To Bed With Grand Music by Marghanita Laski

It’s always good to have an excuse to read a Persephone, so thanks to Claire and Verity for Persephone Reading Weekend! And thanks too to Ellen, a dear reader of my blog, who lent me a Persephone to read as I am far from my own collection and the Persephone shop. I have been wanting to read To Bed With Grand Music since it came out, as the very subversive depiction of wartime life intrigued me immensely; no charity bazaars and ration queues and cheery keep the home fires burning spirit are found within the pages of this rather incendiary novel, which will forever have me doubting the rose tinted view of women in wartime that I had previously believed so fervently.

The novel opens with Deborah Robertson and her husband Graham lying in bed the night before Graham is to be shipped off to a cushy office job in Cairo. The likelihood is that Graham will be gone for at least three or four years, and the thought of abstinence for such a length of time is intolerable for him. As such, he promises Deborah that though he may have sex with other women, he won’t truly be unfaithful to her, as he couldn’t possibly fall in love with anyone else. Deborah accepts this, but promises that she will be faithful on all fronts, as she has their little boy Timmy to think of, and she expects that home and hearth will fill her hours tolerably until Graham returns. However, life with Timmy and the housekeeper in a sleepy Hampshire village soon becomes deathly dull for Deborah, who feels taunted by Graham’s jealousy inducing letters of high jinks in Cairo. Deborah decides that she will be a better mother by keeping busy and getting a job to help the war effort. Though her first attempt fails due to her missing Timmy, soon, with her sly and pragmatic mother’s support, she heads off to London to do an office job in the War Office. Little Timmy is left at home with Mrs Chalmers, the elderly housekeeper, and Deborah moves in with her racy old Slade school friend, Mady, whose marriage is all but over and lives a life of glamour and genteel debauchery behind the blackout curtains of wartime London.

At first, after a one night stand she feels sickened by, Deborah sticks to her principles and stays in every night, refusing Mady’s invitations to dinner and parties with handsome men. She lives for the weekend to go home to her little boy, who is increasingly growing apart from her. Eventually, Deborah is swayed by the charms of an American, Joe, whose pregnant wife has asked him not to cheapen their marriage by sleeping with just anyone, and whose feelings about infidelity match Deborah’s own. As long as they don’t fall in love, they are just two people who love their spouses, fulfilling their sexual desires. However, before long, the lines get muddied, and Deborah is being showered with expensive gifts, far beyond Graham has ever had the power to give. Used to the constant attention and companionship, when things end with Joe, she moves on to Sheldon, and then to Pierre, who Deborah asks to teach her how to be a good mistress. It is at this point that Deborah changes from being a naive, lonely woman desperate for companionship and becomes a calculating sexual predator, seeking to charm and seduce any man who comes her way. Her behaviour becomes more and more shocking up until the spectacular end, when it seems that Deborah really does not have any redeeming characteristics about her whatsoever, and her moral compass appears to have become completely and utterly shattered.

Deborah is very much an anti-heroine, a woman whose lack of maternal instincts and predatory, fickle nature would cause many a woman to raise her hackles. She is near impossible to like, identify with, or sympathise with, and her selfishness and lack of conscience are very shocking to read about. She cheerfully lies to Graham, to her son, to her friends, to her mother; she will do anything to get what she wants. However, Deborah is, thanks to Laski’s excellent characterisation, far more three dimensional than a stock pantomime villain. One sentence in this book struck me more than any other – when Deborah reveals to one of her men that she is but 24. That’s the same age as me. If I had been married at 21, become a mother at 22, and left by my husband at 24, stuck in a cottage in the middle of nowhere with no-one but a toddler and an elderly housekeeper for company, I’d be miserable, restless and open to the temptations of glamour and male attention promised by a single life in London too.

