‘Mamma’ by Diana Tutton

Mamma by Diana Tutton

‘Mamma’ by Diana Tutton is the story of the relationship between a 41 year old widow, Joanna Malling and a married man, six years her junior. The relationship is complicated by the fact that the young man is her son-in-law, the husband of her most beloved daughter. 

Joanna Malling was tragically left a widow at the age of 21, when her husband succumbed to a deadly bout of pneumonia. Left with a young baby daughter called Elizabeth or ‘Libby’, Joanna, though overcome with loss and grief was able to carve out a life for herself and her daughter. 

It is at the age of 41, when we meet Joanna Malling again. Libby has grown into a young woman and is staying with her friends the Mortimers. The Mortimers have a daughter, Janet, who is Libby’s close friend and confidante. One day Libby writes to Joanna to tell her that she is engaged to be married. The relationship between mother and daughter is quite a strong one, which is apparent because of the dismay and sense of loss that Joanna experiences on discovering the news. Newly relocated to a Victorian house in the small suburban town of Tadwych, Joanna awaits the arrival of her daughter over the weekend, to learn further news about her daughter’s engagement. 

Joanna learns that Libby’s fiancée is a 35 year old decorated soldier in the army, much older than Libby, in fact closer in age to her mother than Libby herself. 

When Joanna first meets her future son-in-law for the first time,there is a certain degree of awkwardness between the two of them. Although both of them try to forge a feeling of friendship for the sake of Libby, it is rather forced. 

After their marriage, Libby and her husband take up temporary furnished rooms in London, anticipating news of Steven’s foreign posting. Young and naive, Libby spends her days dreaming of exotic foreign idylls and impossibly romantic scenarios in which she reigns supreme with Steven. Her bubble is burst, when Steven contracts a nasty bout of pleurisy and has to be admitted to hospital. Extremely upset, Libby stays with her friends, the Mortimers and promises of evening parties, the planning of evening attire, good food and stimulating company quickly assuage Libby’s troubles and please her slightly snobbish sensibilities. 

Joanna is seized with terror that the fate that struck her at a young age, that is the death of her husband, will similarly strike a blow to Libby. Luckily, however, Stephen recovers and spends time recovering at the Mortimer’s house in London. 

When news of his next posting reaches the young couple, Libby is particularly disappointed to find that rather than be posted abroad, the posting is to Tadwych, the small suburban town where her mother resides. However, after a while Libby is comforted with the thought that she would be near her mother. 

Despite strenuous effort, Joanna is unable to find suitable housing for the young couple and suggests that they move into her house and that she find rooms for herself. Libby and Steven protest and an understanding is reached where the young couple agree to a separate sitting room, so as to allow the young couple their own freedom and much needed space.

However, the three people confined to one house develop routines and rituals to occupy their time during the evenings. They often find themselves solving the crossword together, talking and gradually discussing books and poetry. Steven and Joanna discover they have much in common intellectually – a meeting of two minds- a rare thing for Joanna – who had not shared this facility with even her husband. One thing leads to another and suddenly Steven and Joanna find themselves in a situation too close for comfort. It is during this time – that sometimes Steven drops the use of his adopted name for his mother in law – ‘Mamma’ and uses Joanna instead. But although there is an increasing awareness and realisation of this mutual attraction for one another, Joanna and Steven share a great love for Libby and they must choose between hurting Libby or sublimating their romance. It is a hard decision to make, but it must be made. 

Tutton cleverly juxtaposes Libby’s immaturity, preoccupation with self, hint of snobbishness and her naive belief that she can change the world, including the appearance and manners of her husband against Joanna’s maturity, wisdom, superior taste, intellect and wider reading. Though Libby has youth on her side, Joanna also has her charms but they are mostly of her mind. 

…Libby said: “Go on talking about poetry, you two. I like listening to my clever relatives.”

‘Mamma’ deals with quite a taboo topic – a relationship between two people, who though not related by blood are related to one another by that of close affinity. The common link in this case is a most beloved daughter/ wife. This is quite an unusual and brave topic to deal with and I must say that Tutton navigates the difficult topic with great sensibility. This is not a premeditated story of lust and want. It is a story of the mutual attraction of two people who find they are on the same intellectual plane. From this, is derived a need for greater intimacy. 

Joanna imagines what Steven’s hair would feel like to touch in her wildest imaginings. This is a woman who has been robbed of sexual intimacy for the majority of her adult life. Yet, towards the end, Joanna feels that she would be satisfied if only Steven would admit to her – that he loves her too. This knowledge would fuel the rest of her lonely, solitary life. 

The relationship that develops between mother in law and son in law is not at all pre meditated. It very slowly and naturally develops as a result of living at close quarters  and the genuine meeting of intelligent minds. In this way, the development of plot isn’t nauseating although it can make for quite uncomfortable reading at times. There is a strong degree of sexual tension in the novel as well.

Ultimately, ‘Mamma’ is a story about protracted loneliness, the loneliness that a widow might experience when she has been bereft of intimacy and companionship for the majority of her adult life. At the end of the story, do we feel sympathy for Joanna or not? … I will leave the reader to find that out.

