Sunday, 17 November 2013

Mother and Child Reunion

It’s been a while since I’ve posted my thoughts on any tales from The Persephone Book of Short Stories, but I certainly haven’t forgotten them. So here’s are two for this week’s Short Story Sunday. You’ll find there is a kind of loose theme, or link, in that both today’s tales explore the failing relationship between mother and child during a reunion.

Elizabeth Berridge.
Subject for a Sermon, by Elizabeth Berridge, studies the relationship between Lady Hayley and her son John, and the conflict between tradition and duty, and an individual’s independence. It is set in 1944 and opens as Lady Hayley addresses the Guides, on behalf of the Red Cross – on the very night her son is due home on leave. As her train pulled out, we are told, his train pulled in. And she must catch the early train next morning, because she has a meeting a meeting at noon, and John will understand.

Everyone thinks Lady Hayley is marvellous, for doing so much, and putting duty before her family, but she reminds me of EM Delafield’s monstrous Charmian Vivian, Director of The Midland Supply Depot in The War Workers. They are both overbearing women who have created an image of themselves as busy, selfless workers which is at odds with the hollow central core within. And there are moments when you sense the faith of Lady Hayley’s adoring fans is shaken, and they query her motives. Miss Pollett, from the Guides, for example.

… she had a strange feeling that if the other coffee cup had not been on the table, the cap beside it, she could have believed herself alone in the room. And to allay the disturbing feeling that she could never get past that quick smile – to prevent it pushing her away – she asked about the morning train.

For Lady Hayley her duties, especially in war, are everything, pushing personal feelings, family and her own likes and dislikes into the background, and she cannot understand John, whose outlook is very different, and she tells him:

Always you see things in the wrong perspective. There are many things I do not like doing – Miss Pollett frays my nerves, I dislike long journeys made in uncomfortable circumstances, I am nervous when on a bicycle. But if I did not do these things, who would? It is expected of my position – our lives are not our own John.

But John believes she is wrong, and that she should let people organises their own schemes. And he realises she doesn’t really care about people, doesn’t want to know them and wouldn’t recognise them if she met them again. She’ll talk to them to raise money for the war effort, but she’s only interested in maintaining her own position, he says, and seeing that other people keep to their place.

I’ve lived among them, mother. I know what they think about people like us. I know what they’re like, and what they want – and it’s nothing we represent. We’ve had our chance as leaders of society, and lost it.

He can see that the world is changing, but I think the thing that angers and distresses him most about his mother is not her values, or moral code, or political views, but the fact she seems to have as little interest in him as she does in anyone else, and ignores him while administering to the needs of thousands of unknown men, and it’s this which causes the impasse between them.

During his visit Lady Hayley continues her relentless round of meetings, but she keeps the afternoon and evening of his last day free. However, it’s a gesture which comes too late, for he leaves earlier than planned, to meet an Army friend. The two part still unable to understand each other, and Lady Hayley pedals off to a meeting where, as usual, she preaches at her audience, telling them that in war women must be companions, mothers and organisers, and how this involves sacrifice, loss and pain. She stresses the need for solidarity and tells the women she feels ‘so much at one’ them… and once again we find Miss Pollett wondering, and wishing Lady Hayley really means it.

I hadn’t come across Berridge before, but apparently Persephone also publish Tell It To A Stranger, her collection of short stories, and she also wrote nine novels, which were very popular in their day.

Wednesday, by Dorothy Whipple is an old favourite – it’s in The Closed Door, an
Dorothy Whipple
anthology of her short stories put together by Persephone, which I reviewed here and, should you wonder, I know this post is beginning to sound like a promotional piece for Persephone, but they do publish some exceedingly good books, and I do read lots of books published by other companies.

In Wednesday we meet divorced wife Mrs Bulford (she still refers to herself by her married name) paying her monthly visit to her three children, who are already beginning to forget (and, possibly, to resent) her, and are forming allegiances to their new ‘mumsie’, for their father has remarried.

She waits for the children outside the garden wall, and we learn that she is an outsider in every sense of the word, shut out from the home and family that were once her’s, and shut off from respectable society. For Mrs Bulford, ‘on the verge of middle age’ went ‘gallivanting’ with a younger man. When the affair was discovered her young lover’s family took him abroad, her husband (who she believes pushed her into adultery) divorced her, and she was deemed neither fit to proper to care for her children. Now, lonely and friendless, with nothing to do to fill her time, she cannot understand what has happened to her, and still harbours a forlorn hope that one day she will be able to walk back into her old life.

She was like an exile waiting all the time to go home, devouring news of the place she longed to be in. She bought the Beddingworth papers, morning and evening, and read every word, even the advertisements. She knew who was born and who died or was married, she knew who wanted domestic help or houses.

She knows more about the city and its people than she did when she lived there. What she doesn’t know is what her children are doing, how they are growing and changing, what they like and don’t like, and how they feel. But as she stands waiting to meet them she imagines them inside their house, eating their lunch. She takes to them to the park, and treats them to afternoon tea, but the relationship between mother and children is uneasy, and they are growing away from her – indeed, they are pleased to be reunited with their father and ‘mumsie’. As they disappear from view Mrs Bulford cannot bring herself to pass the house.

But later when the dusk was deeper, she passed it on her way to the bus. Elsie had just come out to pick up the hoop on the lawn. Upstairs someone was drawing the curtains, first at one window, then at another. They were all gathered in for the night. Everything was very quiet. Even from the gate she could smell the sweet peas. She walked away down the road.

Mrs Bulford may be a very silly woman, but it is a touching and beautifully written tale, and it’s hard not to feel sorry for her watching life carrying on without her. Whipple’s writing is so understated – she really does ‘show not tell’ and doesn’t go in for big emotional scenes, but the details of the routine of family life are so perfect, right down to the perfume of the sweet peas, and it all highlights Mrs Bulford’s feeling of loss. 
The endpaper at the back of the book is
Cote d'Azure, a scree- printed cotton
furnishing fabric designed by Susan Collier
 and Sarah Campbell for Fidchbscher.

