Archive for November, 2015

jane eyre charlotte bronteJane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë ~ 1847. This edition: Penguin, 1985. Edited and with Introduction by Q.D. Leavis. Paperback. ISBN: 0-14-043011-3. 489 pages.

My rating: 8.5/10

Let’s see if I can pull off a 100-word summation:

  • Wee orphan Jane is despised by her only (that she knows about) relations and ends up in a charity-girl’s school, where she emerges at the age of 18 to take on a governess post to the illegitimate ward of the moody Mr. Rochester. Romantic sparks fly, despite a series of disturbing nocturnal events, and Jane is at the altar when an appalling allegation is made and everything is off. She runs away, finds shelter with a stern clergyman’s family, inherits a fortune, has a moral crisis, and passionately races her way back to Rochester’s now-mutilated arms. (There was this conflagration…)

Confession time: I have never read this book before, not even in my library-haunting adolescence when I tackled so many of the weighty greats. I do wonder what my younger self would have thought about it? I suspect much the same as my older self does: Rochester is bad, bad news, and Jane, you’re a fool.

This initially harsh reaction is salvaged by the author letting both of her main characters disarmingly confess the above about themselves a number of times. (Okay, it’s more like Jane knows she’s a fool. Rochester knows he’s bad news but he rather thinks that he gets a pass on his bad behaviour because…well…he’s rich and upper-class. And a man. A man has needs, don’t you know? Hence the three mistresses and the attempted bigamy.)

If the voice of Jane wasn’t so ardently introspective, I would have absolutely despised this deeply melodramatic tale. As it was, I quite enjoyed it, especially the orphanage saga at the beginning, and the “Should I be a missionary wife and go to India?” complication near the end. Engaging, most of it, though it took some work to wade through the romantic twaddle in the middle, before the aborted wedding ceremony and the Big Reveal about the insane first wife locked away in the attic.

If you have so far dodged this novel, you’re likely backing away slowly, thinking life’s too darned short for this sort of antique concoction, but let me reassure you that the thing has classic status for a reason, and that it’s well worth taking a go at it, if only to be able to at last identify the hundreds of references you’ve no doubt bumped up against in your other reading.

Can I stop right here? Though I could of course go on for thousands of words, picking the novel to pieces and putting it back together again, rambling on about symbolism and feminist elements (or the opposite) and the merits and demerits of the styling and plot, and should we be relating to Miss Eyre or despising her, and is Rochester really for real.

But I won’t.

This would be an awesome book to tackle with a real-life group of like-minded readers. No shortage of conversational topics, and it would be great fun to wax eloquent about the more outrageous bits, and to bounce favourite characters and scenes around.

So if you haven’t yet read Jane Eyre, here’s your nudge. Do it. You’ll love some bits, you’ll cringe at others, you’ll laugh (for there are some funny bits, both deliberate and unintentional), you’ll want to rattle some sense into Jane at least once or twice, and you’ll also yearn for Mr. Arrogance – oops, Rochester – to receive his much-deserved comeuppance. (Or maybe you’ll find him wonderfully romantic?)

Then come back and tell me what you think.



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Summer's Day by Mary Bell 1951 Greyladies reprint 2008Summer’s Day by Mary Bell ~ 1951. This edition: Greyladies Press, 2008. Softcover. ISBN: 978-0-9559413-2-0. 281 pages.

My rating: 10/10

Craftsmanship of any sort is an admirable thing, and one of life’s greatest joys is coming unexpectedly upon an example of mastery in execution, no matter what the field.

Finding craftmanship in writing is perhaps rarer than one would hope, what with the amount of people practising the trade. A book can easily make it to the bestseller lists without this elusive element – I won’t be giving examples, leaving it to you, dear fellow reader, to nod in recognition of this rather cheeky assertion – and how ironic it is (I often think) that some of the most creatively or just downright cleanly styled books are to be found languishing all unapplauded in the out-of-print stacks.

