‘The Call’ by Edith Ayrton Zangwill

CFB85AFB-88D1-4FFB-8F92-BB258CAE8A98.jpeg

’The Call’ by Edith Ayrton Zangwill follows the personal story of a young woman scientist, through the course of historical events that dominated the women’s suffrage movement in England, leading up to the outbreak and onset of the First World War.

Although the story is one of fiction, the series of events that pervade the novel, come across as remarkably real, no doubt drawing from the personal experience of Edith Ayrton Zangwill – a member of the WSPU herself.

The ‘Call’ refers to the call to action experienced by Ursula Winfield. A call to shun and relinquish everything she held dear, in order to enable the progress of the women’s suffrage movement.

However, as the novel progresses, we discover that this call to action is experienced by other people and for other causes- be they women’s suffrage, the call to do one’s duty in the war, or the call of a more personal nature- that of all-consuming love.

Ursula Winfield is an unusual young woman born before the turn of the twentieth century. Born in a fairly well-to-do English family, her Father has died but she has an affable stepfather, Colonel Hibbert, and a loving but seemingly frivolous socialite mother, who has her head caught up in the unending outings and soirées of the elite London circle. Rather than join the fashionable set, Ursula remains locked up in the chemistry laboratory she has painstakingly set up in the attic of 57 Lowndes Square- the Hibbert family residence. It is a time when women have not been accorded the respect of being allowed to accept a university degree.

We witness the seeds of Ursula’s discontentment during various scientific meetings- meetings at which she sometimes puts forward her scientific ideas. However, for the most part Ursula’s ideas are not taken as seriously as she would like. A certain Professor Smee, champions Ursula’s cause – invites her to speak out at a particular meeting and later on, invites her to practice her experiments at his laboratory in London.

Middle-aged and slightly disenchanted with his romantic lot in life, Professor Smee develops a deep infatuation for the intelligent beautiful Ursula, which she completely fails to recognize.

At the time of these events, echoes of the women’s suffrage movement are to be heard all over Britain. The movement, headed by a group known as the WSPU (Women’s Social and Political Union) were a militant organization that used demonstrations, marches, actions leading to incarceration and in certain cases- hunger-strikes.

Ursula finds herself interested and drawn to the women who form the backbone of the party but for the most part- she remains disapproving of their militant methods. Ursula meets and falls in love with a young man, a man from a respectable, well-to-do family, who later goes on to work  for the civil service. When Ursula gets engaged to Tony, Professor Smee is dismayed and has to quietly nurse his wounds.

One day, Ursula happens to save a destitute old woman from drowning, in an attempted suicide. Whilst she is at the court hearing of the old woman’s trial (suicide being a punishable offence), Ursula hears about the case of a prostitute and the sexual assault of a minor. Ursula has been so shrouded in a life of science, and so distant from the reality of living on the London streets that she is shocked to the core.

Was it only this morning? Then the world had been a clean and pleasant place of healthy men and women. Now it had become rotten, crawling with obscene abomination. These suffragettes talked as if the vote would help! If people were so vile and bestial, nothing could help, nothing! It was all horrible. She did not want to live. Science was dead, futile. Everything was tainted- even Tony

 

After this event (unfair treatment of the woman and child at the trial) and despite her reservations regarding  militant actions, Ursula finds herself drawn to the cause of the WSPU. Tony’s absence in distant India, results in her joining the group without his knowledge (or indeed consent) and when he realizes the fact- he is very disapproving. Ursula finds herself drawn more and more into WSPU activities and at a point – she must make the painful decision of deciding whether to answer to ‘The Call’ of social justice for women or heeding to the emotions of her heart.

Much later, when the Great War breaks out in Europe, sweeping the rest of the world into the upheaval, men who were disapproving of the militant tactics of women suffragettes are ironically called to militant action as well. There is a dissolution of social classes, standards, prejudices  and men and women work together in the war effort. It is an effort that accords women (over the age of 30) with the right to vote after the war ends.

