Posts Tagged ‘Daunt Books Festival’

The Daunt Books Festival

March 31, 2015

The good news is that Vita is sleeping much better at night. This means that we had some friends round the other evening and I managed to have a conversation – a real conversation in which I was able to process what my friends had to say and then respond, perhaps not in a particularly nuanced fashion, but it was certainly better than staring mutely as their words drifted past while my head was filled instead with a mixture of Vita’s delightful antics and a neurotic exhausted obsession with the possibility of sleep. This means that in the morning I am able to speak before knocking back a cup of tea. This means I can get to places on time, rather than half an hour late. This means that the unreal static haze that had descended over everything has lifted. This means wonder.

This means, however, that she sleeps less during the day. I had got used to the luxury of her naps (which at their best went on for four whole hours, but even at their worst lasted for a solid hour), but now these have shrunk to half hour glimpses of freedom, in which I just have time to get the boring stuff like laundry done before she reawakens. So my reading has never been so fragmented and scarce. And the writing – pah – the most I can manage is to respond to an email. It seems as though the written word is like the slim wild grasses which cling to acres of dusty sand dunes. A sparse promise of the pastures that await … though I needn’t wait for long as Vita’s grannies are going to start looking after her a little bit every week.

So my apologies for the long absence of a blog post. These will become regular again just as soon as life with Vita settles down a bit.

In the meantime, I thought perhaps you might like an insider’s account of The Daunt Books Festival, which happened on the 19th and 20th March – two very long days in which Vita and her grannies became intimately acquainted …

This is a very long blog post to make up for the surrounding lack thereof. So please feel free to take a break half-way through and consume it in two chunks.

Daunt Festival 2015 pic

I have been working steadily on The Daunt Books Festival since August, with a little gap around Vita’s birth, and then sudden bursts of activity when needs be, such as when writing the programmes (a sign of my not being on the best of forms was that we got the first thousand printed with 2014 on the front instead of 2015) and the flurry of last-minute organisation in the week of the festival itself. Suddenly, after a million emails, it was the night before, and I was in the bookshop, and it felt like being a child on Christmas Eve. We hung up copious amounts of yellow bunting, arranged daffodils and made everything look pretty. Perhaps it was less fun for the men who put out all the very heavy chairs, and I have to say cleaning the loos is never my favourite job, but there was something rather satisfying about the sparkle at the end. I hurried home to a late supper of fish fingers and felt terribly excited.

Alex Clark, Samantha Ellis and Anne Sebba

Then there was the terrific thrill the next morning as people began to arrive and I had the thought ‘this is happening, this is actually happening’ again and again. We had unbelievably delicious treats from Honey & Co for the first event ‘Choosing your Heroines’ with Samantha Ellis (whose very charming book How to be a Heroine you can read about here) and Anne Sebba – biographer of many real-life heroines, chaired by the awe-inspiringly clever critic Alex Clark. It was a wonderful opener, and I’m honoured to say you can read more about it on the TLS blog here.

Tim Dee and William Fiennes

Afterwards, we had Tim Dee and William Fiennes (with Monocle Café macaroons) talking eloquently about nature and birds, and also very fascinatingly about language. I loved the way they talked about ‘human nature’ in particular. It was especially impressive as William Fiennes had had a baby just two weeks ago! And there he was having a very clever conversation with no trouble at all…

Rachel Cooke and Virginia Nicholson

Next up were Virginia Nicholson and Rachel Cooke discussing women of the fifties with the aid of Ginger Pig sausage rolls. It was completely brilliant and they managed not to be derailed by hecklers – one lady in the audience stood up and rather laid into them for talking about a woman’s life as though it were an interesting specimen of the time rather than a poor soul suffering emotional abuse. It got quite hairy and dissent threatened to spread, but the duo dealt with it admirably and the talk continued, with everyone staying on their toes rather than slumping too far into the comfort of 1950s nostalgia, which was I think for the best.

By this point, I was struggling to sit upright as so much milk had collected into my Vita-less breasts. So I left Brett to commandeer the musical interlude – some talented Royal Academy students performing their own quite amazing interpretation of Alice in Wonderland – while I hid in the basement, apron on, pump out, squeezing the squeaky thing away and filling up a couple of bottles of the good stuff much to the amusement, interest and perhaps faint disgust of my fellow booksellers. Time too to gobble a sandwich and, though I am ashamed to admit my gluttony, another half a sausage roll, before listening to Michael Rosen, translator Anthea Bell and chair Julia Eccleshare discussing Erich Kastner and other German children’s classics.

