Walking Naked by Nina Bawden

 Walking Naked cover

Walking Naked by Nina Bawden was first published in 1981 but my copy is a Virago reprint from 1992. It all feels very autobiographical but I gather that Bawden habitually plundered her own life for use in her novels.

The action takes place on one day. Laura is an author and is happily married to Andrew who is her second husband. He’s successful and socially adept where Laura is awkward and uncomfortable. It begins with Andrew playing a game of tennis with a visiting American business contact, with the wives looking on.

It’s a busy day as next on the agenda is a prison visit to Laura’s grown up son by her previous husband. The son is being charged with drug smuggling, he’s either guilty or a complete idiot. It’s a situation that finds Laura and Andrew feeling powerless, an unusual state for them to be in.

Laura is carrying a lot of baggage from her wartime childhood when she felt abandoned by her mother. Her anxiety manifests itself as a fear and dread that her home is silently being attacked by dry rot and is about to tumble down around her and her family.

But it’s Laura who is telling this tale and she’s a very flawed character, skipping back and forth between the past and the present the reader slowly discovers that Laura isn’t as she has portrayed herself.

This was well written but not a comfy read as it’s dealing with broken families and damaged people.

You can read Bawden’s obituary here

Company Parade by Storm Jameson

Company Parade cover

Company Parade by Storm Jameson was first published in 1934 but my copy is a Virago reprint from 1982.

The setting is mainly London 1919 where Hervey Russell a young ambitious author has gone to further her career. Her novel is due to be published soon but she takes a job in an advertising agency to keep body and soul together. Life is tough as she is married with a feckless husband called Penn who is in the RAF. He has had a very cushy war unlike most and doesn’t want to give up his safe life in uniform. He spends all of his wages on himself despite the fact that he and Hervey have a small son. Penn isn’t interested in either of them. Hervey has farmed their son out and left him with a woman who lives in Yorkshire, near Hervey’s mother, she’s torn by that decision but knows that she has to be in London.

Hervey’s grandmother is fabulously wealthy but a silly family rift means that Hervey has no relationship with her granny. This book is peopled by awkward characters, many of whom have been damaged physically and mentally by World War 1. I think this book, which is the first in a series was probably simmering away in the author’s mind since the end of that war.

The book was slow to get going for me but I ended up really enjoying it so I’ll be reading the rest of the series to see what happens next. Storm Jameson was so observant on human character and relationships. However it was her comments on politics and the likelihood of another war being the result of the armistice terms that seemed so prescient to me. I wonder if people really did think like that at the time, she obviously had an eye on what was going on in Germany in the 1930s. She was politically active on the left and was a friend of Vera Brittain, they had both lost brothers in the war. This book seems to be very autobiographical.

The Virago cover is a detail from ‘Room in New York’ by Edward Hopper.

Marriage by Susan Ferrier

Marriage cover

Marriage by Susan Ferrier was completely unknown to me until I saw it displayed in Kirkcaldy’s main library recently. I had never even heard of the author but she was a well known and successful author in her day – and a friend of Sir Walter Scott. Marriage was first published in 1818 but Virago reprinted it recently. She was writing at the same time as Jane Austen of course but her writing is completely different and so much more modern in feeling. In the blurb Susan Ferrier is described as having been one of Scotland’s greatest writers – I certainly enjoyed this one.

When the novel begins Lady Juliana is just seventeen – and a half as she says. Her father Lord Courtland has decided it’s time to speak to her of marriage, he obviously wants to see her settled with a wealthy husband. Juliana is of a more romantic temperament and she believes that she should be united to the choice of her heart.

‘The choice of a fiddlestick exclaimed Lord Courtland in a rage. What have you to do with a heart? what has anyone to do with a heart when their establishment in life is at stake? Keep your heart for your romances, child, and don’t bring such nonsense into real life – heart indeed!’

The upshot is of course that Juliana rejects the elderly and unattractive gentleman chosen by her father and she elopes to Scotland with a handsome young man that she has only just met. He’s a penniless soldier but he comes of a ‘good’ family who own an estate in Scotland. It’s all a huge eye-opener for Juliana as life in a remote part of Scotland amongst her husband’s very eccentric relatives is not what she expected it to be. There’s no money despite the estate and it isn’t long before Juliana is the mother of twins! Both girls.

Juliana can’t even bring herself to look at the smallest child as she’s not pretty like her sister and she gladly gives Mary to her husband’s childless aunt to bring up. Juliana regrets hugely her elopement and leaves her husband, taking Adelaide with her to London.

After sixteen years Mary gets the opportunity to go to London and meet her mother and sister for the first time. Of course the sisters are like chalk and cheese with Mary being strictly brought up to put others first and Adelaide turning out to be a spoiled brat – just like her mother.

