A Book for E H Young Day: The Misses Mallett (1922)

In her first novel written after the Great War, the death of her husband, and her embarkation on a rather unconventional new life, E H Young tells the story of four Misses Mallett.

There are two sisters in late middle age, Caroline and Sophia Mallett. They live in a large, beautiful and comfortable home that had been left to them by their father, the Colonel;  together with their much younger half-sister, Rose Mallet, the child of the Colonel’s second marriage.

Caroline is delighted with their situation, and she explains to their niece:

‘The Malletts don’t marry, Henrietta. Look at us, as happy as the day is long, with all the fun and none of the trouble. We’ve been terrible flirts, Sophia and I. Rose is different, but at least she hasn’t married. The three Miss Malletts of Nelson Lodge! Now there are four of us, and you must keep up our reputation.’ 

Henrietta was the fourth Miss Mallett, the daughter of the Colonel’s disinherited son, who had come to live with her aunts after her mother’s death. She had lived a very different life, she had an independent spirit, and she wanted to make her own decisions and not be told that she must follow a particular traditions.

She would learn that things were not quite as simple and straightforward as Caroline suggested.

Sophia had a great love in her past, and she cherished her memories of him

Rose had been beloved by a local landowner, Francis Sales, but she had rejected his proposals because she wasn’t sure that she loved him enough. She wondered if she had made the right decision when he went away, and when he returned with a bride who was quite unlike her; but she knew that she had to live with her decision.

And then there was a particularly cruel twist of fate.

Henrietta and Rose learned each other’s stories, but they were of different generations, they had different backgrounds and different outlooks, they didn’t talk about the things that were most important to them and so they didn’t understand what the other was feeling and what the other would do.

E H Young drew and delineated four the Misses Mallett quite beautifully. Caroline was warm and vibrant, Sophia was delicate and empathic, Rose was reserved and controlled, Henrietta was modern and independent; and as she portrayed their lives and their relationships she showed the advantages and disadvantages of being an unmarried woman between the wars.

By contrast, the men in the story were all flawed: Henrietta’s father, Reginald Mallet, was charming but he was utterly self-centred. Francis Sales was completely lacking in self knowledge and in understanding of the women he said he loved. Charles Batty, the son of Caroline’s dearest friend, was eccentric, and today it would probably be said that he was somewhere on the autistic spectrum, but he was true to himself and he would be a reliable friend to the younger Misses Mallett.

They were all interesting and believable characters; but it was the women who were strong and who set the course of the story.

That story was simple, but there were deep waters swirling below the calm surface. There was danger that Henrietta could be led astray, that Rose’s control could snap, that the good name of the Malletts’ could be tainted by scandal …

The playing out and the resolution of the story is a little predictable, and maybe a little unsatisfactory in that it wasn’t exactly what I wanted for characters I had come to know vey well; but I believed that it could have happened, I understand why it could have happened, and I loved my journey through this book.

I loved spending time with each of the Misses Mallett, and I loved spending time in their world.

E H Young wrote so well. She could capture so much in a single sentence, and she could sustain a point over much longer passages.

The depictions of the family home and the other homes that are part of the story are so perfect, every detail is so well drawn, that I was transported there. The descriptions of the countryside, the woods, and the fields, are so evocative that I wished that I could be there, riding with Rose or walking with Henrietta.

It was lovely, but there times when it was a almost too much and I would have liked to get back to the story a little more quickly.

I can’t say that this is E H Young’s strongest book; the later books that I have read are more subtle and more sophisticated, and I am inclined to think that she grew as a writer over the years.

I can say that this is a lovely period piece, that it is a wonderfully engaging human drama, and that it has made me eager to fill in the gaps in my reading of its author’s backlist.

Not all stories are mine to tell …..

…. and so all I can say is that a few weeks ago life dealt me a blow that I thought I might never recover from.


I did, and my little family is still here, but since then events seem to be conspiring against me.

A leaky porch, absent colleagues, a collapsing curtain rail ….

Nothing that can’t be dealt with, but why did it all have to happen right now?!

I have started reading again, I have started writing again.

E.H Young Day will be happening next week.

But regaining my balance – adjusting to the new ‘normal’ – may take a little longer ….

A Book for Dorothy Whipple Day: Because of the Lockwoods (1949)

Of all of the authors I thought about when I was compiling my Birthday Book of Underappreciated Lady Authors, I think that Dorothy Whipple is the one whose long neglect is most inexplicable and the one I would be most confident in putting in the hands of a devoted reader who doesn’t know how wonderful books from the recent past can be.

She wrote such absorbing and compelling novels, filled with beautiful writing, with characters who live and breathe and happenings that ring so very true. Her books are so alive that it impossible to put one down without spending a great deal of time thinking about what had happened and what might be happening in the world that she brought to life after her story ended.

In this book, she tells the story of the Hunters and the Lockwoods, who are neighbours in a Northern mill town. They had been peers, with children of similar ages, but that changed after the sudden death of Richard Hunter. His practice as an architect had suffered during the war, he had hoped that  business would improve when peace came, but he didn’t live long enough to find out; and so Mrs Hunter and her three children must adapt to much humbler circumstances, and the relationship between the two families must change.

The situation would always be difficult and it was exacerbated by the characters of the two women, who were friends but not close enough to be anything other than Mrs Lockwood and Mrs Hunter to each other; the former inclined to be grand and gracious and the latter inclined to be accepting and appreciative …

Mrs Lockwood asked her husband, a solicitor, to help Mrs Hunter to deal with her late husband’s papers. He was reluctant to get involved, and utterly graceless, but after relying on her husband to deal with everything and having no idea what to do, Mrs Hunter was so grateful for his advice, and accepted it all without a moment’s hesitation.

