Harriet by Elizabeth Jenkins

I always look forward to the new Persephone books; the glee of opening the pristine dove grey cover to reveal the beautiful endpapers and a story that I know I will find fascinating, entertaining and thought provoking is second to none. These are books written with a solid craftmanship rarely found in the modern novel. Unlike today’s bestsellers, they are not attempts to be controversial, flashy or clever. They are not the product of authors who have been on expensive creative writing courses and write with one eye on a prize depressingly sponsored by a corporate giant who has nothing to do with the world of literature.  They have no agenda; they are purely and simply good stories, written with passion.  I have never been disappointed by one yet.

The latest Persephone is Harriet (1934) by Elizabeth Jenkins, whom many of you will know as the author of the superb The Tortoise and the Hare. It is a fictionalised account of the life of Harriet Staunton, a woman with learning difficulties who died from neglect at the hands of her husband and siblings-in-law in the 1870s.  Harriet, who becomes Harriet Woodhouse in the novel (many people have argued that this is a nod to Harriet Woodhouse in Emma, which I am intrigued by and there is a very good analysis here), was brought up in the comfortable surroundings of wealthy middle class suburbia by a kind and indulgent mother who sought to protect and help her beloved only daughter as much as she possibly could.  Harriet loved luxury; she especially loved fine clothes, fine food and fine surroundings. Her limited intelligence meant that she could be difficult, but by and large she was a sweet and good girl who was totally dependent on her mother into adulthood. In return, her mother was determined to ensure that she lived as fulfilling a life as possible, and never denied her anything that brought her pleasure.

From time to time Harriet’s mother, Mrs Ogilvy, sent Harriet off to various relatives to stay for a short while. Mrs Ogilvy only trusted Harriet with family; she was due to gain a substantial inheritance on the death of her late father’s sister, and Mrs Ogilvy did not want Harriet taken advantage of.  As such, she thought nothing of sending her off to Penge, in South East London, to stay with a cousin for a few weeks when Harriet was in her early 30s. Mrs Hoppner was living in genteel poverty with her beautiful, selfish and sulky teenaged daughter Alice, and the money she received for Harriet’s bed and board came in very handy, especially as she needed some extra cash to help out her older daughter Elizabeth and her husband Patrick, who lived a hand to mouth existence nearby with Patrick’s brother Lewis Oman (Staunton).

Patrick and Lewis were devoted to one another; Patrick especially was in awe of his older brother and would have done anything for him. Both the Hoppner sisters had been captivated by the enigmatic but penniless brothers, who thought the world owed them a favour and despised their poverty. Elizabeth lived for her husband, and thought he could do no wrong; Alice adored Lewis and couldn’t wait for the day when they would marry. The brothers and Alice especially had a desire for fine things and a sense of entitlement that outstripped their meagre backgrounds; Elizabeth resented the fact that Patrick could not have everything he wanted. Poor Harriet unwittingly stumbled into this family group of desperate, selfish individuals, whose love for and dependence upon one another excluded consideration for any other human being. As soon as Lewis found out about Harriet’s money, he hatched a plan to marry her; artfully, he insinuated himself into her affections, lavishing her with attention and praise. Harriet was soon under his spell, and Mrs Ogilvy was powerless to intervene. Within weeks of meeting Lewis, Harriet was his wife.

With Harriet’s money in his pocket, he packed her off to live in the country with Elizabeth and Patrick, setting Alice up in a house nearby. At first Harriet is treated with some decency, but as her mind degenerates from lack of care, and her imperious, demanding and fractious behaviour becomes a real burden, the four conspirators turn on her. She is an inconvenience and has ‘no right’ to what they think she cannot appreciate; her behaviour and inability to communicate properly lead them to believe that she has no feelings and no ability to love as they do. Alice especially resents her beautiful clothes; why should ugly, simple Harriet get to swan around in sumptuous dresses while she is forced to wear rags? Elizabeth initially feels guilty, but seeing Patrick inconvenienced by Harriet ignites her anger, and her desire to make Patrick happy overrides her morals. After a while, it all seems so sensible, so natural, so right, to deprive Harriet…it is never an active decision, but by mutual unspoken agreement, they all abdicate their moral obligations and turn a blind eye to the suffering that is under their noses in order to further their own interests. Consequences are never considered…until it is far too late.

