Classics Club Spin # 33 – the result

The Classics Club Spin number has been chosen and it’s number 18. That means that before April, 30th I have to read Ordinary Families by E. Arnot Robertson, published by Virago books. It was originally published in 1933.

This book is a fairly recent purchase, I think I bought it just last month in the Edinburgh Stockbridge Oxfam bookshop. I’ve never read anything by the author before – have you? Did you join in the CC Spin this month, if so which book did you get?

Painted Clay by Capel Boake

Painted Clay cover

Painted Clay by Capel Boake was first published in Australia in 1917 but my copy is the 1986 Virago reprint. The author’s real name was Doris Boake Kerr and she also wrote under the name Stephen Grey. She spent most of her life in Melbourne, Australia which is the setting of this book.

Helen Somerset is an isolated young woman, brought up in Packington a suburb of Melbourne, by a reclusive father who has home schooled her. Her father has told Helen that her mother is dead and he has nothing good to say about her. He thinks that Helen will turn out to be like her mother and he’s a cold and aloof father, it’s a miserable life for Helen. Eventually Helen strikes up a friendship with the young women who live next door, she could hear them through the wall, their music and laughter and she longed to be part of it.

When her father dies Helen is only 16 and is in a sticky situation as she has to get out of what had been her home. Luckily she is taken in by the mother next door and her daughters Bella and Irene encourage Helen to get a job in a shop selling china. The work is dire as are the wages but Helen is happy to be out in the world. Eventually she’s encouraged to take evening classes in shorthand and typing to enable her to get a better job in an office.

As Helen’s life opens out and she makes friends with people who lead a more Bohemian lifestyle, living among artists she falls for an older man which is not exactly surprising since she had lacked a real father figure, but the relationship goes further than would be expected for the times, not that Helen feels guilty about that, she can’t see anything wrong with it, although knows that society would feel differently.

This is a really good read which deals with the changing attitudes of society and the changing lives of women who are more able to lead an independent life, but the men in their lives aren’t always as adaptable to the changes. Towards the end of the book the First World War breaks out which is obviously going to advance the cause of women’s independence albeit at a horrendous cost.

Capel Boake wrote three more novels and some poetry, but I don’t think the others have been reprinted which is a shame as I’d definitely read them if they were.

A Woman in Berlin by Marta Hillers

A Woman in Berlin cover

A Woman in Berlin by Marta Hillers was originally published anonymously and was first published in 1954 in the US in English and was subsequently published in several languages, including Finnish, but it was first published in the UK in 2005 by Virago. There’s an introduction by the historian Antony Beevor. It wasn’t until 2003 that the anonymous author was named as journalist Marta Hillers.

The author begins her diary on Friday 20 April 1945, 4 pm and her last entry is Friday, 22 June 1945 and she identifies herself as a journalist who had travelled widely before the war and had even been to Russia where she had managed to pick up some of the language, something which came in handy when the Russian army entered her neighbourhood. Obviously the women were dreading their arrival as they had heard so many rumours of their behaviour. Young girls were hidden away from the soldiers’ eyes in an effort to spare them from their attentions.

This is a grim read at times but not overly so, I’ve read far worse from Russian women writers writing about their experiences as political prisoners in Stalin’s gulags, and it doesn’t come close to matching what the Nazis did or for that matter the horrific things that are happening to young women abducted by armies in parts of Africa.

Rape occurred but the Russian soldiers spared the old, girls under 18 and young mothers. The author discovered that her neighbourhood had been taken over by what she described as elite troops, and other areas had it tougher with less refined soldiers, not that you could really call any of them gentlemanly. Yes the author was raped several times by various different men, then she realised that she must find an officer to attach herself to, in the hope that that would keep the others away from her. A lack of normal deference within the Russian ranks scuppered that hope to begin with but eventually she was seen as Anatol’s woman, unfortunately he was moved on though so she had to begin again.

