A Long Time Ago by Margaret Kennedy (1932)

I was delighted when it was finally Margaret Kennedy’s turn to be LibraryThing Virago Group Author of the Month, and I knew that it was time to pick up one of only three of her novels that I had left to read for the first time.

I could visit a house party in Ireland, I could holiday on a Greek island, or I could travel back in time to Regency England.

I chose the house party; and I loved it, both for its own sake and for where it sits in Margaret Kennedy’s writing history.

The story opens quarter of century after that house party, when Ellen Napier has been a widow for seven years. She keeps busy, she is a good friend to many and a proud and loving mother, but there are still moments when she forgets that her beloved husband is gone, and she is still completely at a loss without him.

Her daughter, Hope, is thirty-six, and she has just discovered that her father was unfaithful, that he had left the house party that she remembered as a wonderfully happy chapter in her childhood, with a lover. She had known that Elissa Koebel, one of the greatest and most famous singers of her age, had visited that summer but, until she read Miss Kobel’s newly published and terribly indiscreet autobiography, she had no idea that anything had happened between the celebrated guest and her father.

She couldn’t understand what her father had done, or why her mother seemed to have accepted it.

Was Ellen a gullible fool, or did she make a decision to fool herself?

Hope’s uncle told her that the family had been divided over what happened, that none of them could really explain, but they all agreed that the most important thing was to protect Ellen from gossip and scandal.

He gave her a cache of letters written during that summer by the various family members to their own mother, discussing the situation (and each other) and writing things that they would never have said aloud to each other. He hoped that they would help her to understand what happened.

Ellen’s sister, Louise, had been the instigator. She was rather bored with her marriage to an Oxford Don, she suspected that he was unfaithful; she wanted something to happen but she didn’t want to rock the boat too much. She suggested that their siblings and their husbands and wives pool their resources and rented a castle in Ireland.

Louise imagined herself a heroine in novel, and she found a great deal more drama than she had expected swirling around her.

At first Louise was overjoyed at first to have a great singer for a neighbour, at being able to turn her into a friend. Things changed when, rather than gravitating towards one of the single men in the company, she set her sights at Dick, her sister’s husband. Louise decided that Elissa was an enemy, she tried to freeze her out, but the other said that wasn’t the right thing to do, that she should leave things alone.

Dick was tired, he had been a latecomer to the party as he had professional commitments and he had worries that he couldn’t quite shake. His wife’s cool, calm understanding wasn’t what he wanted, and that made him susceptible to Elissa’s charms, and it made the prospect of escaping from the family group rather appealing …

Margaret Kennedy drew her characters and their family dynamics wonderfully well. There were three marriages, they had different strengths and weaknesses, and I loved the way she studied them and set them against each other.

I knew these people, not well but I knew them. I understood where they came from, what made them, and I never doubted that they lived and breathed.

This is the first of her novels that plays with structure, rather than telling a story from beginning to end. There is a section set in the present, a longer section set in the past, with shifting perspectives. There is also a chapter – the critical chapter – from Elissa Koebel’s memoir, and there are a number of family letters too. Margaret Kennedy is a wonderful writer of letters, and I am sure that she had a wonderful time creating the purple prose of the spoiled and selfish singer.

The shifting perspectives show that all of the family saw things rather differently, that none of them saw the whole picture, and that their memories might well be unreliable, prejudiced by opinions about things that couldn’t really know.

The story is more understated, its attractions less obvious, when I compare it with Margaret Kennedy’s other novels; but the writing is lovely and I was always intrigued.

She would explore similar ideas and use some of the same techniques in her next book ‘Together and Apart.’

The two books are quite different, but I see a progression.

Ellen is the most intriguing, and the most likeable character in this book. It begins with her and ends with her, its final line explaining quite beautifully why her marriage had endured after what happened a long time ago.

Barchester Towers by Anthony Trollope (1857)

The first time I started reading ‘Barchester Towers’ it failed to capture me, and to I put the book to one side. When I came back to it  later, having not read any Trollope for quite some time and rather missing him, I was smitten. And I think that proves that even the greatest authors, even favourite novelists, need to be matched to your reading mood!

This story begins not long after  the end of the story told in ‘The Warden’ ends; at a time when much remains the same, but some changes have happened and more changes are to come.

Hiram’s Hospital is still without a warden, Eleanor Bold has been widowed and has a baby son, and Bishop Grantly is on his deathbed, watched over by his son, the Archdeacon Grantly, and his old and dear friend, Mr Harding.

The Archdeacon loves and respects his father, and he is also a pragmatic and practical man whose dearest wish is to succeed to the bishopric. He knows though that the government that would see him as the man for the job is on the point of collapse, and that the government likely to replace it would have rather different views.

The government fell on the same day that Archbishop left this life, and so a very new regime swept into the bishop’s palace. Dr Proudie was the new bishop, and he brought with him his formidable wife, Mrs Proudie, and a social climbing, conniving chaplain named Obidiah Slope.

barchester-towersThey were wonderfully vividly drawn characters, the kind that you probably wouldn’t want to met in real life but are gloriously entertaining in the pages of a book.