Then the evening events. First Owen Jones electrified the room with Owen Hatherley. I think everyone was taken aback by how young they both were, and how clever and right on and so very left-wing that some of the audience got rather hot under the collar. Alas I had to miss a chunk of this while I was downstairs pumping again, but the bit I saw had such an atmosphere, you felt almost as though you were on the edge of a revolution. While this crowd then queued up for forty-five minutes for Owen Jones to sign their books and shake their hands, an almost entirely new crowd flooded in for Lady Antonia Fraser talking to Valerie Grove about her childhood. It was a lovely talk, and blimey the tone couldn’t have been more different – it was very funny to listen to her clipped accent discussing her wartime childhood after Owen Jones’ more colloquial polemic about our political future.

We had a bit of a clear up and managed to leave by ten thirty, and I returned home to a night of rather interrupted sleep as Vita seemed hungrier than ever and rather keen to nestle close after our day apart.

**** This might be where you’d like to take a break and return to part two another time. ****

Emily's festival walking book club

The next morning and I was reminded of the horror of commuting via Highbury & Islington during rush hour, and how horrid everyone is on the tube when you aren’t pregnant or carrying a baby. I arrived rather frazzled but was put in a much better mood as the gang assembled for a special Emily’s Walking Book Club around Regent’s Park (thanks to Emma for the lovely photos). I hadn’t realised the solar eclipse was to happen a quarter of an hour before we started but it was so cloudy nothing much happened anyway. It was bitingly cold, but we were sustained by delicious biscuits from La Fromagerie. We discussed Our Spoons Came from Woolworths (more on that here) and it struck me that maybe Comyns’ unique, unnervingly dismissive tone which is so thunderstrikingly powerful is the sad reason that she’s so overlooked. If she had written it more seriously, more chest-puffing-outily, more arrogantly and self-importantly, then perhaps the establishment would sit up and listen rather than brush it to one side. The irony is, of course, that its brilliance lies in its understatement. Not unlike the great Penelope Fitzgerald.

I returned, rather rosy cheeked, to the bookshop where I bumped into a dear friend who’s moved to San Francisco. He said he thought he’d drop in as he was in the area and couldn’t believe that there was my pic in the window saying sold out right next to Michael Palin who was also sold out. I neglected to explain to him that there were rather fewer spaces for the walking book club than for Michael Palin, and for a moment felt very grand indeed.

short stories signing

The two lunchtime talks were ‘In Praise of Short Stories’ (with Rococo hot chocolate) and ‘Russians in Paris’ (with La Fromagerie Bakewell tarts) – both excellent, indeed so good that it made me think next year perhaps we should ditch the 45 minute lunchtime limit and stretch them out as I could have sat there all afternoon listening and felt a bit cross when they had to stop. I adored listening to Tessa Hadley (who, wonderfully, had spent the whole of the previous day at the festival and – great literary trivia here – is Tim Dee’s cousin), the very charming Colin Barrett and talented new writer Julianne Pachico read their work. Their event was chaired by Laura Macaulay, who runs the publishing side of things at Daunt and is a great friend, and was a most excellent chair.

For ‘Russians in Paris’ we had the very bright young translator Bryan Karetnyk and the ebullient Peter Pomerantsev talking to brainbox Nick Lezard about Russian émigré writers of the 1920s who ended up in Paris, specifically Gazdanov (see here) and Teffi. It was a fascinating glimpse of this scene, about which I knew very little. Peter Pomerantsev was very funny, and was very embarrassed when he realised he’d been calling Bryan ‘Boris’ for half of the talk.

Then, what joy, the husband brought in Vita so I could have a little cuddle and – more importantly – be thoroughly drained by her rather than the squeaky, less effective, pump. So I missed most of the musical interlude, which was a wind trio performing some fun pieces starring Daunt’s very own Toby Thatcher. It was both heaven and hell to see Vita, and I felt a little glum as I said goodbye to her again, but was cheered by the sudden influx of children for our Robert Muchamore teen event, and most of all by interviewer Philip Womack’s beautiful dog, who was terribly sweet and behaved beautifully while Philip interviewed him (Muchamore, not the dog, who is a girl anyway) admirably. It was amazing to see all the children on the edge of their seats, so excited to meet this icon, and excitedly donning wristbands and grabbing stickers as he signed their books afterwards.

