The Lady of the Basement Flat by Mrs. George de Horne Vaizey (1917)

The first sentences were intriguing but a little worrying:

‘At three o’clock this afternoon Evelyn Wastneys died. I am Evelyn Wastneys, and I died, standing at the door of an old country home in Ireland, with my hands full of ridiculous little silver shoes and horseshoes, and a Paris hat on my head, and a trembling treble voice whispering in my ear:—

“Good-bye, Evelyn darling—darling! Thank you—thank you for all you have been to me! Oh, Evelyn, promise you will not be unhappy!” ‘

The next sentences told me that everything was going to be alright.

‘Then some mysterious hidden muscle, whose existence I had never before suspected, pulled two little strings at the corners of my mouth, and my lips smiled—a marionette smile—and a marionette voice cried jauntily:—

“Unhappy? Never! Why, I am free! I am going to begin to live.” ‘

And as I read on I realised that Mrs. de Horne Vaizey was proffering a lovely confection could fill the 1917 shaped gap in my 100 Years of Books rather nicely!

Twenty-six-year-old Evelyn and her younger sister Kathie had been left as orphans, with a selection of elderly aunts their only family. They had the means to set up house together, and so they lived happily for a good many years. Until Kathleen met an eligible young man named Basil; they fell in love, they married, and they set sail for new life together in Canada.

Of course Evelyn’s feelings were mixed. She was happy for her sister, but just a little sad that their bond would never be quite the same again, that she had been left behind. She was uncertain what her own future would hold, but the more she thought the more confident she became that she could lead an interesting life and be valued in the world.

The aunts thought that her only option was to live quietly with them- given that half of the sisters’ inheritance had left with Kathie – but Evelyn knew that wasn’t an option. She explained, over their protests, that she was setting out for a very different future.

She had a wonderful idea, and she knew that all she had to do was set the wheels in motion.

Then she had a letter from a friend that she and her sister had met on holiday.

Illustration by Helen DrydenCharmion was a few years older than the sisters, she was wealthy and independent, and she loved to travel and explore. She was sensitive to Evelyn’s situation, and they suggested that they take a country house together, on the understanding that it wouldn’t be a full time residence, and that each lady could come and go as she wished.

Evelyn was delighted with the idea, and she and Charmion found a lovely house and they had a lovely time planning refurbishments, choosing furnishings and creating the home of their dreams.

Charmion was less eager to take part in village society than Evelyn, but Evelyn accepted that because she knew that her friend had a great sadness in her past that was the one thing she wouldn’t talk about.

Evelyn loved village life; but when Charmion set off on her travels she was just as happy with her very different life in the big city, where she put her grand plan into action.

I wish I could say more, but I can’t without giving away far too much.

I can say that the story set in the country and the story set in the town were both wonderfully entertaining, they introduced a wonderfully diverse collection of characters, and they held a lovely mixture of drama, romance and fun.;

Evelyn was a wonderful heroine. She was warm and sociable, she was kind and thoughtful, and she became a great friend to so many different people. I loved her plan, and though I had doubts about its viability I understood why it was important for Evelyn and I hoped that it would work.

The plot is very nicely constructed. There are a good number of coincidences and quite a few moments when I had to suspend disbelief, but I always knew that this was a light entertainment and not great literature.

Mrs. George de Horne Vaizey did what she did very well; I thought that she understood her characters and their lives very well, and that she cared about them; and because she cared I had to care about Evelyn and her friends, and about what would happen in their lives.

Because I was so well entertained, because I cared, I found the book’s failings easy to forgive.

I was sorry that I didn’t get to meet Kathie, but pleased to know that she was happily settled in her new life.

Everyone’s story played out just as well – the final resolution  was unlikely but it was exactly what I wanted.

A Book for G. B. Stern Day: Another Part of the Forest (1941)

A few years ago I spotted a book by a Virago author I had hardly read among the literary biographies in the library. I picked it up for a look, not really meaning to bring it home until I had found and read some more of her novels, but when I saw that it hadn’t been out of the library for decades I had to bring it come, and when I began to read I was captivated.

It wasn’t a conventional autobiography, it was the first of a series of books where the author talked about people, places and things she loved, moving from subject to subject and back again as one thing made her think of another.

I didn’t learn a great deal about the facts of her life, but I learned a great deal about the people she loved, the places she visited, the things she collected, the dogs who were her companions, the books she read and loved …

That book had to go back to the library but I started to hunt down the volumes that followed it.

‘Another Part of the Forest’ picks up where that book left off – the author comments that she was ready to start on this book as soon as this one was finished – but time passed, the world changed, and so this book feels a little different. It was written in the early years of the war, by an author who loved to travel and socialise but has accepted the sense of settling down and living quietly in the English countryside.

When I read that first book began to feel that I was among the crowd at a literary cocktail party, listening to a wonderful raconteur a little way away. I didn’t know her but I loved listening to her talk, and I was sure that if I did know her I would like her. This book feels like a quieter party, with that same raconteur telling more stories; different stories more suited to different company at a different kind of gathering.

This time she speaks of childhood memories, recalling seaside holidays, and the discovery of authors who would be lifelong favourites.

“Broadstairs meant the kingdom of shells among the rocks at low tide, shells pearl and pink and purple, flawless in form and tiny as tropical butterflies and fish; it meant lumps of chalk twinkling on the powdery sands through the sunlit rock archway at the foot of a flight of rocky steps, dark and uneven and smelling of seaweed, that plunged adventurously downward from the parade right through the cliff. It was because one or other of us nearly always slipped down those steps that we were not allowed iron spades. We were also not allowed to take off our shoes and stockings or bather for the first three days – an inexorable rule, and probably a very silly one. Those stairs are gone now, and the way down to the sands is frank and open and concrete. I suppose it is all for the best. At the Bleak House end of the bay was a little inn and a rough jetty and a lifeboat shed, and a couple of figure-heads against the tarred wall; one, I think, a highlander of the Waterloo period. A steep cobbled path led up to the cliff, winding coyly past a house called Cosy Nook which I thought the most beautiful name a house could have =, and mentally adopted for my own future habitation; then , with a dark thrill, it ran past Bleak House – or we ran past it, for our nurses declared it was haunted; Dickens had lived there, we were told, but Dickens meant nothing to me till I was thirteen, when for four or five years he meant everything ….”

