Virago

The Tortoise and the Hare by Elizabeth Jenkins

Well I’m a bit early for Cornflower’s book group, which is discussing this next week, but this is too interesting to wait to blog about until then.

I was rather surprised by this book. I’ve read lots of very favourable reviews and I was expecting a wronged lady gets her own back and everything ending happily ever after with a nice helping of just desserts for the evil perpetrator story that was witty and well observed and entertaining. But this book is far more subtle and intricate and harder to define than that. It turned all of my expectations on their heads and left me shocked but also surprisingly satisfied considering the way things actually work out. In short, The Tortoise and the Hare is a superb read. I say superb rather than wonderful because it is not particularly uplifting or whimsical; instead it is finely crafted and the characters are brilliantly, acutely, perceptively drawn. I felt a part of their world, and I cared (or didn’t) deeply for the people within it. It has been a while since I have read something that both absorbed and unsettled me in a manner that was filled with a quiet suspense and foreboding, like a black cloud on the horizon of an otherwise perfect sky.

The basic plot is as follows: Imogen Gresham is a beautiful and elegant woman in early middle age; the mother of a young son, Gavin, and the wife of a highly successful, wealthy, distinguished and handsome fifty something barrister, Evelyn. They live very comfortably in a large house in the country, and the action is set after the war, in the late 40s. Imogen is placid and kind, brought up to please others and do not much else. She is endearingly hopeless with all household tasks and her son has no respect for her. Evelyn is the model of succesful and efficient masculinity and his exasperation with, yet indulgence of Imogen’s uselessness makes Imogen feel constantly unsure of herself. She means well in all situations, but she is also passive to a fault, and her failure to assert herself or to try to develop the skills she lacks means she is destined to remain ineffectual and a ball of nerves around her son and husband.

Despite all of this, life runs along nicely for the Greshams; Imogen and Evelyn are affectionate to each other, and Imogen adores Evelyn. However, the storm starts to brew when their neighbour, a stout, wealthy spinster of middle age named Blanche Silcox, begins to take an unhealthy interest in Evelyn. Imogen initially thinks nothing of this; she sees nothing in Blanche that could attract a man. However, when Evelyn begins to spend more and more time at Blanche’s house, and even begins doing things for Gavin, the penny drops and Imogen is left floundering, her self confidence shattered, and completely at a loss of what to do. Incapable of forcing a climax, she struggles on, trying to hold things together and reclaim Evelyn’s affection, but the storm must break and when it does, the after effects are far more surprising than the reader could have imagined.

There are plenty of wonderfully drawn supporting characters too; there is the delightful, neglected son of a neighbouring family, Tim, who is Gavin’s playmate, but whose real reason for coming to the Gresham’s is to see Imogen, who he adores. There are also Imogen’s great friends, Paul and Cecil, who are well rounded, touchingly portrayed and thoroughly wonderful.

I greatly enjoyed this book, but I also found it frustrating and rather complex. At times I didn’t know who to sympathise with. Imogen was the wronged woman, and so naturally I felt my sympathies should have been with her, but her passivity and inability to fight back did irritate me to the point where I understood why Evelyn might have wanted to seek the company of a more competent and independent woman. Even Blanche at times was sympathetic; her loneliness and need for affection, as well as her genuine attempts to make people feel comfortable, made me feel sorry for her, and her love of Evelyn and desire to make him happy made me understand why she didn’t think it was wrong to take Imogen’s husband from her. It is a book that plays with your emotions, that questions your prejudices and your sense of what is right and wrong, and shows the blurred lines of morals that govern so many of our lifestyle choices. It was subtle and unnerving and touching and involving and I encourage you all to read it and judge it from your own points of view; as Carmen Callil says in her afterword, the great charm of this book is that each reader can take something different from it. It is certainly far more than a formulaic man has affair – woman finds out – crisis – all ends happily and neatly novel. Conversely, it is very daring in its answers to the issues it raises, exceptionally so considering the time at which it was written, and I think it has become my absolute favourite Virago.

