Persephone

The Squire by Enid Bagnold

SQUIRE

A book about the experience of pregnancy and childbirth is not something that would ordinarily be on the top of my reading pile, but Persephone’s latest republished novel by Enid Bagnold is an exception in every way. It has many parallels with Virginia Woolf’s later style of writing; the poetical prose, the stream of consciousness narrative, the wide cast of characters who flit in and out of the action, the matriarchal anchor and the world of unquestioned and unquestioning privilege all feature, creating an exquisitely lovely, quintessentially pre-war vision of a vanished society drenched in dappled sunlight and clothed in white dresses. There is much that can irk the modern day reader within its pages; the army of servants and nannies the Squire has at her disposal and the petty worries that fill her otherwise leisurely days are a far cry from the all consuming demands of modern motherhood, which leave few women with the opportunity to sit and philosophise on their place in the world. However, this shouldn’t detract from the essential power of the novel, which is in its beautiful and sensitive exploration of the emotional and physical connection between mothers and their children.

The Squire lives in a large house in a rural village by the sea. Her husband has gone on his annual three month business trip to India, leaving her in sole charge of their home, children and servants as she enters the final days of her fifth pregnancy. The Squire, practised at childbirth, has no anxieties as she approaches her labour; instead, she draws into herself, preoccupied with thoughts of her children and her place in their world. Around her, however, all is falling apart; the Cook, horrified at the thought of a labour in the house, resigns. The butler is being difficult. The maids are in mutiny. The children demand attention. Her close friend Caroline is having a romantic crisis. Letters must be written, temporaries interviewed, tempers soothed, hearts consoled and personalities managed, but the Squire, detached from it all in her complete envelopment in her coming child, takes it effortlessly in her stride.

When the midwife arrives, the Squire is free to fully absent herself from the cares of the household and subsume her whole mind into the process of giving birth. The midwife, an old hand and an old friend, sees childbirth and the care of the mother and baby as the greatest vocation offered to a woman, and the discussions the two have about the role of mothers and the change in women’s priorities as they move through the different stages of life provide the most thought provoking moments in the novel. Within hours of the midwife’s arrival, the Squire goes into labour, and while much is left to the imagination, there is still enough described to allow the reader to enter into the experience and understand the emotional and physical sensations of childbirth, which was incredibly daring for the time. After the birth, the Squire is able to indulge in days of enforced bed rest where she is allowed to recover and bond with her baby in peace; these precious moments form the foundation of their relationship and give the Squire hours on which to meditate on her hopes and dreams for her children, and her role in their life and in the lives of those who will follow. Throughout these days, the only reality that matters is the Squire’s precious baby; all the trivial concerns of everyday life are kept behind closed doors, at bay until the Squire is ready to go back and face the world.

There is much within the pages of this novel to enjoy and contemplate upon. I mainly enjoyed the novel for its gorgeous, lyrical style and for its beautifully expressed, insightful thoughts on the many ways in which women interact with themselves, each other and their children. It’s certainly not a novel you can only appreciate and enjoy if you’re already a mother; there is something in here for women at all stages of life. Having said that, though, this is a very class bound book, and as much as Bagnold was daring and forward thinking in her discussion of birth and breastfeeding and such, she is also rather disparaging in her depiction of the mean-spirited and little-minded servants and dismissive of women who are not mothers and therefore have not graduated to the supreme class of womanhood the Squire belongs to.

There is an occasional note of superiority and smugness in her prose that did nag at me throughout; perhaps this book did not reach the heights of success she hoped for because her saintly depiction of mothers and motherhood is only true for those able to afford to absent themselves from all but the most pleasurable tasks. The Squire, after all, does not have to deal with wet nappies or children who are ill in the night; she does not have to scrape up a child’s dinner from where it has been flung or negotiate a trip to the shops with her five children running amok around her. She can pick and choose her duties; this is what makes The Squire both a hauntingly beautiful depiction of the glories of children and a rather irritatingly smug portrait of the ease of life for the wealthy. Despite my misgivings, however, I still found this a marvellous book, and one that will probably continue to offer wisdom and inspiration as I grow older. Like Richmal Crompton, Bagnold is brilliant at depicting the inner life of children, and even if there is a Nanny to do all the hard graft, you can’t help but feel the love Bagnold had for her children oozing from the pages. This is probably one of my favourite new Persephones for quite some time; definitely not one to be missed.