Friday, 15 November 2013

Autumn Leaves and Soil like Gingerbread...

On the theory that example is better than precept, I went out yesterday to rake leaves. This is a job that must be done slowly, in a reflective mood. Also, one must first find the rake. I found it, final, under the pile of leaves raked up last weekend, so the visiting small cousins would have a place in which to practice standing on their hands.

Next, one must lean on the rake handle, admiring the scenery, the magnitude of leaf-fall and one’s own courage, the sunny autumn day, and life in general.

November in the garden can be damp, dull and drear, but I love the way that in Rural Free, A Farmwife’s Almanac of Country Living, author Rachel Peden manages to link the life of the tree with her own life as a farmer’s wife in Indiana, and how she turns what could be a boring, repetitive task into a meditation, moving from past to present to future, reaching the conclusion that perhaps, after all, she and the tree have both left their mark in their world. 
 Lovely leaves - at the moment they're covering much of the
Castle Grounds in Tamworth.
I think Rachel is quite right, with her reflections, and found myself thinking along similar lines when I walked in the Castle Grounds earlier this week. There were great drifts of leaves piles up under trees, and in the little,  corners where no-one goes, and ridges and furrows of them along the edges of the paths, and a scattering of raggedy yellows, browns and reds blowing across the lawns. It was a sunny day with a gentle breeze, and leaves were falling from the trees like great golden snowflakes and slowly floating to the ground, which was quite magical, and I stood and watched, and thought about how the trees have changed over the year, from the bare branches outlines against the sky and the snow at the start of the year, through the green haze of spring to the lush growth of summer - and now they are returning to that earlier, dormant state.

Rachel goes on to explain:

While my leaf mountain grew, I thought over some of the summer’s events that occurred while those trees were growing old. A tree’s fiscal year begins with the separation of one crop of leaves from its branches, where already by that time the tight, pale-brown knobs of next year’s leaves are formed, to swell and shrink all winter, according to the fluctuations of temperature and moisture.

Raking up long swaths I reflect that the tree works all year to produce this annual accomplishment, for me to scoop up and carry to the midden behind the barn, where leaves will grow soggy and disintegrate. For the tree, leaves are like my daily chores, of meals, bed-making, floor-sweeping, laundry, which take perpetual energy and leave no record.

This started out as a Garden Gaze piece, looking to see what gardening gurus think we should be doing this month, but I seem to have been led astray (up the garden path, perhaps). Rachel's book is not about gardening - it's about her life in general, and was published in 1961, arising out of the columns she wrote for a newspaper during the 1950s, and it’s an absolute joy. I discovered it through Nan at Letters from a Hill Farm, (thank you Nan!) and it is an absolute joy. Similar in tone and outlook is Still Meadow Daybook, by Gladys Taber, who also wrote press articles about her life on a Connecticut farm at a similar period. Nan spent a year exploring the women’s lives and writing, and you can find her posts here – do pop over and take a look.

Unlike Rachel, Gladys has no gardening advice to offer this month, but she gives us this wonderful view of the countryside:

After the leaves come down, the countryside has an open look. New vistas appear, hills unseen when summer’s wealth of green is spread, now stand, blue and hazy, in the distance. In the cropped fields the browns and copper and smoky tan make a smoky symphony, not as dramatic as the blaze of October, but lovely to look at.

Autumn colour features large in a piece by Katherine Swift, who is entranced by the view from her window – her account of the glorious trees she can see reads like a description of bonfire night. Her trees send up 'incendiary' rockets of scarlet and gold, they they flush, darken, fizz and collapse 'into glowing embers', until they're finally extinguished by wind and snow.  However, she has some sound (and reassuring) advice about bulbs in The Morville Year, telling us:

And there is still time to plant those bulbs. I have often been reduced to planting bulbs at Christmas or even on New Year’s Day, and they seem to come to no harm. There is even an argument deliberately delaying planting now that our autumns and early winters are so mild and wet. According to tulip-grower Steve Thompson, tulips will not start to make roots until the soil temperature drops below 520F  (110C), so if planted too early, the argument goes, they will sit dormant in wet soil, at the mercy of slugs and susceptible to diseases.

Don’t worry, she says. Chill out. I find this cheering. Even the Provincial Lady is ahead of me when it comes to bulbs – remember how Lady Boxe chastised her for planting indoor bulbs late? But the PL got them into pots on November 7, whereas mine are still reclining (minus soil) in old plastic dishes in the Futility Room. Note to Self, as the PL would say, Must Plant Bulbs.
I thought I'd left it too late to plant bulbs, but according
to Katherine Swift I should still be OK, so I'm going to
stick them in pots tomorrow...
Finally, I can’t resist Karel Capek waxing lyrical in The Gardener’s Year, about the joys of digging and the right kind of soil… my grandfather would have enjoyed this, he was a great believer in the importance of digging.

Getting dug in: An illustration from The
Gardener's Year by Capek's brother Josef.
Yes, in November the soil should be turned over and loosened: to lift it with a full spade gives you a feeling as appetizing and gratifying as if you lifted food with a full ladle, with a full spoon. A good soil, like good food, must not be either too fat, or heavy, or cold, or wet, or dry, or greasy, or hard, or gritty, or raw; it ought to be like bread, like gingerbread, like a cake, like leavened dough; it should crumble, but not break into lumps; under the spade it ought to crack, but not to squelch; it must not make slabs, or blocks, or honeycombs, or dumplings; but, when you turn it over with a full spade, it ought to breathe with pleasure and fall into a fine and puffy tilth. That is a tasty and edible soil, cultured and noble, deep and moist, permeable, breathing and soft – in short, a good soil is like good people, and as is well known there is nothing better in this vale of tears.

Wednesday, 13 November 2013

Honey, Prisoners - and a King's Speech!