She didn’t know that Mr Lockwood had taken advantage of her ignorance, and let her believe that her husband repaid a loan that he had granted after seeing that his receipt was missing. The way he suggested he should recoup the loan cost her a great deal, and his advice, which was inadequate but authoritative, would cost her a great deal more over the years.

Mrs Lockwood continued her to visit Mrs Hunter, even after she moved to a less desirable part of town. She enjoyed having someone who was always ready to listen to stories of her family and what they had been doing, who she could make presents of clothing that she had been seen in enough times, and somebody who would always be grateful for an invitation. Mrs Lockwood thought that she was being kind, and Mrs hunter was grateful.

Thea, the youngest of Mrs Hunter’s three children, came to bitterly resent the family that she saw was patronising hers, the family that had so many things she would have loved and took them for granted.

Her feelings grew stronger when  Mr Lockwood arranged for her older siblings, Martin and Molly, to leave school at the earliest opportunity and take uncongenial jobs because he didn’t want the trouble of helping to find a way for them to follow the career paths that they wanted. She wanted to make sure that the same thing wouldn’t happen to her, but she didn’t know how.

When Thea found out that the Lockwood girls were going to school in France for a year she was desperate to find a way to go to. It seemed impossible, but a teacher who saw that she had a great deal of potential found a way for her to go to the same school and work for her keep. The Lockwoods were horrified that she didn’t know her place, that she should think that she could have the same advantages as their daughters; but she took to the new school and life in France in a way that they never would.

Thea’s sojourn in France ended in tears, but an unexpected find in the lining of her father’s old bag and the generosity of spirit of a new neighbour would be a catalyst for change for the Hunters and that Lockwoods …

Endpapers of the Persephone Books edition of ‘Because of the Lockwoods’

I felt so much as I read about them.

I was angry at the Lockwoods completely unjustified sense of superiority, but at the same time I could see that they were oblivious and that they really did think that they were doing the right thing.

I was moved when Mrs Hunter was shattered by the loss of her husband and unable to face the future, but there were times when I thought that she really could have, should have, done a little more to help herself and her children.

Thea was a joy to read about. I loved her spirit and her ambition for herself and her family. I worried when she made  mistakes, when she wouldn’t listen to anyone, but I appreciated that her heart was in the right place and that she would learn.

I appreciated the intelligence of the writing, the very real complexity of the characters and the relationships, and the wonderful emotional understanding of everything she wrote about that Dorothy Whipple had.

There is so much more than I have written about, but I can only – I should only – say so much.

I loved what the author had to say.

She said that families who looked in on themselves – and both the Lockwoods and the Hunters were guilty of this – would not thrive and grow as families who looked out to the world could and would.

She spoke of social injustice and of how society was changing after the war.

And she wove this into her story quite beautifully, so that you could think about how cleverly she wrote or you could simply enjoy the drama, the romance, the suspense ….

Mr Lockwood’s misdeeds hang over this story, until it comes to a dark and dramatic conclusion.

I loved all of the book but I think I loved the final act most of all, because it was so profound and so emotional.

The ending was sudden, I was left wondering what happened next. I would have loved to have been told, but I think I know, and sometimes it is nice to be able to speculate …


A Walk Around the Winter Exhibition at the Virago Art Gallery

I’ve always loved putting together collections of Virago cover art and I thought that it was time to put together another, to celebrate the coldest season of the year.

There are lovely wintery images to be found in green frames.

The covers are lovely, but the paintings really come alive when they are released from those 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 the art-work.


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Madame de Chauffe by John Callcott Horsely


Salem Chapel by Mrs Oliphant (#228)

“Arthur Vincent, “fresh from Homerton, in the bloom of hope and intellectualism”, arrives in Carlingford to take up the reins as Dissenting minister of Salem Chapel. A mixture of hope and ignorance prompts him to imagine that he will take his place amongst the cream of Carlingford society. But a six-o’clock tea at the home of Mr. Tozer the butterman, senior deacon of the Chapel, throws cold water on the young man’s aspirations. For there he meets Mrs. Tozer and her daughter Phoebe, “pink, plump and full of dimples”, and his congregation of greengrocers, dealers in cheese and bacon, milkmen, dressmakers and teachers of day-schools. To add to his problems he falls head-over-heels in love with “a beautiful, dazzling creature”, Lady Western, only to find himself caught up in a crime most horrible to contemplate…”

* * * * * * *


Portrait of the Reverend Robert Walker Skating by Sir Henry Raeburn


The Flint Anchor by Sylvia Townsend Warner (#435)

“John Barnard, leading merchant at a Norfolk port, is a pillar of nineteenth-century rectitude. Though stern and aloof with his indolent, tippling wife and watchful children, he is undermined by helpless love for his pretty, cold-hearted daughter Mary. The Flint Anchor subverts the rules of the historical novel and shows how family history is made – which stories can be trusted, whose voices hold influence and whose are forgotten. Wit, charm and intelligence illuminate several decades of family life and the events of small town society in this tragi-comedy of manners, the last of the author’s seven novels.”

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Froanna – Portrait of the Artist’s Wife by P Wyndham Lewis


I’m Not Complaining by Ruth Adam (#124)

“Madge Brigson is a teacher in a Nottinghamshire elementary school in England in the 1930s. Here, with her colleagues – the beautiful, “promiscuous” Jenny, the ardent communist Freda, and the kind, spinsterish Miss Jones – she battles with the trials and tribulations of their special world: abusive parents, eternal malnutrition, inspectors’ visits, staff quarrels and love affairs. To all this Madge presents an uncompromisingly intelligent and commonsensical face: laughter is never far away as she copes with her pupils, the harsh circumstances of life in the Depression, and her own love affair. For Madge is a true heroine: determined, perceptive, warm-hearted; she deals with life, and love, unflinchingly, and gets the most out of the best – and worst – of it.”

