Greengates by R. C. Sherriff (1936)

R. C. Sherriff is best remembered for writing the play ‘Journey’s End’, which is a major work about life in the trenches on the Western Front that is is still studied and performed. That is probably as it should be, but his novels deserved better than to be forgotten until they were rescued by the lovely Persephone Books.

This book is a story of ordinary and unremarkable people, the plot could easily be summed up in a sentence or two, and yet it is captivating; because its wonderful insight into character makes book lives and breathes, and allows the reader to believe that the author is speaking honestly and respectfully of people that he knew well.

This story begins on Tom Baldwin’s last day of work for a city insurance company before he retires. He knew how the final hours of his working life would play out, because he had worked in the same place for a great many years, and he played along; but as he waited for his train home he couldn’t help but feel a little disappointed that nobody had thought that he was a long-serving member of staff who had been present at – and helped with – many other departures – and that maybe they might do something just a bit little different.

‘Mr. Baldwin felt unreasonably self-conscious standing on Broad Street platform with the clock under his arm. Although it was done up in brown paper and nobody could possibly guess what it was, he could not help feeling that a placard reading “RETIRED!” hung around his neck.’

A report in his newspaper about a man who had killed himself because he couldn’t cope with being retired was unsettling; bur Tom was quite sure that things would be different for him.

He planned to study history, and to write an accessible and engaging history of England for the reader who didn’t want to study but was interested in knowing a little more. He planned to go out and about with his wife, Edith, because there was still much they had to see, and learn, and discuss. And he planned to spend more time tending his garden, and to attend to all of the jobs around the house that he had been putting off.

It was a lovely plan, but it didn’t quite work in practice. A suburban garden only needed so much time and attention, the jobs around the house that had been put off time and time again over the years were still unappealing, and publishers made it clear that the market for popular history was already completely saturated.

Edith was supportive, and she appreciated the difficult transition that her husband was going through; but she was also rather put out by the changes to her own well-established routines that were forced by Tom’s constant presence.

Together all of the time, the couple found that they had little to tell each other, and nothing much to talk about

This was retirement as a tragedy; as a downward slope towards the end of life.

Was there an alternative?

One day Edith suggests a walk to a favourite spot in the countryside that the couple had enjoyed visiting on weekends before the war. The fresh air reinvigorated them and they chatted happily about things they were seeing and things that they remembered. They were had a lovely time, until they reached their destination and found that the lovely valley views they had been looking forward to had been spoiled by the building of a new housing estate.

‘The desolate charm of it – the wild, fragrant peace – had gone for ever: through the soft gorse field stretched broad hideous gashes of naked yellow clay, and clustering along them, like evil fungus to a fallen tree were hideous new houses – stacks of bricks – pyramids of sewage pipes – piles of white timber – mud stained lorries and sheets of hunched tarpaulin – a nightmare of perverted progress.’

They went down to take a look at the works, and to find out where they could complain about what was happening; but they found themselves being charmed by an extremely capable young salesman. He invited them to take a look around the show home, and curiosity got the better of them.  They were captivated by the clean, modern lines of the house and its modern conveniences, they loved its peaceful rural setting in an area they knew and loved, and each of them began to dream of a different life.

‘The Black and White Cottage by Mark Gertler

Back at home, they were delighted when they found that they both had the same dream. They began to look at their finances and at practicalities, and they came to think that they might be able to make that dream a reality.

That would be retirement as an exciting new chapter in life.

I found myself completely drawn into the lives of Tom and Edith Baldwin. They were ordinary people and they were so very well drawn that I found myself making comparisons with my grandparents, who I know moved from Devon to Cornwall around the time that this book was published. I saw their strengths and weaknesses, I understood their hopes and fears, and I was anxious to know what life had in store for them.

R. C. Sherriff wrote about them in a way that was beautiful and felt completely natural. I loved his turn of phrase, and I loved the way he caught domestic details and made me understand exactly what life in suburbia was like for the Baldwins, and what a new home and a different life could mean.

This is first and foremost a human drama, exploring the disappointments that can pull a life down and the delights than can pull it back up; but it is also a record of a time when ideas of how people might live were changing, exploring what that change might mean for ordinary men and women.

I was captivated and I only wished that the story could have gone on for longer, that I might have seen more of the minutiae of life in suburbia and life in the country.

The final chapter – a different perspective from some point in the future – didn’t quite work for me, but that was a small disappointment.

I loved the people I met, and I loved the book as a whole.

February has Come and Gone ….

…. and now it is a few days into March and it really is time I looked back and looked forward.

I haven’t read quite as much as I did in January but I have got back into the habit of writing and I am very happy with what I did read.

‘A February Day’ by Rowland Hilder

These are the books:

‘The House in the Country’ by Ruth Adam – The story of a group of friends who find that if they pooled their resources they can buy the country house they dreamed of during the war. It’s a beautifully told story, it catches a period of social change wonderfully naturally, and I can’t help thinking that it ought to be a Persephone book.

‘The Strange Case of Harriet Hall’ by Moray Dalton – One of a range of intriguing new titles from the Dean Street Press, this is a character-led mystery story. It was wonderfully engaging and entertaining, it had some lovely and distinctive plot twists, and I already have another book by the author lined up.

‘Business as Usual’ by Jane Oliver and Ann Stafford – This book is made up of the letters of a young lady from Edinburgh who ventures down to London to find a job and a home of her own rather than sit at home waiting for her doctor fiance to find the time to get married. It’s wonderful fun, it catches her experience beautifully, and when I had to take this book back to the library I started to look for more of the work of this pair of authors.