A case in point is this minor novel in a minor key, brought to my attention by Scott of the always-dangerous-to-browse Furrowed Middlebrow (“Off the beaten page: lesser-known British women writers 1910-1960”). After reading his post regarding this book back in 2013, and the follow-up post regarding his search for the identity of the writer some months later, I decided that this was something I needed to investigate for myself.

Summer’s Day proved not that easy to access, for though it had been re-published in 2008 by Greyladies Press, it was no longer on the available list, having been sold out of its print run. (Which makes me wonder just how many copies a typical print run might be for this sort of thing. I’m guessing not particularly high, but it would lovely if I’m wrong, and if there were thousands of these second-life titles being snapped up by discerning readers like myself. But I suspect the number is in the hundreds, or even less. Ah, well, we do what we can to spread the word.)

I did find a used copy on ABE, and it arrived promptly, and I just as promptly dove into it, but sadly the timing of my reading was all wrong, as I took the book along to enhance and occupy my time in a surgical waiting room (not for any operation of my own, but for one of my family members) and, needless to say, I was not as focussed as I should have been, for the story did not take, and I set it aside to tackle in future.

Future having arrived, and an opportunity for quiet, mindful reading along with it (thanks to the sudden onset of bitterly cold weather and the temporary sidelining of a major outdoor project), I’ve now read the book.

Scott is right. It’s a gorgeous example of its sort of thing.

In an English girls’ boarding school, shortly after the end of World War II, on the first day of summer term, a variety of characters are assembling. We see them at first in delicately sketched vignettes, and as the novel progresses and the camera pans out, as it were, we discover the inter-connectedness of each to the others, and with each succeeding page our interest grows, as we become acquainted with what is going on inside each of the character’s heads, and how the others in their circle react to their words and actions, and what makes them all tick.

The plot is episodic and not terribly dramatic: a number of schoolgirls deal with the everyday issues of communal life and occasionally wonder what their future will bring; a number of schoolmistresses (and one schoolmaster) ponder the same – both for themselves and their charges; a number of supporting characters (the school gardener, the housekeeper, members of the auxiliary staff, assorted parents, a potential lover or two) weigh in with their own thoughts on the girls they are attached to or otherwise interact with.

The appeal of Summer’s Day is not in what actually happens in the course of the narrative, but in the picture it creates of this common-yet-arcane micrososmos. The author has her characters well in hand, and she parades them across her stage with competence and delicious humour and deeply relatable poignancy.

For such a short book, less than 300 pages, there are an unusually high number of fully formed characters created who take shape and live in the reader’s mind, though none of them are likely to trouble us much, with the exception of two who are bereaved of their beloved, and whose grief follows us after the book is closed. I found myself genuinely anxious on their behalf, and had to give mself a litle mental shake – “It’s fiction, you silly – these people aren’t real!”

But they could be, and that’s a sincere compliment to the writer’s art.

More detailed reviews are presented here (same Furrowed Middlebrow link as earlier on) and here (from Lyn, of I Prefer Reading) complete with a number of quotations. I am perhaps not quite as enamoured as Scott was – though everything he says I concur with – and I nodded happily throughout Lyn’s review, for in it she says everything I’d like to, saving me the trouble of a recap.

Both are correct in that you really do need to concentrate on this one – it rewards a close examination, and is perhaps not the type of thing to take up if one is in the midst of any sort of emotional turmoil in one’s real life. But once you enter in, so much to appreciate.

And – as I do believe I’ve mentioned once or twice – with a lovely vein of ironic humour. Good stuff. Thumbs up to Mary Bell, whoever the heck she was, and boo hiss that this was (apparently) her only foray into writing.

“Who’s that chap?” asked a small girl’s father as Mr. Walker went by, liking the look of him. “I don’t remember -”

“Oh, that’s Fishy Walker,” his daughter informed him. “He’s not anybody’s father. As far as I know,” she added with intent – a failure – to shock.


“Yes. The drawing master.”

“And what do you draw?”

“Fish,” she explained patiently. “Do watch the bowling, dear.”

