. (Incidentally, Westwood by Stella Gibbons, which I wrote about here, is another good one.)

I love Monica Dickens’s language. She has a wonderful turn of phrase which is at once precise, imaginative and quite funny. She describes the ‘hot, sugary interior’ of an ‘irresistible’ patisserie in Paris: it ‘made you feel like the jam inside a doughnut’. It’s perfect. All the sweetness and deliciousness and warmth being almost oppressive, so that it makes you turn as red and sticky as doughnut jam! Or how about Mary’s French boyfriend’s scary posh mother as:

no more than a cold, unemotional peg on which to hang diamonds; black-haired and bony-nosed, like a raven decked out in its stolen jewels.

Or indeed, on returning to England after her spell in Paris, Mary notices the feeling of the English air:

It was a feeling of damp, fresh security. Everything looked so right and so comfortably unexotic, like a cabbage.

I feel utter delight in reading sentences like this. What a clever lady she was. It turns out that she went to my school – which I despised and left at sixteen, as soon as I was allowed. If only they’d bothered to tell us about her, I might have liked it rather more.

Mariana tells the story of Mary, who, at the start of the novel is enduring a stormy, dreary, miserably night – awaiting the bad news. Dickens then tells us Mary’s story, starting with her childhood and the blissful holidays spent in her grandparents’ country house, running around in shorts and scrappy shirts with her cousins, climbing trees and putting on plays. Mary is in love with Denys, her arrogant, handsome, talented cousin, who is about to go off to Eton. There is a wonderful kiss in an attic. A few years later they go hunting together, having ‘breakfasted hugely off porridge and sausages’. I have to say I’ve always been seriously anti-hunting, but this was such a lovely passage, that I felt quite sad that it had been banned, and bizarrely nostalgic for it. Then there’s a heartbreaking episode at Denys’s university ball. After that there’s a funny bit where Mary tries hopelessly to become an actress. Then Paris. Then … oh, I don’t want to spoil it.

Amidst the all-round radiance of this book, there was one aspect that particularly intrigued me – probably because I’m writing a novel about a derelict house. And that’s Mary’s preoccupation with her grandparents’ house in the country, Charbury.

It is clear that Charbury is the setting for Mary’s happiest childhood memories:

For Mary, everything at Charbury was unquestionably perfect.

School was something to be endured until she was released for holidays there. Even the train journey down is wonderfully exciting, with Mary on tenterhooks for the joy that awaits. When, years later, once Charbury has been sold and her mother tells her how much all the family argued down there and that it could be ‘terrible’, Mary can’t quite believe it.

none of it could spoil the perfect memory that stayed with her through the years, glorified, almost to legend, because it was a time that could never come again.

Big mistake then, years later, to stop off there with her fiancé and ask the gardener if they could look around:

she stared and stared, unable to believe her eyes. ‘But it’s so small,’ she kept saying, ‘it’s so small.’

The gardener, with inadvertent irony, says, ‘It’s like old times. It’s like the old days to see you’. But, of course, that’s just what it isn’t like. Mary goes to embrace him as she would have done in the ‘old times’, but at the last minute he ‘drew back, and lifted his cap, suddenly embarrassed to find her grown-up’. Mary walks around the grounds and sees how everything has changed:

They went down to the Play House, which was locked up and dilapidated; the lily pond was empty of goldfish and had been made formal, with a fountain; the ha-ha wall – how could she have hurt herself jumping from that low height? – had been re-bricked wth glazed grey stones like a public house. ‘Oh darling, I wish we hadn’t come,’ Mary said.

Most hurtful is when she looks for the ‘swing tree’ – ‘one of our favourite places’, and sees no more than a ‘terrible, pathetic stump … flat and clean, like a new tombstone.’

Every house has its memories and its ghosts. And the flipside is that every house exists as a memory and a ghost for the person who used to live in it. How sad to see that time has take its toll. It makes me think of the eerie, deathly Time Passes section ofTo The Lighthouse.

But it’s clever, really, of Monica Dickens to draw our attention to how the house as changed. She certainly didn’t have to for any plot reasons. But it gets a new resonance when remembering Mariana the poem, which begins:

With blackest moss the flower-pots

Were thickly crusted, one and all;

The rusted nails fell from the knots

That held the pear to the gable wall.

The broken sheds look’d sad and strange;

Unlifted was the clinking latch:

Weeded and worn the ancient thatch

Upon the lonely moated grange.

It could nearly be the later version of Charbury, looking so ‘sad and strange’. Mary’s memory of Charbury is resolutely undreary; it is full of vitality, of happiness, of the chaotic energy of childhood. How poignant to see it so transformed.

Mary is a thoroughly undreary girl. So it is fitting, perhaps that, she remembers the poem Mariana, with its dreariness and decay right at the close of the novel, when waiting for the terrible news. It is a reminder of the agony of waiting, and the chilling realisation that as each infinitely slow moment passes, time is taking its dilapidating toll.

Sorry, I don’t want to end on too dreary a note. It really is a blissful book, only making one feel a little teary in the best possible way.