‘Smallbone Deceased’ by Michael Gilbert – I see a great many British Library Crime Classics when I visit my local library, which is lovely but it means that it is rare that a single book catches my eye. This one did. It is a very well constructed mystery, set in a legal practice, and if I don’t say more that that it is only because it is the kind of book that it is difficult to say much about without spoiling it for other readers.

‘Kirkland Revels’ by Victoria Holt – My teenage self would have loved this book, but now that I have read so much more I could see the workings of the story. I had to keep reading, there was more than enough to hold my attention,  I cared about what happened to the heroine; but when I reached the end I realised it was time to let go of books like this that I should have read years ago but didn’t.

‘Pawn in Frankincense’ by Dorothy Dunnett – I picked up this fourth book in the Lymond series as soon as I finished the third book and I loved it. The story progressed, characters grew, new characters raised new questions, there were plots twists that I saw coming but there were many that I didn’t. The settings and the set pieces were as good as I have come to expect, there were references and links back to events in earlier books, and though I don’t want this to be over I am so curious to see the whole story. Book five is ready and waiting …..

‘Greengates’ by R C Sheriff – This was my second ‘moving to the country’ book of the month, and I loved it almost as much as the first one. It tells the story of a retired couple who were struggling with the changes, the lack of purpose, that retirement had brought them. It was lovely following the details of their lives, the ups and downs of the move, and the settling into a new life. It made me think of my grandparents, who moved to an end of terrace house at around the same time, and moved next door a while later because they were seeing more and more motor cars driving along the promenade and they were worried that one of them would crash into the end house ….

At the end of January I assembled a pile of books that I planned to read in February, but looking back I can see that I have only read one (‘The Disorderly Knights’ by Dorothy Dunnett) and made a start on one other (‘Eve in Egypt’ by Stella Tennyson Jesse) I had better not do that again. I still want to read the other books, but I picked some of them up and put them down again because they weren’t the right book for the moment, and other books called me more loudly than the books left on the pile.

I will say than I plan to read something from Wales and something from Ireland.

But I want to look back now, because sometimes it seems that books have their moment and then they disappear. I’m going to borrow a game from Audrey and look back at highlights of past February’s. I have ten years of archives now, so here are ten books that I think are well worth remembering.

Here they are:

2009 – The Great Western Beach by Emma Smith – This is a lovely memoir of a Cornish childhood between the wars, written with empathy and understanding, and balancing that with the child’s perspective wonderfully well.

2010 – Martha in Paris by Margery Sharp – This was my second Margery Sharp book. I loved my first, the others were all out of print, but luckily the library had this sequel, and a few others. And so my relationship with an author who would become a particular favourite began …

2011 – Tapestry of Love by Rosy Thornton – Eight years ago I described this story of a middle-aged woman who moved to France after her children had grown and her husband had left as “a warm hug” and I really can’t think why I haven’t plucked the other books by the author from the shelf yet.

2012 – The City of Beautiful Nonsense by E Temple Thurston – I read about this in an introduction to one of her own books by Rumer Godden, She said “I bought the book and read it; even then I recognised how unashamedly sentimental it was – novels were sentimental at the turn of the century, and this was a love story – but, in spite of that, it’s evocation of Venice cast such a spell that it has been with me ever since…” and I have to agree.

2013 – The Fool of the Family by Margaret Kennedy – The second month seems to be my time for reading my second books by authors who would become particular favourites. I read my Virago copy of ‘The Constant Nymph’, I was curious about the sequel that follow the story of a relatively minor character from that book, and the library had that one in reserve stock too.

2014 – The Twelfth Hour by Ada Leverson – I have to smile at the memory of this romantic comedy, set in the summer season in Edwardian London. It really is a lovely confection.

2015 – Girl in the Dark by Anna Lyndsey – This is the story of a civil servant whose light sensitivity grew into a condition where she had to live in darkness, in a room completely and utterly blacked out, wrapped in dense, heavy clothing, because even the faintest hint of light – natural or artificial – would cause her agonising pain. At the time I described it as “the most astonishing, the most beautifully written memoir that I have ever read” and looking back now I am happy to stand by those words.

2016 – Red Pottage by Mary Cholmondeley – I read much praise for this strangely-titled Victorian Virago Modern Classic, I tracked down a copy, and when I read it I had to agree – and to wish that it was in print and that the author was better known.

2017 – The Trespasser by Tana French – Like all of Tana French’s earlier books, this was a fascinating contemporary police procedural; a compelling character study, written with real insight and understanding;  a perceptive state of the nation novel; and a wonderful example of contemporary literary fiction.

2018 – Rough-Hewn by Dorothy Canfield Fisher – This is the prequel to a book that Virago published, exploring the childhoods of the married couple at the centre of that book. I decided that I should read it first, and it is a wonderfully rich exploration of the very different worlds of two children.

Do try this – it stirred some lovely bookish memories for me.

And tell we what you’re reading, what your plans are, and if there is anything interesting happening that I’ve missed.

The Last Chronicle of Barset by Anthony Trollope (1867)

Reaching the end of Trollope’s tales of Barsetshire left me very nearly lost for words.

The first book – The Warden – created a world and set it spinning, the books that followed illuminated different places and different lives being lived in that world, and now that I have read this book – a grand finale in the best sense of the words – I can’t quite believe that the world Trollope created isn’t still spinning and that he isn’t going to tell me more stories about it.

It was lovely that so many characters from all of the other books in the series made appearances. There were some that I missed, there were a couple I wouldn’t have missed if they hadn’t been there, but it worked.