But it wasn’t all bad news, the neighbours went from starvation to having plenty to eat, thanks to being able to loot the nearby German barracks and getting gifts of food from the Russian soldiers. The few German men who were around kept a very low profile, some of them had been demobbed from the army and they believed that the Russian soldiers would shoot them, but it was Herr Pauli who infuriated me. He was a lodger in the author’s building, lodging with a widow who lived on the ground floor. The author had moved in with them as her attic room on the fourth floor was dangerous while the battle for Berlin was ongoing. Pauli grudged every morsel that the author ate, and I just longed for her to say to him that if it wasn’t for her they would have had nothing to eat at all, but the German women must have been so used to seeing German men as superior beings that she never did give the lazy so and so a piece of her mind. She realises that looking back when all of the soldiers came home on leave they were pampered by the women, despite the fact that they had been living in areas of Europe that hadn’t been getting bombarded by bombs the way Berlin was.

Later in the book the author realised that if she had stayed on the upper floors of the building she would have been safe from the soldiers as they never went up to the higher floors, her theory on that was that as they were nearly all farm boys they weren’t used to stairs and didn’t like climbing up them.

The widow was eventually raped a few times, despite being 50, albeit a young looking 50, however she seems to have been rather pleased by the experience and went around telling everyone that according to her rapist she had a better figure than the Ukrainian women he was used to!

One woman states that if Hitler had been finished off on 20 July 1944, he would have kept some of his aura. That’s absolutely true as he still had plenty of supporters in modern Germany, if he had been a martyr it would only have made that situation worse.

Towards the end of the book the women discover that the Russian army didn’t give their soldiers home leave so many of the men had never seen their wives for over four years, they thought it went some way to understanding their behaviour, especially when they were drunk.

The identity of the author was obviously known to her publisher but she didn’t want this book to be republished in her lifetime as it had caused controversy when it first was published in Germany in 1954, presumably the women in particular didn’t want to admit to themselves what had happened during the Russian occupation. She outlived the publisher but his wife knew her identity and Marta Hillers apparently lived to be over 90 and died in 2001.

Emily Climbs by L.M. Montgomery

Emily Climbs by L.M. Montgomery is the second book in a trilogy, I only realised that when I started reading this one but I decided just to bash on with it. The book was first published in 1925 but my copy is a very recent purchase and a Virago reprint. When I bought it Jack mentioned that he thought the cover was horrible. Is that a bloke thing? I think it’s enchanting!

Emily is an orphan who lives on Prince Edward Island, Canada – at a house called New Moon with two of her aunts and a cousin. She has become very attached to the place, despite the fact that her Aunt Elizabeth is a bit of a dragon. The Scottish Presbyterian psyche is very evident in the family. Emily is constantly being told to remember that she is a Murray, despite the fact that her father was a Starr. The Murray family is seen as of some consequence locally.

Emily longs to become a writer, but Aunt Elizabeth thinks that fiction is telling lies so she’s dead against Emily’s writing. Her teacher Mr Carpenter has encouraged her writing over the years but when it comes time for Emily to move on to a high school in nearby Shrewsbury it’s by no means an automatic transfer as far as Aunt Elizabeth is concerned. It would be expensive and she doesn’t really want Emily to leave New Moon and her influence.

A compromise is reached when it’s agreed that Emily can stay in Shrewsbury with Aunt Ruth – another Murray, but this one got married and is now a widow. Emily must promise not to write any fiction for the three years she’ll be studying.

This is a lovely read, I enjoyed being a part of the community and meeting all the quirky inhabitants, many of whom I recognised. There’s a possessive widowed mother who is determined to keep any females away from her beloved only son. Harsh aunts who never give any praise – for fear of spoiling the child, but in times of dire need they’re on your side against the world. I felt such an affinity with Emily who is a book lover and a tree lover, she wrote:

“Trees have as much individuality as human beings. Not even two spruces are alike. There is always some kink or bend of bough to single each one out from its fellows. Some trees love to grow sociably together, their branches twining like Ilse and me with our arms about each other, whispering interminably of their secrets. Then there are more exclusive groups of four or five – clan Murray trees; and there are hermits of trees who choose to stand apart in solitary state and who hold the commune only with the winds of heaven. Yet these trees are often the best worth knowing. One feels it is more of a triumph to win their confidence than that of easier trees.”

