Saturday, 30 June 2012

Saturday Snapshots of Privies and Prams!

This Victorian earth closet makes me think there;sa lot to be said for progress!
This, as some of you probably know, is a picture of a Victorian ‘privy’ or ‘earth-closet’,  with a couple of chamber pots stored on either side, and candles to provide some light. You’ll find this particular privy in the yard at Birmingham Back to Backs. There were once three others, just like it, and together they served 11 houses. Fortunately for visitors, while this one has been restored to show what life was like in the 19th century, there are also new loos which conform to 21st century sanitary standards!

This is probably not a topic for polite conversation but, should you wonder, there was no sewage system, so the  buckets were emptied by ‘night-soil’ men about once a week (though sometimes it was longer) and what happened after that I neither know, nor wish to know – and nor would you if you had ever used one. When I was young we used to visit my grandparents up in the hills of Donegal, and they had something very like this (but not as nice!) in the barn, and I can assure you it was far, far worse than anything you are ever likely to encounter when camping. 

The wash house, with some of its equipment lined up outside.
Anyway, I digress, so let’s get back to the Back to Backs. They get their name because they are built, quite literally, back to back (as well as side to side) – and they were erected, as cheaply as possible, just one brick thick, to provide homes for the poor, and it meant a lot of houses could be crammed into a small space. In the 19th century profiteering landlords and builders constructed places like this in towns and cities all over England. These ones were, apparently, better built than many, but they were damp, dark, very tiny, and probably very smelly, dirty and smoky.

Ready, steady, wash... my younger daughter
tries her hand at pounding washing with a
wooden 'dolly'.
Birmingham Back to Backs, once known as Court 15, are built around a small yard, with a narrow alley leading into it, and one set of houses facing inwards, and the others facing out. The first was constructed in 1802, and others followed over the next 30 years. It’s thought there were four privies at one stage, and two wash houses (known locally as brew houses - Brummies obviously had a sense of humour), but there was no sanitation, and no water supply until a stand-pipe was set up in the yard in 1870 – before  that people had to walk to the nearest well and carry all their water back in wooden buckets, including the huge quantity needed to fill the copper boilers in the wash house, where cloths were washed and rinsed.

The results of her efforts - but she'd rather
use a washing machine.
Amazingly Court 15, standing in the shadow of the Hippodrome Theatre, survived slum clearances, the devastation caused by German bombs during the Second World War, and modern redevelopment.  It’s possible they were overlooked because the ‘outer’ properties became small shops, but the buildings got more and more run down. In 1988 they were ‘listed’ but no effort was made to preserve them. Eventually, in 2001 a campaign was mounted to save them, and they are now run by the National Trust. To visit, you have to book in advance, for a guided tour, but it's well worth the money, and the guides, who are all volunteers, are really knowledgeable and very entertaining.

This ewnovated house looks quite clean and pretty,,
but inside is dark and pokey, and th yard would
have been very dirty.
Three of the inner houses have been restored, decorated and furnished – one in the style of the 1840s, another as it would have been in the 1870s, and the third as a 1930s home. A privy and wash house, which also look into the yard, have been recreated, and the National Trust shop and office are in one of the outer houses, with an excellent museum above. Another of the outer buildings has been fitted out as a 1930s sweet shop, jars full of sweets I haven’t seen since I was a child, including Fruit Salads and Edinburgh Rock.

Plants grow anywhere!
The houses are three stories high (most back to backs were just on up, one down),, with one small room on each floor, and no bathrooms or kitchens, just a tiny, dark scullery, the size of a cupboard, in a corner of the downstairs room. The scullery had a sink, and shelving, but no cooking facilities, and it seems the fires were not designed for cooking, although people may well have done so. Our guide told us people probably bought hot food from street vendors and pie shops – the fast food outlets of their day. They are lit by candles, and there are coal fires burning on the hottest of days, so you really do get a sense of what it must have been like here all those years ago. Sadly, I can't show you any pictures of the interiors, because no photography is allowed inside.

When the weather was fine mothers left their babies
lying in their prams in te sunshine in the yrd.
 In the yard outside are lines of washing; a bicycle; flowers, herbs and vegetables growing in old buckets and a tin bath; various items from the wash house – and some old prams. Once women would have left babies outside while they got on with their work, and the older children would have played games. Originally the yard had an earth surface, and must have been a sea of mud in bad weather, so I imagine things were much cleaner when it was bricked over.

As part of the Back to Backs project, people who lived and worked in Court 15 and the surrounding area recorded their memories, and researchers traced the history of families who were there in the 19th century.  I came away convinced that progress is a wonderful thing - no-one should ever have been expected to live n conditions like that. But I was surprised at how resilient and resourceful the tenants were, using their skills to try and better themselves. By the end of the 19th century  the ground floor rooms of all the outer houses had been turned into shops, with the enterprising families who ran them living in the two upper rooms. And many of those living in the inner houses set up workshops in their homes - one man made glass eyes!
For more Saturday Snapshots see  Alice's blog

Thursday, 28 June 2012

Talking Trains with John Betjeman

The older I get, the more I like John Betjeman, especially his prose, and particularly Trains and Buttered Toast, an anthology of his radio talks, mostly from the thirties, forties and early fifties. The subject matter is varied, but his enthusiasms are apparent: Victoriana, seaside towns, great British eccentrics, churches. Despite his campaigns to preserve old buildings, he was never political, but portrayed the small details of everyday life which gave him pleasure – and the things which aroused his ire. His cuddly teddy bear image belies his sharp wit, and he can be quite scathing about things (and people) he doesn’t like.

He hated the word nostalgia, but there seems to be an element of it involved in many of these pieces, for the world he grew up in had changed, and he looked back longingly at the values and lifestyle of that earlier age. Life has altered even more since these short essays were first aired. Take Back to the Railway Carriage, broadcast in March 1940 for the BBC Home Service, in which he sings the praises of our railways. “If you want to see and feel the country, travel by train,” he tells us. According to him:

Roads are determined by boundaries of estates and by villages and other roads; they are shut in by hedges, peppered with new villas, garish with tin signs, noisy with roadhouse ...railways are built regardless of natural boundaries and from the height of an embankment we can see the country undisturbed, as one who walks along an open footpath though a field. Roads bury themselves in the landscape. The railways carve out a landscape of their own. .. Railways were built to look from and look at. They are still pleasures for the eye.

