Hello everyone! I hope you’ve been well during this unsettling and strangely consistent madness. I’ve been hit with low-grade loneliness and boredom, but am otherwise fine. I am still working at the library. We did shut down for two months back in the spring, but we have been open in some form since mid May. Currently, we are open for hold pickups and 45 minute appointment blocks for patrons who need to use the computers, fax, scan or study at a table. This set up is working quite well and I’ve heard it might continue through September, but we never know for sure (which has been one of the hardest parts of working through a pandemic).
Has your reading been affected by Covid? Mine certainly has. I have read more than I thought I would, but not as much as I could have. As we enter into our sixth month of the pandemic I am really craving good books and that has meant returning to reads I have already visited – and know I am guaranteed to like. I recently reread Excellent Women by Barbara Pym. Pure delight and enjoyment. And now I am rereading Someone at a Distance by Dorothy Whipple. Yes, it is a sad and devastating look at infidelity and betrayal. But it is so good on the dynamics of families and women’s sacrifices. It is so well written. After I finish the Whipple I think I will move on to One Fine Day by Mollie Panter-Downes, a novel I absolutely adored when I read it about 6 years ago. I am pretty sure I will still adore it and am going to savor my reread. After that? I might revisit a Marghanita Laski or return to At Mrs. Lippincote’s by Elizabeth Taylor. We shall see.
Expiation is the seventh title by Elizabeth Von Arnim that I’ve read. Published in 1929, it is written with Von Arnim’s typical humor and sharp observations of human nature. It begins with the death of Milly’s husband in a street car accident. A fairly well-off man, it comes as quite a shock when he leaves only 1,000 pounds to his beloved wife and the rest of his wealth to a home for wayward women. But it is not a shock to Milly. For she has “sinned” and she now knows that her husband was aware of it and has decided to punish her for it. His tight-knit family, the Botts, now have to decide how to think of this strange decision: think the worst of Milly (which most of the women do) or think the worst of her husband (which most of the men do). Unfortunately, their thoughts mean everything as Milly is now not only poor but homeless. It is up to the Botts to absorb her into their lives but how do they do this and maintain their standing in society? Milly does try to find her own way, to break from the Botts and make it on her terms but they ultimately hold her fate in their hands.
This book is an interesting exploration of polite society and how any deviation from the code of polite society causes turmoil and insecurity among its members. The Bott family nearly implodes with speculation and exaggerated fear of Milly and what they think she has done. Von Arnim is definitely damning this attitude, but attempts to do it with a light touch. However, though this novel is very funny in places, I felt a mournfulness to it that was quite heavy. I think it is sad on many levels. Sad for Milly, for her lack of choice, sad for the Bott women who can’t accept Milly out of fear, sad for the Bott men who want to help Milly but can’t risk being charitable to a sinner, sad for women in general for their lives being so strictly prescribed. Does Milly receive expiation? Is it something that is even possible or necessary? I will leave that for you to discover, but I will say that I left this novel with such relief.
Though not my favorite of Von Arnim’s books, Expiation is a novel that has left me thinking and has made me see that her books are so much more political and concerned with social justice (especially for women) then I have realized.
I read Expiation as part of the Mini Persephone Readathon a couple of weekends ago. I intended to also finish Young Anne by Dorothy Whipple that weekend, but I am a slow reader and it didn’t happen. Young Anne will have to wait for another day.
While pondering my 2017 reading goals the other evening I happened to look up at my bookcase to see the lovely row of dove grey Persephones and the colorful spines of the Persephone Classics that I have shelved together. I’ve been collecting Persephone titles for about 7 or 8 years now and, as happens to the best of us, the collecting has far exceeded the reading of these wonderful books. I recall Nicola Beauman saying in an interview I read (I can’t find the quote) that she hoped that people weren’t just collecting the books but reading them too. In this Guardian interview she says, “That’s all I care about, really, you see: the text, the text, the text.”, when asked about the design she chose for the novels she republishes. And I realized that maybe I have been collecting them just to have them – just out of a sense of pride in owning them, because I haven’t read nearly enough of them to justify their expense!
So – I came to the obvious conclusion that reading the Persephones I currently own should be my goal for 2017. I went to the Persephone website and found the master list of all the titles they’ve published, made a list of all the ones I own and haven’t read and stuck it up at the top of the page (under Operation Read Persephone) to serve as a constant reminder of this goal. Shockingly, I own 26 of the grey darlings that I have not read! The shame! But I will try to remedy that this year.
I decided that I will start with A Very Great Profession by Ms. Beauman herself as it describes her interest in and love for the books she’s chosen to republish. I’m looking forward to not just looking at and enjoying the beauty of these books but to actually honoring their authors by reading what is between the iconic covers.
