Posts Tagged ‘London’

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.

Our Spoons Came from Woolworths

October 7, 2014

Yes this post comes a day late. This is because I was so exhausted by last week that I spent the whole of yesterday in bed, mostly asleep.

Sunday’s walking book club was wonderful – a great discussion about The Home-maker by Dorothy Canfield Fisher, newly and smartly republished by Persephone Books. The Heath was resplendent in the sunshine and there was plenty of cake and much enthusiasm. And yet it had been a long week, and the walk followed by a full and busy day in the bookshop was perhaps a little much for three weeks before due date.

The Walking Book Club discussing The Home-Maker

I realised quite how tired I was when squeezing myself onto a train that evening at London Bridge, heading down for Sunday supper with the in-laws. The train was packed. I pushed my way in and searched for a seat. All those who were seated studiously looked down. I spied an empty place halfway along the carriage and navigated my way along – no mean feat with such a sizeable bump. When I reached said place I saw it was not in fact empty but occupied by the remains of a Burger King. I asked the man sitting next to it if he’d mind moving his rubbish so that I could sit down. He looked back at me and said blankly, it’s not mine.

This is when I knew how tired I was because instead of being able to come up with some brilliant line or shout at him, poisonous being that he was, I had to bite my lip in order to stop myself from bursting into tears. Thanks, I muttered shaking with this peculiarly tearful rage, that’s so kind of you to help a pregnant woman, and I moved it all onto the bag rack above his head, hoping that it might drip grease onto his foul balding head. He watched me struggle to balance my bags, book, specs, and the rubbish, shrugged and said, it’s still not mine. I sat next to him, seething, but luckily managed not to cry until I told the husband about it when I got off that hateful train.

So, you terrible man, I hope you rot in a special hell filled with greasy remains of Burger King which drip on you in a horrid variation of Chinese water torture.

In any case, it was deemed that I must spend the whole of yesterday in bed in order to stop bursting into tears quite so easily (this was actually the fourth time I’d started crying that weekend – other instances being provoked by nothing more than some beautiful music, or a first aid video) and to be able to survive my final week in the bookshop before maternity leave begins.

Our Spoons Came from Woolworths by Barbara ComynsIt was heaven. In the moments when I wasn’t sleeping, I read the whole of Our Spoons Came from Woolworths by Barbara Comyns. It’s a short book and terribly engrossing so really this is not such an achievement, more a recommendation for anyone who finds they have a spare couple of hours on their hands.

I’ve been meaning to pick it up since March, when Maggie O’Farrell talked about it rather brilliantly at the Daunt Books Festival, and I was given another prompt when Alice over at ofBooks, who – similarly inspired – wrote about it very keenly. It almost seemed as though this book might almost have been written especially for me, given that our heroine first lives on Haverstock Hill (where my bookshop is), and then moves around various North London haunts, including St John’s Wood, where I grew up, and – moreover – she is terrifically fond of her pet newt Great Warty, which isn’t such a leap from my own affection for Daphne, my darling pet tortoise.

(Incidentally, I wonder if there might be something in a study of literary newt lovers? There is of course PG Wodehouse’s glorious Gussy Finknottle … can anyone think of any others?)

Sophia – our heroine – may well be a North London eccentric, but she is not just charmingly dotty, she is tough and brilliant and gets through a hellish time.

It is the 1930s and these North London haunts are charmingly Bohemian. I knew I was going to love the book when on page three we get this completely bonkers description of renting a flat on Haverstock Hill. Sophia and her fiancé are sent upstairs to meet the landlady’s sister:

… so we went upstairs and met the sister, who had even more fuzzy hair, but it was fair, and her eyes were round and blue and her face like a melting strawberry ice cream, rather a cheap one, and I expect her body was like that, too, only it was mostly covered in mauve velvet. She spoke to us a little and said we were little love-birds looking for a nest. She made us feel all awful inside. Then she suddenly went into a trance. We thought she was dying, but her sister explained she was a medium and governed by a Chinese spirit called Mr Hi Wu. Then Mr Hi Wu spoke to us in very broken English and told us we were so lucky to be offered such a beautiful flat for only twenty-five shillings a week; it was worth at least thirty-five.

If only such things happened with today’s Belsize Park estate agents.

Sophia marries Charles Fairclough, a young artist, with whom it is hard not to feel thoroughly annoyed. While Sophia works terribly hard to earn money, at a studio and then sitting as a model – even though she has her own aspirations as an artist – Charles makes no effort to support them and devotes himself entirely to his own painting. He does occasionally sell a picture, or does something nice like cook Sophia dinner, but he is a very arrogant, self-centred men. His family are all pretty poisonous too and view him as something of a genius, which doesn’t help.

While Sophia and Charles are terribly poor, this at first is more of a challenge to be creatively overcome, than something too awful. It all changes, however, when Sophia gets pregnant. Charles, on being told the good news, says:

Oh dear, what will the family say? How I dislike the idea of being a Daddy and pushing a pram!

When Sophia starts crying, he reassures her by telling her she might have a miscarriage.

!

She doesn’t.

And it was very interesting to read about Sophia’s experience of pregnancy – and what a terrible struggle it was to have a baby in the days before the NHS if you hadn’t any money. It is ghastly, and only gets worse … but, and here is where Comyns’ genius lies: she tells her story with this special lightness of touch, dotting the awfulness with funny moments.

The novel is written as though Sophia is telling a friend about this tough time of her life eight years later, when she is ‘so happy that when I wake in the morning I can’t believe it’s true’, and Comyns captures that feeling and tone of telling a friend about something that happened a while ago that’s so dreadful, all you can do is laugh about it.

