Across the Commons

Another Elizabeth Berridge book delivered up from ILL (thanks University of Oregon!), this one published in 1964 and thus streaked with modern horrors such as pharmaceuticals and televisions. Louise leaves her husband, Max, and storms off with a suitcase to her elderly aunts’ home where she grew up. There she finds them unsurprised to see her and she’s welcomed into the fold of Aunt Rosa and Aunt Seraphina along with their faithful housekeeper, Gibby.

It’s rather a stupid tale. Louise is summoned to the solicitor’s office in London where she finds an unexpected income of £750 from oil shares her father left, along with a letter that was scheduled to reach her at age 30. In the letter, she learns that her grandfather committed suicide, and she starts to pick apart at the ancient mystery. Turns out that he shot himself a few months after a young woman was found murdered nearby, mostly because he was ashamed of having seen it via telescope? Another more capable aunt arrives, albeit in a wheelchair, and takes control of the house, installs a TV. Max comes and scoops her up after the aunts call him for the rescue.

It Won’t Be Flowers

Elizabeth Berridge’s 1949 war novel has minor victories of capturing perfectly the grind and terror of entering the work force for the first time. She follows three girls, Laura, Fiona, and Helen, on their first day working for the Bank of England. Helen bursts into tears at the dreary prospect of what awaits her for years and years. She ends up escaping first, giving notice after only a year’s service, to move in with a man and start working as a journalist.

Fiona is the artist who also struggles to deal with the staid reality of life at the bank, especially when they’re evacuated to the countryside and must live in huts with other employees, the bank work being deemed “essential” to the war effort. She spends her money on canvases and oil, and escapes the dull work of the bank through sketching. She eventually vaults out the window and runs away, intending to head to America where her father and stepmother await, but she winds up back at the bank after a week of wandering, resolute to save her money and be able to depart for real some day.

Laura is wooed by John but finds him cold hearted when she expects sympathy after her parents die in a London bombing. Instead she finds comfort in his friend Max’s arms, and marries the schoolmaster, producing daughter Ursula. There’s no great wind-up to the tale, just that Fiona’s gone, Helen’s somewhat happy, and Laura is a bit bored as a housewife in the country.

***
Got the book via ILL, thank you Minneapolis Public Library!

The Red Parts: Autobiography of a Trial

The Red Parts: Autobiography of a Trial

I like Maggie Nelson’s work. This is her 2007 memoir about 2005 the cold case murder trial for her aunt Jane’s 1969 killing. She spent five years working on a book of poems about her aunt’s murder, all while a detective in Michigan was working on the cold case, unbeknownst to her. This memoir is an exploration of grief, understanding violence against women, uncovering things deeply buried.

“How does one measure the loss of anyone? Is measurement a necessary part of grief? Is a life less grievable if its prospects for the future… don’t appear bright?”

During the trial, she has drinks with an old friend and walks home to the rented home her mom waits in after a stop by the railroad tracks to lay down and listen to the quiet world. “For as long as I can remember, this has been one of my favorite feelings. To be alone in public, wandering at night, or lying close to the earth, anonymous, invisible, floating… To make your claim on public space even as you feel yourself disappearing into its largesse, into its sublimity. To practice for death by feeling completely empty, but somehow still alive. It’s a sensation that people have tried, in various times and places, to keep women from feeling. Many still try. You’ve been told a million times that to be alone and female and in public late at night is to court disaster, so it’s impossible to know if you’re being bold and free or stupid and self-destructive.”

She finds comfort in the arms of the same lovers I do: Schopenhauer, Winnicott, and various literary lions. Winnicott’s quote, “Fear of breakdown is the fear of a breakdown that has already been experienced,” was solace for Nelson (shoe’s already dropped!) until she realized that it’s not that breakdowns don’t recur but that the fear of the past may cause its repetition.

A Little Dinner Before The Play

A Little Dinner Before the Play

As someone who doesn’t eat meat and doesn’t spend a lot of time preparing elaborate meals, I still found this slim volume of chatter plus recipes engaging reading. It reminded me tremendously of M.F.K. Fisher’s work, lyrical writing describing mouth-watering meals to someone who will never make them (nor care to eat all those beef-chicken-egg-veal-laden dishes). These kitchen essays were first published in a collected volume in 1922.