’The Call’ is an extraordinary story that sweeps the entirety of this very interesting but trying time in the history of men and women and their relative status in society. The story is about millitancy and pacifism and in the course of the novel we witness how the lines between these opposing ideals can get blurred to a certain extent. A man who opposes militant methods adopted by women is called upon to take up arms in War. A woman who has embraced pacifism her entire life is goaded on to take up the cudgels of millitantcy in the face of extreme opposition. The times are trying and it is very interesting to see how societal balance is restored, at least to a certain extent, at the end of the story.

Do read ‘The Call’ if you get a chance. It is a story about an incredible group of women, who went to extraordinary ends to achieve women’s suffrage.

 

I was sent a review copy of ‘The Call’ by Persephone Books, but as always all my views are entirely my own.

Guard Your Daughters by Diana Tutton

Processed with VSCO with a4 presetI must admit that ‘Guard Your Daughters’ was one of those books, where one paragraph in, I just knew that this was going to be one of my most favourite books.

One can’t but help draw a comparison between Dodie Smith’s voice in ‘I Capture the Castle’ and Diana Tutton’s in this particular novel.

There are heaps of whimsical characters, a novel writing Father who keeps himself locked up in his dressing room, an unconventional upbringing, a sort of coming-of-age story but here the similarities end.

Guard Your Daughters deals with the unconventional upbringing of five daughters. Five daughters, who despite a lack of formal education, shine in different ways.

Their father is an eminent detective novel writer, their mother is a delicate lady, suffering from unknown neuroses- the main one being the relative sequestration of her daughters from mainstream society. The Mother strives through various means to ‘protect’ her girls by not sending them to school, discouraging them from going to parties or dances, and not having a social life. The girls strive to never cross their Mother, mainly due to the constant watchfulness of their Father but there are stray incidents that threaten to upset the delicate balance of the family.

The daughters, devise various ways of meeting young men. A certain gentleman is literally pounced upon when his car breaks down in front of the family homestead. Another young man is befriended at the cinema. None of them is encouraged to visit the isolated family.

Due to the fame of the literary father, none of the girls needs to venture out of the house to earn a living. There is no dearth of money as such – but the limitations and deprivations of post war rationing are evident in the conjuring up of the family meals. As the girls observe – Father is never stingy with his money but there’s a mystery about where all the money goes, given his great fame and fortune.

It’s only during the last few pages of the novel that you realize that Guard Your Daughters is quite a serious novel and it deals with quite a serious subject- that of mental health. In retrospect, one appreciates that the author has been building up slowly to this realization through the entirety of the storytelling process.

One of the things that drew me to Guard Your Daughters was the strength of the mother and father’s relationship. It was very beautiful to see, especially given the sacrifices the father made to appease his wife.

Guard Your Daughters would have undoubtedly been one of my favourite novels – given the sprinkling of odd characters, memorable situations, sparkling and witty dialogue and creation of beautiful moments. But for me, Diana Tutton takes the story to an entirely new level with her dexterity in storytelling, and her ability to convey raw emotions. I will be thinking about this book for a very long time.

The juxtaposition of the funny and the extremely sad has been so skillfully managed by Tutton. In a modern world where mental health issues are so frighteningly relevant, Tutton seems to strike a very raw chord. If you were to read only one Persephone book this year, please make it this one.

Earth and High Heaven by Gwethalyn Graham

image.jpeg

 

‘Earth and High Heaven’ is the love story of Marc Reiser and Erica Drake, set against the social and political backdrop of a segregated Montreal, in the midst of the turmoil of the Second World War.

The social milieu of Montreal is very important in the context of the story. Montreal, at the time, consisted of a majority of English Canadians and a minority of French Canadians and Canadian Jews.

The English and French Canadians were collectively referred to as the ‘Gentiles’ – forming the upper crust of Quebec society, although intermarrying within these communities was still frowned upon. The Canadian Jews formed a more isolated corner of society- exempt from holding select jobs of privilege, disallowed from occupying certain hostelries, eating at various restaurants- generally treated abjectly.

