The Century’s Daughter aka Liza’s England by Pat Barker

The Century's Daughter cover

The Century’s Daughter by Pat Barker was published by Virago in 1986. The title seems to have been changed to Liza’s England later on and it is the third book that Barker wrote, not that it reads like an early book, it’s very well written.

Liza was born at the turn of the 20th century, in fact just as the new year was born. The setting is northern England, the Sunderland/Newcastle area I believe. In the first chapter Stephen visits Liza in her home. Her house is due to be demolished but Liza refuses to move and Stephen is a social worker tasked with persuading her to move elsewhere so that the whole area can be cleared. But Stephen quickly realises that he is really on Liza’s side. He loves hearing about her long life which has been hard, her family is scarred by the wars, but before that Liza was damaged by her mother Louise who is definitely not of the apple pie making variety.

The chapters mainly flip from Liza’s story to Stephen’s life as he is having a tough time in other areas of his work. Running a youth club for the youngsters of the disadvantaged area is turning into a nightmare, he just can’t cope and at the same time he’s having to deal with the imminent death of his terminally ill father. He hasn’t been close to his parents, his education and homosexuality seem to have thrown up insurmountable barriers between them.

There’s a lot going on in this book which features the 1930s Depression and the grim early 1980s when there were no jobs for so many young people in the UK and consequently many had no hopes for their future.

That makes it sound like the book will be a depressing read but it really isn’t, although it is sad at times I enjoyed the relationship between Liza and Stephen.

The book begins –

‘No point being eighty, is there?’ said Liza. ‘If you can’t be a bit outrageous?’

And certainly she looked it, Stephen thought, with her scarlet headsquare tilted crazily over one eye, giving her the look of a senile pirate.

She even has a parrot.

Some of my bookshelves

I’m going to be offline for a week or so, so I thought you might like to get a squint at just a few of my bookshelves meantime. I’m actually in the process of cataloguing all of my fiction books on computer, so that I can have a list of them all at my fingertips on my phone. I hate standing in a bookshop and wondering if I already have a copy of a book, it’s so difficult to keep track of them all and doublers do occur. I’m sure you know that feeling! I hate that Virago changed the design of their books, I so much prefer the plain old green ones. An old copy of High Wages sneaked in here, it’s a quandary, should I shelve books by publisher or author?

Virago Books

These books are the top two shelves in the bookcase nearest my side of the bed, within easy reach. I bet you own a lot of these ones too.
Katrina's Books

Chronicles of Carlingford by Mrs Oliphant

Chronicles of Carlingford cover

Chronicles of Carlingford by the very prolific Scottish author Mrs Oliphant is a Virago publication which consists of two novellas – The Rector and The Doctor’s Family, originally published in 1863. There’s an introduction by Penelope Fitzgerald.

The blurb on the back of this book compares Margaret Oliphant with Jane Austen, George Eliot and Anthony Trollope’s Barsetshire Chronicles. I would include Mrs Gaskell too.

The Rector is only 35 pages long, the setting is mid 19th century Carlingford which is a small town close to London. A new rector/minister is coming to the town and his parishioners are anticipating what sort of preacher he will be. Surely he won’t be as low church as the last rector. He had gone to the canal and preached to the bargemen there – that didn’t go down at all well with his snooty congregation. Most of them are hoping for something a bit more stylish – and preferrably a bachelor as there are several unmarried ladies apparently in need of a husband. The new rector has spent the last 15 years cloistered in All Souls and this is his first living. He may be a great theologian but he’s absolutely at sea when it comes to human nature and dealing with his parishioners.

Difficult or awkward men seem to have been Oliphant’s forte. There’s no doubt she had plenty of experience of them within her own family, and in fact she came to believe that her managing and competent character contributed to the weakness in her menfolk.

The Doctor’s Family is 157 pages long. Young Doctor Rider has just moved to a newly built part of Carlingford, he doesn’t know it but that is not going to do his business any good. The old established Carlingfordians look down on that area. His older brother had gone to Australia under some sort of cloud and he had married and had a family out there. Things didn’t go any better for him in Australia – well – he is a drunkard – so he had come home and was living at his young brother’s expense.