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Costumes pour un ensemble by Bernard Boutet de Monvel


The Little Ottleys by Ruth Adam (#98)

“The heroine of the three novels collected here–Love’s Shadow, Tenterhooks, and Love at Second Sight–is the delightful Edith Ottley. As we follow Edith’s fortunes we enter the enchanting world of Edwardian London. We will be bewitched by the courtships, jealousies, and love affairs of Edith’s coterie–and indeed of Edith herself–and unfailingly amused by her husband, Bruce, one of the most tremendous–if attractive–bores in literature.”

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The Angel, Cookham Churchyard by Stanley Spencer


The World, My Wilderness by Rose Macaulay (#104)

“It is 1946, and the people of France and England are facing the aftermath of the Second World War. Barbara Deniston, seventeen, has grown up in the sunshine of Provence with her voluptuous, indolent but intelligent mother, allowed to run wild with the Maquis, experiencing collaboration, betrayal – and death. Banished by her mother to England, Barbara is thrown into the ordered formality of English life with her distinguished father and conventional stepmother. Confused and unhappy, she discovers one day the wrecked and flowering wastes around St. Paul’s. Here, in the bombed heart of London, she finds an echo of the wilderness of Provence and is forced to confront the wilderness within herself.”

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The Artist’s Wife Mornington Crescent by Spencer Gore


Poor Caroline by Winifred Holtby (#192)

“Caroline Denton-Smyth is an eccentric, remarkable for her vivid costumes trailing feathers, fancy beads and jingling lorgnettes. Sitting alone in her West Kensington bedsitter, she dreams of the Christian Cinema Company – her vehicle for reform. For Caroline sees herself as a pioneer, one who must risk everything in the “Cause of Right”. Her Board of Directors are a motley crew; Basil St. Denis, upper crust but impecunious; Joseph Isenbaum, aspiring to Society and Eton for his son; Eleanor de la Roux, Caroline’s independent, left-wing cousin from South Africa; Hugh Macafee, a curt Scottish film technician; young Father Mortimer, scarred from the First World War; and Clifton Johnson, seedy American scenario writer on the make.”

* * * * * * *


At Home, a Portrait by Walter Crane


Marcella by Mrs Humphrey Ward (#155)

“Marcella Boyce, a Pre-Raphaelite beauty of the 1880s, is passionately in love with the ideals of socialism. A 21-year-old art student, she lives in a Kensington boarding house until her father inherits the family estate, Mellor Park, in the Midlands. Leaving her studies, her philanthropic work in the East End, and the company of her Bohemian friends, she embarks on her new life at Mellor Park, determined to alleviate the poverty she sees around her. Then Aldous Raeburn, Tory candidate and heir to Lord Maxwell’s estate, falls in love with Marcella. But Marcella is torn between her longing to become mistress of Maxwell Court and her burning idealism. Before she can reconcile the two, Marcella must learn – through bitter experience – the real barriers that divide one human from another.”

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That’s the last painting in this collection, but spring is not too far away and it will be bringing another seasonal art show.

Between now and then, please  tell me if you have any particular favourite cover artwork, or any suggestions for future exhibitions …

Miss Treadway and the Field of Stars by Miranda Emmerson (2017)

When I first caught sight of  ‘Miss Treadway and the Field of Stars’ I saw so much promise, and when I started to read I found much more than I had expected.  I found a mystery, a travelogue, a historical drama, and captivating human stories; and I found a colourful portrait mid-sixties London, that cleverly captured both the light and the shade of that particular time and place.

Anna Treadway was working-class and serious-minded; and she saw London as the centre of the universe, a place where it didn’t matter what her background and her history, where she could be accepted for what was and get on with living her life.

She loved the home she found in the big city, and the author made it easy for me to understand why, and she painted wonderful pictures of Anna’s London:

“Anna Treadway lived on Neal Street in a tiny two-bed flat above a Turkish café. She went to bed each night smelling cumin, lamb and lemons, listening to the jazz refrain from Ottmar’s radio below. She woke to the rumble and cry of the marketmen surging below her window and to the sharp, pungent smell of vegetables beginning to decay.

When she went to buy fruit at seven o’clock it took her past the Punjab India restaurant. Past the emerald green face of Ellen Keeley the barrow maker. Past the dirty oxblood tiles of the tube station where Neal Street ended and James Street began. Past Floral Street where the market boys drank their wages away and down, down, down to the Garden. Covent Garden: once the convent garden. Now so full of sin and earth and humanity. Still a garden really, after all these years.”

Though she hadn’t been drawn to the bright lights, Anna had found work in the theatre. She was dresser a rising star, the glamorous American actress Iolanthe Green, a rising star. A friendship grows between the two, very different young women.

Until the Monday when Lanny didn’t appear.

There could have been a simple answer but there wasn’t.

The next day all of the newspapers were abuzz with the  mystery of the missing star. Theories were propounded. Concerns were raised. But it wasn’t long before there was no more news, the story slipped out of the headlines, and Anna began to worry that her friend had been forgotten.

One newspaper had asked asks why so much attention was being paid to one wealthy actress when in the past week alone seventy ordinary people have gone missing without any great fanfare at all. The police inspector in charge of the case agreed. He had more than enough work to do, why should he worry about an actress who had no ties, who had quite possibly decided to move on of her own accord?