There’s lots of odd mixtures, something that foodies with a historical bent will slurp up gratefully. She suggests mixing salad with whipped cream, for example. There’s also some fairly Herculean effort required, which is all smoothed over by her silky words making it seem so easy! “Clarify 1 lb. butter. When cold beat to a cream, ad 12 oz. sugar, 1 lb. potato flour (sieved), 4 whole eggs and the yolks of 2, the zest of 1 lemon. Beat the whole mass for 1 hour, when it should form bubbles.” Right. An hour of beating something by hand. These were the days when electric appliances were absent from the kitchen.

I did find the only vegan recipe in the book, which gave me some ideas. Her potato salad boils waxy potatoes in their skins, then peeled while warm, cut thickly, and pour 1 TB vinegar with 2 TB stock gradually over the potatoes so they can absorb it. Then add oil, salt, pepper, and a small finely-chopped onion, let stand for an hour.

A sample morsel of her engaging prose:

Breakfast is the most difficult meal of the day, whether from its social or its culinary aspect. Many of us feel like that man who, meeting a bore, said, ‘If you have got anything to say to me I wish you would kindly say it to somebody else.’ Our reluctant consciousness, but newly returned from a dream world, shrinks from all but the gentlest contacts. ‘Praise me not to much,’ as Odysseus said to Diomed, ‘neither find fault with me at all,’ and the greetings of melancholics and dissatisfied individuals can, like the cry of the curlew in Miss Barlow’s Irish idyll, set our whole mental landscape into a minor key for the rest of the day.

 

Commonwealth

Commonwealth

I can’t think of why I haven’t read any Ann Patchett before this. A well-written, intense tale told from various perspectives in various points in time, but always clear and spare words leading the story forward. This is the story of two families that become intertwined when one father runs away with the other’s mother, stepsisters and brothers abounding, trips from California to Virginia and getting away with shenanigans like feeding the youngest boy, Albie, with the oldest boy, Cal,’s Benedryl to make Albie sleepy but that ends in Cal’s death by beesting. Beverly and Fix are the original parents of Caroline and Franny, then Beverly runs away with Bert, the father with Teresa of Cal, Holly, Jeanette, and Albie. We see Franny dropping out of law school and cocktail waitressing at the Palmer Hotel in Chicago, Holly dropping out of life and meditating in Switzerland, Jeanette with a baby and husband in Brooklyn, Albie floating around from bike messenger job to bike messenger job and then into handyman work. Franny has a relationship with a previously successful author who steals the story of Cal’s death and turns her family into a book. It’s an IV drip of family drama, life stages, births, deaths.

Becoming Virginia Woolf: Her Early Diaries and the Diaries She Read

Becoming Virginia Woolf: Her Early Diaries and the Diaries She Read

This book by Barbara Lounsberry is an incredibly interesting look at VW’s early diaries, layered in with descriptions of other journals and diaries she was reading during this time (from 1897 at age 15 to mid-1918 at age 36). I read this one closely, carefully, devouring each well-written and non-duplicative footnote, whisking off to the library for Boswell’s journals and making a list of others to imbibe. If I start now, read everything she read, can I possibly hope to attain a fraction of the intelligence she had at age 20? Instead of genius-envy, I have only genius-awe.

Early Diary Influences
This section mainly focused on her 1897 diary and exploring those diaries she was exposed to at the time: Sir Walter Scott, Fanny Burney, Pepys, and William Johnson Cory. Lounsberry asserts that at age 14, Virginia found her “diary parents” in Sir Walter Scott and Fanny Burney, adopting stylistic traits and ways of seeing the world from these notable foremother/fathers. “The influx of influence begins,” says Lounsberry. And we’re off! Burney shows VW how women are treated, but with her happy example bucking the usual “self-abnegation, modesty, and silence present in most English women’s diaries.”

