One Woman’s Year by Stella Martin Currey – a Persephone book of a year in the 1950s

One Woman's Year by Stella Martin Currey One Woman's Year by Stella Martin Currey – Persephone Books

 

 

This 1953 book, beautifully republished by Persephone, is a sort of household book of the year, as a section is devoted to each month. Not that it is a book of out of date household advice, though it does offer recipes and other notes of monthly tasks, it is a sort of observation of the changing seasons. It takes a light view of the most liked and disliked jobs of the month, ranging from the much liked “Reading Forgotten Books During Spring Cleaning” to the disliked “Looking Your Passport in the Face”. There is a quote from the “British Merlin” of 1677 for every month, in which characteristically dated language explores what plants and crops to plant, particular “Physick” concerns, and foods to avoid. A sharp sense of humour pervades every piece, especially the longer observation of an element of life which is written up in full. This is a book of funny incidents, wry comments and lovely realisations. Although written much later, this book reminded me strongly of “The Diary of a Provincial Lady”, with a harassed woman trying to do her best when rationing and other difficulties beset her. 

 

There are several elements in each section, beginning with an illustration specific to the month, featuring activities common to the month such as swimming in June, or going to the theatre in December. Then there is a piece which covers such subjects as “Books for the Family” and the “Dressing – Up Box”, which recommends these as activities for the family, with reference to her own to sons and family involvement. The funniest ones are undoubtedly “How not to Renovate a Lawn” which deals with the family’s efforts to renovate a lawn which is targeted by a dog on a daily basis, involving vast amounts of seed and black cotton, and “Eggs”, which explains the author’s inability to boil eggs owing to frequent distractions and accidents involving eggs. These are honest accounts with potentially added humour, but also reflecting the sort of anecdotes common to many families. Another one recalls the author’s addiction to furniture auctions, which on one occasion leads to the purchase of a large wooden case for an attic workroom, which is nearly impossible to get up the stairs, leading to fears of her husband being trapped on the upper floors of the house when it gets stuck on a bannister. This book does not deal with adventurous humour, rather the sort of amusing story common to everyday life.  The recipe for each month includes some unfashionable ingredients such as lard, but do provide a window into the favoured food of the era. Each month also includes a short anthology of relevant pieces of poetry and prose, such as March’s pairing of Dorothy Wordsworth’s diary extract and William’s famous daffodil poem.

 

This is a lovely book which presents large aspects of a woman’s life in the 1950s. While undoubtedly a period piece, there are elements of life which are still recognisable today even if some of the details have changed . As a piece of vivid social history it is a good read, as a handbook of a year, a charming insight into progress, and a lovely book to own. As someone who enjoys novels from this period, it is a fascinating background read. I am so glad that Persephone has reproduced this book with such care and attention to detail, and that I had the opportunity to read and review it.    

 

I picked this book up to read in March, and did not find it appealing as being so different from how the year was working out. I have read it very quickly and with great enjoyment more recently – finding it frequently funny and always informative. It is an example of a book being right for the time – do you find some books can be best enjoyed at different times?

The Village by Marghanita Laski – a Persephone book of a postwar village divided

The Village by Marghanita LaskiMarghanita Laski

The Village by Marghanita Laski

 

On VE Day, the 8th May, 1945, the Second World War officially ended in Europe. In the imaginary village of Priory Dean at the heart of Laski’s 1952 book, reprinted by Persephone , life will never be the same again. The strict social divisions in a village – the gentry, the tradespeople, the servants, have been overcome during the preceding years as the war has forced people to cooperate for the common good. The celebrations which mark the end of the war are led by excitable children lighting bonfires, but underneath the excitement there are those who are little sad that they can no longer meet for the wartime duties that have meant so much. Rationing will continue, there will be housing shortages, there will be an end to some old divisions, but essentially there are those who will have money, and those who do not, those who have an indefinable “class” but those who are without, a fact that does not always go together. This is the case with the Trevors, Gerald and Wendy, who have a family name and background, but very little money. There are those in the village who are from more humble backgrounds, but whose trade is bringing in a far more generous wage. As newcomers to the village try to find their feet and position, it is obvious to everyone that whatever people may or may not have financially, there are the silent rules.  This is a book which looks back to a definite period of uncertainty, change and challenge.