He did so, taking furtive glances at his daughter during runs. Did they really draw fish? he wondered. It seemed an odd reason for him to be scrounging for those fees. Perhaps it was a prelude to one of those modern careers, like girls looking after animals in the zoo, and he had a vision of himself creeping through the dim shades of some future aquarium to an assignation with his daughter among the octopuses.


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As most of you know I’m not one to get all worked up about bestselling authors, choosing instead to let the hype die down for at least a decade or two (okay, maybe a generation or two might be more accurate) and then see if the prose holds up once the buzz dies down. But there are a few exceptions to that cynical personal rule, and Kate Atkinson is one of them.

I stumbled upon Atkinson’s first book, Behind the Scenes at the Museum, quite some time ago. It was a random shelf pull, absolutely serendipitous – for a number of years I had a long commute several times weekly to take my daughter to her faraway dance school and a goodly number of hours to kill while she was in session, so the public library was my refuge and source of much scope for readerly experimentation – and it (the book) was so brilliantly out there that I came back to the real world most reluctantly. That woman can write, I said to myself. That’s how it’s done. Give me more of that, please.

After Museum I of course went back to the A shelf and pulled everything else by Atkinson that I could find, which was not all that much – Human Croquet and Emotionally Weird – and though they were readable, they felt just slightly too raggedly experimental in comparison to the first book.  Third trip back, and I struck a vein of gold: a fairly traditionally structured suspense-murder mystery featuring (eventually, after a certain amount of build up) a retired police officer turned private investigator, one Jackson Brodie.

Case Histories hooked me, and One Good Turn reeled me in, leaving me chortling with glee at my good fortune in finding such a wickedly clever writer, and When Will There be Good News? nicked me where it hurt and the left me rejoicing with its several happily likeable strong females, and Started Early, Took My Dog had me poignantly amused and supremely satisfied and at the same time yearning for something, anything, more.

Then, game over on the novel front, until Life After Life – very much not featuring Jackson Brodie, but more in line with that mind-twisting first story – burst upon the 2013 book scene. (I have a copy, but I haven’t yet read it. Just waiting for the right time. This year’s Christmas break, perhaps? It’s mellowed for two years, and the buzz is quieter, as the companion book is now out.)

Kate Atkinson has said that her four Jackson Brodie novels may well have to stand alone – she’s written herself out in that area, at least for now. And I get that, and I am all for it, because heaven forbid such a stellar narrative deteriorate into an Elizabeth George-style endless saga that piles tragedy upon plot twist upon ever-more-bizarre murder until one forgets just how good the first books really were.

But I’ve just re-read all four of the Brodie novels, and all I can think of is that a really awesome Christmas treat in, say, 2016 or 2017 would be a fifth installment. Just sending that out into cyberspace. Kate Atkinson, did you catch that?

I will go ahead and list all the vital statistics as I usually do for books I talk about here. But I won’t get into details about plot and style and all that stuff. If you haven’t already read these, it might be fun to go into them cold, with no expectations. Definitely read them in order if you can, though it’s not absolutely essential – Kate Atkinson takes pity on the reader and does sketch in the back story just a bit, for those coming in part way through. (And if you’re really curious, the internet is jam-packed with analysis and reviews. Anything I say here will merely be a shadowy repeat of what others have already fluently said.)

The author’s website does have some excerpts, for firsthand exploration before committing.

Such good books. Such a good writer. Such a twisty, clever mind, and her coincidences click into place most satisfyingly, as we have cheerfully suspended disbelief early on. And very funny, too, though concerned throughout with the dismal awfulnesses of people to each other. But no wallowing.

Good stuff. Good, good, good.

Okay, I wasn’t going to say anything about the plots, but then I checked out the Kirkus reviews and I liked the first one quite well so I changed my mind and decided to crib from the pros. No true spoilers included, but you might wish to avoid going any further if you like your sagas unsullied by prior knowledge of details.

220px-CaseHistoriesCase Histories by Kate Atkinson ~2004. This edition: Doubleday, 2004. Hardcover. ISBN: 0-385-60799-7. 304 pages.