I received an ARC of ‘Mamma’ by Diana Tutton from British Library Publishing but all opinions are my own. 

Mrs Lorimer’s Quiet Summer by Molly Clavering

Mrs Lorimer’s Quiet Summer’ by Molly Clavering

‘Mrs Lorimer’s Quiet Summer’ by Molly Clavering is the story of one particular summer in Mrs Lorimer’s life, in a small village, set in the Scottish Borders. 

Mrs Lorimer and her husband, Colonel Lorimer, a retired army soldier, try to live a quiet life in their small Scottish village. They have a modest circle of acquaintances, reliable domestic help in the home, a close circle of friends and participate, whenever feasible in the main village activities. 

Lucy Lorimer is a writer of fictional stories and try as she might to write peacefully in her study at her home, there’s always something that needs her attention. The beginning of the story finds her wishing for a larger family home – so that she might host her rather large family of grown up children and grand children under one roof during the summer. There’s a particular property in the village that has Lucy’s attention but that has been bought by some Glaswegians, which she discovers to her dismay, when her maid informs her one morning, early on in the summer. 

“The Legion meetings get all the news that’s going. They just sit there and blather like a lot of old sweetie-wives. It’s a stranger that’s bought Harperslea, a widower with a daughter. Better drink yer tea before it gets cold.”

Lucy Lorimer’s fellow writer friend and neighbour, Grace or ‘Grey’ Douglas comes to the rescue, however, and agrees to host some of the family members at her nearby cottage. All is well and Lucy looks forward to some quality time spent with her family but rather than being the quiet summer that Lucy had hoped for, the children bring along their own troubles and Lucy and her husband must come to the rescue. An old flame from Lucy’s past also resurfaces and Lucy also finds this perturbing to her equilibrium. 

This was my first time reading Molly Clavering and I really enjoyed this slow-paced, humorous read. This is a character driven story and the characters are very well drawn. One of the most interesting aspects of this book is the knowledge that the main two characters in the book – Lucy and Grey- are based on the characters of the author DE Stevenson and Molly Clavering herself. Both were neighbours and mutually admired each other’s writing. Whenever I read about Lucy Lorimer, in my mind – she was DE Stevenson. I am such a big fan of Stevenson’s writing and so this book made such an interesting read for me. Whilst I was reading Lucy Lorimer, DE Stevenson and Mrs Tim became one and the same although this might not be wholly accurate. 

I found myself flagging a number of quotes that I found amusing. Phrases and witty dialogue. Lucy remarks to her husband one day about returning a book to a neighbour :-

“It’s that book she lent me weeks ago, of very dull reminiscences, and I have read as much of it as I can bear. Why will people insist on lending me books? They are never the ones I want to read.”

In another instance, Grey Douglas remarks about her unmarried status, that of being an old maid. 

“Once you get over the shame of being an old maid, there is something to be said for single blessedness.”

To this, Lucy Lorimer remarks that Grey can hardly be categorised as an old maid when she has had marriage proposals. To which Grey responds :

“…one can hardly go about wearing a placard with ‘I’ve had a proposal but I didn’t choose to accept it’ printed on it.”

One of the most humorous characters was that of Colonel Lorimer – whom Clavering turned into a domestic god. His love for his dog, low level tolerance for interfering neighbours, obsession with looking into the quality and washing expedience of the household linens by the local laundrette and many other things made me chuckle. The couples in the book also had varying and interesting relationships. The arrival of new neighbours – in the form of the unfortunately named ‘Smellies’ added interest to the story.

Mostly I enjoyed the description of walks, garden fetes, casual dinners, shopping trips into town and other mild activities. In ways it reminded me of O Douglas’ style – particularly that of ‘Penny Plain’. 

What added real value to the story were often the deep and philosophical observations of Molly Clavering. 

Though a quiet book and not a brilliant book by any means, Molly Clavering’s story had my heart. I am so looking forward to reading more of her gentle stories.

This e-book was an advance press copy from Dean Street Press but all opinions about the book are my own.

‘Apricot Sky’ by Ruby Ferguson

‘Apricot Sky’ by Ruby Ferguson

‘Apricot Sky’ by Ruby Ferguson describes the family life of a multi-generational Scottish family, who live on the west coast of Scotland, just over the water from Skye. The story encompasses a beautiful summer, a summer that will culminate in the marriage of the second daughter of the family, a girl called Raine, who will be marrying a local Scotsman called Ian. 

Rather than being a book that has an overarching plot, this book is more a celebration of some perfectly crafted sublime moments, moments that celebrate Scotland and the Scottish way of life.

The time of the story is post-World War 2. In fact the eldest daughter Cleo, is returning to Scotland after working in America for three years. The close-knit family, especially Cleo and Raine’s mother, Mrs McAlvey are longing to welcome the absentee daughter back into the family fold at Kilchro House. The family have lost two of their sons in the war and three orphaned grandchildren have hence, made their home with their grandparents. Another son James, lives in a neighbouring Scottish village with his slightly neurotic wife but is mostly self absorbed in his own life. 