For instance, when Sophia first goes to hospital:

It was very depressing and dreary sitting in that passage. One of the women fainted. I noticed some of them were carrying glasses of what I thought was lemonade, so I asked where I could go to get some, but they all shrieked with laughter at me, so I didn’t dare to speak again.

There’s the mixture of the grimness of the hospital – not just ‘depressing and dreary’ but so oppressive that someone actually faints, followed immediately by this silly and funny mistake of thinking their samples were glasses of lemonade. Somehow Comyns also conveys the feeling of loneliness and not fitting in, the horror of being silenced by other people laughing at you at such a nervewracking time. All of this is written in the same simple, matter-of-fact tone, which completely wrongfoots you. Is it funny? Is it tragic? It is everything at once.

Sophia has her baby. Their poverty becomes acute. And so it continues: Charles becomes worse; poverty becomes worse; there is an affair which goes sour, and another pregnancy … and I’m not going to continue as really you ought to discover the rest yourself when you read it.

It is a grim tale and would be unbearable to read if it were told with po-faced earnestness. As it is, Comyns’ mixture of light and dark act as great foils to each other and it is a strangely unnerving experience to be jostled between finding it terribly sad and terrifically enjoyable. You can’t believe the awfulness of what Sophia endures and then find yourself laughing aloud at some dotty anecdote; or you are busy smiling at the madness of her Bohemian life and then find yourself caught off guard and slack-jawed with horror at something unbelievably grim.

Thank god there is a very happy ending. Admittedly it comes about somewhat improbably, but I forgave it this because I was so relieved and grateful that Sophia ended up happy, having endured such hell. (This isn’t a spoiler as we are told this is the case right at the beginning.)

Even if you have no connection with Haverstock Hill, newts or pregnancy … this is a brilliant book. Charming and yet hard-hitting, and so cleverly and lightly done. What is perhaps most impressive is that it is so easy to read – as I said, I raced through it in a couple of hours, while semi-delirious with sleep. Not only has Comyns achieved so much, but she makes it all seem so effortless. And it is this great simplicity that lets the twin horror and comedy shine through to such great effect.

Two further things to note:

1. When Sophia packs her hospital bag, she is instructed to take ‘some night-dresses and toilet things, and a teapot and bed jacket’. How peculiar to think of bringing your own teapot as top priority! How can this be more essential than, for instance, nappies?!

And 2. Woolworths and spoons barely feature.

The London Scene

September 29, 2014

Not long to go before the baby arrives, and while I’ve been making every effort to continue as usual, one thing that has definitely changed is the amount I’m able to read. People used always to ask me when I found time to read so much. Easy, I’d say. There are lunchbreaks, bath times, tube journeys, quiet evenings, the odd snatched hour of a free afternoon …

Alas this has all changed. Lunchbreaks now consist of a gobbled sandwich and a quick chat on the phone to the husband – mostly to reassure him I’ve not gone into labour – and then a nap, propped up on old boxes and bags, in the bookshop’s crowded cupboard of a backroom. Bathtime has shrunk to a quick splash as one’s tolerance for lounging in hot water has diminished exponentially. Tube journeys pass with eyes closed, trying to gain a few moments of extra rest. Quiet evenings? In any spare moment, one feels one ought to be doing yoga, swimming, listening to hypnobirthing recordings or else there is this odd nesty urge to do things like making pies for the freezer or ordering store cupboard essentials from Ocado. I say this knowing that I sound like an extended version of the H is for Hummus spoof parenting book. Until a couple of weeks ago it’d never have occurred to me to use Ocado rather than resorting to a takeaway; now I cannot fathom quite how much pleasure I gain from stocking up the kitchen just by clicking on a few pictures.

So the long and the short of it is that I am struggling to read much at the moment. Finishing How to be Both hasn’t helped matters either, as it’s such a tough act to follow. I have picked up a few novels and put them down a few pages later. For a book to win in this fight against the urge to sleep it has to be very good indeed.

Or very short.

Or both. (Ha!)

The London Scene by Virginia WoolfSo, inspired (still) by the wonderful Virginia Woolf exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery I have been reacquainting myself with a slim collection of her essays, The London Scene, which Daunt republished rather smartly last year. The essays were first printed in 1931, bizarrely enough in Good Housekeeping magazine. How bleak that a quick visit to their website today yields ‘How to get a body like Helen Mirren’, cheesecake recipes and tried-and-tested irons – a far cry from commissioning a series of essays on London life by one of the great literary minds of the day!

Woolf wrote a series of six essays: The Docks of London, Oxford Street Tide; Great Men’s Houses; Abbeys and Cathedrals; ‘This is the House of Commons’; and Portrait of a Londoner. So we arrive in London at its edge, amongst the many goods that converge here from all over the world, wander through town, and finally end up in the home of a Cockney. It is a journey of increasing penetration, making our way through the layers of the city, snatching glimpses, enjoying vistas, and gaining insights en route.

There are wonderful moments of observation in each essay. For instance, I love her description of the utilitarian nature of the Docks:

Oddities, beauties, rarities may occur, but if so, they are instantly tested for their mercantile value. Laid on the floor among the circles of elephant tusks is a heap of larger and browner tusks than the rest. Brown they well may be, for these are the tusks of mammoths that have lain frozen in Siberian ice for fifty thousand years, but fifty thousand years are suspect in the eyes of the ivory expert. Mammoth ivory tends to warp; you cannot extract billiard balls from mammoths, but only umbrella handles and the backs of the cheaper kind of hand-glass. Thus if you buy an umbrella or a looking-glass not of the finest quality, it is likely that you are buying the tusk of a brute that roamed through Asian forest before England was an island.