Pepys 1.25 million-word diary is consumed completely in the twelve days leading up to step-sister Stella’s wedding, and Virginia notes in her diary, “My dear Pepys… the only calm thing in the house.”

She reads Boswell’s Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides in 1903. Interestingly, Boswell’s papers only surfaced in 1925 in Ireland, causing a new edition of the Hebrides to be issued in 1936. The footnote quotes the editor of the 1936 version by saying that the version V read in 1903 “remained one of the most indiscreet books ever given to the world (did it not bring its author to the verge of a duel?).” Boswell lets us know that Dr. Johnson favors speedy prose, “I would advise every young man beginning to compose, to do it as fast as he can, to get a habit of having his mind to start promptly; it is so much more difficult to improve in speed than in accuracy… But, if a man is accustomed to compose slowly, and with difficulty, upon all occasions, there is danger that he may not compose at all, as we do no like to do that which is not done easily…” (emphasis mine). Boswell is also potentially credited with inspiring V to start a reading notebook, one of his 1773 entries noting books he has read: “This is a very slight circumstance, that every man should keep minutes of whatever he reads. Every circumstance of his studies should be recorded; what books he has consulted; how much of them he has read; at what times; how often the same authors; and what opinions he formed of them, at different periods of his life. Such an account would much illustrate the history of the mind.” She’ll return to Boswell (and the rest of her mentors) for the rest of her life; in 1934, depressed over Roger Fry’s death, Leonard advises her to read. V reports “I am as slack as a piece of maccaroni: & in this state cant shake off a blackness, a blankness. Now (10 to 1) after writing & beginning to read an old life of Boswell I feel the wheels grinding”.

Embracing the Unconscious
In 1907 V discovers Lady Dorothy Nevill’s Note-books, which Lounsberry nods to as influencing the character of Mrs. Hilbery in Night and Day. V writes a review in 1908 quoting lines from the Note-books: “People of original character and brilliant intellect were undoubtedly more frequently to be met with some thirty or forty years ago than is now the case, when almost every one seems to be cast in a mould of a more or less mediocre kind. Society in old days cannot in any way be compared with the motley crowd which calls itself society today… The general level of conversation in the so-called society of modern days must, of necessity, be low, for society, or what passes for it, is now very large, whilst wealth is more welcome than intellect. Good conversation, therefore, is practically non-existent.” This, speaking of life mid-19th century seems woefully too real to someone in the early 21st century.

Lady Charlotte Bury’s Diary of a Lady-in-Waiting is another source of delight and learning for V in 1908. Lounsberry asserts that V got her conviction that women and women writers were despised mostly from primary sources, including diaries. She includes an excerpt from a letter included in Bury’s Diary written by an apoplectic male writer, so delightful I must quote in full here (“plaguy deal of mischief”!!!):

“I wish [Susan Ferrier] would let such idle nonsense alone, for,… as as rule, I have an aversion, a pity and contempt, for all female scribblers, The needle, not the pen, is the instrument they should handle and the only one they ever use dexterously. I must except, however, their love-letters, which are sometimes full of pleasing conceits; but this is the only subject they should ever attempt to write about. Madame de Staël even I will not except from this general rule; she has done a plaguy deal of mischief, and no good, by meddling in literary matters, and I wish to heaven she would renounce pen, ink, and paper for evermore… In a word, … I hate a blue; give me a rose any day in preference, that is to say, a pretty woman to a learned one. What has made you inflict this long harangue upon me? you will exclaim, and I must beg your pardon for so doing; but the fact is, I am full of the subject, being at the present moment much enraged at Lady [__], for having come out in the shape of a novel; and now, hearing that Miss F is about to follow her bad example, I write in great perturbance of mind, and cannot think or speak of anything else.” — letter from Matthew Lewis to Lady Charlotte Bury, early 19th c.

Lounsberry makes an interesting case that the lack of diary entries signified that V was working productively during that time, not that she was done under by sickness or laziness. V takes several solo trips, including one in August 1908 to Wells in Somerset, where she attempts to continue making progress on her first novel. She’s forced to leave her lodgings after a week, but without regret: “The Close has filled itself with theological students, & I am not sorry to leave. The cheery male voice is as the drone of bluebottles in my ear.” A footnote includes comment that V’s attitude toward the “male” was known to her sister Vanessa, who writes her about her Scotland visit and reports horror after her husband kills three rabbits: “There is an atmosphere of undiluted male here. How you would hate it!”