During the war honey was popular, because sugar was
rationed. But Vere doesn't tell us if her sweet gift was made
by a local beekeeper, or was a mass produced jar.
Feel much better this week. Very hot. A jar of honey has been given me. Very pleasant to receive. Able to get one whole pound of tomatoes without queuing for them – so Hitler is not having it all his own way.

So says Vere Hodgson in her diary entry for July 2nd, 1941 – and how luxurious that honey and the tomatoes must have seemed - sugar was rationed, so honey was much in demand, and beekeeping became much more popular. Even the cat was in luck that day, because Vere (I feel I know her, and really cannot continue calling her Hodgson, even if it is the correct way to name an author) managed to get some Kitcat, which was ‘wolfed down as if it were a banquet’. It’s hardly surprising the poor creature fell on this unexpected feast as if there were no tomorrow, because cats and dogs got no rations. At the outbreak of hostilities, the pet food industry was still in its infancy, and animals were usually fed on table scraps, unless owners cooked meat or fish for them. During WW2 there was barely enough food to go round for people, so there can’t have been much to spare for animals.

You can see I am progressing with my slow read of Few Eggs and No Oranges, even if I do have a tendency to get side-tracked along the way. I seem to have become thoroughly immersed in the period, and now have a stack of other WW2 books to read!

On  a more serious note, in this first entry for the second half  of the year, Vere mentions the war in Russia, but has little sympathy for people there since, she says, they have had plenty of time to prepare for the fight, and ‘if they are not ready, it is no one’s fault but their own’. Surprisingly, however, she is confident that Stalin is more than a match for Hitler –because he looks ‘such an unpleasant individual’! 
Three cheers for Winnie! Winston Churchill was one
of Vere Hodgson's heroes.  
Additionally, she tells us about a book she’s read (a biography of Churchill), a radio programme she enjoyed (The Brains Trust) and the sweet-smelling honeysuckle and syringa in her office. This particular entry is a good example of Vere’s range of interest, and the way she jumps from the drama of the war to homely, seemingly unimportant things which mean such a lot to ordinary people.

During these last six months of year, undeterred by the worsening situation, she visits friends and family in various parts of the country, and continues to wander around London looking at the damage. Set against that are small joys, like those flowers I mentioned earlier, a sparrow eating out of a friend’s hand, a garden party, and eating tins of pineapple and prawns with her aunt. 

There are splendid, uplifting stories (Vere likes the word splendid, and I can’t resist using it). In August there is news of the Home Guard catching a German ‘parashot’ who is promptly locked in the Tower. I think this is fascinating - I had no idea they did this in WW2! I was under the impression it was something that happened hundreds of years ago, which shows how much I know! Then, in September, when British bombers arrive in Oslo, residents take to the rooftops and cheer the ‘boys’ as the docks are bombed. In addition there is jubilation when five Free French fighters escape to England in canoes, and Vere enjoys the thought of them sharing champagne with Winston Churchill and his wife.
Were German prisoners really locked way in the
Tower of London during WW2?
In October she’s delighted when she acquires a ‘flatlet’ of her own, and friends and family rally round to help furnish it, which is not an easy task when everything is in such short supply. But she’s less happy when a friend describes life in the Isle of Man:

Full of internees who are doing themselves well. No rationing. Ample supplies from Ireland. His tales of tinned fruit and oceans of butter are galling to us hard-living folk.

Early in December, like everyone else in Britain, she’s stunned by the news from the Pacific (she gives few details but this is, of course, the Japanese assault on Pearl Harbour). And, she reflects, there is an upside to the tragedy, because it pushes America and Australia into the conflict. But things look grim. The British are losing Hong Kong, and everyone is still waiting to learn what is happening in Russia, where the Germans are being pushed back ‘into the snow’.

One of the surprising features of this period is the length of time it took for news to get through, the lack of information when it did, and the way rumours circulated and proliferated. With all our modern technology we are used to ‘instant’ news – we know about things as they happen, and there is such a wealth of data available it is hard not to be aware of what is going on the world. However, the situation was very different during the war. The immediacy of today’s news gathering process and the way it is spread around the world was simply not possible then, and I suppose some things were kept from the public on the grounds of national security, and perhaps there was an effort to keep people’s spirits up by not revealing every detail of what was happening.
The Christmas speech made by King George VI and
 broadcast on BBC Radio 
Anyway, however bleak the future may look, Vere remains upbeat about Life, the Universe and Everything, and she ends 1941 on a high, braving what she terms the ‘Ban on Travel’ to spend Christmas with her family in Birmingham.  Her journey is almost without adventure. Seven family and friends gather for Christmas dinner (a goose), and visitors from next door turn up (with the two airmen billeted on them) for the King’s Speech. More friends arrive during the afternoon and evening, and Vere tells us:
From the back of Elsie’s cupboard came plums and whipped cream. Then Neville poured some exciting looking liquid into glasses, and we did some toasts. Not until we were half-way through it did I discover that it was champagne… brought out specially. So kind.
A good time was had by all, and they shared what food they had - anything nice which could be stored was brought out for special occasions, and their festive fare over the Christmas period includes a tin of butter, and dried apricots, both gifts sent by relatives in South Africa.

Actually, among my stash of WW2 books I’ve got a couple on wartime cookery, and I’m thinking of trying out some of the recipes, to get an idea of what the food was like, but I’m not at all sure if the Man of the House will appreciate austerity in the kitchen – watch this space! 
War Messages: Endpapers in Persephone's Few Eggs and No Oranges
are from a design called London Wall, printed from a fragment of
 rayon  headscarf produced by Jacqmar Ltd c.1942.

Monday, 11 November 2013

Shooting Pheasants...

Well, despite my best endeavours, I’ve been busy over the last week or so (Oxfam bits and pieces, and an unexpected visit from my Younger Daughter), so I’ve not been looking at anyone else’s posts, or checking my own, and consequently missed seeing that I had been selected by Jane and Briar, over at Fleur in Her World, as a participant in their Who Reads these Books quiz! I was mortified at not spotting it the day it was published, because I love these posts, even though I am so rubbish at guessing. In fact, I have to admit I don’t think I would have realised this was me, because one of ‘my’ books selected by Jane and Briar was well outside my usual enthusiasms!