!!!

Between the ActsCompare to the cheap umbrellas and mirrors of today – pieces of plastic tack which will scarcely last a month of being bashed about in a handbag! I can’t believe that back then, they had handles of mammoth tusk. Woolf cooly points out the nonsensical logic of the Docks that declares these ancient tusks are of less value than elephant ivory. She has rather a soft spot for prehistoric things. In Between the Acts, she writes about the:

rhododendron forests in Piccadilly; when the entire continent, not then, she understood, divided by a channel, was all one; populated, she understood, by elephant-bodied, seal-necked, heaving, surging, slowly writhing, and, she supposed, barking monsters; the iguanodon, the mammoth, and the mastodon; from whom presumably, she thought, jerking the window open, we descend.

I suppose, having a mammoth tusk at the end of one’s umbrella, might make one feel rather better connected to this ancient time.

Well I doubt I shall find a mammoth tusk umbrella later on today when I head down to John Lewis to buy various baby essentials. The prospect of this outing makes Woolf’s next essay ‘Oxford Street Tide’ rather apt.

These ‘Oxford Street palaces are rather flimsy abodes’ notes Woolf, comparing these modern erections, ‘built to pass’, with historical stately homes, which were ‘built to last’:

Any day of the week one may see Oxford Street vanishing at the tap of a workman’s pick as he stands perilously balanced on a dusty pinnacle knocking down walls and facades as lightly as if they were made of yellow cardboard and sugar icing.

It seems strangely prescient that Woolf saw the impermanence of this shopping stage set, given the many threats of destruction that were to come – first with the bombing of the War, then fifties planning and now with our peculiarly modern threats of out-of-town shopping centres, recessions, rising rents and of course the internet. For sure, Oxford Street isn’t just any old high street, but it is faced with the same threats. And if the high street isn’t quite dead today, it is certainly struggling to survive. Woolf, it seems, never expected it to last.

As a bookseller, perhaps I feel more anxious than most about the fate of the high street. And yet, here is cause to pause and rethink. For Woolf delights in the impermanence of the buildings of Oxford Street, ‘as transitory as our own desires’. Their gaudy, glittering falseness is a strength not a weakness:

We knock down and rebuild as we expect to be knocked down and rebuilt. It is an impulse that makes for creation and fertility. Discovery is stimulated and invention on the alert.

So Woolf binds destruction to creation. These flimsy palaces of Oxford Street embody a startlingly positive view of change.

Perhaps she found something reassuring in the fact that these palaces, unlike their historic counterparts, aren’t meant to be permanent. The thirties was when many of England’s great country houses were destroyed or broken up as their owners were hit by inheritance tax. Just five years later, James Lees-Milne started going around persuading the aristos to give them to the National Trust. And later in the decade, Daphne du Maurier wrote Rebecca – one of the greatest novels to embody the fear of a great house’s destruction.

These Oxford Street palaces, on the other hand, were always intended to be transient. Perhaps we need to worry less about our ailing high-street shops and see their destruction as seeds for the creation of something new. As Woolf says, ‘invention is on the alert.’ Who knows what might spring up in their stead? It seems to be mostly charity shops or Tescos, and yet I shall try to remain positive! In any case, I like the idea of expecting ourselves to be ‘knocked down and rebuilt’, and seeing this as a positive form of reinvention. Next time life delivers one of its knocks, I shall envisage Woolf wandering down Oxford Street and finding creation, fertility, discovery and invention in the wake of any destruction.

Oxford Street still seems to be going strong today, though one thing that has vanished since Woolf’s day – alas – are the tortoises that used to be sold on its pavement:

The slowest and most contemplative of creatures display their mild activities on a foot or two of pavement, jealously guarded from passing feet. One infers that the desire of man for the tortoise, like the desire of the moth for the star, is a constant element in human nature. Nevertheless, to see a woman stop and add a tortoise to her string of parcels is perhaps the rarest sight that human eyes can look upon.

I fear Daphne might find Oxford Street too noisy and distressing to be taken on this afternoon’s excursion, but how strange, curious and oddly delightful to think that her ancestors used to ‘display their mild activities’ there.

Daphne and the London Scene

Park Notes

June 13, 2014

Life chez Emilybooks has been terribly busy over the past week, and I’m sorry for the delayed post. Some friends came to stay, prompting a jolly few days of chatting, wandering and lazing, rather than concentrated reading, So I’m afraid thoughts on A Portrait of a Lady won’t appear until Monday.

I thought, however, that I better reveal our secret little hop back over to London. The husband and I spent Tuesday and Wednesday back in the big (VERY BIG after tiny Lucca) smoke, feeling a little like we were skiving school. London was lovely and cool after the heat of Italy, and looked especially beautiful in the sunshine, with everyone out on the pavements and so sunny tempered. I loved having a proper strong cup of tea in a caff, accompanied by toast and Marmite. It was such a joy to be able to chat so easily to the waiter about a mutual love of Marmite and the weather (of course) after so many weeks of suffering the painful embarrassment of being able to say little other than ‘Grazie’ several times.

Park Notes launchThere were a couple of reasons for this little jaunt. Firstly, it was the book launch for Park Notes – a beautiful collection of writings and pictures inspired by Regent’s Park and curated by Sarah Pickstone, whose striking paintings I wrote about here. Very excitingly, the book includes an essay on George Eliot by me!