It is in this social context that Erica Drake- an English Canadian from one of the best Montreal families meets Marc Reiser- a Canadian Jewish lawyer, at a house party held at the Drake residence. Erica and Marc fall helplessly  in love at first sight. Outwardly he is perfect in every regard for Erica- except for the racial tag that he is associated with.

Erica’s father, Charles Drake, president of the once flourishing Drake Importing Company refuses to acknowledge Marc at his own house party due to his Jewish background, much to the ire and embarrassment of his daughter.

Many weeks later Erica and Marc, meet by chance on a railway platform and both of them realize that they have much more in common than the sum of their differences.

Their love affair grows in intensity, and when Erica announces her relationship to her father she is met with a wall of prejudice. Determined to change Erica’s mind, her parents treat her with indifference in the hope that her ‘infatuation’ will disappear. For the first time in their lives father and daughter reach an impasse. Charles refuses to acknowledge Marc, refuses him entry to their house, and Erica resorts to meeting him in restaurants and street corners – all the while hoping that her father’s prejudice will dissolve in time.

With Marc having enlisted for the war, Erica knows her days are numbered with him. She realizes that Marc may or may not return from the War, and that even if he does, there is no guarantee that they will stay together for the rest of their lives. For Marc is reluctant to indoctrinate Erica in the Jewish way of life and to have social prejudice be heaped on her shoulders as well. And even though Erica is willing to sacrifice everything, her family, her religion, her social status for Marc, it may not be enough to convince Marc that she is making a decision that they she will not regret later in life.

‘Earth and High Heaven’ is a very elaborate social commentary on racial prejudice. It shows how people born into a fixed social pattern can overcome centuries of difference, in an overwhelming desire to embrace the most unifying emotion of all- love.

There were many moments that made me well up with emotion while reading the book. The issues that the book explores are relevant today and have been relevant during every stage of human history. ‘Earth and High Heaven’ is also a book about soul-searching decisions. The decisions one makes for oneself- in opposition to societal demands and familial expectations.

 

Lady Rose and Mrs Memmary by Ruby Ferguson

image.jpeg

Lady Rose leads a life of great privilege but it is largely bereft of love. Her parents neglect her, her first husband marries her for her money and title. So when she meets the love of her life in a commoner, on a park bench in Edinburgh, she has a momentous decision to make. Should she follow the dictates of social etiquette or shun society, follow her heart and thus lose all she holds dear?

 

One afternoon, a party of three people leave Edinburgh and journey along the coast of Fife, until they happen upon a huge estate with twenty feet high wrought-iron gates, bearing faded coats of arms. The party consists of Mr Dacre, an English lawyer, his wife Helen and their American friend Van Elsen and the grand estate they have stumbled upon is that of Keepsfield, estate of Lady Rose Targenet, Countess of Lochlule.

The party are shown over the house by a silver-haired, quiet housekeeper called Mrs Memmary. Filled with insatiable curiosity, Helen tries to unearth Lady Rose’s past, while observing the house, it’s rooms and the personal effects of the owner.

The past is slowly but surely revealed to the reader through the reminiscences of Mrs Memmary, stray letters and whispers from the past.

We learn of Lady Rose’s childhood, her distant parents and her loneliness at an English boarding-school. We revisit Lady Rose’s presentation at court and her decision to marry well, into a neighbouring family to thus combine their estates. Her husband is Sir Hector Galowrie and Lady Rose marries him with little knowledge of their compatibility but with a binding sense of duty to ‘marry well’.

When they marry, Lady Rose’s father suddenly dies and she is bequeathed the title of Countess of Lochlule by Queen Victoria. Lady Rose and her husband are required to reside at Keepsfield but Sir Hector deeply resents Lady Rose’s position and wealth. The marriage is loveless and unhappy but Lady Rose finds solace in her children.

Sir Hector suddenly dies in a shooting accident on the estate and though there is a jarring note in the incident, the reader realizes that this is a means of escape for Lady Rose.

