Welcome to this my blog - a record of my life with books and pictures

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

War declared, innocence destroyed: Ursula Holden’s wartime story Unicorn Sisters

I am sitting in the garden, having just finished Ursula Holden’s Unicorn Sisters, and feeling slightly cast adrift. My usual way of “rediscovering” forgotten classics is to visit the Persephone Books shop, or the Capuchin Classics website, or to look at the Virago Modern Classic back catalogue. But this time, the route has been quite different. The inside page of my copy of this book has “95p” scrawled in pencil and so this must have been what I paid for it when I picked it up in a charity shop. I have certainly been hoarding it for a couple of years, unread. This book is living proof of how easily a work of excellent writing can slip out of the cannon – disappear down the side of the literature sofa. It is excellent, and yet it is barely known at all.

Unicorn Sisters is a wartime novella charting a few months in the history of Bonnie and her sisters Tor and Ula. Bonnie narrates their tale of woe and awakening in the first months of 1939 when they are abandoned by their glamorous and negliegent mother in a remote west country boarding school for girls. This school is haphazardly run by two spinster sisters of wildly divergent opinions and an elderly gardener who has found that his wartime role has been expanded to cooking and cleaning. The other children are upper middle class girls, each with a smattering of french, and mostly rather affected. Hard upon the heels of Bonnie and her sisters a batch of evacuees from London’s Clerkenwell arrive, sporting ill fitting clothes, common accents and tales of boyfriends and homely families. The isolation of the school and the seige mentality caused by the war combine and before long mutual suspicion has given way to friendship and confidence, the grammaphone has been wound up and girls dance long into the night to the tune of “Roll out the barrel”. The joy of such vistas will not last forever. Soon Bonnie and her sisters find themselves on the stage of tragedy. Worse, they are propelled into an anarchy of knowledge and experience which will horrify them.

This short novel deals with many things, but for me its main theme is displacement. All of the children are displaced by the war – they are far from home in an unknown and disintegrating place. The Boarding school girls and the Clerkenwell evacuees are also displaced by contact with oneanother. Gone are the comforts of a class identity; here are people who live differently and speak differently, and yet seem to manage; maybe there is not only one proper way to live? For Bonnie and her sisters, the displacement is still greater. They are new girls, and so they properly belong to neither group. Whatismore, they suffer from social inexperience and the dark and long shadows of their family history. Between then they have inadvertently caused the deaths of two other children before the war, and how can a child ever be free of such an awful secret?

Bonnie is a complexnarrator of an atmospheric tale and a splendid period piece. She is a bossy girl who is teetering under the heavy strain that her absent mother has placed her under - to look after her younger sisters. Their sibling love is powerful but will be tested, as Bonnie’s love for her scented mother will also be. Ursula Holden writes compellingly of the monstrous misunderstandings and miscommunications that can befall a parent and their child. The destruction of class barriers and the sudden revealation of an adult world, which is as sordid as it is liberating will provoke a crisis in Bonnie’s mind which seems as real to the reader as any declaration of war.

A novel this good deserves not to be forgotten, and the good news is that it is available from £0.01p on Amazon. Let the rediscovery begin!

Because this book is so obscure, I cannot find my usual picture of the author. To celebrate the coming of the summer therefore, I have posted some pictures of our garden, the place of my reading and ruminations.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Read along of Ford Madox Ford’s Parade’s End: First impressions and more considered views of part two: “No More Parades”

This is part two of four instalments that I intend to write while reading Parade’s End. Mel U at The Reading Life hosts this read along.

In this the second book of Ford Madox Ford’s Parades End the well appointed drawing rooms of the wealthy and the dewy grass fields of the English countryside give way to an altogether different landscape. No More Parades is the story of 48 hours in the wartime life of our hero (if hero he can be called), Christopher Tietjens. Having left him in London at the end of the last book, we now find him in France in a senior position away from the front line but nevertheless surrounded on all sides by the realities of war. He now inhabits a “dust covered world” and Ford’s language is awash with browns and greys and the suggestion that colour and jollity, such as it was has now disappeared from view.