L.M. Montgomery’s Scottish roots are very much in evidence in this book. There’s also a lot of comedy – and I needed that!

Vera Brittain and the First World War by Mark Bostridge

Vera Brittain and the First World War by Mark Bostridge was published in 2014 and it’s subtitled The Story of Testament of Youth. The author is quite an authority on Vera Brittain as he has written a biography of her and in the past has worked as an assistant to her daughter Shirley Williams.

I read Testament of Youth years ago, probably around about the time that the BBC dramatised the book in 1979, but I didn’t watch the more recent film because I didn’t see how it could possibly do the book justice in such a short time. The BBC serial is very good but I suppose it might seem a bit dated now, acting styles do change over the years.

I think that some people might be a bit disappointed by this book as it is an honest portrait of Vera’s life which if you have only read Testament of Youth might come as a bit of a shock. She did have a habit of re-writing history to put herself in a better light, or to make herself seem hard done by within her family.

The fact is that her brother Edward hadn’t intended to join up straight from school but Vera who was by this time 20 years old seems to have been so influenced by the jingoism of the newspapers and some politicians that she persuaded him to enlist – her argument seems to have been that people of their class should be patriotic. Their parents were completely against their only son joining up and Vera was such a snob that she told her father that that was his attitude because he hadn’t gone to a public (posh private) school and therefore wasn’t as patriotic. I think she was one step away from being one of those dreadful females who handed out white feathers to men. Edward seems to have quickly regretted his decision to join up when the reality of the trenches hit him. It’s easy to see why Vera re-wrote history as she should have been consumed with guilt.

Much was made by Vera of her difficulty in getting a university education, claiming that her parents were against the idea when in fact she was encouraged to go to Oxford and was financed by them. Perhaps she only wanted to make her story seem more interesting but it had the effect of putting her parents unfairly in a bad light again.

At Oxford she had her apparently usual reputation for being earnest and conceited and also had no sense of humour, something that was a drawback when the book was being turned into a TV series, but she did make some friends there before she decided to become a VAD nurse and do her bit in the war. Her experiences eventually led to her writing her famous book, aided by some diaries that she had written in the first years of the war.

It might sound like I’m being a moaning Minnie – I’m not, it’s just that Vera was quite a flawed human being, she was a feminist but a terrific snob, the sort of woman for whom women’s rights were only for upper class women, certainly not for her own servants.

This book also gives some information on the making of the film and BBC series and also of Virago reprinting the book which led to them. There are also quite a few interesting photographs.

The author does seem to have got to the bottom of the strange circumstances of Edward Brittain’s death at the front. This was an interesting read with Vera in reality travelling from jingoistic euphoria at the outbreak of the war to pacifism a few years later.

In recent years we’ve become used to hearing about what women did in wartime and I have tended to have taken for granted that women’s contributions had always been appreciated, so I was really surprised to read in this book that in the BBC documentary The Great War (made to commemorate the 50th anniversary) which has a total running time of over 17 hours only minutes were devoted to recounting women’s experiences. I’ve watched that whole series at least three times, and that had never dawned on me! This book is a good read.

The Vet’s Daughter by Barbara Comyns

The Vet’s Daughter was first published in 1959 but I read a Virago reprint. It’s the third book that I’ve read by Comyns and I think that it is the one that I’ve liked least, although it seems to have been seen as something of a wonder when it first came out. It was apparently received with excitement, widely reviewed, praised by Graham Greene, reprinted, made into a play, serialised by the BBC and adapted as a musical.

It didn’t really appeal to me because I found it to be too dark and quite depressing. The story is told by Alice, the vet’s daughter, she lives with her parents in a poor part of London and her father is abusive, especially towards his wife. It’s a bit of a puzzle as to why he’s a vet as he has no love for animals, the vivisectionist arrives weekly to collect the unwanted puppies! Alice is just a drudge, having to clean out all the animal cages and run the house. Things just get worse as Alice’s mother suffers a lingering death, getting no sympathy from her husband.

He wastes no time in moving the local barmaid/tart into the house when his wife dies and so begins another round of misery for Alice as she has to clean up after the tart and her father’s moods are no better, he’s still a raging drunk who enjoys beating up his daughter.

