Dorothy, London, and a very good Brownie

I am currently lying on the sofa feeling excessively exhausted after a long day in London. I stayed at my friend Emma’s in Hackney last night, and we went to a wonderful independent cinema called the Rio in trendy Dalston to watch Penelope Cruz’s new film Broken Embraces. It was interesting and absorbing and very funny in places; if you don’t mind reading subtitles do go and see it.

Today we decided to go to St Paul’s as neither of us had ever been, and it was, while a bit overpriced (£11!!), an absolute delight. Stunning workmanship all round, with the most terrific mosaics on the ceilings and imposing marble sculptures on the monuments to long forgotten dead soldiers. We went up to the Whispering Gallery which was nearly 300 steps and my poor calves are certainly feeling it now, but it was well worth it for the view down into the cathedral floor; it was just magnificent. And it’s true that you can hear a whisper travelling round the walls – I don’t know how it works but it does, and Emma and I had far too much fun than 23 year olds should have whispering our names to each other across the dome! Then we went even further up to the outside observatory which has beautiful panoramic views across London. It’s such a higgledy-piggledy city from the sky, with old buildings jostling for space with huge new glass skyscrapers that are appearing as if from nowhere all over the place, but it has a beauty all of its own and I felt quite proud of my majestic city when I was up there, looking down over it.

After St Paul’s we went to see the ruins of Christ Church Greyfriars, which was bombed in the Blitz. Now only bits of the external walls, the tower and the empty windows remain, and it really is incredible to see this relic of wartime London nestling amongst modern office buildings. It was quite moving to stand there and look at the blank windows and think of the terror that must have been felt by ordinary Londoners as they watched their homes and buildings they loved destroyed in seconds around them by bombs that fell indiscriminantly from the sky.

After this and a spot of lunch we went to the Courtauld and saw the wonderful Beyond Bloomsbury exhibition, all about the Omega workshops. They had some gorgeous textiles on display, and I spotted a couple of Persephone endpapers – those for The Wise Virgins and William – An Englishman. The creativity and daring of these artists, among them Roger Fry, Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant, was really quite breathtaking, considering they were working in a pre war England that was still very Victorian in its design tastes. The fluid lines, geometric patterns, bright colours and plenty of nubile female forms were really so beautiful, and I wished I could bring some of the fabrics home with me. Of course at the time the Omega Workshop was very expensive to buy from – the accompanying leaflet notes that a small rug would have set its owner back £600, which would have put their products out of most people’s price ranges. This illustrates the contradiction in the Bloomsbury Group’s values, I suppose; they wanted to break away from the world of their wealthy, class conscious, Victorian parents, and enjoyed living in almost socialist communes, but they still could not do without maids and their work was not accessible to the lower orders of society; their novels and art might have been groundbreaking, but they were also designed for an implied audience of an educated, privileged, wealthy and cultured elite. Since reading Alison Light’s excellent Mrs Woolf and the Servants, I have seen the Bloomsbury Group in a new light; their snobbery towards those less educated and wealthy as themselves has made me look at their work in a new way. They might have wanted to shake things up a bit, but their desire for change and reform was never, it seems to me anyway, designed to help anyone else but themselves have more fulfilling and, certainly in many of the group’s member’s cases, more sexually free lives.

After the Courtauld I was inspired by Claire’s post about being invited for tea at Bea’s of Bloomsbury by Nicola Beauman to go to there myself for tea and cake, and so Emma and I trotted off down Kingsway to get ourselves something tasty. I had a chai latte and a delicious brownie, and Emma had tea and a strawberry vanilla cupcake, which was equally scrumptious. It is highly recommended, though if you go do reserve a seat first – we were ousted onto the pavement as there were no tables!