The Problem of Description
V flirts with travel diaries for a few years but struggles against the too-easy pull to write like a guidebook. “I begin to distrust description… the fault of most of my descriptive writing is that it tends to be too definite… Descriptive writing is dangerous & tempting… It is easy, with little expense of brain power, to make something. One seizes some broad aspect, as of water or colour, & makes a note of it. This single quality gives the tone to the piece. As a matter of fact, the subject is probably infinitely subtle, no more amenable to impressionistic treatment than the human character. What one records is really the state of ones own mind.”

She reads Lady Elizabeth Holland’s journal, Lady Hester Stanhope’s diaries, Mary E. Coleridge’s diary extracts, along with Ralph Waldo Emerson’s early journals (which she defines herself against). I loved the reiteration that surfaced in Emerson to keep a reading journal: “The best of all ways to make one’s reading valuable is to write about it.”

The Diary Coalesces
There’s an unfortunate gap between 1909 and 1915 when V takes up diary writing again (unless there are missing/destroyed diaries for those years). In 1915, she’s now married to Leonard for 2 years and finds the steadiness needed to balance out her routine. During this time she reads the collaborative journals of the Goncourt brothers, Mary (Seton) Berry’s journals, Stopford Brooke’s diaries.

The Making of a Marchioness

The Making of a Marchioness

Oh boy oh boy oh boy! Frances Hodgson Burnett’s best novel for adults is a dazzler. Masterful expansion of tension to keep you on edge, not knowing where the tale would turn. I had to put it down a few times and walk around in circles just to get enough courage to continue. The first part is all sweetness, where blue-blooded Emily Fox-Seton is a poor spinster in her mid-thirties who runs errands for people in London to make ends meet, happily resigned to her lot although sometimes waking in terror in the middle of the night about what would happen when she got old and could no longer do the odd jobs to make rent. She’s invaluable to Lady Maria Bayne, who needs her daily services so much that she takes Emily with her to her summer home in the country. At Mallowe, Lady Maria’s cousin, the widowed Marquis, is being ogled by three potential brides. Emily goes about her efficient and hard-working business, and ends up with the large ruby engagement ring on her hand.

In the second part, she unfolds her petals into a beautiful and confident Marchioness, still bestowing many gifts and kindness wherever she goes. Here we meet Alec Osborn and his Indo-Anglo wife, Hester, who are enraged that Lord Walderhurst (the Marquis) married again, thereby making it more unlikely that Osborn inherits the title and estates. Emily is blind to their hatred and does them thousands of kindnesses, including fixing up a house on the estate and installing them in it close to her. The author drops several hooks into the story that make you believe Emily will have an accident while riding; and indeed Alec trains a horse to throw its rider at a particular spot on the road. Luckily, Emily finds out she’s pregnant right around then, and decides not to take up riding. Enter Hester and her Hindu maid, who begins haunting Emily at night, cutting out the wood of a railing she leans against at the lake, poisoning her milk. Hester catches wind of the plot and gets Emily to flee, which she does, heading to London although telling Alec she’s gone to Germany. Oh — the Marquis leaves his wife for a long trip to India after only a few months of marriage, so he’s not here while the murder plots are all going down. He returns to find Emily on her deathbed having delivered a healthy son. James is able to whisper her name enough to bring her back to life, and she recovers.

Alec and Hester head back to India with their daughter, and he continues to drink and beat her. One night he shoots himself with what he thought was an unloaded gun, which Hester reveals at the end was loaded by her faithful servant.

Family Roundabout

Family Roundabout

Another great title re-issued by Persephone! Richmal Crompton gets added to my list of people to read more of, especially as I closed the book with a laugh, reading how Mrs. Fowler teases her old adversary, Mrs. Willoughby, on the eve of her 70th birthday, about how she’d like to “encourage” the baker’s man to make eyes at her.