Authors and books fall into stories quite naturally, sometimes in passing and sometimes considered at more length.

G. B. Stern refers to a party she hosted for seventy literary figures, and I would love to know who they were. Maybe Somerset Maugham, as she was a guest at one of his house parties. Maybe H G Wells who was at the same house party and gave her a writing case for Christmas. Maybe Elizabeth Von Arnim. The author went on a picnic with her and imagined that she was a character in one of her books. Certainly Sheila Kaye-Smith, who was a close friend and co-author of two books about Jane Austen.

It is for Jane Austen that the author creates a box labelled ‘perfect’ – for authors with a small but flawless body of work who should not be lost among literary giants. Her knowledge and passion was wonderful, she wrote about the author and her characters so naturally, she made me think and she made me want to pick up the books again.

“I asked Paul to stop. We were just outside Pleshey, and I saw a house that I wanted. Paul obligingly drew up, but cancelled my gratitude by the remark: “It’s beyond your means.” I think indignation was justifiable: !it’s not beyond my means because I haven’t got any. So I can never go beyond my means. And that house just suits me.” He agreed that it was a good house, sober and not gaudy; old brownish bricks; the architecture in the style of a Jane Austen house, with a drive up to the white pillared porch and entrance, and bow windows round at the side, bow windows harmonious and inevitable. ‘”I believe there are few country parsonages in England half so good,'” said General Tilney in ‘Northanger Abbey.’ “‘It may admit of improvement, however. Far be it for me to say otherwise; and anything in reason – a bow thrown out perhaps; though, between ourselves, if there is one thing more than other my aversion it is a patched-on bow.”‘ A smaller building at the side of the garden, the “littlest house” which the biggest house had spawned in accordance with all my earlier psychological observations, was shaded by a richly-coloured copper beech; I think here must have been the stables where Mr. Bennet kept the house which his wife would not allow Jane to ride when she went to visit the eligible Mr. Bingley; rain threatened, and Mrs Bennet hoped her beautiful daughter would catch cold and have to satay that night. I cannot refrain from all these Austen ruminations, for the house was of just the right size, sobriety and gentlemanliness for the Bennets or the Morlands. It was not a noble enough mansion for Sir Thomas Bertram, or Darcy, or the Elliots; but, on the other hand, too big for the Dashwoods after their change in fortune; for it was clearly stated that when Willoughby offered to give Marianne a horse, Elinor sensibly and priggishly pointed out that it would involve their mother in much extra expense and trouble, as there were no stables attached to the cottage, and moreover an extra manservant would have to be hired to jog along behind Marianne on her rides.

Paul drove slowly by . “I shall buy it,” I said firmly. And he repeated: “It’s beyond your means.” “There’s no tax on dreams,” I said …’

This is a book full of people, places and houses, and with less room left for the thoughts and ideas that I remember from the first book; understandably given the times and circumstances when this book was written.

I was happy to read more about the author’s collections. She collected paperweights, and deployed them to hold down the pages of her manuscript as she wrote this book out of doors. She also collected sticks, and I loved reading her account of striding out with one that had a light embedded at the top. She loved dogs, and, though she thought that six was enough, when her husband brought home another puppy in May and said it was an early Christmas present she couldn’t quite accept the justification but they worked out another one.

There are so many things in this book – big things and small things – that I could pull out.

In case you are wondering where the title came from:

‘In the spring, a year ago, I was wandering with a friend in Savernake Forest. I cannot tell how early or how late in the spring, for the season had poured down  rain and sun in absent-minded fashion, so that some of the flowers had been dilatory in appearing and others had hastened along sooner that was reasonable, though not too soon for welcome. Therefore on that glorious morning, wood anemones and primroses and violets and the first bluebells were all out together. conquering the green moss; the branches is the trees, not yet impenetrable with foliage, allowed the sun to pass through and slide softly down the tree-trunks into pools and puddles of golden light. I cannot remember that any birds were singing; my impression was that this delectable wood lay around us in clear silence. My companion remarked that it gave her a lovely slippery feeling of something not beyond but beside its own beauty, as though the whole scene was about to vanish at any moment; and I exclaimed, led by this remark to sudden discovery: “Of course. It’s Act III, Scene IV. It’s another part of the forest!”

I am so glad that I picked up that first book, that I found a new literary friend, that it led me to this second book, that I have the third book on hand….

A Book for E. M. Delafield Day: Thank Heaven Fasting (1933)

E. M. Delafield is best remembered for her light and bright Provincial Lady books,  but she wrote a great deal more than that. This book, reissued by Virago back in the day and by Bloomsbury more recently, is my first venture into those ‘other books’ and I found that it was very different and very good.

‘Thank Heaven Fasting’ speaks profoundly of the restrictive ridiculousness of upper class society in Edwardian Britain. The author grew up in this society, she struggled with it, and it is clear from the very first page that the passage of time had not tempered her feelings:

‘Much was said in the days of Monica’s early youth about being good. Life — the section of it that was visible from the angle of Eaton Square — was full of young girls who were all being good. Even a girl who was tiresome and “didn’t get on with her mother” was never anything but good, since opportunities for being anything else were practically non-existent.

One was safeguarded.

One’s religion, one’s mother, one’s maid…. But especially one’s mother.’