There were so many strands, and they had so many different qualities. Some were more effective than others, I enjoyed some more than others, but they worked together and as I read I realised that Trollope knew exactly what he was doing.

The central strand – the story that you’ll read about if you pick up a paperback copy and read the words on the back cover – concerns an alleged theft by Josiah Crawley, the poor, proud and pious perpetual curate of the parish of Hogglestock. When I first enountered Mr Crawley, in Framley Parsonage, I had  read those words, he knew that he would be the central figure in this final book, and I wasn’t at all sure that he was the man for the job, but now that I have read the book I realise that he was.

BarsetWhile Mr Crawley is not high on the list of Trollope characters I would love to meet, he is one of his most complex and psychologicaly interesting creations; this man who is difficult and yet loved and supported by his wife are children, who is viewed harshly by the world and yet judges himself more harshly still.

His story in this book was compelling, and Trollope did a wonderful job of drawing others into that story.

Mrs Proudie had not doubt at all that he was guilty and that all of the weight and authority of the church should be deployed against him. When the bishop tried to explain that the church didn’t – and couldn’t – work like that she carried on regardless, but is really did seem that the time when the bishop would stand firm against his wife’s wishes had finally come.

Major Henry Grantly, the son of the archdeacon, was a widower with a young child and he had been courting Grace, the eldest daughter of the Crawley family. His father was appalled that he would not end that relationship when new of the theft broke, and father and son were at loggerheads.

Lily Dale came to the assistance of Grace; and Johnny Eames volunteered to go in search of the dean and his wife, who were travelling abroad and may be able to cast some light on the circumstances of the alleged theft …..

I liked Lily in this book much more than I did in The Small House at Allington, and though the general consensus seems to be that the story her relationship with Johnny didn’t need to be revisited, I was pleased that it was given another twist and a proper resolution.

I was less pleased with the introduction of a new story and a new set of characters in London. The story had its moments but it didn’t sit well against the story that was playing out in Barsetshire and I would have much rather spent more time with old friends there.

My only other – minor – reservation was there were echoes of earlier books in the series in a few of the characters and events of this book.

As always with Trollope, there is much joy in the details

  • Mrs Thorne giving exactly the right advice and support to young lovers.
  • Mrs Grantly talking about Mrs Proudie  – and calling her a virago!
  • The dowager Lady Lufton offering real, practical help to Mrs Crawley.
  • Mr Harding reminiscing about old bishop with Dr Grantly over a glass of port.

There is also joy in seeing how so many pieces of story fit perfectly into place – there are a great many ‘ah moments’ in this book.

That Henry Grantly was a widower with a child reminded me that his grandfather – Mr Harding – was a very old man. The story of the final act of his life and his departure from this world was beautifully told, losing him really felt like losing a member of the family, and every detail – including a final suggestion he made to his son-in-law – was exactly right.

A great deal happened in this book – I think it would be fair to say that all life is here – and though I finished reading at the end of last year I can still feel the emotions I felt when I was reading.

I meant to read another Trollope this month but I couldn’t, and I think it was because I wasn’t quite ready to let go of this one.

The Strange Case of Harriet Hall by Moray Dalton (1936)

I picked up ‘The Strange Case of Harriet Hall’ because I loved the title, and because I was intrigued by the premise, and because I saw echoes of another author of the period whose books I love in the premise and in the cover art.

When I started to read I realised that those echoes were faint and I came to love this book for its own sake.

It begins with Amy Steer, who is alone in the world. She has lodgings in London, she has been doing the rounds of employment agencies and scanning newspaper advertisements with little success; and her unsympathetic landlady has noticed her situation and wants her out. She has no idea what she should do when she notices an advertisement  in the personal column of the newspaper she is scanning, advising that relatives of Julius Horace Steer who responded could discover something to their advantage

That was the distinctive name of Amy’s father, who had died when she was just two years old. She quickly pens a response, and a few days later finds herself meeting Mrs Harriet Hall, the aunt she never knew that she had.

Amy’s new aunt explains she is her father’s sister, and that her advertisement had been running in the newspaper. And that she lived quietly in the country, thanks to the kindness of old friends.

She had been close to her nephew but they had become estranged, then she had remembered that her brother had left a daughter, and now she was inviting her niece to come and share her home in Larnwood.

Amy was taken aback. Harriet Hall – tall, eccentrically clad and heavily made-up – was not the sort of aunt she had expected; but of course, she reminded herself, her mother had never spoken to her about her father’s family, and she had been greeted so warmly and presented with a  generous gift of £100 to suitable clothes and to cover her train fare.

A few days later Amy was sitting on a train with a trunk full of  lovely new clothes. She struck up a conversation with a young man sitting nearby. He introduced himself as Tony Dene, they got on wonderfully well; but when he found that they were travelling to the same station and that she was the niece of Mrs Harriet Hall, his whole demeanour changed and he began to pull away from her.

Disembarking at  Larnwood station, Amy found herself alone on the platform. Tony Dene had rushed off without a word and nobody had come to greet her. She set out to walk the five miles to her aunt’s isolated cottage, telling herself that there must have been a misunderstanding over that time or date of her arrival.

When Amy reached her destination the door was open, the kitchen stove was warm, but her aunt was nowhere to be seen. She settled down to wait, but nobody came to the cottage, and so the next morning she set out to the Dower House, where her aunt’s friends lived.