Dr Rider had decided that although he wanted to marry a young woman he couldn’t afford to look after his brother and a wife and children, so he had given up hope of marrying at all. Imagine his horror when his brother’s wife and children and her sister turn up and billet themselves on him!

Even worse – it turns out that his brother’s wife is feckless and doesn’t even take any notice of their badly behaved children, and for some reason she blames her brother-in-law for the situation that she and her husband are in.

This one is much stronger I think, but they’re both well worth reading and have moments of comedy as well as frustration at enraging characters.

I read this one for the Back to the Classics Challenge 2019

Sedition by Katharine Grant

Sedition cover

Sedition by Katharine Grant was published by Virago in 2014 and I was drawn to borrow it from the library just because of the title – Sedition – and the fact that it was set in 1794, an important date sedition wise and the year that one of my ancestors was transported for 14 years as he was found guilty of sedition. He was one of the founder members of the Society of Friends of the People who had the temerity to ask for the vote for universal franchise and the abolition of slavery.

Imagine my disappointment when this book turned out to just mention sedition in a couple of sentences. The book should really have been at least subtitled – teenage exploitation sex romp. Why Virago decided to publish it is a mystery to me. I have to say that it’s well enough written, it’s just the premise that I found so ludicrous.

Some wealthy men and their wives are desperate to marry their daughters off, preferably to the aristocracy. They plan to show off their daughters in a concert and so they hire a piano and tutor to train them up for the entertainment. However, the owner and maker of the piano didn’t want to hire that particular piano out to them and he decides to ruin the girls by paying the tutor to deflower them all.

One by one the four girls all end up having sex with him – in what they are told is the ‘French’ way, so they won’t get pregnant. Meanwhile the piano maker’s daughter and another young girl engage in lesbian fumblings.

If ever a book was written with an eye on sales I’d say this one was, but to me it was an eye-rolling waste of my time. No doubt it appeals to some people though. I started reading this one in 2018 but finished it in 2019, I just hope that the rest of my reading year is better than the beginning.

The Willow Cabin by Pamela Frankau

The Willow Cabin cover

The Willow Cabin by Pamela Frankau was published in 1949, my copy is a 1951 reprint. This is the first book that I’ve read by the author and I’ll definitely be seeking out more of her books.

The Willow Cabin covers the years from 1936 to 1948 and the settings are various but mainly London and America.

Caroline is a 22 year old aspiring actress, in fact she’s really talented at it, but she’s also rather immature. Her relationship with her mother and step-father is fraught and when she falls for Michael a well-known surgeon who is much older than her she moves out of the family home into an hotel.

Michael is unable to get a divorce from his wife (hmmm) but that doesn’t put Caroline off and when war breaks out she throws up her acting career to follow Michael around, they’ve both joined the army.

For most of the book Mercedes, Michael’s Anglo-American wife is absent, apparently in France, possibly helping the resistance or even dead. But in the last third of the book the war is over and Caroline goes to America where Mercedes has pitched up. Mercedes had been very well off before the war but she has used the last of her money to buy a farm in America and to build a small house for a family of German refugees who are supposedly her employees along with a French family of refugees.

The two families can’t get along and have absolutely no sense of gratitude for everything that has been done for them. I’m sure that that was Frankau’s way of pointing out how the UK had been bankrupted by a war not of its making and had got nothing out of it but a debt that took generations to pay off and absolutely no thanks from the rest of Europe for all that had been done for them and the sacrifices made.

The atmosphere of wartime London in particular is very well portrayed I think, of course the book was written not long after the end of the war.

The title of the book was taken from Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night and there seems to be some confusion on the internet as to what it means. However I have always understood that willow was worn by women whose loved ones were away from home – at war or at sea or whatever. It was a way of telling people (men) that they weren’t really on their own, they were waiting for the return of their lover.

All through reading this book I had the 1970s song All Around My Hat by Steeleye Span going around in my head, if you don’t know the song you might be interested in listening to it now.

I believe that Virago have reprinted this book as a modern classic so I’m counting this one towards my Classic Club Challenge, I’m not far off reaching 50 now.