This is an incredibly disturbing and gripping tale of how selfishness and prejudice can overpower reason and morality and turn perfectly ordinary people into monsters. Jenkins does not blame and she does not vilify; she presents an impressively even-handed picture of the minds of people who have thoughts and reactions that really do seem quite reasonable under the circumstances. It is frightening to read because there are glimmers of things we all think underneath the surface of the Omans’ reasoning; we are all very good at turning a blind eye to the distasteful, after all. We avert our eyes when asked for money by the homeless, we turn over the television when the images of starving children get too distressing; we don’t want to have such unpleasantness encroach on our nice, safe little lives. We don’t actively plan to be cruel; we just choose to look away. Just as everyone does in Harriet.

So, was it murder? Well, I can’t answer that, and neither does Jenkins. Instead, in her sympathetic and fair portrayal of both Harriet’s difficult nature and the grinding poverty and possessive love of the Omans, she leaves us with the highly unsettling impression that perhaps we wouldn’t have behaved all that differently. Despite the subject matter, this really is unputdownable, and incredibly thought provoking. It’s become one of my absolute favourite Persephones. You can read the afterword here, in The Observer. If I haven’t convinced you, that will!

Heat Lightning by Helen Hull

Making a new author discovery is both wonderful and anxiety inducing. Having adored the first book of theirs you came across, and knowing very little of their reputation or oeuvre, how can you approach their work for a second time with anything other than trepidation?! I need not have been worried about Heat Lightning, however; it is just as magnificent as Morning Shows the Day and left me once again surprised that Helen Hull has fallen into that terrible black hole entitled ‘mid century woman novelist’, where she has the excellent company of too many others who are equally undeserving to be consigned to such a dark and impenetrable fate.

I digress. Heat Lightning is set over a scorching week in a sleepy, faded Midwestern town. Amy Norton has come back to stay with her parents and take a ‘rest’ from her busy life in New York, but little do her family know that their glamorous and successful daughter is really running from a marriage that is falling apart and a life that does not make her happy. Hoping for a chance to get some peace and clarity, Amy has returned to the fold of the Westover clan, the most prominent family in this once prosperous farming community. However, times have changed since she has been gone and her sprawling family is splitting at the seams. Amy’s restful holiday becomes anything but as she finds herself drawn into the complicated affairs of her uncles, aunts and cousins, and rather than escape her own difficulties, she realises she must face them, and the flaws in her personality and approach to life that have contributed to bringing them about.

This is a novel about so many things, so perfectly expressed. It touches at the core of life, bringing flashes of illumination to the hidden questions that run, dormant but pulsing, under the surface of our existence. What is it that holds families together, when we are all such a diverse pool of different personalities with a multitude of needs and desires that are usually at odds with those of others? Can we ever really understand the people our parents are, separate from their relationship to us, and would we want to if we could? How do we learn to grow into the people we need to become in order to cope with the responsibilities of our adult lives? And how much do we really know about the people we love the most; the lives they have lived before we came into them, the secret vulnerabilities and fears that haunt them? Life, our pasts, love, and our relationships with one another are so fraught with difficulty and confusion and misunderstanding that at times we can find ourselves lost in the midst of our own existence, fighting to work out who we are, where we have come from, and where we are going. Who can we turn to, and where do we look for answers?  Amy has run home to look for hers, in the comforting surroundings of her mother’s living room and her grandmother’s porch, and over the course of what will be a tumultuous, stormy week, she will see flashes of inspiration in the words and actions of those who raised her, giving her just enough light to see the way forward.

Helen Hull’s writing is exquisite, evocative, ripe for the picking; every line is beautifully crafted, every character teeming with life. She effortlessly paints a picture of a dappled, sun bleached town filled with clapboard houses and grey dust, peopled by housewives in printed calico and sulky teenagers quivering with frustration. As her characters clash and struggle, so does the world outside of them, as the depression hits and all financial security is lost. Amy, come from the big city to shelter in this backwater, comes to realise that there is no escape from the realities of life; they are just as prominent in the rural Midwest as they are in Midtown. This sort of domestic, ‘small town’ tale is woefully underappreciated by the literary establishment; like Dorothy Whipple, Helen Hull’s perception, her clarity of expression and her ability to tease out the quiet, unspoken thoughts and fears that ripple under the surface of each of our lives is magnificent. Like it or not, most of our lives are lived out in our homes, amongst the people we are related to, and it is within this domestic arena that the real drama and struggle and flight of life reigns supreme. It takes true skill to rivet the heart and mind while remaining within the four walls of the family home, and I can’t praise Hull’s abilities enough. I’m ready for a Helen Hull revival! Who’s with me?!