Do you have a favorite Persephone? What are your reading goals for 2017?
After having enjoyed Little Boy Lost last summer I knew I had to read another book by Marghanita Laski so I decided to buy myself The Village by the same author for Christmas. I think I expected something with the same tone and feel as Little Boy Lost, but this novel is quite different from that excellent novel. However, though the feel is not the same I enjoyed it for its view of a changing village in the years after WWII.
The novel revolves around the story of a secret romance between young Margaret Trevor, a girl who comes from an upper/middle class family and Roy Wilson, a veteran from a working class family. Their mothers worked together in a Red Cross Post during the war, but once the war is over there is no question of them socializing with each other ever again. This knowledge is unquestioned by Wendy Trevor, Margaret’s unsatisfied, bitter, highly critical mother. She sees Margaret as a failure because she’s shy, reserved and hasn’t done well in school like her younger sister has. Everyone in their social circle agrees that the only path for Margaret to take is that of wife and mother – and Margaret has no objection to this as it’s exactly the life she wants for herself. But of course they all see her with someone of their own class and not with someone like Roy Wilson.
Roy is kind, hard-working, ambitious and wants a family. He and Margaret quickly fall in love after meeting at a dance, but their romance is conducted very stealthily as Margaret knows that her parents would never consent to her marriage with someone from such a different background from herself.
This is all conducted against a background of an altered economic climate with the working class making money and the middle class living in genteel poverty. There’s also a definite sense that the middle class citizens in the village feel threatened by the new confidence the working class has gained since the war.
The young romance can’t stay hidden forever and there is an inevitable clash at the end of the novel – between the old and the new, the traditional and the modern, the young and the old. Laski skillfully uses the classic plot of star crossed lovers to play up all the ways that England was changing in the fifties. Her characters are perhaps not so complex, but they do powerfully portray the various factions in this new world.
The Village is a fascinating post-war novel yet I think Mollie Panter-Downes’s One Fine Day, which shares similar themes to The Village, is a superior post-war book – I’d recommend it highly if you’re interested in this time period.
Now I’ll move on to To Bed With Grand Music by Laski – another Christmas present to myself!
I truly enjoyed taking a break from galleys in August to focus on reading Persephones and Viragos. I didn’t read as many as I planned to, but I think five is a respectable number (I’m including Anderby Wold, which I previously posted about). Instead of trying catch up with individual posts about the remaining four novels I’m briefly capturing each one here:
The Expendable Man by Dorothy B. Hughes – This is a remarkable suspense novel published in 1963 that deals with the still sadly relevant issue of how the police treat black suspects and how the fear of false arrest and mistreatment psychologically impacts those suspects. Reading it was so tense and disconcerting – it’s perfectly paced to create a maximum feeling of complete anxiety. The novel is set in Phoenix (where I live) and it was fascinating to read about the city in the early sixties. There aren’t many novels set in Arizona so I found it particularly absorbing. This book was recently featured on the Persephone Forum.
Little Boy Lost by Marghanita Laski – Little Boy Lost is another really great psychologically tense novel about an English man who reluctantly tries to locate his missing child in France after the end of WWII. It’s an effort not to skip forward to see how this turns out and when the end does come it is utterly haunting.
Saplingsby Noel Streatfeild – Saplings is set during WWII and tells the story of how the war affects four young children, all siblings, as the vicissitudes of fortune through the years change their circumstances and very personalities. It’s quite affecting and terribly sad and I found myself worrying and wondering about them long after I’d finished the novel.
Our Spoons Came From Woolworths by Barbara Comyns – After reading the gut wrenching Persephones it was refreshing to read this funny, messy and kooky novel set among a group of artists in London during the thirties. Not that bad things don’t happen here – they do, and some really pretty things awful too, but Comyns has a way of making dire poverty, marital troubles, a horrific childbirth experience, depression, death and displacement seem like a grand adventure.
This month the LibraryThing Virago group is hosting the All Virago/All August event. The goal is to read as many Viragos (or Persephones -they’re included) during the month as you can or as you want. It’s a great opportunity to read those classics that you’ve been putting off or that have lingered on your shelves for years and years. I know we all have a few of those! At first I planned to only read Vs & Ps, but there are a couple of contemporary novels that I am looking forward to (like this one) that I’ll slip in among the green and the grey. I’ve already finished The Expendable Man by Dorothy B. Hughes and Little Boy Lost by Marghanita Laski (reviews coming soon) and have a few others in mind. Here are the titles that are top of the list right now:
I haven’t bought very many books lately, mostly because I’ve bought these – and they are not cheap. The shipping alone from Persephone is a pretty penny, but one that I feel is completely justified – and the same goes for the Slightly Foxed editions. Quality over quantity for me these days!