This new theatre is in large part, a chance for Ford to explore old themes – the nature of the relationship between Tietjens and his wife Sylvia and struggles that Tietjens faces in being an English gentleman in a world increasingly at odds with such an identity. The illumination of Tietjens’ mind is skilfully accomplished through the description of his thoughts. Ford uses a stream of consciousness-like technique to lead us through the avenues of Tietjens thoughts. He emerges much as he emerged in Some Do Not…” but even more so: he is a man utterly hidebound by his own values yet powerless to enforce them meaningfully.

Sylvia on the other hand, is a different kettle of fish. She appears unexpectedly in France and causes a dreadful crisis for her husband during the course of No More Parades. Her visceral hatred for her husband and compulsion to punish and humiliate him know no bounds. Here in this the second book we get a better look at Sylvia and at the workings of her mind. She is in many respects an awful woman and her actions quite beyond comprehension. Having said that, there is something appealing about her as a character and the reason for this is that she lacks propriety in all things – she stands outside normal mores and sparkles in a landscape otherwise covered in dust and conformity. In a strange way she is like a living Rebecca de Winter, a woman whose glittering personality might be admirable if she did not turn it to such nasty ends.

Where Some Do Not felt like a play, this book feels more like a series of monologues. It is more psychological than the previous book and altogether more intense. Ford plays with the idea of the unreliable narrator – we see action narrated by Sylvia’s axe grinding imagination in the same way that we Tietjens’ methodical mind trying to process that which may entirely beyond method. Ford has surely chosen to illuminate this marriage in a war zone for a reason – and that reason is that no stage could sum up better, the conflict between husband and wife.

Mel U at The Reading Life hosts this read along and there is also an excellent post on the novel by Dwight at A Common Reader. I have included front covers past and present and a picture of Ford Madox Ford as illustrations.

Look out for my first impressions and more considered view of part three A Man Could Stand Up.... coming soon.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

The travelling bookcase: Shakespeare and Co (Paris)

Tuesday was a sun drenched, blossom littered, planeless day in Paris and after a few hours of meandering aimlessly around unknown department stores trying to replace a summer jacket that my husband has described as “really awful”, I gave up the ghost. It was one of those days when the weather had taken the city by surprise and school children and office workers were sunning themselves in small parks and church gardens. So, if the truth be known, it was too glorious to be jacket shopping and an excellent opportunity for me to check out Paris’ most famous English language book shop – Shakespeare and Co.

Shakespeare and Co is tucked in on the edge of the Latin Quarter – opposite Notre Dame and snuggled next door to St Julien le Pauvre. Like these two sights – it is quite woven into the fabric of the city. Originally founded in 1919, the shop was the frequent haunt of Ernest Hemmingway, Erza Pound, Gertrude Stein and James Joyce to name but a few. It was renowned for selling books that had been banned elsewhere such as Lady Chatterley’s Lover and Ulysses. The first incarnation of Shakespeare and Co was closed down during the German occupation of Paris in 1941 and booklovers had to wait for a whole decade for it to be reborn. The current shop has been going since 1951 and has been called a “socialist utopia masquerading as a bookstore”. Most importantly, Shakespeare and Co is not a sterile seller of books – it is a living place. The shop frequently plays host to new writers for readings and discussion nights and even puts them up – there are 13 beds available for writers to live and work in the shop.

I found Shakespeare and Co to be a warren of tiny half separated rooms in which every spare corner contains a pile of books. Upstairs an eclectic selection of chairs and sofas are arranged in a well stocked reading room and a piano and a typewriter are available for travelling musicians and correspondents. The whole place teems with hoards of pilgrims (for Pilgrims they must surely be called...), all shuffling past one another, crouching in corners to read while another browses and saying “oh excuse me” and “oh sorry” etc. The books that are for sale downstairs are a remarkably intelligent selection of the classic and the offbeat – and the new and the second hand are all mixed up.

Although I was feeling a bit “off” shopping, I could hardly resist a spot of book buying. So – I have supplemented my shelves with three new acquisitions – a collection of short stories by the wonderful magical realist Gabriel Garcia Marquez called No one writes to the Colonel. Realising that I am a bit down on my Defoe, I also picked up both A Journal of the Plague Year and Moll Flanders. But then, who, having read the title page of Moll Flanders could possibly resist?

If you find yourself in Paris any day soon, you might like to look at the shop’s website.

Although it is busy and a bit of a comedy of manners within, Shakespeare and Co has definitely made it onto my list of favourite bookshops.

Do you have a favourite bookshop and where in the world is it?

