Diary of a Provincial Lady by E.M. Delafield – a funny classic republished by Persephone

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Diary of a  Provincial Lady by E.M.Delafield

 

This is a well – known book, even a classic, and deserving praise for many aspects of its subtle comedy, insight into a woman’s life and relentless good humour in the face of trying events. The unnamed narrator is always caught in the midst of activity; this is not the artistic musing of an idle writer shut away from life, but the almost notes of a busy woman, continually caught up in the family and domestic crisis which strikes a familiar note even in the twenty first century. This is a book of its time, first published in 1930, but which can still amuse today, especially in the illustrated edition produced by Persephone in 2014. While it is far from poverty, money is often tight in this small family, which after all includes a governess, a cook and a maid. However, this book was written at a time when having at least one servant was normal for even the lower middle class; in the days before labour saving devices in the kitchen and vacuum cleaners for the rest of the house, help with cooking and cleaning was perhaps a reasonable expectation. Certainly the carefully noted expenses, overdraft and even pawning of a family ring give the impression of a woman having to manage her money. Not that this prevents her from spending money on carefully described clothes and having things altered. This was a time when social convention demanded specific clothes for evening functions and a hat for everyday wear. We recently discussed this book at a book group and actually found much to talk about.

 

The book opens with a description of the narrator planting some bulbs, which are soon condemned by the visiting Lady B as being too late, and inferior to a Dutch brand. The narrator’s quick witted response that she prefers to buy “Empire products” is a bit deflated by her daughter’s pointing out that they came from Woolworths. The ill – fated bulbs become a theme throughout the book, as whatever she tries, her display is confined to empty or broken bowls. Odd friends turn up to stay, rejoicing in the name of Cissie Crabbe, and make demands on the household in which Robert, the husband and father takes little interest. Lady B. tries to persuade and influence the family’s politics “she says Look at the Russians” “I find myself telling her to Look at Unemployment”, and “Relive my feelings by waving a small red flag belonging to Vicky”, much to the astonishment of a passing maid. As the narrator visits Rose, her socially successful friend in London, she conducts the “Beauty Parlour experiment” and tries unsuccessfully to go to the Italian exhibition which everyone says she simply must see. She wishes that she had read the latest novels, and memorises just one fact on many subjects for conversation. She often feels distracted and inadequate socially, and tries very hard to do the right thing. We were fascinated by the character of “old” Mrs Blenkinsop, who has a very funny way of depicting herself of the centre of interest. Wrapped in blankets and always seen in an armchair, she is seen as frail and elderly, needing her adult daughter’s constant attention. We found it very funny that she was only in fact sixty – six, an illustration of the changing perspective of age!

 

It is difficult to describe why this is such a funny and enjoyable book. The characters can be exasperating, there is no great drama (though in pre antibiotic days even minor illnesses could have been serious) and this is not real poverty. The reader is swept along by the diary form, without chapters, as situations develop and are solved. This edition, with its witty and timely illustrations, does not include the three sequels, which lack the original spark but are still a fascinating insight into the time, especially as the narrator seeks worthwhile war work as war begins to affect the country. This book is a funny and enjoyable read, and while possibly an acquired taste, gives a fascinating picture of life in the interwar years.   

 

So the Book Group found this an interesting choice! As with all Persephone books, mine is a lovely edition, but there are many editions available, especially the rather large paperback which includes all four books. Apparently this book appears to be on several lists of books you must read – and I would agree!

The Corpse at the Crystal Palace by Carola Dunn – Daisy D strikes again in London of 1928!

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The title reveals something of this cosy crime book, one of a series set in the interwar period, featuring the wonderfully named Daisy Dalrymple. Now Mrs Fletcher, unofficial sleuth, writer of articles and mother of twins, runs true to form in accidentally finding a recently dead body in the historic ladies conveniences in Crystal Palace, London, at the time a shabby but still immense attraction in London. Dealing with Nannies (plural) several children, good friends and eccentric characters all over London, helping to crack the case despite her husband’s misgivings, and discovering memorable characters en route make this an enjoyable, sometimes funny and clever read. There is enough information to enjoy this novel even if you have not read its twenty two predecessors, but you could become addicted to the undoubted charms of this series. Daisy is a great character, and while her husband tries to dissuade her from actual danger, her aristocratic connections and her quick thinking are often necessary to get her and her associates out of some tricky situations. As each character is carefully and consistently introduced, familiar landmarks of London visited and the pace maintained, this is a not always serious tale of well plotted murder and mayhem in London, 1928.