The Dene family had bought the Dower House, not very long ago, and their reaction to her news was not at all what she had expected. Mrs Dene seemed nervous and in thrall to Mrs Hall, rather than showing the concern of a friend. Tony and his younger sister Molly made no secret of their dislike, and their older sister Lavvy, who was beautiful but brittle,and her mother’s favourite, expressed similar views.

Amy had been worried already and the reactions of the Dene family worried her even more, but she didn’t have much time to think about what the truth of the whole situation might be, because Tony – sent to check the cottage – found a corpse in the well at the bottom of the garden.

The local police were called in, they investigated slowly, steadily and systematically. It seemed that there were a number of suspects and that none of them had a decent alibi.

The Lord and Lady of the Manor were not at all happy. They disapproved of the engagement of their son and heir to Lavvy Dene, the daughter of an unknown family who bought rather than inherited properly, and now her family were caught up in a murder enquiry. They called the Chief Constable and he called in Scotland Yard.

Meanwhile, Amy realised that her own situation looked rather suspicious. She also realised that she had next to no money left, because she had counted on the support of her aunt, and because the police had told her not to leave the district she had to find some way of earning her living locally.

The plot that unfolds is well constructed, it had some interesting elements that I haven’t come across in a Golden Age mystery before, and a nice mix of things that I could work out and wonderful surprises.

I liked Inspector Hugh Collier of Scotland Yard – who I believe is a series character.  He was a capable professional, he was a decent and compassionate man, and he worked steadily and without any undue fuss. All of the characters and relationships were well drawn, and very effectively deployed.

There was much in the heroine’s situation and in the development of – and obstacles to – romance that made me think of Patricia Wentworth’s books; but the way the story developed was quite different and the heroine thought and acted for herself rather more effectively than most of the Patricia Wentworth heroines I have met.

I’m not sure what Miss Silver would have made of this mystery, but I think that anyone who had enjoyed following her cases would also enjoy this book.

The story is well told, the mystery is memorable, and I definitely want to read more by its author.

Consequences by E M Delafield (1919)

Until I picked up this book, I had completely forgotten the old-fashioned game of consequences; taking it in turns to write out a boy’s name, a girl’s name, where they met, what he said, what she said and the consequence of their meeting; folding over the paper each time so that nobody could see what had been written before their turn came.

I had never thought about the boy or the girl whose tales – sometimes odd, sometimes funny, sometimes sad – were folded over in discarded scraps of paper, but E M Delafield did, and it made her think of the world she grew up in and of young women whose life stories played out in a way that could be as haphazard and in a world where the only possible – the only acceptable – consequence was the acquisition of a wedding ring.

In this book – beginning with a game of consequences in a nursery – she asks whether there was an alternative.

The answer that she reached was a sad one.

She tells the story of Alex Clare, who is first seen as an insecure and awkward child. Alex is the eldest of her siblings, and she proud of the status she believes that gives her. She is bossy and the children’s nanny is protective of the younger children and critical of Alex.

I found that it wasn’t easy to like Alex, but it was very easy to feel sympathy for her. She lacked the understanding and empathy with others that many people are born with or quickly learn, and it seemed that there was nobody who would guide and teach her.

Alex pushed her sister, Barbara, to ‘tightrope walk’ on the stair rail, and the first consequence of that was that she fell and was lucky not to break her back. The second was that her parents decided that their eldest child was unmanageable, that they had to protect her siblings, and that she must be sent away to school – at a convent in Belgium.

This was possibly the worst thing that could have happened to Alex. She had nobody who would love her, nobody who would give her the guidance that she so desperately needed; and she had no aptitude for making friends. She developed intense crushes on certain other girls,  but she was so intense in her affections that even when the other girl was kind there was no real prospect of a true friendship

Alex felt that she was a failure, unable to get anything right or make anyone happy, but she clung on to the hope that one day things would be different

‘It seemed to Alex that when she joined the mysterious ranks of grown-up-people everything would be different. She never doubted that with long dresses and piled-up hair, her whole personality would change, and the meaningless chaos of life reduce itself to some comprehensible solution.’

Of course there was no magical transformation.

Alex ‘came out’ as a debutante and her mother, Lady Isabel, did everything right. She took Alex to the right parties, she made sure that she was beautifully groomed and dressed, she carefully explained what Alex should do in every situation. But Alex had no more empathy, no more understanding, than she had when she was a small child.

‘She was full of preconceived ideas as to that which constituted attractiveness, and in her very ardour to realize the conventional ideal of the day failed entirely to attract.’

She had dance partners, she thought that she was a success, but in time she realised that other girls had much more interest from young men, and that their dance partners would return to them at other functions. Alex’s didn’t do that. She began to doubt herself, her small successes dwindled, and she becomes an unhappy wallflower.

I felt very deeply for Alex as she watched other girls achieve what she most wanted, what she had been quite sure she would have,  while she was failing and understanding why. The worst indignity came when a young man took her down to dinner and she found that he had asked her because he wanted to talk about his love for her school-friend; when she went home to bed and desperately prayed that somebody would love her like that one day ….

It seemed that hope was lost, but a holiday romance led to a proposal and an engagement ring for Alex.

Success at last!

After the proposal, it seemed that the romance was over. Alex’s fiance showed no interest in wedding plans and a new life together, though he wpuldtalk at length about himself and his plans for the land he was to inherit. Alex tried to persuade herself that she loved him, but she knew that she was not loved as she hoped to be loved, that she was a means to an end, and she began to fear the prospect of a loveless marriage.

She broke off the engagement.

She thought that she was doing the right thing, she thought she was being brave, but her family was horrified. She hadn’t realised that marriage was the only option for her and that she had thrown away the only chance of success she ever had.