In other news, it is officially Autumn as of today. Seasons of mist and mellow fruitfulness and all of that Keatsian evocativeness. I am looking forward to cold, crisp days and crunching through piles of golden leaves that have fallen onto the pavements, to the smell of wood smoke in the air, to wearing scarves and gloves and having rosy cheeks, to eating fruit crumbles with vanilla custard and drinking lots of spiced chai tea. Delightful.

Charity Shop Loot

I went out on my lunch break today to Brompton Road, ostensibly to buy a dress for a wedding I am going to on Saturday, but somehow I returned back to my office with no dress and a bag full of books. Such is life.

I managed to find, for £2, a pristine copy of The Tortoise and the Hare, which I have been wanting to read since I read dovegreyreader’s marvellous review (and there is another good review from The Times here). The cover leaves a lot to be desired; I really am quite ambivalent about these chick lit covers Virago seems to be using for its re-released Modern Classics; I understand that they’re trying to reach a larger readership and encourage people who wouldn’t ordinarily pick up a Virago author to try something new, but I do wish they wouldn’t try and make every book they publish look like a light and frothy beach read. If I hadn’t have known the true content of The Tortoise and the Hare, I would have dismissed it straight away just by looking at the cover. This would have been the same of my next find; a completely unread looking copy of Jane and Prudence with a bubble gum bright cover depicting two fashionably dressed ladies that lunch, priced at £3 and which will be my first Barbara Pym. I’m rather excited by this one as the blurb is enticing indeed and Philip Larkin said ‘I’d sooner read a new Barbara Pym than a new Jane Austen’, and if Philip Larkin is a fan, I am sure I will be! I was prepared to leave with just these when a lovely hardback of The Spare Room, which I have heard many great things about, caught my eye – £4 only and it slipped into my arms along with the others. I took my first step on to the staircase that would lead me to the ground floor and the till when another book managed to jump off the shelf and into my already full hands; Black Diamonds, a book I sneaked a peek at over someone’s shoulder on the tube a few months ago and it looked marvellous – all about the fall of an eccentric British dynastic family who made their money from coal in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

Then I got back to my office and a colleague gave me a copy of The Journal of Dora Damage, which she is finished with and says I will love (it still surprises me that people are willing to just give away books to other people…maybe I need to get more selfless when it comes to sharing my books). It’s set in Victorian London and is all about a woman called Dora whose family run a bookbinder’s business and when the business gets in trouble she becomes involved in a web of deceit and crime in order to help her family. Sounds wonderful and will probably fit in nicely with the ‘Sensational September’ challenge you’ll read more about below.

So all in all a very good haul for someone not intending to buy any books today, but it now just increases my TBR pile even further, and so the pressure to reduce the pile by reading ever faster. I am going to put this in writing so I actually do it – this month I WILL READ AND FINISH THE CHILDREN’S BOOK. It needs to be read and I need to stop being such a wuss about having to plough through 600 odd pages of the intensity that only A S Byatt can produce and just get on with it. So I shall. I will clear my diary for a few evenings and just sit in and read and I will get it done in no time. There is nothing to be scared of! Nothing at all!

On top of this I have just found Simon at Savidge Reads’ blog and on it he has a Sensational September challenge; a month of reading late Victorian ‘sensation’ novels; the sort that Sarah Waters’ best sellers are based on. This is the perfect excuse to finally get my copies of East Lynne and No Name read, so they will also go on to the TBR pile.

And finally, I got home from work tonight to find two very welcome parcels on the doormat; my win from FleurFisher’s blog draw, Little Boy Lost, which is beautiful and also came with a lovely card depicting Penzance, which was so thoughful. So thank you very much Jane! I also received a book I ordered from Oxfam online the other day, The Peachgrower’s Almanac, which is known as A Proper Education for Girls in the US, and which I read about a while ago and desperately wanted to read, partly because the cover is so beautiful, and also because it sounds like such a fun read!

So clearly I am going to have a busy month, reading wise. I am currently ploughing my way through Daphne Du Maurier’s Hungry Hill and loving every minute of it; it will probably take me until the weekend to finish though, so a review won’t be coming until then.