And he adds:

But the greatest gift the railways give to us is the proper management of time. Of course there are expresses which will hurtle you from place to place in no time. But the others – no longer the mania for getting from one town to another volleying along a tarmac road at sixty miles an hour, but a leisurely journey, seeing the country, getting to the place much sooner and much more comfortably in the long run and with the pleasant discipline of having to catch a train at a stated time. And if the train is a bit late, what matter?

Betjeman wrote this long before the closure of branch lines, the destruction of ornate Victorian stations, and the development of high-speed trains. He ddidn’t like the ‘new, smart jazz expresses’ with cocktail bars and stifling heat. No, what he enjoys is ‘an old, bumpy carriage with a single gas light in the ceiling’, posters of holiday destinations on the walls, and a rack for ‘Light Articles Only’. I’m not old enough to remember gas lights, but I do recall the pictures of mountains, hills and seaside towns, the luggage racks made from thick cord netting, windows that pulled down to provide fresh air, and doors with handles rather than electronic buttons.

He throws in comments about railway architecture, passengers and staff, as well as a tribute to Bradshaw, guru of Victorian travellers, who produced railway timetables, maps and information about the towns whre the trains stopped. In addition, there are some lines from Edward Thomas’ wonderful poem, ‘Addlestrop’, where Betjeman writes about the wonderful silence of country stations, which is something you don’t come across these days, with all those pre-recorded messages telling you not to smoke, not to leave luggage lying about, to stand well back from the platform edge, and how many carriages make up each train. Once on the train there is no peace, because there are all kinds of beeps and messages about ‘station stops’ and the name of your train manager. And don’t get me started on the sound of computers being turnrd on and off; other people’s music which can be heard all over the carriage, even though they are wearing head phones; the ringing of mobile phones, and the shouted conversations as people communicate on these devices.

How Betjeman would have hated modern train travel. But he would, I think, have been delighted to know that after many years out of print, a reproduction of an 1863 Bradshaw’s Handbook, a Victorian guide to Britain’s railways, has been issued, largely as a result of Michael Portillo’s TV programmes, ‘Great British Railway Journeys’, of which I am a huge fan. Like Betjeman, Portillo improves with age, and his view of our railways is as quirky as that presented by the poet. Interestingly, Betjeman’s talk was intended for broadcast in November 1939 to mark the centenary of Bradshaw’s first railway guide, but went out later than planned.

Oh dear, I was going to write a much more general post on the entire book, not a look at one essay and my thoughts on trains. And the tenses are all to pot, because it’s been thundering, and has started again, and I’m phobic about storms, and have to keep turning the computer and radio and lights off, so I shall publish it as it is, and maybe tidy up the grammar later. By the way,  I've posted this for the Essay Reading Challenge 2012 hosted by Carrie K, and if you've never read any of Betjeman's prose you've missed a real treat, and this book is a good place to start, so do, please,  give it a try.

Monday, 25 June 2012

Lady Into Fox

Some of the books I’ve read this year do seem to be rather odd – and David Garnett’s Lady Into Fox is the most peculiar of all. Basically, it tells the story of Mr Tebrick and his wife Silvia, who is transformed into a fox while they are out walking.

Hearing the hunt, Mr Tebrick quickened his pace so as to reach the edge of the copse, where they might get a good view of the hounds if they came that way. His wife hung back, and he, holding her hand, began almost to drag her. Before they gained the edge of the copse she suddenly snatched her hand away from his very violently and cried out, so that he instantly turned his head.
Where his wife had been the moment before was a small fox, of a very bright red. It looked at him very beseechingly, advanced towards him a pace or two, and he saw at once that his wife was looking at him from the animal’s eyes. You may well think if he were aghast: and so maybe was his lady at finding herself in that shape, so they did nothing for nearly half-an-hour but stare at each other, he bewildered, she asking him with her eyes as if indeed she spoke to him: “What am I now become? Have pity on me, husband, have pity on me for I am your wife.

Mr Tebrick is distraught, but he still loves his wife, despite the fact that she is now a vixen, so he takes her home, dismisses the servants, and shoots the dogs, so they cannot attack her. At this stage Silvia still has human feelings and sensibilities, and Mr Tebrick continues to treat her like a woman.  She does not wish to be naked, so he dresses her in a little jacket; he sits her on cushions on an armchair and feeds her with bread and butter, toast and jam, and eggs and ham. Each morning he sponges and brushes her, using scent ‘very freely’ to mask her rank smell. She even plays cards and shows him how to do the housework.

But gradually the fox’s animal nature takes over, and when Old Nanny returns Mr Tebrick moves into her isolated cottage, where there is an enclosed garden and his vixen can run about in safety. However, the animal is desperate to escape, and eventually he lets he go because he cannot keep her against her will. Still, he puts food out every night, and roams the woods hoping to catch a glimpse of her.
 Every one of her foxey ways was now so absolutely precious to him that I believe that if he had known for certain she was dead, and had thoughts of marrying a second time, he would never have been happy with a woman. No, indeed, he would have been more tempted to get himself a tame fox, and would have counted that as good a marriage as he could make.

When the fox finally returns, she has her cubs with her, and initially he is jealous. Nut he becomes resigned to her condition, and realises she must now be judged as a fox, not a woman. He finds happiness playing with the young animals, hunting with them, and finding food they might not otherwise have.
 The ending is shocking but inevitable, for there can be no happy ever after between man and vixen. Garnett’s story is like a subverted fairy tale – one of those where a beautiful maiden restores an enchanted prince to his human shape with a kiss, but there is no restoration here. And there are echoes of the metamorphoses in ancient Greek and Roman myths, where men and women are transformed into other creatures (or even trees and plants), as a punishment, or to avoid some worse fate. Then, of course, it could be read as an allegory to show the difference between men and women, or knowing and accepting a person’s true nature, or to explore what it is that makes us human. I do wonder how I would view the story of it were written by a woman – Angela Carter perhaps, or Michele Roberts.

It’s difficult to tell what Garnett had in mind when he wrote this, and he offers no explanation, though there are hints of something unnatural in Sylvia’s family. Before her marriage she was a Miss Fox, has always been scared of hunting, and Old Nanny says she was always a little wild. Then there’s the story that one of her forebears kept a fox chained in the inner courtyard of their home...
David Garnett painted by Dora Carrington in 1919
 I don’t know that enjoy is really the right word to describe Lady into Fox, but I liked it the same way I like fairy tales, myths and legends, and I shall be more than happy to reread it. Like all good fairy tales, parts of it sent a shiver down my spine, and parts are quite dark (especially the scene where Mr Tebrick gets drunk and decides if his wife is a beast, he may as well behave like a beast too). His love for his wife/vixen is obsessive, and leads to some very strange behaviour – I can see why people think he is mad. But his feelings for the fox, and her cubs, are very tenderly described.