Monica Ingram was the much loved only child of a socially ambitious mother and wealthy father. They wanted only the very best for their darling daughter and they had made her aware of the supreme importance of a good marriage for a woman. She understood a woman who failed to elicit a proposal of marriage from the right man would be viewed as a failure for the rest of what would inevitably be a joyless life. She would have no wedding day, no home of her own, no children, no social position …

When Monica takes her first steps as a debutante things go very well: she is pretty, she is charming and she speaks quite naturally with the people round her. Her mother is cautiously optimistic and she is very pleased when she finds that Monica has an admirer; though she is quick to tell her daughter that he is not ‘The One’.

“Besides, though he may be a very nice young man, we’ve got to remember that he isn’t, really, very much use. He’s too young, for one thing, and there’s no money at all, even if he hadn’t got an elder brother.”

Monica, disconcerted and disappointed, did not quite know how to reply. She was afraid that her mother was going to say that she would not be allowed to be friends with Claude Ashe any more.

“It’s quite all right, darling,” said Mrs. Ingram very kindly. “I like you to make friends of your own age, and one wants people to see that — well, that there’s someone running after you, more or less. Only I want you to realize that you mustn’t take anything at all seriously, just yet.”

Things go terribly wrong when Monica encounters Captain Lane at a party. He draws her away from the company, he charms her, he kisses her, and she responds. In her innocence, she believes herself to be in love, she believes that what is happening can only be the precursor to a proposal of marriage, and she forgets everything that her mother taught her.

Monica’s parents are appalled. They know that Captain Lane is a notorious rake, they know that their daughter’s behaviour has been noticed and that there will be gossip; and that it will ruin her chances with any respectable man. The only course open to them is to bring the romance to a swift conclusion and take Monica away to the country for the summer, in the hope that when she returns, all will be forgotten.

(Illustration by Helen Dryden – the cover artwork from a magazine that Moira may well have read adorns the cover of the Virago edition of her story.)

When the Ingrams return to London memories have faded but they haven’t gone away; and events have taken their toll on Monica, she is a year older and her prettiness has faded too. She comes to realise that, she sees a new generation of debutantes catching the eyes of eligible young men, and she realises that her chance of marriage is diminishing rapidly.

Poor Monica.

She is thrown back into the company of her childhood friends, Frederica and Cecily, who had also failed to elicit proposals; because their upbringing had been so sheltered that they were uncomfortable and awkward in society; and because they felt the disappointment of mother, who was successful in society but seemed not to understand that her daughters needed her help and support.

Monica had a much closer relationship with her own mother, but seeing her friends’ position intensified her fears for the future.

In the end she had just two gentleman callers. One was a friend, who appreciated Monica’s willingness to listen to tales of his great lost love, and the other was an older man who had proposed to many and been turned down each time. Had Monica’s hopes of matrimony gone, or did she still have a chance?

Her story made a wonderful book.

Monica, her family, her friends, and her suitors were all trapped by ridiculous social conventions; and the range of characters and different experiences reinforced that point. Making herself attractive and appealing to men was the sole object of her life; because marriage was the only career opportunity for a woman of her class and anything other than that would constitute failure.

Her failure meant that she remained in her mother’s care, she continued to be a child and she never learned to understand her own feelings or make decisions for herself. No woman ever needed to, because she would pass form her parent’s charge to her husband’s!

This could have been a polemic but it wasn’t; because the characters lived and breather and because everything that happened was horribly believable.

The writing was clear and lucid. The dialogues rang true and they said everything that needed to be said.

The end of this book gave me hope for Monica but it also made me realise how trapped she was.

‘She could never, looking backwards, remember a time when she had not known that a woman’s failure or success in life depended entirely on whether or not she succeeded in getting a husband.’

Sad but true.

A Seasonal Collection: June

“What is one to say about June, the time of perfect young summer, the fulfillment of the promise of the earlier months, and with as yet no sign to remind one that its fresh young beauty will ever fade?”

From ‘Gardens for Small Country Houses’ by Gertrude Jekyll

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‘Early Morning’ by Dod Proctor

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‘To begin with the old rigmarole of childhood. In a country there was a shire, and in that shire there was a town, and in that town there was a house, and in that house there was a room, and in that room there was a bed, and in that bed there lay a little girl; wide awake and longing to get up, but not daring to do so for fear of the unseen power in the next room—a certain Betty, whose slumbers must not be disturbed until six o’clock struck, when she wakened of herself “as sure as clockwork,” and left the household very little peace afterwards. It was a June morning, and early as it was, the room was full of sunny warmth and light.

On the drawers opposite to the little white dimity bed in which Molly Gibson lay, was a primitive kind of bonnet-stand on which was hung a bonnet, carefully covered over from any chance of dust with a large cotton handkerchief, of so heavy and serviceable a texture that if the thing underneath it had been a flimsy fabric of gauze and lace and flowers, it would have been altogether “scomfished” (again to quote from Betty’s vocabulary). But the bonnet was made of solid straw, and its only trimming was a plain white ribbon put over the crown, and forming the strings. Still, there was a neat little quilling inside, every plait of which Molly knew, for had she not made it herself the evening before, with infinite pains? and was there not a little blue bow in this quilling, the very first bit of such finery Molly had ever had the prospect of wearing?

Six o’clock now! the pleasant, brisk ringing of the church bells told that; calling every one to their daily work, as they had done for hundreds of years. Up jumped Molly, and ran with her bare little feet across the room, and lifted off the handkerchief and saw once again the bonnet; the pledge of the gay bright day to come. Then to the window, and after some tugging she opened the casement, and let in the sweet morning air. The dew was already off the flowers in the garden below, but still rising from the long hay-grass in the meadows directly beyond. At one side lay the little town of Hollingford, into a street of which Mr. Gibson’s front door opened; and delicate columns, and little puffs of smoke were already beginning to rise from many a cottage chimney where some housewife was already up, and preparing breakfast for the bread-winner of the family.’