Spies in Fact and fiction

Then for ‘Spies in Fact and Fiction’ – one of my favourite events – as historian Christopher Andrew and thriller writer Charles Cumming talked to James Naughtie. What an amazing man James Naughtie is. He arrived a little early and sat down rather exhaustedly. It had been a long day he said. Tell me about it, I thought, remembering little Vita flapping her arms and wailing every two hours during the very short night, before he confessed to having been up at three to do the Today programme. He wins. He also managed to get the panel to be terrifically indiscreet and let slip a few secrets … which I oughtn’t repeat here though I was lurking near a journalist from The Times, who assiduously scribbled everything down. Everyone said what a brilliant combination of speakers it was, and told me how clever I’d been to put them together. Not nearly as clever as the chaps on stage, I thought, but nevertheless I felt very pleased that it had worked so well.

Then the finale! Brett (who is the wonderful manager of Daunt’s, and indeed started the bookshop with James Daunt) managed to interview Michael Palin, while dealing with all the sound stuff too. He also made a fuss over me and I got some beautiful roses which made me feel very special indeed. It was a fantastic finale. Brett steered the conversation over very literary ground, so we heard all about Michael Palin’s admiration for Hemingway, what he reads when he travels, and how he goes about capturing places both on paper and on film, rather than his Python years. What came across perhaps above and beyond anything else is that Michael Palin has got to be the nicest man on the planet.

And then, just like that, it was over. I folded up the bunting. The chairs went back to the basement, the tables were repositioned, books laid out, wine glasses collected … and whereas last year at the end I felt terribly sad that it was all over for a whole year, this year, the delight of going home to darling little Vita sweetened the pill.

If you’d like to read still more about the festival, Alice at OfBooks has written about it here, and here it is on Life is a Festival too.

I hope you have a lovely, chocolate-filled and literary Easter, and Emilybooks will be back, less sporadically, soon after.


The Light Years

February 9, 2015

I have become quite fervent in my pursuit of the ‘feed-read’; now I will not give in to Vita’s wails or body-twisting hints until I have my book, specs and a glass of water at the ready, and my telephone with its distracting flash of emails is well out-of-reach. As so much of my time is spent feeding, I decided that I might as well enjoy it, and while of course there are some feeds that must be discounted as too impractical for reading, eg. in the pitch black small hours, or on the bus, I can get nearly an hour of feed-read time a day, which is not bad at all.

So why so slow on the blog? Well, I have been busy organising this year’s Daunt Books Festival. There’s been a bit of a push in recent weeks to get the programmes out and line-up announced, but ta da here it is!

Daunt Festival 2015 pic

It goes without saying that I would adore to see you at the festival. Talks include such treats as Choosing Your Heroines with Samantha Ellis, Anne Sebba and Alex Clark; and Spies in Fact and Fiction with Charles Cumming, Christopher Andrew and James Naughtie; with speakers including Michael Palin, Antonia Fraser and Owen Jones; plus some jolly children’s talks, music recitals, and a special walking book club around Regent’s Park discussing Our Spoons Came from Woolworths. So come along, and come and say hello if you do!

The other reason for the delay is that it takes so much longer (well, twice as long) to type things one-handed. And, these days, everything is done one-handed.

The Light Years by Elizabeth Jane HowardSo I am sorry to have delayed telling you all about the blissfully enjoyable book in which I’ve been ensconced: The Light Years by Elizabeth Jane Howard. Those of you of my age and older may well remember when the ‘Cazalet Chronicles’ were first published in the 1990s. I distinctly remember being on holiday in Devon in the late-nineties with my cousins. All the grown-ups were talking about how wonderful these books were, so I decided I would read them too. I was only about fourteen, so felt terribly precocious. And I was relieved to find that I too loved them. I remember particularly loving the way the children are so well imagined. Polly, Clary and Louise are all at that difficult age of eleven to fourteen and they all felt like different aspects of myself. These girls are given so much space in the book that I almost didn’t believe it was a book for adults.

It’s a series that has stuck with me, and when Elizabeth Jane Howard published a fifth volume towards the end of 2013, sadly not long before she died, I thought it might be the perfect excuse to revisit the originals. They are such thick chunky books though that it felt like too much of a treat. It would have been too much like only eating ice cream and meringues for a whole month. So I watched enviously as people, clearly addicted, came into the bookshop and bought up the various volumes over successive days.

Needless to say, when buying books to take on maternity leave, this was top of the list. At last, the perfect time to read it had come. Some other excellent times to read this rather indulgent series, or at least the first novel in the series, include: on holiday, on a very long journey, when feeling broke – you won’t want to go out if the alternative is reading this in the bath, and when waiting for the new series of Downton Abbey… For although in various interviews Elizabeth Jane Howard said her Cazalet characters are middle- not upper-class, they are a middle-class of the late thirties, which is rather different to that of today. They have staff; they have a family business which earns them plenty of money even though all they have to do is go out for lunch; the men belong to clubs; the boys all go to boarding school and the girls are educated at home; they say things like ‘gracious’ and ‘blast’ and everyone calls everyone else ‘darling’.