The Lost Traveller by Antonia White

This time my post is about a traveller with two l’s. And they’re not travelling in time, they’re just lost. Metaphorically. This is because I just read Antonia White’s sequel to Frost in May, which I wrote about here, entitled The Lost Traveller, about the heroine of Frost in May’s journey into young adulthood. Confusingly her name is changed from Nanda to Clara…because White felt like it, apparently, but once you’re past that it is easy to tell that Nanda and Clara are one and the same. I haven’t read White’s autobiography yet but I gather that Nanda/Clara are supposed to be her at their age, and so I assume much of what happens to Clara in this book also happened to White, which makes me feel very sorry for her and anxious to read her autobiography, which I saw in a bookshop for a cheap price the other day, so I may just head back and pick it up.

But anyway, I digress. This is a lengthy yet marvellous book. It has taken me over a week to read it, which is a long time for me, but I have thoroughly enjoyed immersing myself in Clara’s journey from being an innocent, fervent, naive and confused convent school girl to a more sexually awakened, ambitious, intelligent and questioning teenager. Her experiences as she grows from youth to burgeoning adulthood leave her wondering about religion, and love, and what her calling in life is, and why she doesn’t feel as deeply about things as she should, and also struggling with her guilty feelings towards the parents she desires to please but is secretly afraid she doesn’t really love.

This heady, passionate, confusing and often painful time that is being a teenager is perfectly described by White. The often stiflingly close friendships that are ever changing, the hatred of everything our parents hold dear, the dreams and ambitions and attachments and feelings that all come together to cause moments of joy interspersed with grief and self doubt and despair…it’s all there, and it’s so close to the bone that it took me right back to being a 17 year old again, lost and self conscious and eternally worrying over what my future would hold.

It tells of Clara leaving the convent school and going on to sixth form at a London girl’s school, where she makes close friends and dreams of becoming a ‘bluestocking’ and going to Cambridge, but then the war breaks out and she heads off to become a governess, before returning back to London and embarking on a course of events that will turn out to be a terrible mistake, which is the cliffhanger the book ends on. Clara doesn’t do an awful lot, but it’s her emotional life that is the real story here, and the inner turmoil she seems to be permanently in is so vividly described that it made me feel almost like I knew her.

Clara’s story also touches on that of her parents and their mistakes and shortcomings, showing the increasing awareness we have as teenagers and adults that our parents are not perfect and that they have desires and dreams and disappointments too. I found these strands of the story very powerful, and touching. It must have been painful for White to write about her parents, if Isabel and Claude, Clara’s parents, are, as I suspect, a depiction of her own. I felt through the way she describes Clara’s relationship with her mother and father that there was a real sense of regret in the way she had viewed and treated her parents as a teenager. I wonder whether this book helped her come to terms with that.

This is a wonderful coming of age novel, a story not just of one girl, but of every girl, I think. I highly recommend it and I’m looking forward to getting stuck into the next phase of Clara’s life, depicted in The Sugar House.

Illyrian Spring by Ann Bridge

A few summer months spent along the glorious, sunny coast of Italy/Croatia/Eastern European countries that no longer exist in the company of an attractive and talented young man sounds like bliss to me. And it is to Lady Grace Kilmichael too, who heads to the Dalmation Coast with her paintbrushes and a copy of The Stones of Venice to escape her rapidly disintegrating home life. Her husband, a celebrated economist, is having an affair (though it appears to be more of an intellectual than a sexual one) with a woman whose intellectual prowess is far beyond Grace’s; their marriage has become lifeless and Grace feels stupid and useless in her husband’s presence. Her only daughter, Linnet, a beautiful 19 year old, is dismissive of her mother and while she loves her, resents her neediness. Grace realises a radical overhaul of her life is needed, and so she heads off alone to discover who she really is and why her life hasn’t turned out as she had expected.

While in Italy Grace meets a young (22 year old) man named Nicholas, who is also escaping an unsatisfactory home life. He longs to paint but has been forced into architecture by his parents, who only want one artist in the family, and that position is taken by Nicholas’s talentless sister. Grace happens to be a famous painter, but she doesn’t tell Nicholas this when she offers to coach him. As the days go by they develop a cosy intimacy, and as they move on along the coast, they reveal more of themselves to each other and gradually work out who they really are and who they want to be. Grace discovers that she is far more intelligent than she thinks, and that she is loved more than she realised. Nicholas is encouraged in his painting by Grace and gathers the strength to fight for his right to live the life he wants rather than what his parents want. And through all of this a friendship, love and affection grows that gives both Nicholas and Grace a peace and contentment that allows their true natures to blossom, unencumbered by the expectations of those that already know them.