Deborah seems so adult that it’s easy to forget that she is a mere child, really. She is naive, easily led, and far too restless to have settled down so young. Her rather odious mother, who is hardly moral or full of motherly affection and wisdom, encourages Deborah’s behaviour by packing her off to London with nary a backwards glance, despite knowing full well what her daughter is like. She has offered little support or company while Deborah has been alone without Graham, and makes no attempt to help Deborah find fulfilment within the domestic sphere. Deborah has no friends, no parental guiding hand, and no-one to turn to except Mady and her string of male admirers. I gathered from Deborah’s rather stuffy and arms-lengthish relationship with her mother that she had never really felt loved by her, and her aborted time of freedom in London to study at the Slade, which ended with her very early and rushed marriage to Graham, who was not the man of riches and glamour she had dreamed of marrying, meant that she didn’t get the opportunity to achieve any of the things she had wanted to for herself. Motherhood and the cares of hearth and home clearly stifled her and made her feel lonely and isolated, and when her opportunity came to live a little, and make the most of the beauty she was blessed with, I don’t really blame her for wanting to take every advantage of it.

By the end, granted, Deborah has become intolerably selfish, greedy and callous, used to the glamorous and commitment free life of a girl about town. However, her transformation is, in some ways, understandable; so trapped was she by the early responsibilities of house, husband and child, that she is terrified at the thought of being confined in the role of wife and mother forevermore, and so she rebels against it as fiercely as she can. While there is no excuse for infidelity and for virtually abandoning your child, at the same time, Deborah is an example of what the limited roles for women and the pressure to marry early during this period could cause. The fact that Deborah would rather spend all night out partying and wake up with a stranger rather than be with her husband and child seems abhorrent, but then we must remember that she is only 24, and already condemned to a life she neither has an aptitude or an enjoyment for. If I consider my life, now, at the same age; living alone in New York, free to do as I please, I can’t imagine having to be responsible for a child and settled with a husband. I’m nowhere near ready for such commitments, and far too selfish to have to submit my desires to the needs of someone else. Deborah is the same, but she didn’t have the option to live as I do. Luckily, with the clocks fast forward to 70 years from when To Bed With Grand Music is set, society no longer compels women to marry young and have no life outside of the home. I am free to fulfil myself how I wish, but Deborah wasn’t, until the war gave her a fresh chance at striking out and fulfilling her desires. Deborah’s desires and behaviour may not be morally right, but they are, to me, anyway, somewhat understandable. Unlike other reviewers, I didn’t find Deborah completely and utterly abhorrent. I felt very sorry for her, in fact. If only she had been born a few decades later, I think she would have had a much happier life.

Also, much is not said in this novel; we never hear about what Graham has been up to in Cairo, and Deborah’s letters, filled with lies, are much the same as Graham’s. Deborah is probably not the only one in their relationship who has been unfaithful, and Graham has hardly had a hard time of it, being billetted to a rowdy and fun loving camp in cosmopolitan Cairo, well out of any danger. Even so, it always seems that female infidelity is more shocking and frowned upon than male; male infidelity is almost expected, and brushed to one side, whereas women who stray are branded as harlots. Graham tells Deborah he will sleep around as if it is an accepted fact that men have ‘needs’ and women don’t; this ridiculous and sexist attitude is, I think, played with quite well by Laski. Graham should be the villain of the piece; he intends from the start to be unfaithful to his wife, whereas Deborah has every intention to remain faithful to her husband. However, we only get to see Deborah’s experiences, whereas Graham’s are reduced to the odd brief letter, behind which any number of lies and infidelities could be hidden. As such, Deborah becomes a paragon of vice and Graham becomes the wronged husband, even though really, he has probably wronged his wife just as much. However, because Deborah is a woman, and a mother, we detest her for her behaviour, and manage to completely excuse the midnight prowlings of poor cuckolded Graham. Interesting, isn’t it?

No matter where you stand on the issue of Deborah’s character, this is an absolutely fascinating, brilliantly written portrayal of a completely different side of wartime life, and Marghanita Laski proves herself once again to be an absolutely phenomenal story teller. Why her books fell out of print, I cannot understand. This has become one of my favourite Persephones; complex, thought provoking, subversive and fascinating, I couldn’t put it down. Read it!

A Persephone for Every Occassion

Hurrah! It’s Persephone Reading Week! Thanks Claire and Verity! I’ve already read my Persephone for the weekend and my review will be appearing at some point over the next couple of days!

There are now nearly 100 Persephones to choose from; a practically impossible task, therefore, to pick the one you most want to read at the right moment. I’ve compiled a little list of my recommendations for different moods; hopefully some of you might find it useful this weekend!

