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

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Summer of Love: Will she? Won’t she? in Julia Strachey’s Cheerful Weather for the Wedding

Who remembers the moment in Four Weddings and a Funeral when Hugh Grant rolls over in bed and asks “who is it this week?” Because as we enter this, the end of the summer, that is how we feel. In a good way, of course. I love weddings. Which is just as well, because we have been to one almost every weekend of the summer and still have one to go. We have been to Serbia (twice), Russia, the Lebanon, Hampshire, London (more than twice) and Oxford. Honourable mention must also be made of one further “not married party” which was no less a meeting of old friends and a celebration of love and commitment (you know who you are)...

And so it was as a self appointed expert, a connoisseur of nuptials, that I picked up the Persephone Classic, Cheerful Weather for the Wedding by Julia Strachey.

Cheerful Weather for the Wedding is short, funny and worth-it. It is the narrative of a single day – the wedding day – of Dolly, a middle-class girl of the early 1930s. The action takes place entirely in her family home, which one presumes to be a medium sized manor house or something of that sort. The house is teeming with comic characters – the status conscious, conventionally minded mother of the bride, Mrs Thatcham, to whom appearances mean a lot; The Bridesmaids – clumsy Kitty who is beset with adolescent insecurities and elegant Evelyn who is worried about being cold in church; School boy cousins Tom and Robert, who are locked into a ceaseless argument about emerald green socks (“Go and put your head in a bag” sticks in the mind); The dour anthropologist Joseph Patten, who moons about the house having tense conversations with everyone and trying to find the bride, for what purpose, the reader must enquire on their own account.... There are numerous others; mad old aunts; domestic helps; a Canon, and they all rumble around the place in a sort of country house comedy way – with people walking out of rooms just as others walk in looking for them and so on.

At the heart of this novella there is a rich and slightly painful vein of social satire. Some characters seem to care more about what things look like than how they really are. Others respond to such hypocrisy with savagery - saying things which are designed to shock and upset. This seems to me to be not just the age old clash between the old and the young but also the clash between the conservative, the traditional and the more socially liberated approaches to life which were emerging in the 1920s and 30s. There is a thick layer of repression veiling most of the main characters and there is a lot of swigging from the bottle in dark corners as well.

Which brings me to another theme which seemed to sing out loud and clear, one to which any wedding goer is familiar: continuity. When Dolly fortifies herself with a bottle of rum and faces the music, she does what many women, possibly even her much maligned mother, have done before her. There were times when I felt that Cheerful Weather for the Wedding was like a form of social archaeology. If you remove the top soil of propriety the first layer you come to is rebellion but underneath that runs a thick course of convention and a willingness to do things the way that they have always been done.

The characters are not as whole or as touching as they could be and I did not find myself rooting for anyone but the book is thought provoking. Other opinions can be found at Stuck in a Book, Vintage Reads, Fernham, Nonsuch Book, Novel Insights, The Green Room, My Porch and the marvellously named What We Have Here is a Failure to Communicate.

I have included pictures of the (predictably lovely) Persephone cover and end paper and a portrait of the author by Dora Carrington.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Social Networking: The Way of All Flesh AND a Bloggy holiday

I am now terrorising the cyber community through not one but three channels. To make it easier for readers to get in contact I am now a fully paid up tweeter – and have set up a facebook group for readers of my blog. So, if you are a reader and or a tweeter or a person of the book, I would love you to join up.

Right now, I am off to the Lebanon for a week and so shall be on a bloggy holiday. I am taking such gems as Iris Murdoch’s The Book and the Brotherhood, A High Wind in Jamaica by Richard Hughes, VMC At the Still Point by Mary Benson, Hilda Bernstein’s The World That Was Ours and a book of which I know absolutely nothing: Forlorn Sunset by Michael Sadleir…. So let the sunbathing begin!

Bon weekend

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Here comes Holden: Further adventures in forgotten books

I hate reading books in the wrong order. I am a tidy girl who irons her bed sheets and has a neat sock drawer. I like things to be in their proper place and that includes books. Regular readers of this blog may recall my joy at discovering the work of Ursula Holden back in April when I reviewed her novel Unicorn Sisters. Well, drunk on discovery, reckless in pursuit of more, I ordered another of her little novels: Tin Toys on Amazon. It was a good read which I do not regret at all, but for anyone who may like to try it – it should be read before reading Unicorn Sisters. That’s right folks: there is, emerging from my Ursula Holden detective work, evidence of a trilogy of books, starting with Tin Toys then Unicorn Sisters and finally A Bubble Garden. So bare that in mind all ye who enter here.

Tin Toys is an odd and disquieting little book. It is the story of Ula – a little girl in the 1930s whose father has died, whose mother is woefully negligent and whose two older sisters have built a protective world for themselves, from which she is excluded. The household is riven with divisions of age and class and nationality and gender and for the most part, the segregation reinforces and breeds an atmosphere of dark loves and lonely prejudice. This is not a kind home in which to grow up and so it is no real shock that Ula herself is a peculiar child who struggles to connect with others. She is at once too cagey and also too candid.

When tragedy strikes the household Ula is packed off to Ireland and it is there that she will encounter the shock of cruelty and the web of deceptions and half truths that make up adult mores. Ula is a child and her judgement is both infant and flawed. She does not know whom to trust nor whom to love. She reaches out to several people but many of them will prove to be sorry friends. Maggie, the Irish cook/cleaner impresses Ula with her warmth and cosy tales of her homeland. Lucy, the child whom Ula meets at ballet class bewitches her with her wedgewood blue eyes and air of confidence. In Tin Toys, Ula learns the hard lesson of childhood; that adults can be as cruel and deluded and children.