Unimpressed with the efforts of the police, Anna sets out to discover what had happened to her friend. Detective Sergeant Barnaby Hayes, the one officer left on the case, warned her off.  He was Irish, but he had made the decision to his name from Brennan to Barnaby so that he could fit into his new job and his new life in London; and he hoped that discovering whether Iolanthe has disappeared of her own accord, or whether something has happened to her, would impress his colleagues and his superiors.

Anna took no notice of his warning, she went on looking for Lanny, and she met a young man who was happy to help her. Aloysius was an accountant, a quiet and gentle man, an ardent Anglophile; and he was still coming to terms with the knowledge that his degree from the University of the West Indies wouldn’t gain him entry to exclusive gentlemen’s clubs or the city’s best restaurants, that the England he lived in had little in common with the England he had read about in books.

The mystery is cleverly constructed, and it spins around rich human stories.

Barnaby, his wife Orla and their daughter, Gracie had very different feeling about life in the big city. Turkish café owner Ottamar worked hard for his family and worried about his daughter, Samira, who was growing up and away from him. Anna’s landlord Leonard was gay in a world where that wasn’t legal. Aloysius faced appalling racism and police brutality, and yet he continued to be polite and respectful.

I was very taken with them all.

I saw that they were all outsiders, they had all come to London from somewhere else; and that some of them were carrying secrets, some of them were running away from something, and that some of them were chasing dreams and ambitions. Their different stories and characters developed nicely, they had things to say, as the mystery unravelled.

I came to realise why finding Lanny was so very important to Anna.

My only real issues were that Lanny’s backstory was muddled and left loose ends, and that while the final act of worked emotionally it was little contrived.

The time and place are very well evoked, and though some of the language and many of the attitudes shocked me I couldn’t doubt that they were authentic.

I loved the human drama, I was intrigued by the mystery; and I have to say that this is a very accomplished first novel and that I am very interested to read whatever Miranda Emmerson writes next.

A Book for Dorothy Canfield Fisher Day: Rough-Hewn (1922)

I have neglected Dorothy Canfield Fisher’s work for  a long time, because I was torn over which of two books about the same two characters I should read first.

The book that was written first but set later, or the book that was written second but set earlier? Writing order or chronological order? The book I owned or the book that I didn’t? My head said the first and my heart said the second!

As Dorothy Canfield’s day on The Birthday Book of Underappreciated Authors drew near I knew that I had to make a decision, and I did. The heart won! It told me that I wanted to meet these two characters – Neale and Marise – as children, and that I didn’t want my impressions of them as children to be affected by my knowledge of what they would do, what would happen to them in later life. The head appreciated the sense of that!

‘Rough-Hewn’ follows Neil and Marise from childhood to the beginnings of their adult lives when they finally meet.

Neale grows up in  New Jersey, the only child of parents who are devoted to each other.  They send him to a private school, and he does well enough but sports and games are his consuming passion. He progresses to college at Columbia, where football becomes the focus and striving for success teaches him a great deal; and he spends his summer in  Massachusetts, where his grandfather runs the family lumber mill. Eventually he will work there too, and his new ideas breather new life into the business. He is a success, but when the friend who had become a girlfriend leaves him he questions his purpose in life.  He gives up his job to travel, hoping to find an answer…

Marise Allen grows up in Bayonne, near France’s border with Spain. Her father is the sales representative of an American company there, but his family has moved to France not for that but because Marise’s mother believes that she will be happier there than she was in  provincial American life. She loves her daughter, but she is too caught up with her own pursuit of art, culture and love to play the role of mother. Marise’s upbringing is left  to the Basque servants, who love her dearly but have no regard for her mother.  When her mother’s actions spark a tragedy and a scandal the servants and her teacher do everything they can to protect Marise, but she is profoundly affected and she has only her distant father, who will do his duty but not much more, to help her find her place in the world …

The  story of each life was told quite beautifully, with sensitivity, with intelligence, with empathy, and without one single drop of sentimentality. There is no plot as such, but I was captivated by the unfolding of each life. I noticed that they were told rather differently. Neale’s story was told in a straightforward way, always from his point of view; while Marise’s story was often told through the accounts of people around her. That reflected the different nature of the stories, and while I found Neale’s story easier to read I was more anxious to follow Marise’s story.

I found so much to love in this book.

Dorothy Canfield Fisher drew out the characteristics of the two families beautifully.

I loved the portrayal of the happy marriage of Neale’s parents, and at first I wondered if he was coming second to the relationship between the two of them, but in time I realised that they were working hard at the business of parenthood and making sure that he had the right opportunities to learn and grow and was well equipped for whatever life he might want to live.

Marise’s parents were more difficult to love, but even so I could understand.

The evolution of those characters and their relationships were quite brilliantly done. There were so many significant moments perfectly caught, and a great many lessons were learned.

There were a great many more characters who were so well drawn that they lived and breathed. I was particularly taken with Jeanne, the servant who loved Marise like a daughter; and with Eugenia, Marise’s spirited school-friend.

I was equally taken with what the telling of Neale’s story and Marise’s story had to say about education and how we learn and grow.

Music would be Marise’s salvation, and I loved reading about it.

“The silence was intense.

And then it seemed to her that the silence had been broken by a voice, a beautiful, quivering voice, deep and true, which went straight to her heart, as though some one had spoken a strong, loving word. At the sound she stopped trembling and sat motionless.

Before she could draw her breath in wonder, she knew what it had been … only a note of music. Her own hand falling on a key of the piano had struck a note, which was even then echoing in her ears.