‘Alex almost instinctively uttered the cry that, with successive generations, has passed from appeal to rebellion, then to assertion, and from the defiance of that assertion to a calm statement of facts. “It is my life. Can’t I live my own life?”

“A woman who doesn’t marry and who has eccentric tastes doesn’t have much of a life. I could never bear thinking of it for any of you.”

Alex was rather startled at the sadness in her mother’s voice.

“But, mother, why? Lots of girls don’t marry, and just live at home.”

“As long as there is a home. But things alter, Alex. Your father and I, in the nature of things, can’t go on livin’ for ever, and then this house goes to Cedric. There is no country place, as you know—your great-grandfather sold everything he could lay his hands on, and we none of us have ever had enough ready money to think of buyin’ even a small place in the country.”

“But I thought we were quite rich.”

Lady Isabel flushed delicately.

“We are not exactly poor, but such money as there is mostly came from my father, and there will not be much after my death,” she confessed. “Most of it will be money tied up for Archie, poor little boy, because he is the younger son, and your grandfather thought that was the proper way to arrange it. It was all settled when you were quite little children—in fact, before Pamela was born or thought of—and your father naturally wanted all he could hope to leave to go to Cedric, so that he might be able to live on here, whatever happened.”

“But what about Barbara and me? Wasn’t it rather unfair to want the boys to have everything?”

“Your father said, ‘The girls will marry, of course.’ There will be a certain sum for each of you on your wedding-day, but there’s no question of either of you being able to afford to remain unmarried, and live decently. You won’t have enough to make it possible,” said Lady Isabel very simply.’

That was horribly true, and from this point Alex’s life goes steadily downhill. She then turns to religion and enters a convent, but she was drawn there by a love of the mother superior – an echo of her schoolgirl crushes – and when she moves to a new community, nearly a decade later, Alex realises that she does not have a vocation and must leave.

Back in a world that has changed, where she has never lived independently, where she has never handled money and has no resources at all, she struggles to cope. Her family try to be kind, but Alex is beyond any help that they can give to her ….

‘Consequences’ is a desperately sad story but I had to keep turning the pages because E M Delafield was such a wonderful storyteller and she wrote with lyricism and with clarity. I could never doubt the truth of the characters and their circumstances, and I understood how trapped they were by the strictures of a society that might work for some but could never work for all.

I knew that there could not be a happy ending but I had understand exactly how the story would play out.

I felt the author’s anger, and I knew that it was justified.

Business as Usual by Jane Oliver and Ann Stafford (1933)

Hooray for the Cornish Library Service!

I read about this book somewhere, when I looked it up I found there wasn’t a copy that I could buy; but luckily I thought to check the library catalogue, and I found that a wise librarian had kept this book  in reserve stock.

I placed my order.

I received a little gem.

This is story of Hilary Fane, the daughter of well to do Edinburgh family.  She is engaged to Basil, a doctor, but the demands of his career mean that they can’t marry for a year. Hilary decides that she doesn’t want to sit around waiting, that she has time to have an adventure, and do she sets off for London to try her hand at earning her own living.

Finding a job isn’t as easy as she thought it would be, because though she a university degree and a great many other accomplishments, employers seem to be looking for experience of a very different kind. Hilary is undaunted, she carries on her quest, eventually settling for a job behind the scenes at a large department store standing in for a lady with appendicitis rather than face another visit to the labour exchange.

The job is less than scintillating, copying labels for books to be mailed out to account customers, but Hilary enjoys being busy and doing something useful. She makes mistakes, but she learns quickly and in time she makes some diplomatic suggestions as to how things might be done a little better.

Hilary does just as well on the home front, renting room from a friendly landlady, budgeting to make sure that her salary covered all of her expenses, and enjoying her new lifestyle without losing her appreciation of the world she had come from.

She wrote to her fiance:

“‘Won’t it be fun when you can get a weekend off? I shall make you take me out and provide an expensive dinner followed by Turkish coffee and old brandy. Then we’ll dance, and afterwards I’ll bring you back to my basement and give you herring-roes personally cooked over a pennyworth of gas. When will you come? Soon please.'”

He didn’t come, but she continued to share all of the details of her life with him in lengthy letters. The whole of this story is told in letters, most of them to said fiance and some of them to her parents. She tended to tell them of her mistakes and problems; only mentioning them to him only when everything had been resolved.

There is also the occasional memo, when Hilary did something that the staff supervisor had to report to her manager. Luckily he saw the value of the point of view of an untypical member of staff and that helped her progress through the organisation.

When the lady she had been replacing returned to work, Hilary was promoted to the sales floor of the book department. She loved meeting people but she didn’t really like being on her feet all day and counting on her fingers got her into trouble. The lending library suited her much better, and she learned how to play workplace politics there.

Hilary’s increased salary allowed her to move to a flat of her own, and an elderly aunt – who had spotted her in the book department and carried her off to lunch; an event that she had need all of her charm and wit to present to her supervisor as a positive thing  – helped her to furnish it.

At first Hilary had struggled to balance her work and her life.

“The worst of earning one’s living is that it leaves so little time over to live in. During the winter you’ve got to hand over the eight daylight hours and only keep the twilight bits at each end. And most of them go to waste in sleep.”

Luckily, she got the hang of it in time; and when she bumped into an old school-friend who was also earning her own living, on her bus journey home, they started to make plans together and found that there was so much that they could do in London.

Hilary’s final promotion – becoming the assistant to the staff supervisor – gave her the role that suited her perfectly.