With the summer left to plan Raine’s wedding, Mrs MacAlvey is looking forward to having her family around her and also entertaining family friends at Kilchro House.

Cleo, the eldest daughter has missed her home so much and has felt herself to be almost in exile over the past three years. Dreaming of all things related to her Scottish home and life, it is a relief for her to be at last back in Scotland. She is however, quite surprised to find her sister engaged and that too, to a man who is the brother of the love of her life. Raine is in fact engaged to Ian but it is his brother Neil, who holds Cleo’s affections and she has kept this fact secret, her entire life. Neil Garvine is the eldest Garvine brother and is in fact the ‘laird’ of Larrich – the Garvine property. Farmers for many generations, although the Garvine property is extensive the house is rather tumbledown and in preparation for the new bride’s arrival, undergoes a major renovation over the summer.

‘Apricot Sky’ is one of those wonderful books that is quite devoid of plot but the characters are so interesting and the writing so descriptive and resonant of time and place – that it propels the story forward and never loses its appeal.

I was so interested in the characters, their varying moods and motivations. Their daily activities – from fly fishing, to sailing, gardening, hosting a garden party, visiting friends and relatives, going on a day trip to the Isle of Skye, sailing, picnicking or discussing home improvements. It reminded me so much of an O Douglas novel – which from me is one of the greatest compliments – as I do love the style of Douglas. 

A great deal of the book is quite introspective in that we are privy to Cleo’s inner musings and insecurities. She is a little unsure of her place in the world and always eager to please, is afraid of not being liked. This frequently gets in the way of her ability to talk naturally with Neil, whom she is particularly eager to impress. 

“They might be critical. They must like her. It was one of the defects of her character that she was so dependent on the good opinion of others. Cleo MacAlvey could think of no worse desolation than that those she liked should not like her.”

Cleo also is revealed to be a person incapable of hurting other people’s feelings, even for her own advantage, and therefore supposed to ‘consequently … never go far in life.’ 

In this way, Ruby Ferguson immediately ensures that as an object for Neil Garvine’s affections – Cleo is the underdog and therefore, she secures our sympathy. 

Another very interesting character is that of Cleo’s mother – Mrs MacAlvey. The typical matriarch – thriving from the energy derived from having a busy home – with family and friends – children and grandchildren – perhaps this is her means of keeping loneliness and tragedy at bay. There is post war rationing, but this does not seem to impede the MacAlvey sense of enjoyment of life. 

Perhaps for me, the nicest thing about reading ‘Apricot Sky’ for me, was the beautiful sense of contentment and hope that the book gave me. Despite having gone through great tragedy and loss, upheaval and displacement, the joy of heart and home, family ties and the joy of homecoming are very much evident. Another lovely ode to Scotland, Ruby Ferguson displays her love for her country in ‘Apricot Sky’. 

“Highland skies and seas are noted for their opalescent colours, and this particular sky and sea had everything in the way of changing shades …” 

Similarly, in redecorating the family homestead at Larrich, Cleo and Raine discover a small damp sitting room framing a magnificent view. Raine views the mould and fungus in the damp room and shudders but Cleo with great foresight sees the promise in the house and the prospect of the view. She decides on a yellow room with fresh linens – not a buttercup yellow but an elusive shade of yellow that her sister and she describe in the following passage. 

“Spare me buttercups. I’d want that heavenly boiled gold colour you see in the sky when the sun has just gone down. What would you call it?” 

“Apricot?” Suggested Cleo.

“That’s it. Tinned apricot. We’ll have a tinned apricot sitting-room looking out at a heavenly apricot sky.”

It is this love for the natural landscape of Scotland that emanates through the novel and makes it such a joy to read. Do bring a glimpse of this ‘Apricot Sky’ into your life and enjoy it for all its worth. 

The e-book for ‘Apricot Sky’ was a Press copy from Dean Street Press but all impressions of this book are completely my own. 

‘Random Commentary’ by Dorothy Whipple

Random Commentary by Dorothy Whipple

‘Random Commentary’ by Dorothy Whipple and published by @persephonebooks is a series of extracts from Whipple’s personal diaries, spanning the period 1925-1945 and this encompassing a major swathe of her active writing life. During this particular period she wrote six novels, one autobiographical novel about her childhood and several short stories. 

The excerpts were handpicked by Whipple herself in 1965. They were a series of entries from personal diaries that Whipple deemed important and that she typed out herself. The lack of chronological information makes these entries slightly difficult to follow with regards to exact dates but the Publisher’s Note at the beginning of the book, makes reference to Whipple’s bibliography during this period and the reader can roughly gauge the time regarding which the writer refers to. Overall, this chronological information omission does not take away from the reader’s enjoyment of reading the diary. 

Information about book writing, correspondence with publishers, literary events merge seamlessly with more domestic concerns – the dusting, the cooking, the ups and downs of finding and keeping domestic help. In this way one can really form an idea of the real life of this very down to earth woman who had to fit in time for her writing in between her domestic duties. 