I was particularly taken with Mrs Proudie, who ably managed not only her household but every single matter in the diocese that might affect her husband, much to the chagrin of the longer standing clergy.

And I can’t help thinking that in a different age – and in the hands of a different author – she might have been a feminist icon!

The new regime is completely at odds with the old guards, and so a civil war began between Grantlyite and Proudieite forces – and between high and low church.

That drew more characters into the story.

Several members of clergy are called back to their religious duties in Barchester.

Dr Stanhope has to return from the idyllic shores of Lake Como to take up his duties in his parish. The Stanhope family add colour to Barchester, particularly his daughter Madeleine, who lost her mobility to an accident – or maybe to her estranged husband’s brutality, but has risen above that to present herself as a beautiful and seductive signora; and her brother, Bertie, who was charming and full of ideas about what he might do but too indolent to do anything but seek a wealthy bride.

The Stanhopes were wonderfully colourful, but I couldn’t quite believe in them as I did almost every other character.

Mr Arabin was called away from the ivory towers of academia by Dr Grantly, who was eager to draw more clergy who shared his views into the diocese.

I liked him, but it was a little too obvious what part he was going to play in the plot.

With all of his characters on the stage Trollope was ready to unfurl his plot, and to answer the questions he had thrown into the air:

  • Who would be the new warden?
  • Who would Eleanor Bold marry?
  • Which party – Grantlyite or Proudieite – would win the day?

So many wonderful scenes came tumbling down, one after another, as Trollope set about answering those questions and arranging all of his characters’ lives until everything was exactly as it should be.

There were so many wonderful moments, so many perfect details.

The author reassured his readers – as he so often does – that everything would be alright, but still I was anxious because  I couldn’t see quite how it would, and because I was so very involved with this world and the people who lived there.

I have a few reservations, a few reasons why this isn’t my favourite Trollope. There were a few times when characters were compromised for the sake of the plot, some of the naming of characters lacked subtlety, and I think I will always be fonder of Trollope’s drama than his comedy.

I found so much to love though; more than enough – much more than enough – to say that I had a lovely time in this book and that I am looking forward to working my way through the rest of the Barsetshire novels.

Most of all I love the way Trollope can more from comedy like this …

“Take care, Madeline,” said he, and turning to the fat rector, added, “Just help me with a slight push.”

The rector’s weight was resting on the sofa and unwittingly lent all its impetus to accelerate and increase the motion which Bertie intentionally originated. The sofa rushed from its moorings and ran half-way into the middle of the room. Mrs. Proudie was standing with Mr. Slope in front of the signora, and had been trying to be condescending and sociable; but she was not in the very best of tempers, for she found that, whenever she spoke to the lady, the lady replied by speaking to Mr. Slope. Mr. Slope was a favourite, no doubt, but Mrs. Proudie had no idea of being less thought of than the chaplain. She was beginning to be stately, stiff, and offended, when unfortunately the castor of the sofa caught itself in her lace train, and carried away there is no saying how much of her garniture. Gathers were heard to go, stitches to crack, plaits to fly open, flounces were seen to fall, and breadths to expose themselves; a long ruin of rent lace disfigured the carpet, and still clung to the vile wheel on which the sofa moved.

So, when a granite battery is raised, excellent to the eyes of warfaring men, is its strength and symmetry admired. It is the work of years. Its neat embrasures, its finished parapets, its casemated stories show all the skill of modern science. But, anon, a small spark is applied to the treacherous fusee—a cloud of dust arises to the heavens—and then nothing is to be seen but dirt and dust and ugly fragments.

We know what was the wrath of Juno when her beauty was despised. We know to what storms of passion even celestial minds can yield. As Juno may have looked at Paris on Mount Ida, so did Mrs. Proudie look on Ethelbert Stanhope when he pushed the leg of the sofa into her lace train.”

… to such wonderful emotion like this …

“The bishop had one small room allotted to him on the ground-floor, and Mr. Slope had another. Into this latter Mr. Harding was shown and asked to sit down. Mr. Slope was not yet there. The ex-warden stood up at the window looking into the garden, and could not help thinking how very short a time had passed since the whole of that house had been open to him, as though he had been a child of the family, born and bred in it. He remembered how the old servants used to smile as they opened the door to him; how the familiar butler would say, when he had been absent a few hours longer than usual, “A sight of you, Mr. Harding, is good for sore eyes;” how the fussy housekeeper would swear that he couldn’t have dined, or couldn’t have breakfasted, or couldn’t have lunched. And then, above all, he remembered the pleasant gleam of inward satisfaction which always spread itself over the old bishop’s face whenever his friend entered his room.