“It means getting back into the sort of organising work I really enjoy. Also, one comes into less physical contact with books and ink and labels and typewriters, which is so fortunate, considering how much I’m at the mercy of the inanimate ….

… I feel that I’m beginning to have an idea of the fabric of the business: it’s thrilling because everything’s woven into it; pots and pans and silks and carpets and wood and brass and sales books and typewriters and people’s lives.”

The story of this year in Hilary’s life is charming, and it is clear that its authors understood the workings of a big department store, and how it would strike a newcomer to that kind of world.

There are some nice modern touches – Hilary finds a book by Marie Stokes in the library, and she does her level best to help a young member of staff who is ‘in trouble’ and too scared to approach the staff supervisor – but not too many; this is a book very much of its time.

It is Hilary herself who makes that story sing. Her voice is wonderful. She is bright, she is witty and self-deprecating, and she is wonderfully interested in the people she meets and the world around her.

I was glad that while she was proud of managing on her weekly pay-packet, she realised that she was lucky to have choices and that life was often much more difficult to those who didn’t.

Her feelings and her progression – both at and away from work – were captured perfectly by her authors; and they were so very good at showing but not telling.

I can’t tell you a great deal about them, except that they -separately – wrote mainly historical novels, that Jane Oliver founded the John Llewllyn Rhys Prize in memory of her husband who died early in the Second World War, and that Ann Stafford provided some simple line drawings, credited to Hilary, for this book.

I suspect that this book is atypical, but I loved it more than enough to order another of Jane Oliver’s books that is tucked away in the Cornish Library Service’s reserve stock ….

A House in the Country by Ruth Adam (1957)

It was a plain hardback book without a dust jacket, sitting on a shelf waiting to catch somebody’s eye. Many people would have passed it by but I recognised the name of an author who has been published by both Virago and Persephone. It had a title that I was sure I had read about, and that suggested the book might well be my kind of book.

It was.

Whether it is fact or fiction isn’t entirely clear, but the author’s words and my reading makes me think that it is fiction lightly fictionalised, to smooth rough edges and make it work as a story.

‘This is a cautionary tale, and true.

Never fall in love with a house. The one we fell in love with wasn’t even ours. If she had been, she would have ruined us just the same. We found out some things about her afterwards, among them what she did to that poor old parson, back in the eighteen-seventies. If we had found them out earlier… ? It wouldn’t have made any difference. We were in that maudlin state when reasonable argument is quite useless.’

It began during the war as a group of Londoners, family and friends, spun stories of the home they would love to have when peace finally came.

‘It must be one of those houses that’s been built, bit by bit. over hundred of years.’

‘It must have great windows that let all the sunlight in’

‘It ought to have a river running through the garden.’

‘There’ll be three or four kitchens, with red-flagged floors and hams hanging from the ceiling and we shan’t have to live in any of them.’

‘It must stand alone. Not another house within half a mile, at the very least. There must be miles and miles of green fields, washing right up to its garden walls.’

They hadn’t thought that it would ever be a reality, but not long after the war one of them saw an advertisement in the personal column of The Times that sounded just like their house.


When they thought about it, they realised that if they pooled their resources the dream could become a reality; and when they went down to see the house they agreed that it must.

‘They say that when a stranger’s face seems familiar, it is because it is like a forgotten face of your childhood. I don’t know if that is true about people. But I know it is about houses. When I stood for the first time in the hall of the manor, it was not strange to me. It was the house I had promised to have, so that my mother could come and stay in it.’

The house was everything they had hoped it would be, but of course there were practicalities and problems that they hadn’t considered. In the post-war world the house had come relatively cheaply because many people had realised that there were more comfortable ways to live. War-time regulations still on place put limits on the refurbishment of the property, and the age where people either were or had household staff was over.

There were wonderful tales told as maids came and went. One girl arrived with a suitor in the forces, went out in clothes she took from the wardrobe of one of the household and left expecting a baby; another had a husband who pilfered money from the box by the telephone; and another seemed perfect until she went for the cook with a knife. Finally they found two girls who worked happily and effectively together, and later they employed a married couple who were hardworking but possibly a little too down-to-earth ….

Luckily the group was blessed with a gardener cum handyman who loved the house and knew how everything worked and how to keep the wheels running smoothly.

The house itself was a joy

‘Every bedroom had a dressing-room. We all became remarkably tidy. You wouldn’t have known our bedrooms as belonging to the same people who had once had coats flung on the bed and overflowing suitcases on all the chairs. The house imposed order upon us, whether we liked it or not. When you have thirty-three rooms, you feel obliged to keep something in each one, and the possessions which had filled the little suburban house to bursting-point now vanished quietly into the depths of the manor.’

Most of the management of the household fell onto the shoulders of the author, because she was the only one who didn’t go out to work and because she and her husband – who worked for the BBC – were the only ones who had brought children. She coped wonderfully, with the people, with the kitchens, and with everything else that came with running a manor house and grounds.

She loved it, but she saw it clear-sightedly.

‘She was an aristocratic lady on our hands. All ideas for making her work for a living were wrecked on the fact that she was born to be served and not to serve.’

Her tone and her storytelling were wonderful. She caught the changing times perfectly, and she wove in some astute social commentary.

‘The gracious life in the front wing, after all, depended entirely upon service in the back wing, and it didn’t seem a justifiable way of living.’

The story is very focused on the house and the experience. I couldn’t tell you much at all about her children, the other members of the household, or what happened before or after. That served the book well, and the account of life in the house – the stories that could be told and the small details that could be recalled – were so engaging and so well drawn that I only thought about that when I put the book down.