But the first impression was ineffaceable. That, too, rang in her ears. It seemed as though it was the first time she had ever heard a note of music. Really, really that was so. She had never been still enough before to hear how a note sounded. How it rang and rang in the stillness, its deep vibration stirring echoes deep within Marise’s heart! She had thought it was a voice. Why, it was like a voice, a voice speaking to her, just when she had been so sure that there wasn’t any voice she could possibly expect to hear.

She sat up marveling, and struck another note. Into the dead, stagnant air of the room, and into her loneliness, it sang out bravely, the same living voice, thrilling and speaking to her. She struck a chord, astonished at what she heard in it—all those separate voices, each one rich and true and strong and different from the others, and all shouting together in glorious friendliness. “That’s the way things ought to be,” thought Marise, “that’s the way people ought to be.” But, oh, how little they were like that! But here was a world where she could always make it come true, where she could have that singing-together any time she wished to make it for herself.

She struck more chords, her fingers finding the keys with the second-nature sureness, learned in her months of dreary practice.

She listened to the sounds, shaken and transported to hear how they flooded the barren emptiness of the room with glory, how they filled her heart full, full of happiness … only if she were happy, why was she crying, the tears running as fast as they could down her cheeks?

This was one of the remembered moments which brought nothing but a pang of joy to Marise. When it came, the world about her brightened.”

I couldn’t feel the same way about Neale’s love of sport, but I could understand why it was so fundamental for him.

I did feel the same way about his discovery and his love of books:

“He didn’t suppose these grown-up books in the library could be worth anything, but he took down a volume to see.

“Ours was the marsh country, down by the river, within twenty miles of the sea. My first most vivid impression of the identity of things seems to me to have been gained on a memorable raw afternoon towards evening. At such a time I found out for certain that this bleak place over-grown with nettles was the churchyard …”

Half an hour later Neale was still standing by the book-case, the book in his hand, his mouth hanging open, shivering in the clammy mist together with Pip and the man with the iron chain. An hour later he was tucked into the Morris chair, among the cushions of which he hid the book when the dinner bell made him reluctantly lay it aside.

What made him hide it? An invincible sense of moral decency made him hide it. He would have shuddered and cowered like a modest girl whose bed-room door is opened inadvertently by a stranger, at the very idea of carrying the book to the table and pouring out to his father what it made him feel. With a shy, virginal delicacy he stood guard, half-frightened, half-enchanted, over the first warm gush from the unexpected well-springs of emotion in his heart. If his father had come into the room, had seen what he was reading and asked him how he liked it, he would have answered briefly, “Oh, all right.”

But for the next three days he did nothing but live with Pip, and feel intolerable sympathy, far deeper than anything he had ever felt in his own healthy life, for the convict victim of society. On the afternoon of the third day, his heart pounding hard with hope, he was in the row-boat, in the track of the steamer. The Morris-chair in which he sat, swayed up and down to the ocean rhythm of the great deeps which bore him along. He peered forward. There was the steamer at last, coming head on. He called to Provis to sit still, “she was nearing us very fast,” … “her shadow on us,” … and then, oh, gosh! … the police-boat, the betrayal, the summons to surrender!

Neale’s soul recoiled upon itself in a shudder of horrified revolt. He recognized the traitor, a white terror on his face. Grinding his teeth, Neale leaped at his throat. With a roar the water closed over their heads … he would never let him go, never, never…. Down they went to the depths, to the black depths, fiercely locked in each other’s arms. Neale smothered and strangled there … and came up into another world, the world of books.”

There are many more wonderful passages that I could pull out.

Dorothy Canfield Fisher created a world, she made it spin, and she spoke quietly and profoundly about the human condition.

I knew how this book would end, but I was so caught up that I didn’t think about it until I got there.

That final act was so right, so perfectly done, that I could happily read it over and over again.

I’m not quite ready to let go of this book yet, but when I am I will read the other book that Dorothy Canfield Fisher wrote about Neal and Marise, and I am quite sure that after that I will be reading more of her work.

My Introduction to the Writings of Mrs Oliphant

I’ve been aware of Mrs Oliphant for a long time, I was sure she would be my kind of author, but it’s taken me a while to start reading

I have the books that Virago published, I have one or two others in older editions, and when I heard an radio adaption of one of the books in the Carlingford Chronicles at the very end of last year I was smitten.

I resolved to start reading as soon as I had finished my journey through Trollope’s Barchester books.

I didn’t stop to think that Mrs Oliphant was a prolific author, a woman who worked hard at her writing to support her family and maintain their position in society, and that there were other, different books that I might have tried in the meantime.

Fortunately though, fate took a hand.

When I was wandering around my local independent bookshop with a book token to spend before I lost it or forgot about it, I spotted a Persephone Book with Mrs Oliphant’s name on the spine!

It came home, of course it did!

The book contains two well matched stories: ‘The Mystery of Mrs Blencarrow’ and ‘Queen Eleanor and Fair Rosamond.’ The stories are distinctive, but they consider the same themes and questions, and I would have easily identified them of the work of the same author, had I had been reading unmarked copies.

The stories are striking because they appear at first to be conventional tales, but they subvert convention by taking a marriage and dismantling it, finding a resolution in the end of a marriage, rather than ending with a marriage that suggests that there will be a happy ever after.

Mrs Blencarrow and Mrs Lycett-Landon (The Queen Eleanor of the second story) are both strong and capable women who are faced with difficult situations, and the both endeavour to do the right thing, to protect their children from unhappy knowledge, and to ensure that those children can take their places in society without any stain of gossip or scandal.