Soundbites

london

1. I’ve fallen back in love with London. Miranda introduced me to the lovely Quo Vadis in Soho, which showed me that sophisticated restaurants are within my price range. My friend Emma took me to Somerset House to see this lovely photography exhibition. This showed me that I forget how many brilliant galleries there are to visit, and need to stop going to the same ones all the time (though I’ll be going back to Somerset House to see this in November). I finally made it to Sir John Soane’s Museum, which was magnificent and a real hidden gem. Miranda reminded me that Lamb’s Conduit Street is more than just Persephone Books by showing me Ben Pentreath and The French House, two gorgeous shops that sell beautiful and affordable home goods. I walked along the river in the Autumnal twilight after a lovely meal at Wahaca and a browse at the Southbank Book Market and felt all weak at the knees at the twinkling of the lamps along the Embankment and the shadowy silhouette of the Houses of Parliament. Why did I ever want to move? I am a silly girl.

2. I am really looking forward to Persephone’s new releases for the Autumn. I read Enid Bagnold’s The Squire many years ago before I started blogging, and thought it was an absolutely beautiful book, with such luscious prose. I can’t wait to read it again. Incidentally, I do think Enid Bagnold is rather an underrated novelist. Aside from National Velvet, she wrote some wonderful books. The best I have read is Diary without Dates; a truly eye opening account of her time as a VAD nurse during WWI – and it’s free on Project Gutenberg!

3. I saw the trailer for the new series of Downton Abbey this weekend. Obviously it won’t be the same without Cousin Matthew and his gorgeous eyes, but I feel this is the series for Lady Edith to SHINE. I have my fingers crossed for some spinster shenanigans and some amazing flapper dresses. Let’s hope that Julian Fellowes really has upped his game this time!

4. I want to go and see this fascinating sounding photography exhibition, showing pictures taken by civilians during the 30s for the Mass Observation project. It’s reminded me that I really need to read Vere Hodgson’s Few Eggs and No Oranges, which has been sitting on my shelf for far too long.

5. I am getting into The Great British Bake Off spirit by flexing my baking muscles. I have been the toast of the staffroom with this delicious cake – super easy and very delicious!

The Winds of Heaven by Monica Dickens

Persephone_Books_Monica_Dickens2-489x600

This was going to be a perfectly ordinary point-by-point review of Monica Dickens’ The Winds of Heaven, but as I began writing (or ranting), I realised that my intense dislike of the novel was colouring everything I was saying. I stopped to think about my negative attitude, and came to the conclusion that the novel isn’t bad per se, but I hated the main character so much that this made the entire reading experience unenjoyable. This is an unusual reaction for me, as I am the first person to complain when someone dismisses a perfectly good novel as rubbish because they couldn’t ‘relate’ to the main character. Liking the main character should be neither here nor there; we don’t read books, surely, to only meet fictional people we like. After all, some of the best characters in novels are horrific people, whose behaviour destroys those around them. Their malevolence is marvellous to read. I’ve read plenty of novels where the characters have belonged to a world completely alien to my own, and yet I have still been gripped by their experiences and fascinated by their outlook on life. I’ve read novels where I’ve hated everyone  in it, but the writing has been so beautiful and the setting so haunting that I’ve been unable to put the book down regardless. Liking or relating to characters isn’t, in my opinion, as important as some people seem to think it is.

The writing in The Winds of Heaven is very good; humorous, warm and well observed, it draws the reader in from the very first page. The settings are those familiar, quintessentially mid century locations such as steamy Lyons’ tea rooms on foggy London street corners and mock tudor country houses with maid’s quarters and flower filled drawing rooms. The characters are interesting and varied, all living very different lives that reflect the rapidly changing social expectations of the time. It should have been Persephone gold. So why did I hate every minute of it? Was it because I hated the main character? Surely I couldn’t be so shallow a reader? Then it came to me; the reason why my hatred of the main character ruined the book for me was because I wasn’t supposed to hate her. Monica Dickens meant for me to empathise with her; poor, downtrodden Louise, shuffled from pillar to post, no independence, no freedom, left destitute by her nasty husband and unappreciated by her daughters, she is very much painted as an object of pity. I was incensed that I was supposed to pity a woman with no courage and no ingenuity. Her attitude towards her own life is one of passivity and apathy, and this is presented as entirely reasonable behaviour. Regardless of social expectations and so on, there is never any excuse to entirely abdicate responsibility for yourself. This is exactly what Louise does, and Monica Dickens wants us to like her for it?

