Posts Tagged ‘Persephone Books’

Earth and High Heaven

May 17, 2017

If life has its ups and downs, then life with two children has its UPS and DOWNS. I was going to begin with some of the laughably low points, but I found myself repeatedly pressing delete as I realised what grim reading they make – revolving around various combinations of poo, sick, boobs, and tantrums. And then the ups are all so saccharine – they make for even grimmer reading! So instead, here’s an UP which has nothing to do with children.

Many of you will know how much I adore and admire Persephone Books. Their smart, secretive dove grey covers hide a multitude of delights, and I’ve written about many of them here.

So what an up it is to have my name inside those very dear grey covers!

Earth and High Heaven 1

I was beyond honoured to write the Preface to Persephone Books’ newly republished Earth and High Heaven by Gwethalyn Graham, a little-known Canadian writer. It’s about a love affair between a Jew and a Gentile during the Second World War in Montreal. It interrogates how we treat migrants, misogyny and anti-semitism while being an unputdownable story of love against the odds. I urge you to read the book; and to further the cause, here is my Preface in full:

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Earth and High Heaven 2The first time I read Earth and High Heaven, I kept on turning back to the beginning; I must have read the opening sentence at least a dozen times. As Marc and Erica’s story of love against the odds grew increasingly desperate, I was ever keener to clutch at a tiny piece of hope in the phrasing of the first line:

One of the questions they were sometimes asked was where and how they had met …

Surely, I pleaded, the ease with which Graham uses the plural ‘they’ and the casual turn of phrase imply a well-established couple, fondly looking back to when they first met. This was my shard of hope, and yet, as soon as Graham offers it, she withdraws it:

… for Marc Reiser was a Jew, originally from a small town in northern Ontario, and from 1933 until he went overseas in September, 1942, a junior partner in the law firm of Maresch and Aaronson in Montreal, and Erica Drake was a Gentile, one of the Westmount Drakes.

The hopeful ‘they’ swiftly unravels. Moreover, we are given Marc’s potted biography in sharp contrast to the concise description of Erica – ‘one of the Westmount Drakes’ – and we cannot help but fear the improbability of two people from such different worlds ending up together.

From the first sentence, Graham sets up a will-they-won’t-they tension that hooks her readers in agonising uncertainty until the very end of the book. A contemporary reviewer described it as ‘Romeo and Juliet in Westmount’, a parallel which isn’t lost on the novel’s protagonists. When Marc and Erica hear birdsong during their first weekend away together, Marc says: ‘Romeo and Juliet had a nightingale but all we get is a whippoorwill.’ Erica corrects him:

“Incidentally, it was a lark, not a nightingale – remember?”

She repeated softly,

“‘It is the lark that sings so out of tune,

Straining harsh discords and unpleasing sharps.’”

 Shakespeare’s lark is ‘so out of tune’ because, unlike the nightingale, he heralds the coming morning. Romeo and Juliet’s first night together will also be their last, so it’s no wonder the birdsong is full of ‘harsh discords and unpleasing sharps’. With this doom-laden omen called into play, we can’t help but worry that Marc and Erica’s time together will be similarly snatched away all too soon.

Graham’s choice of clans for her star-crossed lovers – Reisers and Drakes, Jews and Gentiles – is especially potent given the book’s timing. Written in 1944 and set two years’ earlier, rarely has the plight of the Jews at the hands of the Gentiles been so keenly felt.

Her decision to write so overtly about Canadian anti-Semitism was, however, both brave and unusual in the contemporary political climate. In the Canadian academic Max Beer’s study of Montreal’s response to the Holocaust, he argues that in order to avoid charges of anti-Semitism, which was becoming associated with Hitler, ‘the plight of European Jewry was camouflaged, hidden in a language that did not specifically mention the Jew’. So, for instance, Canadians argued against ‘refugees of Europe’ emigrating to Canada, rather than calling them Jews. Beer points out that the Canadian Jewish Community helped with this camouflage. They worried that ‘too much emphasis on Jewish suffering in Europe would lead not to sympathy but to an anti-Semitic backlash’, so the specifically Jewish nature of Hitler’s target was ‘sublimated to a theme that spoke of universal suffering under the Nazis’. After Kristallnacht, the editorial in the Montreal-based Canadian Jewish Chronicle argued:

To-day it is the Jews who have been reduced to serfdom, decreed into helotry, made lower than the worm. But to-morrow? … To-morrow it will be the Catholics, the Protestants, all Christians whose doctrine of love is anathema to the savages who have sprung up upon the seats of the mighty in Germany.

The international press was also complicit in masking the specifically Jewish nature of the Holocaust. During the War, the front page of The New York Times mentioned Hitler’s targeting of the Jews only six times, and the discoveries of gas chambers in 1942 were confined to the back pages.

In Earth and High Heaven, Gwethalyn Graham defies this oblique treatment of the Holocaust. Marc tells Erica about his cousin, ‘shot trying to escape from a concentration camp’, and Graham has a habit of ominously referring to the ‘pre-war’ figure of sixteen million Jews, implying the devastating decimation which was ensuing. She also shows the appalling extent of anti-Semitism in Canada, listing the various Montreal establishments that ‘don’t take Jews’, and even compares it to Nazi Germany, when Erica challenges her father with:

“We Canadians don’t really disagree fundamentally with the Nazis about the Jews – we just think they go a bit too far.”

Why, in a climate of reticence, and in what is ostensibly a romance novel, was Gwethalyn Graham bold enough to confront the plight of the Jews head on?

Graham believed that writers ought to engage with contemporary politics. In 1945, when an interviewer asked about her taste in reading, she declared that Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon, a searing critique of Soviet Communism, was ‘the greatest novel of the last ten years’. From her first published article in 1936, “Women, Are They Human?”, which argued for the rights of married women to work outside the home, to her letter to the Montreal Gazette in 1960, protesting at the Canadian Prime Minister’s support of South Africa’s readmission to the Commonwealth, Graham’s writing reflects her life-long concern with social injustice.

Her biographer, Barbara Meadowcroft, describes Graham’s childhood ‘in a home where international events and social issues were discussed round the dining-room table’. Graham’s mother, Isabel Erichsen-Brown, helped to organise the Equal Franchise League to campaign for votes for women in Canada, then joined the League of Women Voters, which educated women on public questions. In the 1930s, Graham and her mother helped Jewish refugees and welcomed them into their home in spite of widespread anti-Semitism. Her father, Frank Erichsen-Brown, was a barrister who supported his wife’s causes; once, when an all-male audience was heckling a suffragist speaker, he silenced them then urged them to listen to her ‘extremely important message’.

Clearly, Gwethalyn Graham grew up with an awareness of social issues, and a sense of moral justice, for which she knew how to fight. She had also spent some time in Europe, when she attended a Swiss finishing school, and again in 1938, when she went to England, France and Switzerland following publication of her first novel Swiss Sonata, which drew on her experience at the finishing school. Swiss Sonata is set in January 1935, at the time of the Saar plebiscite; the school acts as a miniature League of Nations, with tensions rife between pupils from many countries and of different religions.

So Graham was more attuned to the problem of anti-Semitism than many of her fellow Canadians, but perhaps the reason for such a passionate argument against it can be found within the pages of Earth and High Heaven itself.