I downloaded my copy from Project Gutenburg, so I’ve illustrated this post with wood engravings by RA Garnett, who I assume is the artist Rachel (‘Ray’) Marshall, who was his first wife. 

Saturday, 23 June 2012

Saturday Snapshots of a Gateway to the Past

Polesworth Abbey Gatehouse

This gatehouse is virtually all that remains of Polesworth Abbey, and I can never pass it without thinking of the nuns who walked beneath it when the were forced to leave during the dissolution of the monasteries. For some of the women it would have been the only home they had ever known – and one of them was 100 years old, so just imagine how she must have felt.

It was here that the nuns distributed bread to the poor of the village, and as they left they must have wondered who would feed them and how they would survive in the harsh world outside their convent and its church. The Benedictine abbey, founded in Saxon times, was rebuilt by the Normans, and became very prosperous through donations from wealthy benefactors who, doubtlessly, hoped their generosity would secure them a place in Heaven. The nuns owned woods, meadows and other land, as well as mills, churches, a dovecote, and properties owned by tenants living and working on their land.
Looking in: Walking through the archway takes you
along a path, lined with trees and flowers, to the
graveyard and church
 In 1536 a commission set up by Henry VIII to record the assets of religious establishments, put the annual value of Polesworth Abbey at £110s 6s 2d, noting it was in 'good and convenient repair. The income from the 'great woods' and the 'stocks, stores and moveable goods' (whatever they may have been) was even higher, and if you multiply this across the country, you begin to see why the king was so keen to get his hands on the monasteries. It may be a cynical point of view, but it does strike me that the whole process had more to do with economics that religion.

Anyway, the Commission recommended that Polesworth should not be closed, because if it did the town would fall into 'ruyne and dekaye', and it went on to explain how more than 30 children were educated there, and that the nuns had 38 people dependent on them, including 3 priests, 8 yeomen, 17 peasants, 9 women servants, and one 'old impotent creature, sometime cook of the House, who had her living here by promise'. This appeal was successful – possibly because the Abbess, Alicia Fitz-Herbert, paid a fee of £50 - and in 1537 Polesworth was granted exemption.
Looking out: the view through the gateway into the street.
 But two years later the 60-year-old abbess surrendered the abbey voluntarily. Perhaps pressure was brought to bear on her, or perhaps she realised that the nunnery would eventually be closed whether she liked it or not, so felt it was better to give in. At any rate, Alicia and the 14 'virtuous and relygous nounes' under her rule, all clad in their black robes, walked away to start their new life. Their fate is unknown, but there is a record of their names, and they were awarded pensions.  Local historian Jean Wood lists the names, and a great deal of other fascinating information, in 'A New Look At Polesworth History'.

In 1544 Henry sold the abbey to the Goodere family, who demolished most of the buildings and erected a manor house (which is now the vicarage). The nuns' priest, John Bower, became their chaplain..
The building to the right of the arch was part of the gatehouse
 The gatehouse through which the nuns walked when they left, survives. Parts of it date back to 1343, although some alterations were made over the years. The main archway was for horse-drawn vehicles, and the smaller one for pedestrians. Originally there must have been stout, protective doors, and there was a room downstairs, to the left of the little arch,  for a porter, who checked everyone in and out. 

The building to the right of the main arch was part of the gatehouse complex. It's thought the nuns may have kept horses or livestock in the lower part, and that the gatehouse may have been where guests stayed. After the Dissolution part of the gatehouse became a schoolroom, and later still some of it was used as a 'lock-up' or prison. 
A close-up of the room above the archwayn
For more Saturday Snapshots see  Alice's blog

Friday, 22 June 2012

An Awfully Big Adventure

Sixteen-year-old Stella has a job as an assistant stage manager with a repertory company in Liverpool. As far as work goes, her options are limited – it’s the theatre or Woolworth’s, because she failed her mock school certificate and her school won’t let her stay on because she has the brains, but not the application.

She’s the central protagonist in Beryl Bainbridge’s An Awfully Big Adventure, and is one of those curiously disassociated (but very naïve) girls one sometimes finds in novels, and there is some kind of mystery about her. When the novel opens we know something terrible has happened, that she seems in some way responsible, and that she is upset, but you have to wait until the end to discover what has taken place in the recent – and distant – past.

It’s a darkly funny novel, with some wonderfully drawn characters, especially the actors at the theatre, and the backstage crew. Bainbridge can paint such a full picture of a person, in very few words, and is wonderfully understated with her barbed comments. Take lovelorn actress Dawn Allenby, who is ‘a plain woman with the faintest smell of spirits on her breath, even at ten o’clock in the morning’. And a little later we are told ‘there was nothing wrong with Dawn Allenby apart from her love of beauty, an affliction she was ill-equipped to fight’.

Stella is equally ill-equipped to cope with life, as she has no idea how other people feel, and cannot comprehend the complicated loves and losses endured by the theatre folk. Nor does she realise that there are times when telling people the truth can only cause pain. She develops a passionate crush on Meredith Porter, the director, and is blissfully unaware that he is not interested in women,

She lives with her Uncle Vernon and Aunt Lily, but resembles no-one they know. As Vernon says: “She’s not one of us.”  She’s very self-possessed (‘she had always had a precise notion of what was expected of her,’ Bainbridge writes. , manipulative and, according to Vernon, dramatises everything. Now she’s started work and has a new life she’s ashamed of her aunt and uncle and the down-market hotel they run, and wants as little to do with them as possible. And she keeps making phone calls to her mother (Lily’s younger sister, who was once a telephonist), which is strange because no-one knows where her mother is.

But as the story progresses we see just how vulnerable Stella is, for when she was a baby her single mother abandoned her in her cot, leaving a withered rose on the pillow, and a row of night-lights set along the floor.

Things come to a head while the company is engaged on the Christmas production of Peter Pan. The actor playing Hook breaks a leg, and PL O'Hara, who performed at the theatre many years earlier - before moving on to bigger and better things - agrees to step into the breech. Stella lets him seduce her, hoping it will make Meredith take notice of her, and O'Hara (we never know his first name) becomes more and more obsessed her, while thinking of his lost love from long ago, a girl he knew as Stella Maris. So the stage is set for a terrible discovery...