If you’ve never visited Jane’s blog, and don’t know how the game works, she chooses three bloggers (but doesn’t name them), and posts up pictures of five of their favourite books, and readers have to guess who owns the volumes shown… It was lovely being featured, especially as it came hard on the heels of Simon T’s invitation for me to take part in his latest round of My Life in Books. For those who haven’t seen the first part of Jane’s quiz, you’ll find it here, while a follow-up post, revealing the answers, is here.

Anyway, I feel very guilty at not posting new anything new for more than a week, so anyone dropping by has only been able to look at my old stuff. I will try and do better in future! 
The Shooting Party.
So, an overdue book review! When I wrote about my thoughts on JL Carr’s A Month in the Country, Helen suggested that Isabel Colegate’s The Shooting Party would  make an interesting comparison, so I added it to my Wish List, and forgot all about it until I realised it was last month’s choice over at Cornflower Book Group. I ordered a second-hand copy online, but it didn’t arrive until the end of the read!

It does make an interesting companion piece to Carr’s book, however I’m not raving about it in quite the same way, although I did enjoy it. It’s a very slender novel which takes place over a very short time period – roughly 24 hours. And it portrays a small, enclosed society, a kind of golden age when everything seems perfect, when everyone knows their place, but there are cracks just below the surface. There’s a feeling that things are changing and will never be the same again. But that sense of loss seems to relate to the world outside the characters, not to the events in the novel or the people themselves. I don’t think they are changed by what happens – in fact some of them end up pursuing a different course in life which turns out to be the right path for them, so the book lacks the feeling of blighted lives and missed opportunities which suffuses Carr’s story. 

The Shooting Party is set in October 1913, October, less than a year before the First World War, as a group of aristocrats gather at Sir Randolph Nettleby’s estate for a shooting party. We know from the outset that someone will lose their life, but who, and how are not revealed until later. And there isn’t really a why… the death is senseless and pointless; coupled with the slaughter of all the game birds (bred just to be shot), it foreshadows the tragedy of the forthcoming war when a generation of young men were killed, just as senselessly, and just as pointlessly. 
A pheasant. I think they are such beautiful, exotic birds.
The scale of the shoot is astounding. On the final day there are just eight men in the party, and well over 40 beaters(all clad in long whitish smocks, so interloping poachers can be identified) to scare the birds into flight and certain death. On gthe final day the bag for the morning (not counting the afternoon duck shoot) totals 504 pheasants, as well as hare, rabbits, and woodcock. All shot by eight men! Whatever did they do with all that meat? I know game has to be well hung and, presumably, each man took his own kill home with him, but there must have been more stuff here than could ever be eaten. But I suppose eating it wasn’t important – it was sport, and showing your skill at shooting, and behaving in the right way that were important.

Colegate’s research is meticulous, and her portrayal of the lifestyle of the upper classes on the eve of the First World War is excellent – food, manners, clothes and relationships all come under her scrutiny. And I was fascinated to see how the behaviour of these wealthy, leisured people is reflected in the attitudes of their servants and lower classes. There’s intense rivalry between the men attending the two best marksmen: they acquire a glory of their own through the achievements of their masters. And the relationship between maid Ellen and footman John echoes the much more idealised love between Lionel Stephenson and beautiful, married Olivia Lilburn. Indeed, John even steals Lionel’s unsent love letter, hankering after noble thoughts about truth and beauty – but in so doing he loses his loses his own true voice.

The only person who seems free from the pressures imposed by society or the need for other people is poacher Tom Harker, who is satisfied with his life and the company of his dog. And yet Tom is the one doomed to lose his life when the man acknowledged by all as the best marksman lets off a careless shot, desperate to retain his reputation and keep the crown he is losing to a younger man.

Even Socialist, vegetarian, animal rights protester Cornelius Cardew aspires to be part of the magical circle he professes to despise. He interrupts the shoot with his ‘Thou shalt not kill banner’ and his views on Universal Kinship – but he dreams of being invited to tea. Actually, he is such a crank that I felt quite angry with Colegate for making him a caricature! Surprisingly, his confrontation with the shooting party gave me much more sympathy with Sir Randolph, who was able to diffuse the situation by agreeing with some of Cardew’s views (everyone else would have run him off the estate). Ironically, it is Sir Randolph the landowner, rather than Cardew the campaigner, who has a clearer grasp of the issues involved, and who cares most passionately about the countryside and the people who live and work in it. He is also the only person who sees that the way of life enjoyed by his class is changing, and can never be recaptured.

But it is Cornelius who sums up my response to the novel. When Tom is killed Cornelius is:

… frozen by his own helplessness and by the curious sensation he had as if he were watching the whole scene reflected in a mirror or through a window he could not open.

There are lots of good things about the novel, but I didn’t quite connect with the characters, and felt as if I were viewing them through a telescope, so they were distant, and rather untouchable.

Friday, 1 November 2013

My Life in Books!

A selection of some my old childhood books -
can you guess which is my favourite?
I'm always fascinated by other people's reading habits (when I'm in someone else's house I always look at the bookshelves) and I've really enjoyed the occasional My Life in Books series Simon T runs over on his blog Stuck in a Book. So I was thrilled when he invited me to take part in in the latest installment,  and you can read it here. I knew two participants were being featured each day this week (14 of us in all) and I knew we had to try and guess something about our unknown partner, but I hadn't looked at my emails today (I went Oxfamming, then met up with some old friends), so it was a lovely surprise when I went online and found myself on Simon's blog - and it was even more of a surprise when I found my mysterious fellow book lover was Simon himself! 

I felt quite honoured to be sharing the limelight with him, because he's one of my blogging heroes and he's been responsible for many of my book buys over the last couple of years - I tend to find that I like many of the books he recommends (but I disagree with him over Orwell, and nothing, but nothing, will induce me to re-read Nineteen Eight-Four, or Animal Farm, or any of his other novels).