There’s a lot of humour in this book and a lot of Scotland too, some great characters and a lot of observation on human nature and character. Like many writers around that time Ferrier delighted in giving some of her characters apt names including one Doctor Dolittle, a name which was taken up over 100 years later by the author Hugh Lofting. She was paid much more than Jane Austen was for her books, it must have helped to have Sir Walter Scott as a friend. Unfortunately she only wrote three books as she ‘got religion’ and gave up writing to concentrate on that although to be fair she campaigned for the abolition of slavery and probably thought that was more important than writing entertaining books.

If you are interested in giving this book a go you can download it from Project Gutenberg here.

The Virago book has an introduction by Val McDermid.

Click here to read what The National Library of Scotland says of Susan Ferrier’s novels:

The Song of the Lark by Willa Cather

The Song of the Lark cover

The Song of the Lark by Willa Cather was first published in 1937 and it’s a chunky read at 581 pages. I’ve read quite a lot of books by Cather, I think this is the seventh and it’s the one that I’ve least enjoyed. It begins well with the setting of Moonstone, a small town in the American West where Thea Kronberg is one of a family of seven children, their father is a local Methodist minister and there’s some rivalry between them and the local Baptists. The blurb on the back says that it’s a Cinderella story – but who is the Cinderella character – certainly not Thea.

From the beginning it’s obvious that Thea has been singled out as the special daughter of the family. She’s pretty and blonde, everybody’s favourite. The local piano teacher thinks she has talent and she has to spend lots of time practising the piano, but eventually it’s her voice that she concentrates on and when she’s old enough she moves to Chicago to take lessons there.

Along the way Thea makes friends with various men. She’s one of those females who gets on much better with men than with other women. Everything leads to Thea’s eventual fame and fortune of course, but it’s at a cost to everyone else. She is completely focused on her career. She only went back to Moonstone once after leaving home, and didn’t even go there when she knew that her parents were dying. Her mother who had been so happy to put Thea up on a pedestal died thinking that having a family wasn’t really worth the bother. But Thea’s upbringing made it almost a certainty she was going to be a selfish diva.

There are a few mentions of the other daughter of the Kronberg family – Anna, the younger girl. She is the true Cinderella. Whilst Thea was getting all the attention poor Anna was the one doing all the housework that Thea was too special to do. Anna is portrayed as a bit of a fanatical Christian, but maybe she was hoping to get some attention and love from her father the minister. She was never going to be loved by her mother. Anna is seen as being embittered, but who wouldn’t be under those circumstances? She drops completely out of the book about half-way through. I want to know what happened to Anna who was so neglected by everyone.

Apart from that the book is just far too long, it really drags in the middle and could have been doing with being cut by about 200 pages. However as ever there are some lovely evocations of the countryside although Chicago is more of a shadowy place so you don’t get much of an idea of what it was like.

I read this one for The Classics Club.

Palladian by Elizabeth Taylor

Palladian cover

Palladian by Elizabeth Taylor was first published in 1946 but my copy is a Virago reprint. I have to say that although I enjoyed the book it isn’t up there amongst my favourites. It’s a bit of an homage to Jane Eyre and Jane Austen, a slightly updated Gothic tale and so is quite predictable. There’s even a character who is obviously based on Branwell Bronte. Having said that there is some lovely and humorous writing and well observed characters that you can’t help thinking are so real – they must have been based on someone she knew. There also seems to be a lot of product placement, long before such things occurred surely. Sanatogen, Bengers, Ryvita and more – bizarre, I can’t imagine the author was paid for the mentions.

Cassandra Dashwood’s father has died, she’s now on her own and homeless. She visits her old school and her headmistress arranges for Cassandra to become a governess at Cropthorne Manor which turns out to be everything Cassandra wants – a crumbling, mouldy pile of a house. She has already decided that she will fall in love with her employer Mr Marion Vanbrugh. Yes he IS a man, I believe that was John Wayne’s real name.

The blurb on the back says: Just as Jane Austen wittily contrasted real life with a girl’s Gothic fantasies in Northanger Abbey, so Elizabeth Taylor examines the realities of life for a latter-day Jane Eyre in this sharply observed work.

This is Taylor’s second book to be published, and they always say that it’s the second one that they find most difficult to write, I think it tells in this book. I’d give it a 3.5 on Goodreads – if I could.

One Fine Day by Mollie Panter-Downes

One Fine Day cover

One Fine Day by Mollie Panter-Downes was first published in 1947 but my copy is a 2011 Virago, how I hate those new Virago covers, bring back the original green ones, please.

This book was written in 1946, a time when everyone was trying to adjust to a normal life without war, it’s not made easy by the fact that everything post-war has changed, especially for those who had had some money and were used to servants looking after them. It’s a day in the life of Laura, a middle class wife and mother of Victoria, a ten year old. Laura’s not terribly domesticated and she’s a bit of a dreamer so she’s struggling to cope with cooking and mending.