When Erica first meets Marc at her mother’s cocktail party, they immediately have an ease with each other, a feeling of connection. In the course of their conversation, Erica asks Marc where he lives and he tells her about his ‘awful’ rooming house. Erica suggests an alternative, but Marc dismisses it because, he says, ‘the janitor told me they don’t take Jews.’ This has a profound effect on Erica, as she realises how often she’s heard casually anti-Semitic remarks and seen signs against Jews ‘in newspaper advertisements, on hotels, beaches, golf courses, apartment houses, clubs, and the little restaurants for skiers in the Laurentians’. She reflects that ‘until now she had never bothered to read them’ because, as she explains to Marc:

‘You see, the trouble with me is that I’m just like everybody else – I don’t realize what something really means until it suddenly walks up and hits me between the eyes. I can be quite convinced intellectually that a situation is wrong, but it’s still an academic question which doesn’t really affect me personally, until, for some reason or other, it starts coming at me through my emotions as well. It isn’t enough to think, you have to feel …’

This is the great moment of awakening to injustice for which Graham prepares us in her epigraph from A.E. Housman’s collection of poems A Shropshire Lad. She quotes the moment when the speaker goes from ‘I slept and saw not’ to becoming aware of:

Horror and scorn and hate and fear and indignation –

Oh why did I awake?

The words could just as easily be voiced by Erica, and also by Graham herself. Following a short and disastrous first marriage, Graham – like Erica – had an affair with a Jewish lawyer. Like Erica, she wanted to introduce this Jewish lawyer to her father, and, as in the novel, her father refused to meet him. Graham’s affair didn’t last, but her friend Joyce Tedman Austin described it as an ‘overriding passion’; her sister argued, however, that Marc Reiser wasn’t based on any particular affair, rather that ‘every man Gwen dated seemed to be a Jew’. Whoever is right, at some point a love affair with a Jewish man induced a similar moment of awakening in Graham, directing her passion for social justice towards Canadian anti-Semitism in this novel.

earth and high heaven

Gwethalyn Graham does not, however, confine herself to the Jewish cause. As soon as she has set up her opposition of Jews versus Gentiles, she complicates it. She shows that Montreal’s Gentiles are split into English and French Canadians – a divide to which Graham would return in Dear Enemies, her published dialogue with Liberal politician Solange Rolland, in which they sought a greater harmony between the two groups. Graham shows how English Canadians are further split along class lines:

[Erica] got a job as a reporter on the society page of the Montreal Post and dropped, overnight, from the class which is written about to the class which does the writing … she had ceased to be one of the Drakes of Westmount and was simply Erica Drake of the Post’.

She also stages the perennially complex power play between men and women – noted in details, such as Erica’s irritation when her friend René orders lunch for her in a restaurant, and explored more deliberately, as when her father tries to persuade Erica to leave the Post in favour of the family company:

As a woman you can just go so far, and then you’re stuck in a job where you spend your life taking orders from some fathead with half your brains, whose only advantage over you is the fact that he happens to wear trousers.

Graham’s Montreal is not just a city divided between Jews and Gentiles, but one split by numerous, complex, jostling rifts. As Vicky, the thoughtful Canadian heroine of Swiss Sonata, reflects, ‘Isn’t it funny how people will subdivide themselves, no matter how little space they have?’

Graham sets up so many divisions in order to point out the paradox of how they are at once utterly meaningless, and devastatingly meaningful. At one of the novel’s crisis points, Erica’s mother – who, in a show of solidarity with her husband, refuses to meet Marc – asks Miriam, Erica’s sister, what she thinks of him. Miriam replies:

I can’t tell you what Marc’s like, except that he’s the same kind of person as Erica, he’s the other side of the same medal. They just seem to belong together, that’s all.

It is an intriguing image. Marc can be ‘the other side’ of a division to Erica, and yet they remain part ‘of the same’ thing. It encapsulates Graham’s urging us to look at the greater unity beyond petty divisions. Crucially, Miriam refuses to describe Marc: ‘I can’t tell you what Marc’s like’. Instead of the wealth of prejudiced generalisations with which Marc is burdened, and which cause these divisions within society, Miriam lets him speak for himself.

In Swiss Sonata, the headmistress reflects on her own shortcoming when it comes to understanding the girls:

One’s theories remain intact only so long as one generalizes from ignorance, and avoids particularising from knowledge.

In Earth and High Heaven, time and again, Erica attempts to persuade her father to stop generalising so that he might see Marc as an individual, not as a Jew:

‘But we’re not talking about “Jewish lawyers”,’ said Erica. ‘We’re talking about Marc Reiser.’

Erica is sensitive enough to realise that she too suffers from this affliction. When Marc tells her about his brother David:

She kept trying to dismiss the feeling that something about Dr. David Reiser did not seem to fit, and then, suddenly angry at her own evasiveness, she swung around and deliberately faced it. Her surprise was due to the fact that Dr. Reiser did not sound like a Jew.

Perhaps the most insidious aspect about our habit of seeing individuals through generalisations is that the person suffering from the discrimination can become complicit with it. Towards the end of the novel, Marc’s brother David tells him that when he was passing through Montreal, he decided to look up the Drakes to ‘see what it was all about’. After months of not being allowed to meet Erica’s parents or even set foot inside her home, Marc is astonished as David describes how he called for Erica and had a drink with her father. David tells him:

The point is that it takes two to play the game Drake was playing, and he couldn’t have got away with it at all if you’d behaved like an ordinary, intelligent human being, instead of like a Jew with an inferiority complex.

The critic Michèle Rackham calls this suggestion that Marc is partly to blame ‘unsettling’. It is, but it is also empowering. For if Marc is partly to blame, then he is also partly able to put it right. Rackham draws our attention to Marc’s lack of agency in the book, from when he stands around like a piece of furniture at the opening cocktail party, to when he tells Erica that, in spite of being a lawyer, in Montreal he feels he ‘can’t change anything’. Rackham argues that Marc is cast as the helpless Romantic heroine, whereas Erica – or ‘Eric’ as she is often called – is the hero, in her androgynous clothes, with her job at the Post, and her role as something of a ‘surrogate son’ to Charles. In that case, the great turning point of the novel is when Marc finally understands that he is in part to blame, that his actions aren’t meaningless, and so he can in fact be an agent of change. Gwethalyn Graham urges us not just to see other people as individuals but moreover for us all to act as individuals, rather than carrying on along the ‘particular groove’ society carves out for us.

earth and high heaven

The timing of Erica and Marc’s affair is precise: the four months from June 1942, when they first meet at a cocktail party, to September, when Marc is drafted abroad. Throughout the novel, Graham draws our attention to time passing, noting, for instance, that Marc and Erica talk to each other for half an hour at the opening cocktail party, and repeatedly highlighting the clock in Erica’s father’s office. This sense of time ticking is heightened by the War, which we hear rumbling relentlessly in the background, imbuing each moment with added urgency.

Yet Graham also shows us how time can be seized and stretched into something quite different. Each moment Marc and Erica spend together pushes against the boundaries of time as meted out by Erica’s father’s clock, and, conversely, every moment apart feels insufferably long. After their second meeting, they arrange to meet on the Wednesday for dinner, only for Marc to phone and ask to see Erica that very night instead. In showing us a love which refuses to be bound by time, Graham also gives us a love which is timeless.