Throughout the novel there are references to the past, and the way we perceive it, and its effect on the present, and to death - Peter Pan's 'awfully big adventure'. Early on in the novel Bainbridge, talking about Uncle Vernon, says: “It had bought home to him how unreliable history was, in that the story, by definition, was always one-sided.” At the theatre, Meredith tells Stella: "the dead are still there, as are those we think we love, just around the corner... waiting to be caught up with." And O'Hara warns: "We can never be sure when we will be consumed by the past."

Like According to Queeney, the characters in An Awfully Big Adventure are all lonely people looking for love - but they are looking in the wrong place. They want to be needed, but somehow the object of their affection is unable to respond. Reading this I could see similarities with Muriel Spark - the understated style, the dark humour and the wit. 

I read this for the Beryl Bainbridge Reading Week being hosted by Anabel at and will definitely be reading more Bainbridge, as a week was not long enough  for an exploration of her work.

Thursday, 21 June 2012

Johnson According To Bainbridge

When I worked on the local paper in Lichfield I attended the Johnson Supper a couple of times, and covered the Birthday Celebrations, which involved a procession and service by his statue in the Market Square. Now I’m a volunteer in the city’s Oxfam Book Shop, which is next door but one to the Johnson Birthplace, so there was really only one possible choice when it came to reading Beryl Bainbridge for the first time – and lo and behold, as if by magic, before I even had time to start searching for a copy, what should turn up among the donations but According to Queeney.

It is, as you may have guessed from my intro, a novel about Dr Samuel Johnson, scholar, wit, novelist, essayist, poet, man of letters and compiler of the famous dictionary. He is seen mainly through the eyes of Queeney, the daughter of his friend and confidante Hester Thrale, but there are other viewpoints, from Hester, from Johnson himself, and from his friends and acquaintances. He’s a tortured figure, a genius, with a strong belief in God, and a desire to do good, but he’s torn by sexual desires, fear of the afterlife, and bouts of depression. Large, bumbling, shabby and dishevelled, he stumbles though life ‘living in his head’ as Hester says. Polite society is shocked by his tics and mutterings, his irascible temper, his forthright speech and his uncouth ways - but they all want to meet him because he's a celebrity. What they don't understand is that beneath the bluster is a very lonely and very vulnerable man, as needy for love and attention as a child.

The book opens with the post mortem held on Johnson's body, then travels backwards and forwards in time revealing his relationship with the Thrale family through narratives describing events from the perspective of the various characters, and letters from the adult Queeney in which she recalls her childhoood. But everyone sees things from a different vantage point, and interpretations vary, so we never know for sure how reliable anyone's account is, especially cool, calculating Queeney, who treats her mother with disdain and derision, but anxiously seeks affection from her. And does the troubled relationship between mother and daughter arise from the relationship between Hester and Johnson - which remains ambiguous, just as it did in real life - or is there some deeper cause for dissent?

Dr Samuel Johnson, painted by
Sir Joshua Reynolds.
As far as the history goes, Hester and her husband Henry, a wealthy brewer, were at the centre of a glittering social circle which included some of the most renowned writers and artists of the 18th century. The couple met Johnson in 1765: shortly afterwards he suffered one of his periodic bouts of depression, and the Thrales took him and cared for him at their luxurious house in Streatham. A friendship was forged, and they provided him with his own room, and with another in their London home. He spent much of his time with them, accompanied them to Wales and France, and corresponded with Hester when he was elsewhere. For years there was gossip about the nature of their relationship, and when Henry died there were rumours that Hester and Johnson would wed - but she scandalised everyone by marrying her children's Italian singing teacher, causing a rift with Johnson, and with her family. Johnson died just a few months later, in 1784.

Johnson himself said: "Characters should never be given by an historian, unless he knew the people whom he describes, or copies from those who knew them." Bainbridge was not a historian, but she followed his advice to the letter: her novel is peopled with those who knew Johnson - and many of them left letters, diaries and memoirs describing the great man and his life, which she obviously studied. Even the Thrales' pet spaniel Belle actually existed, and many of the events in the book really did happen. I'm not sure if they visited Lichfield, as Bainbridge makes them do, but they certainly passed through the city on their way to Wales.

What Bainbridge does, and she does it superbly well, is to bring the characters to life. On the whole they are not likeable, and they move through a world which is raucous, rude and rumbustious. There are riots in the streets of London, and there is mud and dirt everywhere. Emotions seethe beneath the surface leaving turmoil in their wake. There is love, despair and jealousy as people jostle and vie for attention. Everyone, it seems wants what they cannot have, and while Johnson hopes for kind words from Hester, the disparate members of his own household are seeking approval from him.

Hester Thrale is much more capricious and less intelligent than I imagined, and over the years she tires of living in such close proximity to a very demanding genius. Long before the final split with Johnson there are rifts which are patched up. It’s hard to decide whether he loves her, or whether he craves an illusory happy family life. And is she genuinely fond of Johnson – or is she attracted by his standing in society and the friends he can bring to her home, like the actor David Garrick, playwright Oliver Goldsmith and artist Joshua Reynolds?

I read this for the Beryl Bainbridge Reading Week being hosted by Anabel at  and wondered how representative of her work it is. It’s less dark than I expected, but she is very objective in her portrayal of the characters.

Monday, 18 June 2012

Beauty Tips From An Old Penguin

Looking beautiful in the 1950s must have been a full-time job for a woman. Even at night there was no let-up. You were advised to sleep with an elasticated band tied ‘fairly tightly’ under your chin and knotted on top of the head (to prevent a double chin),  to don bed socks and cotton gloves (so the creams smeared on your feet and hands would not mark the bedlinen), and to brush your eyelashes with rum and castor oil before retiring. All this – and more – I have gleaned from a yellowing edition of The Penguin Book of Health and Beauty Recipes, by Olga Golbæk, with the most delightful illustrations by Jennifer Rope. Originally published in Denmark, this English translation was issued in 1957 as a Penguin Handbook (PH25), when it cost half a crown, or 2/6 - that’s 25p for those of you who are too young to know about ‘old’ money.

The book is arranged in alphabetical order, from ankles to wrinkles, and is best summed up by a quote from the preface, which states: Its purpose is to persuade women that they can look nice and keep fit by using homely recipes and remedies rather than the expensive products of the beauty-parlours. The author, described as a Danish beauty specialist and journalist, includes a lot of advice which still holds good today, but some of her ‘recipes’ sound quite dubious. There’s a lot of emphasis on ‘slimming’ lotions, potions, creams and baths, which would land a modern writer in a lot of trouble, because you can no longer make that kind of claim for a product, which is a jolly good thing really, especially when you look at some of Golbæk’s ingredients.