Briefly, this is a great family saga which follows the Cazalet family with all its domestic dramas during the Second World War. The Light Years is set during the summer holidays of 1937 and 1938, which are spent down at Home Place – the family pad in Sussex. The Brig and The Duchy rule the roost (though they are not paid that much authorial attention) then come their four children: the sons Hugh, Edward and Rupert – all of whom have married and have children of their own, and Rachel, the unmarried daughter who is in love with a woman.

I suppose reading it now – as opposed to when I was fourteen – I ought to be more fascinated by Howard’s portrayal of the various marriages. Philandering Edward and Villy, who gave up her career as a ballet dancer; Hugh and Sybil, who have a baby in the opening chunk of the book; and failing artist Rupert and Zoe – gosh Zoe, what a character! She has been bred solely for her beauty, is jealous of Rupert’s relationship with his children from his first marriage, and dreads having a baby:

Even if she didn’t die, her figure would be ruined: she would have flabby breasts with the nipples too large, like Villy and Sybil whom she had seen in their bathing suits, her waist would be thick and she would have those fearful stripes on her stomach and thighs – Sybil again; Villy seemed to have escaped that – and varicose veins – Villy, but not Sybil – and, of course, Rupert would no longer love her. He’d pretend to for a bit, she supposed, but she would know. Because the one thing she knew for certain was that her appearance was what people were interested in or cared about: she hadn’t anything else, really, to attract or keep anyone with.

See how clever and nuanced Howard is in her depiction of her characters! Zoe’s is a revealingly shallow and childish view of having a baby – we are encouraged to think how silly and pathetic she is, but Howard doesn’t let us get away with this. Instead, she sets up this interpretation only to undermine it by then encouraging our empathy. Poor Zoe, she reveals, cares so much about her appearance because she is aware that this is all she has. ‘The one thing she knew for certain was that her appearance was what people were interested in or cared about’. How terribly sad this is. How awful to have reached the age of twenty-two and feel that your appearance is the only thing you have, the only reason people like you. Zoe is an unsympathetic character, and yet Howard allows us to sympathise. It’s quite a feat, and one she pulls off with all of them.

So yes, the marriages are interesting, but for me – still – the real joy of this novel is in Howard’s conjuring of the children. It is unusual for children to be so well portrayed in adult novels – Penelope Fitzgerald does it brilliantly as does Ali Smith, but I can’t think of many authors who succeed. Howard delights in her children. We have Louise, Polly and Clary approaching adolescence, arguing fervently about books, wondering about what they want to be when they grow up, grumbling about parents, and indulging in the petty meannesses of ganging up and leaving each other out. And there is Simon, who is just surviving boarding school, and Teddy who dreads having to go; sensitive Christopher whose father is so horrid to him that he wants to run away; Angela who is becoming a young woman and has an all-encompassing crush on oblivious Rupert and silly but kind little Lydia and Neville.

Howard writes about each of them with the respect and understanding of their worries which adults so rarely give children. She captures perfectly the jumble of things, the lack of proportion in a child’s topsy turvy world. Polly, for instance, is shown to adore her cat, spends all her pocket money on bric-a-brac ‘for my house when I’m grown-up’, makes pots of ‘wonder cream’ out of egg white to sell to the unsuspecting servants, but has a real fear of the terribly adult prospect of war.

I loved every minute of reading The Light Years, but I think I’ll hold off the other Cazalet chronicles for now. It seems silly not just to give in to the heaven of all of them at once, but I feel the need to exercise some restraint. As I said, it would be like only eating ice cream and meringues for a month. The characters are well drawn, the world is perfectly created, it is, as the great Penelope Fitzgerald said, ‘a dazzling historical reconstruction’, but it is all SO delicious that I feel it can’t be good for me. Like ice cream and meringues. Heaven every now and then, but it is important to eat some vegetables too.

The Daunt Books Festival

March 31, 2014

… has been and gone!

AL Kennedy, Helen Simpson, David Constantine and KJ Orr 'In Praise of Short Stories'

AL Kennedy, Helen Simpson, David Constantine and KJ Orr ‘In Praise of Short Stories’

The two days passed in a whirl of people and books and words. Somehow I’d arrive first thing, start moving books around, cleaning loos, topping up glasses of daffodils and other such essential jobs, then people would start arriving, and then before I’d had time to draw breath, it was three o’clock and time to grab a sandwich and attempt a powernap before embarking on the late afternoon and evening sessions, which would pass in a blur, spurting me out at ten o’clock at night, or indeed nearly midnight once we’d put the shop back to normal at the very end. I could do little other than squeal smilingly at the thrill of it, and rush around trying to keep pace with the non-stop festival escalator. It is only now, after a weekend of solid sleeping that I can begin to look back on it.