Mrs. Fowler is a great character—we open with her sitting in a shabby wicker chair in 1920, six years into widowhood, recognizing that she had stifled her intelligence in her marriage to become a replica of her husband’s mother, self-effacing, ready to defer to his judgement, essentially becoming “Milly” and biting her comments that Millicent would say. Her children only know her as Milly, and Millicent comes forth at odd moments, surprising them all, like at the end as she sasses Willoughby.

Having five children seems to be the British norm of this period, and Milly’s are: Matthew, Peter, Anice, Helen, and Judy. Widow Willoughby’s are: Max, Florence, Gertrude, Oliver, and Cynthia. Helen marries Max, uniting the families. Matthew’s away in Kenya; Peter has made a terrible match in Belle who throws fits and tosses him into the arms of their child’s nurse, Rachel; Anice is horribly jealous of Helen, who’s been more beautiful and now more rich than she is; Judy waits years for Oliver to escape from his mother’s clutches before chucking it and marrying an older writer who gives her entrance into London circles.

The Children Who Lived in a Barn

The Children Who Lived in a Barn

Eleanor Graham’s children’s book from 1938 is an earlier “Home Alone” tale—a family of five children left to fend for themselves when their parents disappear in a plane accident. Sue’s the oldest at 13, and sets the whole family to rights doing the drudgery of house keeping plus cooking plus laundry plus going to school and keeping the books for the baker in exchange for stale bread. Bob’s 11 years old, then the twin boys, then youngest is Alice, at 7. They’re driven out of their house by a greedy landlord and find refuge in a farmer’s barn. The kids fix it up into a home and proceed to live as they can for a few months, the village sending a woman to check up on them and threatening to toss them all into an orphanage at the slightest sign of dirt or misbehavior. Fairly flimsy plot, quite unbelievable that the parents would leave, and also that the village wouldn’t do more for them. At the end, with orphanage threatening, Sue “goes on strike” for a day and wanders the countryside, meeting a journalist by chance to tell her story to the world. Parents (amnesia?) arrive shortly after.

House-Bound

House-Bound

I’ve been looking forward to reading Winifred Peck’s masterpiece, a book written and published in the midst of WWII about an upper-class lady, Rose, who must learn housekeeping because all the maids are abandoning service. First line magic: “It was as she stood in Mrs Loman’s Registry Office for Domestic Servants that Rose Fairlaw suddenly realised what a useless and helpless woman she was. Up till that moment she had always assumed vaguely that she was a buy and useful member of society.”

Rose was widowed in the first great war, left with a baby daughter, Flora. Her best friend, Lilias, was also raising a child, and they shared a nursery. Lilias died of pneumonia, and Rose marries her widowed husband, Stuart, mostly so she isn’t separated from the son, Mickie, that she’s been raising alongside Flora. Stuart and Rose have a son, Tom, and everyone is upper-class gentry of Scotland. Rose is incredibly well read and always dropping odd quotes and statements into her conversations with people, like referencing Montaigne’s comments that wherever her daughter travels, she’ll still have herself for company. When we meet her, it’s December 1941, and her maid and cook are about to run off to jobs in the war effort. When she attempts to hire another set of staff, she overhears the matron suggest that the harried women simply do their own housework. Rose takes this to heart and does her best, mostly muddling along with help from Major Hosmer (who gives tips on cooking and suggests modernizing the kitchen with heated water and an electric stove) and Mrs Childe (who is a highly efficient maid teaching Rose how to do things).

Very clever and witty writing. “…I don’t think the law’s an idea of how to deal with marriage. For one thing, except for murder it’s the only crime for which you get a life sentence… and even for murder you can shorten your sentence by good conduct.”

New word perfect for 2017: fanfaronade – empty boasting, bluster.