It is the style and atmosphere of Tin Toys that really causes one to remember it. It is clipped and savage as a fairy tale. Things happen and they cannot be stopped or even explained. It is like all the world is locked into a fast train rattling who knows where with no hope of escape. Which brings me neatly to the front cover. The Methuen Modern Fiction paperback that I have is illustrated with Mark Gertler’s famous first world war painting Merry-Go-Round. The Merry-Go-Round is a frightening response to the mechanisation and horror of warfare in black, white and blood red. At first I thought it was an odd choice for the front cover of this book, but now I understand.

If pushed, I would have to say that Tin Toys did not quite have the emotional power of Unicorn Sisters, but it is still very good and they are so clearly from the same pen. Ula’s development is not necessarily an easy watch – but it is extremely well written and deserves not to be forgotten.

I have included a picture of the book and also (by popular acclamation!) pictures from our garden.

Friday, August 13, 2010

The (slightly scary) Weekly Portrait: Le departs des fruits et legumes du coeur de Paris le 28 Fevrier 1969 by Raymond Mason

It is Friday 13th and I am feeling a bit silly, so what is there to do apart from post odd pictures on the internet?

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

The book bloggy detective strikes in Oxfordshire: Swinbrook church and the grave of Nancy Mitford

1 August 2010 was the day that I ceased to be a bride. That’s right folks; it was our first wedding anniversary. For a bit of a break from London and in recognition of the fact that we are still speaking to each other, we decided that a weekend in Woodstock was in order. We went on walks, ate pies, drank wine, talked, got squashed by tourists in Blenheim Palace and got chased by wasps in Blenheim Palace gardens. Finally, on the way home, we were terribly English and decided to go “the scenic way”. When we drove past the SWINBROOK sign, we both said that we thought that it was significant in some way; where had we heard of it before?

I am grateful for a well read husband and have to admit to the world here and now that he remembered before I did: Swinbrook was the childhood home of the Mitford sisters and is the resting place of quite a few of them.

And so, to our list of first anniversary activities, we added grave hunting. The results are here for you to see. If anyone knows why there is a small mole carved on Nancy Mitford’s grave, you will have my undying gratitude.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Anne Chisholm’s Frances Partridge: A Woman who surely loved in a straight line

I hesitate to commence a review by saying “it makes you think” but actually, Anne Chisholm’s biography of Frances Partridge really does. For those who have not overdosed as I have on the annals of the Bloomsbury group, a little introduction may be useful. Frances Partridge was a woman whose life spanned the twentieth century. She was a pacifist and a diarist and a graduate of Newnham College. She is most famous for having been the second wife of Ralph Partridge and the “fly in the ointment” of his delicate manage a trois with his first wife Dora Carrington, always known as Carrington, and the love of her life, Lytton Strachey. Somebody once commented of the Bloomsbury group that they “lived in squares and loved in triangles”, and that was certainly true of the situation in which Frances became embroiled in the mid 1920s.

What is wonderful about Anne Chisholm’s biography is that it skilfully extracts Frances from the welter of Bloomsbury-abilia whilst also recognising how important that set of ideas was in the shaping of her life. Of course, the book covers the uncommon arrangement at the Strachey/Carrington/Partridge home Ham Spray; the passionate and abiding love of the artist Carrington for the homosexual writer Lytton Strachey; the powerful love that he in turn felt for the man that they both called “the Major” – Ralph Partridge; Ralph’s own place in the jigsaw where he is married to Carrington, but seems to love his housemates in equal measure and knows himself to be the lynchpin that holds them together; the entrance of the beautiful young baggage-less Frances who, despite other offers, throws her lot in with Ralph and by extension his strange compromise of a household; the sudden death of Lytton Strachey and the horrific suicide of Carrington. It would be a strange biography of Frances Partridge if it did not take its reader through these aspects of her story. But, it does not feel to dwell on them too much and it always looks to them as a means of learning about Frances. Its focus is always bringing Frances to the centre of the stage.

Frances Partridge outlived all of the most significant people in her life by a long way, but she was very much still alive when the biographers picked up their pens. It is perhaps to be expected that she was a woman of firm ideas when it came to life writing. Intellectually she believed in truthfulness and one of the reasons that as a young woman she was drawn to the slightly older Bloomsbury group was that they had a powerful commitment to living honestly. On the other hand, she was also fiercely loyal to the memory of her husband Ralph and there were times when assessments of his character, which appear reasonable based on all of the evidence, were unpalatable to her. She had an idea in her head of what he was like and what he was about and she found it hard to cope with conflicting views. One of Anne Chisholm’s achievements is that she holds in focus the opinions of Frances whilst also being kindly critical of them. Frances always maintained for example that Ralph’s love for Lytton was always purely platonic whilst Chisholm acknowledges the possibility that she may have been wrong. When Ralph was characterised after his death as a bullying, braying, bed-hopping parasite, it is easy to see why Frances was upset. Chisholm highlights how Ralph’s historical reputation has been unfairly tainted by the views of some of his influential contemporaries whilst also acknowledging that there is truth in the myth. In considering Frances’s view of life writing so carefully, Chisholm examines the very morality of biography and causes me to think, for the first time, how very strange it must be to be written about. It is of course impossible to know what Frances Partridge would have thought of this book because she died before it was published, but I can’t help but think that the balance and the slightly polite honesty would have been right up her street.