I’d always planned to order London War Notes by Mollie Panter-Downes from Persephone when it was released last month. When I was placing the order online I decided to also get the latest novel published by them, Vain Shadowby Jane Hervey, and I also orderedFew Eggs and No Orangesby Vere Hodgson. I’ve already read a big chunk of London War Notes and am so glad I have it and the others to look forward to over the summer.
I have a subscription to the Slightly Foxed Quarterly, which I just love, but I’d never bought any of their books. When I saw a post on Facebook about Silver Leyby Adrian Bell I was really intrigued. It’s Bell’s story of learning to be a farmer in Suffolk just after WWI. I adore stories about people ‘going back to the land’ so I ordered this right away. Reading more about the book on the SF website I realized that Silver Ley is a sequel to Corduroy – so I ordered that too!
“But she observed her sister, hoping to learn something. All she could find out, though, was that Lucy took an absorbed interest in things she herself could take no interest in at all; endless books for instance, tame solitary pursuits like gardening and walking, domestic drudgery like cooking and working in the house, in silly things like hens, and in going to the help of tiresome people in the village who were always appealing to her about something. Lucy also took an open, and in Vera’s opinion, eccentric interest in God. She wanted to know more and more about God, she said. She said life was discovery and that was why you didn’t need to mind about growing old, because the older you got the farther you walked down the road of life and the more you found out. She thought that after death you went on learning. She really believed it, you could see it in her face, glowing with an interest which merely surprised Vera who felt nothing of it at all.” – from They Were Sisters
This passage neatly sums up the character of Lucy and is why I love her so. I admire her seemingly simple view of life, her uncomplicated interests and her idea that life is all about discovery. I’ve read this paragraph several times and it thrills and appeals to me each time.
Is there a character from a novel whose philosophy of life resonates with you?
The past two weeks at work have been pretty stressful, with people on vacation, out sick or at meetings. The kids in our community are out of school next week and preparations for our summer reading program are in high gear, which also makes things slightly tense around the library. We’re all loaded down with tasks and have to cover the desk as well and it all gets to be a bit too much when lots of people are out. In order to relieve the stress every evening I turned to They Were Sisters, an excellent novel by an author I don’t think I’ve much appreciated up to this point.
Lucy, Vera and Charlotte grow up in a well-to-do-family with a lawyer father, in comfort and safety. Lucy is the nurturer (especially after their mother passes away), Vera is the beauty and Charlotte the gentle, fun-loving sister. When the sisters marry their lives take separate paths yet Lucy continues to look after her troubled sisters. High-spirited Vera marries a dull man and their unsuitability makes them both miserable. Charlotte has a harder life; her husband Geoffrey is emotionally and mentally abusive, a true sadist who enjoys making her unhappy and humiliating her and their children. Lucy, married to good William, watches her sisters’ lives fall apart with despair. As the years go on Vera and Charlotte fall further into troubles and Lucy endeavors to save both them (without much success) and their children.
Published in 1943 this novel was a bestseller and I can just imagine people reading it to escape their daily reality, much as I did. It is completely engrossing, filled with very colorful, well-drawn characters, lots of drama and lovely domestic details. It is also – and this was one of my main reasons for loving it so much – full of goodness. Lucy is a woman to be admired as she goes about her life trying to do good, be good and think good about others. She is now one of my all-time favorite characters from literature and one I aspire to be like and learn from.
Until now I’d never really loved a Whipple novel. I enjoyed Greenbanks and Someone at a Distance and liked The Priory, but I was missing the connection that I know others have felt to her writing. They Were Sisters is the book that’s put me in the Whipple fan club forever. Now it’s on to Because of the Lockwoods.
I think for the rest of the year I’ll return to my Sunday Bulletins if you don’t mind. It will guarantee that I post every week and helps me to focus. My mind is wandering these days and I am dreaming of new opportunities, goals and plans for my career and my life. Most of this year has been frustrating and disappointing for me, but England put sparkle and vibrancy back into my soul and I am straining to keep it there.
I’ll also post more pictures of my trip in between Sundays.
This week my book club held our October meeting and we discussed We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson. We had a good talk about unreliable narrators, stifling small towns and belief in superstition. Next month we’ll discuss Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro.
I recently finished reading a book I bought in London – Good Evening, Mrs. Craven: the Wartime Stories of Mollie Panter-Downes. I loved these short glimpses (some just a few pages) into the lives of normal, middle-class people as they stumble along through their days while the shadow of war taints everything around them. The frank, realistic and honest tone of the stories felt so authentic and believable to me. Yet they’re not bleak; they are reassuringly human and often quite funny. It is one of my favorite books of 2014.
It might be a bit early to start thinking about Christmas music, but I’m already pondering what albums to purchase this year. I think this one might make the list.