What makes it particularly thrilling is that I am giddy with admiration for so many of the other contributors. Of course there are all the dead ones – Sylvia Plath, Virginia Woolf, Elizabeth Bowen, Katherine Mansfield to name a few – but among the living are the formidably intelligent Marina Warner, Olivia Laing – one of the most elegant writers of place, insightful Lara Feigel, brilliant Iain Sinclair and the mighty Ali Smith. And all this interspersed with Sarah Pickstone’s gorgeous work.

I could go on, but feel it’s in rather bad taste to review one’s own work … So I will leave you with one of my favourite quotations from the book, which comes from Ali Smith’s reliably inspiring short story ‘The Definite Article’:

I stepped out of myself and into the park, I stepped off the pavement and into a place where there’s never a conclusion, where regardless of wars, tragedies, losses, finds, the sting of the sweetness of what’s gone in a life, or the preoccupations of any single time, any single being, on it goes, the open-air theatre of flowers, trees, birds, bees, the open vision at the heart of the old city.

Of course there’s nothing I’d love more than to know what you make of the book. You can buy a copy from Daunt’s here, or please do go and support your local independent bookshop.

There was another reason for our brief return… It was time for the twenty-week scan for baby Emilybooks! I know I’ve been rather secretive about it here, but it’s the sort of news that is quite hard to slip into a post about EM Forster.

All was looking very well, and it was wonderful to see the little person wriggling around, even giving us a little wave. Might I also add this to my defence of such excessive ice cream consumption in recent weeks? Calcium, you see, is vital to help build all those little bones.

Ice cream time in Lucca

Henry James is coming on Monday. Have a lovely sunny weekend!

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 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

My Top Five Literary Springs

April 22, 2013

On Saturday, when the hour of my precious lunchbreak struck, I sprang out of the bookshop and into the sunshine, hurried to Hampstead Heath and lay in the grass, grinning as blotchy patterns flashed on the lids of my closed eyes.

Spring is here.

What better way to celebrate these first moments of sunshine, these first breaths of balmy, flower-scented air than with five favourite springtime books? (Click on the various links if you’d like to read longer posts about them.)

1. The Enchanted April by Elizabeth Von Arnim

The Enchanted April pbkI wrote about this last week, so here all I shall do is reiterate that it is a heavenly book. The plot is a bit daft, yes, but in a charming way. You read it and feel as though you are on holiday, that you are with those dotty ladies in San Salvatore, basking in the beautiful Italian spring. Let us briefly share Lotty Wilkins’s joy as she opens the shutters on her first morning:

All the radiance in Italy lay gathered together at her feet. The sun poured in on her. The sea lay asleep in it, hardly stirring. Across the bay the lovely mountains, exquisitely different in colour, were asleep too in the light; and underneath her window, at the bottom of the flower-starred grass slope from which the wall of the castle rose up, was a great cypress, cutting through the delicate blues and violets and rose-colours of the mountains and the sea like a great black sword.

2. The Beginning of Spring by Penelope Fitzgerald

The Beginning of Spring

It is 1913 and spring comes to Moscow, stirring revolutionaries into action and an English family into crisis. Penelope Fitzgerald is my favourite writer, as many of you know. This is a particularly good book, with her characteristically astute observations of a different place and time, laced with gentle humour, realised in beautiful prose. Towards the end, the children of the family go away with the mysterious new servant Lisa Ivanovna to their dacha in the woods, which is infused with the scent of the ‘potent leaf-sap of the birch trees’:

They had March fever. They were going out of the still sealed-up, glassed up house into the fresh, watery, early spring.

The house is ‘still sealed-up, glassed up’ against the fierce Russian winter, which is just coming to an end. The book closes with the definitive change of season and a wonderful passage describing the unsealing of the windows. Then:

Throughout the winter the house had been deaf, turned inwards, able to listen only to itself. Now the sounds of Moscow broke in, the bells and voices, the cabs and taxis which had gone by all winter unheard like ghosts of themselves, and with the noise came the spring wind, fresher than it felt in the street, blowing in uninterrupted from the northern regions where the frost still lay.

This weekend, we Londoners were not so different from that Moscow house. We’ve spent the winter ‘turned inwards’ – cold, muffled, shrouded in darkness – but now we are out in the bright streets, in the parks, listening to the noise of the city and feeling the fresh spring wind.

3. Illyrian Spring by Ann Bridge

Illyrian SpringLady Kilmichael is fed up with her philandering husband and difficult daughter and so decides to travel first to Venice and then on to the Dalmatian Coast, painting as she goes. Her path crosses with that of Nicholas, a young man determined to be a artist, in spite of his parents’ disapproval. They travel and paint together, until things become a little complicated…

This delightful novel has a similar feel to The Enchanted April, in that as you read it, you are transported to the warmer climes of the Mediterranean and the drowsy wellness that comes with a holiday. It also shines with descriptive travel writing. Ann Bridge was the wife of a diplomat and so was a seasoned traveller. This is one of my favourite views:

All over the ledges of these pearly rocks, as thick as they could stand, grew big pale-blue irises, a foot or more high, sumptuous as those in an English border, their leaves almost as silver as the rocks, their unopened buds standing up like violet spears among the delicate pallor of the fully opened flowers – Iris pallida dalmatica, familiar to every gardener, growing in unimaginable profusion in its native habitat. Now to see an English garden flower smothering a rocky mountainside is a sufficient wonder, especially if the rocks are of silver colour and the flowers a silvery blue; and Nature, feeling that she had done enough, might well have been content to leave it at that. But she had a last wonder, a final beauty to add. In the cracks and fissures another flower grew, blue also, spreading out over the steep slabs between the ledges in flat cushions as much as a yard across – a low-growing woody plant, smothered in small close flower-heads of a deep chalky blue, the shade beloved of the painter Nattier. Anything more lovely than these low compact masses of just the same tone of colour, but a deeper shade, flattened on the white rocks as a foil and companion to the flaunting splendour of the irises, cannot be conceived.