From ‘Wives and Daughters’ by Elizabeth Gaskell’

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Illustration by Edmund DuLac for “Fairies I Have Met” by Maud Margaret Rodolph Stawell 

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“My second cousin and I came to London for ten days in the middle of last June, and we stayed there for three weeks, waiting for a fine day. We were Irish, and all the English with whom we had hitherto come in contact had impressed upon us that we should never know what fine weather was till we came to England. Perhaps we came at a bad moment, when the weather, like the shops, was having its cheap sales.

Things came to a climax one day when we had sat for three-quarters of an hour in a Hungarian bread shop in Regent Street, waiting for the rain to clear off enough to let us get down to the New Gallery. As the fifth party of moist ladies came in and propped their dripping umbrellas against the wall behind us, and remarked that they had never seen such rain, our resolution first began to take shape.

” Hansom ! ” said my second cousin.

” Home ! ” said I.

” England is no fit place for a lady to be in,” said my second cousin, as we drove away in our hansom with the glass down. “

I’d be ashamed to show such weather to a Connemara pig,” I replied.

Now Connemara is a sore subject with my second cousin, who lives within sight of its mountains, and, as is usually the case, has never explored the glories of her native country, which was why I mentioned Connemara. She generally changes the conversation on these occasions ; but this time she looked me steadily in the face and said,

” Well, let’s go to Connemara!”

From ‘Through Connemara in a Governess Cart’ by Somerville & Ross

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Ten o’clock: the broken moon
Hangs not yet a half hour high,
Yellow as a shield of brass,
In the dewy air of June,
Poised between the vaulted sky
And the ocean’s liquid glass.

Earth lies in the shadow still;
Low black bushes, trees, and lawn
Night’s ambrosial dews absorb;
Through the foliage creeps a thrill,
Whispering of yon spectral dawn
And the hidden climbing orb.

Higher, higher, gathering light,
Veiling with a golden gauze
All the trembling atmosphere,
See, the rayless disk grows white!
Hark, the glittering billows pause!

Faint, far sounds possess the ear.
Elves on such a night as this
Spin their rings upon the grass;
On the beach the water-fay
Greets her lover with a kiss;
Through the air swift spirits pass,
Laugh, caress, and float away.

Shut thy lids and thou shalt see
Angel faces wreathed with light,
Mystic forms long vanished hence.
Ah, too fine, too rare, they be
For the grosser mortal sight,
And they foil our waking sense.

Yet we feel them floating near,
Know that we are not alone,
Though our open eyes behold
Nothing save the moon’s bright sphere,
In the vacant heavens shown,
And the ocean’s path of gold.

‘A June Night’ by Emma Lazarus

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‘Spurge, Withyham , June 1909’ by Charles Rennie Mackintosh

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June 9th

“Life takes on entirely new aspect, owing to astonishing and unprecedented success of minute and unpretentious literary effort, published last December, and—incredibly—written by myself. Reactions of family and friends to this unforeseen state of affairs most interesting and varied. Dear Vicky and Robin more than appreciative although not allowed to read book, and compare me variously to Shakespeare, Dickens, author of the Dr. Dolittle books, and writer referred to by Vicky as Lambs’ Tails. Mademoiselle—who has read book—only says Ah, je m’en doutais bien! which makes me uneasy, although cannot exactly say why.

Robert says very little indeed, but sits with copy of book for several evenings, and turns over a page quite often. Eventually he shuts it and says Yes. I ask what he thinks of it, and after a long silence he says that It is Funny—but does not look amused. Later he refers to financial situation—as well he may, since it has been exceedingly grave for some time past—and we agree that this ought to Make a Difference.”

From ‘The Provincial Lady Goes Further’ by E M Delafield

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‘Boatyard June 1938’ by Eric Ravilious

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June puts bronze and crimson on many of her leaves. The maple-leaves and many of the leaves of thorn and bramble and dogwood are rosy; the hazel-leaves are rosy-brown; the herb-robert and parsley are rose-red; the leaves of ash and holly are dark lacquered. The copper beeches, opulently sombre under a faintly yellowed sky, seem to be the sacred trees of the thunder that broods above. Presently the colour of the threat is changed to blue, which soiled white clouds pervade until the whole sky is woolly white and grey and moving north. There is no wind, but there is a roar as of a hurricane in the trees far off; soon it is louder, in the trees not so remote; and in a minute the rain has traversed half-a-mile of woods, and the distant combined roar is swallowed up by the nearer pattering on roof and pane and leaf, the dance of leaves, the sway of branches, the trembling of whole trees under the flood. The rain falls straight upon the hard road, and each drop seems to leap upward from it barbed. Great drops dive among the motionless, dusty nettles. The thunder unloads its ponderous burden upon the resonant floor of the sky; but the sounds of the myriad leaves and grass-blades drinking all but drowns the boom, the splitting roar, and the echo in the hills. When it is over it has put a final sweetness into the blackbird’s voice and into the calm of the evening garden when the voice of a singer does but lay another tribute at the feet of the enormous silence. Frail is that voice as the ghost-moth dancing above the grass so faithfully that it seems a flower attached to a swaying stem, or as the one nettle-leaf that flutters in a draught of the hedge like a signalling hand while all the rest of the leaves are as if they could not move again, or as the full moon that is foundering on a white surf in the infinite violet sky. More large and more calm and emptier of familiar things grows the land as I pass through it, under the hoverings of the low-flying but swiftly-turning nightjar, until at midnight only a low white mist moves over the gentle desolation and warm silence. The mist wavers, and discloses a sky all strewn with white stars like the flowers of an immense jessamine. It closes up again, and day is born unawares in its pale arms, and earth is for the moment nothing but the tide of downs flowing west and the branch of red roses that hangs heavily laden and drowsed with its weight and beauty over my path, dipping Its last spray in the dew of the grass.

From ‘The South Country’ by Edward Thomas

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‘The Bride’ by Annie French

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‘It was a hot evening in June: the perfume of the lilac, now in fullest bloom, lay over squares and gardens like a suspended wave. The sun had gone down in a cloudless sky; an hour afterwards, the pavements were still warm to the touch, and the walls of the buildings radiated the heat they had absorbed. The high old houses in the inner town had all windows set open, and the occupants leaned out on their window-cushions, with continental nonchalance.