And, as we ended up very near to the Persephone shop (though we didn’t go to it today), now is the perfect time to make the seamless transition into a book review. For Persephone Reading Week, which is now literally last week’s news, I read Dorothy Whipple’s The Closed Door and Other Stories, and my goodness, was it a marvellous read. I knew I would love these stories as Dorothy can do no wrong in my eyes, and I actually want to be Dorothy Whipple (but an alive version) whenever I read one of her novels, because I want to be able to write in such a wry, well observed, compassionate and engrossing way myself. I simply can’t believe that her books have been left to languish out of print and forgotten for so long. It is sacrilege. But anyway, back to the stories. Each one is a magnificent, perfectly constructed gem. A couple are fairly long, about sixty pages, but the others are only a few pages each, yet within those pages, a whole world is unfolded before you. They are each about family relationships and most of them featured a suffocated child living with selfish parents, trapped within the walls of home and desperate to get out. Another, Wednesday, was about a woman separated from her children through divorce and the pain she feels at only getting to see them on a Wednesday, and the distance growing between her and the children who seem to care a little less each time that she is no longer a part of their everyday lives. The Closed Door, the opening story, was probably my favourite, but they are all so remarkably powerful and touching stories of the suffering ordinary human beings can cause others through their selfishness that I had to just sit back after reading some of them and think..my goodness…this woman is a genius. It is easy for some to cast her off as a woman writing about mundane everyday things, but while she does write about the everday she also writes about the everyman; the secret selfish thoughts we all have, our desires, our despairs, our capacity to love deeply and selflessly when the spirit moves us…she saw people, the good and the bad, did Dorothy Whipple, and she wrote about life in a way that makes the ordinary extraordinary, and that is why I love her so. I am on tenterhooks waiting for Persephone to print High Wages…it can’t be long to wait now!

Photo accompanying is of my copy ofThe Closed Door and Other Stories, as well as a leaflet and postcard from the Bloomsbury exhibition.

*The photos of London are not mine – I forgot my camera today so they are substitutes from online. Just thought I should make that clear!

A Latecomer to the Festivities

As much as I loved getting away from it all in Bath last week, I was disappointed that my holiday clashed with Persephone Reading Week, and I couldn’t take part as I would have liked to. I’m now caught up on all of the action, however, and I have taken great joy in exploring everyone’s reviews, many of Persephones I have not read, and observations on Persephone Books in general. Thank you, Verity and Claire, for organising such an enjoyable event, and I can’t wait for next year’s already!

Persephone is a rarity in that, as much as it is a publishing house, it is also like a private club; those who empathise with the ethos of Persephone and fall in love with the books it prints are drawn into the company of others who feel the same, and find that they have much more in common than just an adoration of these elegantly packaged forgotten gems. An online community has sprung up; friendships have been formed, books have been sent across oceans to keep the Persephoneless fed, new literary loves have been found, all because of one woman’s passion for ‘silly woman novelists’. And aren’t we all immensely grateful for her passion, and for the day we all separately came across the existence of a charming little shop down a sidestreet in Bloomsbury?

Persephone’s carefully chosen novels are so important to me because they express my outlook on life. The importance of a comfortable home, a loving family, loyal friends; of courage in the face of adversity; of love; of laughter; of taking joy in the small things – stopping to notice the beauty of a tree in its autumn splendour, the pleasure of eating a freshly made cake, the happiness that comes from giving someone else a reason to smile, and of embracing life with everything we have and understanding that happiness is not something to be pursued, but instead a state that everyone can live in, when they accept and enjoy the life they have, rather than the one they have not.

Persephone books contain the stuff of life itself; of real life, of the everyday, in all its mundanity and dullness, of all its disappointments and lack of glamour, and perhaps it is because of this that they fell out of favour and so out of print, necessitating their rescue by a modern audience desperate to read about characters who have lives like theirs, rather than the sensation driven, beautiful people filled books with Happy Endings that seem to have saturated the market in the post war years. For as much as life is wonderful, and glorious, and joyful, it is also tedious and dull at times, and it is good, no; marvellous, to know that I am not the only one who looks across the rooftops of London whilst doing yet another load of washing up and wonders…is there more for me out there than this?

And so it is always with great delight that I pick up a new Persephone, as I can be safe in the knowledge that I will enjoy it, and there will be someone, somewhere to discuss it with afterwards. That someone will probably also have enjoyed it, and will also love many of the other things I do; crafts, art, museums, theatre, travels, obscure authors…this is not to say that those of us who love Persephone are not a diverse bunch, not at all; but we all do seem to share many core interests, which is a wonderful illustration of how well Nicola Beauman and her team have encompassed a certain lifestyle, set of interests and general attitude towards life in choosing the novels they have decided to print. What a feat they have achieved.

I have included photos of my Persephone collection, including Persephone titles in other editions. I hope you enjoy them!