The Montana Stories

An interesting method of collecting some of Katherine Mansfield’s short stories in a new way—chronologically, and only those written during a brief, highly-productive period of seven months in Switzerland in 1921. Includes several previously unpublished fragments and some slightly cheesy stories she wrote for The Sphere magazine just to pay the bills. My favorite of her stories is among these—At the Bay—and the children in that story show up again in The Doll’s House, a tale where the sisters (Kezia, Isabel, Lottie) receive a gorgeous doll house and invite everyone in their school in pairs of two to see it except, cruelly, the poorest girls in school; Kezia sneaks them in to see it and is roundly scolded. The Garden Party was written during this hectic productive period, too, and those children in it show up elsewhere in Her First Ball, written earlier in the month; strangely they all seem to be named after characters in Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women (Meg, Jose, Laura, Laurie).

One previously unread piece was the unfinished A Married Man’s Story, with deadly precision about a writer’s process:

Curious! Before I wrote it down, while it was still in my head, I was delighted with it. It seemed to express, and more, to suggest, just what I wanted to say. But written, I can smell the falseness immediately and the… source of the smell is in that word ‘fleet.’ Don’t you agree? Fleet, grey brothers! ‘Fleet’. A word I never use. When I wrote ‘wolves’ it skimmed across my mind like a shadow and I couldn’t resist it. Tell me! Tell me! Why is it so difficult to write simply—and not only simply but sotto voce, if you know what I mean? That is how I long to write. No fine effects—no bravura. But just the plain truth, as only a liar can tell it.

 

Brook Evans

A mindless piece of fluff from Gaspell; a tale in 3 acts: 1888 when Naomi Kellogg gets knocked up by her boyfriend Joe by the brook, but he dies in a farming accident before their planned marriage in the fall, so Caleb Evans wins the prize of Naomi’s hand in marriage, whisked away to Colorado to have her bastard child; 1907 we meet Brook Evans, the bastard daughter, whose goody-two-shoes ways displease her mother and Naomi finally reveals that Evans isn’t her father, but this cements Brook’s love for him…. despite Naomi’s machinations to get Brook to elope with a boy she loves, Brook leaves with a church woman for a European mission instead; 1928 we meet Brook’s son Evans, Brook is widowed and pursued by the elderly friend of her late husband but ends up finding love and running away with a Norwegian man she just met. Evans sails for America and finds Caleb near dementia and dancing on Joe’s grave (also spitting on it).

Emma

Ugh, boring longwinded vile book that I longed to be done with but that I suffered through so that I could get it in here as a warning not to attempt again. This warning needed because as I searched previously, I couldn’t find any evidence that I’d read this, but as I staggered through the first volume, it all rang so familiar. I must have made it through the first third of the book before tossing it on the trash heap. I’m not sure why I hated it so much, except it lacked Austen’s usual cleverness in repartee, and it was filled with tedious dialogue that dragged and contained no sparkle or humor. Emma is a beautiful (natch!), strong-willed, spoiled brat of a daughter left caring for her proper & rich father. Her governess has just married well, and only lives a half mile away, inheriting a step-son (Frank Churchill) that she hopes to wed to Emma. Only, SPOILER!, Frank’s already secretly engaged to Jane Fairfax, the other lovely and talented but poor girl in town. Emma’s main hobby is matchmaking, and she latches onto Harriet, a bastard child with no prospects who’s quite pretty, giving her false hopes about marrying a gentleman and spurning the advances of a farmer (who SPOILER! she ends up marrying at the end). I appear to be alone in my hatred of this book, oh well.

Oh– just flipped through and realized there was one bit I wanted to remember… apparently it was a common practice to write across text diagonally. “To cross a letter” was a paper-saving method in the 18th century; the explanatory notes: “after filling a sheet of paper, the letter writer would turn the page at a right angle and ‘cross the letter’, i.e. write horizontally across the vertical text.” Something to explore in my own epistolary adventures.

Pride and Prejudice

After half a dozen false starts for 50-100 pages in other books, I’m happy to have Jane Austen’s classic as my first read book of 2017. The gang holds up well for a classic of almost 200 years: Elizabeth & Darcy, Jane & Bingley, silly sister Lydia who runs off with Wickham, silly sister Kitty who grows up ok under the influence of settled older sisters once they marry. The repartee between Mr. and Mrs. Bennet is as hilarious as always.