It oughtn’t be a surprise to find that the novel retains its power. For how many of us reading Earth and High Heaven today, in a different continent, in a different century, feel that we know an Erica and a Marc, or indeed that there is an echo of Erica and Marc’s situation in our own? When it was first published, the novel was a hit not just in Canada, but it topped the American bestseller lists, was translated into eighteen languages, and sold over 1.5 million copies worldwide. Its international success is testament to the story’s universal appeal, which is what Samuel Goldwyn must have seen when he bought the film rights for $100,000, planning to cast Gregory Peck and Katherine Hepburn as Marc and Erica (though, alas, the film was never made).

Since the Second World War, societies have grown infinitely more diverse, and yet we still all know people from different backgrounds who, like Marc and Erica, have struggled to be together in the face of prejudice – whether they practice different religions, are from different classes, or have different shades of skin. Gwethalyn Graham wrote Earth and High Heaven to confront the divisive prejudices that were all too prolific in Montreal in 1944, but – sadly – her call to arms resounds just as urgently in Britain today.

Gwethalyn Graham

The Other Elizabeth Taylor

April 11, 2016

The reason (yet again) for my lengthy blogging absence is due to the dreaded lurgi. When people tell you about the many tricky things that come hand in hand with having children (lack of sleep, abundance of mess, inability to enjoy a flight ever again…) why don’t they tell you about nursery bugs? More often than not, Vita goes to nursery, comes home, and a day later gets ill. Then follow a hellish few nights of fever and not sleeping, and then, just as she’s turning the corner, down falls the husband, and – soon after – me! Somehow, three weeks disappear and all you’ve done is either try to occupy the child, or try to get someone else to occupy the child while you are confined to bed.

In these instances, I feel it is best to disappear into some kind of other world. The husband and I watched all the Harry Potter films, and were practically talking to each other in spells by the end of it. I also managed to do a bit of reading and a tiny bit of – albeit rather feverish – work:

Here is my review of Deborah Levy’s powerful new novel Hot Milk for the Spectator. Here is my interview with the brilliant Tracy Chevalier about her favourite fictional trees for lovely website Five Books. And my review of Helen Oyeyemi’s bizarre and beautiful short stories What is Not Yours is Not Yours should be coming out in Country Life in the next couple of weeks. Watch this space, as they say. Also, a reminder that Emily’s Walking Book Club is meeting this Sunday to discuss Elizabeth and her German Garden by Elizabeth von Arnim, which is the most heavenly book– all about gardening, and marriage, and trying to evade one’s responsibilities.

When I last wrote here, I was on my way up to Moniack Mhor, a writers’ retreat in Scotland in order to take the writers on an Emily’s Walking Book Club special.

Moniack Mhor walking book club

We wandered through a beautiful beech wood and along a mossy glen, while talking about Angel by Elizabeth Taylor, which is about a girl who becomes a rather ridiculous writer.This is what prompted me to read Nicola Beauman’s biography of the writer, The Other Elizabeth Taylor.

The Other Elizabeth TaylorNicola Beauman founded Persephone Books, whose gorgeous grey-covered books include such gems as Someone at a Distance by Dorothy Whipple, Mariana by Monica Dickens, The Far Cry by Emma Smith, The Exiles Return by Elisabeth de Waal, Harriet by Elizabeth Jenkins (and many more). So I was rather in awe of this biography – not only is it about a great writer, it is written by a very amazing woman!

One of its great joys is that you can hear Nicola Beauman’s voice, very distinctly, throughout. It is full of asides and parentheses which make her opinion absolutely felt. It can be something as slight as: ‘At one the speaker goes on talking for too long, as speakers do …’ or, when discussing the somewhat unconventional name of Elizabeth Taylor’s first son, noting that it ‘must have caused comment at Atlast’, the home of her very middle-class in-laws.

Occasionally Beauman takes us off on a longer personal digression. Particularly moving, is when she writes about going to visit Ray Russell. Elizabeth and Ray had an affair which lasted for many years. In the Acknowledgements, Beauman notes that ‘she believed it was inappropriate to publish the book’ until after the death of John Taylor, Elizabeth’s husband, who authorised the biography. Then, ‘following his death, she submitted the manuscript to John and Elizabeth Taylor’s son and daughter: They are, alas “very angry and distressed” about the book and have asked to be disassociated from it.’ One suspects that this is largely due to Beauman’s writing about Elizabeth’s affair with Ray, but surely a biographer is supposed to unearth these things? Not least because the hundreds of letters that Elizabeth wrote to Ray not only ‘chart an extended love affair’, but – crucially – ‘they reveal the development of a writer’s art over the decade that Elizabeth would call wasted because she was not published’.

I’ll quote Beauman’s aside about going to visit Ray at length, because I think it’s so powerful:

(Reading the letter Elizabeth would write to Ray only minutes after she had parted from him seems embarrassingly if not callously intrusive. Reading the letters in an upstairs room in Hull with the elderly Ray sitting and watching me copy them out, sometimes reminiscing, sometimes producing photographs, sometimes sketching me, was exhausting and depressing: exhausting, obviously because of the sheer physical labour involved in getting to Hull and then copying, copying, copying; depressing because one knew the sad end of the affair, yet one of the lovers was sitting there, his sadness written in every line of his body … I only rarely glimpsed the exhilaration that a biographer is meant to feel when he or she stumbles on a cache of papers; mostly I muttered over and over, “life is so sad”. How can one reconcile Elizabeth’s writing to Ray that “there were never two people so near to one another as we” with the sadness of what would then happen to the two of them?)

I’ve not read many biographies, so can’t say if this is the norm or the exception, but I loved how personal this one is. I had the same feeling as when I read The Hare with Amber Eyes and felt that I was on the journey of discovery hand-in-hand Edmund de Waal; or when reading Penelope Fitzgerald’s letters, in which she writes about her awful struggles with L.P. Hartley’s family for her attempted, eventually abandoned, biography. I could almost see Ray sitting there with the ‘sadness written in every line of his body’, and absolutely shared Beauman’s ambivalence on discovering this cache of letters.

Another of the book’s great pleasures, is that we are taken on a tour of all Taylor’s work – her novels, and also her numerous short stories. Little synopses are given, and we are also informed as to where the story was published, how much was paid for it, and any gossipy ins and outs of the correspondence between Elizabeth and her editor. This is all fascinating. Again, Beauman’s personal angle is a treat – lovely to know some of her own favourite lines, to be told when she thinks something is influenced by E.M. Forster, and informed of possible real-life inspirations too. I particularly liked Beauman’s argument for Taylor to be appreciated as a modernist writer, pointing out that she writes ‘in scenes, in “moments of being”,’ rather than the traditional narrative of ‘and then and then’. She argues that critics have struggled to call Taylor a modernist because of her domestic subjects:

Virginia Woolf was a modernist but because she eschewed the domestic she could be labelled as such: Elizabeth, because she wrote about women and children and housework and dailiness, could not be.