“I am up in the attic to work at 11.15, after having dusted, swept, cooked and tidied wildly. I am cross not to have time for my writing, and cross because I must take the car to be oiled and greased, cross to have to go to the Nursing Home to see M.E, to go to the office to see Miss G.”

Living with her husband Henry, an educational administrator, Dorothy Whipple often accompanied her husband on his travels for conferences. One can glean that Whipple gained immense enjoyment from a change of scenery, acutely observing the people and places around her, noting down their habits and idiosyncrasies – gathering food for her writing. On one particular occasion, Whipple visits a popular London restaurant and the group of people at an adjacent table become the heart and soul of her next short story. 

“London. We went to Bertorelli’s… The other girl was a complete contrast to Alice, a full-blown rose indeed, with peroxided curls and wet lips and a generous bosom displayed in a tight emerald green dress. She called her young man ‘darling’ and ate the middle of his bread … I wrote this as a short story: A Lovely Time.

What I found most valuable about reading ‘Random Commentary’ was the intimate knowledge of the writing process of each of Whipple’s books, her thoughts and often despair in penning her stories, her internal struggles, the ever-present feeling of doubt and dubiousness at the worthiness of a manuscript for publication – the feeling of hope and anticipation accompanying the postage of a manuscript to the publisher – the euphoria of a publisher’s acceptance, positive response and also the heart ache over rejection. All these feelings are beautifully conveyed with the reader making us sympathetic to the creative angst of the writer. 

Fortunately for Whipple she enjoyed immense popularity as a writer while she was living. Many of her books were the ‘Choice of the Book Club’ or on best seller lists. Critics were very kind. JB Priestley, a close friend was a great cheerleader and Whipple enjoyed good relationships with most of her publishers. Her books were translated into different languages, and often the American rights to her books were much sought after. 

They Knew Mr. Knight reaches 10,000 mark, and heads list of bestsellers in John O’London. It is also among the bestsellers in the Autumn number of ‘The Author’. It is listed among the best-sellers in The Times.”

Insights into literary parties and meeting notable writers of the time there, are also most interesting to the reader. Names are dropped most casually and provide a great thrill. At a party given by publisher Jock Murray to celebrate the publisher’s marriage and publication of ‘The Priory’, 

The first person that Whipple sees is George Bernard Shaw, ‘pink and white face almost lost in snow white whiskers’. At another party she encounters Dorothy L. Sayers. It must have been an incredible time to have been part of the greater literary scene. E. M. Delafield, such a favourite author of mine, is mentioned to have praised ‘The Priory’ in ‘Provincial Lady in Wartime’. If you are, like me, an avid fan of the literature and authors of the interwar period, then ‘Random Commentary’ will provide you with infinite nuggets of joy – in the shape of literary figures, encounters with them and discourse with notable publishers. 

From her diaries, it is quite evident that Whipple enjoyed close relationships with family. She had a very strong, loving relationship with her husband Henry and they seem to have led a very contented life with their beloved dog, in between their two homes in Nottingham and in the country at Newstead. Whipple’s Mother and brothers crop up frequently on the pages of ‘Random Commentary’ – as does her sister. Whipple worshipped her  sister’s daughter Griselda and her name is frequently mentioned in her diaries.

During the course of these diaries the Second World War raged and the build up, anxiety and dread about impending war is very much evident to the reader. Whipple describes her inability to write in the face of the War. 

“I can’t write. Fiction seems so trivial. Fact is too terrible.”

Despite this, Whipple did indeed plow on with her, to my mind, most dramatic and angst-filled novel ‘’They Were Sisters’. One can’t help but feel that some of the angst, tragedy and frustration of the War are transmitted to its pages, so that a heightened sense of calamity is felt when reading this story. 

There’s lots to read and re-read and dissect amongst the pages of ‘Random Commentary’. Whipple lived a life rich in experience and the interest and curiosity she felt about people, their moods and motivations inundate her fiction, as well as this most interesting of personal diaries. Definitely, a must-read for any ardent Whipple fan. 

I received this Press copy of ‘Random Commentary’ as a gift from Persephone Books but as always, all opinions are my own.

Miss Buncle Married by D.E. Stevenson – #1936club

Miss Buncle Married by D.E. Stevenson

I am reviewing this book as part of the #1936club, initiated by Simon David Thomas of ‘Stuck in a Book’and Karen of ‘Kaggsy’s Bookish Rambling’.

To take a look at other books published in the same year, reviewed by other bloggers, please take a look at the round up posts that should be up on the previously mentioned blogs. This is a really lovely way to learn more about themes that may have been a common focus at a particular time in history. 

In ‘Miss Buncle’s Book’ – the first in the series – a thirty-something, unmarried woman, by force of circumstance has to take to writing to support herself when her dividends don’t bring in as much income as expected.

As the woman, Barbara Buncle, has NO imagination whatsoever, she writes from experience, portraying events and characters from the English village she lives in.

Her books are a massive success and all is well … until… several people in her village recognise themselves as characters in the book and are angry that they have not been portrayed in the most favourable light. And there is a hunt on to unearth the identity of the mystery novel writer.

The writing is wonderful, the characters are brilliant. What more can I say? If you need a nice light read this summer, you will definitely enjoy this one.