The big garden-cafes were filled to the last scat. In the woods, the midges buzzed round people’s heads in accompanying clouds; and streaks of treacherous white mist trailed, like fixed smoke, over the low-lying meadow-land.

Maurice and Louise had rowed to Connewitz; but so late in the evening that most of the variously shaped boats, with coloured lanterns at their bows, were returning when they started.

Louise herself had proposed it. When he went to her that afternoon, he found her stretched on the sofa. A theatre-ticket lay on the table—for she had taken him at his word, and shown him that she could do without him. But to-night she had no fancy for the theatre: it was too hot. She looked very slight and young in her white dress; but was moody and out of spirits.

On the way to Connewitz, they spoke no more than was necessary. Coming back, however, they had the river to themselves; and she no longer needed to steer. He placed cushions for her at the bottom of the boat; and there she lay, with her hands clasped under her neck, watching the starry strip of sky, which followed them, between the tops of the trees above, like a complement of the river below.

The solitude was unbroken; they might have gone down in the murky water, and no one would ever know how it had happened: a snag caught unawares; a clumsy movement in the light boat; half a minute, and all would be over.—Or, for the first and the last time in his life, he would take her in his arms, hold her to him, feel her cheek on his; he would kiss her, with kisses that were at once an initiation and a farewell; then, covering her eyes with his hands, he would gently, very gently, tilt the boat. A moment’s hesitation; it sought to right itself; rocked violently, and overturned: and beneath it, locked in each other’s arms, they found a common grave….

In fancy, he saw it all. Meanwhile, he rowed on, with long, leisurely strokes; and the lapping of the water round the oars was the only sound to be heard. ‘

From ‘Maurice Guest’ by Henry Handel Richardson

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‘Three Girls by a Rock Pool’ by William Stewart MacGeorge

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‘June is always, as I see it, a time of sadness, it has the poignant beauty of a deep read rose, prefect to-day, widely open on the morrow, overblown on the next day, only to end in fallen petals.

In June the summer that we have so long awaited has come at last and nature has reached her peak of perfection. Since, however, hope is man’s dearest lifelong companion, he will always find more happiness in beginning than in completion; the powers that be, when denying him a continuously perfect world, spared him a twofold sorrow, the aching void of completion and the weariness of satiety.

We live like mountain climbers; our supreme moments are not when we stand at the summit, they come at some earlier stage of the journey while hope and endeavour are carrying us ever a little nearer to the sky.’

From ‘A Cornish Year’ by C. C. Vyvyan

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The Cliff House by Amanda Jennings (2018)

An author who can set a book in a place close to home that I know very well and at a time when I could have been there, when I could have brushed shoulders with one of her characters, and hold me through the whole story without ever doubting that her characters lived and breathed, that the events she writes about happened, is an author I am very glad to have met.

It takes more than authenticity to make a good book of course, and this book has much more than that. It has a wonderful understanding of character and relationships and it has an absorbing story where there is always something in the air; something like a great storm at sea moving closer and closer to the Cornish coast ….

In  July 1986 Tamsyn was a teenager, living with her mother, her brother and her ailing grandfather in the small town of  St Just in the far west of Cornwall. They were a close family but money was tight, jobs were few since the mine had closed, and they were still coming to terms with the absence of Tamsyn’s beloved father, a lifeboat man who was lost at sea during a rescue.

He had taken Tamsyn on walks along the coastal path, spotting birds, observing familiar landmarks, and admiring the beautiful art deco Cliff House. It was the second home of Davenport family, who lived in London and usually only visited for occasional weekends. Secure in that knowlege, Tamsyn and her father would even swim in the Cliff House’s pool.

Tamsyn continued to walk alone, and she observed the Cliff House more and more carefully. She is was entranced as she watched Mr and Mrs Davenport,  she was sure that their lives were quite perfect, and she wished that there was a way for her to step into their world.

When Edie Davenport, the daughter Tamsyn had never seen before and didn’t know existed, caught her swimming in the pool Tamsyn was horrified. But Edie was amused, and she was pleased to meet someone who might be a friend for the long summer holiday that her parents has decided to spend in Cornwall.

They were unlikely friends, but each girl was lonely and isolated and needed the other; and each girl had something that the other lacked. Tamsyn was drawn to the wealth and glamour of the Cliff House, but Edie’s life there was far from happy and she loved the natural warmth and welcome that she found in Tamsyn’s family home.

The drawing of that friendship is beautifully balanced, and I found that I could emphasise with each girl. Tamsyn is still grieving for her father and she is unhappy that her mother’s friendship with a local man might become a romance; while Edie is burdened by a family situation that she is unable to talk about.

I was particularly taken with Tamsyn’s mother; the portrayal of her as a mother, a young widow, a woman who knew that her children were growing up and that she still had a life ahead of her was pitch perfect.

Everything rings true.

The whole world of this book is beautifully evoked. I can’t quite place the Cliff House, but I can believe in two girls a few years younger than me, in everything that happened around them, in the whole story that played out just a few miles away from me.

I was completely drawn in, I cared and I wanted to know what would happen, and so I turned the pages quickly.

The only thing I didn’t  care for was the symbolism of the raven and the hints of what lay years in the future. It felt clumsy and it was a distraction from the story of what happened in the summer of 1986.

Tamsyn’s involvement with the Cliff House – and the presence of her brother Jago, who is burdened by his grief for his father and his inability to step up and be the man of the family in a time and place when there are no jobs and no prospects for young men – led to a chain of events that would have unimagined and unintended consequences for two families.

The story moved slowly and steadily, and I love the way that it twisted and turned.

It spoke profoundly the gulf between rich and poor, the impact on rural communities of economic decline, and the effects of bereavement, loss and grief.