The link above takes you to today's My Life in Books, but the series began on Monday, and continues until Sunday, and you can access the previous three series and have a nose at people's favourite reads. You can find out about their best-loved childhood book, their first adult book, how their reading has changed - and their 'guilty' reading secret (if they have one!). It really is a lovely insight in to the way books can help shape lives, and how much they can mean to people. And it's interesting to see how popular certain authors and titles seem to be. So, if you haven't already visited Stuck in a Book, please hop over and take a look.
My first book - coloured in by me, when I was very young...

Tuesday, 29 October 2013

An Indian Adventure With A Suitable Boy

Over the last couple of years I’ve looked at the Team Reads run by Lynne over at dovegreyreader (an exceedingly good blog – if you’ve never seen it, take a look, now),  and considered joining in, but never quite plucked up the courage. Normally I like to race through a book to discover the ending, then go back for a more leisurely exploration, but I’m ‘slow reading’ Vere Hodgson’s wartime diaries, and thoroughly enjoying the experience, and it’s got me in the mood for a more reflective approach to my reading, so I feel ready to tackle Lynne’s 2013-14 Big Book, which is A Suitable Boy, by Vikram Seth - a very big book indeed. The size is intimidating, and for ages and ages my (unread) copy has been lying under a bookcase on the landing, and the Man of the House and I both keep tripping over it and stubbing our toes, because it sticks out. So you would think it would be easy to find – but it’s not there! And it doesn’t seem to be anywhere else, which is puzzling… I cannot understand how such a large book can disappear in such a small house! 
I'm immersing myself in all things Indian
with A Suitable Boy (and the cover is brown,
not pink as it looks here).
Luckily, I found a copy in the library (but I cannot keep it for year, so I must locate mine or acquire another), and I’m aiming to Read-A-Long (or should that be Read Along?), finishing two sections every four weeks, and commenting on Lyn’s posts on the last Saturday of each month. It’s an interesting venture, because (as I’m discovering with Vere Hodgson) there’s plenty of time to look things up, and to do background reading, putting things into context with factual books, and strolling through novels which portray the same period and setting. And I love seeing other people’s views: there are common themes, which everyone seems to pick up on but, surprisingly, different readers home in on different aspects of A Suitable Boy, and I think to myself ‘oh, how did I miss that?’, and back I go to take another look, and all those fragmentary impressions somehow mesh together and enrich my reading.

The book starts with a wedding, and revolves around the search for a Suitable Boy to marry Lata, who is torn between the desire to follow her heart and be independent, and the pressure to be a conventional, dutiful daughter making an arranged marriage. The opening lines set the scene:

‘You too will marry a boy I choose,’ said Mrs Rupa Mehra firmly to her younger daughter.

According to DGR, it was those first eight words which sparked the novel, and that Seth recently revealed that his world of India in the 1950s grew out of that single, short sentence. And what a world it is! Here, we have India, just a few years after independence and partition, a fledgling nation struggling to find its way in the modern world. Here we have the city of Brahmpur, a fictional locations which, nevertheless, is a distillation of everything I’ve ever imagined or learned about India. And here, above all else, we have the people: the Mehras, Kapoors, various other families, and (like AA Milne’s Rabbit) all their friends and relations. Two months – and four sections – into the book, and it’s the people and their relationships which matter, but I think that is true of any novel. You can have a cracking plot, an amazing setting, and a truly wonderful writing style, but it all counts for nothing if readers don’t engage with the characters. 
My Elder Daughter brought me back this beautiful silk scarf
when she visited India earlier this year, so I'm resting the book
on it as I read. 
Anyway, back to the beginning, and the marriage between Lata’s sister Savita and Pran Kapoor, a kindly but geekish university lecturer. It was interesting to see the differences between an English wedding, where the service is so important, and this Hindu wedding, where the ceremony seems to play second fiddle to the celebrations, and while the couple are going through the required rites everyone else is singing, dancing, eating and generally enjoying themselves.

During these early chapters I was reminded of Bride and Prejudice, the Bollywood film inspired by Pride and Prejudice, and I think there are similarities between Seth’s India and Austen’s England, although she wrote on a much smaller canvas. There’s the obvious comparison of a mother seeking to marry a daughter off, and the need for girls to make a ‘good’ match (but Mrs Rupa Mehra is more likable than Mrs Bennett, although she is just as obsessed about weddings, equally anxious to prevent an unfortunate liaison or ill-advised decision, and every bit as manipulative).

As in Austen’s time, it’s a very formal, very polite society, with a strict social etiquette governing many aspects of life, especially the relationship between men and women.  A nicely brought up young lady most certainly does not sneak off to meet a desirable young man behind her mother’s back (especially if she is Hindu and he is Moslem)… and secret boating trips with this same young man (at dawn!) are a complete no-no. Actually, I think I would have flipped if either of my daughters had crept out for an early morning river assignation with a lad, and in the circumstances I think Mrs Rupa Mehra’s reaction is really quite restrained! 
I'm not sure that these elephants reflect the themes of the
novel, but it's a photo taken by my Elder Daughter, and to
me it says 'India'.
I was surprised that in public women never mention their husbands by name – even that terribly distant ‘Mr Bennett’ we come across in P&P cannot be used.

Mrs Mahesh Kapoor, for instance, when referring to her husband, often referred to him as ‘Minister Sahib’. Sometimes, in Hindi, she even called him ‘Pran’s father’. To refer to him by name would have been unthinkable. Even ‘my husband’ was unacceptable to her, but ‘my this’ was all right.

Younger women chafe against restrictions, and attend university. Some, like Lata’s friend Malati, even have their hearts set on a career (she wants to be doctor) go out with boys of their own choosing. However, generally speaking women are subservient, dependent on fathers, brothers, husbands, just as they were in Jane Austen’s time: they don’t work, and are expected to keep heads covered in public. Marriage is their only option, and arranged marriage at that. It seems alien to us, but in the early 1950s English women were just as confined.