However, the pick of my reading for the #1936club is ‘Miss Buncle Married’ – so let’s focus on this sequel.

In ‘Miss Buncle Married’ – Barbara and her husband find themselves in the strange predicament of being so involved in the social life of the community in their little corner of Hampstead, that they hardly have an evening to call their own, to enjoy each other’s company. An endless string of bridge evenings and listless suppers fill up their social calendar. When both Barbara and her husband discover that neither of them enjoy these social soirées they realise that the only way to extricate themselves from this entanglement is to move to a quiet neighbourhood, preferably in the country. As Barbara’s husband describes the perfect house nestled in the countryside, a vision befalls Barbara’s eyes and she  feels she cannot rest until she has found their paradise. 

So ensues several months of house hunting in the surrounding countryside. One day, almost upon the point of giving up, Barbara stumbles upon the perfect house, dilapidated but with fine features, having a beautiful garden in a  sleepy old Elizabethan town called Wandlebury. However, at the lawyer and house agent’s office involved with showing the house to Barbara, one of the lawyers mistakes Barbara for someone else, residing in the village of Wandlebury and makes her privy to that person’s last will and deed. The lawyer is mortified when he discovers his mistake and Barbara must keep her knowledge a secret even though all sorts of complications ensue regarding the terms of the will. To make matters worse, Barbara is struck with another urge to write about the people and places of Wandlebury. Will Barbara and her husband need to uproot themselves from Wandlebury and a chance of living their best life, once again in order to flee the wrath of their neighbours?

The Miss Buncle books are brilliant light-hearted comfort reads. The second book in the series fell under a similar formula to the first one with a few differences. There was a twist in the tale with the addition of the will. We are introduced to some new and endearing characters – especially Sam and new neighbour and horse enthusiast Jerry. An artist family who live just next door are also food for inspiration for Barbara – supplying character inspiration and memorable quotes.

Though I didn’t enjoy this book as much as Miss Buncle’s Book – there were some particular elements and themes to enjoy in the sequel.  The descriptions of Archway House in Wandlebury, which Barbara and her husband decide to renovate are lovely. A quiet, witty, playful story, a handful of interesting and varying characters who live in an English village, romantic entanglements, funny, cringeworthy situations regarding missing trousers – these are all things to love in the book. Barbara’s gradual character development both as a writer and as a more mature person are also points to be noticed. 

It’s also interesting to note that even though we are on the cusp of the Second World War, money of the tremours of the impending war penetrate the calm environs of a Wandlebury. There are severally references to Barbara’s husband’s active service during the Great War, however, and several grumblings about the lack of initiative of the then, present generation of young men, namely the nephew of Barbara’s husband, Sam.

The end of Miss Buncle Married made me eager to pick up the next book in the series. Now that, is surely the sign of a good book. 

Many thanks to Simon and Karen for hosting this book club. Do check out their blogs for other book reviews written during 1936.

‘The Bell Family’ by Noel Streatfeild

‘The Bell Family’ by Noel Streatfeild

The Bell Family

‘The Bell Family’ is the account of the lives of the Bell Family, in the heart of south-east London after World War 2. Their father is the Reverend of St Mark’s and the family, though a happy one, are rather short of money. Though they have food to eat, a roof over their heads, and help in the house from lovely Mrs Gage, Mother doesn’t have the money for a new dress and must wear Aunt Rose’s cast-offs, Jane, the eldest daughter, who is a promising dancer can’t apply for a place at Sadler’s Well School and Paul, the eldest son, must contemplate giving up his dream career of becoming a doctor in order to secure a more lucrative position in Grandfather’s booming business.

The family, as a whole manage quite well but it is particularly when they are pitted against their rich relatives, some of whom take pleasure in flaunting their wealth, that they feel despondent about their lot in life.

The children’s father, Reverend Alexander Bell, once exceedingly displeased his father by taking up orders with the Church, rather than engage himself in the family business. Grandfather’s wrath was so searing that he vowed that as long as he lived, his son, Alex Bell would not get a penny from him. The result is the story of the Bell Family. Though they have chosen to live their life on their own terms

Central Theme of ‘The Bell Family’

Though I would say that the central theme of the book is money, social circumstance and the dearth of opportunity created by a lack of money, the book is so much more than that. The book shows us that a lack of money can never take away true talent from a person, that hard work and perseverance can bring rewards and that being poor sometimes renders a need for innovation and enterpreneurship – a quality in which the Bell children were certainly not lacking.

Outspoken ‘Miss Virginia Bell’

Mostly, I adored the characters in this novel, particularly that of outspoken and plucky Ginnie, the younger daughter or ‘Miss Virginia Bell’, as she frequently referred to herself as, in the course of this novel. She had so much character, determination and a tendency of getting herself into the worst scrapes. She also spoke out volubly in the face of injustice, particularly when she could not tolerate the affected manners of her rich relations. I especially loved how her parents dealt with her tempestuous nature – choosing not to suppress it but guiding her wilfulness, to become a more controlled version of herself.