There are more characters than this, and all of them are wonderful, but the real star of the book is the backdrop; Ann Bridge was a diplomat’s wife and was widely travelled, and this shows in her terrifically vivid descriptions of the natural and man made environment along the coast of the Dalmatian region. I am now definitely determined to take a trip to Split (referred to by its Italian name, Spalato, in the book), which sounds like a jewel of a coastal city in Croatia, as well as many of the other towns and villages Bridge mentions.

Frost in May by Antonia White

I have spent a very enjoyable week reading this autobiographical tale of Antonia White’s time in the Convent of the Sacred Heart School in Roehampton, SW London, at the turn of the century, which moved after the war to Surrey and is now known as the very posh and expensive Woldingham School. You’d need a cool £20k a year to send your daughter there these days…no prizes for guessing that it’s no longer run by the Catholic church.

I found a photo of the school (above) in its Roehampton days – I should imagine it’s now either been razed to the ground or become luxury flats. The people in the foreground are the former Queen of Bavaria, born Princess Antoinette of Luxembourg, and her daughters, all of whom were sent to the school to learn how to be good Catholics in the 1930s. The photo dates from 1938. So it’s very interesting to learn that, as Antonia White claims in the book, many of her classmates would indeed have had very privileged and aristocratic backgrounds. I wonder how they coped with the change between home and school…it must have been a big shock to the system.

Anyway…back to Frost in May. I absolutely loved it. It tells the story of Fernanda ‘Nanda’ Grey (to all intents and purposes, White) and her time at the ‘Convent of the Five Wounds’ school. It describes perfectly the closeted and safe environment of school that, when loved as deeply as Antonia White clearly loved the Convent despite all of its faults, becomes a true home from home. The routines, the rituals, the teachers, the hierarchies, the medals and points systems, the joy of being chosen and praised, and the shame of disappointing and falling short of expectations, but also the secret thrill of rebellion, are all so perfectly portrayed. I too loved my school with a passion and it devastated me to have to leave that safe and reassuring routine and the people I had known for seven years. Plus, she manages to evoke perfectly that wonderfully passionate and rebellious teenage soul that longs to be accepted everywhere and forms deep, verging on romantic, attachments to others. I felt completely transported into the teenage Nanda/White’s mind and I found their story totally convincing and enthralling. As a practising Christian (though not a Catholic), I also enjoyed the religious aspects of the story; of her trying to find her own belief, of working out whether it was what she really believed or what she was being told to believe, and her attempts to try and forget herself and put God first, but finding it a constant struggle as she has to search and destroy every sinful thought and desire. I loved her passion and fervour; though how much of it was a true desire to grow closer to God or to simply fit in, keep up with the other girls with ‘true’ Catholic blood (Nanda/White’s father was a convert), is never that clear…I suspect it was more the latter.

I know some people find the treatment of the pupils by the nuns in the book harsh and cruel but I found them really quite kind in their own way. They clearly believed that what they were doing would benefit the girls spiritually and that they would be thankful for the sufferings they had to endure in the end. I didn’t think they came across as enjoying punishing the girls at all. Maybe it’s because I am a Christian and used to self discipline etc, that I don’t find it as shocking and as oppressive sounding as many others have.

All in all it is an entertaining, nostalgic, at times sad, and at time shocking read that will transport you back to those heady days of youth and school…which for me, already seem a lifetime ago. It still surprises me that it’s only been five years since I walked those disinfectant smelling corridors myself, being ordered around by the ringing of a bell.

I highly recommend this, and it is currently in print and can be bought here. Antonia White wrote three ‘sequels’ (though she changed the heroine’s name from Nanda to Clara); The Lost Traveller, The Sugar House and Beyond the Glass, which go on to tell her story after leaving the convent. I am looking forward to reading these, though a brief glance at Antonia White’s wikipedia page suggests they are not going to be a bed of roses!