Provenance: Purchased (via ABE) from Powell’s Books, Portland, Oregon – March 2014.
My rating: 9.5/10
This is a beautifully framed and constructed capture of a brief and bleak moment in time, focussing on a few ordinary people over a few short days in the midst of World War II’s London Blitz.
Selina Tippett, for twenty years a paid companion to a series of querulous old ladies, had at long last achieved her dream, that of operating a comforting teashop supplying nourishing and delicious refreshments to those most in need of a peaceful break in their stressful lives. For seven years the Warming Pan has been a haven for the harried housewives, elderly shoppers and frazzled governesses of this small corner of London, but times are increasingly difficult, and Selina is in a state of quiet desperation.
The bombs rain down, and her loyal customers are quietly fading away, either through the dismal fate of sudden death from the sky, or the more insidious process of quiet evacuation to the countryside. The Warming Pan’s once abundant selection of teacakes has dwindled to a mere shadow of past glories as rationing is in full force; Selena has just been informed that she may no longer buy fresh eggs for her baking, and she is ineligible for powdered eggs because she has never used them before and hence has no entitlement to a rationed allowance. The rent is months overdue; Selina receives each day’s post with trepidation, expecting an eviction notice. What will the future bring…?
Selina’s partner Angelina refuses to share Selina’s concerns. Girded for battle with her strong sense of righteousness, Angelina goes forth daily to enthusiastically do battle with the bureaucracy of the Food Ministry and her wide circle of provision merchants. In her free hours, Angelina is an aficionado of various evening courses; she is a keen autodidact and fierce feminist with a special interest in improving the position of women in society.
When Angelina brings home a hideous plaster statue of a bulldog – christened “Beowulf” in a gesture of symbolic nose-thumbing at the disturbers of England’s peace – Selina tries to hide her inner anger at the fact that it was paid for with money intended for the gas bill and the fishmonger. But as Selina’s sense of foreboding increases hour by hour, fate is preparing a climactic solution (of sorts) to her most urgent problems…
Much more than a simply linear narrative, this novel is a spiral series of vignettes, all connected at the centre to the Warming Pan and the people who cross its threshold and find refuge within its threatened walls.
Short but quite perfect; an excellent reading experience. Though the subject matter is desperately sad, the novel is quietly and genuinely humorous, and not at all depressing.
Half a point lost because I wanted more, and the ending solved a key problem just a little too neatly.
Bryher was the pen-name of British novelist and poet Annie Winifred Ellerman. A keen historian and amateur archeologist (as well as the daughter of “England’s wealthiest man”, shipping magnate John Ellerman), she wrote a number of well-researched, well-written and well-reviewed historical novels focussing on various periods in England’s history, such as The Fourteenth of October (the year of 1066), and The Player’s Boy (Beaumont and Fletcher at the end of the Elizabethan period). She also dabbled in writing science fiction in 1965’s Visa for Avalon, and was well known for her strongly eclectic interests and her steadfast support of the literary and creative arts.
An author very much worthy of further investigation.