My problem with The Winds of Heaven is that my own approach to life and my own moral code is entirely disconnected with that of Dickens’, and so no matter how good the writing, plot or setting, I couldn’t enjoy her book. If Louise had been presented as someone who needed a good kick up the behind, then I would have been perfectly happy. But she wasn’t, and there lay the problem. I can’t abide people who don’t make some attempt to overcome the difficulties of their own circumstances, and who spend their lives blaming others for their misfortune.  I don’t think there’s ever an excuse for living a life you don’t want; we all have choices, and we all have the power to change our lives. Some have fewer choices, and some have more difficult obstacles to navigate, but courage is free and available to all, and those who don’t use it get no sympathy from me. I was disappointed that Monica Dickens advocated Louise’s approach to life, and agreed that it was impossible for her to change things on her own. I thought I was going to like Dickens very much, but my rather battered copy of The Winds of Heaven, which got thrown against my bedroom wall, proves otherwise. Despite initially thinking it was because I couldn’t ‘relate’ to the characters, it’s actually because I can’t relate to the author. I think that’s a first for me!

Frost at Morning by Richmal Crompton

19981.1.52.49-a

I’ve had this sitting on my shelves for years; I bought it in a second hand bookshop in Alton when I went to Jane Austen’s house a few summers ago. Having loved another of Crompton’s adult novels, Family Roundabout, I was sure that I’d find Frost at Morning equally delightful, but life intervened to prevent me from reading it immediately after purchase and it has been gathering dust ever since. Over the sunny bank holiday weekend, I finally decided to take it off the shelf and find out what was lying beneath the innocuous looking covers. While basking in a deckchair, I raced through the entire thing, riveted by the action unfurling in front of my eyes. Crompton’s ability to capture the world through a child’s eyes is uncanny, as is her skill at demonstrating just how blind adults can be to the needs of the children they are supposed to be protecting. Since becoming a teacher, I have become increasingly aware of the damage that can be done to children by unthinking parents, and how much sensitivity and vulnerability can be hidden beneath the surface of a seemingly happy child. As such, Frost at Morning really tugged on my heartstrings and had me longing to reach in to rescue the children who had all been left so alone and misunderstood. My desperation was akin to the moment in Tess of the D’Urbervilles when that bloody letter goes underneath the doormat; this is powerful stuff indeed!

The novel opens on an idyllic post WWI scene; a sunny vicarage garden, peopled with small children playing in the dappled pool of light beneath a lush canopy of trees. Philip, Geraldine and Monica have been sent to stay at the vicarage as companions to the Vicar’s daughter, Angela, because their parents, for various reasons, cannot currently have them at home. Angela’s parents, however, are just  as absent as those of her guests; her ridiculously eccentric mother is a famous novelist, so wrapped up in her characters’ lives that she has no time for her husband and daughter, and her father lives his life ruled by the routines of his parish, with no real interest in his wife and child. Angela, blonde and beautiful, is already aware of her power over others. Philip, sensitive and insular, is desperately seeking her approval, but the only attention he receives is from claustrophobically overbearing Geraldine. Monica is aloof from the rest, marked out as different due to her mother’s marital indiscretions. Miss Rossiter, the governess, has been left to cope with all of the children over the summer, but she is far too preoccupied with her own concerns to take much of an interest. As such, they are largely left to themselves, and despite their differing personalities, a strange bond will be formed between them that will last into adulthood.

The novel follows the children as they leave the vicarage to return home. Sensitive Philip, so desperate for his heroic father’s approval, returns to the shock of a new stepmother and a stepbrother who has the courage and strength he lacks. Unable to communicate the pain he feels at being sidelined for this new brother, Philip retreats into his own world, refusing to care for others lest he be hurt. Monica returns to her beautiful mother, whose infidelities and alcoholism will destroy her childhood, filling it with an atmosphere of constant worry, uncertainty and far too much responsibility. Geraldine returns to her adoptive parents and finds that in her absence her mother has given birth to a baby of her own. Desperate to prove her worth, her overbearing nature becomes even worse, suffocating all who come near. Angela, ignored by her parents, grows into a self interested and shallow princess, delighting in teasing men and causing a stir in order to gain the attention she has always craved.

As the children grow into adults, their lives frequently collide, and it is fascinating to see how the failures of their parents have moulded the way they relate to themselves and one another as they age. It is interesting that when the novel opens, the children are all around 7 years old; I wonder whether Crompton had in mind the adage ‘give me the child until he is seven and I will give you the man.’ My heart broke for them all, in different ways; Monica and Philip because of their vulnerability and desperation to be loved, Geraldine because of her inability to understand that her behaviour caused those she loved to turn away from her, and Angela because she saw no value in herself other than her looks. They are all damaged goods, who could so easily have been repaired, but as the years pass, their cracks become ever deeper, until it seems they can never find true happiness and become whole again.