Lady Rose travels to Edinburgh to speak to her lawyers and once there, happens to meet a wonderful man in Princes Street Gardens.

He is a commoner, a clerk by the name of Andrew Moray Montmary. They fall in love and decide to marry to the consternation of the entire aristocracy of England and Scotland.

Lady Rose and Moray are forced to flee to Europe, to escape society and Lady Rose is also barred from taking her children with her. The couple live a life in exile for many decades.

The story although a sweet fairytale on the surface, speaks of many deep-rooted societal issues, class snobbery being one of them. It also raises the question whether it is worthwhile shunning home and hearth, life and one’s family for the sake of true love.

As with all good books, Ruby Ferguson leaves this point as an open-ended question for the reader to ponder over.

Adult life is full of such momentous decisions and we are often faced with the repercussions of the choices we make, for better or for worse.

Filled with beautiful descriptive writing, Lady Rose and Mrs Memmary is a sweet love letter to Scotland and so much more. The story aims to address prejudice regarding class consciousness and certainly reaffirms the belief that marrying for love is of paramount importance.

Title: Lady Rose and Mrs Memmary
Author: Ruby Ferguson
Year Published: 1937
Setting: Fife, Scotland.
Characters: Lady Rose (Countess of Lochlule), Mrs Memmary, Helen Dacre, Sir Hector Galowrie, Andrew Moray Montmary.

The Ghost of Tennyson in Monica Dickens’ ‘Mariana’

image.jpeg

Mariana by Monica Dickens

‘Mariana’ by Monica Dickens is a coming of age novel about a young girl, striving her whole life, to find the perfect love. It’s a story that has great depth and one of the most striking endings I have read in the longest time.

Mary lives with her working mother and uncle in a small flat in London. She remains disconnected to her everyday life in London but highly anticipates the time that she can spend during the holidays, with her extended paternal family in the countryside. Her first love is for her cousin. But the love is rather one sided.

We witness Mary’s emotional awakening as a young child, besotted with cousin Denys. Later as a young woman, we find her engaged to a young Frenchman in Paris, called Pierre. Though Pierre helps her to overcome her loneliness in a foreign city, Mary knows that the relationship is tinged with her doubts. Later, when she is working in England, she finds love in the most unexpected way. Sam, a young architect is everything she has always, unknowingly been looking for. With Sam there are no doubts, no fears or insecurities. But with the outset of the Second World War, lives fall into jeopardy. Can Mary’s love survive the ordeal?

While Mary is enrolled in drama school as a young girl, she is asked to recite Tennyson’s poem ‘Mariana’. As revealed later in the novel, this is quite a pivotal moment in the novel. Mariana is a poem about a woman who is disconnected from society and despondently awaits the return of her love. The poem is laced with doubt and desolation. There is an absence of a conclusive ending in the poem, just as there is in the story by Dickens. But there is a faint whisper or a premonition of what may come to pass. Some endings are best left unsaid.

It is only at the end of the novel that we fully realize that Dickens’ Mary is Tennyson’s Mariana and the full force of Dickens’ genius strikes us.

  • Title: Mariana
  • Author: Monica Dickens
  • Publisher: Persephone Books
  • Year of Publication: 1940
  • Setting: Somerset, England, London and Paris

The Fortnight in September by R.C. Sherriff

 

Processed with VSCO with a5 preset

‘The Fortnight in September’ by R.C. Sherriff is the evocative account of an ordinary, middle-class family’s annual holiday at the English seaside town of  Bognor Regis. A most vivid story, recording the minutia of human existence, this gem of a story is far from being ordinary. Cozy and comforting and ever so intimate, the slow pace of the novel affords a glimpse of a way of life that has long become obsolete.

It had always been Bognor-ever since, on her honeymoon, her pale eyes had first glimpsed the sea.