The Village by Marghanita Laski

The Village was the final Persephone Laski I had to read, and it’s taken me an age to get around to reading it. What I love about Laski is how diverse her novels are; each one has an entirely different tone and style, and I never know quite what to expect when I begin reading. The Victorian Chaise-Longue is surreal and slightly off-kilter; Little Boy Lost is understated and terribly moving; To Bed with Grand Music is brilliant and shocking. What then, would The Village be?

The Village is a portrayal of life in a rapidly surburbanising village in the days immediately following the end of the Second World War. The opening pages are fascinating, showing a side of war that was not much written about. Amidst the gleeful dancing and the fireworks and bonfires that signal a world that can once again breathe freely, there is a sense of melancholy, and of confusion. Those who were given a role and a purpose by the war are now left with nothing to fill their days. Women from either end of the social spectrum bonded through duties and shared griefs; now those bonds have been broken and their friendships must end. Life is free to go on as it was, at long last, but the sad fact is that many no longer have the money, the strength or the heart to continue as they did in the halcyon days before the war. The village of Priory Dean may once again be at peace, but its residents most certainly are not.

The plot revolves around the burgeoning relationship of two teenagers; Margaret Trevor, part of the old money, upper class set who live in the big houses on Priory Hill, and Roy Wilson, son of Margaret’s mother’s old char lady, Edith, who lives in the working class settlement of houses on the Station Road. During the war, Wendy Trevor, Margaret’s mother, and Edith Wilson developed a close friendship through spending many a night on their Red Cross duty together. However, now the war is over, the women go back to their respective social sets and observe the invisible divide between them religiously.

Wendy is an incorrigible snob, despite being a perfectly nice person; she is determined to preserve her family’s status as being upper class despite the fact that her husband’s war injury and the failure of their smallholding means they have barely two pennies to rub together. Ashamed of their poverty and refusing to ask for help, the Trevors economise as much as possible, but the stress of it all sends Wendy into a nervous breakdown. In the meantime, the working classes are on the up; Ray Wilson earns more in a week than the Trevors have to live on in a month, and Miss Moodie, who used to run the draper’s shop, has sold up and moved to a fancy house next door to the Trevors, much to everyone in Priory Hill’s shock and disbelief.

Into this melee comes some new neighbours; Ralph and Martha Wetherall are fresh from America and full of new money. Their indifference to the social niceties is deplored by the Priory Hill set, but the Wetheralls pity their impoverished neighbours, who don’t seem to realise that the war has killed off their way of life. Their presence in the village demonstrates the infiltration of change, as does the new housing estate springing up on the other side of the village green. However, the real bombshell is yet to come; when Margaret and Roy’s romance is made public, it is clear for everyone to see that they cannot go back to the way things used to be.

The Village really is an eye opening exploration of just how much the class system infiltrated and dictated British society in the early and mid 20th century, and how much things changed after the war (some would say things still haven’t changed much, though!). The working classes were finally able to earn a real wage, and build a more prosperous future for their families. They were able to move into nicer neighbourhoods, mingling with the middle and upper classes who, unable to adapt to the times, were now often poorer than the people they considered to be beneath them. Laski’s contemporary viewpoint is fascinating and evocative of a time of real uncertainty; while The Village appears to be a rather straightforward tale of post-war suburban life, it is actually a dissection of a huge societal upheaval, and a refreshingly real depiction of the scars the war left behind. I wouldn’t say it’s Laski’s best, but it’s still a compelling read and one I would highly recommend.

Greenbanks by Dorothy Whipple

Persephone’s other new novel for the Autumn/Winter is Dorothy Whipple’s Greenbanks. I’ve read it and reviewed it before, and I said then that Greenbanks was my favourite Persephone so far. Now, having read them all, my position still hasn’t changed; Greenbanks, despite being only her second novel (written in 1932) is, in my opinion, the best and most representative of her skills as a novelist. Spanning the lives of three generations of the Ashton family, from the early 19th century to the 1920s, its tenderness and gentle perception of humanity are moving, illuminating and so true, and the characters are completely absorbing. I could hardly bear to close the pages when I finally got to the end, and I was left in awe of how fine an author Whipple is. I’m so glad that this will now be easily available.

Louisa Ashton is the centre of Greenbanks; in her fifties, she lives in the eponymous large, comfortable house in the nondescript Northern town of Elton with her husband Robert and three of her adult children. Three more have flown the nest; Thomas and Rose are married and live with their spouses and children far from home, but Letty, married to Ambrose, has settled just a few yards away. As her own children have grown older and away from her, Louisa’s opportunities to lavish her maternal love are dwindling, and she is entering a phase of her life where she is feeling largely role-less. Into the breach steps Rachel, Letty’s young daughter, and it is the unwavering bond between grandmother and granddaughter in a rapidly changing world that forms much of the narrative arc of the novel.

