Thalia by Frances Faviell

Just to prove that I am not always reading and writing about really fashionable or famous books, this is a review of a book that has been produced by Furrowed Middlebrow and Dean Street Press along with Faviell’s other books with probably less impact. Unlike her other books, this does not relate to the Second World War, and I found it a little difficult to date.

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This is one of those coming of age novels that lingers in the mind long after you have finished reading. Totally different from A Chelsea Concerto, my other experience of Faviell’s writing, I can only say that this is never a boring read, as dramatic action is never far away. Furrowed Middlebrow and Dean Street Press have found another winner! This book was one of the first set of their books to be produced, so has been available for some time in this reprinted version, an excellent outcome for anyone who had been searching for a copy.

This book is mostly set in a small resort in France, among an expat English community. It is summed up in the Introduction as “based on her own (Faviell’s) experience in France before the war when she was acting as a chaperone to a young teenager for the summer”. That sounds a little pedestrian, but this first person narrative is full of the passion of first love, searching for a career, and the confusion of what makes the contradictory people around her tick. Rachel has already angered her aunt and her father is absent, so she is exiled from her studies at the Slade school of Art and sent to France.  She is open to impressions from older men, pressures from the family she is living with, as well as a background of religious festivals and faith.

The strongest force in the book is undoubtedly Thalia, as her unpredictable actions and growing devotion to Rachel colours everything. As Rachel finds love there is subtle sabotage; Thalia’s own fractured relationship with her mother makes her a jealous soul to deal with for an uncertain chaperone. Thalia is obsessed with her absent father and there are worrying reports of her childhood in India. Added to the normal, for many girls, resentment of a mother whose own beauty is on the wane, Thalia is a complex character. When Rachel makes a break for it, she cannot foresee what will bring her back, and what will happen to a girl who is outwardly plain, but can reflect great beauty of her own. This is a novel of the time when outward feminine beauty meant so much, and its valuation by others had such effect on lives. So any feminism is subtle, and of a different quality from what we would expect from a contemporary novel, but this book is dominated by female characters. The male characters are all heavily criticised, seen as predictably weak, spoilt or lacking in some ways. Even those who try to help Rachel and Thalia are limited in some ways.

I enjoyed this book, despite the fact that I read it over a long period of time on ebook. It is not great literature, and can take some melodramatic turns, but that perhaps is a result of the perceived nature of teenagers whose views are seen as so dramatic.  As a book about young women trying to find their way in the world in difficult circumstances it is worthy book, and an interesting view of experience.

A Chelsea Concerto – Francis Favell – A Furrowed Middlebrow book

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Here is the first book that I have read from the reprint series from Furrowed Middlebrow. I was approached to review it in ebook form, which does affect my reading of it, and explains why I can only use this image that someone else has supplied. But I really found it an amazing book, so different from the other accounts of the Blitz in London that I have read.

Firstly, despite the fact that this book was written several years after the events described, this does not read like a novel. The Narrator records her own experiences in the order they happened, in all the confusion and muddle of a developing situation. This gives an immediacy to the text and an importance to such little things as the French design of a tin hat as well as the death of a friend that it usually found in a diary. That is not to say that the book is lacking characters; the obsessions of tragic Ruth and the solid dependable Mrs. Feetch are only two of the people who come to life in this book. The fear of destruction written about so movingly in the first part of the book is in contrast with the writer’s apparent optimism for much of the book’s progress, but it is never far away as every building becomes a target. Churches, hospitals and of course homes are destroyed, and the sense of helplessness as the water supply is cut off and help cannot get through is very vivid. There are nightmare images that Favell witnessed and experiences that she endured which make this a grim read in places; this is not fiction in any sense, but distilled horror of war.

Having said this, this can be a funny and endearing book as Favell also recounts her experiences with the local characters, like old soldiers determined to help even though they are in their eighties, and a patient travelling in an ambulance who  is greatly comforted by a detailed account of the scenery going past, only to discover that the speaker could not actually see out of the window. There are shards of hope and love even if life is brief and troubled. Favell’s voluntary work meant that she effectively looked after a group of Flemish refugees, who are described as real individuals, real people who argue and fight, but who also stand together in their suffering. “The Giant” is described as a real man, trapped by his temper as well as forces beyond his control.  I was also struck by the reality of Catherine whose life story is tragic, yet she battles on with the support of Frances and others.

This book is an illustration of the fact that numbers of dead and injured mean little to the reader compared with the stories of real people, real lives and loves. Yes, much of this book is sad, but the survival of the human spirit makes real the story of the blitz in London and in many other cities throughout this country and others. As someone who has read quite widely in the fact and fiction of this period, I really appreciated the opportunity to read this otherwise rare book, and I look forward to many other Furrowed Middlebrow reprints.