Later, she makes a nice point:

When Elizabeth said, as she often did, that she wrote in scenes not narrative, perhaps she was suggesting that women have to write in scenes because narrative needs leisure and an uninterrupted run of time to write it.

She calls upon the example of Taylor’s character Beth in A View of the Harbour:

Because she has a pram in the hall her work has to be stitched together, it cannot flow uninterruptedly. When she looks at her books she knows that: “Here I nursed Prudence with bronchitis; here Stevie was ill for a month; here I put down my pen to bottle fruit (which fermented); there Mrs Flitcroft forsook me.”

Reading this, while my own writing was so interrupted by family illness, I could only agree! (I also rather wished I had the help of a Mrs Flitcroft, even if I were to run the risk of her forsaking me …)

I loved The Other Elizabeth Taylor, just as much as I loved the two Elizabeth Taylor novels I’ve read. It left me longing to read more, and as soon as I finished it, I whizzed off to buy Elizabeth Taylor’s At Mrs Lippincote’s and A Game of Hide and Seek. Heaven to have these two treats in store even if they will probably be read, alas, when we’re next all ill.

Elizabeth Taylor

Little Boy Lost

June 17, 2015

Little Boy Lost by Marganita LaskiLittle Boy Lost by Marganita Laski was the book for discussion on Sunday’s Walking Book Club. It was a drizzly day but actually the weather was to thank for a particularly pretty walk, as we found a sheltered route which took us off to quiet and wild bits of the Heath, as opposed to our usual busy Parliament Hill climb.

Little Boy Lost is published by the wonderful Persephone Books, known for publishing ‘domestic’ fiction, largely about women in the early- to mid-twentieth century. Somewhat unexpectedly then, Little Boy Lost, though written by a woman, is about a man.

Hilary, a poet and intellectual, goes to France after the Second World War to look for his lost son. He has only seen his son once, as a baby. Through various complicated backstory twists, his son, now a child, is somewhere unknown in France. Pierre, the husband of a friend of Hilary’s wife, turns up and explains that it has become his life’s mission to discover the whereabouts of the missing boy. Later, when Pierre thinks he might have found the boy, Hilary is summoned to France to try to identify him.

One of the biggest questions in the book is whether or not the boy is Hilary’s son. Will Hilary recognise a family resemblance or mannerism? Will the boy remember anything about his earlier childhood, or his mother? What counts as conclusive proof? Hilary is adamant that he will only look after the boy if he is his son.

Of course when we meet the boy in the orphanage, a poor little thing in ill-fitting clothes: ‘its sleeves were too short and from them dangled red swollen hands too big for the frail wrists’, he is so pitiable with his poor circumstances and good nature that we long for Hilary to take care of him, regardless of his parentage.

Laski has set up a tricky opposition here: the reader wants Hilary to adopt little Jean, and yet Hilary stubbornly persists in searching for proof that he’s his son. So we don’t particularly like Hilary, for this seemingly selfish behaviour against this child’s innocence, and I know you’re never supposed to say things like you don’t like a character, or found a book difficult for not liking a character, but surely it is vital to empathise with a novel’s main protagonist, and when the main protagonist persists in not doing what you want him to do, this can be problematic.

So, why does Hilary act so selfishly? Why does it matter so much to him that the boy is his? In part, he is scared of reawakening his emotional life. He catches himself daydreaming of a happy scene of reunion with the boy:

It would be wonderful beyond words, he told himself dreamily – and then he realised what he was thinking. It can never be like that, he said, there is nothing left in me to make it possible that it should be like that. The traitor emotions of love and tenderness and pity must stay dead in me. I could not endure them to live and then die again.

After Lisa’s death, he thought:

It would have been better never to have been happy, never to have felt love and tenderness and all those things, than to have known them and then lost them.

Pierre points out, ‘if the boy is found, those things will be found again too.’ Then:

‘I don’t want them,’ Hilary cried harshly. ‘…I couldn’t endure being hurt again; I’d sooner feel nothing.’

So Hilary is afraid of feeling, of opening himself up to being hurt again. If the boy isn’t his son, then he is let off the hook.

Hilary hunts about for other reasons too. There is a terrible moment when he says to Pierre that he is afraid of claiming the wrong boy, in case his actual son would then ‘turn up somewhere quite different’. Pierre assures him this won’t happen:

Not if I can help it, he added to himself. Not through him would Hilary ever know of the boy who mouthed and whimpered in an asylum at Tours, who could well, for dates and blood-tests and all that was known of his history, be Hilary’s son. Nor would he tell him of the little boy who was now the sole consolation of the parents near Lyons whose own two boys had been caught by the Gestapo and tortured before they died…

This glimpse of the stories of these other boys opens out Hilary’s quest to encompass, in a flash, the fate of the many many other children and families whose lives were turned upside down by war. Elizabeth Bowen wrote in her review that this is the story of ‘every lost child of Europe’, and certainly here you suddenly see the awful bigger picture. I found this to be one of the most moving moments of the book, made all the more so by the way it was casually thrown in, almost in parentheses.

Why else does Laski choose to put Hilary in such a predicament about the boy? Early in the novel, Pierre tells Hilary about a conversation he had with his wife in which she argued for the importance of acting as an individual rather than subordinating your morality to a group.

The only good thing we can do, the only goodness we can be sure of, is our own goodness as individuals and the good that we can do individually. As groups we often do evil that good may come and very often the good does not come and all that is left is the evil we have pointlessly done.

Perhaps this – being sure of doing good as an individual – is the underlying philosophical wrestle of the novel. Leaving aside Hilary and his son for a moment, Laski also portrays the complex moral situation of being in France during and immediately after the War. Hilary asks Pierre, ‘Don’t you wonder, with every stranger you meet, what he did under the Occupation?’ Pierre replies:

We each did under the Germans what we were capable of doing; what that was, was settled long before they arrived.

This is a terrible thought: it isn’t war which forces you to act badly, rather the war brings to the fore a predetermined aspect of your character. I couldn’t help but think here of The Narrow Road to the Deep North, in which the protagonist finds himself acting heroically because of the war even though he feels himself not to be a hero:

Now he found himself the leader of a thousand men who were strangely leading him to be all the many things he was not.

It’s the opposite perspective. In The Narrow Road, this realisation happens when the protagonist turns down an offering of steak, in spite of the fact he is starving in a POW camp, and insists on it being shared out. Hilary in Little Boy Lost, by contrast, tucks into Black Market steak at a French hotel, managing to assuage his guilt about the terrible deprivation of the orphanage rather easily.

Little Boy Lost is a novel about how an individual makes choices, how his moral compass swings and wavers during and after the War. We walking book club readers all wanted Hilary to adopt the boy regardless of his parentage, as do many of the respectable characters in the novel, but Laski insists on Hilary choosing for himself, as an individual, rather than giving into pressure from anyone else (the reader, or another character). The decision, when it happens at last, is all the more powerful for being self-determined.

I suppose ‘what you would have done in the War?’ is one of those questions that everyone asks themselves, wondering how we’d behave when challenged to the core by such a dreadful situation. Laski shows us here that it isn’t just wartime that provides a challenge; big difficult decisions persist and we must choose what we – as individuals – feel to be good.

(By the way, here is a piece about collecting rare books which I wrote for the latest issue of The Spectator.)