For example, there is Goulard’s Lotion which, according to the book, is lead lotion, so how safe would that be? And would ammonia in the bath really be good for your skin (let alone the surface of a plastic bath)? And I can’t say I’d fancy adding turpentine to the bath water either. And should anyone be using iodide of potassium, potassium bromide, potassium chloride, scilla maritima and ground lily roots in home-made cosmetics? Then there’s the most scary recipe for hair bleach, with an alarming warning about not keeping it in a corked bottle in case it explodes...
Tying an elasticated band around the head to prevent a double chin
There’s also a pretty worrying ‘apple-a-day diet’ which seems to .involve eating nothing but grated apple for an entire week, which is not to be recommended, because crash diets are not good for you. In the dim and distant past I once tried an egg and grapefruit diet, and another  time I attempted to only eat bananas for seven days: on both occasions I felt very ill indeed, and the weight I lost went back on within 24 hours as soon as I resumed normal eating. There was also a wine diet, about which the less said the better. Suffice to say I have never been fond of wine since then...

Anyway, enough of my dieting mishaps. Let’s get back to the book. I just love the hints and tips, although I doubt I shall follow any of them. Take the eyes for example, where the author tells us: “You should rinse your eyes twice daily, a practice which not only makes them more beautiful, but helps to preserve their vigour.” And what do you wash them with, I hear you ask. Golbæk offers various solutions, but I think the mix of camomile flowers, tea, rosewater and witch-hazel sounds nicest.
A facial compress is made from layers of gauze soaked in infusions.
There’s an amazing remedy for corns, where you to soak thin slices of onion and two slices of white bread in vinegar for 24 hours, then put the bread and the onions on the corns and wrap gauze round them. “By next day the pain will have gone and the corns be ready to be removed,” writes Golbæk, adding: “Sleep in socks to avoid soiling the sheets.” Would it were that easy! To help soften and sooth sore feet she recommends soaking them in a ‘soft porridge’ of oatmeal and lemon juice, then massaging them with camphor oil – just imagine how bad that would smell!

Many of the ‘recipes’ for bath, hair and skin treatments are centuries-old, and may well work – and you’d certainly have fun making them, especially those using fresh fruit and vegetables. Failing all else, you could probably eat some of them, as the author makes generous use of milk, cream, butter, eggs, porridge oats and bran.
Women were urged to wash their eyes twice a day, using
home-made lotions.
Surprisingly, some recommendations are for things that have once again become popular, like massage rollers for the back, and juicing fruit and vegetables. Instructions for exercises are very sound, and the tips on cleansing and moisturising skin are also sensible, but the whole thing seems to be taken to excess. There are exercises, routines and preparations for every part of the body: elbows must be scrubbed and soaked to keep them soft and white, ankles massaged with special creams to stop them thickening, and the bust splashed with cold water after a bath.

I cannot see how any woman ever found the time to follow this kind of beauty regimen, or why she would want to, especially if she had children or a job (and don’t tell me that women didn’t work in the 1950s, because many of them did). Perhaps they just followed certain things and ignored the rest, or perhaps it was only well-heeled, middle-class women, who took it seriously. At any rate, I feel sorry for all those men, who must have experienced a terrible shock when they saw their beautiful bride in night attire for the first time, with chin strap, bed socks, gloves – and smelling like mothballs!
Elbows had to be scrubbed and soaked once a week.

Saturday, 16 June 2012

Saturday Snapshots of a Warrior Queen

I took this picture of Tamworth Castle a couple of years ago,
and some of the trees have been cut back, but it shows the
mound (said to have been built by Ethelfleda) fairly clearly.
I am feeling sad today, because my elder daughter left this morning to set up a home of her own with her boyfriend in Plymouth, which is around 225 miles away from us. She has arranged to do her final placement as a student in a hospital down there, and has been lucky enough to get a nursing job, which she can start in September, when her training is complete and she will, hopefully, be fully qualified. Obviously, I am tremendously proud of her, but I shall miss her, and Devon seems a long way from Staffordshire.

So, to cheer myself up, today's Saturday Snapshots are about a feisty warrior queen, whose story is very stirring. Ethelfleda, known as the Lady of the Mercians, was born around 869 and was the daughter of Alfred the Great (the one who burnt the cakes, but that's another tale altogether). After the death of her husband Ethelred - not the Unready, but an earlier king of the same name - she became ruler of Mercia and embarked on a ferocious campaign against the Danes, beating them back to Watling Street, the old Roman road. People to the north of the route had to pay the Danegeld, which sounds less like a tax, and more like the kind of protection racket run by American gangsters during Prohibition. But, thanks to Ethelfelda, people living on the southern side were free Saxons – although personally given the social set-up of the day, I think the word 'free' may be open to question.

The Ethelfleda Monument in Tamworth.
Anyway, Ethelfleda built a string of defensive fortresses across the Midlands, including the one she established here in Tamworth in 913. It is thought she raised the mound on which the present Castle stands so, presumably, her fortress (which would probably have been an earth rampart and wooden stockade) was on the same site. According to the Anglo Saxon Chronicles: 

This year by the permission of God went Ethelfleda, lady of Mercia, with all the Mercians to Tamworth; and built the fort there in the fore-part of the summer; and before Lammas that at Stafford: in the next year that at Eddesbury, in the beginning of the summer; and the same year, late in the autumn, that at Warwick. Then in the following year was built, after mid-winter, that at Chirbury and that at Warburton; and the same year before mid-winter that at Runkorn.

In AD916 she led an army into Brecknock, in Wales, where she captured the king's wife and 34 other people. She fought her last battle at Derby in 918, where the Chronicles record that:
This year Ethelfleda, lady of the Mercians, with the help of God, before Laminas, conquered the town called Derby, with all that thereto belonged; and there were also slain four of her thanes, that were most dear to her, within the gates. And the annals go on to explainBut very shortly after they had become so, she died at Tamworth, twelve days before midsummer, the eighth year of her having rule and right lordship over the Mercians; and her body lies at Gloucester, within the east porch of St Peter's church.
Floral Fighter: This Saxon soldier
was created last year.
There is nothing to indicate whether she died from a wound, from illness, or old age. She was about 50, which doesn't sound that old, but I have no idea what the average expectancy was in those days. Her tomb, apparently, can still be seen in the church she endowed, which is now known as St Oswald’s Priory. I keep promising myself that one of these days I will visit the city to pay homage to a local heroine. Her daughter Elfwyn succeeded her as Lady of the Mercians, but the following year was 'deprived of all dominion over the Mercians, and carried into Wessex' (the Anglo Saxon Chronicles again). It was Ethelfleda's nephew Athelstan, whom she had fostered, who eventually took the reins of power and became king, not just of Mercia, but of all England. 