 

As the book opens, Daisy is visiting her long term friend Lucy who is in a delicate condition, but still as forthright as ever. This is a world of servants with dedication, and nannies of terrifying aspect, which is why the sight of several nannies behaving oddly during a planned visit to Crystal Palace attracts the attention of Belinda, Daisy’s stepdaughter and two boys who Daisy is temporarily in charge of, and sends them scurrying around in pursuit. A body turns up and another nanny is found in a desperate state, leaving Daisy, her friend Sakari and a retired policeman, Tom Tring, to secure the site and make sure all the children are safely returned home. When Alec eventually becomes involved and Scotland Yard swings into action, there are many leads to follow as the career of a deeply unlikable character is revealed. As usual, Daisy accidentally on purpose finds the pieces of information that Alec needs as he tries to find the murderer among a mass of multiple motives, and there is the usual quota of high speed journeys and last minute discoveries.

 

This is an assured novel with much to interest the reader with an interest in the era of amateur yet effective detectives, set in a Britain where women still changed for tea and at least one servant knew what was really going on. Dunn has made every effort to include a wide range of characters and reflect what was going on in the background for people from various countries in the early part of the twentieth century. London is still a place of private cars being something of note, when people left messages with real people when calling on the telephone, and policing used very few scientific options apart from fingerprints. Not terribly literary, but an excellent mystery with many red herrings (and a few dogs) and insights into life in a different era, this is an enjoyable and relaxing read in an addictive series.   

 

Happily I have managed to finish a readable draft of my essay / presentation for Wednesday on Eva Peron and Evita. Who knew that knowing all the words of a concept album and musical would come in handy? I hope that it will be suitable! Now to find many images of the lady, the musical and film so even if my text is boring there will be something to look at! At least this book was a welcome distraction…  

The Abandoned Daughter by Mary Wood – a powerful tale of loves as the First World War ends

This is a powerful book with memorable characters in every sense.

A young woman who was an abandoned child with no knowledge of her birth family is the main character of  this second book in the Girls Who Went to War series. It stands alone as a vivid story of the ending of the First World War, and how the myth of a land fit for heroes in many ways proved to be false. The situations that Ella finds herself in, the risks she takes and the love she experiences make for an enormous saga of people and place, a frequently moving story of the fight for survival, and a complex tale of love and loss. With near breathtaking confidence and a sure way with plot and dialogue, this is one woman’s powerful story of a dramatic life that literally kept me awake, so keen was I to find out what happened next. As with Wood’s other sagas of a young woman fighting to survive despite jeopardy, this is a powerful story of wit and determination against the odds and complications of life. I was so pleased to be asked to read and review this book by an established author of this gripping type of novel.

 

Ella is a voluntary nurse dangerously near the Front during the final months of the First World War.  It is while a brief respite occurs that a long term friend Jim changes violently, and it is only the caring actions of new friends and fellow nurses, Paddy and Connie, that gets her through a traumatic move. Battling on under catastrophic  conditions she meets a brilliant doctor, Daniel, and shares a significant experience. As peace is declared and on her return to London, she soon discovers that not everyone finds a home and a bright future, and it is in the time when she tries to cope with those who are in difficulty that she seeks to contact Paulo, a young French officer who has quickly stolen her heart. While her bravery is celebrated she endures loss, and soon finds that her past is posing a danger to her present and future just as she believes she has found love. Her life becomes increasingly desperate, and she is forced to seek to find out more about her birth family from her beloved Nanny, who is the slender connection with her homeland and the truth. Dramatic danger dominates her life, and there are some vivid scenes of abuse as nothing seems impossible. Can she and her loved ones survive when friends are sometimes the only hope?

 

This is such a powerful and well paced book which carries the reader onwards, desperate to find out the next twist and turn in the fate of the central character. Ella must be resourceful and brave, but even courage and intelligence sometimes seems too little as life hurtles along. The real achievement of this novel is to create a character who feels real, that the reader cares about throughout the book. This is done by a real human insight and thorough research to capture the sense of a life lived in such difficult circumstances. A book that lingers in the mind long after reading it, I recommend this book to those who enjoy a strong story well told with a central female character.