Like many others reading this for the first time, I'm fascinated by the whole race/caste issue, and the way skin colour seems to matter to these Indians - the lighter the better (you come across the same attitude among the West Indian slaves in Andrea Levy's The Long Song). And the girls jokingly refer to a good-looking young man as a Cad (after Cadbury's chocolate) - think of the outrage if white women used the same terminology! Indian men like that! Did they always have this attitude, I wonder, or is it a hangover from the days of the Raj? Perhaps there is something inherent in human nature which makes us establish hierarchies – after all, servants in big houses had their own pecking order. 
No monkey business please... Another of my Daughter's
Indian photos - was this the type of monkey that Lata fed?
These first four sections are packed with poems, literary allusions, and references to traditional Indian tales and religion. It’s a cultured, mannered society, where people value education, and those involved in the university jockey for power and position. Set against that, however, is a world of squalor and poverty. Seth’s description of a tannery in a poor area is shocking in its intensity, capturing the dirt, the stench and the sights in language that is closer to poetry than prose, which makes the scene even more brutal.

Visiting this malodorous spot is businessman Haresh, who works in the shoe trade, and whose story runs alongside that of Lata, and will prove, so we are told, to be ‘not irrelevant’ to her tale. Haresh is well educated, likes the fine things in life, and has boundless energy and enthusiasm for getting things done. He also has a social conscience and an appetite for change:
… he clicked his tongue, not so much from moral disapproval as from a feeling of disapproval that this should be the state of things. Illiteracy, poverty, indiscipline, dirt! It wasn’t as if people here didn’t have potential. If he had his way and was given funds and labour, he would have this neighbourhood on its feet in six months. Sanitation, drinking water, electricity, paving, civic sense – it was simply a question of making sensible decisions and having the requisite facilities to implement them.
Personally, I like a man of passion who cares about those less fortunate than himself, and as far as I’m concerned Haresh seems a far more ‘suitable boy’ than Kabir, Lata’s current love interest, who is big on charm and good looks but doesn’t seem to have much else to offer – although I may change my mind as I read on. I’m hoping that that there’s a clue in the ‘not irrelevant’ comment, and that Haresh and Lata will get it together, and I’m sure her mother would be pleased that outcome! Anyway, I’ll just have to wait and see what happens. 
I spotted this notebook, with it's lovely Paisley
 design on the cover, and it seemed just the thing
 to write my  thoughts on the novel.

Saturday, 26 October 2013

Singing - with a Girdle in her Hand!

October has been a funny sort of month, when I don’t seem to have got into my reading or writing stride at all. I started well, but I was at my Mother’s for a bit earlier in the month, and the Man of the House and I have just been on a last-minute break down to the south coast, where I discovered that despite spending what seems like a lifetime in the Midlands, I am still a southerner at heart. Anything south of London seems like home, even if it’s not my native Surrey. The very air seems different somehow, and don’t let me start on how much I love the accents, or I shall risk offending hordes of people! However nice it is to go away, it’s always lovely to return home, but it takes me ages to get into routine again, and my October reading list has gone totally to pot, and there have been longish gaps between posts, so now I’ll make up for lost time with a clump of them all together! 

I have to admit I am behind-hand with Vere Hodgson’s Few Eggs and No Oranges (it’s much too chunky to take travelling) but I’ve been reading War isn’t Wonderful, the wartime memoirs of novelist, journalist and broadcaster Ursula Bloom, which is much shorter, but just as fascinating. Her diaries are more reflective and introspective than Hodgson’s, and she’s not as detailed or as curious or brave - you wouldn’t catch her venturing into unknown territory to investigate the extent of bomb damage. But she’s very honest, as all good diarists should be, presenting a picture of herself warts and all, as it were.  She suffered from crippling headaches, which lasted for days at a time, and the pain was so excruciating she was often completely immobilised and unable to do anything. She sought advice from various doctors, who diagnosed migraine, but the treatments brought no relief, and it was not until the 1950s that she was found to be suffering from arterial trouble, and underwent an operation which restored her health. But during the war she says:

I was horribly conscious of my own inability to do anything that would really help the war, and, goodness, how much I wanted to do something! This feeling of helplessness possessed me. It was destroying to be aware of a physical weakness, a driving pain which held me back when every single person was wanted so much.

 She makes no secret of the fact that she sat out much of the war in the safety of country hotels, unable to cope with her mystery illness, which was exacerbated by the stresses and strains of life in London – but she and her naval officer husband had always lived in hotels, and considered this quite normal. 
However, they did have a Chelsea flat, which suffered a direct hit, and her account of what happened is so horrendous you cannot blame her for wanting to escape from the city, though it was a luxury thousands of other Blitz victims could only dream of. Describing the events of the raid, on April 16th, 1941, she begins by telling us about the strange beauty of the scene in the sky:

… we saw another awful raid was coming, for the pre-attack planes were overhead, dropping the very pretty chandeliers of coloured lights which lit up everything and showed the way to the followers-up. Their beauty was a snare and a delusion, but they quivered over London in radiant colours, and looking at them they seemed to represent an unreal Christmas night in a highly decorated sky.

Isn’t that a wonderful piece of writing? It seems to bring the view to life, and makes me feel I could paint it, if I could paint, which I can’t. When the bombs start falling Bloom and her husband Robbie lie on the floor of the corridor in the flat, away from the broken glass, but their terrified maid refuses to leave her room.

In the next three hours sixteen land mines fell and all the bombs in the world. I do not think I can ever forget the horror of it, the frantic shock of not knowing what to do, or where to go, and almost wanting to be hit to get it over.

When they are hit she has fallen asleep, curled up on the floor outside the bedroom door. Here are some snippets from her diary as she recounts what happened (the dots indicate missing text):

… I tasted the acrid taste of explosive in my mouth, and was brought round by the raucous sound of people screaming. Beside me in the hall, where the bathroom door had been before, was an enormous jagged hole …

Through this jagged gap, with a broken wall beyond it, I saw Cranmer Court across the back courtyard and it was on fire. The fire brigades had already arrived and had run up their ladders and were bringing people down. You would have thought that the fact that they had had time to get there would have warned me that I had been unconscious for some considerable time, but that apparently did not register.