A tear came into each eye as he reflected that all this was gone. What use would the hospital be to him now? He was alone in the world, and getting old; he would soon, very soon have to go and leave it all, as his dear old friend had gone; go, and leave the hospital, and his accustomed place in the cathedral, and his haunts and pleasures, to younger and perhaps wiser men. That chanting of his! Perhaps, in truth, the time for it was gone by. He felt as though the world were sinking from his feet; as though this, this was the time for him to turn with confidence to those hopes which he had preached with confidence to others. “What,” said he to himself, “can a man’s religion be worth if it does not support him against the natural melancholy of declining years?” And as he looked out through his dimmed eyes into the bright parterres of the bishop’s garden, he felt that he had the support which he wanted.”

… in the space of just pages.

You have to cherish an author who can do that, who can do both of those things so well, don’t you?

A Suspension of Mercy by Patricia Highsmith (1972)

I hadn’t read Patricia Highsmith for years, but when she was added to the Virago list I realised that there was more to her backlist than I had realised, and that it really was time I did a little more reading.

This book was the one that caught my eye in the library catalogue  – I liked the cover and I liked the title – and now that I’ve read it I have to say that it isn’t her best work but it was a lovely reminder of how good, how dark and how intriguing she can be.

Sidney Smith Bartleby is an American writer who has been blessed – or maybe cursed – with an exceptionally active imagination, and yet he has found little success

He married an English girl after a very short acquaintance, because he didn’t want her to go home without him, and so he went home with her. They settled in a remote cottage in Suffolk, with the idea in mind that the quiet countryside would be the perfect place for them to develop their artistic talents and their respective careers.

Neither the marriage nor the new home could be considered a success.

Alicia spends her time painting without any concern about where money is going to come from or any need to think about selling her work. She is the much loved only child of wealthy parents, they made a substantial contribution towards the purchase of the cottage, and she has a small private income at her disposal.

She was unimpressed by Sydney’s failure to find a publisher for his new novel, and she didn’t believe that the screenplays he wrote with a collaborator, Alex who had a steady income from a London publishing job, would be any more successful.

The whole situation was unhappy. Her waspishness and his uneven temper, isolation broken only when friends from London visited, a lack of anything much to do at other times, had left their marriage close to breaking point.

Sydney and Alicia were both rather pleased when Mrs Lilybanks, an elderly widow with a heart condition, moved into the only nearby house that had stood empty for quite some time. The new neighbours got on very well, but it wasn’t long before Mrs Lilybanks realised that the Bartlebys weren’t at all happy with each other.

Alicia coped by taking short holidays without her husband, and it wasn’t long until the day came when she didn’t come back.

Sydney wasn’t too worried because it gave him more time to work on his novel and he was working on ideas for a new televison crime drama that both he and Alex thought was a sure fire success.

His ideas for new episodes of his crime series began to get mixed up with his fantasies of killing his wife, and the line between fact and fiction began to blur.

‘Sometimes he plotted the murders, the robbery, the blackmail of people he and Alicia knew, though the people themselves knew nothing about it. Alex had died five times at least in Sydney’s imagination. Alicia twenty times. She had died in a burning car, in a wrecked car, in the woods throttled by person or persons unknown, died falling down the stairs at home, drowned in her bath, died falling out the upstairs window while trying to rescue a bird in the eaves drain, died from poisoning that would leave no trace. But the best way for him, was her dying by a blow in the house, and he removed her somewhere in the car, buried her somewhere, then told everyone that she had gone away for a few days, maybe to Brighton, maybe to London.’

Sydney recorded some of his murderous ideas in his journal, and he even bought a new rug so that he could use the old one to test his plan for secretly burying the body!

It was unlucky that Mrs Lilybanks was looking out of her window on the evening that Sidney decided to put his theory to the test

It was understandable that when Sidney couldn’t say where his wife had gone and when she didn’t receive the letter that Alicia had promised she felt that something must be terribly wrong and she should raise the alarm.

It was extremely unfortunate that her poor, weak heart was put under so much strain …

Sidney didn’t notice, because his crime series had been commissioned and he was completely caught up in scenarios that were becoming more and more elaborate and fantastical.

The set-up of this story was so good. The writing was clear and lucid, the plot was cleverly constructed, and I wasn’t quite sure what was real and what was fantasy, or just where the story might be going.

When Patricia Highsmith revealed a little more of Alicia’s story the book lost something. I wasn’t convinced that she would have acted as she did, unless there was an awful lot of backstory that hadn’t been told; and I wasn’t convinced that, faced with a murder charge, Sydney would have acted as he did, however caught up in his writing he was.

The interesting characters I had met began to seem more like plot devices.

The different responses of Mrs Lilybanks and Alex rang true, and so did the way that the net began to close around Sidney.

The plot moved inexorably on, I had to keep turning the pages, until I reached a startling ending that made me think again about what had gone before.

There was three-quarters of a really good book here; not Patricia Highsmith at her best, but more than enough to remind we of how very good she can be and make me want to read more of her work.

Love by Elizabeth Von Arnim (1925)

I remember, many years ago, falling in love with Elizabeth Von Arnim’s writing as I read every one of her books that Virago republished. Back then I read library copies, and years later I started to collect her books for my own library, secure in the knowledge that I could happily read them over and over again.