Inevitably, over a period of time, the household changed. One man grew tired of commuting, and of living with other people’s children. One woman, who had been romantically involved with some-one else in the household, married someone who definitely didn’t one to move in. Another man was sent to work overseas.

That meant that the household finances were terribly stretched. Sub-letting part of the property was an unhappy experience, but providing lodgings for holiday-makers was much more successful and provided some lovely stories.

‘She loved to hear someone tell a long, painstakingly funny story brought back from the village pub. She never could follow the story. It was the reception she waited for.

“So the English really do laugh out loud when friends are together,” she would say contentedly.

We supplied her with ‘The Edwardians’ to read in the evenings, explaining the phrases to her when she got stuck. Then we sent her off, with a packet of sandwiches to spend the day at Knole, telling her it was Chevron House, in which the book was set. We awaited her return with sympathetic interest. She came in and looked at us speechlessly.

“It’s too much,” she said at last. “It was too beautiful, and too large. I’m going straight to bed.” ‘

The author continued to love the house – her bond deepened when her fourth child was born there – but in the end she had to acknowledge that the workload was too great and the finances could not be managed.

She was philosophical.

‘In April when we bought daffodils off a street- barrow and say to each other when we go home, ” I suppose the magnolia must be out,” we always add, “Thank goodness someone else has got to sweep up the fallen petals.” ‘

I am so pleased that I found this book, and it would be lovely if it could be reissued; because I can think of many other people who would love it too.

The Windows of the World: A Collection

‘Domenica’ by Barbara Balmer

* * * * * * *

On that first morning when the sky was blue again Mary wakened very early. The sun was pouring in slanting rays through the blinds and there was something so joyous in the sight of it that she jumped out of bed and ran to the window. She drew up the blinds and opened the window itself and a great waft of fresh, scented air blew in upon her. The moor was blue and the whole world looked as if something Magic had happened to it. There were tender little fluting sounds here and there and everywhere, as if scores of birds were beginning to tune up for a concert. Mary put her hand out of the window and held it in the sun.

“It’s warm—warm!” she said. “It will make the green points push up and up and up, and it will make the bulbs and roots work and struggle with all their might under the earth.”

She kneeled down and leaned out of the window as far as she could, breathing big breaths and sniffing the air until she laughed because she remembered what Dickon’s mother had said about the end of his nose quivering like a rabbit’s.

“It must be very early,” she said. “The little clouds are all pink and I’ve never seen the sky look like this. No one is up. I don’t even hear the stable boys.”

A sudden thought made her scramble to her feet.

“I can’t wait! I am going to see the garden!”

From ‘The Secret Garden’ by Frances Hodgson Burnett

* * * * * * *

 ‘East Window of King’s College Chapel, Cambridge’ by Joseph Murray Ince 

* * * * * * *

Strangely, the cathedral is empty: not a tourist, not a priest, not a parishioner in sight. Suddenly, the place is his. We walk around at first, then he halts in his tracks. ‘Sit down, Catherine! No, not there … directly on the floor. You have to feel Chartres.’ I settle at his feet while he sits on a low velvet prayer stool, his hands on my shoulders. My bottom becomes icy and soon my legs are quite numb too, but only a part of me notices. ‘See that big round window? It’s called la rosace bleue. Do you know what stained-glass windows are made of?’

He takes a deep breath. He could be at the seaside.

‘They were made of precious stones, feathers, liqueur, twigs, women’s milk and birds’ blood. The secret is lost; nobody knows how to make them quite the same today. They have tried, of course, but it just doesn’t work.’

The enormous stone walls surrounding us have closed off the rest of the world. It just isn’t there anymore.

‘Listen to the music of the stained-glass windows, Catherine.’

We could be near a creek in a forest. Whenever we find one, Alexandre always has me kneel to drink its freezing water. In the same way, we listen to the fine-edged vibration of crazy blue, blood red, emerald green, bird’s-beak yellow.

‘The stained-glass windows, little one, create a luminous slope of light. Whatever the time of day, from dawn to dusk, the same dim glow is maintained within the church, whether it be bright sunshine or rain. That’s the stained-glass windows’ secret. Right now, they are sifting the bright afternoon glitter in the same way they will sift the pale light of dawn.’

From ‘Poum and Alexandre: A Paris Memoir’ by Catherine de Saint Phalle

* * * * * * *

Artwork by Edna Eicke

* * * * * * *

Lucy was nervous, and said what first came into her head, and had been saying things of this nature the whole journey down. She didn’t want to, she knew he didn’t like it, but she couldn’t stop.

They had just arrived, and were standing on the front steps while the servants unloaded the fly that had brought them from the station, and Wemyss was pointing out what he wished her to look at and admire from that raised-up place before taking her indoors. Lucy was glad of any excuse that delayed going indoors, that kept her on the west side of the house, furthest away from the terrace and the library window. Indoors would be the rooms, the unaltered rooms, the library past whose window…, the sitting-room at the top of the house out of whose window…, the bedroom she was going to sleep in with the very bed…. It was too miserably absurd, too unbalanced of her for anything but shame and self-contempt, how she couldn’t get away from the feeling that indoors waiting for her would be Vera.

From ‘Vera’ by Elizabeth Von Arnim

* * * * * * *

‘The Studio’ by Frederick Cuming RA

* * * * * * *

Her new Saratoga trunk stood solid and gleaming in the firelight. To-morrow it would be taken away and she would be gone. The room would be altogether Harriett’s. It would never have its old look again. She evaded the thought and moved clumsily to the nearest window. The outline of the round bed and the shapes of the may-trees on either side of the bend of the drive were just visible. There was no escape for her thoughts in this direction. The sense of all she was leaving stirred uncontrollably as she stood looking down into the well-known garden.