 

I am particularly excited to be reviewing this book on publication day! Definitely one to look out for in many shops.

 

Pressing on with my Evita paper, Northernvicar managed to find me a brilliant book from 1996, “The Making of Evita” by Alan Parker. Featuring an account of the making of the film a fair while after the successful stage show first appeared, it tells of the difficulty of making a film where its obvious setting, Argentina, was fraught with challenges. It is a beautiful book, full of production photographs of significant moments. I hope it inspires me to finish this paper soon!  

Take Me to the Edge – Poems by Katya Boirand – Photographs and poems each based on five words.

 

 

 

Poems that entertain, that challenge and that make the reader think are captured in this book. Combined with photographs that are anything but predictable, this book is a delightful and satisfying treat available to many people who would enjoy such a package. The concept behind the poems is at once unifying and unique. Various people have given Katya five words, often big in concept but not necessarily long in length, which Katya has used to construct a poem. While each poem is untitled, and most are very short at around eight lines each, they stand independently as well as collectively as visions of life. The use of photographs to enhance and expand on the poems is exciting and affirmative and pushes the book into another league of impact. I found it especially interesting that each person is featured in the back of this book, along with some detail of the character and their chosen words. Though rather expensive, this is a book to be proud of, representing twenty nine perspectives and portraits of people with distinctive flair. I was pleased to be invited to read and review this unusual book.

 

This book covers many aspects of life, often positive, sometimes moving and always with some impact. The photograph is not always predictable from the words; for example the Matt McCabe poem has the memorable line “Fold fear beneath love”, which strikes an unusual chord with the image of a clown jumping high on Westminster Bridge in London. The women are photographed as ethereal, joyful and often beautiful, while the poems are often wistful and subtle. The writer’s mother Trish Campbell contributes Phoenix and Angel among her five words, and there is a  sadness in the line “Phoenix ashes dormant, Drenched in salty tears” as she is pictured emerging from the sea. The suggestion of pain in the line “Existential salt in the wound” contrasts strongly and effectively with the later line “Maintain a life So down to earth”. These poems are strikingly effective and read well aloud, cleverly suggestive in the case of David Urban’s page “Screaming out conflict”, especially when combined with a shadowy photograph. The Kwaku Osei – Afrifa poem is a delicate poem to begin with, as “Lavender mist rolls” but soon clashes with “Ricochets fast” and “Stripped naked in kind”. It is interesting that the person who provided the five words is identified as “a man of words, a writer”, as if he particularly inspires the author.

 

“The project and the creation of the book” is a result of of the decision to use ‘found’ words, but there is no constriction in their use as Boirand is too expressive to be limited. This book brings together so many ideas which are handled really well, with a confidence and maturity which promises much. This book is colourful and effective, and essentially enjoyable, with an unusual idea at its centre.   

 

Meanwhile I am still fighting with my talk on the show “Evita” for our upcoming conference. I have discovered that even I can get a bit fed up with the same songs and images of Madonna as Eva Peron, even though the film is pretty impressive as a whole. Finding the academic reaction to it is also a little challenging. Still, an excellent book group yesterday on “The Diary of a Provincial Lady” provided some interesting views! Watch this space for a review.

Carolyn Hughes, author of De Bohun’s Destiny – Historical Writing and Authenticity

How do writers make historical novels seem authentic?

 

I love reading, and writing, historical fiction. My Meonbridge Chronicles, set in 14th century rural Hampshire, are not about politics or war, or kings or heroes, but are rather the “everyday stories of country folk”, and my particular writing pleasure is trying to recreate that distant world for readers to immerse themselves in.

To make that world feel natural requires both “authenticity” and a little “strangeness”, so here are a few thoughts on how I try to achieve this…

I enjoy depicting what we know, or can deduce, about how people lived – their homes, clothes, food, tools, working practices – showing everyday life as faithfully as possible. For example, in my depictions of peasants’ homes, I try to show how generally cramped, dark and smoky they were and, in bad weather, cold and damp. I don’t dwell on the unpleasantness – partly because I feel that the characters themselves wouldn’t necessarily notice it – but I don’t shy away from it either. Trying to put myself into my characters’ shoes, to experience the minutiae of their daily lives through their eyes, is what I find so fascinating about writing about the past, and what I hope contributes to that sense of authenticity.