Young Anne by Dorothy Whipple

I just love Dorothy Whipple. Reading her books gives me the same feeling of cosiness as Sunday evenings in Winter, sitting in my pyjamas in front of the (gas) fire, with a cup of tea, some hot buttered crumpets, a stack of chocolate biscuits, and some form of BBC literary adaptation on the TV. It’s complete comforting bliss, but with the nagging feeling of something just around the corner that is going to be unpleasant…this would be Monday, ready to make you get up at an ungodly hour and board a train to a job you’d rather not be doing. And that’s exactly what Whipple’s books are all like, in my experience…a warm, cosy, comforting world threatened by an external, uncontrollable and unstoppable force just lingering around the corner.

And this is great stuff. I suppose if Dorothy Whipple were writing today her books would have pastel covers and be read by people who also like Jodi Picoult and Cecilia Ahern, because between the 30’s and 50’s Dorothy W was a very popular lady indeed, with her books being Book Society choices, being read by every war hardened romantically starved housewife, and even being made into long forgotten films. I intensely dislike chick lit but somehow if it’s 50 years old and comes in a musty smelling hardback, it’s alright with me. Kind of like bodice ripping soft porn yarns; I’d run a mile from that sort of book if it were modern, but somehow, Grace Metalious I’m talking to you, I don’t mind a bit of sexy sex from the days when ladies wore suspenders if it’s wrapped in an original dustjacket and looks respectable on my shelf.

Carmen Callil at Virago might have turned her nose up at Whipple and refused to republish her because she thought her books were too lowbrow and terribly written (the rudeness!) but thankfully Nicola Beauman saw sense and has republished some of her novels under the Persephone imprint, of which my only complaint is – why hasn’t she published them all?? Since discovering the wonderful world of Whipple I have been hunting down all the ones Persephone doesn’t reprint, and trying to find them at a reasonable price to boot, so I was delighted to snag Young Anne from ebay for 99p a month or so ago. I just got around to reading it this weekend, and I thought it was marvellous.

It tells the story of Anne Pritchard who lives in a fairly well to do Northern town with her unsatisfactory family and beloved servant Emily. We are briefly sped through Anne’s childhood in the first couple of chapters, and then Anne becomes 18 and lovely and falls in love with her best friend Mildred’s cousin George Yates. But of course these things are never simple and while Anne and George love each other with an intense passion, Anne finds she can’t carry on after a nasty revelation from her cousin (which was a bit unrealistic I thought, but it must be one of those things you have to understand from a mid century viewpoint) and she gives George up…then war gets declared and Anne becomes a secretary. At work she meets Richard Soames, who is much older than her but intelligent and funny and eventually they marry. Anne thinks everything will be lovely and she will be happy once she is married, but then the 1920s hit and Anne is beautiful and loves to dance and wants to have a sparkling fun life like her other young friends…but Soames wants none of it and Anne’s life becomes increasingly lonely. When George comes back after the war, Anne realises just how dissatisfied she is with her life, and everything gets turned upside down…I’ll leave it at that because I don’t want to ruin the plot, but it all ends in characteristic Whipple style, with a nice bit of self sacrifice and hope for the future, which reflects her Christian moral stance that is clearly evident throughout all of her books.

It wasn’t the best Whipple I’ve read, but as a first novel it’s really very good. It is also interesting from the respect of being able to see the starting point of her talents and how she developed them over her career. Like her later novels, Young Anne is well characterised, involving, realistic and simple yet engrossing in its way of telling the story of small town life and all of its secret disappointments. It is definitely worth a read if you can get hold of a copy, and if you’d like to borrow mine, email me as I’m happy to send it out to people. I know how rare it is so it would be rather selfish of me to just let it sit gathering dust on my shelf. You would have to promise to send it back though!!

Brook Evans by Susan Glaspell

I read Fidelity a while ago and absolutely loved it…it haunted me and left me feeling a bit emotionally drained, which was quite unexpected. I had never read any Susan Glaspell before so it took me by surprise to discover that all of her work apart from what Persephone reprints is out of print, as she was, quite simply, an outstanding writer.

So, when I found Brook Evans in a charity shop I pounced on it. It joined the to be read pile and last week it finally got its moment in the sun. Or in the dreariness really, as summer disappeared last week and still hasn’t returned. The joy of English summers.

