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

The first sentences were intriguing but a little worrying:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Honeycomb by Dorothy Richardson (1917)

Now that I am at the end of the first of the four volumes that collect Dorothy Richardson’s ‘Pilgrimage’ sequence of novels, it seems strange that I had ever feared that the ‘stream of consciousness’ of those thirteen novels would be difficult and that one woman’s consciousness would not be enough to fill all of those pages.

I have loved walking through life with Miriam Henderson, sharing in her perceptions and emotions, and appreciating that maturity and experience were helping her to form ideas and steadily grow as a woman in her world. And I have loved seeing Dorothy Richardson grow as a writer, honing her craft, and making each of the first three novels of this saga distinctive and yet still part of the same whole.

‘Honeycomb’ – the third of those three novels – felt to me like a three-volume Victorian novel re-worked, in miniature, for a new and very different age.

20160106_193046The first act opens as Miriam is travelling to take up a new position. She will be the governess to two young children in a country house. One of her sisters had been a governess and had warned Miriam that the life would not suit her, but she had taken no notice and she was happy to be travelling comfortably by coach as spring was coming.

The writing was lovely and there was just a hint of playfulness, maybe acknowledging the books that the younger Dorothy Richardson had read and enjoyed.

Miriam was at ease in the role of governess, and she appreciated the comforts that she had in the household of a wealthy family. She also appreciated being in a family home, missing school life not at all, though she found her position – in between the servants and the family, not belonging to either group – difficult at times, and some of her old awkwardness came back at times like that.

I appreciated how much, and how very naturally, she had grown up over the course of three novels.

She realised that while the women of the family were happy their roles, as wives and mothers, did not interest her at all.

The second act finds Miriam back at home as the  Henderson household prepared for the weddings of two of her sisters,  Harriett and Sarah. All of the family was caught up in preparations for a joint ceremony and was happy to be drawn in too. But while she is happy for her sisters, and happy to be sharing in their celebrations, she is reflective because she doubts that she will find the things that she hopes life has to offer in marriage, and she expects that her path will be more difficult.

The third act is devastating. Miriam’s mother struggled with her nerves and her health; and it fell to Miriam to accompany her mother on a holiday trip to the seaside. It didn’t help Mrs. Henderson, and it was heart-breaking to understand what was happening through the perceptions of a daughter who was much to far out of her depth to comprehend.

The novel ends with a deep and unexplained grief.

Dorothy Richardson’s handling of those passages is astonishingly good; there could only be one explanation, and she knew that it was something that Miriam could not acknowledge or express.

All of the writing is wonderful; Dorothy Richardson has  grown as a writer through the course of her first three novels, finding so many ways  to catch Miriam’s consciousness on the printed page, finding the right variations in tone and content to match her different experiences, and tracking the subtle ways in which Miriam changes and grows with those experiences.

I think I may much the same thing already, but I really am so taken with what Dorothy Richardson is doing in this series of books.

If you have an interest in women’s history, or an interest in the evolution of the novel form, then you really should read Dorothy Richardson.

I wish I hadn’t left her books on the shelf for so long, thinking that they would be difficult; they do require close, careful reading to appreciate everything that is there, but they reward that reading so very richly.

A great deal changed in this book for the Henderson family, and I think that there will be significant differences in the next book.

I’m ready to pick it up and start reading.