This is a character heavy novel, and there is a large and intriguing cast of children, children in law, grandchildren and family acquaintances who all vie to control Louisa’s attention, affections and actions. The dynamic between Louisa’s adult children regarding who ‘deserves’ their mother’s leniency and efforts is especially expertly drawn. After Louisa’s errant husband Robert dies, Ambrose, Letty’s overbearing, staid husband who believes he knows best in all circumstances, takes over the running of Louisa’s finances and also steps into the role of head of the family, directing the futures of his wife’s siblings as well as his mother in law. Everything has to be done his way, and his total blindness to how he is smothering the spirits of everyone around him in his pursuit of perfection is brilliantly portrayed.

There are so many competing plots and characters that it is impossible for me to mention them all; one I do want to mention is Whipple’s exploration of the changing role and expectations of women. Louisa’s marriage was a failure; she married Robert as a teenager in the late 1800s and lived a life of a typical Victorian wife. She turned a blind eye to his infidelities, ran his house and brought up his children; passion, fulfilment and equality never came into it. In a rapidly changing world, Louisa’s daughters expect more than that, but Letty certainly doesn’t have it; her constant longing to escape, to be by herself and not have her life directed to her by a man she feels no passion for, is incredibly poignant. Letty’s sister Laura throws over her fiance after a silly argument and marries a rich man she despises for a position and a home of her own, but she soon realises her mistake and becomes desperately unhappy.

Laura is more daring than Letty and manages to make a life on her own terms, but Letty spends hers unfulfilled, lonely and pushed into a corner by a man who believes that his way of achieving happiness must be everybody’s. Alongside these women is the story of Kate Barlow, whose early fling with a married man and consequent illegitimate pregnancy and banishment from society has haunted her all of her life. As time moves on and standards and expectations change, her shame begins to become irrelevant to a new generation, and the attitudes Louisa’s contemporaries had about marriage and fidelity and expectations of life for women are radically upturned by their children and grandchildren. Whipple’s quietly feminist unfurling of the limitations of women’s lives and the cage marriage could so often be for those who made unwise decisions is fascinating, revealing and very moving, and I thoroughly enjoyed being drawn into these women’s lives and sharing in their struggles to find their own ways towards a personal sense of freedom.

For a largely uneventful novel that records the slow passing of time and day to day thoughts and feelings of an extended family group, Greenbanks is full of happenings, and as such it is rich and wonderfully dense, like a fruitcake. Life is not easy for the characters; there is sorrow, heartache and pain; but there is also much everyday joy in the simple pleasures of life and in the love shared between mothers and their children. Louisa is a remarkable matriarch, who radiates love and devotion, and Rachel is the epitome of glowing, straining, eager youth, sprinting ahead into a bright future. Greenbanks is a place of safety, an unchanging hub from which Louisa rules with a soft hand and a warm heart over the children she both loves and struggles to understand, and never stops wanting happiness for. It is ‘home’ in the true sense of the word, and despite all of the change and sadness and struggle its inhabitants face, it remains true, much like Louisa. This is a beautiful evocation of the power of motherly love and the skill and devotion involved in creating a home that welcomes and soothes children even when they have become parents themselves, and every time I read a Whipple I find it terribly sad that she didn’t have children herself, as she seems to understand the qualities of mothering exceptionally well.

Greenbanks is a chronicle of a family’s life, but it is also a chronicle of English life, and how it changed so much between the turn of the century and the end of WW1. As horizons widened, expectations and attitudes expanded, and types like Ambrose became obsolete. Women like Letty knew they could have more, and girls like Rachel could dream of a future where marriage was not a curse, but a blessing to be enjoyed alongside many other aspects of a full life. It’s such a quietly, powerfully beautiful novel that is a commentary on motherhood, relationships, the nature of home, marriage, self awareness, suffering, happiness and grace, and I just found it completely and utterly absorbing. It is a magical, wonderful novel that lingers with you for a long time after the pages have closed, so tight do its characters weave their way around your heart. This is writing as its finest, and most touching; it gets to the core of life, and affirms its beauty and worth and potential. It really is something quite special, and you must read it. My grateful thanks go to Persephone for sending this to me for review – from today it is available to purchase, so please go and put your orders in now!

No Surrender by Constance Maud

No Surrender is one of Persephone’s new books for the Autumn/Winter. It is being republished one hundred years after it was written, and is a striking document of the women’s suffrage movement. What makes it particularly interesting is that when it was published, the granting of a vote to selected women was still seven years away, and so Constance Maud had no guarantee that the movement would be successful. As such her prose is passionate and earnest, and her portrayal of the unjust suffering women went through in prison in order to make a stand for their beliefs is incredibly powerful.