Laura Marshall’s husband is getting into the routine of commuting by train to London from Wealding in Sussex every morning, but he’s also constantly worrying about the state of his garden and house, there’s no help to be found anywhere and it all seems to be crumbling around him.

This is so well written and observed, Panter-Downes has Laura comparing the differences between her middle class husband’s standoffish attitude to his own daughter and a local working class man’s obvious adoration of a young relative. They’re poverty stricken and slovenly, but happy. Of course Stephen had gone off to war, leaving a small girl behind and he’s having trouble recognising that wee one in the self-contained ten year old that she has become while he was at war for five years.

When Laura makes a visit to the local ‘big house’ she thinks:
All those windows, she thought in horror. For the rest of her life, now, she would see things from the point of view of cleaning them. Confronted by a masterpiece of architecture, she would think merely, How much floor to sweep, how many stairs to run up and down. The world had contracted to domestic-house size, always whispering to the sound of somebody’s broom.

There’s quite a lot of humour in the book, often in the way that the ‘lower orders’ express themselves. But Angela Huth who wrote an introduction to the book seems to have missed some of it, as she’s under the impression that the big house is being turned into some sort of institution.

In fact the family in the big house has decided to hand it over to the National Trust and retreat to a self-contained flat in the property, as many such stately home owners did around that time. Perhaps Huth didn’t understand the ‘joke’ that the charlady gives the information that National Trusses will be taking over the big house. Most of the humour is from the way the working class people speak but it isn’t really in any nasty condescending way.

It’s a very enjoyable read and I just hope that I can get my hands on more of her books. You can read her obituary here.

A View of the Harbour by Elizabeth Taylor

elizabeth taylor
Elizabeth Taylor

 A View of the Harbour cover

A View of the Harbour by Elizabeth Taylor was first published in 1947, but my copy is a Virago Modern Classic reprint. It has an introduction by Sarah Waters and she says:

Elizabeth Taylor is finally being recognised as an important British author: an author of great subtlety, great compassion and great depth.

I don’t really understand that use of the word ‘finally’ because I’ve always been under the impression that Elizabeth Taylor has long been well thought of as a writer, certainly her books have been reprinted by Folio books and they are very fussy about who they reprint.

In a View from the Harbour Taylor evokes the shabby dreariness that is essentially the atmosphere of most English coastal towns. It’s set just after WW2 and Newby is the sort of place where everyone knows what is going on, there’s nothing else to do really except watch the movements of your neighbours.

Robert is the local doctor and his wife Beth is a successful novelist whose characters’ lives seem to be more real to her than what is going on in her own family. There’s a big age gap between their two daughters, Prudence and Stevie, with Prudence having left school having been a big disappointment to her parents. She’s not an academic girl and for that reason her parents see her as being a complete failure as a human being and something to be ashamed of really.

But Prudence is the one who realises that her father is having an affair with the next door neighbour. Tory is a beautiful divorcee and she has been Beth’s best friend since their schooldays. Tory can’t understand why her husband left her for another woman, especially one in a uniform. She is the sort of self-obsessed bitch of a woman that a husband could get very fed up with though. Finding herself with no man she has no qualms about filching her best friend’s husband Robert. Tory is all make-up, clothes and corsets whereas Beth is all kids, specs and typewriter.

Robert in turn feels sorry for himself because his wife isn’t a wonderful home-maker and spends her time writing books. He isn’t impressed with the fact that she’s a successful novelist at all and just wants her to give it up and devote her life to looking after him and their daughters.

Prudence is aghast by her father’s behaviour but he hardly notices her existence and has no idea that she is smart enough to know what is going on. Thankfully Beth remains unaware of their treachery.

Meanwhile, Bertram is a newly retired naval officer who has pitched up in Newby where he is trying his hand as an artist and seeking to insert himself into the society of the locals. He butters up one lonely war widow, giving her hope for the future, before moving on to Tory. He’s an absolute creep but Tory, dumbfounded by her husband’s defection and needing admiration from men in general becomes glad of his company.

It is a triumph of writing that this book is such a good read because there is a distinct lack of likeable characters, usually a real necessity for me. The younger daughter Stevie is a manipulative wee minx and I would have sorted her out in no time flat!

Sisters by a River by Barbara Comyns

sisters by a river

I’m still catching up with writing about some 2015 books, this one was the last book I read last year.

Sisters by a River by Barbara Comyns was first published in 1947 but I read a Virago reprint. If you’ve read about the Mitford sisters and their upbringing then this one will seem very familiar to you. But that is no bad thing, it’s just very autobiographical apparently and Comyns and the Mitfords had a lot of things in common, such as lots of sisters, a large property but lack of cash and parents who were nutty or I suppose I should say eccentric given the class structure. It’s definitely another case of – if that family had been poor and working class then they would have been taken into care. Having said that, I really enjoyed this book.