… the blanket over me had become intolerable heavy, and I realized after a moment that it wasn’t the blanket all but the bathroom door, and most of the bath itself lying about me. Strangely enough, I had not suffered a single scratch.

Sadly, Rosa the maid was so traumatised she was sent to a convent to be cared for, and we never learn what happens to her, but Bloom and her husband Robbie were unhurt, although she tells us that the following morning as she walked up the street to take a bath at a relative’s home: 
… I suddenly realized that I wasn’t normal. I wore a siren suit and carried my clothes under one arm, whilst with the other hand I swung a girdle by a suspender. I was singing. I imagine I looked dotty. 
Like Hodgson, Bloom is always delighted by small, unexpected pleasures – she too finds that the sight of a daffodil flowering in the park lifts her spirits. And the lack of eggs and oranges (or, come to that, of any other fresh fruit) is a constant refrain with both women. Actually, Bloom did better than many people when it came to food, because more was available when she was in the country and even in London she was able, on occasions, to get extra items from her regular shopkeepers, and from ‘the Hen’, who is so much my idea of a cheery Cockney char, that I almost wondered if she really did exist. 

And Bloom mentions other shortages that I hadn’t thought about before. Shoes for example, disappear from the shops as soon as they arrive, and by the end of the war she cannot walk on a gravel path because the soles of her shoes let it in! In fact, as far as she is concerned, the end of the war seems to be an anti-climax. She writes:

There had been none of the eager rejoicing of 1918 when we really believed that war had been removed for ever. Now we never thought that for a moment. Perhaps this was the most wretched part of a victory that was ice-cold. There is a limit to human endurance and we had had too much; we were not the same people who had gone out to fight. Perhaps the best of us had gone. 

I think Bloom’s response to the war was very much determined by her experiences during the First World War, and her sense of horror that only two decades after the ‘war to end all wars’ had ended, another generation of doomed young men went off to be slaughtered in another conflict, and that there would be other wars in the future, when other young men would lose their lives. The constant pain she suffered from her debilitating headaches must also have affected her perception of the world.

She realises that it’s not just lives which have been lost, but a whole way of life; that things have changed, and will never be the same again, so she mourns the loss of old values and beliefs, as well as the deaths. She is more despondent and fearful about the war and its outcome, and about what the future will bring than Vere Hodgson, However, she’s really not doomy and gloomy – she has a wry, self-deprecating sense of humour, and is well aware of her own strengths and weaknesses.

Overall, I must confess I didn’t warm to her in the way I did to Vere Hodgson, and I’m not sure I would have liked her as a person – I suspect I would have found rather snobbish and patronising, and she certainly brought my socialist principles to the fore! There were times when I wanted to give her a good shake, and say ‘for Heaven’s sake woman, pull yourself together – on the whole you’re very lucky because you’re leading such a nice cushioned existence and are in a much better position than most people’.

But I was gripped by her marvellous descriptions of the Blitz, of the hellish scenes in Tube shelters, of being caught in London’s streets during a bombing raid, and by the way she brings small unimportant things to life – those thin soled shoes for example, and a much-anticipated egg, which shot off its spoon during a raid and was never seen again.

*The illustrations from the book which, sadly, have not reproduced at all well here, are by Douglas Hall.

Wednesday, 16 October 2013

A Story That Never Really Got Under Way...

I’ve finally got round to posting my thoughts on Rosamunde Pilcher’s The Carousel which, if you remember, I won in a draw organised by Pam over at The Travellin’ Penguin, and read while en route to my Younger Daughter in London. I’m the first to admit this is not quite my usual literary fare, and it was my first encounter with this author. So… what did I think? Well, it won’t win any literary prizes, and the names of the characters didn’t stick in mind afterwards (although the story and their roles in it did). I wouldn’t want to read it again, but it was a pleasant, enjoyable read for a journey – a fairy tale with a happy ending, and you know much I enjoy happy endings!

It follows the fortunes of Prue, who abandons a trip in Scotland with her boyfriend (a suitable prospective husband according to her aspirational mother) for the delights of Cornwall (what’s not to like there!) caring for her scatty artist aunt who has broken her arm. On the train she meets lonely, unwanted, 10-year-old Charlotte, who is headed for the same village, to stay with her unloving grandmother, because the school boiler blew up, her mother is on holiday, and her father can’t (or won’t) look after her. All suitably scatty I thought - and I rather liked the idea of reading about a train journey while I was on a train journey. Note to Self, as the Provincial Lady would say, to find more train books for future journeys. There's always The Railway Children, one of my childhood favourites, which I still read, but does anyone have any other recommendations?

Oh dear, I got distracted (again), so back to the book in hand. Once in Cornwall Prue meets curmudgeonly famous artist Daniel, who is back after a 10-year gap. Prue instantly falls head over heels in love with the stranger, but there is a mystery in his past which he will not talk about. So far, so good, I thought.

But it’s a very slender book, and the scene is barely set before everything is tidily wrapped up – I did feel a little short-changed, as if the story never really got under way at all. And, since everything is compressed into such a short period (less than two weeks, which is nowhere near long enough to fall in love, overcome all obstacles, and accept a proposal of marriage) there is no time for plot development or growth of characters. The story and its people arrive fully formed – well, as formed as they are ever likely to be. It means the action, such as it is, is rather predictable, and the characters, engaging though they may be, never step out of their allocated roles, and remain caricatures. It’s almost like an embryonic idea for a story which hasn’t been worked up into a proper novel, and there are no emotional depths, and no universal truths, but I’m not complaining (even though it sounds as if I am), because what you see is what you get, and it makes no pretence to be anything other than a light, fluffy read, and it was great fun, and I did enjoy it.