‘Love’ was one of the most elusive titles, and even though many of the details had slipped my mind I remembered that it was a particular favourite, that it had an especially striking cover, and so I was delighted when I finally found a copy to keep.

This is the story of a romance between a young man and a somewhat older lady, and I on the second time of reading my love for the story grew and grew.

The young man is Christopher, who works in an office and shares a London flat with a friend. His favourite pastime is visiting the theatre, and there is one play he loves above all others and goes to see many, many times. He comes to realise that there is a lady who must love the play as much as he does, because he sees her there often; and one day, when they are sitting on the same row, Christopher broaches a conversation.

8b8ccc28a2f44a1593544615651444341587343The lady is charmed, and the pair talk about the play and about many other things, but Christopher finds that she is reticent when it comes to talking about herself. All he learns is that she is Mrs. Catherine Cumfrit, and that she is a widow. He wishes she would say a little more, and that he could get to know her rather better.

When the perspective shifts it is easy to understand why Catherine is reticent. She had married a sensible, reliable man who was significantly older than her, and she had been a widow for a few years. He had been concerned that she might fall prey to fortune hunters when he was gone, and so he left his estate and his fortune to his daughter and just a small income to his wife.

His concern had been well-intentioned, but it had consequences that he hadn’t considered. He left his estate and his fortune to their daughter, rather than to Catherine herself, because he was anxious that Catherine might be taken advantage of by a fortune hunter. Catherine’s daughter, Virginia, had married at the age of eighteen; and that left Catherine in a rather uncomfortable position in the where she had once been mistress. She saw that her daughter was blissfully happy with the older clergyman who said that she made him feel young again, and she realised that it was time she found a new home of her own.

Her small income allowed Catherine to live modestly in a flat in London, with one servant to look after her. She missed her home, she missed the countryside, she missed having money to buy new things, but she told herself that she had to come to terms with a new way of life.

When Christopher came into her life, Catherine was flattered by his attentions, and she began to think that maybe she wouldn’t be a widow for the rest of her life. She was anxious though, because she knew that Christopher hadn’t really thought about how much older that him she was, and what the consequences of that might be. Not knowing quite what to do, she decided to escape to the country for a little while.

The household staff were delighted when Katherine arrived with two trunks, but Virginia and her husband, Stephen, were rather alarmed by the prospect of a long visit. They were too polite to say so, but their behaviour made their feelings clear, and Katherine was appalled to find herself considered of an age with Stephen’s mother when she was in fact a little younger than Stephen.

They completely forgot that Katherine had been mistress of the house for more than twenty years, until just a few months ago; and they didn’t give a thought to how she might feel. They were completely wrapped up in their own love story, and they were oblivious to anything else.

Katherine couldn’t explain why she had come to stay, and she began to realise that she was an unwelcome quest.

Then Christopher – unwilling to give up his pursuit – arrived with on his motorbike, with a sidecar to carry her back to London. Katherine was delighted, her family were scandalised, and the trip back to London put the relationship between the pair onto a new footing.

They married.

There would be drama in London as Katherine tried to keep up with her young husband and to be the kind of wife she thought he would want; and there would be drama in the country when the time came for Virginia’s first child to be born.

Would the relationship between come through the approbation of friends, family and society, AND all of that?

The answer wouldn’t come until the last pages, and I flew through the book until I got there, because I was so caught up with the characters and their stories. Those characters and their relationships are so well drawn; and there are many lovely reminders that love is blind, and that it can make us blind.

The juxtaposition of two relationships with age gap – one considered quite normal by society and one not – is particularly well done.

The plot is so cleverly constructed, balancing expected and unexpected developments, confirming some assumptions and overturning others, changing some things and leaving others just as they were. There are big questions and small questions to ponder, wrapped up in a wonderfully engaging story.

Best of all is the narrative voice. It has the warm, wry wit that is so typical of Elizabeth Von Arnim, and also has things it wants to say and points that it wants to make. I wasn’t at all surprised at all to learn that the author was inspired by a relationship of her own with a much younger man.

She really was inspired, and I really think that ‘Love’ is a marvellous novel.

A Book for Women in Translation Month: The Farm in the Green Mountains by Alice Herdan-Zuckmayer

A long heading, because this is a book with a lovely descriptive title, written by an author with a long name; and because I have to highlight was by a woman in translation because I had no idea that it was when I first caught sight of it and decided that I really wanted to read it.

This book is based on letters that the German author sent home from America during the World War II, and that when she went home after the war she re-worked for a newspaper column. Not long after that they were collected in book form, and some years later they were translated and an English language edition of the book was published.

(I love the translation by Ida H Washington and Carol E Washington, and the clever way they used English that was perfectly correct but not quite the way a native speaker would speak.)

Alice and Carl Zuckmayer, and their two daughters left Germany at the start of World War II.  Zuck was a playwright,  his most recent play had satirised the militarisation of Germany, and the couple were concerned that the authorities were taking the satire very seriously.  They moved to Austria, then to Switzerland, before finally deciding to settle in the USA.