Emilybooks of the Year

December 17, 2014

The thing about sleeping in 3-4 hour chunks is that time bends into something altogether new. So when I say it’s been an age since I last posted here, I mean an age in a peculiarly nebulous sense. It has been an amount of time of which I can’t really conceive. Life before Vita – what was that?

I had hoped to be writing here a little more regularly, but little Vita has proved to be rather a lot to take on and doing everything one-handed means it all takes twice as long. We’ve also moved house, and any writing time I’ve managed to carve out has been siphoned into a couple of journalism commissions which sprung up and couldn’t be refused. There’s one for the Spectator, which you can read here. And the other one is still in the pipeline, so watch this space…

But wow it’s Christmas next week, which is thoroughly disorienting. Not only is it the first Christmas after Vita and therefore, as I explained, it has approached in a strange new way, it is also the first time for years that I’ve not been working in the bookshop during what is always a madly busy, derangedly exciting time. So I thought I must stir myself from my semi-comatose state at least enough to be able to write my EmilyBooks of the Year – for that has become a Christmas tradition from which I would hate to part. So I hope you enjoy the round-up below. The links go back to my original reviews of them, in case you’d like a little more info on the various books.

Looking back on what I’ve read this year has proved both enjoyable and revealing. I think everyone ought to do it, as an exercise in self-reflection. If so, I’d love to hear how you get on and any of your picks for books of the year.

Our Spoons Came from Woolworths by Barbara Comyns2014 introduced me to rather a large clutch of what I might fondly term ‘EmilyBooks’ – the oft-overlooked but brilliant novels that I adore reading. I picked many of these for the Walking Book Club, so thinking back to them now yields very happy memories of chatting away on Hampstead Heath. The Home-Maker and Fidelity, two Persephone Books, were both extraordinary. Both are set in small-town America at the beginning of the twentieth century, and both are about women who step beyond their allotted place – going out to earn the family’s living, or having an affair with a married man. Both books are good on how society struggles to handle these misfits, and how the misfits are strong enough to survive. (Incidentally, we were honoured to have a week of the excellent Persephone Post – the Persephone Books daily blog – inspired in part by Vita!) Other brilliant old novels discovered this year include Angela Carter’s Wise Children, Michael Cunningham’s The Hours, Doris Lessing’s The Grass is Singing (but only read it if you are ready for something seriously harrowing), William Trevor’s Love and Summer, Elaine Dundy’s excellent The Dud Avocado (a MUST if you are going to Paris) and – perhaps my two favourites – Meg Wolitzer’s brilliantly funny and very clever The Wife, and Barbara Comyns’ disarmingly simply told and terribly affecting Our Spoons Came from Woolworths. This last will definitely be a future walking book club book – it is tremendous!

The Letter for the KingI was pleased (and not surprised) to see how many of my books of 2014 are published by Pushkin Press. Those of you who’ve not yet discovered this terrific independent publisher, which specialises in bringing the best European fiction to our shores, should do so NOW. Red Love by Maxim Leo is a fascinating family memoir – I’d say it’s up there with The Hare with Amber Eyes for the way he manages to get the bigger picture of history through the filter of his immediate family. It’s all about the GDR and how the author’s two grandfathers – one a Nazi and the other a freedom fighter – could both come to believe so fervently in the new regime. There was also Gazdanov’s The Spectre of Alexander Wolf, strange and brilliant, and Journey by Moonlight by Antal Szerb, also strange and brilliant. Both have an eerie, dreamlike feel to them, and thinking back on the now it’s this special atmosphere of the books that has really stuck with me, rather than the ins and outs of the plots. A special mention should go to Pushkin’s children’s book The Letter for the King by Tonke Dragt. I started reading this as soon as I went on maternity leave, thinking that it would be the ideal gripping piece of escapism for my exhausted brain. It was, and I spent a heavenly few days on the sofa with it. In fact I enjoyed it so much that the husband wanted to read it as soon as I had finished. And then I went into labour. And rather a lot of that strange first day of labour, before we could go into hospital, was spent with me rolling around on a big pilates ball while the husband read the book and I kept asking him irritating questions about where he’d got up to, only he wasn’t allowed to be annoyed with me because I was in labour. Ha! Truth be told, I think having such a good distraction for a book was the only thing that kept him sane, so thank you Pushkin!

Where Angels Fear to TreadJourney by Moonlight is just one of several books I read that are set in Italy, as our blissful two month sojourn in Lucca called for a great deal of geographically appropriate literature. Looking back on it now, I still can’t really believe we got away with it – two months of eating ice cream and lazing around, reading, writing, sketching, sleeping … I wonder if Vita, who was wriggling around in utero, might grow to love these books too? Certainly I’m sure she will share her mother’s love of pasta.

Thinking of pasta, there was The Leopard, with its infamous macaroni pie, a wonderful novel, which I loved discussing on a walking book club at the Perch Hill Feast. There was Penelope Fitzgerald’s Innocence – obviously good, because everything by her is good, but perhaps not quite as good as her others. Christ Stopped at Eboli – a classic piece of anthropological observation, which made Southern Italy in the 1930s seem like another world entirely. There was Portrait of a Lady, which was good but something about James’ coldness, and the nastiness of it all, made it seem rather sour. Best of all the Italy books was the double-Forster hit of A Room with a View and Where Angels Fear to Tread – it was such a treat to have an excuse to revisit them.

H is for HawkI loved re-reading various classics this year, as well as the Henry James and the EM Forsters, there was Brideshead Revisited – so much more enjoyable to read for pleasure rather than studying it for A Level – and Jane Eyre, every bit as good as I remembered, and also Pride and Prejudice. This last was wonderful, and the other thing we did when I went into labour was watch the boxset of the BBC adaptation – a great way to pass quite a lot of time!

There was a substantial chunk of non-fiction: The Examined Life, which was the perfect January book – ideal for a bit of sober self-examination. How to be a Heroine – a paean to many brilliant novels, written so charmingly that you end up feeling that Samantha Ellis is a bit of a heroine herself. The Rings of Saturn, which was a rare instance of a book being both heavy-going and brilliant – I kept wanting to say thank you Sebald, for stretching my brain in so many of these bizarre directions. And, finally, two wonderful memoirs: The Past is Myself by Christabel Bielenberg – astonishing insight into Germany during the war, written by an English woman who’d married a German – and H is for Hawk, which I adored so much that I nearly called my daughter Mabel in homage to the hawk. I was very happy to see that this won the Samuel Johnson Prize.

How to be Both by Ali SmithI also enjoyed some new novels: the wonderful Chop Chop by Simon Wroe, who I should say is a friend, and I should also say has just been shortlisted for the Costa Prize – hurrah!!! And also Homecoming by Susie Steiner, which I started off thinking would be all about sheep farming, but actually it’s about families and change. And there was, of course, the supreme treat from Ali Smith: How to be Both. How I adored this book. Smith has a way of writing that makes modern fiction seem so exciting and makes me feel lucky to be a reader.

Last but not least, comes a book which is particularly special to me: Park Notes by Sarah Pickstone. Not only is this a beautiful book about women writers finding inspiration in Regent’s Park, but it also features my first ever piece of work to be published in a book!