Endpapers of the Persephone Books edition of ‘The Mystery of Mrs Blencarrow’

I loved the way that Mrs Oliphant told me about them. Her narrative voice was engaging, it was warm and wise, and I never doubted for a moment she was telling those stories not because they held wonderful potential for gossip, but because she believed that they said much about the difficulties that a woman whose marriage was less than happy might have to contend with, how society’s expectations and conventions might constrain her choices, and how she might prevail by doing ‘the right thing’ for herself and her children.

It wasn’t difficult and it didn’t take long to work out what Mrs Blencarrow’s mystery was, but I won’t give it away. Her situation was at least in part of her own making, she had acted foolishly, but the price that she might have to pay was disproportionate.

I loved the way that Mrs Oliphant used the trappings of the sensation novel when she told this story, and I appreciated the way she positioned her characters. There was one in particular who was held back until the story was nearly over, and then he was used so effectively …

There were large plot holes in this story, but I was so caught up with Mrs Blencarrow’s concerns that I didn’t really think about them until that story was over; and even then I was more inclined to think about the what had happened, what might have happened, and how very important the Married Women’s Property Act of 1882 had been!

Mrs Lycett-Landon’s story was rather different. She had been a good wife who made a happy home for her husband and children, and he had been a reliable husband and a loving father, until he made excuses to stay away from home and out of contact for rather too long.

When his wife set out to find him she realised that though she wanted her children to have a father she didn’t miss being a wife, and when she found him she realised that drawing him back to her family would cause a great deal of hurt to people who were part of his world but not part of hers.

What was she to do, and how ever could she keep her children safe and secure?

This story was more simply told, and the emotions were simpler and more profound.

I was impressed by Mrs Lycett-Landon’s decisions and actions, and though it seems unbelievable that she was able to keep what she had to secret from her children and the wider world I was very glad that she did.

Looking back, I have to say that these stories both have weaknesses, but the storytelling, the momentum of the stories, and the things that they made me think about allowed me to forgive that.

I can’t say that this is one of my favourite Persephone books, but I do understand why it was added to the list.

I’m delighted that I’ve finally met Mrs Oliphant, and I think that she and I are going to get along rather well!


An A to Z of Persephone Books

I’ve been reading Margaret Oliphant, I’m reading Amber Reeves, and I may fit in another books before the Persephone Readathon hosted by Jessie @ Dwell in Possibility draws to a close.

What I lack is time to think and write about them. I might get there in time but, just in case I don’t, I thought I would do what I often do at times like this.

An A to Z …


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A is for AMOURS DE VOYAGE by Arthur Clough. This will probably be the next Persephone book I read, as I need a book from 1858 for my ‘100 Years of Books’ project.

B is for BIANNUALLY. It is always a red-letter day when the latest Persephone Biannually arrives, with articles, short stories, reviews, events, so much to peruse.

C is for COMING SOON.  ‘Despised and Rejected’ by Rose Allatini, ‘Young Anne’ by Dorothy Whipple and ‘Tory Heaven’ by Marghanita Laski will all be published in April.

D is for DOROTHY CANFIELD FISHER, one of a select bank of authors to be published by both Virago and Persephone.

E is for EARTH AND HIGH HEAVEN by Gwethalyn Graham. I have an old edition, and it is one of a small collection of books that I chose to sit on top of my Persephone Bookcase.

F is for FRANKIE BARNABY, the young narrator who finds that she has much to learn in ‘Hetty Dorval’ by Ethel Wilson.

G is for GLADYS HUNTINGDON. My copy of ‘Madame Solario’ is sitting on my bedside table, and I hope it won’t be too long before I to find the time read it.

52c9389586e1fe7af9101dfc6839934aH is for HOSTAGES TO FORTUNE by Elizabeth Cambridge was one of the best books that I read last year.

I is for INDIA. I loved following a young woman’s journey to India in ‘The Far Cry’ by Emma Smith.

J is for JACQUELINE MESNIL-AMAR. My kind of generous Virago Secret Santa sent me two Persephone books from my wishlist, and her memoir ‘Maman What Are We Called Now?’ was one of them.

K is for KAY SMALLSHAW, author of ‘How to Run Your Home Without Help. It’s a book I would love to read, to remind me of some of the changes that my grandmother lived through.

L is for LIBRARY.  I read a library copy of ‘The Village’ by Marghanita Laski, I aspire to a Persephone copy, but I have an elderly hardback rescued from a bargain bin for now.

M is for MARINA by Monica Dickens. The heroine’s name was inspired by Tennyson’s poem.

N is for NORAH HOULT, one of many authors to be found in the beautifully curated ‘Persephone Hook of Short Stories.’

O is for OLGA, the irrepressible title character of ‘The Runaway by Elizabeth Anna Hart; one of a handful of very well chosen stories for children in the Persephone list

P is for PAPER. Persephone books are printed on lovely, thick paper.

Q is for QUEEN ELEANOR. She appears in the second of the pair of novellas by Mrs Oliphant that Persephone published a few years ago.

R is for RUTH HOLLAND. Susan Glaspell tells her story in Fidelity, and, if you haven’t already, you really must find a copy and read it.

S is for SUFFRAGE. ‘No Surrender’ by Constance Maud is a passionate account of the suffragette movement written by one who was there. It hit me emotionally, and it taught me a great deal that I hadn’t known.

T is for TIRZAH GARWOOD. The Man of the House bought me her autobiography – ‘Long Live Great Bardfield’ for Christmas. I was so pleased, because I have read so much praise for this book.

U is for UNREAD. My copy of ‘Miss Buncle’s Book’ by D.E. Stevenson has been sitting waiting to be read for a long time. The right moment hasn’t come, but I’m sure that it will one day.