30805220This book is an account of the years they spent living in an eighteenth-century farmhouse in the Vermont countryside.

It is clear that Alice – I call her Alice because I feel that I know her very well after reading her book – did a great deal of reworking of her material. The book had a beginning and an ending, there is some progression, but most of the chapters are written around a particular theme rather than a particular period of time; and it is clear that she has thought back over her years in America, adding more memories and more consideration of what she has to say.

Alice fell in love with her new home at first sight.

‘There were mountains wooded with firs, spruce, pine, beech, birch, elm and maple trees. In the woods there were weasels, marteens and foxes. It was a landscape that resembled the one at home even in details, and yet it was totally unfamiliar and foreign. It was as if we had come onto an enchanted, bewitched wood in which every shape had been transformed, over which even the moon hung in a different corner.

The farmhouse was run down, but the landlord was pleased to have tenants and organised all of the work needed to make it habitable. Then Alice and Zuck had to work out how best to support themselves, and after a thorough investigation of the possibilities open to them they decided that their best option was to become poultry farmers.

They took that very seriously, they clearly worked very hard, and they came to love what they were doing. The chapters about the farm birds are wonderful, they recognised that those birds had their own distinctive characters and their own society, and that makes the chapters that stories about them a joy to read.

They were practical and thoughtful – they worked out how to help sick birds logically and scientifically – but they were unsentimental and they didn’t lose sight of the fact that they were farmers – only birds that were not destined for slaughter would be given names.

Alice was very impressed by the USA.

‘It is a new world, and everything that happened in the old one is forgotten and not chalked up against on you the big board of the new world, but it isn’t written up to your credit either. It is called starting from the beginning. “To start all over again,” is one of the most meaningful sayings which America has produced … ‘

You see, she really thinks about things!

She devotes a whole chapter to the USDA, which she describes as ‘this powerful support system, this unique institution’, she appreciates the community around her, and it is clear that she thinks of the farmhouse not as a temporary refuge but as a proper home.

I loved her voice; it was warm and witty. I loved her thoughtfulness and her practicality; her readiness to work hard and her readiness to enjoy whatever life in America could offer her.

‘Great tree trunks stand in front of the town hall, driven a yard deep in the earth, and powerful lumberjacks stand by the trees and wait for the signal to compete in felling the trees with their axes. Blow follows blow until one tree after another falls …

Then it is the women’s turn. A piece of tree trunk too big to fit in the highest and widest fireplace must be cut through with a two-person saw. Now our Miss Perkins walks on to the scene, seventy-nine years old, and saws with Miss Patenaude, who is only seventy-six years old. And while they are sawing, precisely and powerfully, you catch a vision of the age of the pioneers. When they win and receive the first prize, you realise why women in America are not inferior to men. What wonderful things are the American celebrations.’

The book is firmly focused on the couple’s life and farm. Their daughters are only mentioned in passing, America coming into the war is only referenced because they have to register with the authorities, and when Alice mentions that a former farm hand who has come from the war in Japan considerably changed she doesn’t stop to wonder why.

I loved the chapter about the telephone – a party line shared with eight other households!

‘With the telephone we could find out how out neighbours were living, what they were thinking, when they were doing laundry, what was happening to them; from their voices we could tell if they were sad and out-of-sorts or happy and optimistic.’

I adored the chapter about the library – Alice’s love of the place, of books, of learning really shines – but I can’t quote it because it works so very well as a whole.

The book doesn’t end with a war.

Germany will always be home, but returning is difficult.

‘We found enemies again, too. They were unchanged. A few had been destroyed. Others sit behind bars. Many have assumed straight-jackets of de-nazification to convince people that they are normal again, but they are just waiting for a new era of insanity, when crimes will again be legally permitted and the mentally ill will again achieve power and honour.’

A return to Vermont stirs happy memories and brings reunion with friends and neighbours, but the couple has the wisdom to know that they have to move on. The world – and their old neighbourhood – is changing and the passing of the years means that they couldn’t put in the work that the farm needed and do the other things that they wanted to do.

I am so glad that Alice wrote those letters home, that she re-worked them, and that they were compiled and translated so that I could read this lovely book.

In a Summer Season by Elizabeth Taylor (1961)

Elizabeth Taylor wrote wrote beautiful, subtle human dramas with such lovely clarity. The stories that she told were wonderfully insightful about people and their relationships; and they reward close reading because she had such a wonderful eye and ear and because she was so very good at making every detail exactly right – and worthy of notice.

This  novel – her eighth – is about love. It shows different kinds of love, it shows how love can change; and it shows how love affects one family and the people around them, and how it changes them and their lives, over the course of one summer season.

Kate was a young widow and she has recently married for the second time. Her new husband, Dermot, has tried a number of careers without ever finding the right one. He isn’t particularly driven, but he wants to do something, to play the role that he feels he should be playing.

Kate and Dermot are happy together as a couple.