My rating: 10/10

Just looked up the Kirkus review from 2004, and by golly, the reviewer echoes my thoughts precisely, including my bemusement at Human Croquet and Emotionally Weird.

After two self-indulgent detours, Atkinson proves that her Whitbread Award–winning debut, Behind the Scenes at the Museum (1996), was no fluke with a novel about three interconnected mysteries.

They seem totally unrelated at first to private detective Jackson Brodie, hired by separate individuals in Cambridge, England, to investigate long-dormant cases. Three-year-old Olivia Land disappeared from a tent in her family’s backyard in 1970; 34 years later, her sisters Amelia and Julia discover Olivia’s stuffed toy in their recently deceased father’s study and want Jackson to find out what he had to do with the disappearance. Theo Wyre’s beloved 18-year-old daughter Laura was murdered by a knife-wielding lunatic in 1994, and he too hires Jackson to crack this unsolved murder. Michelle was also 18 when she went to jail in 1979 for killing her husband with an ax while their infant daughter wailed in the playpen; she vanished after serving her time, but Shirley Morrison asks Jackson to find, not her sister Michelle, but the niece she promised to raise, then was forced to hand over to grandparents. The detective, whose bitter ex-wife uses Jackson’s profound love for their eight-year-old daughter to torture him, finds all these stories of dead and/or missing girls extremely unsettling; we learn toward the end why the subject of young women in peril is particularly painful for him. Atkinson has always been a gripping storyteller, and her complicated narrative crackles with the earthy humor, vibrant characterizations, and shrewd social observations that enlivened her first novel but were largely swamped by postmodern game-playing in Human Croquet (1997) and Emotionally Weird (2000). Here, she crafts a compulsive page-turner that looks deep into the heart of sadness, cruelty, and loss, yet ultimately grants her charming p.i. (and most of the other appealingly offbeat characters, including one killer) a chance at happiness and some measure of reconciliation with the past.

Wonderful fun and very moving: it’s a pleasure to see this talented writer back on form.

501124One Good Turn by Kate Atkinson ~ 2006. This edition: Anchor Canada, 2007. Softcover. ISBN: 9978-0-385-66261-1. 386 pages.

My rating: 10/10

Kirkus, again. Again, the reviewer mostly nailed it. Disregard the snarky “the author isn’t stretching herself” bit; it’s a grand book, says me. And I cried real tears at one point – a very rare response for me so noteworthy.

A murder mystery with comic overtones from the award-winning British storyteller.

Resurrecting Jackson Brodie, the private eye from Case Histories (2004), Atkinson confects a soft-hearted thriller, short on menace but long on empathy and introspection. Her intricate, none-too-serious plot is triggered by an act of road rage witnessed by assorted characters in Edinburgh during the annual summer arts festival. Mysterious possible hit man “Paul Bradley” is rear-ended by Terence Smith, a hard-man with a baseball bat who is stopped from beating Bradley to a pulp by mild-mannered crime-novelist Martin Canning, who throws his laptop at him. Other onlookers include Brodie, accompanied by his actress girlfriend, Julia; Gloria Hatter, wife of fraudulent property-developer Graham Hatter (of Hatter Homes, Real Homes for Real People); and schoolboy Archie, son of single-mother policewoman Louise Monroe, who lives in a crumbling Hatter home. Labyrinthine, occasionally farcical plot developments repeatedly link the group. Rounding out the criminal side of the story are at least two dead bodies; an omniscient Russian dominatrix who even to Gloria seems “like a comedy Russian”; and a mysterious agency named Favors. Brodie’s waning romance with Julia and waxing one with Louise; a dying cat; children; dead parents and much more are lengthily considered as Atkinson steps away from the action to delve into her characters’ personalities. Clearly, this is where her heart lies, not so much with the story’s riddles, the answers to which usually lie with Graham Hatter, who has been felled by a heart attack and remains unconscious for most of the story. There are running jokes and an enjoyable parade of neat resolutions, but no satisfying dénouement. Everything is connected, often amusingly or cleverly, but nothing matters much.

A technically adept and pleasurable tale, but Atkinson isn’t stretching herself.