What to read when you’re:

Down in the dumps

An obvious, but necessary choice: Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, without a doubt. You can’t possibly feel sad after reading about Miss Pettigrew’s transformation from lonely, down on her luck nursery maid to glamorous, gorgeous and confident lady about town. In just twenty four hours, Miss Pettigrew’s life has been changed forever, and her story shows that no cause is ever hopeless, and it is never too late to achieve your dreams. Reading this is like dancing on clouds of candy floss while chocolate buttons rain down on you – it’s a magnificently frothy, lightweight, feel good book that will put a smile on your face and sweeten your mood. What’s not to like?

Stuck indoors on a rainy day:

This happens a lot in England, so I know of what I speak. When it’s wet and grey and depressing outside for the fifth day in a row and you really can’t be bothered to face getting soaked through and faff about with an umbrella, then the sofa becomes your dearest friend, accompanied, of course, with a Persephone, to make you forget those grey skies outside your window. The perfect choice for such days is the lovely A Fortnight in September; it might only be two weeks in Bognor (which isn’t as bad as it sounds, I spent a lovely week there once!), but the simple joy and release the  Stevens family find in getting away from their humdrum suburban lives is wonderfully inspiring and heartwarming. It’s pure sunshine for the soul!

Are feeling rubbish at everything:

We all have those days when we feel like a complete and utter failure at life. You oversleep, you miss the train, you’re late for work, you press ‘reply to all’ by mistake, are wearing a hopelessly unflattering outfit, have nothing in the fridge for dinner, and it’s probably raining as well, just to rub things in. Rather than reaching for the ice cream (or really, let’s face it, a bottle of wine), Miss Buncle’s Book can be a great antidote to feelings of total inadequacy. Everyone thought Miss Buncle was a silly old woman and laughed at her – she proved them wrong by writing a bestseller and landing a husband to boot! Miss Buncle is nothing special – she’s just a good hearted woman with a cash flow problem, and she makes the best of what she has and does a very good job of it too. She’s the perfect inspiration for those days when you are feeling less than mediocre.

Need to be reminded that there is good in the world:

Modern life can get you down. It’s a tough world out there, and sometimes, especially when you’re crammed underneath someone’s armpit on the tube/subway, it can all get a bit much. Enter Greenery Street. Greenery Street is one of the most joy filled, positive books I’ve read. It focuses on the wonderful, beautiful things of life; it’s about young newlyweds, freshfaced, hopeful, and in love, and it will restore your faith in humanity and buoy you up with joy. Greenery Street always reminds me that life is good, really, despite all of the rubbish and sadness we often have to put up with. The simple pleasure Ian and Felicity take in each other is so truly lovely, and the feeling I get when I’m reading it is akin to letting go of one hundred colourful balloons and watching them go floating off into the sky; my soul is uplifted.

Are feeling homesick for England:

For those of us Brits who have somehow found ourselves washed up far from the shores of our beloved green and pleasant land, or for those who are simply Anglophiles and long for the damp drizzly island I call home, sometimes you need a healthy dose of quintessential Britishness that won’t be satisfied by just having a cup of tea and a biscuit. On such occassions, you need to reach for a Dorothy Whipple novel. Filled with the uniquely sooty streets of Northern manufacturing towns, rolling hills, stiff upper lips and class divides, they are everything you need to make you feel right at home. Dorothy Whipple’s novels are fantastic microcosms of English life, populated by practical, stoical heroes and heroines, who keep calm and carry on in the face of life’s troubles. I can’t possibly pick a favourite; you must read them all and decide for yourself.

Are in the mood for something a bit different:

So much of modern fiction can begin to feel samey and contrived. Sometimes you want to read something that will genuinely take your breath away, and make you look amazingly intelligent in front of fellow commuters. Fidelity and Brook Evans are rather underread Persephones that left me speechless, shattered and in complete and utter awe. Filled with the sort of heart rending pain and spectacular characters that aren’t written about any more, they are true gems, and perfect for when you’re in a reading rut.

Need some more drama in your life:

Feeling humdrum? You need The Shuttle; pure and simple Victorian melodrama filled with pantomime villains, damsels in distress, spunky heroines and fainting fits aplenty. You can’t fail to enjoy this ripping page turner that paints a fascinating picture of the turn of the century vogue for impoverished English aristocrats to marry American heiresses, and the questionable coincidences and dastardly rakes will have your blood pressure rising and creative juices flowing in no time!