Monday, April 19, 2010

Read along of Ford Madox Ford’s Parade’s End: First impressions and more considered views of part one: “Some do not”

This is part one of four instalments that I intend to write while reading Parade’s End. Mel U at The Reading Life hosts this read along.

I must admit that when I unwrapped the parcel from Amazon France and beheld Ford Madox Ford’s door stopping, flood blocking, handbag busting, super-size “Parade’s End”, my first thought was “what have I committed to here?” I have now finished the first of the four parts of this book – Some Do Not – and although there were moments when this thought came back to me, for the most part, this has been a read of challenge and discovery that I would recommend. It has become a joy.

The subject of the novel is the upstanding aristocratic Tory gentleman Christopher Tietjens. He is a man of education culture and means whose home life is far from idyllic. In fact, his wife, who is a notorious beauty and something of a bed-hopper has, at the opening of the book, left him for another man. A great deal of effort is expended by Ford to show that Tietjens is a vast intellect and a brick of the old order, but I have to say that in the first few chapters of the book my view of him was that he was an absolutely fearful prig and a total snob. When the runaway wife Sylvia puts in an appearance early in the book and claims to hate her husband because he is a patronising bore, I must say that I could see where she was coming from. The novel opens in the years immediately before the First World War – a conflict which Tietjens predicts magisterially from a train carriage, to be the inevitable result of social mobility. All rather ridiculous... or so I thought. Now, I think that these impressions were partly motivated by shock at the size of the book and compounded by reading too quickly, because as I got deeper into the Tietjens world, my ideas changed – the characters became somehow more real and the plot more involving.

Christopher Tietjens, for whom I had taken such a dislike, is slowly and beautifully revealed to be a man of deep intelligence. He is a questioning and humane soul who is unquestionably, also a snob. Through the layers of the narrative he comes to be seen as a victim and a proper subject of pity. His victimhood is based on the fact that almost everyone inexplicably appears to hate him – his wife, his brother, the social climbing characters of his daily life. He is a proper subject of pity because although there is a temptation to see Tietjens as being an “old fashioned” character in a “modern” world – in fact his displacement is far greater than that. His brand of “old fashioned” is one that never existed, was always a myth, was always an aspiration rather than reality. He floats around the narrative of the novel – almost totally out of time. His only true friends are an aging novelist and her young, spirited suffragette daughter, the lovely Valentine Wannop. Tietjen’s desperate love for Valentine grows and grows until he can barely contain it, but at the end of part one I am left wondering whether he will ever be able to reconcile his worldview with his love for a woman who is not his wife.

Some do not is a political book and it is a book about a society. Tietjens represents an idealised view of Edwardian England – of the unmuddied, clear-headed, righteous, humble, Englishman. Those around him, and in particular his wife Sylvia represent the onslaught of the modern world – a place where people may advance above their station, where the old hierarchies and certainties are a nothing, a reckless party, a meaningless charade. The themes of the novel – duty versus inclination, morality, love, society versus the self – they are all introduced and discussed directly by the characters. The narrative has the feel of a play as much of the story is acted out in epic scenes where characters come and go and plot and personalities are revealed bit by bit. There is something wonderfully Socratic about the way Ford tells us the story. He jumps about in time, he discusses everything, he makes his reader question first impressions. The surprising thing about Some Do Not is that nothing turns out to be quite as you expect it to be – so much so that I am quite sure that there will be more changes of heart as I go along.

Mel U at The Reading Life hosts this read along and there is also an excellent post on the novel by Dwight at A Common Reader. I have included the penguin front covers past and present and a picture of Ford Madox Ford as illustrations.

Look out for my first impressions and more considered view of part two No More Parades.... coming soon.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Lights, camera, drum-roll..... and the winner is....

Verity of Verity's Virago Venture and The B Files!

Congratulations Verity - my copy of The Green Hat by Michael Alen is now yours. Please can you send me an email with your address and I shall pop it in the post to you.

Thank you to all of you who left kind comments

Bon weekend!


Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Celebratory International Giveaway of Capuchin Classic – The Green Hat by Michael Arlen

I have been blogging for just over three months and have enjoyed it so much that I would like to thank you all with a giveaway competition.

I have one brand new copy of the Capuchin Classic The Green Hat by Michael Arlen which I am willing to send anywhere in the world – so don’t worry where you are – if you like the sound of the book – simply enter the giveaway by leaving a comment below.