 

Mrs Trevor and Mrs Wilson choose to spend the night of the VE celebrations in the Village Hall, in the first aid post that they had staffed during the war. “Down the hill from Wood View, Priory Hill came Wendy Trevor and up the hill from 15 Station Road came Edith Wilson to meet in the porch of the Village Hall”. Priory Hill is the place where the middle class people live, such as retired army officers, solicitors and others live, some impoverished, some maintaining their expectations. Wendy Trevor has slipped from having servants and a good quality of life to making do with little as their latest business has failed. They are investing in their daughters, Margaret and Sheila, hoping that they will either marry well and achieve their independence at least, if not also help their parents. Margaret is not doing well at school and seems to have no interest or talent for anything except home making. Sheila is the clever one, likely to get scholarships and be set on the path to career success. Margaret’s ambitions extend to getting married and having a home. Wendy despairs of finding a “suitable” husband for Margaret, but when the large house “Green Lawns” is sold she has her hopes. The entire village, meanwhile, is divided on what happens next, as well as the incidental events of life with unspoken rules. 

 

This is a powerful book which exposes the class divisions and snobbery that survived the War, but which were being challenged everyday. There are some harsh words spoken, some sadness revealed, but there is also some amusement to be found in an account of a community which is still divided between them and us. The rules of hospitality, of minor slights, of misunderstandings make for a sometimes amusing, always fascinating novel. Laski can be criticised for her hyper awareness of class, but this is a truthful account of the way that people divide people along unwritten lines, and it is a very readable novel of a time seventy five years ago.

 

I looked out this book from my Persephone collection because of the references to it in other books I have been looking at around the VE anniversary. It is a typical Persephone book in that it is by a less than well known British woman author. Persephone have also produced three of her other books, a political satire, a book of a lost child in wartime France, and under a pseudonym, “To Bed With Grand Music” which goes some way to upset the idea of everyone pulling together in Wartime Britain. They are well worth reading!

A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf – a Persephone edition of a well – known book

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This is a well known book written up from an essay that Woolf wrote for the benefit of “girls”, based on some lectures she gave at women’s colleges in Cambridge. Using experiences of life for female students in such colleges, this book is an indictment of the discrimination against women in the 1920s. First published in 1929 by the small press owned and operated by Virginia Woolf and  her husband Leonard, this new edition recently released by Persephone Books retains the charm of a small press with the availability of Persephone books generally. In the grey cover which is special to the publishing company, it represents an elegant edition of this very readable essay. 

 

This small book represents Woolf’s experience at Cambridge when she visited some women’s colleges. The meal she is served is ungenerous and poor; she contrasts the fare on offer at a fictional college compared with a men’s college.  She goes for a walk and is told not to walk on the grass. She decides to consult an original piece of writing and is told that she cannot be admitted to the library which houses the document without a letter of introduction from a man. Frustrated and made to think of herself as second best, she does reason that in such circumstances women cannot achieve as much as the pampered men at the rich colleges. Thus when she consults the books that she can access on the shelves, she realises that while there is a rich history of women and writing, they have never achieved the range and success of men. She is saddened that most women can never have the ideal conditions to write creatively, which she argues are an income of £500 a year and a room of her own in which to write.

 

She writes about some characters from history who wrote, or whose writing was affected by their less than ideal conditions. Mentioning such figures as Alphra Benn and Jane Austen, while they achieved a great deal, it was despite their circumstances in her argument. Her other main assertion is that we should imagine that William Shakespeare had a sister called Judith who was equally talented as a writer. If, she argues, such a young woman had travelled to London she would not have got near any stage, or persuaded anyone to give her writing a glance. So, Woolf argues, even if she was phenomenally talented she would not have had a chance of recognition. 