Best Parts of the Book

Some of the best parts in the novel were memorable outbursts and speeches from Ginnie – particularly a birthday party outburst at the ballet and an impromptu speech delivered on stage to her Aunt Rose (a chief guest), in front of the entire school. Also particularly funny were her attempts to raise money for the thwarted annual family holiday – by busking on a street corner and being accidentally discovered by her shocked father.

Dreamy Nostalgia by the Kentish Seaside

The book ends with a beautiful holiday by the Kentish seaside. The story captures a wonderful glimpse of ordinary life in London, a social history of its time, and the characters, writing and events are so memorable that I was quite sad to say goodbye to the dear Bell Family at the end of the book. Recommended reading for children and adults alike. 

‘Penny Plain’ and ‘Priorsford’ by O Dougas – A Cozy Visit to the Scottish Borders

‘Penny Plain’ and ’Priorsford’ by O Douglas

‘Penny Plain’ by O Douglas – A Very Cozy Scottish Book

‘Penny Plain’ by O Douglas was published in 1920 and is the story of the young and poor Jardine family, who live in a quaint cottage in the lowland town of Priorsford, in the Scottish Borders. Jean Jardine, the eldest member of the family is in her early twenties and from a very young age, after the demise of both her parents, was given the charge of looking after her younger brothers. They are – David (off to Oxford), Jock (a fourteen year old) and Gervase Taunton – a small step brother. 

For Jean, life is full of the niggling worries of having to scrimp and save, to do without and to make ends meet. They live in a delightful and unusual Scottish cottage called ‘The Rigs’ with a front room shaped like the prow of a ship and slightly elevated, so it almost looked high to the hills in the distance. 

Jean and her family love The Rigs so much that they live in constant fear of their landlord demanding to turn them out and asking them to look for alternative lodging. 

Despite her cares, Jean has a magnetic personality, concerned about the needs of her elderly neighbours, taking part in town activities, making calls and enjoying the small joys of life. 

The town of Priorsford is astir, however, when a certain Lady Pamela comes to stay as a paying guest in the lodgings of old Bella Bathgate – the Jardine’s next door neighbour. Lady Pamela comes to Priorsford to escape the frivolity of social life in London and a boring, middle aged lover. 

Lady Pamela delights in the simple yet satisfying life in small town Priorsford. She befriends all of Priorsford residents – many of them frail, retired and elderly. Some of them even grieving the loss of beloved family members in the aftermath of the War. Most of all, Pamela becomes part of the Jardine family and her interest and love for Priorsford becomes infectious and spreads to other members of her immediate family who come to visit. 

In a turn of events, Jean shows great kindness to a complete stranger, a mysterious old man who turns up at their doorstep and as a result – their lives undergo an immense sea change as a result of her good deed. 

‘Penny Plain’ has romantic entanglements and love interests like all the best stories. There’s also an opportunity to get to know the town’s busybody – the incorrigible Mrs Duff-Whaley, who has her finger in every village pie – be it amateur dramatics, tea parties, dinners or fundraisers.

Without giving too much way, the plot of ‘Penny Plain’ is a fairy tale. Though the plot, in my opinion is not central to the novel, the strength of this novel and of O Douglas’ writing is her ability to create realistic, believable, ordinary characters – replete with good characteristics and flaws. O Douglas also excels in weaving a compelling story around the inhabitants of a small community- it is an interesting sketch of a few families and their day to day concerns – typical of Jane Austen’s style. As the reader, we become involved in not only the concerns of the Jardine family but Priorsford at large. The book touches on subjects like wealth, fellow feeling, taking an interest in one’s neighbours joys as well as sorrows and learning to valiantly cope with life’s tragedies.

To me, reading ‘Penny Plain’ was the greatest comfort. I jumped straight into its sequel ‘Priorsford’ set ten years after the previous story. I can’t talk about it here because that would mean spoilers. It’s set over an entire winter in Jean’s life and I found reading it extremely satisfying. I’ll be returning to this pair of book soon in the future because I did love reading them. Jean seemed to have the perfect personality along with her share of human frailties and a zest for life and living. Do try and find these books of you can, in a used bookstore or as an e book, especially if you love old, cozy fireside stories.

‘Carrie’s War’ by Nina Bawden

Carrie’s War by Nina Bawden

‘Carrie’s War’ is the story of a young evacuee’s personal struggles

‘Carrie’s War’ by Nina Bawden is a story about a young girl’s personal struggles, adjusting to a strange new life as an evacuee in the home of Welsh family during World War 2. The book is an evocative picture of life on the home front, especially the stirring account of transplantation of so many young British school children, at a very young and impressionable age. 

The Setting of Carrie’s War

Life for young Carrie Willow and her younger brother Nick, undergoes an enormous upheaval when they are put upon a train in the company of a trainload of London evacuees, a group of young children in the company of their schoolteacher, towards an unknown destination in the heart of Wales, far away from the scare of sudden wartime bombing. 