Jack gets mobbed as The Blue Kangaroo ... with the wonderful Emma Chichester Clark and Plum.

A definite highlight – Jack gets mobbed as The Blue Kangaroo … with the wonderful Emma Chichester Clark and Plum.


Of course the whole thing was terribly exciting. It was also deeply uncanny to see it actually happen – this thing which had only ever been a dream, existing with woolly outlines in my imagination (and panic-stricken nightmares), or rather more smartly delineated in the festival programmes, was suddenly the here and now. Here were all these writers whose work I love, with whom I’d been in contact, whose photos were printed on the programmes along with a blurb about the talk, suddenly here they were standing in front of me in the flesh! It felt magical – as though they’d stepped off the page and into reality. Here, right now, just for a moment, were all these ideas being debated, these talks actually taking place.

Barbara Taylor and Adam Philips discuss Madness in our Times

Barbara Taylor and Adam Philips discuss Madness in our Times

Susie Boyt, Maggie O'Farrell and Deborah Levy celebrate Virago Modern Classics with Lennie Goodings

Susie Boyt, Maggie O’Farrell and Deborah Levy celebrate Virago Modern Classics with Lennie Goodings

Everything I’d imagined was suddenly there for everyone to see. Perhaps it’s not dissimilar to how an author feels walking on to the film set of their book. Only this was so ephemeral. There was something especially magical about feeling that it would only be real for the two days – a portal into an amazing other world like in Tom’s Midnight Garden or The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe. It felt like I’d stepped through the back of the wardrobe and into Narnia, but into my Narnia – much more yellow and without the White Witch. Yes it was the same old beautiful bookshop, but transformed with bunting and daffodils, and filled with people chatting away to each other about the talks, so obviously happy and inspired and together, rather than a mass of quiet, solitary browsers.

The talks themselves were magnificent. Each one was completely different from the last, so just as I’d decided that particular one must be the best, the next one was spectacular in a completely different way making it impossible to pick favourites.

Mahesh Rao, Colin Thubron and Tracy Chevalier talk to the wonderful Barnaby Rogerson about 'capturing a sense of place' - a terrific closing event

Mahesh Rao, Colin Thubron and Tracy Chevalier talk to the wonderful Barnaby Rogerson about ‘capturing a sense of place’ – a terrific closing event

So much was said, so many ideas debated. It’s far too much to digest here, especially while my head is still aspin, so instead I thought I’d show you a few pictures and let you conjure your own Daunt Books Festival with the aid of your imagination.

Emily's Walking Book Club - ready to set off to discuss The Hours

Emily’s Walking Book Club – ready to set off to discuss The Hours

And here we are in Regent's Park, scoffing delicious biscuits from La Fromagerie

And here we are in Regent’s Park, scoffing delicious biscuits from La Fromagerie

Now I must sit tight and look forward to the next one.

The Hours

March 24, 2014

The Daunt Books Festival is THIS WEEK!

Pages from Daunt Books Festival programme

Thursday and Friday will see the bookshop become a place of jolly daffodiled, buntinged yellowness – the perfect setting for nearly thirty of today’s best writers to join us for twelve inspiring events. Needless to say, as the organiser, I am very excited. I am also more than a little nervous, and more than a bit busy with last minute preparations …. not least putting my mind to the logistics for Emily’s Walking Book Club’s brief sojourn in Regent’s Park.

Regent’s Park is no Hampstead Heath. There isn’t the wildness, the mud, the feeling of out-of-city lost-ness, and yet I feel very fond of this park. Growing up in St John’s Wood, I have walked its tarmacked, neat flower-bed-lined paths more than any other park’s. I’ve also contributed an essay about George Eliot and Regent’s Park to a beautiful book called Park Notes, which will be published in May. Eliot was another resident of St John’s Wood, when it was rather more bohemian than it is today.

Last week, it was a refreshing break from tasks such as ordering 500 yellow napkins and arranging collection times of various edible festival treats, to step out of Daunt Books on Marylebone High Street, find the most pleasant route up to the park, and then work out the most picturesque loop manageable in the given time. Alas, we’re too early for the roses, but daffodils were out in their cheerful masses and, as the sun seeped across the lawns and beds, it felt as though the park were stirring itself back to life from its winter slumbers, as, no doubt, are we all.