 

Woolf then argues from an example of a piece of  a woman’s writing that there are implicit limitations on her work, low expectations and an inexperienced quality. While she accepts that women are able to write non fiction and are not confined to novels, she asserts that they are hampered from producing real quality books. Without a clear, uninterrupted opportunity in which to work, including a room of her own, she would not succeed. 

 

While Woolf is known for her complex and challenging work, this is a surprisingly easy to read book. She feels strongly that generally women are not able to produce really high quality writing simply because they do not have the consistent opportunity even if they have the talent or skill. She argues that the women’s colleges even in Cambridge are less financially provided for than the women’s where they exist, so cannot provide equal opportunity, especially when certain libraries and other resources are effectively denied to them. She makes a persuasive argument with the skill of a novelist, so the book is engagingly written. This is a very clear and attractive edition of a very interesting book, well argued and written from an excellent author.

 

The photograph above is of the interior of the Persephone bookshop, which as you would expect is not open at the moment. It is a wonderful place in which to spend time (and money), a real destination shop. Happily I believe they are still posting books out if you order online or by phone. Do see the website http://www.persephonebooks.co.uk/  for more details. If you have a favourite independent bookshop they would also be able to help, but either way the website is definitely worth a look.

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.     

Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day by Winifred Watson – a Persephone favourite

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Of all the splendid Persephone republished books, this is probably a favourite of many readers. A delightful book which was a little shocking in 1938 when it was first published, its survival was remarkable and a testament to the insight of Persephone books who republished it in 2000 to great popularity. Today it is still a little shocking in   terms of its subject matter of a nightclub singer with a variety of lovers and suggestion of drug use. In a way more shocking is the subject of Miss Pettigrew, downtrodden governess, still bound by the conventions of a strictly moral upbringing, with low expectations of life. She has attained the age of forty without any form of relationship, not unusual for a generation of women who had been young at the end of the First World War whose potential husbands had not returned from the battlefields. She has been bullied by employers as she is probably not a natural teacher, and being an employee living in other people’s houses she has never enjoyed much freedom. She has never had much money to buy clothes or other necessities of life, and her parents made her nervous of using cosmetics as they symbolised moral decadence. This Cinderella type tale of an older woman finding a new life is a parable for conflicting class and lifestyles in the pre Second World War period. I recently chose this book for our book group, and despite it being very different from many of the books we have read, it was very much enjoyed and discussed.

 

The book opens with the desperate Miss Pettigrew approaching an employment agency for a new position. Her landlady has threatened her with eviction that day if she does not get a job, and she knows that a lowly nursemaid role will now be her only hope. So she goes to an interview in the desperate hope of a job, only to be caught up in a whirl of confusion as the door is opened by a Miss LaFosse, who is being romantically pursued by at least two men. As Miss Pettigrew spontaneously takes control of the various situations that occur during the day, she comes to realise that her moral certainties are less than central, and that she can for at least one day become a different person. As she is taken out for different events and is even lent clothes and make up, she discovers that she has a whole new view on life. 

 

This book reveals much about the life of women in the interwar period and the limited opportunities for them in employment. Women like Miss Pettigrew would have rejected a life in domestic service, but she was not educated enough for other careers. This is an enjoyable, funny and interesting book in which it seems as if a poor woman has achieved her dreams for one day, and that she will have these memories if nothing else for the rest of her life. There are grim moments when she realises that the workhouse is her only alternative to clinging onto a job, even if she finds the work beyond her. There are some points that may shock today’s reader, as there are some comments about race that may disconcert, but it is a book of its time. It is a joyful book, about a change of an entire life for a day, and the creation of hope. The other characters are well drawn, and there is much humour in the dialogue. It is a cheering book, and can be read and enjoyed by many people.   