The plot centres around two women from two different classes; Jenny Clegg is a Yorkshire mill hand who is drawn to the women’s movement in order to gain equal wages and rights for working class women, and Mary O’Neil is an Irish aristocrat, moved by the plight of the working women she has seen and incensed by the limited role her class gives to women. The two are thrown together after Mary tours Jenny’s mill while on a visit to her relatives who own them, and Mary is inspired by Jenny’s fervour. Mary is already a part of the women’s movement, and she convinces Jenny to join. After showing much promise as a public speaker in the North, Jenny is summoned to London, and there her adventures as a militant suffragette begin.

It is a frustrating movement to be part of; the women are fighting against wider public opinion, and not just that of the men, who fear for their own hold over the country if women dare to get involved in the running of it; but of many women too, who consider the fight for the vote unladylike, hysterical and going against the natural social order. However, the majority of women who are against – or ‘Anti’ – female suffrage are of the upper classes, and have no concept of the suffering of women outside of their social sphere, who are paid much less than their male counterparts and have no rights over their children or property. Their comfortable lives revolve around dinner parties and social calls; their husbands bring home the money and make all the decisions, and they are content with such a passive existence. They see women’s role as being within the home, and nothing more; the very notion of women having an equal footing with men on the world stage is enough to send them into a frenzy of fear. What would a world look like where women could compete with men and were no longer treated as delicate, gentle beings, having all their material wants taken care of by their male relatives? It is simply unimaginable, and something the Antis will do anything to stop.

Meanwhile, Jenny and Mary are busy getting themselves imprisoned for their cause and going on hunger strike, and are converting people left, right and centre by their calm and reasonable arguments that demonstrate the good sense of giving women the vote. Women from nations that have already been granted the vote are drafted in to make their case of how well they have used their vote to benefit everyone, including men. High society girls stage protests in dining rooms; banners are surreptitiously stitched for bazaars in suffragette colours; unsuspecting MPs are ambushed in country churches on Sunday. No longer content to sit in stuffy drawing rooms or stand at mills for hours all day while men get to go out and play an active role in the world, or share their own working lives but get paid more for it, the militant suffragettes like Mary and Jenny are determined to do whatever it takes to make their voices heard.

Books written during the suffragette movement are rare; as such, Constance Maud’s didactic and often cliched prose can be excused to a certain extent as what she has to say is so fascinating and informative. I had no idea of the conditions women prisoners were kept in, and of the horrible nature of force feeding. I found the novel especially eye opening for its portrayal of the ‘Anti’ movement, headed up by upper class women who were afraid of having their place as the fairer sex – the ‘angel of the house’ – destroyed and the chivalry and protection they were used to benefiting from eroded as women took a more equal position in the working and political worlds. I could understand their fear, but I could understand more the frustration of those women who were desperate to have their voices heard and a chance to improve their own lot in life. Having to deal with the obstruction of silly, misinformed and selfish women who wanted the world to stay the same because they didn’t want their pampered lives to change must have been simply infuriating.

Overall, No Surrender is a thought provoking and intriguing look at the arguments surrounding the women’s suffrage movement, but I do have to say that as a novel, it doesn’t quite work. The characters are rather one dimensional; they are just there to serve the purpose of hammering Maud’s political arguments home, and the attempt at forcing a romantic plot into the mix is rather clumsy and unconvincing. Judging from the preface, however, Persephone know this and are publishing it regardless because of its historical importance, and I can’t say I disagree with them. Despite my reservations, it is a fascinating and unique chronicle of the women’s suffrage movement, written at a pivotal point in its history, and is a stark reminder of the inequalities women were and still are subject to in the so called ‘modern’ age. Reading No Surrender did shock me by demonstrating that, in many ways, attitudes Maud reports in 1911 are still in existence today.  I think that, one hundred years on, Maud, who was so hopeful about the potential of a world with politically active women in it, would be disappointed at the gender pay gap and lack of women in positions of political and economic power in 2011. No Surrender might not be the finest novel in the Persephone canon, but it certainly provides much food for thought, and I would say it is an essential read for anyone interested in women’s history or the suffrage movement.

I was very kindly sent No Surrender to review by Persephone Books. It will be published in late October, along with Dorothy Whipple’s sublime novel Greenbanks, which I have just re-read and will review shortly. I warn you now – get your pre-orders in, because you won’t want to wait a minute longer than necessary to start reading it when it is released!