Want to get lost in another world:

Sometimes we all need an escape, and we can’t always afford a holiday. A book can bridge the gap nicely, and The Children who Lived in a Barn really does transport you back in time and into the lives of the Dunnett children, who are forced to live without their missing parents for a summer. Their quaint speech, detailed descriptions of village and domestic life in the 1950’s, and wonderful efficiency that only children brought up in simpler, more austere times could have, will sweep you far and away into another world, and leave you desperate to build a haybox. If you want to know what I’m talking about, you’d better read it!

High Wages by Dorothy Whipple

Sob. High Wages has completed my reading of Dorothy Whipple’s novels. Bar coming across more short stories, or cheap copies of her autobiographical sketches, I have no more new words from Dorothy left to savour. This makes me very sad. However, I have ended on a high; High Wages is so good, I could hardly bear to put it down. I sat up until midnight two nights in a row because I didn’t want to leave the world of Jane Carter and her wonderful shop, so marvellously realised as it is on the pages.  This, her third novel, is somewhat different to her later, meatier, chunksters; this is no domestic family saga, and Jane is neither wife nor mother. High Wages is very much like Young Anne, her first novel, in that it explores the growth of a young girl and her fight for independence, though where Anne gives in to societal expectations and finds herself trapped in a limiting marriage, Jane positively shuns male attention for most of the novel and chooses to spend her time on building up her entrepreneurial talents. She is an invigorating heroine, whose determination and passion are inspiring. I was enthralled throughout, and not only by Jane’s story, but also by the story of the fast changing fashion and retail industries, and the changes in opportunities for women during the early years of the twentieth century.

The novel opens with Jane, a 19 year old orphan working in a haberdashers’,  finding herself forced to seek a live out position when her father dies, as her stepmother isn’t keen on keeping her under her roof.  When she sees that Chadwick’s, a high end haberdashers’ in the neighbouring town of Tidsley, has put up an advert for a shopgirl, her means of escape from her stepmother’s home appears obvious. Filled with excitement at such an opportunity, Jane presents herself and is accepted. She moves into a room above the shop that she shares with her fellow assistant, Maggie, and is deliriously happy as she begins learning her trade in the upmarket Chadwick’s. When Jane starts, it is 1912, and ‘ready-mades’ are only just coming onto the market. As such, everyone in Tidsley still buys fabric and trimmings to have their dresses made up by a dressmaker, and it is Jane’s excellent eye for the right fabric and trimmings to perfectly suit a customer that soon sees her becoming a favourite and bringing in a good income for the surly and stuck-in-his-ways Mr Chadwick.

When Mrs Greenwood, the local society leader, insists that Jane must be sacked due to a misunderstanding or Mr Chadwick will lose her custom, Jane’s skill and gumption enable her to convince Mr Chadwick that she makes more money for him than Mrs Greenwood pays in, and so she keeps her job. This victory gives her the confidence to keep pushing Mr Chadwick for more responsbility and opportunities to bring about change in the old fashioned shop, as she sees the changing methods of merchandising and the rapid rise of ready-mades revolutionising the department stores in the big cities Mr Chadwick never bothers to visit. The years pass and the war disrupts life, but Jane’s indomitable spirit carries on. She decides that she wants to open her very own shop, and when the opportunity arises, she is free to finally be her own boss. Her talent and good sense are able to give her the success she so deserves, but as she soon finds out, success comes at a price…

Oh! There is so much to rejoice about in this book, there really is. Firstly, there is the fascinating insight into the rapid changing of fashions in the Edwardian period. When Jane starts at Chadwick’s, the idea that anyone would buy ready made clothes was unthinkable. Women bought paper patterns, fabric and trimmings from the draper’s, and then had a seamstress make up their clothes to fit; over their corsets and stays, of course. There are so many different fabrics to choose from; crepe, gabardine, alpaca, cotton, silk…I was in raptures at imagining the bolts of shining fabric piled up around Jane and Maggie, with trimmings galore on display, ready to bring an outfit to life. The possibilities of dress when each piece you wore could be made exactly to your requirements; how wonderful the experience of choosing an outfit must have been! Jane’s instinctive eye for cut and colour and drape are what make her such a successful assistant, and when she strikes out into her own dress shop, selling exclusively ready mades, this eye again comes into good use as she sets off to Manchester and London on buying trips. She buys up quantities of sumptious fur coats, beautifully cut skirts, delicate, foamy blouses, and flowing dresses, all of which can’t fail to tempt the local ladies. As underwear became less restrictive, body shapes normalised, and women could buy clothes off the rail and instantly transform their appearance. Jane’s ability to recognise the change in women’s priorities and needs when it comes to fashion is what makes her such a success; unlike Mr Chadwick, who would rather hang on to the traditions of the past, she understands that women can’t go on being draped in layers of fabric and trimmings, trussed up like chickens in corsets and ribbons and crinolines. The clothes she chooses are deliberately simple and supple, embracing the wearer’s movements rather than restricting them. This taste reflects her own free spirit, independence and forward thinking attitude, and her inspirational, light hearted outlook on life encourages the women of Tidsley to branch out and move with the times along with her.