A Suspension of Mercy by Patricia Highsmith

A Suspension of Mercy by Patricia Highsmith was published way back in 1965, but it was in the 1970s that I discovered her and then went on a Highsmith binge, recommended to other people that they should read her books, and then for some reason didn’t keep up with her books myself in subsequent years.

So this was a recent library choice for me, I’m fairly sure that I didn’t read this one in the 1970s. It has been republished as a Virago Modern Classic.

Sydney Bartleby is a young American writer and he is living with his wife Alicia in the wilds of rural Suffolk. Sydney has a very vivid imagination and I suppose he is the writer’s equivalent of a method actor as he feels the need to act out one of his plots to see how he will feel, he wants to get the emotions correct as he digs a grave in a remote patch of countryside.

At times I was in two minds as to whether Alicia had actually been murdered by him or not, so when Alicia does disappear from their cottage, supposedly having gone to visit her parents but never arrived there, things look very bad for Sydney indeed. All the clues point to him having done her in and everyone is sure he is guilty, including the police.

This was a cracker of a book, really full of suspense. Why oh why have I left it getting on for 40 years since I read a Patricia Highsmith book?!

Do you have a favourite book by her which you can recommend me to read next?

Our Spoons Came from Woolworths by Barbara Comyns

Our Spoons came from Woolworths by Barbara Comyns was first published in 1950 and it’s very much autobiographical. The setting is 1930s London which has always been a grim place if you don’t have money.

The tale is told by Sophia who is about to get married to a young artist called Charles who is fairly feckless. His whole family seems to be against the marriage, apart from his father who is happy to go against his ex-wife’s feelings any time he’s given the chance.

Sophia is very immature for a 21 year old and Charles is completely self obsessed meaning that Sophia has all the worry of finding money for them to live on, but she is a really likeable character and the wonder is that she managed to put up with her husband for as long as she did.

What is it they say? – when poverty comes in the door love flies out the window – something like that anyway, and when you don’t even have money for milk or baby clothes then the outcome is a foregone conclusion.

In some ways this is a sad read with Sophia pushed to the limit with a husband who isn’t even interested in his child but on the other hand Sophia manages to be so stoical in awful circumstances and being quite matter of fact in the face of tragedy, she has a knack of getting on with all sorts of people, in the end I was really happy that she fell on her feet.

Maggie O’Farrell comments on the back page: I defy anyone to read the opening pages and not be drawn in, as I was… Sophia is a heroine in every sense – and one you will never forget.’

Hannie Richards by Hilary Bailey

Hannie Richards, subtitled The Intrepid Adventures of a Restless Wife, was published by Virago in 1985. I read this one just before Christmas but didn’t get around to blogging about it then.

Hannie Richards is a middle-class housewife and mother, married to a farmer and living in Devon but to earn extra money she leads a double life as an international smuggler. I think this book is very much a product of the 1980s and as such has really dated badly. It was a time of radical feminism as I recall, when some women took things just a wee bit too far and we got into all that female = good and male = bad nonsense. If you’re old enough you might remember those women who went around claiming that all men were rapists.

Basically this is a book which is supposedly set in a London club which only has women members, there’s nothing radical in that. Hannie tells stories of her derring-do to a group of other women so it’s like a book of short stories which return to the setting of the club at the end of each one.

For me it really didn’t work as it was just so daft but not in a good way. The blurb on the back compares the adventures to things written by John Buchan and Rider Haggard. Well I just wonder if the blurb writer had actually read anything by those two authors. I particularly disliked the brutal rape scene and couldn’t see any reason for including it in the book.

I usually really enjoy books which have been published by Virago but not this one.

Going off at a bit of a tangent: how do you feel about women losing their feminine designations? It seems to be politically incorrect to call a woman an actress or conductress or any other sort of ‘ess’ nowadays. I find that very strange, it’s as if to be called an ‘ess’ and therefore be female is derogatory.

I can’t see anything wrong with being described as female, but then I wouldn’t ever accept that it meant anything less or more than being masculine. The word that I always liked, and you never see it now is proprietrix, you used to see it painted above pub doors years ago if it was owned by a woman. Then of course there’s directress/directrice. Ah, for the good old days when women weren’t trying to be the same as men.