The Hours by Michael CunninghamI picked Michael Cunningham’s The Hours, as I wanted there to be some link with the location. While The Hours takes place variously in New York, Los Angeles and Richmond (London), it is of course an echoing of Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway, which has some beautiful moments in Regent’s Park. I suppose Mrs Dalloway itself would be the more correct choice, but, while it is one of my very favourite books, I know that Woolf feels like rather hard work for many otherwise keen readers, and I’d hate for Emily’s walking book club to entail tricky homework. Added to which, I always endeavour not to pick the obvious choice, going for the overlooked gems of literature rather than the well-known classics. In any case, I rather hope that some of those who read and enjoy The Hours, might want to read Mrs Dalloway next.

The Hours refracts Mrs Dalloway through three different storylines, each of which – like Woolf’s original – tells of the events of an ordinary day.  First we have ‘Mrs Dalloway’: Clarissa Vaughan, who is given this nickname by Richard, her dear writer friend, who is dying from AIDS. Set in New York City at the end of the twentieth century, Cunningham cleverly echoes the plot of Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway, and if you’ve read this, it’s impossible not to play spot the parallel from the very first line, when we see Clarissa, like her literary antecedent, setting off to buy flowers for her party. Echoes abound, but Cunningham saves it from being purely derivative by rendering his own characters and place so well. It is rather wonderful to see how a favourite novel can be transferred to a new time and place, highlighting how many of Woolf’s preoccupations remain relevant in an entirely new setting.

Next we have ‘Mrs Woolf’ in Richmond in 1923, beginning work on the novel which will become Mrs Dalloway. There is the brilliantly caught power-balance between Woolf and her cook Nellie, her relationship with her sister Vanessa Bell, who comes to tea with her children, and her love for Leonard, who worries about her even more than he does his galley proofs. Finally, there is ‘Mrs Brown’, a newly pregnant wife and mother in 1950s Los Angeles, who take immense pleasure in reading Mrs Dalloway. She feels trapped in her world of baking cakes, cooking suppers, and caring for her son and husband, and longs to escape to read her book. Seeking her ‘Room of One’s Own’, she leaves her son with a neighbour, drives to a hotel where she lies down and reads for two and a half hours, returning in time for supper.

All three storylines are interwoven: we get a chapter of one and then another. Humming through it all is Woolf’s original Mrs Dalloway, as though all these refractions are reverberations of its brilliance. The Hours is the ultimate paean to the power of a good book – a novel which is a life-force for its writer, then comfort and inspiration for future generations of readers. It argues for the continued relevance of an old book, how Woolf’s ‘life, London, this moment of June,’ can be felt just as keenly in Los Angeles in the fifties or New York half a century later.

So what is it about Mrs Dalloway that haunts us still?

Two elements that Cunningham pulls out are death and kisses. Preceding his three narrative strands is a powerful Prologue in which he describes Virginia Woolf drowning herself. Death is present in each of his strands – in Clarissa’s Richard, on the brink of dying; in Woolf helping her niece and nephews to lay a dying bird on a bed of roses; in Laura Brown feeling the tug to end her claustrophobic life. Balanced against so much death are kisses – transfigured into moments of pure life. Each illicit kiss in The Hours gives the protagonist something to live for: ‘that potent satisfaction, that blessedness’, which counters the allure of death.

And there’s more than kisses. For the novel is a great argument for the afterlife. Virginia Woolf is dead, and yet she lives on in her work – her Mrs Dalloway is not confined to London in the 1920s, but thrives in Los Angeles, in New York, decades later. While The Hours is poignant and, as Hermione Lee said, ‘extremely moving’, it is ultimately positive and optimistic, arguing for life’s victory against death.

I can’t wait to discuss it with Friday’s walking book clubbers!

The Home-Maker

February 3, 2014

It has been a very busy few weeks, in part thanks a couple of writing deadlines but moreover because I am organising…

… the first ever Daunt Books Festival!

Daunt Books Festival

It takes place at the end of March, and decided I had to have the programme ready and tickets on sale at the beginning of February. It has been a great deal of work – coming up with ideas for talks, pursuing many of my favourite authors, and then persuading various Marylebone foodie establishments that they’d like to provide delicious treats, like Ginger Pig sausage rolls and La Fromagerie pastries – but somehow it’s happened, and here’s the programme.

It would be heavenly to see some EmilyBooks readers there for some or all of it. Wouldn’t it be fun if we could carry on the comments-section conversations face-to-face? Tickets (£5 or £30 for all two days of talks) are available here or over the phone on 020 7224 2295.