A statue of Ethelfleda, sheltering the young Athelstan with one arm while wielding a sword with the other, stands beneath the walls of Tamworth Castle.  It was created for the town's Millenary Celebrations of 1913, marking the 1,000th anniversary of the year when Ethelfleda, Lady of the Mercians, freed Tamworth from the Danes and fortified the town. By the way, if you want to know where Watling Street was, find a road map and look for the A5: it more or less follows the old route where it ran from London to Wales. And if you don't know much about Mercia, it covered most of Staffordshire, Derbyshire, Leicestershire, Nottinghamshire and Warwickshire.
A view of the whole statue.
For more Saturday Snapshots see  Alice's blog

Friday, 15 June 2012

A Garden by Moonlight

Right, here is this month's instalment from Elizabeth von Arnim's The Solitary Summer, which I was going to post tomorrow, since one of the 'entries' is for June 16. However, tomorrow is my Saturday Snapshots day, so today we will enjoy Elizabeth's garden, and her reflections on life, the universe and everything – all of which makes her something of an icon as far as I'm concerned. And not only that, but she writes beautifully.
Her first 'entry' for the month is June 3, when she tells us:

The verandah at two o'clock on a summer's afternoon is a place in which to be happy and not decide anything, as my friend Thoreau told me of some other tranquil spot this morning. The chairs are comfortable, there is a table to write on, and the shadows of young leaves flicker across the paper. On one side a Crimson Rambler is thrusting inquisitive shoots through the wooden bars, being able this year for the first time since it was planted to see what I am doing up here, and next to it a Jackmanni clematis clings with soft young fingers to anything it thinks likely to hep it up to the goal of its ambition, the roof. I wonder which of the two will get there first.”

One of my roses - I think it's beautiful, though it's obviously
not in the same league as the roses in Elizabeth's garden.
It sounds so comfortable and pretty I considered sitting in my own small garden to write this while observing the roses (unnamed I afraid) which are trying to cover the fence. There's a honeysuckle there as well, and some jasmine, both of which I grew from cuttings. Sadly, it is too cold and windy to sit outside, and although it is not raining today the garden chairs are so waterlogged they feel as if they will never dry out.

Anyway, Elizabeth's thoughts stray to her children, for through the open window she can hear the two eldest 'babies' at their lessons (the village schoolmaster gives them lessons for a couple of hours every afternoon), and she writes:

I hope he will be more successful than I was in teaching them Bible stories. I never got farther than Noah, at which stage their questions became so searching as to completely confound me; and as no one likes being confounded, and it is especially regrettable when a parent is placed in such a position, I brought the course to an abrupt end by assuming that owl-like air of wisdom peculiar to infallibility in a corner, and telling them they were too young to understand these things for the present; and they, having a touching faith in every word I say, gave three contented little purrs of assent, and proposed that we should play instead at rolling down the grass bank under the south windows...

On June 16 she describes how on the previous day (June 15 – so there is a link to today) she stole through the house at three in the morning, and let herself out into into a wonderful, unknown world. It's one of the most magical passages in the book.

I stood for a few minutes motionless on the steps, almost frightened by the awful purity of nature, when all the sin and ugliness is shut up and asleep, and there is nothing but the beauty left. It was quite light, yet a bright moon hung in the cloudless grey-blue sky; the flowers were all awake, saturating the air with scent; and a nightingale sat on a hornbeam quite close to me, in loud raptures at the coming of the sun. There in front of me was the sun-dial, there were the rose bushes, there was the bunch of pansies I had dropped the night before still lying on the path, but how strange and unfamiliar it all looked, and how holy – as though God must be walking there in the cool of the day.

But after breakfast she cannot believe it is the same garden, because the wind blows, and there are angry showers. It is so gloomy that in the evening, despite her wish for solitude, she welcomes a visit from the 'least objectional' of the candidates seeking a position as parson on the estate. She despises herself for feeling pleased to see a visitor but, with a fine sense of irony, decides that such is the weakness of the female mind, coupled with the effect of a two-day gale after two months alone.

After meeting the impoverished parson, and listening to him talk about his family, and his struggles to make ends meet, Elizabeth reflects on the daily task of distributing sausages (which she hates) to the servants, and the problems of being both poor and genteel, in which case she would sit with a piece of bread, a pot geranium, and a book. Then she would buy a radish, and eat it wit the bread, sitting under a tree, and feed crumbs to a robin, and no creature would be happier.

It sounds an unlikely scenario for someone in her position, but she does seem to have had the gift of taking pleasure from the simple things in life.

Ellizabeth von Arnim
Elizabeth von Arnim, born Mary Annette Beauchamp, was the daughter of a wealthy shipping magnate. She met Count Henning August von Arnim-Schlagenthin (her first husband) in Italy in 1889, when she was 23 and he was a 38-year-old widower. They lived in Berlin for five years, then moved to his family's vast estate at Nassenheide, in Pomerania, which was then part of Prussia.

There, she obviously led a cushioned existence, but in her writing she is quite satirical about the Germans' social conventions and way of life. She didn't enjoy entertaining visitors and playing lady bountiful to poor tenants and servants, and would rather spend her her time reading and thinking as she wandered about the garden and the fields, forests and farms. It is obvious from 'The Solitary Summer' that she was a great reader, who loved her favourite authors, for she talks about them as if they are having conversations with her, whether they are alive or dead.

She loved living on the estate, but in 1908 it was sold to pay off the count's debts, and Elizabeth – who became known by her pen name – moved to England. Her husband died two years later. 

My original post is at

Wednesday, 13 June 2012

Love, Housework and Happy Endings

My 1996 Penguin edition of The Rose
Revived, with its lovely cover painted
by Pamela Kay
There are those who dismiss Katie Fforde because she is a writer of romantic fiction, but all I can say is, they don’t know what they’re missing. And I’m not going to describe her as a guilty pleasure because firstly, it’s such a contradiction in terms, and secondly, one should never, ever feel guilty about reading. If you enjoy a book, that’s fine, no matter who the author is, or what the genre. And the same applies in reverse: just remember there’s no rule which stops you hating a book, even if it is written by a highly acclaimed modern novelist, or a great classic author.