3289281When Will There Be Good News? by Kate Atkinson ~ 2008. This edition: Doubleday, 2008. Hardcover. ISBN: 978-0-385-66682-4. 348 pages.

My rating: 10/10

Kirkus, Take Three. I strongly suspect that the reviewer phoned this one in, but it does sum up the key points of the action.

A third appearance for former police investigator and private detective Jackson Brodie in this psychologically astute thriller from Atkinson (One Good Turn, 2006, etc.).

In the emotional opening, six-year-old Joanna witnesses the brutal killing of her mother and siblings by a knife-wielding madman in the British countryside. Thirty years later, Joanna, now a doctor in Edinburgh, has become a mother herself. Her baby’s nanny is 16-year-old Reggie. To Reggie, whose own mother recently died in a freak accident, Joanna and her baby represent an ideal family (Joanna’s husband, a struggling businessman, seems only a vaguely irritating irrelevance to fatherless Reggie). When prickly, self-loathing policewoman Louise Monroe comes to call on lovely, warm-hearted Joanna, watchful Reggie (think Ellen Page from Juno with a Scottish brogue) is struck by the similarities between the two well-dressed professional women. Actually Louise has come to warn Joanna that her family’s murderer is being released from prison. Louise chooses not to mention her other reason for visiting, a suspicion that Joanna’s husband torched one of his failing businesses for the insurance. Jackson’s connection to the others is revealed gradually: Jackson and Louise were once almost lovers although they since married others; as a youth Jackson joined the search party that found Joanna hiding in a field following the murders. Rattled after visiting a child he suspects he fathered despite the mother’s denials, Jackson mistakenly takes the train to Edinburgh instead of London. When the train crashes near the house where Reggie happens to be watching TV, she gives him CPR. Soon afterward, Joanna’s husband tells Reggie that Joanna has gone away unexpectedly. Suspecting foul play, Reggie involves Louise and Jackson in individual searches for the missing woman and baby. While Louise and Jackson face truths about themselves and their relationships, Joanna’s survival instincts are once more put to the ultimate test.

Like the most riveting BBC mystery, in which understated, deadpan intelligence illuminates characters’ inner lives within a convoluted plot.

7307795Started Early, Took My Dog by Kate Atkinson ~ 2010. This edition: Doubleday, 2010. Softcover. ISBN: 978-0-385-67134-7. 350 pages.

My rating: 10/10

Kirkus, with errors. Another phone-in, is my verdict on the reviewer. The wee child has actually been left with his murdered mother’s body for a gruesome three weeks, and the questing adoptee Hope is from New Zealand. Otherwise the précis is more or less accurate.

British private detective Jackson Brodie, star of three previous Atkinson novels (When Will There Be Good News, 2008, etc.), finds himself embroiled in a case which shows that defining crime is sometimes as difficult as solving it.

Tracy Waterhouse, who is middle-aged, overweight and lonely, heads security for a mall in Leeds. Retired from the local police force, she remains haunted by one of her earliest cases, when she and her partner found a little boy abandoned in the apartment where his mother had been murdered days earlier. Although the murderer was supposedly found (but died before being brought to trial), Tracy never learned what happened to the child with whom she’d formed a quick bond. When Tracy sees a known prostitute/lowlife mistreating her child at the mall, she impulsively offers to buy the child, and the woman takes the money and runs. Tracy knows she has technically broken the law and even suspects the woman might not be the real mother, but her protective instinct and growing love for the little girl named Courtney overrides common sense; she begins arrangements to flee Leeds and start a new life with the child. Meanwhile, Jackson has come to Leeds on his own case. Raised and living in Australia, adoptee Hope McMaster wants information about her birth parents, who supposedly died in a car crash in Leeds 30 years ago. As he pursues the case, Jackson considers his relationships with his own kids—a troublesome teenage daughter from his first marriage and a young son whom DNA tests have recently proved he fathered with a former lover. Jackson’s search and Tracy’s quest intertwine as Jackson’s questions make the Leeds police force increasingly nervous. It becomes clear that the 1975 murder case Tracy worked on is far from solved and has had lasting repercussions.