The description, with its precise renderings of different shades of colour, seems apt given that it’s seen through the eyes of an artist. I hadn’t realised that irises were native to Croatia. They are one of my very favourite flowers – especially the yellow variety which we saw in profusion in Scotland – and now, whenever I see them in a garden, I think of this vision of a mountainside covered in a silvery-blue sea of them.

4. The Constant Nymph by Margaret Kennedy

The Constant NymphThis strange and powerful novel, written by someone who Anita Brookner termed ‘not only a romantic but an anarchist’, begins with a wonderful depiction of the ‘Sanger circus’ holidaying in the Austrian Alps. They are not an actual circus, but a family of wild, musical children, headed by their father Sanger, a great musician, and added to by various other musicians, most notably young handsome Lewis Dodd. They spend their days cavorting around the mountainside and singing. When Sanger dies (we discover this at the beginning), cousin Florence, a sensible, cultured young English woman, comes out to the Tyrol in her ‘neat grey travelling hat and veil’ to take this troop of cousins in hand:

The children could not believe that they were really related to such a marvellous creature. They stared expansively.

Florence blossoms in the Alpine spring, charming the children and Lewis Dodd too. Yet when she takes them back to England, sending them to various boarding schools, and trying to settle down to married life with Lewis, she slips back into her English habits, but Sanger’s circus refuses to be tamed. As her imposed order begins to unravel, the lost carefree days of the Austrian spring seem more and more enchanted.

5. I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith

I Capture the CastleOne of my very favourite, most comforting books, I Capture the Castle begins in spring, when the young American heirs to the estate first visit the dilapidated castle where the Mortmains, in all their bohemian squalor, roost. It is a novel packed with funny and delightful scenes, such as Cassandra’s interrupted bath-time; the brilliant episode when Rose, in her newly-inherited furs, is mistaken for a bear; and a magical night-swim in the moat. I suppose this makes it sound a little like a fairytale, but it’s too comical for that. Here is a bit from the moat swim. Cassandra has nobly taken one of the heirs swimming in order to let her sister Rose have a romantic tête-à-tête with the other heir:

We were in full moonlight. Neil had patches of brilliant green duckweed on his head and one shoulder; he looked wonderful.

I felt that what with the moonlight, the music, the scent of the stocks and having swum round a six-hundred-year-old moat, romance was getting a really splendid leg-up and it seemed an awful waste that we weren’t in love with each other – I wondered if I ought to have got Rose and Simon to swim the moat instead of us. But I finally decided that cold water is definitely anti-affection, because when Neil did eventually put his arm around me it wasn’t half so exciting as when he held my hand under the warm car-rug after the picnic.

The spring of I Capture the Castle is the perfect setting for our heroine, the narrator Cassandra. She is in the spring of her life, just beginning to blossom.

These are five wonderful books, and this is a particularly good time to read them, with the feel of the sun on your skin and the breeze in your hair. And, when the weather inevitably breaks, let’s hope we can find comfort in the spring delights held within their pages.

As always, I’d love to know your thoughts on these books, or any other suggestions for good spring reads.

The Millstone

March 4, 2013

What can we do when words fail us?

What happens when we aren’t able to find the words to express ourselves? What can we do if we simply cannot say what we want to?

If someone can’t express themselves using language, perhaps it suggests that language won’t let them say it. Perhaps what they want to say is not allowed to be said. It is taboo, not permitted by society – the words aren’t there to be spoken. Or perhaps what needs to be said is felt so acutely, so deeply, that language seems like too superficial a tool for the job. Perhaps it’s both, in which case one might resort to the following:

I started to scream. I screamed very loudly, shutting my eyes to do it, and listening in amazement to the deafening shindy that filled my head. Once I had started, I could not stop; I stood there, motionless, screaming, whilst they shook me and yelled at me and told me that I was upsetting everybody in earshot. ‘I don’t care,’ I yelled, finding words for my inarticulate passion, ‘I don’t care, I don’t care, I don’t care about anyone, I don’t care, I don’t care, I don’t care.’

Eventually they got me to sit down, but I went on screaming and moaning and keeping my eyes shut; through the noise I could hear things happening, people coming and going, someone slapped my face, someone tried to put a wet flannel on my head, and all the time I was thinking I must go on doing this until they let me see her. Inside my head it was red and black and very hot, I remember, and I remember also the clearness of my consciousness and the ferocity of my emotion, and myself enduring them, myself neither one nor the other, but enduring them, and not breaking in two.

This astonishing, heart-rending, passionate scream takes place at the heart of Margaret Drabble’s The Millstone. Rosamund Stacey, a young academic and our heroine, has had a baby, in spite of being a single woman. She suffers the indignities given to pregnant women in the sixties who were unmarried – a ‘U’ at the end of the hospital bed, being called ‘Mrs’ by the nurses as ‘a courtesy title’, and suffering people’s general puzzlement as to why she doesn’t ‘have something done about it’ instead. Rosamund, who is quiet but determined, intelligent but unworldly, and who tends to say things like ‘mildly’ and ask ‘whyever not’, somehow gets through her pregnancy and has a baby. But a few weeks later her baby has to return to hospital for an operation:

Possessed by the most fearful anguish, aware, as all must be on such occasions, that my state had changed in ten minutes from unknown bliss to known though undefined sorrow.