I hope this little round up might provide some inspiration for Christmas reading, or indeed shopping. Once we get to 2015, Emilybooks will be back for real, and so will the walking book club – our next meeting is on 25th January to discuss Margaret Drabble’s The Millstone. Vita’s rather excited about it!

Park notes

Love and Summer … and other books of the summer

September 8, 2014

September is here and Emilybooks is back! And the sunshine means that life doesn’t feel too horribly back-to-schooly, though I have only just managed to resist the annual urge to go out and buy a pencil case and other snazzy new stationery.

I hope you had a good book-filled August. Mine was a feast of reading delights, which included:

The Sound and the FuryThe Sound and the Fury by Faulkner. A bookshop colleague’s favourite book, therefore a must-read. I think I was only just up to the challenge, however, for it is a strange narrative and demands a great deal of careful attention and work from the reader … Ultimately it is of course a brilliant, unusual and memorable book – well worth persevering with, but perhaps it wasn’t the right pick for a holiday read.

High Wages by Dorothy Whipple. This was read almost entirely on a train journey from Cornwall to London, while sitting opposite the husband who was ensconced in another excellent Persephone BookThe Home-Maker by Dorothy Canfield Fisher. About half-way through, we discovered some surprisingly yummy cheese on toast was available from the buffet car and so sat there in heaven, noses in beautiful grey covers, scoffing delicious snacks and even more delicious words. Best train journey ever.

The Dud Avocado.inddThe Dud Avocado by Elaine Dundy. Another wonderful feel-good book. You cannot fail to warm to the exuberant and charmingly disorganised Sally Jay Gorce, whose voice leaps off the page and races through you like the thousand volts she feels when Larry touches her hand over coffee one morning, when she is, of course, in her evening dress because all her other clothes are still at the laundry. It’s the ultimate girl-about-town novel, set in Paris in the fifties and as I read it, mostly in the bath, with my sizeable bump kicking away, I felt the peculiarly pleasant tug of nostalgia and longing for those wild days of disorganised freedom now well and truly gone.

H is for HawkH is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald. Have you seen all the rave reviews for this? The last time I saw such a fuss about an unusual-sounding hard-to-pin-down non-fiction book was for Edmund de Waal’s The Hare with Amber Eyes. So of course I had to read it. And it is indeed staggeringly good.

Helen Macdonald is overwhelmed by grief after her father dies and so decides to buy and train a goshawk. Yes, I know, for many of us that’s not the most obvious decision, but Helen has been hooked on hawks from a young age, so to her it makes sense. So Mabel enters the scene, with her feathers:

the colour of sunned newsprint, of tea-stained paper … patterned with a shower of falling raindrops … [and with] a strange grey tint to her that is felt, rather than seen, a kind of silvery light like a rainy sky reflected from the surface of a river.

Helen retreats from other people and becomes almost part-hawk herself as she trains Mabel. It is an astonishing piece of writing about the special intimacy of a relationship with an animal, along the lines of books like Gavin Maxwell’s The Ring of Bright Water. But the book it really draws upon is T.H. White’s The Goshawk, which I’m ashamed to say I’ve not read. Fear not, for Helen tells us the haunting story of T.H. White’s life and his goshawk as we go.

It’s not easy to explain why this book about hawks and death and T.H. White is quite so brilliant, just as it was hard to pinpoint what was so great about a book about a family history and a load of netsuke, but then I rather like that difficulty. For it means that only those with a true sense of curiosity and an urge to take a risk on something unusual will get to read H is for Hawk. And perhaps it’s only them who deserve the fruits of such a wonderful book.

Love and Summer by William TrevorFinally, Emily’s Walking Book Club met yesterday for a meander across Hampstead Heath while discussing William Trevor’s Love and Summer. Though it took me some time to get into the book – I needed a little while to adjust to the slow pace of 1950s rural Irish life and the fragmented style that sees each short chapter concern itself with a different character – once I was in, I loved it. This seemed to be the consensus amongst the walking book clubbers too.

It is a doomed love story. Florian Kilderry cycles into the quiet village of Rathmoye and asks directions from Ellie Dillahan. Ellie was a foundling, brought up in a convent. She went to work as a servant for Dillahan, whose wife and child were killed in an accident on his farm, and then married him. She is ‘content but for her childlessness’, working efficiently on the farm and looking after her husband, until she finds herself haunted by this meeting with a stranger. He invades her thoughts:

Fourteen more eggs had been laid and she collected them in the cracked brown bowl that had become part of her daily existence. Closing the gate again when she left the crab-apple orchard, she slipped the loop of chain over the gatepost. He had a way of hesitating before he spoke, of looking away for a moment and then looking back. He had a way of holding a cigarette. When he’d offered her one he’d tapped one out of the packet for himself and hadn’t lit it. The rest of the time he was with her he’d held it, unlit, between his fingers.

Slowly, both hands clasped round the brown egg-bowl, she returned to the house.

The relationship between Ellie and Florian develops and they take to meeting in the crumbling gate-lodge of a derelict grand old house. But they are not wholly unobserved. Local busybody Miss Connulty sees they are up to no good, and the crazy old wise man Orpen Wells, who lives in a confused timeless world, senses something is up too. Florian’s intentions aren’t particularly honourable, planning on selling up his own decaying house, inherited from his bohemian parents, and leaving for Scandinavia; he is not so much in love with Ellie as enjoying her innocent love for him. We know it can only end badly … and yet, this is what is so clever about the book: although the atmosphere is suffused with the quiet melancholy of sadness and compromise, subtle strains of happiness begin to surface.

Take busybody Miss Connulty, for instance. When she was a young woman, a doomed love affair meant her father took her to have an abortion. Her mother called them both murderers and then spent the rest of her life punishing them. Her mother’s funeral is at the beginning of the novel and so, at last, Miss Connulty is able to come into her own, running the family’s guest house how she’d like, rather than according to her mother’s instructions, and wearing her much-coveted jewellery. When she suspects Ellie and Florian are up to no good, at first she presses her brother to interfere. Her brother reflects, ‘it might be her mother talking, expressions used he hadn’t heard since the time of the trouble’. Miss Connulty is set to continue in the pattern of her mother – fierce disapproval, interference, judging Ellie for her lost innocence … but then she changes. She decides instead to help her:

If there’s a child don’t let anyone take the child away from you. Born as Dillahan’s own since he believed it was, the child would make a family man of him again, and make the farmhouse different. And her own friendship with Ellie Dillahan would not be strained … the friendship would be closer, both of them knowing it could be, neither of them saying what should not be said and never would be.

It is a moment of redemption, of choosing to go against the grain of what is expected of her and in helping another, so helping herself. This refusal to follow the expected path occurs again and again in the book. Trevor sets up an expectation of what his characters will do, and then quietly confounds it. And in all its essential anti-drama, it makes for unsettling, brilliant reading. As I pointed out, in a moment of inspiration during yesterday’s walk: It’s not Downton Abbey. The dramatic plot lines involving drowning or eloping or suicide are all pointed to but not fulfilled. It’s a beautiful, subtle, poignant and minutely observed portrait of lives invented for their essential reality rather than spurious fiction. (Not that I’m not looking forward to the new series of Downton!)