Some readers might think I’m obsessed with weather! Weather does seem to play an important part in my novels, for it surely affected mediaeval people’s daily lives far more than it does ours (here in England, at any rate). If you owned only (at most) two sets of clothes, how miserable was it to work outdoors in the rain and come home all wet, with just a small hearth fire (no radiators or tumble dryer…)? Drying clothes must have been a nightmare! No book has yet told me exactly what they did so, putting myself in their shoes, I imagine them arranging their clothes around the fire, on some sort of rack, perhaps, and possibly sleeping in their damp clothes – sometimes, anyway – to help dry them out. A pretty ghastly prospect! Yet what else could they do?

Depicting the physical aspects of daily life is important, but almost more important – and yet more difficult – is portraying the intangible aspects. Sexuality, religion, superstition, ideas and sensibilities in general are more tricky. The difficulty lies in transporting oneself as a writer into their very different mindsets. Fourteenth-century people must have been like us in many ways – they fell in love, adored their children, had aspirations, enjoyed a joke and suffered the pain of loss – yet were also unlike us in many others. Trying to tap into those dissimilarities is both a challenge and, perhaps, one of the principal points – and pleasures – of writing, and reading, historical fiction.

For example, the Church was central to daily life, influencing people’s view of their position in society, and directing how they ran their lives to an extent that we would consider deeply interfering. The 14th century was also a world where what we consider natural (or man-made) disasters – ruinous weather, famine, plague – were presumed to be God’s punishment for man’s sin. These aspects of life must be portrayed in a way that shows the differences in people’s thinking, yet without making them seem alien – they were still “people like us”, with ambitions and concerns, emotions and desires, and it’s important that the reader feels a connection with them.

Historical fiction is sometimes criticised for failing to portray the past’s strangeness (the “foreign country”). Beyond religion and superstition are aspects of belief that modern readers are likely to find obscure or even bizarre: religious charms, relics, magic and spells, monsters, weird concepts and seemingly fantastical happenings that today can often be explained or dismissed. All of these were normal to people of the time, yet they need careful handling in a novel. If “magic and monsters” were part of a mediaeval person’s ordinary belief, they are typically the opposite for us: we tend to consider them fantastical, not commonplace. And the danger of introducing such elements – however natural they might have been to a mediaeval mind – is that the novel might seem to the modern reader to be less historical fiction and more fantasy.

Nonetheless, one must certainly not eschew the “strange” altogether, for it is the very difference, or “otherness”, of the past that makes writing historical fiction so intriguing. And it is why I am so enjoying writing it, and expect to continue doing so for many books to come.

 

So, a bit of a different post today, about the challenges of writing realistically when there is little information to go on.  As I seem to be on a bit of a run of historical novels of various types at the moment it is a really interesting piece, and I am grateful to Carolyn Hughes for providing it. Good luck with De Bohun’s Destiny – the Third Meonbridge Chronicle- I look forward to getting my hands on a copy!

The Teashop Girls by Elaine Everest – a wartime saga of love and life on the coast of England.

 

 

Lyons teashops were an an institution in Britain between the two wars, as much for their distinctive, well trained “Nippies” as their good food and drinks. This book features three girls who were collectively known as Nippies in the Ramsgate branch. Rose, Lily and Katie have all grown up in Ramsgate, and have all been trained in London to work in this local branch. It is now early 1940, and the stirrings of war are beginning to affect daily life and threaten the calm of the town. The girls will discover the changes that war will bring in this well written story of life and loves when everything is under threat. Secrets are exposed, dangers faced and discoveries made as the girls try to stand together with those that love them. The background of danger in a coastal town makes this a different picture from a London based war novel and lends a certain intimacy to a community under fire. I was so pleased to be given the opportunity to read and review this book which is bound to prove popular with Elaine’s many fans.