V is for VERSE. The first novel in verse that I read was ‘Lettice Delmer’ by Susan Miles. I doubted that such a book could hold me, but I put my trust in Persephone and I found that it was utterly compelling.

W is for WOMAN ABOUT THE HOUSE  from’Tell it to a Stranger’ by Elizabeth Berridge. It’s an odd little story, but it still speaks profoundly.

X is for EXHIBITION.  The Persephone Post offers’ a parallel in pictures to the world of
Persephone Books every weekday.’

Y is for YOU MUST LOOK INSIDE .The dove-grey covers make books look alike, but the endpapers within, chosen to match the period and the style of each one, highlight the differences beautifully. I’ve chosen a few favourites to illustrate this post.

Z is for ZINNIA, the very last flower in the index of ‘Gardener’s Nightcap by Muriel Stuart.

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Now that there are 125 books in the Persephone list it’s impossible to fit every gem into an A to Z. So please tell me, which books and authors you couldn’t have left out, which are your particular favourites, and which are you most looking forward to reading?

A Collection – or I should say a Parliament – of Owls

Gormenghast, that is, the main massing of the original stone, taken by itself would have displayed a certain ponderous architectural quality were it possible to have ignored the circumfusion of those mean dwellings that swarmed like an epidemic around its outer walls. They sprawled over the sloping arch, each one half way over its neighbour until, held back by the castle ramparts, the innermost of these hovels laid hold on the great walls, clamping themselves thereto like limpets to a rock. These dwellings, by ancient law, were granted this chill intimacy with the stronghold that loomed above them. Over their irregular roofs would fall throughout the seasons, the shadows of time-eaten buttresses, of broken and lofty turrets, and, most enormous of all, the shadow of the Tower of Flints. This tower, patched unevenly with black ivy, arose like a mutilated finger from among the fists of knuckled masonry and pointed blasphemously at heaven. At night the owls made of it an echoing throat; by day it stood voiceless and cast its long shadow.

From ‘Titus Groan’ by Mervyn Peake

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‘Barn Owl’ by Jackie Morris

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The tawny owl dropped off the crag called Lovers’ Leap and released a tremulous cry. It sailed over the river and flopped down into the nettles and gripped the vole pinching the little creature’s scream into silence. Then it entered the darkness beneath the oaks and winged off to the Iron Age fort on the hilltop. A star left the milky way and slid across the sky.

From ‘A Black Fox Running’ by Brian Carter

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‘Soft Night Descending’ by Catherine Hyde

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Coming down out of the freezing sky
with its depths of light,
like an angel, or a Buddha with wings,
it was beautiful, and accurate,
striking the snow and whatever was there
with a force that left the imprint
of the tips of its wings — five feet apart —
and the grabbing thrust of its feet,
and the indentation of what had been running
through the white valleys of the snow —
and then it rose, gracefully,
and flew back to the frozen marshes
to lurk there, like a little lighthouse,
in the blue shadows —
so I thought:
maybe death isn’t darkness, after all,
but so much light wrapping itself around us —
as soft as feathers —
that we are instantly weary of looking, and looking,
and shut our eyes, not without amazement,
and let ourselves be carried,
as through the translucence of mica,
to the river that is without the least dapple or shadow,
that is nothing but light — scalding, aortal light —
in which we are washed and washed
out of our bones.

‘White Owl Flies Into and Out of the Field’ by Mary Oliver

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George  Jack collaborated with his wife Annie on this fire-screen, which he designed and she embroidered. They have exploited the potential of different stitches to suggest textures. The inscription reads “Then nightly sings the staring Owl – tu whit wu who”

* * * * * * *

Sometimes I rode north to the big prairie-dog town to watch the brown earth-owls fly home in the late afternoon and go down to their nests underground with the dogs. Antonia  liked to go with me, and we used to wonder a great deal about these birds of subterranean habit. We had to be on our guard there, for rattlesnakes were always lurking about. They came to pick up an easy living among the dogs and owls, which were quite defenceless against them; took possession of their comfortable houses and ate the eggs and puppies. We felt sorry for the owls. It was always mournful to see them come flying home at sunset and disappear under the earth. But, after all, we felt, winged things who would live like that must be rather degraded creatures. The dog-town was a long way from any pond or creek. Otto Fuchs said he had seen populous dog-towns in the desert where there was no surface water for fifty miles; he insisted that some of the holes must go down to water—nearly two hundred feet, hereabouts. Antonia said she didn’t believe it; that the dogs probably lapped up the dew in the early morning, like the rabbits.

From ‘My Antonia’ by Willa Cather

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‘Barn Owl Slipware Jug and Cup’ by Carole Glover

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DOWNHILL I came, hungry, and yet not starved,
Cold, yet had heat within me that was proof
Against the north wind; tired, yet so that rest
Had seemed the sweetest thing under a roof.

Then at the inn I had food, fire, and rest,
Knowing how hungry, cold, and tired was I.
All of the night was quite barred out except
An owl’s cry, a most melancholy cry.

Shaken out long and clear upon the hill
No merry note, nor cause of merriment,
But one telling me plain what I escaped
And others could not, that night, as in I went.

And salted was my food, and my repose,
Salted and sobered too, by the bird’s voice
Speaking for all who lay under the stars,
Soldiers and poor, unable to rejoice.

‘The Owl’ by Edward Thomas

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Whalebone Owl c 1960

(Canada, Baffin Island, Nunavut, Hudson Bay)

* * * * * * *

IN the spring of the year eighteen hundred and sixty-eight there lived, in a certain county of North Britain, two venerable White Owls.

The Owls inhabited a decayed and deserted summer-house. The summer-house stood in grounds attached to a country seat in Perthshire, known by the name of Windygates.