Anyway, I read it in a few days, and it knocked me sideways. Susan Glaspell has a way of ripping people open and exposing them to their very cores that makes you feel stunned and uncomfortable yet hopelessly transfixed by them and their fate. Their souls become tangible and the rawness and honesty and pain is wonderful. I love it.

In a nutshell Brook Evans tells the story of three generations of a family, shaped by love and the lack of it, moulded by the pain of one woman’s loss and one man’s sacrifice. The book starts with Naomi Kellogg, an Illinois farmer’s daughter, being courted by the boy across the way, Joe Copeland. His mother thinks she is not good enough for him, so they see each other in secret by the brook that separates their parents’ land. Joe is tragically killed shortly after, leaving Naomi pregnant. A local, overly religious man, Caleb Evans, who is held in high regard by the townspeople and Naomi’s distraught parents, agrees to marry Naomi, because he loves her, and take her out west to Colorado to start a new life and give her and her child respectability. Naomi, wracked with grief and filled with hatred towards Caleb, goes on to give birth to a daughter, Brook. The story then goes on to relate Brook’s life and how she turns away from her mother, unable to understand her bitterness and belief that love is everything, leaving her forever when she is just 19. Going on to forge a life of her own, she only realises when she is a mother herself and discovering real love after a lifetime of dutiful wifehood, what a life of loneliness and unfulfilment her mother was trying to rescue her from in attempting to give her a chance at real love.

It’s powerful and emotional and desperately, desperately sad…especially towards the end, when Brook is filled with regret towards the way she treated her now dead mother. It is similar to Fidelity in that it shows Glaspell’s obvious belief that love was the ultimate prize in life and that nothing should stand in its way; a life without love, once love is known, is a life of bitterness and yearning for a happiness that will never come again; a life without love, when love has never been known, is always going to be a life of unfulfilment and an unknowing emptiness.

If you can handle the bleak yet beautifulness, then read it. I managed to snag a copy of Prodigal Giver, which I believe has a different title in the US, off ebay a while back so I can’t wait to get stuck into that when I am ready to be battered by Glaspell’s painful prose again.

Greenery Street by Denis Mackail

I have had this little gem sitting, gathering dust, on my bookshelf for well over a year and my goodness, if I had known how utterly delightful it was going to be, I would have read it as soon as I had bought it.

Greenery Street traces the first six or so months of Ian and Felicity Foster’s marriage. They are a young, well to do couple living in relative penury off the King’s Road (those of us struggling to make ends meet in far less trendy postcodes must just ignore this detail, and not let it affect our feelings for Ian and Felicity) in the mid 1920’s, and it is nice to know that Ian and Felicity are based on the author and his wife Diana, and their first home on Walpole Street, which is near where I work and I am pleased to affirm is absolutely delightful, right down to its little wrought iron balconies. I say nice, because Denis Mackail comes across as such a thoroughly decent, humorous soul through the narrative voice he uses, and I like to think that he was just as happy in his time as Ian and Felicity. I hope he was.

Somehow, without really having much in the way of plot or drama, Greenery Street manages to be the most charming, wonderful and engrossing book I’ve read in a long time. It restored my faith in love and hope and the small pleasures in life, and, perhaps most importantly, it made me chuckle on the train, which is always a great achievement. The day to day pleasures and difficulties of everyday life viewed through the perfectly preserved early 20th century viewpoint of Ian and Felicity are simply magical to read. I especially loved the dialogue, filled with all sorts of ‘simply ripping’, ‘rot’ and ‘I say, old chap’ phrases that us 21st century dwellers find it difficult to believe anyone actually used to say with a straight face. In fact, I loved this book so much I just wanted to cuddle it and look after it and never stop reading it, but sadly it has come to an end and I am left with a sad face and an even larger overdraft after discovering shockingly expensive sequels on alibris (Tales from Greenery Street and Ian and Felicity). The pleasure of reading further adventures will be worth the temporary financial pain, I hope!

In the photo provided I’ve shown Greenery Street with a nice cup of tea and a chocolate hobnob, and that’s exactly how it should be read. On the sofa, with a comforting warm drink and plenty of biscuits. It’s the perfect antidote to the endless dreariness of an English summer. You can get a far nicer edition than mine here.