It spoke of how different what we see on the surface and what lies beneath can be; and where the line between love and obsession, between reason and madness, might lie.

I loved it from the first page to the last.

A Simpler Sweater

When I finished knitting Franziska I knew that my next knitting project had to be something much simpler and quicker. I had patterns and I had yarn in hand, but new things caught my eye

The pattern:

kazahana_medium

Kazahana by Eri

I liked the mix of simplicity with enough to hold the attention; and I liked that it was a yoked sweater. That was something I had never knitted before.

I particularly liked one knitter’s version, knitted in a yarn that she praised highly and the like of which I had never used before.

The yarn:

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Garnstudio DROPS Air

‘Drops Air Mix is an exciting “blown yarn” made of soft baby alpaca and warm merino wool. The structure of Air Mix is unique because the fibers are blown through a tube with air. This technique makes clothes made from Air Drops particularly light and airy.’

I was curious, the price was very reasonable, and so I placed an order with the ever reliable Wool Warehouse.

The yarn that arrived looked lovely and I was very pleased with the colour I chose. Fog (#10) is a lovely mix of blue and grey.

I started to knit. The pattern was simply but clearly written, and the few modifications I made were to suit me and the kind of sweater I wanted.

  • I added an extra repeat of the pattern to the yoke.
  • I changed the body from straight to A-line by adding four sets of increases.
  • I changed the hem to moss stich because I wanted a simple, narrow band. The pattern that the designer chose was lovely but it needed several pattern repeats to be effective and that made it too wide and too much of a focus for me
  • I added decreases to the sleeves so that they would taper. I liked the wide sleeves so I didn’t decrease too much, but I wanted a little shaping and the pattern had none.

The yarn was lovely to work with, though it wasn’t easy to undo, and the stitches weren’t easy to read. That was fine for this pattern but I wouldn’t want to knit anything too complex with it.

The yoke stitch pattern

It wasn’t too long until I had a finished sweater. It was warm and light, and quite different from anything else I had made.

There was just one problem.

The neckline was wide, and I liked that but it was a little bit too wide and it slipped off my shoulders. I don’t think its the fault of the design; I think that it was the combination of my narrow shoulders and my yarn choice.

I knew that there was a way of fixing that but I hadn’t ever tried it. I found a tutorial, I looked at it carefully, and then I added slip crochet just below the edge to limit the stretching of the neck band. It wasn’t easy, because the yarn is fuzzy and the pattern there had increases and decreases, but it is as even as I could make it – and it works!

It’s not an ideal solution but it works and it had taught me something. Next time I knit a wide neckline from the top down I’ll think more carefully about how it will sit and whether it will stretch and plan accordingly.

The Finished Object

I’m happy that I found a way to make a sweater that I might wear once in a while into a sweater I could wear whenever it was right for the weather.

Next up: I join the masses who have knit Carbeth!

Green Dolphin Country by Elizabeth Goudge (1944)

A long time ago, when I made the transition from junior to senior member of the library, my mother steered me towards a number of authors whose books she loved and that she thought I might love too. I read some of them then, I read some of them later, but it was years before I began to read Elizabeth Goudge, who I knew was a particular favourite.

Her books didn’t appeal to me at all back in the day, and when their author fell out of fashion and her books disappeared from the library shelves I forgot all about her. I can’t remember how or where I found her again, but I’m very pleased that I did.

I’m also pleased that I didn’t read her all those years ago, because I think that the qualities that make her an interesting writer are better appreciated with a little age and experience, with an awareness that life is short and may take unexpected and difficult turns.

I always liked the look of ‘Green Dolphin Country’, but because it was such a very big book I picked up others first. This year though, when I was looking for a book to read on Elizabeth Gouge’s birthday, I decided that its time had come; and I had a lovely few days caught up with the story, the characters, the world, through nearly half a century.

The story opens on one of the Channel Islands – the author has given the fictional name of St. Pierre – in the middle of the 19th century. Two very different sisters were growing up there. Marianne was sixteen, she was dark and lacking in beauty, she had a passionate temper and she was bright and curious about everything the world had to offer. Too bright and too curious for the age and the place where she lived. Eleven year-old Marguerite was fair and pretty, she was vivacious, she loved her life, her home and her family, and she wanted nothing more than happiness for the people she loved and the world around her.

The courses of both their lives begin to change when a newly widowed doctor and his thirteen year-old son, William, come home to the island. Marianne is quick to see something happening, to investigate and to make friends; Marguerite follows a little more cautiously, and makes an equally good but quite different impression.

Marianne plans to win William as her own; but it is clear to everyone except her that he sees her as a friend – maybe the sibling he never had – and that  Marguerite is the girl he loves – and will always love – above all others. She isn’t a fool by any means. Knowing that she wasn’t a beauty and that she couldn’t match the feminine ideal of her time Marianne set about becoming the most chic, the most witty of her social circle and she succeeded; she just couldn’t understand that there were some things that she could never change, that never could be changed.

William joined that Royal Navy, and he tried to secure his future with Marguerite before he sailed away, but circumstances – and a little manipulation from Marianne – resulted in him leaving before he had said many of the things he had intended to say. When he was ashore in the  Far East William was tricked and robbed and couldn’t reach his ship before it sailed. That meant that he was AWOL from the Navy, and that he would be arrested if he travelled back home. He was extremely lucky to meet someone he knew, and to be offered the chance travel to a small colony in New Zealand to build a new life.

Over the course of the next few years William established himself, and then he was able to write home to ask the girl he loved to sail across the world to be his bride. He was tired, he had been drinking, he had a great deal to say, and somehow he wrote the name Marianne when he had written to write Marguerite ….

It sounds improbable, but this twist in the tale was inspired by a real-life story in which exactly the same thing happened!

Marianne travelled to New Zealand with no idea at all that she was not expected; Marguerite was left at home struggling to understand what had happened; and William waited with no idea at all he had sent for the wrong girl.