Thank God the operation is a success and the baby is said to be recovering well. Rosamund of course wants to go and see her daughter, but is told by the nurse that she can’t. Naturally inclined to do anything at all rather than make a fuss or cause trouble, she eventually agrees to go away, but is ‘out in the corridor before I heard her saying that perhaps in a fortnight or so I might be able to visit.’ Rosamund cannot bear to endure the separation from her baby, in part for herself, but moreover because of the thought of ‘my baby’s small lonely awakening’. She returns to the hospital and insists on seeing her baby, refusing to go away, or be pushed out the door, repeating again and again that she ‘must see’ her baby. Eventually, words evidently failing her, she resorts to this scream. It is made all the more powerful by Rosamund’s quietness, mildness, awkward shyness up to this point. It must be something truly awful to have made her resort to this.

I went to hear Margaret Drabble give a talk last week about women and the novel. She spoke about how she thought of writing as means of ‘creating a future’. I’ve so often thought of that all-too-common piece of advice to write about what you know, to use your experiences, i.e. your past, to inform your writing. I felt very inspired by Drabble’s idea to use writing as a tool to shape the future. Fiction, she said, could be a means of exploring the ‘frontiers and future of female experience’. Yes!

Claire Tomalin wrote that Drabble ‘is one of the few modern novelists who has actually changed government policy, by what she wrote in The Millstone about visiting children in hospital’. Now, thanks in part to Drabble, mothers will never have to scream like Rosamund in order to see their babies. To push at this frontier of experience, Drabble came to the frontier of language; she had to channel ‘inarticulate passion’, the base wordless power of a scream, to achieve change. Society had not allowed her words ‘I’ve come to see my baby’ to be heard or recognised. Only after Rosamund’s unforgettable scream could that bit of language function correctly.

The Millstone is a brilliant novel. It is compelling and deeply affecting, and its power is nicely set off by moments of humour, wry observation, and dry wit. It’s not often in literature that you come across a great and inspiring mother. All too often they’re awful, or dead (see this post I wrote for the Spectator last year on just this subject). With Mother’s Day this coming Sunday, I can’t think of a better novel to read about an unlikely and thoroughly heroic mum.

Consequences

February 11, 2013

I loved to play the game ‘consequences’ when I was a child. There was something so exciting about the way you could invent a story with such ease, simply by taking it in turns to write out little more than a boy’s name, girl’s name, where they met, what they said, and the consequence of their meeting.

This game appears at the beginning of E.M. Delafield’s novel of the same name. In this particular round of consequences, which takes place in a smart Victorian nursery, the consequence is ‘a wedding-ring’. However much imagination the children might have, marriage seems to be the only possible way a boy-meets-girl situation can end up.

Delafield examines this scenario in her novel – after all, isn’t a novel, in many ways just an extended game of consequences, albeit without the humour that comes from the randomness of having so many different authors? Can there be any other consequence, asks Delafield, any other way of living for a late-Victorian young woman apart from marriage?

Consequences is the story of Alex Clare, who is a difficult girl from the outset. As the eldest child, she bosses around her siblings, which has the terrible consequence of her sister nearly breaking her back, after Alex made her do a pretend tightrope walk on the stairs. While it may be her sister Barbara who has the literal fall, Alex has the metaphorical fall from grace, and her parents punish her by sending her away to a convent school in Belgium.

Already, Alex is shown to be contrary, to not fit in, to not make friends easily. At home, the closest she gets to feeling loved is when her mother allows her to stay down in the drawing room amongst the grown-ups – a result, Alex tells herself, of being her favourite.

At the convent, there is no hope of being nurtured or loved. Alex suffers from intense crushes on some of the other girls, most pronouncedly on vain, self-serving Queenie Torrance. She lavishes her feelings so intensely on people as she is desperate for a crumb of affection in return.

It is a miserable, lonely childhood, through which Alex feels that she is a failure, unable to get anything right or make anyone happy. And yet, she survives, sustained mostly by the hope that:

when she joined the mysterious ranks of grown-up people everything would be different. She never doubted that with long dresses and piled-up hair, her whole personality would change, and the meaningless chaos of life reduce itself to some comprehensible solution.

Needless to say, it doesn’t work out quite according to plan. Alex comes out as a debutante and her mother, Lady Isabel, ferries her around to ball after ball … but with little success:

Lady Isabel had said, ‘Never more than three dances with the same man, Alex, at the very outside. It’s such bad form to make yourself conspicuous with anyone – your father would dislike it very much.’ Alex bore the warning carefully in mind, and was naively surprised that no occasion for making practical application of it should occur.

Alex is made to think that being attractive is the most important thing – the culmination of her life so far is this window of opportunity to ensnare a husband. And yet, she is so intent on being attractive that she completely fails. As she begins to doubt herself, Alex becomes less and less of a success, until she finds herself an unhappy wallflower, miserably sitting out the dances at her mother’s side.

I found this part of the novel terribly painful. However much one doesn’t like Alex, and is annoyed by her childish bossiness, or inability to express herself, surely everyone can empathise with the horror of being a teenager!  Surely we have all suffered the pain of going to a party (albeit perhaps not a debutante ball) and failing to attract a flock of boys? And haven’t we all have felt deeply envious of the beautiful girl who, with seeming lack of effort, has them falling at her feet? I bet we have all had occasion to sit out a dance and feel rather miserably left out. It is such a painful time, when one’s confidence is balanced on a knife edge – a moment of pride in your appearance is swiftly quashed when no one pays it any attention. Worse yet is when someone does pay you attention only to tell you how much they are in love with someone else! Poor Alex, as Maurice Goldstein takes her down to dinner only to go on and on about how much he loves Queenie Torrance. I felt so sad for her as she gets into bed that night and wishes that someone would love her as much as Maurice loves Queenie. It is an ache for love that everyone must have suffered.

