Posts Tagged ‘Virago’

Our Spoons Came from Woolworths

October 7, 2014

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

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

The Walking Book Club discussing The Home-Maker

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

!

She doesn’t.

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

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

For instance, when Sophia first goes to hospital:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Two further things to note:

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

And 2. Woolworths and spoons barely feature.

The 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

Someone at a Distance

October 15, 2012

‘Only connect’ said E.M. Forster, famously and quite magnificently, in Howards End. ‘If only we didn’t all connect’ seems to be the sentiment of Dorothy Whipple’s rather less famous Someone at a Distance.

In Howards End various characters recognise a common bond with others outside their immediate social circle. There is Helen Schlegel and Leonard Bast, for instance, and Margaret Schlegel and Ruth Wilcox, whose bond is symbolised in their mutual appreciation of the house of the title, Howards End.

Someone at a Distance is also about how we are all connected, how our actions radiate out and touch others, strangers, with their effect. Towards the end of the novel, Whipple writes the following:

He had never heard of the Norths, far away in England. He would have been amazed at the suggestion that he, at such a distance, could have had anything to do with the breaking-up of that family. He had no idea that it was, in great measure, because of him that the man he had seen on the pavement in front of the Hotel de l’Ecu that afternoon had lost everything he cared about.

Whereas Forster encourages connection, causing his readers to frown upon Henry Wilcox for refusing to help Leonard Bast, for Whipple this connection is full of menace.

Someone at a Distance focuses on the North family, who live a life of post-war domestic bliss. Avery commutes from their village to his London office at a small publishing house, while Ellen devotes every moment of her life to making a happy home, rushing around cooking, gardening, filling hot water bottles. They have two children – Hugh, who is in the army, and Anne who is at boarding school and loves her horse to pieces. Nearby, lives Avery’s mother, cantankerous ‘old Mrs North’.

At first, I wondered if this would be a kind of Mariana novel – about an improbably rosy domestic life, where everyone larks around laughing in the sunshine, calling each other ‘darling’. We are treated to rather a lot of scenes like this:

Anne North had spent the first day of the summer holidays lying blissfully in the garden under the cherry tree because it had been too hot to do anything else. But after supper it was cool enough to do as she always did on her first day at home, which was to go out on Roma, the mare, with her father wobbling along on the old bicycle, never used for any other purpose, beside her.

But it’s not long before a stranger disrupts the happy scene. Louise Lanier, a dangerous and determined young lady from a small town in France, moves in to be old Mrs North’s companion. Recovering from heartbreak, she is bored of her provincial life in France and can’t bring herself to accept her fate to marry the local chemist. She has come to England to put this off for a little while, and, one suspects, to wreak havoc.

Louise is a 1950s Emma Bovary, a comparison which Whipple makes explicit:

The only character in literature for whom she felt profound sympathy, with whom she felt affinity even, was Emma Bovary. No one, she often said to herself, understands better than I do why she did as she did. It was the excruciating boredom of provincial life.

The scene is set for Louise to make a play for Avery. But Whipple is a fine mistress of suspense. She draws it out, sending Louise back to France for a while, letting us breathe a sigh of relief, before making her return, while we gnaw our nails in dread. A strange, unnerving few months unfold where Louise doesn’t quite destroy the domestic bliss of the Norths, but rattles it, like a child testing a toy’s sturdiness before hurling it to the ground. How much will it take, how much can it stand, Whipple seems to be asking, how long before Avery will fall?

The moment when Ellen and Anne discover Avery and Louise’s affair is one of the most heart-stopping moments in literature. I read it holding my breath, so painful is it, so shocking, so perfectly does Whipple capture the horror. Anne and Ellen are walking down to buy sweets from the village shop, when Ellen remembers she has left letters for the post behind. They go back to get them.

They arrived together at the open french windows of the sitting-room.

On the sofa was Avery with Louise.

As Ellen and Anne stood staring at them, their smiles died slowly, so that all the blood had drained away from their faces while they were still almost smiling.

The embrace endured. It should have had no witness.

Suddenly aware, Avery looked up. No one moved. The little clock ticked. A petal fell from a rose in a vase. Her head hanging back, her mouth open, Louise opened her eyes.

What should last only a moment stretches on for an eternity. There is time for their smiles to die ‘slowly’, for the embrace to ‘endure’. Time beats on, ‘the little clock ticked’, and yet ‘no one moved’, they are motionless victims of this slow agonising death, until, in a hideous pose of ecstasy, Louise opens her eyes.

What has Ellen done to deserve this? Why has Louise decided to ruin the lives of the North family? ‘Only connect’ is the answer. Ellen suffers thanks to Louise’s heartbreak at the hands of a young Frenchman, who Ellen has never met. What a terrifying, alarming consequence of this connection. ‘Someone at a distance’ – a very great distance – can profoundly change your life, and not for the better.

Having this idea of a complex, far-reaching web of connection at the heart of the novel gives meaning to its rather rambling structure. I wondered for a while why Whipple chose to leap from an English village to a French one, from one big house to another, from Anne’s school to Avery’s office and from Louise’s parents’ kitchen to her ex-lover’s salon. Why is it there is such an enormous cast of characters, who are all made so lifelike? This web, these connections and their consequences make it all make sense. Whipple needs all these characters, all these places, to point out that they are all connected, everything links together, everyone is at risk from the rippling actions of another.

I decided to read Someone at a Distance having heard Nicola Beauman, of Persephone Books give a very inspiring talk. I came away with a list of authors I felt I absolutely had to read and top of that list was Dorothy Whipple. (Poor lady having such an extraordinary name, forcing the inescapable recollection of delicious Walnut Whip chocolates.)

The only thing I’d heard of Dorothy Whipple, before this talk, was that Virago – notoriously – refused to republish her. As Carmen Callil explained to the Guardian, a few years ago:

We had a limit known as the Whipple line, below which we would not sink. Dorothy Whipple was a popular novelist of the 1930s and 1940s whose prose and content absolutely defeated us. A considerable body of women novelists, who wrote like the very devil, bit the Virago dust when Alexandra, Lynn and I exchanged books and reports, on which I would scrawl a brief rejection: “Below the Whipple line.”

I have to say that Virago, on this rare occasion, were wrong. Whipple is a tremendous storyteller. Not only does she achieve the feat of keeping you utterly gripped by something so quiet and interior, but she uses language so skilfully. One of her tricks of which I grew particularly fond was her habit of using metaphors perfectly suited to each character. For instance, Ellen loves gardening, so she gets the following:

There was something fruitful about this scheme, thought Ellen later. It kept budding and branching all the time.

Whereas, for the two gossiping cleaning ladies:

They wrung every drop of interest out of the topic, as if it had been one of the floor-cloths they also shared at Netherfold. They wrung it out and left it. Later they would pick it up again, soak it in their mutual interest and pass it from one to the other as before.

It’s a clever touch.

Someone at a Distance is a brilliant novel. I wonder if Forster ever read it. I think he would have welcomed this rejoinder to his ‘only connect’, which shows its horribly dark and threatening flipside. He would certainly have appreciated Whipple’s rendering of the vulnerability of English domesticity. Really it a gem of a novel – thank you Persephone Books for rescuing it from obscurity.