The sleuthing is less important than Atkinson’s fascinating take on the philosophic and emotional dimensions of her characters’ lives.

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November 19, 2015. I have just re-read these two of E.M. Delafield’s books, Humbug (1922) and Thank Heaven Fasting (1932) and was curious to see what I had written about them the first time around, back in March of last year. I was interested to find that I would say much the same after the second reading, so am re-posting a very slightly tweaked version of what I said 18 months ago.

This summer I also read an omnibus collection of  of the Provincial Lady stories published between 1930 and 1940, The Diary of a Provinicial Lady, The PL Goes Further, The PL in America, and the PL in Wartime. The tone throughout these was much lighter than Humbug and Thank Heaven Fasting; at times I struggled to reconcile the two vastly different voices.

The humour in the “straight” novels (versus the diary-type formatted ones) was certainly there, but was much more restrained and bitter. The Provincial Lady books are chiefly amusing, the others disturbingly thought provoking. Delafield is very much on my radar as an author to quietly pursue, though most of her back list is long out of print.

The Provinicial Lady quartet has been republished in various formats and editions and is easy to find; Virago republished both Thank Heaven Fasting and The Way Things Are in 1988; Persephone republished Consequences in 2000. One can only hope that some others of Delafield’s long-neglected novels will catch the attention of either of these two pillars of the feminist press, or of one of the other republishers now so intent on mining the rich literary field of the early to mid 20th century. Preservation and distribution is the starting point of so much more, and it’s always a good thing to hear from those who walked before us, in their own words. Plus a lot of these old books are darned good reading, adding to the appeal for those of us not so much scholarly as merely seeking of interesting things to divert our minds with.


From March 7, 2014: Those of us who are familiar with E.M. Delafield only through her understated and slyly humourous Provincial Lady stories may be in for a bit of a surprise when delving deeper into her more than respectable greater body of work. According to Delafield’s succinct but comprehensive Wikipedia entry – someone has taken the time to briefly summarize each of her titles – she authored something like forty novels, as well as a number of film and radio play scripts.

Delafield’s novels are frequently described as semi-autobiographical. In the two I read recently the sentiments are certainly sincere enough to bear that out, and quietly tragic enough to make me feel a deep chord of sympathy to the young woman Delafield may possibly have been. Though she eventually slipped off the shackles of a strictly conventional upper-class girlhood and young womanhood, she appears from these two novels to be carrying a fair bit on angst-laden baggage from her youthful days. Delafield prefaces Humbug with a disclaimer as to the autobiographical nature of these tale, but if she did not live something similar she certainly observed it at close quarters is my own impression.

humbug e m delafield 001Humbug: A Study in Education by E.M. Delafield ~ 1922. This edition: Macmillan, 1922. Hardcover in reproduction dust jacket. 345 pages.

My rating: 8.5/10

Good women know by instinct that the younger generation, more especially when nearly related to themselves, should be equipped to encounter life by the careful and systemic misrepresentation of the more vital aspects of life.

The mother of Lily and Yvonne Stellenthorpe was a good woman, and had all a good woman’s capacity for the falsification of moral values…

Pretty little Lily, a child of seven as the story opens, is deeply and quietly perceptive, especially when it comes to her older sister Yvonne, who is quite obviously brain-damaged and “sub-normal”, though her parents vehemently deny it. Lily’s passionate defense of Yvonne, and her intuitive realization of Yvonne’s stoically endured pain are brushed off by the adults in her life as “naughtiness and impertinent interference.” Yvonne eventually perishes of a brain tumour, parents in denial to the bitter end. Lily grieves for her beloved sister but also rejoices that “Vonnie” is now pain-free in Heaven. Lily’s outwardly serene acceptance of the loss of her sister – she goes to great trouble to hide her tears from her parents in order to refrain from distressing them – is seen as juvenile callousness, and this crucial misunderstanding is representative of Lily’s parents’ lack of perceptiveness and their persistent misreading of their daughter’s true nature – that of a bright, loving and imaginative child.