‘Separated from their everyday life, as if in a dream or on a honeymoon, Kate and Dermot were under the spell of the gentle weather and blossoming countryside. They slept in bedrooms like corners of auction rooms stacked with old fashioned furniture, they made love in hummocky beds, and gave rise to much conjecture in bar parlours where that sat drinking alone, not talking much, though clearly intent on each other.’

Family life though, brings complications

Dermot has a good relationship with Kate’s son, Tom, who is working his way up in his grandfather’s business and having fun with a string of girlfriends; but he struggles with Kate’s daughter, Lou, who is back from boarding school for the holidays and hates that somebody else is taking her father’s place and making her mother the subject of gossip.

Kate is fully aware of Dermot’s weaknesses, but she accepts them, and tells herself that they can be – they will be happy.

But it becomes clear that their marriage has fault lines.

‘On the way home they quarreled – or, rather, she listened to Dermot quarreling with an imaginary Kate, who supplied him with imaginary retorts, against which he was able to build up his indignation. Then, when they were nearly home, he began to punish himself, and Kate realised that the more he basked in blame, the more it would turn out to be all hers; her friends, for close friends of hers they would become, would seem to have lined up to aggravate him, and her silence would be held to account for his lack of it.’

Dermot doesn’t share many of the interests and attitudes of Kate and her friends; he feels inferior, he resents that, and he resents that he can’t quite establish himself in the position he wants.

This becomes clear over the course of the summer.

In the first act of this two act drama family life simply plays out. Lou is drawn to the young local curate and she spends her summer caught up with parish affairs and events. Kate’s Aunt Ethel, who lives with the family is caught up with her own concerns, but she is worried about the family and she quietly does what she can for them.

In the second act Kate prepares for the return home of her best friend’s widower Charles and his daughter Araminta. They have been away since his wife died, they have never met Dermot, and Kate worries that the presence of an old friend, with so much shared history and so many common interests will unsettle him.

‘They were walking in circles around each other, Kate thought – both Dermot and Charles. When she had introduced them, Dermot had shaken hands with an air of boyish respect, almost adding ‘Sir’ to his greeting, and Charles seemed to try and avoid looking at him or showing more than ordinary interest. Although he had not met him before, even as far away as Bahrain he had heard stories, and Kate, writing to tell him of her marriage, had done so in a defensive strain, as if an explanation were due and she could think of no very good one.’

She is right, and, quite unwittingly, Tom and Araminta, upset the precarious balance of Kate’s family. Tom is fascinated by Araminta, an aspiring model, who is beautiful, cool and distant; the first girl he wants but cannot win. And the return of her own friend unsettles Kate as well as Dermot.

There is little plot here, but the characters and the relationships are so well drawn that it really doesn’t matter.

The minor characters are particularly well drawn. I was particularly taken with Ethel, a former suffragette who wrote gossipy letters to her old friend in Cornwall but also had a practical and unsentimental concern for family; with Dermot’s mother, Edwina, who tried to push her son forward and was inclined to blame Kate for his failings; and with the cook, Mrs Meacock, who experimented with American food and was compiling a book.

They brought a different aspects to the story, as did Lou’s involvement with the curate.

There are so many emotions here, including some wonderful moments of humour that are beautifully mixed into the story.

‘Love was turning Tom hostile to every one person but one. They all affronted him by cluttering up the earth, by impinging on his thoughts, He tried to drive them away from his secret by rudeness and he reminded Ethel of an old goose she had once had who protected her nest with such hissings, such clumsy ferocity, that she claimed the attention of even the unconcerned.’

I believed in these people and their relationships; they all lived and breathed, and Elizabeth Taylor told all of their stories so very well.

The summer is perfectly evoked, and this book is very well rooted in its particular time and place.

I loved the first act of this book, when I read that I thought that this might become my favourite of Elizabeth Taylor’s books, but I loved the second act a little less. It felt just a little bit predictable, a little bit like something I’ve read before and I couldn’t help wondering if the  dénouement came from a need to do something to end the story rather than simply being a natural end.

It was love though, and I can explain away all my concerns by telling myself that stories do repeat in different lives and that lives often take unexpected turns, and can be changed by events that are quite unexpected.

I’m glad that I finally picked this book up, and that I have other books by Elizabeth Taylor to read and to re-read.

Cousin Rosamund by Rebecca West (1985)

Cousin Rosamund’ is the final, incomplete book of a series that was to tell the story of a century through the story of the lives of the Aubrey family and their circle.

The first book, The Fountain Overflows was published in 1956; the second book, This Real Night, was published in 1984, a year after the author’s death; and then this book was published, with notes suggesting what might have followed.

This book, reckoned to be two-thirds complete by Victoria Glendinning, who wrote the afterword, is less polished than the books came before, and it doesn’t stand up well as a book on its own, but I was drawn in by a wonderfully familiar narrative voice and I was intrigued by the way that the story evolved.

It has moved into a new milieu and a new age, and the covers of the Virago Modern Classics editions of these books reflect the way that this story of a century has developed and changed rather well.