Anyway, I digress. Fforde’s The Rose Revived is the final book in my loosely themed ‘housework’ quartet, and it may not be ‘great literature’, but it is very enjoyable. Desperate for cash, and emotionally fragile, May, Harriet and Sally meet when they find work at Quality Cleaners, but quickly discover their boss (‘Slimeball’) has conned them, so they set up business on their own, despite their lack of experience.

The only member of the trio who knows anything about housework is single-mother Harriet, brought up by her repressive grandparents, who not only refuse to let her pursue a career as an artist, but are also denying her access to her 10-year-old son at the boarding school they pay for. Sally, obsessed with her looks and weight, is an aspiring actress, whose relationship with her controlling boyfriend is on the rocks, while May, the chief  protagonist,  is an independent feminist, who bought her boyfriend’s share in their narrowboat home(the Rose Revived) when he left – then realised he had not paid the mooring fees.

Her efforts to keep her home are a key feature in the novel, and at one stage it provides a refuge for May's two friends (as well as Sally's bags of clothes), and having once lived on a boat myself I know Fforde's descriptions are spot-on, and am aware of just how cramped space can be, how precious the onboard water is, and how friendly the boating community are. 
Traditional canal boat paintings of roses, from

As their friendship flourishes, they all discover talents they never knew they had and, of course, they each meet a man... There is Leo, the artist with past, who lives in some squalor in a flat which Harriet cleans; Sally falls hopelessly in love with cash-strapped farmer James, and May  spars with Hugh, a hot-shot lawyer who is the brother of the head of Harriet’s son’s boarding school, and a friend of one of her clients.

The course of true love, as in all romantic tales, does not run smoothly, and there are  bumpy rides all round before misunderstandings are ironed out ready for the obligatory happy ending.  Each girl (they are in their mid-twenties, and I should refer to them as women, which is politically correct, but girls is much more apt) ends up with the partner and lifestyle that is right for them (even if it takes them a while to realise this), enabling them to fulfill their potential, and become the person they were always meant to be, developing their skills, and establishing relationships on equal terms.
I took this picture of boats reflected in the canal
at Birmingham's Gas Street Basin last month, and
I'm sure there are similarities with London's canals. 
They all find their niche, which in some ways, I think, echoes the themes in my last 'housework' book, The Home-MakerThe story is told with wit and humour, and is nicely constructed, with just the right amount of dramatic tension. Fforde is an intelligent writer, who creates sympathetic characters, well-drawn settings, and a credible plot that romps along at a nice pace. This particular edition, published by Penguin in 1996, has a great cover – a reproduction of a proper painting, Hannah with Teacup, by Pamela Kay, which gives it a feeling of gravitas lacked by modern editions with their branded wishy-washy pastel images. 

Tuesday, 12 June 2012

Lonely Londoners

On a grim winter evening, when it had a kind of unrealness about London, with a fog sleeping restlessly over the city and the lights showing in the blur as if it is not London at all, but some strange place on another planet, Moses Aloetta hop on a number 46 bus at the corner of Chepstow Road and Westbourne Grove to go to Waterloo to meet a fellar who was coming from Trinidad on the boat-train.

The fellar is Henry Oliver, nicknamed Sir Galahad, who has no luggage, and is clad only in a light tropical suit – but claims he doesn't feel the cold. He's one of characters who drift through The Lonely Londoners, by Sam Selvon, talking of home while they look for a room to live, a job, food, drink, and women.

I spotted this slender book in the tiny classics section at my local library, picked it up to have a browse (I'd never heard of the author before), and was intrigued. It's difficult to know how to describe it it, because you can't categorise it. The characters are wonderfully drawn, but there's no plot, and it doesn't seem like a novel in the conventional sense. Although various incidents are described, it's not really picaresque, and it's not quite stream of consciousness either. However, one thing is certain, I thought it was one of the most poetic pieces of writing I've come across. It's written in a kind of Creole, or patois, following the rhythms of Caribbean speech, but is easy to follow (unlike the speech patterns of the slaves in Andrea Levy's 'The Long Song', which I found stilted).

This was written in 1956, eight years after the first Jamaican passengers disembarked from the Windrush. The author, who was born in Trinidad, was a journalist, novelist and poet, who became known as the founding father of modern black writing in London. Here he tells the tale of the early immigrants, lured to the Mother Land by the promise of a better life. There's no back story to their lives, and no resolution: they arrive, they dream of home, they stay. Nor does he judge his characters, and neither should we: they simply are, and it is not up to us to think they should be other than they are.

London is an unreal city (shades of TS Eliot here I think) where Moses, a veteran black Londoner, shows newcomers how to survive in this alien environment. He is the central figure, and we see life largely through his eyes.

'The only thing,' Galahad say when they was in the tube going to the Water, 'is that I find when talk smoke coming out of my mouth.'
'Is so, it is in this country,' Moses say. 'Sometimes the words freeze and you have to melt it to hear the talk.'

That last sentence is wonderful, and the men, and their friends, certainly encounter some frozen words in a land where there is no heat from the sun, and where people are suspicious of these newcomers. Racism is already a very real threat, and Galahad makes an impassioned plea for tolerance, that recalls Shylock's speech in 'A Merchant of Venice'.

Lord, what it is we want that the white people and them find it so hard to give? A little work, a little food, a little place to sleep. We not asking for the sun, or the moon. We only want to get by, we don't even want to get on.

Galahad, a sharp dresser, with an eye for a pretty woman, finds that when things are going well, life is good.

This is London, this is the life Oh Lord, to walk like a king with money in your pocket, not a worry in the world.

But life can be hard and cruel. One cold winter's day, when he has no money and no food, he kills a pigeon, and shares a meal with Moses. Eesewhere, one of their friends traps gulls to cook and eat.

At times there's an almost Biblical feel to the language and action, for Moses, Galahad, Cap, Harris, Bart and Tolroy (and his large extended family who join him in England, uninvited) are exiles in a strange land. The men support each other. They chat and spin tales, and quarrel, and fight, and chat some more. The years pass, and though they still talk of returning home they know, and so do we, that even if they could afford it they wouldn't go because, for all its faults, they have fallen in love with London.