They arrive in a sleepy Welsh coal-mining village and are billeted to the home of a curmudgeonly Welsh shopkeeper, who lives with his spinster younger sister – Auntie Lou to the children. Mr Evans is extremely controlling and miserly. The children must creep about the house and they are not allowed to even use the upstairs bathroom during the daytime, in fear of trampling on and spoiling the carpeted staircase. An outdoor lavatory, at the end of the garden must do the job, even in cold weather. Homelife is extremely oppressive and I think, would have been intolerable, if not for the love shown by tender hearted Auntie Lou, who is scared of her brother.

The children visit Mr Evan’s elder sister’s home- Druid’s Bottom- a mysterious, secretive place, magically located in a secluded grove by the train tracks. 

Mr Evan’s elder sister, Dilys Gotobed, is a widow, confined to her bed and looked after by a woman called Hepzibah Green. Hepzibah Green is not only a caregiver and housekeeper, she also takes care of the Gotobed’s nephew – a young boy with a disability – Johnny Gotobed. Hepzibah envelopes Druid’s Bottom with such an air of warmth and comfort, that it is a joy for the children to visit there. There is always the promise of good home cooked food, a roaring fire and a friendly face telling all sorts of mystical tales at Druid’s Bottom. 

Some of these mystical tales are fraught with terrible curses and tales of superstition that haunt Druid’s Bottom. 

Carrie in particular feels that it is her calling to heal the rift between Mr Evan’s and his elderly sister and in trying to do so – she does something that will haunt her for the rest of her life. 

When Carrie revisits the sleepy old mining town many years later with her own children, will she able to forgive herself and be able to reconstrue events that happened many many years ago?

‘Carrie’s War’ was a good book, well written with an interesting plot but for me the point of main interest was the event of the evacuee children being sent to far flung corners of the country to escape the threat of bombs. As a parent it seems rather a hard pill to swallow, to resign oneself to being separated from one’s children to strangers – and what struck me as extraordinary was the calm with which Carrie’s mother let go of her children. However, we are well aware given the events of the past year, of how extreme events can lead to extraordinary decisions and modes of living life. From my perspective, it seems an unacceptable form of separation in the here and now, but perhaps being a Londoner with the threat of the Blitz hovering over my head, I would have convinced myself to put my little children on a train to the far reaches of the country. One can only hope that a person like Mr Evans would not have been the caregiver at the end of the line. 

Carrie’s War is a book well worth reading. The characters, sometimes larger than life are well crafted. There is an absorbing plot. The social and period details and the time and place of the novel are well done and there are pockets of coziness, warmth and so many descriptions of good food to lift one’s mood. 

Ultimately it is the tale of Carrie’s personal struggles, in a new environment and hostile territory that make this book so compelling to read. 

‘Cider With Rosie’ by Laurie Lee

Laurie Lee’s wonderful evocation of his childhood, in a small Cotswold village in ‘Cider With Rosie’ was a memorable recent read. 

The book starts in the wake of the First World War. Lee was at the time just a small boy of three. There is a quite mesmerising description of Lee being handed down from the cart that brought them to their crumbling Cotswold cottage, and him standing in the grass in a field in front of his house – grass so tall in the month of June that it towered over his head – ‘each blade tattooed with tiger-skins of sunlight’. 

Each recapitulation is so vivid that it really set’s the reader’s imagination ablaze with heady imagery. The prose is packed with descriptors that really bring to life every sensory detail. Laurie Lee takes us down memory lane. One by one the people, places and incidents of his childhood are recounted but in a way, that immerses us in the landscape- to witness the peculiar activities of the elderly old ladies who are their close neighbours (Granny Trill and Granny Wallon), to hear and feel the rush of rain, clap of thunder of a great storm that practically submerges their low lying cottage, and to breathe in and taste the heady flavour of cider from the bounty of apples from the valley. 

It is not an entirely bucolic evocation of a perfect childhood. There are plenty of disturbing stories of village incidents, criminal activities, death, poverty and decay. Some of them are harrowing to say the least. But I would say, that one takes away a rather sunny, if realistic, snapshot on the whole, of childhood in the Cotswold village. 

Some of the people we meet in ‘Cider With Rosie’ seem larger than life. Granny Trill and Granny Wallon are the family’s neighbours – and Laurie Lee certainly conjures them up as having slightly spooky, witch-like characteristics – Granny Wallon distilling fine wines from the wild growth of the surrounding fields and hedges – cowslips, dandelions, elderflower and more. Granny Trill on the other hand followed a weird and wonderful primitive schedule – breakfasting at the crack of dawn and going to bed at 5 pm. Granny Trill also told weird and wonderful stories and took snuff out of a snuff box that the boys surreptitiously stole. 

Lee’s Mother was an extraordinary, slightly eccentric woman who took care of her husband’s children from her first marriage and those of her own marriage, singlehandedly. It is true that there were a number of older step sisters who took care of the young brood- of which Laurie Lee or ‘Loll’ as he was affectionately called was one. Their Father left the family and never came back. Their Mother, started life as a housemaid and served the gentry for several years in various country houses before accepting a position as a housekeeper to their Father’s household. She frequently recalled the fine details of the serving dishes, silverware, food and customs of the gentry. She later retained this affection for beautiful things and would often haunt auctions and sales for bargain treasures, which would grace their ramshackle Cotswold cottage – strewn with arts and artefacts, plants and flowers . Always short of money, the children would be sent to their neighbours for a bit of salt or some spare change to make ends meet. 