Collages

Twin sisters Rose – who tells the story – and Mary have successful careers as concert pianists, but they are struggling to come to terms with the loss of their mother and of their much loved younger brother, Richard Quin.

They have the support of family friends.

Mr Morpugo, who had employed their father and had always been happier with their family than with his own, had helped them to let the family home and found them a lovely new home in St John’s Wood. They recognised that it was the right thing to do, but they vowed to make it as much like south London as they could. Bringing Kate, their much loved family retainer with them, helped a great deal.

Their much-loved cousin Rosamund had achieved her long-held ambition to become a nurse and is sharing a flat with her mother a few miles away. Rose and Mary were sorry not to have Rosamund with them, but they understood that she had to live close to her work, and they appreciated that she wanted to support her mother, who had not had the easiest life.

The Dog and Duck, on the banks of the river Thames, run by old family friends, continued to be a refuge. It showed them a world utterly different from the artistic and domestic worlds they knew, and they had always loved it.

They weren’t just coping with grief; they were coping with their careers not being what they hoped they would be. They loved the playing, they loved the luxuries that success brought them, but they hated the vulgar, social world that they had to move through and they were bitterly disappointed that so few of the people that they met had a real love and understanding of music

The love of their oldest friends sustained Rose and Mary, but they seemed unable to move forward from that, and to form new, adult relationships.

This book follows their painful journey towards emotional and artistic maturity.

They lose their cousin Rosamund, who makes an inexplicable marriage to a man they consider quite beyond the pale, and abandons her career and her mother to travel abroad with him.

They are to some degree reconciled with their elder sister Cordelia, who, after being forced to face the fact that she lacked the emotional understanding of music needed to make it a career, had found happiness as the wife of a successful man.

Many of the things that Rebecca West did so well in the books that came before this one are present again. Her prose is rich and vivid, full of sentences and expressions to treasure. She presents extended scenes and long conversations so very well. Her understanding of her characters emotions and situations is so very good, and I couldn’t doubt for a moment that she was writing about a world and about people that were utterly real and alive for her.

There are weaknesses though. Rosamund’s marriage was as inexplicable to me as it was to Rose and Mary. The return of Miss Beaver, Cordelia’s old music teacher, seemed driven by a wish for all of the past cast to make a reappearance rather than because the story needed her. Though there seemed to be no concern for Rosamund’s mother after her daughter’s departure.

And – though I’m not sure if this is a weakness or just a difference –  Claire – the girls’ mother – and  Richard Quin brought a warmth that I missed in this book. Of course this book had to be different, it explores bereavement and grief,  but it is not as easy to love as the books that came before.

In the end – after a crisis – Rose choses to move forward and allows herself to love, while Mary choses to retreat from the world. That made wonderful sense after the time I have spent with them, and thinking about how they were alike and how they were different

Rose’s story was so beautifully executed, and I wished I could have followed it for a little longer.

‘He came towards me and I became rigid with disgust, it seemed certain that I must die when he touched me, but instead, of course, I lived.’

Mary’s story was much less complete, but it was easy to see where it was going.

The book as a whole needs editing, but just for a little more clarity; the quality of the writing is still there and it is only when it ends that the story feels incomplete.

The afterword includes the author’s notes about the previous volumes, and I loved the insight into the authors themes, ideas and plans that they gave me. It also contains note for a fourth volume that she would never write. Her plan was ambitious, I’m not convinced that she would have pulled them off, but I do wish that she had written that book.

There have been diminishing returns with this series of books, but the staring point was high and the downward slope has been gentle.

I have loved following the story of the Aubrey family, and I will miss them now I have reached the end.

Skylarking by Kate Mildenhall (2016)

This first novel is inspired by the true story of two friends, Kate Gibson and Harriet Parker. They were the daughters of lighthouse keepers, who grew up together, in a small, isolated community on the coast of Australia’s Jervis Bay Territory, late in the 19th century.

Certain facts are public record; the story that underpins those facts is imagined.

I love that this is a story of female friendship, very firmly rooted in a particular time and a place that the author had taken time and trouble to understand. And that it was told in one voice, a voice that always rang true, and that told the story from start to finish, with no shifts in time and no digressions.

The younger of the two girls, Kate, tells her story.

Her world is a small one, and she only really knows the families of the other men who work at the lighthouse with her father. There are a few fishermen who have settled nearby and just about make a living, and there are native people who live a little further away; but there is nobody else. That makes the friendship between the two girls particularly precious.

Kate is bright, bookish, brave, and loves to explore the world around her while she waits to grow up and have the kind of adventures, and see the kind of places, that she has only read about in books. She is eager to explore every bit of the world open to her – cliffs, beaches, grasslands – but her friend lacks her natural agility and confidence, and so she struggles to keep up and occasionally get into difficulties.  Harriet is calm, quiet and much more cautious; and she dreams not of adventure but of a husband, a home and a family of her own.