 

Today Northernvicar and I were interviewed on Radio Derby about our graduation which takes place very soon. Arranged by the University Communications department, we were talking about how we returned to University to study for an MA in Public History and Heritage together! It was a bit more relaxed than I imagined it would be, and she asked some very interesting questions….

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 Call by Edith Ayrton Zangwill – The story of a woman of her time with much to say today

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This is an amazing book. Originally published in 1924, and now reprinted, it is far from a book limited to the interwar period, as it features a woman far in advance of her time and a significant female role model for today. Ursula has significant experiences herself, and her progress over several years affects many people if only by contrast. Zangwill has cleverly created a memorable character in Ursula who is already living an irregular life when she comes into contact with suffragettes, and it is that element of the book which fascinated me. There is so much going on this book which gives an incredibly vivid picture of life for women in the early twentieth century, and I was extremely pleased to receive a copy from Persephone of this most recent edition of a fine book.

Ursula Winfield is a fortunate young woman. She is a comfortably off scientist who has gently resisted her mother’s attempts to bring her out into Edwardian society, preferring to devote her time to experiments in a special laboratory in her stepfather’s house. She is known to attend the Chemical Society’s meetings, though as a woman she cannot become a full member. It is there that she attracts the attention of Professor Vernon Smee, an influential scientist who is able and willing to offer facilities for Ursula to conduct more complex experiments. While she innocently takes up his offer, he becomes entranced by her youth, beauty and intelligence, especially as he has become dissatisfied by his wife. As her mother is a socially successful woman he is able to join the throng of admirers that she entertains, even though he admires the daughter rather than his hostess. There are several awkward incidents beautifully described by Zangwill as Ursula proceeds with her scientific experimentation and she finds romance when she is least expects it. She is involuntarily confronted by the significant difference in the lives of men and women and is becomes gradually involved with suffragettes, and it is her actions in this section of the book that I found the strongest. As war breaks out she is challenged in new ways, but is far from obvious how everything will turn out, as Zangwill keeps the tension going until the last page.

This book is written by a confident and able writer who chooses her material well, smoothly moving from disaster to triumph, challenge to success, but also from effort to failure and frustration. It has a vast compass, as a young woman becomes experienced in all that life can throw at her, but also demonstrates all she can offer. While this is a book of its time rather than a contemporary novel, I think it has much to say about women’s lives as the expectations of marriage are cleverly subverted and the strength of belief in a cause are clearly displayed as the main character suffers appalling treatment. Ursula is shown as a character who really thinks, dealing with challenges as best she can, human in her reactions to the treatment of herself and others. It is a big book and not well known, but it deserves much more attention offering as a valuable insight into the lives of women in the early twentieth century, and I recommend it as a read for anyone with an interest in relatively early feminist literature.

 

Today we marked Epiphany, and a start was made on taking down some cards and decorations, but it has ground to a halt in favour of preparing for this week; essays and study days, services and other swiftly advancing demands on time. I am still accumulating books, though this one is definitely one of the strongest I have read and I found it hugely enjoyable. The fact that I am wrestling with an essay on the film “Suffragette” is probably significant. Having seen this powerful 2015 film four times now perhaps means that I ought to consider doing film reviews here, but frankly I do not get round to watching enough!

Young Anne by Dorothy Whipple – Persephone’s championing of a superb writer concludes.

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This book is the latest Whipple book to be published by Persephone, and it is the final one that they are able to bring out. It is actually Dorothy Whipple’s debut novel, originally published in 1927, and has the great merit of her obviously trying out the superb characterisation that marks out her later books. Her rediscovery by Persephone has led many to regret her relative obscurity as outlined in Lucy Mangan’s very personal and meaningful introduction. Her plots are basic and seem natural as they are so well worked out that they are never laboured, and in this book she is mainly an autobiographical storyteller. That is not to say it is in any sense tedious; while the reader is not chasing a whodunit formula she is intrigued to know what will happen to Anne next, or what she will cause to happen. The characters, always beautifully described, bring the reader along in the settings drawn from life, with all its petty irritations and small incidents. This is a novel of colour, depth and even smell, as the descriptions which run throughout the narrative feel so real.