The Capuchin foreword is by Kirsty Gunn, and as always, Angela Landels has provided a simple but lovely line drawing for the cover illustration.

The back of the book is most enticing:

The Green Hat perfectly captures the atmosphere of the 1920s – the post-war fashion for verbal smartness, youthful cynicism and the spirit of rebellion of the “bright young things” of Mayfair.

Iris Storm, femme fatale, races around London and Europe in her yellow Hispano-Suiza in a swirl of romantic intrigue. Yet beneath the glamour she is destined to be a tragic heroine.

The brilliance of The Green Hat that was recognised when it was first published in 1924 led to its adoption for the screen, with Greta Garbo starring as Iris Storm”.

Floating around the blogosphere there are some lovely reviews – by Elaine at Random Jottings, Frisbee at Frisbee: A Book Journal and Simon at Stuck in a Book.

I have included a shot of the cover and a lovely photograph of Greta Garbo in the film of the book - A Woman of Affairs.

If you would like to enter the giveaway, please leave a comment below, and I will draw a winner at random.

Friday, April 9, 2010

Forgotten Book Friday: Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead by Barbara Comyns reviewed at Pattinase

I was thrilled when Patti Abbott asked me to guest blog on her “forgotten book friday” feature at her lovely blog Pattinase. This is a weekly treasure trove for all of those marvellous reads that have unfairly slipped out of the cannon of famous literature. So, let the rediscovery begin!

I have reveiwed one of my favourite books – the splendid “Who was changed and who was dead” by Barbara Comyns - click here to read it.

The illustrations here are the Virago Modern Classic cover and a photograph of the author.

If this has got you interested then you may enjoy reviews of this fascinating little book by Simon at Stuck in a Book, Verity at Verity's Virago Venture and at Leaning Towards the Sun.

What would be your top “forgotten” read?

Thursday, April 8, 2010

The Business School Wives Book Club – Part Three (England)

There were times when I had my doubts about whether I was right to propose Daphne du Maurier’s classic novel Rebecca as my and England’s contribution to the Business School Wives Book Club. Maybe you actually had to be a repressed English woman with a fetish for cardigans and a longing for Cornwall to appreciate this book? Maybe my international reading ladies would turn away in distain and incomprehension from this haunting and rather strange vision of the English male.... Maybe also the novel’s presentation of the English female is rather polarised, rather introverted – and completely wide of the mark.

You have probably all guessed that I was, as usual, worrying needlessly. The first clue came when one of our number accosted me the day after I gave her the book to say that she had sat up reading until four in the morning and that since then she had watched the Hitchcock film on the internet. The mood at yesterday’s meeting was very much of the “I couldn’t put it down variety” and tonight we are meeting again to watch the film together – so conscience saved.

For those of you who have not read the book – this review does not contain spoilers, so you can carry on reading. Rebecca is the story of a nameless girl, her strange marriage to an older widower, her discomforting command of a grand house and the overshadowing of her life and loves by another woman. The action of the book opens with our heroine and narrator living the life of a paid companion to a social climbing bore in Monte Carlo. She is a shy and self-conscious girl who is horrified by the vulgarity of her employer, and only too pleased to meet the enigmatic widower, Maxim de Winter with whom she immediately connects. Maxim is twenty years the senior of his new friend and he is a man with a myth. He is the wealthy master of a house, legendary for its grandeur and beauty – Manderley in the heart of Cornwall. He is also recently widowed – his late wife Rebecca, famed for her staggering beauty and charm, having been drowned in a boating accident. In person, he is not charmless, but he is cold, taciturn and clearly keeping much from our narrator. A short romance is followed by a swift wedding and the inevitable return of Mr and the new Mrs de Winter to Manderley.

Here, our narrator will struggle with her new role, appearing to be more of a servant than a mistress, more of a pet than a wife, more of a backcloth than a character. More than anything she will come to be tormented by the spectre of her deceased predecessor Rebecca, convinced that she can never compete with her, never expunge her memory from the house or its inhabitants, and consequently, never be happy. But Manderley is a house within which there are many dark secrets and unexpected turns. The last third of the book is a thrilling tale of revenge and recrimination – a kaleidoscope of reality and mythology – a bearing of souls that will lead to a new, and altogether different love story.