There’s a brief respite for Alice when she moves away to the countryside to be a companion to an old lady, the mother of her father’s assistant. But that ends in tragedy too. Comyns has a thing about floating, I seem to remember that in Sisters by a River there was one of them who often seemed to float upstairs, or so she thought anyway. Something similar happens in this book too, but it has dire consequences. I found it to be an odd book. It happens to have been ‘born’ the same year that I was born and back then it may have been seen as quite fantastical which might account for it being so well received, but for me it just seemed a bit of a downer.

I read this one for the Classics Club Women’s Classic Literature Event 2016

Lolly Willowes by Sylvia Townsend Warner

Lolly Willowes cover

Lolly Willowes by Sylvia Townsend Warner is one of a bunch of Virago books which have been languishing unread on a shelf for years, so when I saw that quite a few bloggers seemed to have read it recently I thought I should get around to it too.

I have to say that I didn’t love this book as much as I had expected to. It’s a book of two halves really. When her father dies Lolly Willowes has to move in with her brother and his wife and their family. She has been left money of her own but nobody expects her to strike out on her own and have an independent life. She’s one of those maiden aunts, handy for when the children need to be looked after, but otherwise unwanted.

After years of living her life to suit other people she eventually decides to move out to Great Mop, a rural village, where she’s able to learn more about nature and the plants and potions that have always attracted her. The book changes completely, just as Lolly did, and it seemed apt that I got to this point in the book on Halloween, as the village turns out to be full of witches.

You might be interested in reading this Guardian article about Sylvia Townsend Warner: the neglected writer.

Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont by Elizabeth Taylor

Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont cover

It’s just as well that I keep a written list of all the books which I’ve read and add to it as soon as I’ve finished a book, in fact I write the title down first and add the author when I’ve finished it, all written in pencil in an old school jotter, very low tech. But that low tech list is more precise than my Goodreads list because I just discovered tonight that I hadn’t added all the books that I had finished recently on to Goodreads, which meant that I had actually reached my goal of 75 books read – four books before Goodreads thought I had.

The four which I just added on tonight, despite having finished them were:
1. Traitor’s Purse by Margery Allingham – I’ve already blogged about that one.
2. Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont by Elizabeth Taylor
3. Innocent Traitor by Alison Weir
4. Another Time Another Place by Jessie Kesson

So what did I think about Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont? It must be a couple of weeks since I finished reading it now but it’s still very clear in my mind, and I can’t always say the same of a fair few books, although when I read the blurb the details usually all come back to me. I’ve really liked Elizabeth Taylor’s books in the past and I wasn’t disappointed with this one although I did find the subject matter to be quite sad.

The Claremont Hotel is situated in London and most of the guests are elderly people who have decided to stay there because they aren’t really up to looking after themselves in a home of their own, but obviously don’t want to take the enormous step of checking themselves into an old folks home. They hope that London will have more to offer them in the way of entertainment compared with some more traditional retirement locations such as coastal resorts like Bournemouth.

But the Claremont is peopled by an odd assortment of inhabitants, widows and widowers who were all fairly recognisable characters to me, Taylor is very good at observation of people and the emotions which rule them.

Of course despite the many free attractions on offer in London none of them take the opportunities to visit them, and each day is much the same as the one before. The meals on offer in the hotel are repetitive, on a strict rotation of the – if it’s Tuesday it must be veal – variety. Boredom is the one thing that the guests all have in common, but being seen as an object of pity by the other guests is what Mrs Palfrey really wants to avoid. It’s what they all want to avoid but as they’re stuck in an environment where the most exciting thing that happens is recognising one of the previous guest’s name in the obituary section in The Times, there’s not much hope for any of them.

This book was first published in 1971 when Elizabeth Taylor would have been 59, so she wasn’t in her dotage, but obviously had some experience of people who had lived out their final days in small hotels like The Claremont. This is a really well written book but as I said – I did find the subject sad and it made me all the more determined that if I ever reach a great age – when my time comes – I’ll bow out gracefully thanks!