The Second Persephone Book of Short Stories – Insights into lives throughout the twentieth century

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This is a book that shows off what Persephone books are all about in one volume. Thirty stories, some longer than others, all have the special flavour of stories that represent the unique nature of the publishing house. They appear in the order that they were published, the earliest from 1896, the most recent from 1984, and all are written by women. There is a short biography of each writer in the back of the book, which is useful as while some authors are well known, having published books that are popular, whereas others are less famous. 

 

The variety of stories is therefore wide, with nine wartime tales which of themselves vary between those which acknowledge the reality of war, and those which instead look at the people who happened to be living at the time. Most of the stories are based in Britain, but several are based in other countries which represents the balance of Persephone books overall. A number of stories have appeared in other Persephone collections of stories; there are a few Mollie Panter- Downes volumes already published set in both war and peace. While some stories have been featured in Persephone’s own twice yearly magazine, others have been more difficult to access. As always the distinctive grey cover of this book distinguishes this book as one of an excellent series; a well produced and attractive book which would be a wonderful gift.

 

The first story looks at what women think, whereas the Canfield Fisher story looks at the sole notable achievement of a woman. I enjoyed the story of a young woman who has suffered oppression by her parents, and discovers her own life. The real pain and irony of fleeing the invading armies in France is especially memorable although it features a man. Some stories are tragic, but others are inspiring and even humourous. Many are clever, and have much to say about women’s lives in the time when they were written.

 

While it would be possible to go through all of the stories and provide a comment on each, I would suggest that finding your own route through this book would be more successful. The very essence of this book is to give a short insight into a life, either over a long period or a very brief glimpse of an incident. Short stories can be an acquired taste, but they have the advantage of offering something for everyone’s taste in a book like this of diverse authors. This is the second book of short stories that Persephone has published, and either one is to be recommended as offering an impressive selection of tasters of women authors who had something to say in the twentieth century, or to demonstrate the power of fiction in lives affected by change and challenges.     

Christmas at High Rising by Angela Thirkell

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This is a book of Short stories by the writer of the Barsetshire Chronicles which mainly appeared in British magazines between 1928 and 1942. Despite the title, it is more winter than Christmas based: for a book solidly set at that season the original “High Rising” would be the book to seek out. This book was issued by Virago in 1913, and is more of a light entertainment than a book which seriously carries on the Barsetshire series. There is no reason to suppose that Thirkell ever envisioned producing a book of short stories, certainly not with this title, and so the quality and subject matter is variable.

The eight stories in this book include four concerning the main characters to be found in “High Rising”; Laura Morland and her youngest son Tony. Anyone who has read the early Barsetshire novels will recognise this memorable schoolboy as his non stop talking and obsessions with trains big and small linger in the mind. When combined with the loquacious George Knox Laura is not the only one who feels overwhelmed; I particularly like Dr. Ford who is the only one who can deal with him effectively. In these stories there is a trip to a pantomime, Valentine blues and a riding lesson as Tony proclaims his abilities, but accepts his limitations in his skills. I really enjoyed “A Nice Day in Town” which tells the story of Laura’s journey to London in search of things in short supply due to wartime rationing. Those who enjoyed Diary of a Provincial Lady will find echoes of the exasperation with shops and transport; it is only sad that it is only a short story.

The other stories vary in quality. There is a Victorian story of a children’s Christmas which is a little weak even if it is familiar territory to readers of “Three Houses”, Thirkell’s own account of her childhood. “The Private View” is an odd little story unanchored Thirkell’s other writing. The best is undoubtedly is “Shakespeare Did Not Dine Out”, an essay in which various of his plays are discussed in the light of the parties and dinner parties which looked at with a humorous eye did not go well. Capulet in Romeo and Juliet, King Claudius in Hamlet, Macbeth and other hosts are seen as poor party givers, and Shakespeare hopelessly lost in etiquette terms. It is very funny writing, Thirkell at her best, and in some ways the best in the book.

In some ways this is a book for Thirkell collectors, and as far as I know this is a collection unavailable in any other format except Virago’s edition. For anyone who does not know Thirkell’s novels this book would be a good start and may get you hooked on her quirky, funny and generally excellent characters. I recommend you track it down!

You too may be disappearing under a pile of Christmas books at the moment; I seem to have acquired a bumper crop of Christmas murder mysteries! At least I have finished all my M.A. assessment work for this term and we do not start again until the end of January, always provided I passed all four written pieces as well as submitting them early….So, reading may well be the order of the day once more.  At least as much as I can with a Vicarage Christmas!

Every Good Deed and Other Stories – Dorothy Whipple – a new Persephone!

I was really pleased to get a review copy of this book, another long awaited short story collection by that much undervalued writer of the twentieth century, Dorothy Whipple. If you have ever looked at the Persephone collection of books, which now number 120, you will have heard of the great Dorothy Whipple. They now publish ten of her books, including eight novels and the rather good collection of short stories The Closed Door and Other Stories  (Persephone no. 74). There has been much debate about why this novelist whose books were very popular when published is not more known today. Some have pointed out that the writing is too intimate, perhaps too painfully honest, so that the reader cannot help be drawn too far in, identify with the characters so much that they feel their sadness or frustration. Certainly that can be a difficulty with some of the longer novels; it is sometimes necessary to put them down and return to real life, such is the pull of the narrative, the emotions related. I would argue that such involving writing can be cathartic and necessary in a difficult modern world!

The title story, Every Good Deed  is in fact a novella, published separately in its original form, and thus is longer than the other stories. It is about the “Miss Tophams (who) lived tranquilly at The Willows”. They live quiet lives full of good works and music; their lives are made easy by the efforts of their invaluable Cook, and everything is ordered and pleasant. Their lives are then invaded by the odious Gwen, and suddenly they have to deal with a girl of more realism, more up to date and grasping ways. They have until now lived in a dated bubble of mutual congratulation and  innocence, now they have to deal with the reality of real life, financial demands, and teenage tantrums. I winced at this, the crash that was coming, the complete upset of a world. I could also see Gwen’s view, in an environment she had not expected, never understood, and it was to be anticipated, perhaps, that she would take advantage of in a day to day way. When she leaves, quietness and contentment descends once more, until her return brings a new life to the sisters. Their dilemma is summed up in one paragraph.

But nowadays it is different. The Miss Tophams were modern in that they were apologetic about what they thought to be right and diffident in condemning what they felt to be wrong, in case it wasn’t. The conversation that took place in Miss Emily’s bedroom that night…might have amused a sophisticated listener.   

This is a story with twists that sadden and change the story from the expected, but also show a realism of a lifestyle challenged and changed by real life, and in which hope and loyalty can triumph.

The other stories, as different in many ways as possible, always feature at least one woman who is challenged by the choices and behaviour of another. Boarding house  is a fascinating little picture of how one person is fated to change the complacency  of many lives. Susan is so sad, but unsurprising. Miss Pratt  is a delightful story of families and dependent relations which really appealed to me. The story that lingers is One Dark Night,  even if the ending is a little contrived, which shows war as a nuisance rather than just full  of grand heroic gestures.

The world of Dorthy Whipple is full of the small intimate details of lives lived which drag you in, and in these short stories sometimes trick you by diverting off in unexpected ways. Do try this book for pictures of lives past, but still real.

Persephone Books are available from several enlightened bookshops where they live on shelves, or directly from http://www.persephonebooks.co.uk/ where you can easily get lost for many hours of bookish pleasure.