I’m curious to see how it compares to Pilcher’s longer work – The Shell Seekers, perhaps, which is also set in Cornwall.

Anyway, I’m grateful to Pam for introducing me to an author I might not otherwise have read, and I hope she doesn’t mind, but I’ve passed the book on  to my mother, who will read it, then give it to the little ‘library’ run by residents of the sheltered flats where she lives, so it will get well read in the months ahead.

Monday, 14 October 2013

Lost Love and Eternal Triangles...

This Art Deco figure by Demetre Chiparus
captures the feel of the book as Nigel and
Caroline seek love.
Not knowing anything about Violet Trefusis, beyond the brief fact that she eloped with Vita Sackville-West and was the daughter of Alice Keppel (favourite mistress of King Edward VII) I had no idea what to expect from her 1937 novel Hunt the Slipper, especially as her work seems to have been overshadowed by other members of the Bloomsbury set - I don’t know if she’s actually considered to be part of the group or not, but she certainly moved in their circle, and it’s interesting to see read her work in this context. She wasn’t an innovative writer, like Virginia Woolf – this a bright, witty, satiric comedy of manners (actually, I think romantic comedy may be nearer the mark) which is, nevertheless, something of a tragedy, and I loved it.

According to the blurb on the back of my Virago 1983 edition, it’s a ‘she-loves-me-she-loves-me-not story’, where love is like ‘the treasure hunt of childhood, with the longed-for object of pursuit forever tantalising, forever just beyond reach’. And, just for once, the description is spot on. Nigel Benson is 49, wealthy, cultured, rather plump, attracted by women – and attractive to them. Over the years he’s had a succession of love affairs, but the one constant in his life is his sister Molly, who seems to have sublimated her own desires in caring for him, and persists in treating him as if he were still a small, enchantingly naughty, small boy.

His life is untroubled, filled with pleasure: he doesn’t have to work (all the central characters seem to have unearned incomes) so can indulge his passion for paintings and objets d’art, and spend months abroad in France and Italy. But everything changes when he meets Caroline, the wife of his neighbour Sir Antony Crome. Initially there is no spark between them, then they meet again in France: Caroline, young and lonely, on the rebound from a failed love affair, is ill in bed, and Nigel is on hand to provide solace and entertainment…

The pair fall in love, but Caroline seems curiously heartless in her dealings with him, just as she is with her husband and small daughter. When they are apart he suffers pangs of jealousies, and fears she does not love him at all. Restless, distracted, unable to settle, he loses weight, and recaptures the appearance of his youthful self. But when they are together he is just as tortured by his feelings, and by the strain of keeping up with a woman who is half his age. He’s infatuated with her to the point of obsession, but he knows that eventually she will abandon him for someone new.

Caroline herself remains a bit of a mystery. When we first meet her she is rather dull, insipid almost, awkward, and not outstandingly pretty. However, she changes during her affair with Melo the Chilean, and turns out to be fascinating, attractive and witty – but she’s cruel and self-centred. Did she become like this as a result of that first affair I wonder? Or did that bring out some latent quality within her? And does she love Nigel? Indeed, is she capable of love at all? Does she even think she is in love, or does she just like being adored? According to Molly:

Caroline is a one-man’s job. She would like to be made to darn socks, to be ordered about, and to live in a two-roomed cottage like a woman in a Lawrence novel. Unfortunately for her, Fate has ordained otherwise. She’ll always be attracted by anyone who is the antithesis of Anthony – and Crichley.

This ties in with Caroline’s own comments about herself and, as if to prove the theory, she finally runs off with a man who thinks Picasso is a Mediterranean fishing-village… but even then there’s a twist to tale, as Nigel discovers when he reads her farewell letter, for it’s all a ploy to get him to go off with her. But it is too late, because he has waited too long to open the letter.  And, ironically, he finds himself supporting the devastated Anthony, the husband he has wronged.

Oddly, Nigel has more in common with Anthony than he does with Caroline. The two men, as she herself observes, are both collectors, and I think they both see her as a trophy to be acquired. Neither tries to view her as a person in her own right. Nigel appears very emotional, and Anthony is passionless. Trefusis had a field day describing him:

…his mind was beautifully laid out, like a garden a la fran├žaise, geometrical, disciplined, gracious. It was full of amiable diversions; one forgot it was based upon an inflexible plan, and that, like the gardens of Versailles, its construction had necessitated the laying waste of innumerable acres. It was perpetually ‘on show’. It is to Anthony’s credit that the public seldom realised that it had paid for admission.

I was surprised at the role houses play, and the way each has a clearly defined character of its own, and how that character reflects is owners. Anthony’s home, Crichley, is filled with rare, valuable objects, and is well ordered, but it’s a chilly place, cheerless, comfortless and sterile. Even the food is boring and tasteless.

On the other hand, Caroline’s family home, Random, is as disorganised as the name suggests. Here, according to Nigel, ‘teacups and tracts battled for supremacy with peacocks’ feathers and leopard-skins’. It’s chaotic and untidy, with no routine, and even the food is peculiar, with strange, unpalatable ingredients.

The one perfect home is Ambush, where Nigel and his sister live in surroundings which are comfortable and luxurious, but not ostentatious, and where the food is exquisitely cooked and tastes superb.

Trefusis wrote about milieu she knew, and she did it superbly well, and from a position of
Violet Trefusis pictured in 1920.
privilege and wealth she is able to poke fun at the English aristocracy and the upper classes. It’s written in the 1930s, but there’s no mention of the political situation in Europe during this period, although much of the novel is set on the Continent, and somehow I get the impression it is set a decade earlier, before Trefusis left England to live in France.

And, despite the lightness of tone, and the humour, and the satire, I still keep thinking of this as a tragedy, and for some reason eternal triangles keep running through my mind, and the story of Arthur and Guinevere and Lancelot, which is odd, because if I was asked to think of a literary parallel for Caroline I would have said she was more like Emma Bovary, or Anna Karenina, bored by her marriage to a dull man, seeking love and excitement based on ideas gleaned from stories.