Out in the road beyond the invisible lime-trees came the rumble of wheels. The gate creaked and the wheels crunched up the drive, slurring and stopping under the dining-room window.

It was the Thursday afternoon piano-organ, the one that was always in tune. It was early to-day.

She drew back from the window as the bass chords began thumping gently in the darkness. It was better that it should come now than later on, at dinner-time. She could get over it alone up here.

She went down the length of the room and knelt by the fireside with one hand on the mantel-shelf so that she could get up noiselessly and be lighting the gas if anyone came in.

The organ was playing “The Wearin’ o’ the Green.”

It had begun that tune during the last term at school, in the summer. It made her think of rounders in the hot school garden, singing-classes in the large green room, all the class shouting “Gather roses while ye may,” hot afternoons in the shady north room, the sound of turning pages, the hum of the garden beyond the sun-blinds, meetings in the sixth form study…. Lilla, with her black hair and the specks of bright amber in the brown of her eyes, talking about free-will.

She stirred the fire. The windows were quite dark. The flames shot up and shadows darted.

That summer, which still seemed near to her, was going to fade and desert her, leaving nothing behind. To-morrow it would belong to a world which would go on without her, taking no heed. There would still be blissful days. But she would not be in them.

From ‘Pointed Roofs’ by Dorothy Richardson

* * * * * * *

‘A Window in St John’s Wood’ by Harold Knight

* * * * * * *

The Murrays at Deuchar held out, and no one troubled unduly with them; but Catslack was a Scott stronghold and they burned that, though the man Andrew Kerr who had stopped to rummage at Tinnis came spluttering up with a parcel of relations to complain that the assault party had made away with a Kerr.

‘My dear friend.’ William Grey, thirteenth Baron of Wilton, had been fighting in Scotland for months and disliked the country, the climate and the natives, particularly those disaffected with whom he had to converse. ‘You are mistaken. Every man in this tower wore Scott livery.’

‘It wasna a man,’ said Andrew Kerr broadly. ‘T’was my aunty. I tellt ye. I’m no risking cauld steel in ma wame for a pittance, unless all that’s mine is well lookit after –’

‘An old lady,’ said Lord Grey with forbearance, ‘in curling papers and a palatial absence of teeth?’

‘My aunt Lizzie!’ said Andrew Kerr.

‘She has just,’ said Lord Grey austerely, ‘seriously injured one of my men.’

‘How?’ The old savage looked interested.

‘From an upper window. The castle was burning, and he was climbing a ladder to offer the lady her freedom. She cracked his head with a chamberpot,’ said Lord Grey distastefully, ‘and retired crying that she would have no need of a jurden in Heaven, as the good Lord had no doubt thought of more convenient methods after the seventh day, when He had had a good rest.’

From ‘The Disorderly Knights’ by Dorothy Dunnett

* * * * * * *

‘The Future’ by Madeleine Green

* * * * * * *

She’s staring out to sea now. My young wife. There she stands on the barren beach, all wrapped up in her long green coat, among the scuttle and clutter of pebbles and crabs. She stares out as the water nears her feet and draws back, and when that soft and insistent suck of the tide gets close enough to slurp at her toes she shuffles herself up the shore. Soon the beach will be reduced to a strip of narrow sand and she will be forced to retreat to the rocks; and then, I think, she’ll come back to me. In the meantime, I watch from the window, as she stares out to sea.

From ‘Orkney by Amy Sackville

* * * * * * *

‘La Cathédrale – Marc Chalmé’

* * * * * * *

Children have the strangest adventures without being troubled by them. For instance, they may remember to mention, a week after the event happened, that when they were in the wood they had met their dead father and had a game with him. It was in this casual way that Wendy one morning made a disquieting revelation. Some leaves of a tree had been found on the nursery floor, which certainly were not there when the children went to bed, and Mrs. Darling was puzzling over them when Wendy said with a tolerant smile:

“I do believe it is that Peter again!”

“Whatever do you mean, Wendy?”

“It is so naughty of him not to wipe his feet,” Wendy said, sighing. She was a tidy child.

She explained in quite a matter-of-fact way that she thought Peter sometimes came to the nursery in the night and sat on the foot of her bed and played on his pipes to her. Unfortunately she never woke, so she didn’t know how she knew, she just knew.

“What nonsense you talk, precious. No one can get into the house without knocking.”

“I think he comes in by the window,” she said.

“My love, it is three floors up.”

“Were not the leaves at the foot of the window, mother?”

It was quite true; the leaves had been found very near the window.

Mrs. Darling did not know what to think, for it all seemed so natural to Wendy that you could not dismiss it by saying she had been dreaming.

“My child,” the mother cried, “why did you not tell me of this before?”

“I forgot,” said Wendy lightly. She was in a hurry to get her breakfast.

Oh, surely she must have been dreaming.

But, on the other hand, there were the leaves. Mrs. Darling examined them very carefully; they were skeleton leaves, but she was sure they did not come from any tree that grew in England. She crawled about the floor, peering at it with a candle for marks of a strange foot. She rattled the poker up the chimney and tapped the walls. She let down a tape from the window to the pavement, and it was a sheer drop of thirty feet, without so much as a spout to climb up by.

Certainly Wendy had been dreaming.

From ‘Peter Pan’ by J. M. Barrie

* * * * * * *

‘Lumière’ by Franz van Holder

* * * * * * *