William Trevor walking book club

Jane Eyre and Fidelity

August 4, 2014

Here is a double whammy of sorts – to make up for last week’s absence of a post, and also to round things off for the summer, for Emilybooks will be enjoying a little recess over August, as I hope will you.

Last weekend took us up to Yorkshire for Deer Shed Festival, where I had lots of fun interviewing Susie Steiner about her novel Homecoming, and Samantha Ellis about her biblio-memoir How to be a Heroine. I also very much enjoyed discussing Jane Eyre with a walking book club, as we wandered through pretty, and blissfully shady, woodland.

Jane Eyre walking book club at Deer Shed

Jane Eyre – what a corker! Of course I remember loving it when I read it as a schoolgirl: oh how I wept when Helen Burns died, longed to hear my name carried mystically on the wind, and developed a lasting love of window seats … But I was a little surprised to find it every bit as good, if not better, second-time round. Especially pleasurable was that the husband read it too in order to join us for the walk, and though I had my doubts as to whether he’d get the drama and romance of it, he was instantly hooked, and it became impossible to get him to do much else until he reached the end. Indeed there was one day when he was in a foul, grumpy mood, and I couldn’t work out what was wrong, only to discover that that morning he’d read the bit where Helen Burns died and, he sheepishly admitted, it had left him feeling upset all day. Reader, I have never felt happier to have married him!

Fidelity by Susan GlaspellIt was a nice coincidence that I next picked up Fidelity by Susan Glaspell, a Persephone book that has been sitting on my shelf for a few months, tempting me with its siren call of pleasure lying within its enigmatic plain grey covers.

Fidelity is set in ‘Freeport’, a small town in Iowa at the beginning of the twentieth century. Ruth Holland has caused widespread outrage by running off with Stuart Williams, another woman’s husband. Mostly set just over a decade afterwards, Glaspell shows what happens when Ruth returns to the town to be with her dying father. We see how her actions have affected her family, her friends, Stuart’s wife, and also herself. For it becomes clear that it hasn’t been an easy ride off into the sunset for Ruth, indeed, she has been unable to escape the gossip that follows her to the West, so has struggled to keep servants or make any friends.

It is a difficult stay in Freeport. ‘Society has to protect itself’, and, aside from one or two friends’ loyalty, the town continues to shun her. Then Ruth is approached by Mildred, a girl who is having an affair with a married man, and who sees Ruth as someone who might understand her, offer some advice.

‘It’s love that counts, isn’t it, – Ruth?’ she asked, half humble, half defiant.

Ruth, who has lived her life adhering to this belief, falters at seeing someone on the point of following the same path. Mildred continues:

‘That town isn’t the whole of the world!’ she exclaimed passionately, after speaking of the feeling that was beginning to form there against herself. ‘What do I care?’ she demanded defiantly. ‘It’s not the whole of the world!’

… ‘But that’s just what it is, Mildred,’ she said. ‘The trouble is, it is the whole of the world.’

‘It’s the whole of the social world,’ she answered the look of surprise. ‘It’s just the same everywhere. And it’s astonishing how united the world is. You give it up in one place – you’ve about given it up for every place.’

‘Then the whole social world’s not worth it!’ broke from Mildred. ‘It’s not worth – enough.’

… ‘But what are you going to put in the place of that social world, Mildred?’ she gently asked. ‘There must be something to fill its place. What is that going to be?’

‘Love will fill its place!’ came youth’s proud, sure answer … ‘Can’t it?’

Ruth turned to her a tender compassionate face, too full of feeling, of conflict, to speak. Slowly, as if she could not bear to do it, she shook her head.

Yet, soon after this conversation, Ruth regrets her advice. She realises that ‘she had failed the very thing in Mildred to which she had elected to be faithful in herself’:

There was something in humankind – it was strongest in womankind – made them, no matter how daring for themselves, cautious for others. And perhaps that, all crusted round with things formal and lifeless, was the living thing at the heart of the world’s conservatism.

She telephones Mildred but finds it is too late; ‘Mildred had been “saved”’ and soon settles into the conventional life of the town. So, in this subtle and surprisingly gripping novel in which Glaspell shows such painful empathy with all her characters, we are faced with all the complicated ambiguity of Mildred and Ruth’s differing decisions – Ruth has been faithful to love over society but has suffered for it; Mildred reaps the rewards of having been faithful to society, but has relinquished the power of love and her own strength of character.

Jane EyreAs I was mulling this over, it struck me that Jane Eyre is in many ways about the same thing, though it gives a very different response to the proposal of living as someone’s mistress.

In both Jane Eyre and Fidelity, the marriage is portrayed as false in some way, so it is less binding that it might be otherwise. Rochester was tricked into marrying a madwoman for money, who he keeps locked in the attic. Stuart Williams’s wife hasn’t forgiven him for a short affair he had some years before. ‘Are our whole lives to be spoiled by a mere silly episode?’ he asks, stating that for two years they ‘haven’t been married’, and begging her either to forgive him or to grant him a divorce. She refuses to do either. ‘Haven’t you any humanity … Don’t you ever feel?’ he implores.

When Jane learns of the mad wife in the attic, Rochester appeals to her sympathy:

‘Give one glance to my horrible life when you are gone. All happiness will be torn away with you. What then is left? For a wife I have but the maniac upstairs: as well might you refer me to some corpse in yonder churchyard. What shall I do, Jane? Where turn for a companion, and for some hope?’

No doubt, Stuart Williams feels the same. Rochester then gets to the crux of it:

‘Is it better to drive a fellow-creature to despair than to transgress a mere human law, no man being injured by the breach? – for you have neither relatives nor acquaintances whom you need fear to offend by living with me.’

Jane admits:

This was true: and while he spoke my very conscience and reason turned traitors against me, and charged me with crime in resisting him. They spoke almost as loud as Feeling: and that clamoured wildly. ‘Oh, comply!’ it said. ‘Think of his misery; think of his danger; look at his state when left alone; remember his headlong nature: consider the recklessness following on despair – sooth him; save him; love him; tell him you love him and will be his. Who in the world cares for you? or who will be injured by what you do?’

Still indomitable was the reply: ‘I care for myself. The more solitary, the more friendless, the more unsustained I am, the more I will respect myself. I will keep the law given by God; sanctioned by man.’

Our heroines take opposite paths. Ruth follows Bronte’s capitalised ‘Feeling’ in her fidelity to love over society; Jane resists and follows the law instead. Ruth has the added complication of the friends and family Jane lacks, and while she goes on to suffer from the effect of their disapproval, she suffers most from the knowledge that she has made their lives difficult by their mere association with her.

And yet these paths, though seeming to go in opposite directions, have many similarities. Jane and Ruth both steal away in the middle of the night to escape to places unknown. Jane then suffers acutely –  sleeping out on the moors, nearly dying from starvation, surviving only thanks to the pity of St John and his sisters, who take her in and then set her up as a schoolmistress – whereas Ruth might at first be happy in  ‘the sweetness of believing herself loving and loved’, but suffers before long, in her awful discovery that ‘the town is the whole world’ and love is not enough to fill that gap. Jane might succeed where Ruth fails in making friends and establishing herself in a new community but both heroines suffer from loneliness – for Ruth it is because she has turned her back on society, for Jane because she has turned her back on love.