The tale is told by one of five sisters, her spelling is less than perfect which is a wee bit annoying at the beginning, but I got used to it. One child is not mentioned beyond the fact that they would hate to appear in the book, so they don’t, presumably that one was a boy. The setting is the banks of the River Avon and a large house called Bell Court which eventually contains five sisters.

After she had six babies at eighteen monthly intervals Mammy suddenly went deaf, perhaps her subconscious mind just couldn’t bear the noise of babies any more. …

Mammy had always looked and been rather vague, she had a kind of gypsoflia mind, all little bits and pieces held together by whisps, now she grew vaguer still and talked with a high floating voice, leaving her sentances half finished or with a wave of her hand she would add an ‘and so forth’. She was taken to several specialists but they could do nothing, one good thing being deaf stopped her having more babies, she was only twenty seven and might have had masses more, somehow being deaf put a stop to them.

Every cloud has a silver lining I suppose!

This is a witty and amusing read, although towards the end it takes a more tragic turn.

Nightingale Wood by Stella Gibbons

Nightingale Wood by Stella Gibbons was first published in 1938 but my copy is a Virago Modern Classic. This is a really enjoyable read, four stars on Goodreads I’d say. Inevitably though I find myself saying that you shouldn’t expect it to be as funny as Cold Comfort Farm, which truly did have me laughing out loud a lot, wayback when I was a teenager, I don’t know what effect it would have on me now though.

Anyway, in Nightingale Wood Viola has been widowed after just one year of marriage. Her husband Teddy had come from a wealthy family, his parents were appalled that their son had lowered himself to marry a girl who just worked in a shop. Viola ends up moving in with her parents-in-law, Mr amd Mrs Withers and their two almost middle-aged daughters Tina and Madge. Everyone seems to have given up hope of them ever getting married and moving out, so it’s a very strange household which Viola finds herself living in.

Mr Withers is miserably mean with money and he’s amazed to discover that his son died leaving his widow just about penniless, although as Teddy worked for his father and he was paid pennies in wages it’s a mystery how he was supposed to leave money to Viola. She would leave their home, The Eagles, if she could but she has no family of her own to help her.

That makes it all sound pretty depressing but really it isn’t. One of the sisters-in-law is in love with the chauffeur, the other one adores dogs, and the very well off Spring family are always entertaining the rest of the local nobs.

Viola falls for Victor Spring, the very handsome son, but he has been going out with a girl forever. Is there any hope for Viola?

You’ll have noticed that this bears more than a passing resemblence to a fairy tale. But is has a fair share of humour in it too, mostly from Viola, a very likeable character.

As I said, it was published in 1938 and it has the snobbishness and even anti-semitism which you sometimes come across in books from that era. It also mentions the possibility of a coming war, and that scoundrel who would have been crowned King Edward VIII, if we hadn’t got lucky.

The book has an introduction by Sophie Dahl.

Conversation Piece by Molly Keane

Conversation Piece by Molly Keane, sometimes known as M.J Farrell, was first published in 1932 but my copy is a Virago reprint from 1991. Prior to reading this one I think I had only read Two Days in Aragon by this author and I remember enjoying that one. I enjoyed this one too although it is one of her earliest works when she was really writing about her own life experiences, growing up in Ireland in an Anglo Irish family. Those people occupied a strange place in Irish society, not really liked or accepted by the ‘real’ Irish people but tolerated for what they brought, their wealth and employment for the locals. A love of horses seems to have been their main reason for existing, breeding, racing, doing point-to-points and hunting with them.

This is the story of Oliver who is invited to Pullinstown by his uncle Sir Richard, a widow with a son and daughter, Willow and Dick. The atmosphere is anything but friendly until Oliver’s cousins realise that he is a good horseman, then he is accepted as one of them.

If you like horses and dogs then you’ll probably enjoy this one but if not then you might want to give it a miss as there is an awful lot of horse and dog chat, races and hunts described, but always in an amusing way and considering there are a few hunts described at length, she doesn’t dwell on the end result. They are always trying to get the better of their neighbours in horse sales and of course the neighbours are trying to do exactly the same thing.

To begin with it you could be forgiven for thinking that the family is a cold one and their father remote and uncaring but in reality the relationships are very close.

Keane is best when she is writing the dialogue of the Irish servants, she obviously had a good ear and memory for conversations and as a person brought up in the west of Scotland in a town which had loads of Irish immigrants, most of whom had arrived there in the 1950s, I found it all very authentic – so I did.

Still on the subject of horses – did you ever read Josephine Pullein-Thompson’s books when you were young? I did but I had completely forgotten about her until I noticed that her obituary was in the Guardian today, she was 90. Apparently she also wrote detective novels and a gothic novel under the name Josephine Mann. You can read her obituary here.