A new baby brother appears, to Lily’s deep bemusement – she has been informed of the mystery about to unfold only by an ambiguous instruction towards the end of her mother’s pregnancy that she may pray for a baby brother – and once Kenneth appears Lily is suddenly packed away to convent school. Three months later, her mother dies, and Lily returns home, where she, baby Kenneth and the bereaved family patriarch settle into a muted existence of whispers and extended mourning.

The years go by, with Lily continually coming up against her father’s shocked disappointment in the things she innocently yearns for – storybooks, candy, the company of other children – until at last Lily, honestly thinking that her presence in the household is completely unnecessary, begs to be allowed to go to school. Her father reels in offended horror, clinging to the idea of the tightly-knit family while rejecting Lily’s right to having needs and desires of her own.

Her continual request to be sent to school distressed him profoundly. At one and the same time, he saw Lily convicted of disloyalty in wishing to alter the routine of life instituted for her by her mother, and as heartlessly desirous of abandoning her lonely father and little brother in their changed and saddened home.

At last he said to her:

“I can stand this no longer. Go, Lily, but remember that God Himself will condemn those who blaspheme against the sacred love of mother and father. You can go. I will keep no child at home against its will.”

Lily is, quite naturally, deeply distressed by this heaping on of parentally fabricated guilt, but she perseveres and off she goes to boarding school, where she comes under the thumb of her hearty headmistress, who seeks to mould Lily to yet another standard of acceptable girlhood. Lily does her best, as she always has, to outwardly conform to the expectations of her elders, but inside she is seething with confusion and deep shame. Her intentions are always good, but frequently misunderstood; Lily is the subject of many a lecture on how best to “improve” herself, which she takes to heart, causing further inner conflict as she tries her best to please everyone while still retaining some shred of self.

The years go by, and when Lily is well into her teens an opportunity arises for her to travel to Italy to visit her flamboyant Aunt Clo. Thrown into a very different society, Lily experiences a mild self-aware awakening.  She also meets the man who will become her husband, the much older, exceedingly staid and dull Nicolas Aubray. Once she is married, Lily at last has the opportunity to indulge in a certain degree of introspection, and her conclusions about herself, the way she has been manipulated throughout her life, and the way she will raise own small child bring this rather heart-rending treatise on how not to bring up children to a gently low-key but optimistic conclusion.

A quietly horrifying book in its description of Lily’s psychological and emotional abuse by those who love her too selfishly to be truly kind. Full of keen social commentary, with moments of sly humour. The subtitle, A Study in Education, points the authorial finger directly at the misguided attempts of everyone in Lily’s life – mother, father, nuns at convent school, headmistress and teachers at boarding school, her aunt and finally her husband – to form Lily into something that they think she should be, all the while stifling the natural intelligence and creativity which Lily was born with, and which is almost snuffed out by her extended “education” at the hands of others.

Ten years later, Thank Heaven Fasting examines the inner life of the similarly repressed Monica Ingram, another victim of smothering and misguided parental love and pervasive societal hypocrisy.

thank heaven fasting e m delafield 001 (2)Thank Heaven Fasting by E.M. Delafield ~ 1932. This edition: Virago, 1988. Paperback. ISBN: 0-86068-995-6. 233 pages.

My rating: 8/10

Monica Ingram is on the cusp of young womanhood: she is about to be launched into society and, more importantly, the marriage market. Sweetly pretty, fresh and hopeful, Monica breathlessly awaits the man who will prove to be her socially acceptable mate; his physical attractiveness and intellectual fitness are secondary considerations compared to financial and social standing.

Monica attracts a few approving masculine glances, but bobbles badly in her first season, becoming infatuated with a charming womanizer. Putting herself beyond the pale with an evening of stolen kisses, Monica’s small world condemns her behaviour, and, to her parents’ deep despair, Monica appears unable to recover lost ground. The available men turn their gaze to the newest crop of debutantes, and Monica sits on the shelf, becoming more and more stale with each passing year.