Perfect Lives by Polly Samson

I was lucky enough to be sent a copy of this book by Virago for review. I hadn’t read anything by Polly Samson before, apparently she’s a lyricist too having written songs for Pink Floyd and she’s married to Dave Gilmour, she certainly has a way with words which is quite poetic at times and the stories involve music in some way, whether it’s musicians or piano tuners.

I’ve been told that some people dip into books of short stories at random, which I think is completely mad because authors and editors usually put a lot of thought into the order which stories appear in anthologies, just as record producers do with music. If you are of that ilk – cease and desist forthwith as these stories need to be read in order.

Perfect Lives is a book of short stories which are all loosely linked because the characters live in the same town. You see their lives from different aspects and nothing about them is as it seemed to be in the beginning. True to life in that way I suppose as people are multi-faceted and always surprising.

I love description in books and there are so many visuals given, but here are just a few which I enjoyed to give you a flavour of it:

Milk bloomed in their mugs of tea on the table between them…

Strips and streamers in storm-blues and mauves hung in clumps like particularly beautiful seaweed from a Sheila Maid hitched over the bath.

Impossibly tall hollyhocks, shimmery-stemmed, silver leaves of artemisia and roses, roses, roses, geraniums and lilies, rubies,garnets and pearls.

Colour,plants and jewels – luscious.
I will certainly read her previous books when I get a chance.

By one of those many spooky coincidences in life this book came through my letterbox at exactly the same time that I was dealing with a piano tuner and boudoir grand piano, not something which you do every day of your life. So it seemed a bit like I was inhabiting the pages although thankfully that was as far as the resemblance with my life went.

Perfect Lives is full of recognisable moments though and I’m sure that other readers will have their own parallel experiences and observations echoed in it. I don’t know if I’ve mentioned this previously but I’ve had the experience in the past of being told by at least three women seperately that they felt sorry for me because I had to share my children with my husband. Those single mothers wanted their children all to themselves! I couldn’t help thinking that their children might have something to say about that attitude when they grew up especially as I could imagine the mothers’ reactions when the kids started having relationships with other people. This is the first time that I’ve come across that sort of attitude in fiction though.

I usually read short stories at bedtime because then I can read one and put the light out and think about it while I hopefully get to sleep. I found myself reading these stories one after the other though and I sometimes didn’t put the light out until 2 a m. So I’m going to re-read them singly at some time in the future and I’m sure I’ll enjoy them even more.

Perfect Lives was a Sunday Times Fiction Choice of the Year.

Theodora by Stella Duffy

In sixth century Constantinople society consisted of two factions – the Blues and the Greens – and the inhabitants were born into one or the other, very much like Glasgow. Theodora’s father had been killed by his own bear leaving his wife to bring up her small girls on her own. She had been determined to keep her daughters out of the circus but when her faction, the Greens, refused to support them financially she had no option but to marry again and set her daughters to be trained in circus performing, dancing, tumbling and when they were 12 or 13 they would become prostitutes.

It was a hard life, particularly for Theodora whose character was a mixture of obstinacy and determination, she was positively ‘thrawn’! But her personality takes her from being a circus performer to concubine of Hecebolus, Governor of Pentapolis, and when he tires of her she leaves, taking some of his most precious possessions with her.

Knowing that Hecebolus would send his men after her, Theodora attempts to get back to Constantinople with no success but she falls in with a Christian sect and just when she thinks that she is wanted as a Christian, she realises that they want to use her in much the same way that everyone else has – prostitution, if necessary.

This is a well written book, it’s the first one by Stella Duffy which I’ve read so I don’t know how it compares with her other books. She’s very good at evoking the atmosphere of thronging marketplaces and heat. There are quite a lot of swear words in it, necessary to convey the atmosphere of the circus and those involved with it, so you might not want to give it to anyone of a prudish disposition.

As you would expect from a book about a prostitute there is sex aplenty but thankfully there are no graphic descriptions of it because that can make me feel a wee bit squeamish at times.

I didn’t absolutely adore it but it was entertaining and I’ll be trying out more books by Stella Duffy.

As I’m a Virago First Look member I was sent Theodora by Virago for review.