Secondly, Jane’s independence delighted me from the first page. Determined to make her own way in the world, and confident in her own abilities, Jane will not be kept down by the selfish and greedy Mr Chadwick. She knows her skills and she knows her worth, and she pushes to be able to use her talents to the utmost, and to be valued for the treasure she is. She has ambition and drive, and her passion for the retail industry and her joy in serving customers and helping them to make the right purchase is what spurs her on to success. However, she is no cold hearted career woman; she rejoices in the simple pleasures of nature, books, good meals, friendship, and her independence. She is greatly admired by others but her attractive personality and beautiful soul do lead her to be chased by men, who Jane resists with a fierceness that shows just how impossible it was for women at the time to pursue a career and marriage. Jane ultimately chooses her career over love, though it is not always an easy ride; she is a rare role model for the single woman and demonstrates that there is a lot more to happiness and self fulfilment than being part of a successful relationship.

All in all, this is a marvellous page turner of a book that allows a fascinating insight into the life of women and the changing face of Britain throughout the early part of the last century. I just adored it, and I also very much enjoyed Jane Brocket’s illuminating foreword (don’t read it until you’ve read the book, though!) that puts the novel firmly in context. If you’ve never tried Dorothy Whipple, this would be a perfect place to start.

ps. I hope you like my new look! I thought that as I’m changing my life, I might as well change my blog to match!

Miss Buncle’s Book by D E Stevenson

After reading The Secret History and feeling dirty every time I put it down, I knew I would need something much gentler, feel-good and escapist to help cleanse my sullied soul. Into the breach therefore stepped Miss Buncle’s Book, which I had been assured from various quarters was absolutely delightful and loveable and everything else a book should be. I had high hopes on opening it, especially as the endpapers, a beautiful pastel coloured print of a Vanessa Bell fabric design, sung of 1930s sun filled drawing rooms and afternoon tea on the lawn, which are always good associations upon which to begin a book.  By the end of the first page I knew I was in love, and despite sitting on a sweltering beach in Greece listening to the waves lapping the shore (sorry) whilst reading it, the descriptions of the characters and the setting was so convincing and endearing and atmospheric that I felt like I was back in England and walking the streets of D E Stevenson’s beautifully portrayed country village of Silverstream, home to Miss Buncle and her assorted rag bag of neighbours.

The basic premise is wonderful; poor overlooked and underappreciated Miss Buncle, a middle aged spinster who lives comfortably in Tanglewood Cottage with her maid Dorcas, relies on her dividends coming in regularly in order to live in the manner she has been accustomed to since childhood. It’s the early 1930’s, however;the Stock Market has taken a tumble, and Miss Buncle’s dividends have gone down with it. Finding herself with no income, and no feasible means to earn anything (hens have already been discounted), she decides to write a book. Unfortunately she believes herself to possess no imagination, and so she decides to simply write about what she knows; the goings on in Silverstream, and the characters of her various neighbours. However there is an added twist of a magical Golden boy who arrives in the latter half of the book, whose magic enables the inhabitants of Silverstream to cast off the shackles of respectability and live out their wildest dreams, imagined for them by Miss Buncle.

