The Call by Edith Ayrton Zangwill (1924)

I think that the best books are the ones that capture all or part of a life – or lives – with real insight and beautiful expression, and that the very best books do all of that and say something important to its first readers and to readers who come to it years and years later.

This is one of the very best books; telling the story of a pioneering young woman scientist who becomes deeply involved in the campaign for votes for women.

Ursula had been born into a well-to-do London family, toward the end of the 19th century. Her father had died but her mother had remarried; and she lived quite amicably with her mother and step-father in Lowndes Square; spending  as much of her time as she could in the  laboratory that she had carefully set up in the attic.

It wasn’t really what Ursula’s mother wanted for her daughter – she was a busy socialite who loved clothes, flowers and romance – but she loved her only child, she accepted that she had interests that completely confounded her, she wanted her to be happy and so she did what she could to help her pursue her interests; though she still hoped that Ursula would meet a nice young man, fall in love, marry, have children ….

The daughter understood the mother, she appreciated what she was going for her, and she loved her for it. The relationship between the two of them – women of quite different generations – was quite beautifully drawn; and it has become one of my favourite literary mother-daughter relationships.

As I read I was to find that Edith Ayrton Zangwill was very good indeed at people, and at their interactions and relationships. Her characters were real fallible human beings, who changed with time and experience, and who might be seen in different lights at different points in the story.

The story telling was engaging and accessible, with a lovely style that made me think that the author was speaking of people, places and events that she knew well and hoped that others would understand and appreciate.


Studying at university wasn’t an option for Ursula, but she attended scientific meetings, and when she thought she had something to contribute she put forward her ideas. Sadly they were not taken seriously, because she was a woman. Just one man – Professor Smee – took her seriously and he did what he could to help her speak and be heard.

‘I think you are very chivalrous,’ Ursula said suddenly. ‘That is the only chivalry women want nowadays, to be given equal opportunity.’

Professor Smee was middle-aged, he was less than happy with his home life, and  he was utterly smitten with Ursula; something that she completely failed to recognise. Her mother noticed, and thought that she might do a little match-making. When she realised that the professor was married already she was undaunted and decided to make a friend of Mrs Smee. That went badly because Mrs Smee misinterpreted her interest and she misinterpreted the reasons for that lady’s response to her visit.

Edith Ayrton Zangwill handled this unhappy comedy of errors beautifully; and it is a lovely reminder that ordinary life goes on, even at times of social upheaval and change.

Ursula was aware of The Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), a militant,women-only political movement campaigning for women’s suffrage in the United Kingdom. Its membership was known for civil disobedience and direct action; heckling politicians, holding demonstrations, breaking windows of government buildings, setting fire to post boxes; and being imprisoned, going on hunger strike and enduring force-feeding.

She was interested in the women at the centre of the movement, she admired the strength of their convictions and their willingness to act; but she disapproved of much of their behaviour and she thought that if women were taken seriously by men and given the freedom to pursue their own ambitions whether or not they had the vote was immaterial.

Ursula met and falls in love with a young man, a man from a respectable, well-to-do family, who would go on to work  for the civil service. Her mother was delighted.

Then something happened to change her mind about the WSPU.

Ursula pulled an old woman in danger if drowning from in the Thames, only for the police to arrest the woman for attempting suicide. She went to the old woman’s trial, hoping that she would be able to help the her, and while she was waiting she followed trials for prostitution and for sexual assault. She saw a side of life that she hadn’t known existed and she was shocked to the core.

Was it only this morning? Then the world had been a clean and pleasant place of healthy men and women. Now it had become rotten, crawling with obscene abomination. These suffragettes talked as if the vote would help! If people were so vile and bestial, nothing could help, nothing! It was all horrible. She did not want to live. Science was dead, futile. Everything was tainted- even Tony

Looking to do something – anything – to help led Ursula to the women of WSPU. She learned more about their objectives, more about why they acted as they did, and in time their cause became hers. She threw herself into that cause whole-heartedly, risking her physical and mental health, and testing her family’s patience to breaking point.

Tony had been posted to India, and she wrote to him, quite sure that he would understand her cause. When he replied it was clear that he disapproved strongly, and she was torn between the call of her cause and the call of her heart.

Then war broke out, and Ursula had to decide whether she would serve her country better by continuing to campaign for social justice or by returning to work on something that might help soldiers at the front or men grievously injured there.

The reporting of the words of the members of WSPU is eloquent and the accounts of their activities – and their consequences told are vivid, unsparing, and feel utterly real.

Edith Ayrton Zangwill was one of those members.

The story of the war years is equally powerful, and spoke about the position of women in society in a very different way; and it brought together the stories of the calls of science, cause and heart very effectively.

I couldn’t think how this story could ever be wrapped up, but it was wrapped up perfectly in a wonderfully dramatic and emotional conclusion.