 

The book opens with Flora, Rose’s mother in 1926, when life seems very different. She enjoys visiting a Lyons tea shop, but hopes for more than such work for her only child. As she secretly lays aside the clues to a hopeful future, she acknowledges that she must get back to running a guest house, Sea View, which is the scene for much of the narrative in 1940. As we first see Rose, she is helping her friend Lily as she arrives in a dishevelled state, partly as a result of losing her mother recently. Rose is aware that working in Lyons is a cut above the other local cafes, even if the cost is dealing with the extremely strict Miss Butterworth, manager of the Ramsgate branch. Katie also arrives, full of the joy of her relationship with Jack who like her grew up in the local orphanage. They go on to meet people like the charming Ben who offer a glimpse of a different life, and face challenges that can sometimes be seen as horrific. Revelations emerge as the focus of the book slightly moves, but the people gravitate back to Sea View as the centre of the action as offering shelter to an assorted group of people. Anya is a refugee who has joined the household, but my favourite character is Mildred, whose bravery and kindness transforms situations. As enemy invasion becomes a real possibility, and a great event means that everyone is stretched to the limit.

 

This is such an absorbing book, which flows so well that it is difficult to put down. I felt that the characters worked well as individuals, with each of their own situations dealt with, and then together the dialogue and dynamics really brought them all alive. As with Elaine’s Woolworths series, the central force of the Lyons tea shop holds the strands together, together with Sea View. The local knowledge as always is impeccable, as well as the research into the strict rules by which Lyons ran every branch.  I really enjoyed this novel in every respect, and cannot wait to see if and when “The Teashop Girls” and their friends return.

 

Like Elaine, I have good childhood memories of Ramsgate as a summer holiday place. We actually had some form of cousin living there, so we would all squash into her house for the week or so we were there. It was definitely a special place where I first encountered slot machines and beaches, sand in sandwiches and sunburn! Later we would go to the coast North Wales, which was great fun, but Ramsgate had its own style and people I still remember. This book brought back memories!

The Way of All Flesh by Ambrose Parry – a intelligent, complex and challenging historical murder mystery

 

 

It is 1847 in Edinburgh, a dark time of threat and death for Will Raven as this historical novel plunges into a series of suspicious deaths. There is a bleak start to this book, and many dark things occur as he tries to avoid certain people while beginning a career which attracts controversy.  There are many other points of interest which are positive, revealing a wealth of research and a keen eye to plot which means that this is far more than a murder mystery. The characters who people this novel are extremely well drawn, as Raven encounters a determined and able housemaid with aspirations, and his new apprentice master, the brilliant and memorable Dr Simpson, as well as myriad other characters who are carefully developed even if they have a relatively minor roles. From senior policeman to ranting minister, this is an Edinburgh filled with the sort of characters who keep the plot moving, and Raven living with continual challenges, as he tries to survive and thrive in his chosen profession. The intricacies of childbirth and the details of surgical procedures pepper this novel, so it is a strong and powerful narrative on many levels. Action, dirt and blood make this a fast paced novel of incredible and well thought through action make this a book which I was really pleased to read and review.

 

The novel begins with a dead prostitute, for which the narrative makes an apology. Soon we learn far more about this tragedy, that this girl had a name, Evie, and an ambition as her humble room is examined. Will Raven is distressed to discover her body, but is quick to sneak away as he does not want to become involved in any possible investigation. He is already in trouble, as he borrowed money to give to her with no immediate way of paying it back. He meets with violence very soon, however, and it is his friend Henry who must help him. Raven has prospects which he is keen to take up as apprentice medical student to the well regarded Dr Simpson, famous for helping at many hundreds of births, for both the rich ladies of Edinburgh and those who could not really afford to pay. Within hours of arriving at the house of this eminent man he is speeding through the streets to help with a difficult birth, hoping that his inexperience will not show, especially with the challenging introduction of ether. Meanwhile the reader is introduced to Sarah Fisher, able and intelligent housemaid who heartily wishes she had the opportunity to learn medicine or at least chemistry, who reads widely and runs the clinic open to the poor of the city which is run by Simpson’s assistant. An unmarried young woman, Mina, demonstrates that even relatively well off women are still judged by their marriage prospects, and it is well into the novel before a more unrestricted young woman is introduced. As other deaths occur, Raven and Sarah eventually join forces to investigate just what is going on in the world of illicit medicine and controversial treatments.

 

I found this a really gripping book, with such a well developed series of characters and incidents that I found it difficult to stop reading at any point. When even those people who make brief appearances are so well drawn, as well as the plot having depth and so many strands, this is an impressive novel which I really enjoyed. This is an excellent historical read which I recommend for anyone who appreciates both a murder mystery and a challenging, complex novel.