That is just the beginning of a wonderfully rich tale of love and adventure in times and places where the world was undergoing great change. I had worried that it would be a tale of a great love lost, but of course in Elizabeth Goudge’s hands it was much more than that: it was a story that illustrated that the journey to grace so often begins by accepting that we may not be able to have what we want most and by finding strength to do what we must.

There are lessons about loyalty and friendship, about the depth and complexity of marriage, about the human spirit  in the darkest and happiest of times, and the emotional and spiritual lives of the characters at the centre of the story were illuminated so very well.

Marianne is at the centre of the story, and she a very difficult character to like. Her spirit is wonderful, but she was manipulative, she could see no point of view but her own, and there were some lessons that it seemed she could never quite learn. I couldn’t ever say that I liked her, but I could understand who she was and why she spoke and acted as she did, and I believed in her; as I did in William and Marguerite.

There is a wonderful supporting cast whose stories are woven around the stories of those three, and that did much to make the world in this book live and breathe.

Elizabeth Goudge wrote that she never travelled to New Zealand, and that she researched as much as she could and imagined the rest. I suspect that she  imagined too much, that many of the pictures she has drawn were not true to life, but for the purposes of her story I think that they work.

She wrote so beautifully. I loved the descriptive prose that drew me so close to her characters and allowed me to see the places they saw and the world that they lives in so very clearly. It also served to control the pace, to allow time to absorb the human emotions that are the lifeblood of this book. It is a big book but I find myself wising that it could have been bigger, that I could have stayed longer and seen more. I would have like rather more time with Marguerite, though I do understand why New Zealand was the main focus of the story.

I couldn’t see how there could be a right ending, but there was, and it was so utterly right – emotionally and spiritually – that there was a smile on my face and there were tears in my eyes.

A Spring Exhibition at The Virago Art Gallery

Here is another celebration of the art that adorns the covers of some of my favourite books.

The the covers are lovely, but the paintings really come alive when they are released from their green frames.

Sometimes just a detail has been chosen, or the painting has been cropped because it wasn’t book-shaped. That may be the best way to make a good cover for a book, but it shouldn’t be the only way we see work of the artists.

I do hope that you will enjoy looking at this season’s exhibits.

* * * * * * *

The new edition of the book is lovely, but I am very fond of my old, green copy

Lyme Regis by Richard Ernst Eurich

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A View of the Harbour by Elizabeth Taylor (#245)

“Passions intrudes into the dull, predictable world of a faded coastal resort when Tory, recently divorced, begins an affair with her neighbor Robert, the local doctor. His wife Beth, Tory’s best friend, writes successful and melodramatic novels, oblivious to household chores and the relationship developing next door. But their daughter Prudence is aware and appalled by Robert and Tory’s treachery. The resolution of these painful matters is conveyed with wit and compassion, as are the restricted lives of other characters: the refreshingly coarse Mrs. Bracey, the young widow Lily Wilson and the self-deceiving Bertram … an unforgettable picture of love, loss, and the keeping up of appearances.”

* * * * * * *

This is so like a very old picture I have of my mother

Mary Lapsley Caughey by John Butler Yeats

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The Fly on the Wheel by Katherine Cecil Thurston (#265)

“Isabel Costello’s return to Waterford causes a stir in the Carey household when Stephen, an upstanding lawyer, hears that his impecunious brother has become engaged to her. Outraged by Frank’s attachment to a woman with few material prospects, Stephen intervenes. But his actions are the prelude to a far more devastating entanglement – he and Isabel fall in love. As a married man with children, Stephen faces the full weight of society’s moral and religious opprobrium. For Isabel the consequences are equally circumscribed: a beautiful and reckless woman with no inheritance has little freedom in turn-of-the-century Ireland. This vivid portrait of social behaviour among the Catholic middle classes, originally published in 1908, is also a moving story of illicit love.”

* * * * * * *

When the painting caught my eye it felt so familiar

Spring Day at Boscastle by Charles Ginner

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One Fine Day by Mollie Panter-Downes (#195)

“The English village of Wealding is no longer troubled by distant sirens, yet the rustling coils of barbed wire are a reminder that something, some quality of life, has evaporated. Together again after years of separation, Laura and Stephen Marshall and their daughter Victoria are forced to manage without “those anonymous caps and aprons who lived out of sight and pulled the strings.” Their rambling garden refuses to be tamed, the house seems perceptibly to crumble. But alone on a hillside, as evening falls, Laura comes to see what it would have meant if the war had been lost, and looks to the future with a new hope and optimism. This subtle, finely wrought novel presents a memorable portrait of the aftermath of war, its effect upon a marriage, and the gradual but significant change in the nature of English middle-class life.”

* * * * * * *

A book I should love to revisit

The Violet Kimono by Robert Reid

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Christopher and Columbus by Elizabeth Von Arnim (#395)

“As WWI looms, Anna-Rose, and Anna-Felicitas, seventeen-year-old orphan twins, are thrust upon relatives. But Uncle Arthur, a blustering patriot, is a reluctant guardian: the twins are half-German and, who knows, they could be spying from the nursery window . . . Packed off to America they meet Mr Twist, a wealthy engineer with a tendency to motherliness, who befriends them on the voyage. However, he has failed to consider the pitfalls of taking such young and beautiful women under his wing, especially two who will continue to require his protection long after the ship has docked, and who are incapable of behaving with tact…”

* * * * * * *

The cover is effective but I’m not convinced that it suits the book

Bank Holiday by William Strang

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The Misses Mallet by E H Young (#141)

“There are four Misses Mallett. Caroline and Sophia are large, jolly spinsters with recollections of a past glamour to sustain them as the years slip by. Then there is beautiful Rose. Much younger than her stepsisters, she calmly awaits the event — or the man — that will take her away from their life of small social successes in the city of Radstowe. But she is independent and fastidious; no man, not even the eligible Francis Sales, can entirely capture her heart. The fourth Miss Mallett is Henrietta, who comes to share the conventional home of her three aunts. With her Aunt Rose’s beauty and her own willful spirit, she devotes her energies to eluding spinsterhood. Encountering Francis (no longer so eligible), she falls under his spell. As Rose and Henrietta both circle ’round Francis, they are forced to decide between sense and sensibility — and each of them makes the perfect choice.”