It’s an story of a fascinating era; and of a lovely heroine who learns so much and gives so much; and of the lives she touches.

The mixture of human drama and social history is perfect.

‘The Call’ is a book for the head and for the heart.

The Matriarch by G B Stern (1924)

A few years ago I picked up a small small book in a second-hand bookshop. It was plain, simple and unadorned, but I picked it up because I had spotted the name of a Virago author. G B Stern, and because its title made me curious. I hadn’t read any of her books before, though I had the two that were reissued as Virago Modern Classics on my shelves, but I decided it was worth taking home.

I loved that book. I fell in love with her fiction, written with such intelligence and wit, and I have to tell you that her multiple memoirs – where she writes of anything and everything that has captured her interest – are sublime.

I can understand why she’s still relatively obscure; because she wrote a great many books, because they are wildly diverse, because, and because – I am given to understand – some of the are not as strong as the others. I have to say though, that I have yet to pick up one of her books and not be smitten.

I heard great things about ‘The Matriarch’, I read that it was inspired by the author’s own family history, I saw that she returned to the same family in a number of later books, and so when The 1924 Club arrived I took it as a sign that it was time for me to meet The Matriarch and her family.

d0ff8d6a3b4f2ef592b67665a77444341587343The story opens early in the 19th century, and sweeps forward and across Europe, as the fabulously wealthy Rakonitz family prospers and grows. The women of the family reign over houses and homes, where sons bring wives home to live with their mothers, grandchildren belong as much to the whole family as to their parents, and that there are other ways to live is not even contemplated. Meanwhile, the men go out to do business, and are free to indulge what ever interests they may have.

The stream of names, of relationships, of conversations, of family occasions could have been overwhelming; but there was such warmth, such vibrancy that I was completely captivated. I might not have been able to tell you who was who, or what was significant, but I saw the whole picture and it was glorious.

It was at the start of the 20th century, when Anastasia Rakonitz, married to her first cousin Paul, stood at the head of her family, that the story proper began. She adored her family; she was generous, she was demonstrative, she was practical, and there was nothing that she would not do for each and every one of them.

But there was no way but her way; and she would not even contemplate that the family would not always live together and do things as it always had.

Her word was law. Her family had everything they could ever want; except the freedom to set their own courses in life.

Some of her family were oblivious; some of them were comfortable; but for some of them life was difficult.

Imagine the position of a daughter who could not snare a suitable husband, and who when she did could not present her mother with a grandchild. Imagine the position of the bride of a son who had ‘married out’, who would not have the home of her own that she had anticipated, who would be trapped in a house ruled over by another woman who did things so very differently to the woman who raised hers.

There were cracks, but it was a string of bad investments that swallowed the family fortune and destroyed a way of life. The big houses and the family treasures had to be sold, and simpler accommodation had to be found, and simpler ways of living established.

Anastasia’s health was beginning to fail, she couldn’t entirely comprehend what her family’s crash would mean; but she fought to hold her family together, and to live by the principles that had served her and her forbearers so well or so very long.

But her menfolk abandoned her; one took his own life, one fled overseas, one succumbed to ill health ….

That meant that her grandchildren, no longer wealthy, no longer able to rely on family connections, had to establish themselves in a changing world. Through their efforts, the family stayed afloat. They took on more and more responsibility, but they were still treated as the children of the family.

Toni, the eldest child of Anastasia’s eldest child, worked hard to establish herself as a businesswoman, and she found success and she felt pride is what she was able to achieve. But she still loved her family, she wanted to restore pride in her family, she wanted to clear the debts that ‘The Uncles’ had left behind.

On one hand she was a modern woman; on the other she was the woman that Anastasia had raised and moulded.

Could she reconcile the two?

A wealth of stories, relationships, events and incidents, is wrapped around this central story. Some are in the foreground, some are in the background, and it feels a little messy sometimes, but it feels like life. And because the story was so well told, the details so well told, the descriptions so very vivid, I was pulled right into the homes and the lives of this colourful, exotic, suffocating family.

I loved some of them, I was infuriated by others; but I believed in them all.

I would have liked to learn a little more about some of the family, about some parts of the family, but there is only so much that can be fitted into a single book.

The story starts slowly, but it gather pace and by the end it is utterly compelling.

That G B Stern could paint such a vibrant picture of a family, on such a grand scale, with so many intriguing details to pick out, is wonderful.

It works as a study of the ties that bind families together, of the way those ties can pull you back, and of why we sometimes need to loosen or escape those ties.

It works as a study of the power of women; it was women who ran the home and family, and it was women who had to take charge when the family found itself in crisis, and find new ways of living for themselves, for their parents, for their children.

And it works as family saga; full of wit, colour, and intelligence.

I have two of the sequels – and I need to track down two more.