But just when all seems to be going wrong for Alex, Delafield gives us a moment of hope. A holiday romance results in Alex’s engagement to Noel Cardew. You can’t help but wonder if somehow Alex has pulled it off. Here is her chance of a happy ending, of achieving the consequence of a wedding-ring on which everyone is so fixated.

But Noel Cardew is unbearably dull, lifeless and self-obsessed. He is more passionate about making plans for the land which he is to inherit – ‘I rather believe in the old-fashioned feudal system, personally’, than in talking about their wedding. Alex endeavours to persuade herself that she loves him, but she grows aware of an ‘ever-increasing terror that was gaining upon her’.

This felt to me like the turning point of the novel. Will Alex follow convention and marry him, or will she be true to her instinct of the loneliness that awaits her in a loveless marriage and break it off? Today, if one were faced with the dilemma, of course you would think the latter is the right thing to do. Delafield tells us that Alex ‘took the bravest decision of her life’ and breaks off the engagement.

And yet, instead of being congratulated for being true to her instinct and averting an oncoming disaster, her family does not approve. Her mother cries, her father scolds her as ‘weakly impulsive’, and we have the feeling that Alex has fallen out of the frying pan and into the fire. For what Alex hasn’t realised is that there is no option for her other than to get married.

She says to her mother that ‘lots of girls don’t marry and just live at home’, but Lady Isabel explains that their lack of funds won’t allow for that. The house will go to Cedric, the eldest son. The rest of the money will go to Archie, ‘because he is the younger son, and your grandfather thought that was the proper way to arrange it.’

Alex protests:

‘But what about Barbara and me? Wasn’t it rather unfair to want the boys to have everything?’

To which her mother explains:

‘Your father said, “The girls will marry, of course.” There will be a certain sum for each of you on your wedding-day, but there’s no question of either of you bein’ able to afford to remain unmarried, and live decently. You won’t have enough to make it possible.’

This prediction comes back to haunt Alex later in the book, as the reality of her lack of money, and also her complete lack of knowledge about its value and how to handle it, becomes cripplingly clear. The whole Victorian system relies on Alex marrying, and she has just thrown away her only chance.

So, E.M. Delafield begs the question, what can a young lady do, if she doesn’t marry? Alex’s horribly sad story illustrates Delafield’s point that the answer is nothing.

Consequences is a bleak, angry statement, and yet written with a sad lyricism. I read it knowing that it was all going to end badly, and yet I was unable to tear myself away. As the plot twisted and Alex’s life turned steadily downhill, I was appallingly gripped, wanting to know exactly how Alex would reach rock bottom. This horrific addiction to someone’s downfall reminded me a little of reading Harriet by Elizabeth Jenkins, another Persephone Book.

If there is a strand of hope to which we can cling in this tragic tale, it is that E.M. Delafield purposefully set in the past. She is critical of Victorian values and hopeful of the changes that are to come. Towards the end of Consequences, we see Alex’s youngest sister Pamela happily enjoying far more freedom than her sisters – indeed she even takes the Underground! Pamela can never suffer Alex’s fate. Even in the space of a few years, a great deal can change.

And there is the story of E.M. Delafield herself. Her early life followed a similar pattern to Alex’s, and yet she succeeded in becoming a brilliant and successful novelist. Delafield wrote Consequences in 1919 – much has changed for women since then. And yet, inevitably it makes you wonder how much has improved really. How often do women still struggle to earn enough money to live independently? How rarely do they not marry?

Consequences left me with a great deal on which to ponder – the limitations of a woman’s place, the importance of money, and also the huge progress brought about by psychoanalysis (a fascinating strand of the novel, which alas there isn’t the time or space to discuss here). And yet, to be completely honest, all these reflections which have sprung from the book have only hit me now, after I’ve finished it. Reading it, I found it impossible to gain the distance to look on it with anything like cool, calculated intellect. I was utterly enthralled, totally wrapped up in Alex’s horribly sad story, perpetually close to tears. Alex’s misery and helplessness seemed to seep out of the book and into my spirit. I nearly sacked off a brilliant party from sympathy with Alex, longing instead to stay at home and suffer with Alex to the end. (You’ll be relieved to hear that I did go to the party in the end.) It’s a profoundly affecting book, and only afterwards can one be dispassionate enough to see that it is also an angry and absolutely vital feminist statement.

The Innocents

January 28, 2013

Literary celebrations abounded over the past week. Today is the two-hundredth anniversary of the publication of Pride and Prejudice, which has given rise to many Janeites sporting period costumes and also to this great article in the Guardian – I particularly liked Paula Byrne’s thoughts on Lydia as a proto-feminist icon. Tuesday was Byron’s birthday – the poet, not the burger chain (although I discovered to my horror that when I google Byron the burger chain comes up before the poet).

The InnocentsBut my reading this week was predominantly steered by Edith Wharton’s birthday on the 24th. Instead of picking up one of her classic novels, I decided that now was the time to begin The Innocents by Francesca Segal, a reimagining of Wharton’s The Age of Innocence in contemporary Jewish Northwest London.