When St John asks Jane to marry him so that they might be missionaries in India together, she says:

‘I scorn your idea of love … I scorn the counterfeit sentiment you offer.’

It is after this that she hears Rochester calling her name on the wind, and then:

I broke from St John … It was my time to assume ascendancy. My powers were in play and in force.

She returns to Rochester, discovers his wife has died, which removes the impediment to their union, and so we get the happy ending of, ‘Reader I married him.’

Ruth returns to Stuart after her time in Freeport, and, after a few months, to their great surprise they find that his wife has at last granted him a divorce. So the impediment to their legal union is also removed. Stuart says they must get married. Ruth, however, hesitates, realising that her life and happiness no longer lie with Stuart:

The thing that made me go with you then is the thing that makes me go my way alone now.

 So like Ibsen’s Nora, she goes her own way, reflecting in a burst of positivity:

Love could not fail if it left one richer than it found one. Love had not failed – nothing had failed – and life was wonderful, limitless, a great adventure for which one must have great courage, glad faith. Let come what would come! – she was moving on.

If marriage is what the books are all about, then Jane and Ruth go in opposite directions: one heroine chooses to be alone rather than illicitly with her lover, but then marries him when she can; the other lives as his mistress for years and then leaves him. If, instead, we see the books as being about ‘fidelity’ to oneself, about having the courage to take the harder path as opposed to succumbing to the lure of the easier, then our heroines tread side by side.

When Jane is prevailed upon by Rochester and then by St John, she resists by saying first ‘I care’ and then ‘My powers were in play and in force.’ (Bronte’s italics both times.) When she does marry Rochester, it is she who does the marrying: ‘I married him’ – not he married me. Throughout the novel, Jane has the courage to take her own actions rather than bowing to the will of others. Similarly, Ruth makes her own decisions rather than being swayed by others: first in leaving home to be with Stuart and then, rather than yielding to the pressure of convention in marrying him in spite of knowing they no longer love each other, she has the strength to move on alone.

Two very different outcomes, but really I think the books share the same message of how important it is to have belief in yourself and the courage of your convictions.

I hope this is an inspiring note to leave you with over the summer!

Susan Glaspell in 1913

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

As Green as Grass

October 7, 2013

As Green As GrassI’ve been on something of an Emma Smith binge this week, in part because tomorrow I am going to meet her for tea. Tea with Emma Smith! It is too thrilling! I wonder, will there be ‘strawberry jam sandwiches and sultana scones’, as she wrote in her first volume of memoir, The Great Western Beach, or are these only for beach picnics?

I wrote here about Emma Smith’s superb novel The Far Cry – long-lost, then wonderfully recovered thanks to Susan Hill and Persephone Books. I hadn’t realised that Bloomsbury were just about to publish her second volume of memoir, As Green As Grass. What perfect timing. Having recently emerged from the colourful world of 1940s India captured within Persephone’s signature grey covers, I could swiftly immerse myself in more of Smith’s lush prose, but this time of the England of her youth – as she puts it, ‘before, during and after the Second World War’.

The Far CryIt is a real delight to read about the life of an author you greatly admire. The Far Cry is beautifully written, and offers one of the most startling and distressing characters in literature, but it is also about an intriguing subject – life on an Indian tea plantation in the 1940s. In her Preface to the novel, Smith writes tantalisingly about the basis for the novel – her trip to India after the Second World War, to make a documentary about the tea plantations. Who was with her on the trip? None other than Laurie Lee!

So I began As Green as Grass feeling rather impatient to get to the India bit. I wanted to read about her glamorous life with Laurie Lee in literary London, and then her escapades in India. But I soon became so engrossed in the memoir, that I’d as good as forgotten about the Indian antics that were to come.

The book is divided up into three sections – Before, During and After, all in relation to the Second World War. Before is growing up in Devon, with a father suffering from the legacy of the First World War. He is unable to reconcile his days as a war hero with his job as a humble bank clerk and is prone to violent eruptions of anger, which eventually get him sectioned. Her mother explains:

Poor Daddy is ill, she says to us children, but with care and the right sort of nursing he will soon get better. She doesn’t ever use the word which looms inside my own head so menacingly: mad!

It is so exactly what it’s like to be a child suddenly caught up in something adult. The grown-ups tell you soothing half-truths, when in your head you can’t escape the menacing melodramatic reality – words which you’ve only ever overheard or read, but now they apply to your family. I remember feeling exactly the same when various scary adult things happened when I was growing up – there was such menace in words like ‘divorce’ and ‘rehab’ when applied to your own family, and yet those words were so rarely said directly to you. You’d overhear them and vaguely know of them, and of course those words would be all you could think about, while the adults were busy coddling the truth in the softness of words like ‘gone away’ and ‘ill’.

The years during the War are particularly poignant. Smith describes going out for lunch with her sister Pam and a young fighter-pilot:

As soon as we’ve met and greeted each other, Ricky holds out Pam’s left hand in order to show me the ring on her engagement finger.

‘Goodness gracious,’ I say, amazed and delighted, ‘ – you’re engaged, you and Pam! You’re going to be – are you? – actually going to be married?’

‘We sure are,’ says Ricky, smiling broadly. ‘Isn’t that right, Pam?’

I’ve met Ricky before. He’s a fighter pilot on the same station as Pam’s young and handsome: a dear. How romantic!

But when I glance up and see the expression on my sister’s face, I’m startled. It’s the fond amused look of an adult indulging the passing whim of a small boy; as though, I think, the pearl-and-sapphire ring, and what it signifies – marriage – is merely part of a game she’s playing to please this nice young man.

Later, we learn:

Ricky, the Canadian boy I met in London, was one of those fighter-pilots who flew off and didn’t come back. I remember him showing me, proudly, the ring he had put on my sister’s engagement finger, and I remember being startled by the glimpse I caught of her unguarded expression: she knew!

Somehow the knowing – the complete destruction of any innocence, hope or optimism in favour of this necessary cynicism – is almost more terrible than the death.

There is tremendous energy in Emma Smith’s prose, you feel as though she is taking great pleasure in looking back at her youth and telling us all about it. It is written in the present tense, so you are right there, bang in the middle of things. We whizz through the pages and the years skip by, taking us to a smart typing school, then to the ‘innumerable flimsy huts that have sprung up, like a toy town’ in the grounds of Blenheim Palace to house the War Office, to gruelling cold work on wartime canals, to Bohemian Chelsea, to India, to France…

I was struck, of course, by the many differences between now and then – a time when women make friends with each other by leaving calling cards and Rupert Brooke is a heartthrob – but these differences never obstruct the great empathy Smith inspires. Beneath these surface differences, there is much that has stayed exactly the same. Her fizzing prose tells of problems and experiences that we all face – falling in love, having one’s heart broken, struggling to find what to do with one’s life, falling ill, feeling appallingly stupid for making mistakes in a new job, running out of money, and – particularly inspiring for me – having the courage, persistence and determination to keep on writing.

I can’t wait for tea!

 Emma Smith

The Far Cry

August 5, 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Emma Smith in 1949

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

Daphne and The Far Cry

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.