What it is that a city have, that any place in the world have, that you get so much to like it you wouldn't leave it for anywhere else? What it is that would keep men although by and large, in truth and in fact, they catching their royal to make a living, staying in a cramp-up room where you have to do everything – sleep, eat, dress, wash, cook, live. Why it is, that although they grumble about it all the time, curse the people, curse the government, say all kind of things about this and that, why it is, that in the end, everybody cagey about saying outright that if the chance come they will go back to them green islands in the sun?
Author Sam Selvon

Monday, 11 June 2012

A House-Husband and a Working Woman

When my brother and I were very young, my mother used to turn the dining room lino into a skating rink, or the frozen Arctic wastes, and we would slide across the floor... it was years later that I realised this not only kept us happy, but also got the linoleum polished with the minimum of effort! And it's the kind of ploy that Lester Knapp would approve of, for Lester is a house-husband with a highly individual take on housework and childcare.

Actually, I'm jumping ahead, because when we first meet Lester, in The Home-Maker, by Dorothy Canfield Fisher, he's not a house-husband at all. He's working in the office of town’s big store, where he’s bored, unhappy and badly paid. A quiet, unassuming man, he's a dreamer, who loves poetry and books, but hates his job, and is not very good at it. He and his wife Evangeline have three children, Helen, Henry and Stephen, and Evangeline is, as everyone is always telling us, a wonder – but wonders are not always easy to live with.

On the face of it she is the perfect wife and mother. Her house is always in apple pie order, she produces wonderful, healthy meals, runs up fashionable garments from old clothes and fabric offcuts, and even creates stylish furniture from old pieces. Make no mistake, Evangeline is a Domestic Goddess par excellence - but no-one is easy when she's around. Members of the Ladies' Guild are a little in awe of her ability, and are uncomfortable in her presence, while her down-trodden husband and children suffer from what used to be called 'a nervous stomach' , and live on tenterhooks, always fearful of doing or saying the wrong thing, and worried about not living up to her high ideals.

However, Evangeline is unhappy as her family. She has eczema, which never improves, and her hair is falling out in handfuls as she slaves away, obsessively cooking and cleaning to keep the house 'nice'. The book opens with her scrubbing furiously at a line of grease spots which led from the stove towards the door of the dining-room. “Henry had held the platter tilted as he carried the steak in yesterday. And yet if she had warned him once about that, she had a thousand times! Warned him, and begged of him, and implored him to be careful. The children simply paid no attention to what she said. None. She might as well talk to the wind. Hot grease too! That soaked into the wood so, She would never get it clean.”

You have to admit, it's a pretty unusual start to a novel, and over the next few pages we see Evangelin's iron will, and her feeling of resentment that no-one realises what she has to do. For her, the clock never says 'tick-tick-tick-tick' but always 'So much to do! So much to do! So much to do'. The only person who stands up to Evangeline is Stephen her youngest son,who has a will as strong as her own, and is given to temper tantrums. He is generally regarded as a 'problem' by friends and neighbours, who are mystified by his behaviour because Evangeline is such a perfect mother.

Then everything changes. Lester loses his job and contemplates suicide because he can no longer support his family. He falls off a neighbour's roof while extinguishing a fire and is confined to a wheelchair, unable to walk or work. The future looks bleak indeed. But Evangeline, who is a feisty sort of woman, applies for a job at the store, and the owner decides to take a chance on her. She is given a position in the ladies' wear section and turns out to be a brilliant saleswoman. Not only can she sell well, she's a quick learner, good at managing staff, the customers love her, and she's full of innovative schemes to attract customers, increase sales and maximise profit.
The endpapers in the Persephone edition of The Home-Maker
 are from Galway, a silk velvet and terry fabric produced
by Warner and exported to America in 1917
While she works her way up to a key position at the store, Lester stays at home with the children and takes on the role of home-maker – where he is as innovative and successful as his wife is in her new role. His solution to the problem of cleaning dirt off the floor is to have it covered with newspaper each morning, and to clear it away each evening, before Evangeline returns home. It has the added bonus that Stephen can paint without making a mess.

As Lester and his children tackle the difficulties of cooking and cleaning, they learn about love, responsibility, commitment, how to share things, and how to air their own opinions and make a contribution to family life. Gradually the children become confident as he tells them poems and stories, plays games, involves them in running the house, hugs them, and makes them feel loved and valued – and they, in return, adore him. 

The transformation of Stephen's behaviour is especially touching. There is a key moment when Lester understands Stephen is petrified that Evangeline's threat of washing his Teddy-bear will be carried out, and that his much-loved, dirty, old toy will be spoiled for ever. Lester has to convince his younger son that nothing will ever be done to teddy that he doesn't want. And the final turning point comes when Stephen realises that when he goes to school his father will miss him. In one scene Lester, anxious to channel the little boy's anger into some form of positive action, gives him a rotary egg whisk and asks him to beat a 'pretend egg' and turn a bowl of soapy water into froth. Stephen lacks the co-ordination and experience to know how to use the whisk, but he sticks at the task and eventually succeeds.

And what of Evangeline all this time? She comes home from work each day tired, but fulfilled. She's no longer bitter about the hand life has dealt her, and as she no longer has to do the housework she hates so much, she seems content to spend her evenings relaxing, or playing cards with her family. And, since she is earning good money, they are able to buy luxuries for the first time ever, and she even agrees to Henry having a dog and a bicycle. I may have made sound unlikable, but she's not. She's warm, passionate, quick-witted, intelligent, and has this tremendous vitality, and an urge to do everything to the very best of her ability. I could understand her frustration with the monotony and drudgery of housework, and the fact that once everything is neat, and clean, tidy, people come along and mess it up, so you have to do it all over again... and again... and again. She loves her children - but can't cope with being with them all the time. And the relationship between her and Lester is quite tender. I think they are such opposites that each is able to give the other what they lack. 
Dorothy Canfield Fisher

But there is a cloud on the horizon for Lester recovers the use of his legs, and although he tells no-one, his wife discovers his secret, and both fear that they must return to their traditional roles – he as a wage earner, and she as a home-maker. Neither feel they can face the censure of small-town America by going against convention and continuing as they are, and in the end it is the doctor who finds a solution that will ensure the continued happiness of the Knapp family.

I loved this novel, which is published by Persephone, and is the third in my 'housework' reading. It must have seemed pretty outrageous when it was written in 1924, because it featured role reversal and progressive theories about education, both of which threatened the established order of things. But more importantly, it highlights the importance of valuing people for themselves, whatever their age and sex, and shows how difficult it can be to stand up against the expectations and conventions of society, and to do what is right for you, rather than being pushed into a role that doesn't suit you.

There was a certain amount of sentimentality, which is not always to modern taste, but it wasn't obtrusive, and was in keeping with the characters. Overall, I liked the way it was written, especially the shifting viewpoints, which enable us to see things from the perspective of the various characters – even the children have a voice.