The situation of Windygates had been skillfully chosen in that part of the county where the fertile lowlands first begin to merge into the mountain region beyond. The mansion-house was intelligently laid out, and luxuriously furnished. The stables offered a model for ventilation and space; and the gardens and grounds were fit for a prince.

Possessed of these advantages, at starting, Windygates, nevertheless, went the road to ruin in due course of time. The curse of litigation fell on house and lands. For more than ten years an interminable lawsuit coiled itself closer and closer round the place, sequestering it from human habitation, and even from human approach. The mansion was closed. The garden became a wilderness of weeds. The summer-house was choked up by creeping plants; and the appearance of the creepers was followed by the appearance of the birds of night.

For years the Owls lived undisturbed on the property which they had acquired by the oldest of all existing rights—the right of taking. Throughout the day they sat peaceful and solemn, with closed eyes, in the cool darkness shed round them by the ivy. With the twilight they roused themselves softly to the business of life. In sage and silent companionship of two, they went flying, noiseless, along the quiet lanes in search of a meal. At one time they would beat a field like a setter dog, and drop down in an instant on a mouse unaware of them. At another time—moving spectral over the black surface of the water—they would try the lake for a change, and catch a perch as they had caught the mouse. Their catholic digestions were equally tolerant of a rat or an insect. And there were moments, proud moments, in their lives, when they were clever enough to snatch a small bird at roost off his perch. On those occasions the sense of superiority which the large bird feels every where over the small, warmed their cool blood, and set them screeching cheerfully in the stillness of the night.

So, for years, the Owls slept their happy sleep by day, and found their comfortable meal when darkness fell. They had come, with the creepers, into possession of the summer-house. Consequently, the creepers were a part of the constitution of the summer-house. And consequently the Owls were the guardians of the Constitution. There are some human owls who reason as they did, and who are, in this respect—as also in respect of snatching smaller birds off their roosts—wonderfully like them.

The constitution of the summer-house had lasted until the spring of the year eighteen hundred and sixty-eight, when the unhallowed footsteps of innovation passed that way; and the venerable privileges of the Owls were assailed, for the first time, from the world outside.

Two featherless beings appeared, uninvited, at the door of the summer-house, surveyed the constitutional creepers, and said, “These must come down”—looked around at the horrid light of noonday, and said, “That must come in”—went away, thereupon, and were heard, in the distance, agreeing together, “To-morrow it shall be done.”

And the Owls said, “Have we honored the summer-house by occupying it all these years—and is the horrid light of noonday to be let in on us at last? My lords and gentlemen, the Constitution is destroyed!”

They passed a resolution to that effect, as is the manner of their kind. And then they shut their eyes again, and felt that they had done their duty.

The same night, on their way to the fields, they observed with dismay a light in one of the windows of the house. What did the light mean?

It meant, in the first place, that the lawsuit was over at last. It meant, in the second place that the owner of Windygates, wanting money, had decided on letting the property. It meant, in the third place, that the property had found a tenant, and was to be renovated immediately out of doors and in. The Owls shrieked as they flapped along the lanes in the darkness, And that night they struck at a mouse—and missed him.

The next morning, the Owls—fast asleep in charge of the Constitution—were roused by voices of featherless beings all round them. They opened their eyes, under protest, and saw instruments of destruction attacking the creepers. Now in one direction, and now in another, those instruments let in on the summer-house the horrid light of day. But the Owls were equal to the occasion. They ruffled their feathers, and cried, “No surrender!” The featherless beings plied their work cheerfully, and answered, “Reform!” The creepers were torn down this way and that. The horrid daylight poured in brighter and brighter. The Owls had barely time to pass a new resolution, namely, “That we do stand by the Constitution,” when a ray of the outer sunlight flashed into their eyes, and sent them flying headlong to the nearest shade. There they sat winking, while the summer-house was cleared of the rank growth that had choked it up, while the rotten wood-work was renewed, while all the murky place was purified with air and light. And when the world saw it, and said, “Now we shall do!” the Owls shut their eyes in pious remembrance of the darkness, and answered, “My lords and gentlemen, the Constitution is destroyed!”

From ‘Man and Wife’ by Wilkie Collins

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‘Barn Owl’ by Hester Cox


* * * * * * *

I am the heart of a murdered woman
who took the wrong way home
who was strangled in a vacant lot and not buried
who was shot with care beneath a tree
who was mutilated by a crisp knife.
There are many of us.

I grew feathers and tore my way out of her;
I am shaped like a feathered heart.
My mouth is a chisel, my hands
the crimes done by hands.

I sit in the forest talking of death
which is monotonous:
though there are many ways of dying
there is only one death song,
the colour of mist:
it says   Why   Why

I do not want revenge, I do not want expiation,
I only want to ask someone
how I was lost,
how I was lost

I am the lost heart of a murderer
who has not yet killed,
who does not yet know he wishes
to kill; who is still the same
as the others

I am looking for him,
he will have answers for me,
he will watch his step, he will be
cautious and violent, my claws
will grow through his hands
and become claws, he will not be caught.

‘Owl Song’ by Margaret Atwood

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‘The Owl’ (c. 1863) by Valentine Cameron Prinsep

* * * * * * *

As the glow of the cabin windows turned to flickers through the trees and then to black, her eyes adjusted and the starlight alone on the pure white snow was enough to light her way. The cold scorched her cheeks and her lungs, but she was warm in her fox hat and wool. An owl swooped through the spruce boughs, a slow-flying shadow, but she was not frightened. She felt old and strong, like the mountains and the river. She would find her way home.

From ‘The Snow Child’ by Eowyn Ivey

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