The book is duly written and published by the charming Mr Abbott, who hits upon the name of Disturber of the Peace for Miss Buncle’s incendiary volume, which soon becomes a national bestseller. However, once the book has penetrated Silverstream, and the villagers realise it is they that have been lampooned within its pages, all turns sour and they are determined to hunt down the traitor in their midst who has laid them all open to ridicule. Miss Buncle begins to panic as the overbearing lady of the manor Mrs Featherstone-Hogg, who takes real umbrage at her less than flattering portrayal as the bigoted busybody she is, threatens legal action and mobilises the local community to take action. Despite Miss Buncle admitting her authorship, no one will believe that the silly little spinster from Tanglewood Cottage could ever have written a book, and they insist in pointing the blame directly at the intelligent, no-nonsense ‘outsider’ of the village, Sarah, the Doctor’s wife, who also happens to be the only villager not mentioned in the book. However, when things turn nasty, Miss Buncle realises she has to put an end to all the trouble, and clear Sarah’s name, but how?

In the meantime, the book is doing its rounds amongst the villagers, and whether they recognise themselves in it or not, all of them are changed in some way by reading it. Confronted by their true natures in some cases, and by the things they wish they had the courage to do in others, love, adventure and change begin to sweep through the village, stirring their sleepy souls to achieve their dreams. Miss Buncle herself isn’t immune to the effects of her novel, which truly does disturb the peace of Silverstream, in many ways for the good of its inhabitants, for whom life will never be the same again. This is all thanks to the remarkable capacity for observation and deep understanding of others Miss Buncle has, which no one has ever bothered to realise before, prefering to pigeon hole her as a useless middle aged fool, when really, she has them all down to a tee, and understands them better than they understand themselves.

The book is filled with a great variety of hilarious and eccentric characters, from the pompous Mrs Featherstone-Hogg and her browbeaten husband, to the kindly and sensitive Dr Walker, the catty golddigger Vivien Greensleeves, old romantic Colonel Weatherfield, and the devoted lesbians Miss Pretty and Miss King, plus many more, all of whom come delightfully to life on the pages. The dialogue sparkles, the atmosphere is wonderfully cosy, like being wrapped up in a quilt with a hot water bottle on a cold winter’s day, and despite the threats of the Silverstream residents, you know that nothing bad is going to happen, and you can just sink into the soft and comforting world of Miss Buncle, content in the knowledge that all will work out for the best, and everyone who deserves one will have a perfectly happy ending. Miss Buncle herself is an inspiration; the perfect underdog, she is an example of how dreams can come true, and that you should never underestimate what you can achieve if you put your mind to it. I loved this book so much, and I only wish the irritatingly expensive, out of print sequel Miss Buncle Married had been included as part of the Persephone edition, because I so want to read more! Highly recommended for when you want to escape the world for a few hours – this will become a comfort reading classic for me. It’s the literary equivalent of a nice cup of tea and a sit down – just what you want after a hard day at work. Or, in my case, a hard day sunbathing. 😉

In other news I had the great pleasure of meeting Elaine of Random Jottings at the V&A today; what a lovely lady she is and we had a wonderful chat about books and life and all manner of things! It was so wonderful to finally get the chance to meet her and I do so love it when I meet people I know from online and find they are just as warm and funny and intelligent as they come across from their writing. Plus Elaine was so kind as to bring me her copy of Juliet Gardiner’s The Thirties, which is a real doorstopper and I can’t wait to read it – perfect background reading for all of the 1930’s fiction I’ve been reading of late!

Also, Penny of Life on the Cut Off is the lucky winner of Stone in a Landslide – congratulations!!

House-Bound by Winifred Peck

I have so enjoyed everyone’s Persephone Week posts. It’s been wonderful to read about Persephones that I had previously not known much about, or which had gone under my radar. I especially enjoyed FleurFisher’s review of Marjory Fleming, Teresa’s review of Hetty Dorval, and Verity’s review of Julian Grenfell. It’s also been lovely to find new blogs through Persephone Week and I will be spending some time exploring these over the next few weeks.

I’ve been having a busy week so unfortunately I’ve only just managed the one Persephone, House-Bound, which I briefly touched on in a previous post. However, it was well worth spending a full five days reading it, as there is much more than meets the eye to discover within its pages. I thoroughly enjoyed immersing myself in the story and taking the time to dwell on its many interesting and thought provoking insights on life.