The book opens with Anne as a child, gazing round her in church, subtlety allocating those around her their place in her world. It soon becomes obvious that her mother is disconnected, her father unrealistically authoritarian as far as she is concerned, and her only true supporter is Emily, the only servant in the house. She mothers the child, and later she is to be Anne’s true supporter throughout the vicissitudes of her young adult life. Anne is frequently obsessed with ideas, including the desire for a fish, which brings her into contact with George Yates. This relationship also becomes vitally important, though not in obvious ways. Mildred Yates is being brought up with another agenda from Anne, a suitable marriage to enhance her parents’ lives. The contrast in their lives goes deep, as Anne is depicted as so much more than a gratifying prettiness and clothes. Anne’s school experience at a convent is more than a school story, as the nuns are briefly but effectively described, and the nature of faith is felt and shown, rather than discussed. Aunt Orchard is a truly awful woman, but is restrained in her awfulness by a truly satisfactory revelation. It is not easy to see a happy ever after here, but be assured that as with Whipple’s other books the most obvious ending is not always employed.

I enjoyed this book; no great events, no great plot devices, just a simple story with many depths. The characterisation of Anne is gentle, understanding and realistic, and bears many of the marks of personal experience mined for a truthful book. While not obviously a feminist book; as Whipple was going on to write in “High Wages” about  the ways women could improve her lot, her careful drawing of various women and girls shows them struggling against the dissatisfaction of limited choices and their definition by men. Even an educated woman is forced to go without to give her son opportunities, and school owners lose much in an attempt to survive. Persephone’s choice of books is as always strong and never better than the complete books of Whipple, and I was very grateful to be sent a copy of this final volume. I recommend it for all those who want to read a sometimes painfully true picture of women’s lives between the great Wars of the twentieth century, but yet want to be amused by the impulsive and real girl and woman who discovers life and love from various people around her.

 

The Case of the Tudor Queen by Christopher Bush – Is Ludovic Travers beaten by this case?

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This book is the eighteenth Ludovic Travers Mystery, originally published in 1938, now reprinted by the excellent Dean Street Press, which means that this complex tale is very easy to obtain. As to be expected, this is a clever, complex murder mystery in which much is set up for the unwary, and for a large amount of the book the vital information for Travers’ breakthrough is missing. He is ever present, but this seems to be a double death without any certainties but a lot of dead ends. Travers, Wharton and the other investigators have certainly met their match in a case which threatens to defeat even their combined forces. This is a case with high drama, deliberate misdirection and haunting images, as well as a solution that is separate in time and space.

Travers and his ever faithful manservant, Palmer, are giving a lift to Superintendent George Wharton in “the Rolls” through the countryside when they come across a young woman walking along in strange circumstances. It turns out that she is a servant of an actress who has failed to turn up at her country cottage, along with her handyman who also appears to have disappeared. As the gentlemen drive into London in an effort to solve the puzzle of a woman who has left her immediate effects behind, they open up the town house to discover the body of Ward, the servant, in the kitchen clutching a glass.  A more graphic horror is to be found upstairs as the body of Mary Legreye is found in an eerie echo of her greatest role. Wharton attempts to charm, threaten and generally discover what all the contacts of the unfortunate pair have to say on their whereabouts at the time of the deaths. Could this be the case that defies the combined resources of Travers, Palmer, Wharton, Norris and Lewis? The solution is impossible to foresee, yet manages to be credible.