‘Even though the peppery scent of the scrub on that headland ran through my blood, I knew that there must be other places that would thrill me. And while I hoped that Harriet would be by my side as I ventured off into the great unknown, I knew this was unlikely, Where I had dreams of boats and pirates and coral island adventures, Harriet saw a future of home and hearth …’

The details of their world and their lives are quite beautifully drawn; it is clear that that the author has researched and that she has understood, and she has woven what she learned into the story she in a way that feels completely natural and right. I had a lovely time watching the way the small community worked and all of the domestic details, but, for me, it was when Kate was exploring her world that the story really sang.

I could pick up the sea saltiness in the air, I could feel the breeze; I could see grass and flowers give way to cliffs, and the beach below ; I knew exactly how it felt to move through the world that Kate knew so well.

Although I am on a different coast on the other side of the world it felt so like home, and it brought this painting to mind:

(Amanda Hoskin – View of St Michael’s Mount from the Fields)

A newcomer would unsettle the friendship between the two girls. He was a young fisherman who came closer to the community around the lighthouse then others did. Each girls is drawn to him, but he responds to them and treats them quite differently. Kate is jealous, and Harriet is reluctant to talk.

Then her family sends Harriet  to visit relations in Melbourne, because they want her to meet more people and see other possibilities before she makes any decisions about her future. Kate is thrown into the company of the local boys and younger children, and she misjudges situations and makes mistakes.

Her behaviour is far from laudable, but I recognised her emotions and I understood her actions.

Tension grew, and my head was full of questions about what was happening, what would happen.

There were maybe too many questions, but that was, at least in part, because the facts that this story is spun around are difficult to explain.

I have to say that is a weakness; but I also have to say that all the things she did well in the book – the way she drew me into a world, a community and a story- tell me that Kate Mildenhall will write something quite wonderful when she finds the right story to tell.

I was captivated by this book; and so I’m hoping that one isn’t too far away …

Five for Sorrow, Ten for Joy by Rumer Godden (1978)

I’m so glad that I picked up this book, the third of Rumer Godden’s three ‘convent novels’, when she was The LibraryThing Virago Group Author of the Month.

It is a quietly compelling account of one woman’s life, telling of the downfall of Elizabeth Fanshawe, a young Englishwoman in Paris and the chain of circumstance that would lead her to become Soeur Marie Lise, one of the Sisters of Béthanie at the convent of Belle Source.

That historical setting is very real. The author spent time with the real Sisters of Béthanie, who minister to the poor, the downtrodden and the imprisoned; and she speaks wonderfully well for them. The pictures she paints of convent life is are vivid, rich with detail, and utterly captivating.

Elizabeth grew up in the quietest of English villages; raised by an elderly aunt as she was orphaned at a very early age. War came and, wanting to see more of the world, Elizabeth joined the army as a driver. She was in Paris when the city was liberated, and she was swept up in wild and joyful celebrations.

That would change her life.

She met Patrice Ambard, a handsome and charming elder man that night and he would draw her into his world of crime and high-class prostitution. It was clear that he had prospered during the war years, that he had been a collaborator, but Lise  – he called her Lise – was far to innocent and inexperienced to see him for what he was.

She fell in love with him, and by the time she realised where he was steering her, and that he didn’t love her it was much too late. She had no family or friends to turn to; and because she had taken his name and lived openly with him she couldn’t bring herself to approach the church. And so she was trapped, she was broken and she became hardened.

Lise never lost her compassion for others, and so she had to care for the damaged, unhappy young girl she found.

That would change her life again.

Lise took her in; Patrice seduced her and set her in Lise’s place; and Lise’s love for the girl and her wish to guide her to a happier life than she had would lead to her downfall. Because she didn’t understand how damaged the girl was, she didn’t understand that she didn’t see the world as Lise did.

One desperate act would make her notorious, and send her to prison.

It was there that she met Sisters of Béthanie, who ministered to prisoners. She realised that she wanted to join them, she felt that it would be impossible for someone with her background, but she was told that her background would be no obstacle at all. The order included former prisoners and former prostitutes like her, and their experience of the world would help them to understand others in need of their help.

That would truly change her life.

Lise began a long journey that would lead to her becoming Soeur Marie Lise du Rosarie.

This wonderful story – of one woman’s downfall and redemption – is quite beautifully told. It moves backwards and forwards in time, setting stories of Lise’s past against stories of her life at the convent. The stories flowed into one another, and the author had such skill that it felt completely and utterly natural and I always understood where I was and what was happening.

She brought all of the women in this story and their world to life. They were utterly real,  she cared about them and she made me care.

There was such love and compassion in this book that I couldn’t doubt for a moment that Rumer Godden was inspired by the real Sisters of Béthanie.

That is not to say that it is her best work. The story of Lise’s downfall wouldn’t stand up to close scrutiny, at least one character is compromised to make the latter part of the  story work, and the conclusion is rather too contrived and melodramatic,

The arc of this novel though is quite wonderful; and the other side of the story, following Lise from the moment when she that she may have a vocation, through her novitiate and into her life as a fully professed nun, is exquisitely drawn and rich with detail.

For that, and for what this book has to say, I have to love it.