A Book for the 1924 Club: Cornish Silhouettes by C C Rogers (later Lady Vyvyan)

In a house full of books, the majority of them old, you wouldn’t think it would be difficult to find a book from 1924 that I wanted to read, would you?

It was!

I found a few books that I’d read too recently to re-read, I found a couple that I wanted to read one day but knew that the time wasn’t right, and I any number of books that were published in 1923 and 1925. But nothing that said ‘read me now!’

That was why I started searching in the Cornish Room of the Morrab Library, in the hope of finding an interesting local author. And I did!

I’d read the first of C C Vyvyan’s memoirs, I’d read a little volume of her short stories and sketches; I’d loved them both, I’d meant to read more of her work.

She’s very obscure these days; I can’t find much biographical information and I can’t find a hint of a bibliography, but because the first of her books that I read was a memoir, I can tell you a little about her.

Clara Coltman Rogers, later to become Lady Vyvyan, was born in Cornwall in the later years of Queen Victoria’s reign. She had a happy childhood, and she fell in love with books and with the natural world around her.

When she grew up she wanted a sense of purpose, so she became a social worker. She discovered a love of travel when she made her first trip abroad, to visit a brother who had settled in Australia.

When the Great War broke out she returned to England, and when two of her brothers became casualties she went home to Cornwall to support her parents. That was when she began to write and that was where she met and married the heir to one of Cornwall’s ancient houses situated on the Lizard Peninsula …..

There were a good number of her books; more short stories and sketches, travel writing, a novel. The second one I picked up was published in 1924. Success!

‘Cornish Silhouettes’ is a collection of short pieces, inspired by real stories, real people and real places. Their author explains that she calls them silhouettes because she took an outline from life, and then she drew the details as she chose.  She did that so well. I believe that her Cornwall is the same Cornwall that my grand-parents and great grand-parents new; and I believe that they people she wrote about lived and worked alongside them.

Many of the pieces are simple character sketches. I was very taken with a gardener who was always a little out of step with the world. I loved Old Zackie, who was both sportsman and poet. I was amused by The Fool of the Family, who wasn’t foolish at all, he just appreciated the simple things of life in a way that his grand family never would.

I was particularly struck by accounts of two ladies. One way young and spent as much of her time as she could out on the cliffs; she was happy to be alone and she was happy to encounter others, sharing her knowledge and learning more from them. The other was frail and elderly; she found going out difficult but she loved to have visitors, and she took a great deal of trouble to entertain them and to find interesting things to talk about. There was something that told me that these two women had helped to shape the author’s philosophy of life.

There were many of these sketches, and some of the people I met haven’t quite stuck in my head, but I did enjoy meeting all of them.

The handful of sketches of the natural world are a little less strong. I loved the author’s powers of description, I loved her obvious love of what she was writing; but there was a hint of contrivance, a slight feeling of the essay for school about them.

There were two longer pieces – not long but longer. You might call them short short stories .

The account of the difficulties of staging a Christmas social was so funny, and horrible believable.

And the story of a tea for an eightieth birthday, where neighbours who didn’t speak were brought together so cleverly by their hostess was a little gem.

There was something about the opening of that story that made me wonder of the young Elizabeth Goudge, who would have been living just a little way up the coast in Devon when this story was published, might have read and enjoyed it.


“She was dressed early and had put on her pale grey shawl and pinned a pink bow on her front, for it was her eightieth birthday and ‘company’ would be dropping in. She lay as usual on the couch drawn close to the window of the bed-sitting room; without raising her head she could watch the clouds and the movement of the tide over the mud-flats; and the flight of water-birds, white or silver against the dark soil of the creek; her ‘picture show’ she called it.

The black-headed gulls, white with their winter plumage now, would wheal and scream in flocks or settle on a sandy spit that ran out into the middle of the creek, defying the high tides.

And if you looked closed you might see a line of ghostly brown forms, still, huddled, attentive, a parliament of curlews waiting for the time to feed, ready to take wing if any human form came near. Miss Priscilla always blessed intruders, for she loved to see them rise in a cloud and to watch for their white rump feathers and their curved beaks against the sky.

Sometimes a flock of sanderlings would sweep by like driven snow-flakes against the mud, and then turning would be suddenly lost to sight, mere grey specks against a neutral background.

And at low tide the redshanks would step daintily, picking out food with their long beaks, each one mirrored in the shining mud so that, what with the birds and their shadows, all the wet ground seemed full of movement. On days when the wind was in the west you could plainly hear their piping note far away up the creek and the piercing wail of the curlews.

Day after day Miss Priscilla sat there, she would speak her thoughts to the clouds and the water and the birds, and they always seemed to answer her in just the way that she required, giving her a sense of peace and reassurance rather than any articulate reply to her comments.”

I loved this book of sketches, by an author who so clearly loved everything that she wrote.

She would write for many more years, she would produce more polished books, but this book has a charm that is entirely its own, and it catches a time and a place so very well.