* * * * * * *

The cover is effective  the whole painting is so much more striking

Dreaming Head by John Armstrong

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Surfacing by Margaret Atwood (#8)

“Part detective novel, part psychological thriller, Surfacing is the story of a talented woman artist who goes in search of her missing father on a remote island in northern Quebec. Setting out with her lover and another young couple, she soon finds herself captivated by the isolated setting, where a marriage begins to fall apart, violence and death lurk just beneath the surface, and sex becomes a catalyst for conflict and dangerous choices.”

* * * * * * *

I wonder what she is thinking …

The Blue Girl by Mainie Jellett

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Two Days in Aragon by M L Farrell (Molly Keane) (#193)

“The Georgian house of Aragon stands amongst rhododendrons and scented azaleas, a testament to centuries of gracious living. Here, with their mother, their dotty Aunt Pidgie and Nan O’Neill, the family nurse, live Grania and Sylvia Fox. Wild-blooded Grania is conducting a secret affair with Nan’s son, Foley, a wiley horse-breeder, whilst Sylvia who is “pretty in the right and accepted way” falls for the charms of Captain Purvis. Attending Aragon’s strawberry teas, the British Army Officers can almost forget the reason for their presence in Ireland. But the days of dignified calm at Aragon are numbered, for Foley is a member of Sinn Fein …”

* * * * * * *

That’s the last painting in this collection and this is the last of four seasonal exhibitions, but there are many more paintings in the archive and I am sure that there will be more exhibitions in the feature.

Please do tell me if you have any particular favourite cover artwork, or any other suggestions for future exhibitions.

A Book for Monica Dickens Day: Flowers on the Grass (1949)

I knew that Monica Dickens was an interesting author. I knew that she had written a marvellous range of books, works of fictions and non fiction, stories for children and stories for adults; but when I picked up this book – with flowers in the title and on the cover, with my own name as the title of the first chapter – I really didn’t expect such a distinctive novel.

Each chapter is told from a different character’s point of view but linked by the presence of the same man.

Daniel was an only child, and when he was orphaned at the age of fourteen he became the ward of an elderly relation who wasn’t much interested in him. When he was expelled from Eton, his guardian sent the troubled boy to another distant relative in Italy, hoping that he would have no more responsibility and the scandal would be quickly forgotten. Daniel was happy there. His new guardian gave him a great deal of freedom, and he found that he loved the bohemian lifestyle and that he had a gift for art.

When war broke out he returned to England, he joined the army, and he met a distant cousin named Jane. She knew Daniel’s history, she appreciated what he had been through, and she fell in love with him. It was Jane who supported him when he was shattered by his experiences, and who guided him towards a new life in the English countryside.

Daniel’s stability and domestic happiness was shattered by Jane’s sudden and unexpectedly death. He abandoned his home and work and sets off,  not entirely sure where he would go or what he would do, only certain that he could not stay.

He would drift from place to place and from job to job. He doesn’t fall apart on the surface, but he withdrew and he began to drink heavily.

When he took a room at a small hotel a maid named Doris was concerned for him. She helped him to keep his dog – Jane’s dog – illicitly in his room, she smuggled out his empty wine bottles bottles and she made excuses for him and tried to help him when his behaviour became somewhat erratic. It was inevitable that the hotel owner would find out and that Doris would lose her job; but Daniel had a strong sense of justice, he was worldly wise, and he found a way for her to get her job back.

After that Daniel found a landlady who rented out a room in her house so that she could have a little money in her pocket without having to ask her husband or her sons, and because she liked having company in the house. She thought that her new lodger was charming, but her boys saw that he was idle and when they found that he had a talent for art they found a role for him in their business. He did a good job, but he found out a little more that they wanted him to know. In the end they thought he might get them in to trouble; he didn’t, but they found themselves paying a price as Daniel moved on again.

Some years later, when Daniel is working for an advertising firm, he rents a room from an attractive war widow named Valerie, who makes ends meet by taking in lodgers. They become good friends, she enjoys modelling for his sketches, but he resents her commitment to her role and her friendship with her other, more conventional lodger, Mr. Piggott. They talk of marriage, and it is then that Valerie realises that her feelings for Daniel are not strong enough to stop her thinking of herself as her widow.

There are other stories between these: Daniel has a spell as a tutor to an epileptic young man in Cornwall, who is unsettled by an approach and attitudes quite different to his predecessors; he sees a holiday camp very differently to the young man who looks after him when he comes to make sketches for an advertising campaign, and they make each other question their futures; he takes a position at a modern, experimental school where he might harm or he might help a troubled young woman named Pamela, who was a loner like him …

In the end an accident, a stay in hospital and a chance to help the patient in the next bed brought his story full circle and made me realise just how far Daniel had come.

I loved reading these stories. Each one was different, and distinctive, but they sat quite naturally together.

Some are stronger than others, but they all work.

The characters and settings were so clearly and distinctively drawn in that I found myself drawn in and wanting to know more about them and their situations before Daniel appeared and I found out how they would affect his life and how he would affect theirs.

When I read Daniel’s progress often felt secondary, but now I have put the book down I am thinking of him more and realising how very clever Monica Dickens was, writing this novel about his life as a chain of short stories about other people. She wrote with warms and understanding, and she conveyed the happiness in their lives as well as their sorrows.

The stories that Monica Dickens told in this book, the lives that she portrayed, created panorama of post-war England; its strengths and its weaknesses, the problems that it faced and the potential for the future that it held.

Her voice was strong and true, making this a book for both the heart and the head.