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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.

33 comments:

  1. This sounds wonderful - I love what treasure can surface in charity shops. Beautiful garden too, Hannah! I am quite jealous of your lovely French surroundings!

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  2. I'm not sure whether I enjoyed your review or your garden photos more, but this was a lovely post to start my morning.

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  3. hannah - this sounds truly delightful and definitely one for me - I have added it to my Amazon wishlist for purchase on payday! Isn't it wonderful that bloggers can also rediscover things for us!

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  4. Beautiful pictures again Hannah and an intriguing review. I still cannot believe that it is possible to buy books for a penny!

    Bluebells, tulips and cheap books, what a wonderful world...

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  5. Very nice review! It sounds like this book deals with a myriad of complex issues, and although I had never heard of it before, I will now be looking forward to trying it. I also love the pictures of your garden. You seem to have quite the green thumb!

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  6. I've instantly added it to my wishlist. I do hope I find someone willing to send it to Europe from amazon.

    The photos of your garden are beautiful as well!

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  7. I love an obscure book about displaced children during World War II! I've promised myself I won't buy any new books between now and August, but when that ban is over, I'll be returning to this one. :)

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  8. What a lovely post. What a beautiful place to read! And how lovely to find a book that has almost been forgotten. Thank you. I'm really going to find this one. I wonder if it was published in the U.S.? Oh well, hunting can be half the fun.

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  9. I don't know where to start! Great review. Now I want to read this book -- I hope I can find it in America. I love books about Britain during WWII.

    Also, I love the wisteria picture!

    Finally, "disappear down the side of the literature sofa" is fantastic!

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  10. Dear All - thank you so much for visiting and commenting

    Booksnob - thank you but I ought to put my hand up and say that we rent the house and our wonderful landlady does all of the gardening, we are just aspirational bystanders (or in fact by sitters)

    JoAnn - i am so glad. So many people have posted on gardens today - checking my blogger has been a horticultural delight

    Verity - I thought of you when I was reading it and so I think (and hope!) that you will enjoy it. Amazon wish lists are dangerous things though, mine is quite out of control now

    Tea Lady - thanks so much for visiting - of course they do sting you on P&P but otherwise I suppose that it would be quite impossible to sell a book for a penny. What a wonderful world indeed.

    Zibilee - as I have mentioned above - i can't take any credit sadly - I am more of a garden sitter than a garden worker.

    Irisonbooks - I hope so too, I expect that at least one of the sellers would be willing to do so - where are you?

    Jennysbooks - oh I do understand - sometimes you just have to say that enough is enough with book buying... I do hope that you enjoy it when your curfew is over.

    Grad - I am not sure whether or not it was published in the US - there were plenty of sellers selling copies on amazon (various second hand hardback and paperback) when I checked so I do hope that somebody would be willing to send to the US. Good luck and happy reading - thank you for stopping by.

    Rose City Reader - Thank you indeed for your kind comment. The wisteria is amazing - it smells simply gorgeous and France is covered in it - much more than we normally get in England.

    OK - have a lovely Wednesday evenings all

    Hannah x

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  11. Dear Hannah, thank you for this beautiful post about a book I've never heard of. I hope I'll be able to find it in a university library in a small town 40 miles away. The UPS woman has delivered so many books to me lately that even I am thinking of utting back. I'm always fascinated by class issues and this does sound like a Persephone-ish, Viragoish book

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  12. This sounds so so good, and such a perfect match to my recent reading interests! Thank you for bringing it to my attention, Hannah. I'm tempted to order a used copy right now. (It's not really breaking my ban if the book is only £0.01, is it now? :P)

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  13. Your garden is really pretty :) I think this sounds fantastic and I'm excited to see it can still be found. If you think about the sheer number of books being published now it's a little frightening to think how many of the books we love now may disappear from view like this one, in fifty years or so.

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  14. Lovely photos, am very envious of your wisteria.

    What a fascinating sounding book. Will make a note and try to find it. I expect you've already read it but the Persephone book, Saplings, by Noel Streatfeild has a similar theme of children being displaced during WW2 and is also very very good.

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  15. This sounds like an excellent companion to some of the Persephs - I'm immediately thinking of Noel Streatfield's Saplings. Another perfect review: thanks Hannah.

    www.lampandbook.blogspot.com

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  16. What a wonderful metaphor, Hannah: " ... disappear down the side of the literature sofa."

    I have not been here in a while, and the loss is mine. This is a book I would like to read, but the chances of finding it here in the U.S. is nil and none.

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  17. I enjoy books set in this time period and I think by your description, I would enjoy this one immensely. Now if only I can have the garden to go with those pictures!

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  18. Wow. The book does sound really good, and I love the photos of your garden :)

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  19. I have never heard of the Unicorn Sisters Hannah, but it sounds wonderful. Your garden flowers are just gorgeous! Thanks for sharing them with us!

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  20. Sounds like a great book, never heard of it before. And your garden is gorgeous, it must be a lovely place to read :)

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  21. I well remember reading ursula holden many years ago. i will include this post on Friday if I may.

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  22. This sounds great. Perhaps one for Persephone to re-publish?

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  23. Your pictures are beautiful and the book is very, very intriguing! Thanks for bringing it to our attention :-)

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  24. Dear all - thank you so much for visiting and commenting. I am so sorry not to have responded sooner but I have been on family duties this week with no access to the internet! I hope that soe of you are able to find the book.
    Have a great week,
    Hannah

    PS Patti - so sorry not to respond sooner - of course you are more than welcome to use this on/one friday:-)

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  25. Wow Hannah, this sounds like a treasure! I will add it to my TBR :) Wonderful setting to read such a book too...

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  26. I've got my hands on a copy! It's in my bag but I didn't have time to get it out today at lunchtime - roll on tomorrow!

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  27. Birdy - I do hope that you get it and enjoy it and thank you for your comment on the garden, I can't take any credit I'm afraid.

    Verity - Really hope that you enjoy it - I think that it is easy to get hold of in the UK but not necessarily out of it. Gosh, i hope that you enjoy it now.... I shall feel dreadfully responsible if you don't but fingers crossed....

    thanks for visiting and commenting

    Hannah

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  28. I've just discovered Persephone (online, of course) and I can't wait to take you up on this recommendation. Lovely blog. So happy to have found you (or vice versa!).

    Miss Whistle

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  29. This sounds lovely and I've never heard of it. Will have to do some searching.

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  30. This sounds like a wonderful book! The wars provide ample setting for any number of striking stories and these seems to be one such work. I shall definitely pick this one up...thanks for the review :) Oh and I sooo envy you your garden :)

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  31. Miss Whistle - I do hope that you enjoy - it is wonderful to read your blog

    Lisa - it is literally, almost totally unknown, but it does not deserve to be. Hope that you get to it one day.

    Vaishnavi - Hope that you enjoy it....

    Thanks all!

    Hannah

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  32. Dear Hannah - I am thrilled that you enjoyed the Unicorn Sisters as Ursula Holden is my great aunt and so I feel as if I am allowed to bathe in her reflected glory - apparently Bonnie was based on my grandmother Unity.
    happy reading!

    Nancy

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  33. Dear Nancy,
    Thank you so much for your comment. I am a great fan of Ursula Holden's work and think it is dreadfully undervalued. I intend to read more at some stage as well...
    How wonderful to have a grandmother in a novel!
    Thanks for visiting my blog,
    Hannah

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