One of the most significant things about many of Bush’s Travers books is the breaking of alibis, and in this novel the alibi of everyone seems unbreakable.  This novel seems to represent defeat for the crime cracking team, and the solution is extremely elegant. I am still not convinced that Bush was an accurate writer of female characters, but this is a minor quibble with such a well written tale. Motoring enthusiasts may be intrigued by the details of this book, as well as Travers’ Rolls, and the clues which emerge are well managed gathering together so many seemingly mixed elements. The descriptions are as always well managed, combing a haunting image with more technical details well. As always it is difficult to write an effective review without giving too much away, but this is a book of its time in a sunny pre -war way, as well as being a mystery which has stood the test of time well.

The good news is that there is another ten of Christopher Bush novels being reprinted and made available through Dean Street Press on 2nd July. This brings the number available up to 30, and these novels are definitely addictive (you have been warned).  I am especially looking forward to this group as they are the wartime novels, and as readers of this blog will know I’m a great fan of novels written actually during the Second World War. (See the Angela Thirkell novels for example). Persephone Books have a box set of their six novels in this category, and they can easily be identified on their brilliant website here http://www.persephonebooks.co.uk/grey-books-52/wwii/  (where they have more than six…). Happy reading to come!

A Lady and Her Husband by Amber Reeves – A Persephone feminist classic

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Persephone books have been producing some superb books over many years, and this 1914 book that was reprinted in 2016 is an example of an early book which could reasonably be seen as feminist. Not strident, not mentioning the campaign for the votes that was going on alongside, this book manages to question the role of women within the family, in the workplace, and making a real difference in the economic life of the country. It is a subtle tale of a woman who is not making huge public statements, and seemingly is trapped within her family. She is challenged on many sides to think about the hidden plight of women outside her comfort zone, but the life and death treatment makes her question everything and everyone around her. The writing is so careful yet so successful that this is an immensely readable and enjoyable novel.

Mary, wife of James, mother of three adult children, has lived in considerable comfort for many years. She is gently consulted on matters of the household and her daughters’ marriages, but she is also patronised by her son and husband who always know best. Laura is successfully married and her first baby is expected, Trent is the son who is confident of his own role in the family business. Rosemary wants to marry, but she has also made a study of socialism and the condition of working women, and manages to persuade her family that her mother’s impending loneliness would be best assuaged by a study of the young women employed in the chain of tea shops that the family owns. To Mary’s surprise, her investigations together with her secretary, Miss Percival, means that she gets involved in the actual lives of some of these girls, and finds that the assumptions of independent means were often unfounded. The women are working hard and their health is being affected by the lack of rest time and the uniforms they are obliged to wear. It is when she presents these findings to her husband that their relationship is threatened; for their entire marriage he has known how to show just enough affection and thoughtfulness to keep her happy. He is not intentionally harsh, but assumes that her money can be used to develop the business without consultation, and without much thought for his female employees. Beyond this concern, Mary’s view of her husband is severely shaken, and for a while the whole marriage is in the balance.

The preface to this book, written by the popular author Samantha Ellis, brings out the radical and challenging nature of this book, set against the story of its author and her relationships. This is more than just a family saga, yet can be read as a story of a woman trying to assert herself within her family and have an effect on those women employed in business.  Thus it is a book which works on several levels, yet is so subtle that the narrative is not obscured by political or social arguments. Read this book for the enjoyable story, but also come to appreciate the overwhelming sense of a challenge to the status quo beyond the vote. Both within an outwardly happy marriage, and in a profitable, successful business, the daily life of women is depicted as difficult, even oppressive, and someone or something must change. I thoroughly recommend this book as a satisfactory read for this year in which we think about the women who campaigned for the vote, and so many other aspects of a fair deal.

This Persephone book was sitting on the side waiting to be read for far too long, and I am so glad that I managed to find it in the pile to read and review. I am looking forward to reading more very soon!  The Ellis Preface in this book is particularly interesting,  as it gives a fascinating view of the author’s life and times, and added greatly to my understanding of the book (after I had read it, just in case of spoilers…)