In any case, I’d love to know what you think of the festival. As far as I’m aware, it’s the first literary festival to take place entirely in a bookshop. And, in its careful fostering of a community of booklovers, bringing everyone together in a beautiful setting for two inspiring days, as far as I’m concerned, it’s a big F U in response to the aggressive and increasingly potent tactics of a certain internet giant …

The Home-MakerMy brain has been so overwhelmed with to-do lists, anxiety over website crashes, excitement about twitter activity and ticket sales (one event is ALREADY nearly sold out!), that I hadn’t expected to be able to concentrate much on a book. But somehow I whizzed through Persephone Books’ beautiful The Home-Maker by Dorothy Canfield Fisher. Persephone has an uncanny knack for publishing books where the pages seem to turn themselves – be that in the inevitable tragedy of a book like Harriet or Consequences, or the unfurling domestic drama of Someone at a Distance.

My interest was piqued by this paragraph in Nicola Beauman’s fortnightly letter, to which, by they way, I heartily suggest you subscribe for the latest news from their Lamb’s Conduit Street haven, and brilliant advice about what’s on culturally:

Last week saw time for a re-reading of The Home-Maker and to be awestruck by its brilliance, even on the sixth or seventh reading. The reason for the renewed rereading is that it is about to reprint and Elaine Showalter has written a new Afterword to dovetail with Karen Knox’s Preface. Also it is ninety years since first publication. So we are wondering whether, if one threw some money at it, one could achieve something of the Stoner effect. The novel is SO much better, so incredibly interesting about role swapping and about children (the descriptions of five year-old Stevie are astonishing) and we are sure that all the people who bought Stoner because – well, because they did – would in fact enjoy this so much more and we feel sad and slightly mortified that we have not made this into the great classic that it definitely is.

Of course I had to read it, and can only agree that it is indeed a classic that deserves to be rediscovered and praised to the rafters like Stoner.

I suspect it is easier, however, to make a classic out of Stoner. Stoner is written by a man and important men like Julian Barnes go on about how brilliant it is, which means that everyone sits up and listens, rushes out Stoner by John Williamsto buy it and is inclined to agree. Sadly I fear that while important women may talk about the brilliance of a forgotten classic written by a woman, the important men are unlikely to pay them much attention, so it will get – at most – only half so much fuss. Think, for instance, of Elizabeth Taylor, Dorothy Whipple (who I wrote about in the Spectator here), and even Muriel Spark. Then again, it is in part thanks to Julian Barnes’s consistent praise that Penelope Fitzgerald has had something of a resurgence of interest. So perhaps the key isn’t so much in the book being written by a man, but in being praised by a man. Perhaps for the Daunt Festival 2015, I should rethink the Virago Modern Classics talk and make the panel of authors all-male, rather than all-female.

I digress. The Home-Maker was written in 1924 and takes place in small-town America. It opens with a vision of domestic hell. Evangeline Knapp is determined to create the perfect home, so slaves around the house, while being nightmarishly sour and impatient with her three children and rather pathetic husband Lester, all of whom are terrified of getting things wrong – indeed are made physically ill from it. Canfield-Fisher cleverly jumps from focalising the narrative through Evangeline to, a few pages later, through five-year-old Stephen:

Oh, what a weight fell off from your shoulders when Mother forgot about you for a while! How perfectly lovely it was just to walk around in the bedroom and know she wouldn’t come to the door any minute and look at you hard and say, ‘What are you doing, Stephen?’ and add, ‘How did you get your rompers so dirty?’

It is terribly sad and terribly shocking that a five-year-old could think like this! How dreadful that it is only when he is forgotten about that he feels any sense of freedom, and what uncannily adult feelings these are for a young child.

Evangeline’s husband Lester Knapp is an accountant at the town’s department store, only he is thoroughly useless at it; his head is filled with lines of poetry, rather than figures, and he hates it. He is passed over for a promotion and then fired by young hotshots Mr and Mrs Wilson. (This all takes place very early on, so I don’t feel I’m giving too much away…)

Lester Knapp is so utterly dejected by his inability to provide for his family, by the poverty that he reduces them to, by his nagging disappointed nightmare of a wife, and sickly, anxious children that he decides to kill himself. He has life insurance and thinks that, so long as he manages not to make it look like suicide, this would at least be a means of providing for them. Of course he falters in the face of his children’s love, but he remains grimly determined:

A father who had only love and no money – the sooner he was out of the way the better.