This novel is a bitter indictment of the lack of opportunities for young upper-class women, as well as a stab at traditional Victorian and Edwardian parenting. Educated in a more than sketchy fashion, trained for no occupation or career, having nothing to offer a prospective spouse but their own not particularly rare charms, crowds of daughters jockey for position, politely jostling each other at dinners and balls, and peeping over their shoulders with frightened eyes at last year’s crop of wallflowers who were unable to “get off” successfully.

Monica and her peers are creatures raised by their parents for one purpose only, to make good – or at least good enough – marriages. If they fail to succeed at this, the murmurings about unwed daughters being family liabilities louden to a discontented roar, with previously loving and nurturing parents becoming more and more exasperated and resentful as each year passes.

Both Lily of Humbug and Monica of Thank Heaven Fasting have been severely let down by their families and their society. Their eventual compromises are disappointingly the best they can do. For both of these gentle protaganists, their flounderings to stay afloat after not being taught to properly swim in the unforgiving ocean of the outside world and their gasping gratitude for the few good things that come their way are truly tragic in their absolute banality.

What appropriate reading for International Women’s Day, come to think of it. Flawed as some aspects of contemporary life are, we have indeed (by and large) come a long way, baby!

Both of these books are very readable, thought-provoking, and, yes, more than a little depressing. The heroines show glimmerings of self-actualization, glints of ambition, and a very reasonable resentment against their positions in the societal hierarchy, but ultimately both settle for something less than what they have been groomed to expect. Lily differs from Monica in that she manages to rise above her dismal upbringing – her “education” – and make herself some semblance of a happy life. Monica – well – Monica’s story ends before we can see too far into her future, but we suspect that she has lowered her expectations so greatly that her meek nature will at last find a place of compromised peace, and no aspiration to anything more.

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OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERANovember. Here it is, and well on its way, too.

I cannot remember another period of time in my life when I have been so abstracted, so unfocussed, so just not there mentally. Things are coming from too many directions. And my reading has been what you might expect: abstracted as well. Ah, well, this too shall pass.

It’s been a great year, all things considered. A nice balance of (mostly) work, and (too infrequent but most enjoyable) play. But the busy-ness shows no sign of abating any time soon. I’m not even looking forward to snow, because the outside projects are due to continue regardless. Our best friends are our big tarps, covering construction projects in between working bouts.

What have I been reading? Nothing too exciting, mostly re-reads. Mamma, by Diana Tutton of Guard Your Daughters fame. Lafcadio Hearn’s The Romance of the Milky Way, from 1905, “studies and stories” from Japan. A whole string of O. Douglas tales. Reginald Arkell’s Old Herbaceous. Most of Booth Tarkington’s The Magnificent Ambersons, until I misplaced it. Monica Dickens – Joy and Josephine (ho-hum) and The Angel in the Corner (better). Ethel Armitage, and a host of other vintage British garden writers, combining pleasure with work, as I plug away updating our plant nursery website’s pages, in preparation for the too-soon-coming nursery year, which gets underway mid-December with the slowest-to-sprout perennials being optimistically seeded and subjected to their various germination-triggering temperature requirements – long warm, long cool, warm-cool-warm, cold-cool, cold-warm, very hot…


So, instead of a book post, here’s a seasonal poem. And not the one you’re thinking it will be, from that misleading post title.

I’ve been worrying away at Rilke in the original German, keeping a volume of his collected works on my bedside table and wishing I had the self-discipline to actually study the language in an organized manner. Maybe next year!

In a slightly uneven English translation, here is one of my favourites, especially that third stanza. November, indeed.

Autumn Day

Lord, it is time. Let the great summer go,
Cast your long shadow on the sundial,
And over harvest fields let the winds blow.

Command to ripen the final fruits;
Grant them two more burning days,
Bring them to fullness, and press
A last sweetness into the heavy wine.

Who has no house, will not build now.
Who now is alone, will remain alone,
Will wake, read, write long letters,
And will the alleys up and down
Walk restlessly, in wind-blown fallen leaves.

Rainer Maria Rilke, circa 1902


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