Although I work in a bookshop in the heart of Jewish Northwest London, I kid myself that I have escaped the confines of the community in which I was raised. There was the first seminal moment when I was kicked out of Jewish Sunday school for repeatedly eating Frazzles – it’s just bacon flavour, not actual bacon, little smart arse me protested; I then forwent my Batmitzvah, choosing cello lessons over Hebrew for my after-school activity. Since then, the rebellion has continued in such acts as refusing to go on Israel Tour, moving to East London, marrying a Goy and regularly eating actual bacon, not just Frazzles.

And yet there are some things I have not left behind. Friday Night Dinners are now but once a month, but are still a time for a family get-together and Granny’s chicken soup with matzo balls. And there are the frequent patrons of the bookshop who know me as ‘Georgina’s girl’, or ask me about married life, or tell me how beautiful they hear my wedding dress was – all people who know rather a lot about me, even though, other than to sell them books, I’ve not seen them since I was a child.

I happened to be selling books at a talk Francesca Segal gave a while ago to a largely Jewish Northwest London audience. She talked about how mad it was that someone would phone up her mother just to say she’d seen her (Francesca) in Waitrose. She talked about how everyone is obsessed with everyone else’s news and gossip, how everyone knows of an engagement within seconds. An elderly Jewish lady raised her hand to ask a question: ‘I see you’re wearing a wedding ring. Who is it you’re married to? And what does he do?’ It was absolutely perfect!

While a close-knit community brings with it a wealth of support, it can also seem intensely claustrophobic, and it is with this that Adam Newman – the protagonist of The Innocents – struggles to come to terms.

We meet Adam soon after his engagement to Rachel Gilbert, his girlfriend since Israel Tour, over a decade ago. He is already part of the Gilbert family in everything but name – always coming on their annual holiday to Eilat, a staple at their Friday night dinners, a well-practised chauffeur and errand-runner; he even works for Rachel’s father’s law firm.

Into this perfectly contained little set-up, strides Ellie Schneider in vertiginous heels. She is Rachel’s cousin, a vulnerable, beautiful, very thin, New York model, who – it’s rumoured – has just starred in a porn film. Adam finds himself falling for Ellie, wonders what he’s doing with his life and faces a dilemma: should he escape and break Rachel’s heart, or can he come to terms with such a blinkered existence?

It’s a gripping dilemma, and I raced through the novel, swerving with its twists and turns, desperate to find out what Adam would do next, how the growing mess could all be resolved. I loved seeing Adam be challenged by Ellie again and again, in small acts like walking to the newsagent on her own at night, and staying at a friend’s studio in Bethnal Green:

Bethnal Green was not within Adam’s usual locus of operations. It seemed like somewhere that should be ‘South of the River’, that vague designation that conveyed an essence rather than a geographical truth. Several places felt ‘South of the River’ when they were really north of it – Shoreditch, for example, and her naughty brother Hoxton, places that required satellite navigation and a faint concern over the fate of one’s car during the visit. Like all places that were not contained within the bounds of either Central London or the N-prefixed postal districts, it was out of Adam’s comfort zone.

This perfectly captures Adam’s neurosis, shared by many a Northwest-London Jew. My brothers have never been so anxious as when they came for dinner once when I was living in Stepney. One of them recently refused to meet me for lunch near my flat. (He agreed eventually, after several cross text messages from me, but, he told me, he’d bring his mace.)

While Adam lusts after Ellie for her looks, and her vulnerability makes him long to protect her, he also envies her independence – her freedom to move from New York to Bethnal Green to Paris, to wear the wrong clothes and say the wrong things. His life, in stark contrast, is firmly bounded by what society dictates. Adam tries to inject Ellie’s spirit of freedom into his relationship with Rachel:

He would have to find the means to show Rachel how vital it was that they open their eyes to the rest of the world, for however circumscribed his own horizons might be, Rachel’s were ten times more so. What form this intrepid exploration might take was not yet clear, only that they could, and must attempt it. He had vague thoughts of travel, of literature and of inhabiting broader social circles, knowing all the while that these had always been available to him had he chosen to reach out for them, and in any case did not contain the essence of what it was he craved.

When Adam does try to reach out for them, wanting to go to see an alternative play or visit an art gallery, Rachel firmly resists.

While Rachel is shown to be utterly content in this blinkered, limited world, and Adam, although he struggles, is pretty well adapted to it too, Francesca Segal’s feat is her host of peripheral characters who have found their own alternative ways of living. There’s Adam’s sister Olivia, an eccentric feminist Oxford academic; Ezra, who crops up now and then as an alternative playwright; Nick, the only Jew in the Fens village where he grew up, now an impoverished writer living in Stepney; Ziva, the Holocaust survivor granny, who pockets Bittermints and on Yom Kippur takes a taxi and refuses to fast. Segal shows that being a Northwest London Jew doesn’t have to mean a life like Adam and Rachel’s.

So this isn’t really just a book about Jews. The Innocents is about choosing whether to give up complacency and familiarity in order to venture into the exciting unknown. Adam’s struggle is something with which many people can empathise, for a close-knit community comes in many different guises.

My childhood best friend is Iranian. She knows every other Iranian in London and New York, spent her youth going to very glamorous Iranian parties and yet was filled with terror at the prospect of another Iranian knowing that she ever got drunk, as it was so vital to preserve her ‘reputation’. A great friend from university had a similar experience with her Bengali family and community. Even my ultra-English friends whose families go back to William the Conqueror, experience something of this claustrophobia, in that they all went to the same schools and balls growing up, and are usually god-relatives of each other.

Really, Francesca Segal has achieved something brilliant – The Innocents is an insightful guide to the peculiarities of Jewish Northwest London, told through a story to which anyone can relate.