I have called our nameless narrator the heroine, as for me, that is what she is. With her endless struggles, her self-knowing eagerness to please and the unfairness of her position, she rather stole my heart. That is not to say that she does that to everyone. She has an almost total lack of natural authority and her shyness can be infuriating. She does not seem to be armed with the worldly wisdom or the cynicism that she so badly needs. In this, as in everything, she contrasts sharply with the memory of Rebecca. Beautiful, assertive, defiant, imaginative, Rebecca was a perfect chatelaine who seems, through the dark glass of memory to have held effortless superiority and charm in perfect balance. Du Maurier presents these two visions of womanhood – one bright, the other apparently, pale, and the reader will inevitably choose between them.

I have included a few stills from the various dramatisations of this wonderful novel. For Rebecca-aholics I recommend the reviews of Fanoosh at Prolific Living in a Perfectly Ordinary World, Andreea at Passionate Booklover, Amy at My Friend Amy, Trish at Trish’s Reading Nook, Casey the Bookish Type and Jackie at Farm Lane Books Books Blog (warning: spoiler): all excellent reviews with different points of view.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Experiments in Bohemia – the collective laundry of the last century’s writers and artists

I have always thought that the word “Bohemian” has got something infuriatingly bourgeois about it. Some how it is a glib and inadequate classification for some of the most interesting people in modern cultural history. But there it is and here we are. That is the word that has been bestowed by history – and for those who are interested I would heartily recommend Virginia Nicholson’s masterly survey Among the Bohemians – experiments in living 1900 – 1939.

This is a rich and warm-hearted survey of people who in the early part of the twentieth century were linked together by art and eccentricity. It knits together lives entangled and divergent but all of its characters are colourful. They are for the most part artists and writers and Nicholson looks at how their daily lives differed from the norm. She unashamedly and very successfully takes a “laundry list view of history” and her compelling conclusion is that this motley crew of drinkers, dancers, talkers and painters were behind a minor cultural revolution.

So how might a bohemian of the period have been recognised by his or her countrymen? These were people who, in an age of economic uncertainty, prioritised art and beauty a long way above money. Whilst there were a few rich bohemians – they were for the most part, almost comically poor – living on a diet of black coffee and boiled eggs in freezing garret flats. In addition to this and probably most famously, they advocated rather more freedom in sexual relations that was otherwise accepted in their era. It was on this basis that Augustus John’s household came to consist of his wife, his mistress, at times, her other lover – and the collective children of the ensemble. Speaking of children – the raising of the young to be fearful of authority was another Victorian stricture which the bohemians had no truck with. Their children knew upbringings quite different from the rest of the population. Nicholson also shows how the bohemian was marked out by his dress, his (or rather, her) housekeeping, his willingness to travel, and even his dinner.

This patchwork of daily life is interesting for two reasons. Firstly, it clearly shows an historical parting of the ways – with the age of Victoria receding into the past and the modern age of individualism opening up before us. Secondly, it shines a light upon the domestic circumstances, the everyday paraphernalia from which some of the most interesting British art and literature of the 20th century emerged. I am fascinated to learn that Dylan Thomas – whose poems I love – was so poor that he habitually stole clothes from his friends and wracked up colossal bar and hotel bills on their behalf. I have always loved Augustus John’s portrait of the Marchesa Casati (for more on the Marchesa Casati see my earlier post) – and this is enriched by the knowledge of the personal drama that sat behind its production.

I have called Nicholson’s work “warm hearted”. This is because she manages to catalogue her “laundry list” of bohemia humorously, keeping in balance sympathy and admiration for the bohemians and also an awareness of how ill a life without boundaries could sometimes treat them. For all of the colour and drama and notable work produced, for many, poverty, ill education and a chaotic home life were in fact the enemies of promise. Nicholson manages to show this without a trace of self-righteousness and her work is all the richer for it.

I have included a few illustrations of notable bohemians. The images are of Dylan and Caitlin Thomas, Augustus John and Nina Hamnett.

As much as the name annoys me, I must admit to being a bit of a “bohemia” junkie in my book collection. For those who are interested, I have loved reading the following first hand accounts of this community:

- The Life of Dylan Thomas by Constantine Fitzgibbon
- Two Flamboyant Fathers by Nicolette Devas
- Laughing Torso by Nina Hamnett
- Our Spoons Came From Woolworths by Barbara Comyns.