As I said before, this is ostensibly a book about Rose Fairlaw, a middle class wife and mother, learning to run her own home for the very first time due to the shortage of domestic staff available during the war. However, it soon emerged that this was very much a periphery theme compared to the other action within the novel, which centres around Rose and her relationships with various family members. Having lost her adored husband in the first war, and left to bring up their baby daughter Flora alone, Rose made a marriage of convenience to Stuart, the kind widower of her cousin and best friend, shortly afterwards, and became a mother to his  young son, Mickie, in the process. Together they had their own son, Tom, and life drifted on, with Rose and Stuart growing further emotionally distanced from each other as the years progressed. Rose is devoted to Mickie; a delicate child, she lavished care and attention on him, to the unintentional detriment of her biological daughter Flora, causing a rift between mother and daughter that has never been healed. Flora has grown into a demanding, jealous, difficult and proud woman, scorning her family, especially her mother, and spreading ill feeling everywhere she goes. Stuart is incapable of expressing his emotions and Rose relies heavily on her two sons, now soldiers fighting on the front line, for love and support. Theirs is not a happy home, and it is Rose’s realisation of this, and how she goes about changing things for the better, that forms the body of the novel.

Rose sees herself, her husband, and her daughter, as ‘House-Bound’; shut up in their own metaphorical houses with the doors and windows barred, unable to open themselves up to those around them and share the emotional turmoil within. As she learns to clean her physical house, Rose begins to get rid of the clutter inside her own mind and heart, and reach out to the husband she has allowed to become nothing but a fireside companion and the daughter she has never tried hard enough to understand. As the war rages outside of the walls of her home and tragedy strikes the everyday life she used to think of as so quiet and ordinary, Rose becomes dissastisfied with the way she has allowed herself and her relationships to become and dares to hope that she can make a new start of things. The more the foundations of her world are shaken, and the more uncertain her future appears, the richer Rose’s world becomes, as she learns to listen and act upon the desires of her heart, and break down the barriers of an old world order of decency and convention that have prevented her from expressing herself for so long.

This book was not what I had expected; I thought it would be a humourous, Provincial Lady style account of how a useless woman became domesticated, and though it does have its moments on this front, really, it’s nothing like that at all. It’s such a subtle, thoughtful, and heartfelt story about the importance of being true to yourself, and about daring to take risks in order to develop meaningful, rich relationships with those we love. At times it is hilariously funny, but at others it is almost unbearably sad, and frustrating, and painful; I was moved to tears at several points. Peck is also absolutely wonderful at exploring the often complicated relationships between siblings,  parents and children, and husbands and wives, showing how easy it is for jealousy, complacency and habit to creep in and rob relationships of emotional intimacy and true understanding. I cannot more highly recommend it. It is not all that it appears on the surface, but it is better for it, and it is a truly marvellous, sensitive, and powerful novel that really does give you food for thought on a lot of fronts.

As promised, I am also happy to report the immense success of the wonderful Jane Brocket’s talk at the V&A Women’s Institute on Monday; we were all simply enchanted by her, and awe struck by the beautiful quilts she showed us that are featured in her new book, pictured with House-Bound at the top, The Gentle Art of Quiltmaking. Jane very kindly gave me a copy to keep, and I have been so inspired by it; I can’t wait to try out one of her designs, but I might want to finish my current project first – just give me 20 years! Jane spoke to us about how and why she started her blog, and about the process of getting published, and where she got her ideas from. She also shared how she has learnt a lot as she has gone along, and how she is by no means an expert at a lot of the things she does, such as knitting and quilting – hard to believe from the lovely things she makes! What I loved the best was her insistence that you don’t have to be perfect or do things the ‘right’ way all the time – making things you love for yourself is not about being faultless, but about creating something lovely, and if you can’t do it perfectly or want to take shortcuts, it doesn’t matter! This made me feel so liberated and inspired to just give things a go – if Jane can do it, so can I!  Her passion and dedication, and her ability to inspire and encourage others, is, in my opinion, why she has made such a success from her creative skills. It was such a pleasure to listen to her speak and also to meet her, and my admiration for her has only grown!

In other news, thank you very much to everyone who wished me a happy birthday for yesterday. Despite being at work I had a lovely day, and amongst other things, I got two gorgeous new books that I am very excited about – Nancy Mitford’s Wigs on the Green, and Richard Yates’ Collected Stories, courtesy of my sister. I also got a swish new camera (thanks Mum and Dad!), which means I can take photos again! Hurrah! So a very good haul, and you know what? I don’t even feel any older!