When a fire breaks out at a neighbouring house, Lester is up on the roof wielding a pail of water in a flash, and he falls off it even quicker. He is dead, we all think, and it is completely terrible. Only what makes it quite so awful is that Canfield-Fisher has engineered the situation so cleverly that a little bit of you really does think it’s for the best. (Or perhaps you’ll disagree, and just think me particularly heartless.)

But then, from the perspective of young hotshots Mr and Mrs Willings:

When they heard through Dr. Merritt that poor Lester Knapp would not die but would be a bed-ridden invalid, a dead-weight on his wife, the Willings along with everybody else in town were aghast at the fatal way in which bad luck seems to heap up on certain unfortunate beings.

It seems like the worst situation imaginable, and yet Canfield-Fisher confounds our expectations and shows how it is in fact the Knapp’s salvation.

Forced out of the home in order to earn money for her impoverished family, Evangeline Knapp gets a job at the department store. Unlike her husband, she has a passion for it, which brings with it tremendous flair. Evangeline is an immensely capable woman, stylish and particularly good at problem-solving. Unleashed on the world, rather than chained to her home, all her energy soars to good effect, rather than being poisonously contained. She works hard, getting in early to check the stock before opening, and studying books about selling in the evening.

Endearingly, she isn’t motivated so much by money, rather that she genuinely believes she is improving people’s lives by helping them find the right clothes to flatter appearance and budget. There is a sweet moment when her manager who (unsurprisingly) feels rather threatened by her impressive presence complains to the head that Evangeline talked a customer out of buying a sweater and Evangeline pleads her case. She explains that the customer had wanted a ‘plain, one-colour, conservative kind’, which they were sold out of, but a rather more ‘conspicuous’ one caught her eye:

I knew it would look simply terrible on her – she’s between forty and fifty and quite stout – the kind who always runs her shoes over. And I persuaded her to wait till the plain ones came in. I thought she’d be better satisfied in the end and feel more like coming back to the store.

When asked why she didn’t try to sell her both, she responds:

Oh, her husband is only a clerk in Camp’s Drug Store! They haven’t much money. She’d never have felt she could afford two. If she’d taken the bright sporty one she’d have had to wear it for a year. And I know her husband and children wouldn’t have liked it.

And no, Evangeline doesn’t know this lady personally, only from ‘what I’ve seen of here in the store’.

She’s the perfect saleswoman. When the first customer of the day arrives:

She turned to greet her warmly, with the exhilarated dash of a swimmer running out along the spring-board for the first dive of the day.

I suppose I enjoyed these passages so much because they capture something of what I feel as a bookseller. There is such pleasure to be found not so much in selling any old book to any old person, but in finding exactly the book which you know a certain customer will adore. You genuinely feel like you’re improving their life. Usually you’re made to feel it’s daft to think like that – and one’s spirit can certainly be crushed by those people who are rude and in a rush, and unthinkingly grab whatever is the ‘Gone Girl’ of the moment and pay while talking on their phone, making you feel like you’re interrupting them to ask for their pin number. There is nothing more wonderful than when a customer comes back to tell you how much they enjoyed your recommendation and ask for another.

Evangeline thrives and is soon earning plenty of money for them. Meanwhile Lester thrives too, once the pain has lessened and he’s able to get about in a wheelchair:

It was a great pleasure to him to be able to say the strong short Saxon words aloud. For years he had been shutting into the cage of silence all the winged beautiful words which came flying into his mind!

His days are filled with poetry, he no longer has to attempt accounting and be surrounded by people of a completely different temperament. Instead he looks after Stephen, and there are many wonderful passages about Lester’s relationship with Stephen, and with the other children. He has become the ‘home-maker’ and he is wonderful at it, creating a spirit of fun and happiness. Cooking is transformed from a chore into a game: there is a great scene when Lester and his daughter struggle to discover how they should break an egg. The terrible opening scene of Evangeline scrubbing at the floor is recalled when they come up with the idea of covering the floor with newspaper all day, to protect it from all their mess.

What began as a tragedy has turned into a life-affirming comedy. The Knapps will live happily ever after … or will they? There is another twist to come, but I don’t want to reveal that here.

I can’t believe The Home-Maker was written in 1924, when it is something you could imagine Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg citing in Lean In. Dorothy Canfield-Fisher makes a vital case for challenging gender roles, while never forgetting to point out how difficult it is to go against tradition. This is a wonderful novel about the joy of finding your place in life, and the importance of having the courage to keep looking for it.

No doubt, Dorothy Canfield-Fisher was ahead of her time, but if she were still writing today, she’d see there’s still a great deal of work to be done.

Dorothy Canfield-Fisher