The rather unrealistically neat and tidy ending does somewhat ruin the psychological sophistication of the rest of the novel, but Crompton just about gets away with it due to the quality of her writing. I don’t think I’ve read a better analysis of child psychology, where someone has been so thoroughly able to capture the terrible paralysing helplessness of children. This is a beautifully written, heartrending novel that is both a brilliant exploration of childhood and a marvellous evocation of inter war Britain. The inter war setting adds much to the interpretation of why these parents may be such failures, considering with what their own youths were marked, and Crompton leaves the reader with much to ponder on as they close the pages. Frost at Morning is sadly out of print, but it’s not extortionate to buy second hand; if you come across a copy, I urge you to buy it and read it post-haste. I can’t compare its merits with Family Roundabout as I can’t really remember much about that (time for a re-read, I think), but I don’t see any reason why this shouldn’t also be reprinted; it’s a marvel, and I wish I could give everyone a copy to enjoy.

‘Philip turned back into the room. He wasn’t trembling any longer, but there was a cold numbed feeling at his heart. They didn’t want him. All right, he wouldn’t want them. He tried to whip up his anger against them in order to hide from himself the misery that threatened to engulf his spirit, the black emptiness that lay ahead of him.’

Lady Rose and Mrs Memmary by Ruby Ferguson

il_fullxfull.379277705_36w6

Lady Rose and Mrs Memmary opens with tourists coming to look around the great house of Keepsfield, for let due to the financial problems of the exiled Lady Rose, Countess of Lochlule. The faded wallpaper and cracked plaster represent an old world that has died away, becoming nothing but a memory in the mind of Mrs Memmary, the house’s caretaker. As the tourists walk through the now empty rooms that were once so full of happiness and promise, she tells them the story of the Countess’ life. Born Lady Rose towards the end of the 19th century, she was the daughter and only heir of the richest Earl in Scotland. A pretty, high spirited and deeply loving child, her open and affectionate nature endeared her to everyone she met. Rose was brought up to adore her country and its history with an almost obsessive passion, but her greatest love was for her home, the magnificent Keepsfield, the finest house in Scotland. She had a charmed childhood spent amidst the beauty of the Scottish countryside, with every comfort provided and every whim catered for. Her only sadness was the persistent absence of her parents; their duties as part of Queen Victoria’s court took them away frequently, and when they were at home, they had little time for their daughter. Eventually they decided to send her away to school in England, and this was the beginning of the end of Lady Rose’s carefree existence.

When Lady Rose turned 18, she was the most eligible debutante of the season. Still the innocent, exuberant girl she was in her early days at Keepsfield, she was delighted by the parties and dreamed of falling in love with a handsome suitor. However, her parents had already decided who Rose would marry; their neighbour Sir Hector Galowrie, second only to Rose’s father in wealth and prestige. Their marriage would combine Scotland’s two finest estates and be an advantageous alliance for both families. Rose, naive and trusting, and delighted at the romance of getting married to a handsome man, was all too happy to follow her parents’ wishes. Little did she realise what she was getting herself into; Sir Hector resented Lady Rose’s independent wealth and status, and didn’t understand her romantic, whimsical personality. Without ever being actively cruel, he found plenty of ways to destroy her sources of joy, slowly crushing her spirit with every passing year. Instead of a place of freedom and enchantment, Rose’s beloved Keepsfield became her prison.

However, this was not the end of Rose’s story. Events conspired to offer her an escape, but very few people understood her resulting decisions. Happiness came at a great cost to Rose; she was born at the wrong time, and in the wrong society, to freely fulfil the desires of her soul. She was a victim of Victorian society, and of the limited roles it gave to women. She was expected to bury her personal needs to maintain the status quo of an aristocracy that was above the passions and indiscretions of the lower classes. For women like Rose’s mother, life was governed by self imposed rules that kept the facade of upper class life intact; if everyone was free to indulge their secret passions, their world would collapse beneath them. Anyone who dared to break free was punished severely; deviance would not be tolerated. For so many, there was no escape, and for those who did, they often found that the world outside of the gilded cage was a very lonely one.

This is a much deeper and darker novel than it at first appears, and is both inspiring and profoundly moving. A damning indictment of a society that crushed its inhabitants and a beautiful, haunting exploration of what it means to live a good life, I loved every minute of it. Don’t let this pass you by; it’s a real gem.