Lee’s Mother had a keen eye for beauty, a love for poetry, music and nature. She was a true romantic and spent her entire life waiting for her husband to come back to her. 

The chapter describing the tradition of carol singing by the young boys of the village is a classic extract, gracing many of the best Christmas anthologies. I was delighted to read it within the context of Lee’s memoir. Just as memorable, is the description of summer, the harvesting of apples, the making of cider, the long walks and picnics through the valley. The change of seasons and the beauty that accompanies them are described evocatively in the book. 

There are many other intimate moments, too numerous to describe in this review that make this book very special. The people, sense of place and incidents are remarkable but the whole is lifted to another plane of excellence by Laurie Lee’s exceptional gift for prose – poetic and uplifting. ‘Cider With Rosie’ is a little gem of a book – to be re read ever so often – to glean new and wondrous details. 

My edition of ‘Cider With Rosie’ was a press copy from Slightly Foxed but all opinions are my own.

‘Rhododendron Pie’ by Margery Sharp

‘Rhododendron Pie’ is the story of young Ann Laventie, the youngest child in the artistic and well to do Laventie family, who does not fit the artistic mould of the rest of the family. The book addresses her internal struggles of whether or not to break off from the family ideal or to embrace a life and attitude, more fitting with her disposition. 

The Laventie family are outsiders in the small and sleepy village on the Sussex Downs, where the family and is predecessors have lived for many years. There is a touch of snobbery in this dissociation, in that the family choose to separate themselves from the village folk and see themselves as a class apart from everyone else. Hence, friendly fellow feeling with neighbours has never really been advocated – rather artistic people from London circles and beyond inhabit ‘Whitenights’ – the Laventie home – and provide intellectual succour to its inhabitants.

There are three Laventie children. Elizabeth, the eldest (25 at the beginning of the story) is a literary critic, Dick the middle child, a sculptor, and Ann – the youngest Laventie child (aged 20 in the story) has no evident talent – except for a deep appreciation of life and what makes life more interesting.

When the children were young, they struck upon a tradition of having a pie filled with flowers for their respective birthdays. The idea was Elizabeth’s but it soon spread to Dick and in turn to Ann. Dick’s Pie had heliotropes and it fell to Ann’s lot to have rhododendron pie for her birthday.

Although the other two children thrilled at the sensation and whimsy of having inedible flowers in their birthday pies, Ann fought hard to suppress her feeling of disappointment in the contents of her pie – she wanted nothing more than cloves and the sweetness of apples to savour and enjoy. 

When the story starts in earnest, the children are all grown up and are ready to spread their wings into the world. Elizabeth flourishes as a literary critic and takes up a flat in London to mix with the literary set. Dick is a sculptor having many female admirers and Ann befriends Gilbert Croy, a up and coming film maker who stays at Whitenights for months on end – ‘for inspiration’. 

One should mention the children’s mother. She is a quiet industrious woman who is sadly disabled. Unknowingly to the family and the whole world, she is the one who looks into the smooth running of the Laventie household, the hundred and one tedious domestic details that create such an appealing atmosphere at Whitenights. Without her ministrations the Laventie’s would not enjoy the comforts of the home and feel inspired to be so creative. 

Ann is the only member of the Laventie family who has a close friendship with other people in the village. Since childhood she has a close friendship with the members of the Gayford clan. Elizabeth and Dick turn down their noses at their company but Ann rather enjoys spending time with the friendly and homely family, particularly John Gayford who is clearly besotted with Ann.

Things come to a head when Ann must decide whether or not she must embrace a bohemian, artistic attitude to life or follow her heart and enjoy life in the style she see’s fit. 

I really enjoyed this novel and I thought it was a remarkably well constructed debut novel for Margery Sharp. Apart from the writing, and touches of whimsy that we expect from Margery Sharp, I thought Sharp developed quite a succinct theme for her book. I particularly enjoyed how we saw the beauty of the world and the simple enjoyment Ann gleaned from everyday life – be that in the appreciation of nature, the home, simple pastimes or time spent with friends and family. Ann didn’t have the quirky charm of Cluny Brown or the whimsical appeal of Martha – but she was a finely created Sharp protagonist.

There’s an incident in the book where Ann disappears into a secret spot of hers on a window seat in the attic with a large puzzle and two bananas. This is the way that Ann likes to spend time by herself. There’s a description of how Ann likes to approach doing a puzzle that for some reason just really appealed to me – perhaps because I like doing puzzles in the same way. Sometimes the smallest of cozy ordinary details about living – really add enjoyment to the book. Similarly, Ann spends time on the Sussex Downs with John, or an afternoon at a seaside town or in a London with friends – ans I found all these descriptions very enjoyable.

I look forward to reading the other Furrowed Middlebrow- Margery Sharp releases soon. 

I received an e book Press copy of ‘Rhododendron Pie’ from Dean Street Press but all opinions about the book are my own.