 

The story opens through the eyes of Mrs. Stevens, wife of 20 years and mother to Mary, Dick and Ernie aged twenty, seventeen and ten respectively. We learn very quickly that the Stevens, as a family, are creatures of habit. They have always holidayed at the same time each year, at the same guest-house in Bognor Regis. The meals they eat, the activities they embark on, the traditions that they hold so dear, are a part of their collective history as a family. A history that does not and must not change. Right down to the clothes they pack, how they unpack, how they organize their holiday schedules, even down to the beverages they drink as special holiday treats: Mr. Stevens’ crate of dinner ale, the large stone jar of draught ginger beer holding a week’s supply of refreshment and Mrs. Stevens’ special bottle of port, to be enjoyed a glass at a time after supper.

Throughout the story, the narrative shifts to different members of the family. R.C. Sherriff uses the narrative shift as a useful plot device so that we are afforded a more personal glimpse of the character and inner thoughts of each family member. Each of them has a small but personal story to tell.

Mr. Stevens, middle-aged, staid and respectable has a wistful story to tell. It touches upon loss of prestige and the unfulfillment of ambitious dreams. Mrs. Stevens does not share the same enthusiasm for the family holiday as the others, and strives to keep this to herself. The best part of her day is when she has the guesthouse to herself in the evenings, to sip on her glass of port wine and not think about the call of mundane household chores. Mary, twenty years old, young and innocent, longs to find holiday romance to break the monotony of her sheltered life. Dick, recently graduated from school, on the cusp of youth and locked in a boring but respectable job, plots ways to break free from middle class shackles. Ernie is too young and carefree to think of matters more complicated than the working and design of automatic machinery.

Holidaying at the seaside town has become a tradition for the Stevens family. Every inch, nook and corner holds some sort of memory for them.

There were associations: sentiments. The ink stain on the sitting room tablecloth which Dick made as a little boy: the ornament that Mary made by glueing seashells on a card; which had been presented to Mrs. Huggett at the end of one holiday, and was always on the sitting-room mantelpiece when they arrived each year.

‘The Fortnight in September’ is tinged with an air of wistfulness for dreams and ambitions that remain unfulfilled. In a way the story is not just the story of the Stevens, it is representative of the English middle-class in the 1930’s, showcasing their trials and tribulations. These were people who were by no means financially deprived but they were always wanting and yearning for a little more in life. The neat row of nondescript houses with the white picket fences and carefully manicured lawns were their lot in life along with the two weeks in a dilapidated guesthouse at Bognor. But if by chance they could gain that promotion at work, then they could aspire for something bigger and not so ordinary.

Mostly the fortnight’s holiday was a time to remember the trials of the past, to nurse old wounds, to contemplate the present and to make plans for the future.

Some readers might complain of the slowness of the narrative style of the book and the lack of plot but I enjoyed this book immensely. Never, to my mind, has a family holiday reached such heights of descriptive perfection.

When I was reading ‘The Fortnight in September’ I kept waiting for something awful to happen- some disturbing revelation about the past of a particular family member, a skeleton in the closet, or a shocking incident to disturb the coziness of the novel- much like the disruptive moment that shakes up a Katherine Mansfield story. I will leave it to you, to find out if R.C. Sherriff takes us down that same path…

Processed with VSCO with a5 preset

 

Someone At A Distance by Dorothy Whipple

IMG_6004

‘Someone At a Distance’ by Dorothy Whipple is the story of a young French girl called Louise Lanier. Born of hard-working, simple parents who have worked happily all their lives as small booksellers in the small French town of Amigny, they have never climbed high in the social ladder, much to the chagrin of their aspiring daughter. Based on this lack of pedigree, Louise is jilted by her secret, longtime sweetheart: the son of the town squire who decides to marry a woman from a reputed family instead. Broken-hearted, but refusing to show it, Louise escapes to England to serve as a companion to a wealthy, old lady called Mrs. North.

Mrs. North lives near to her son Avery, a prosperous publisher and his family, consisting of his wife Ellen, daughter Anne and son Hugh.

Avery North and his family have the perfect life. He is a devoted father. He is admired and respected in his publishing firm. He and his wife Ellen have a trusting, committed relationship. And then all of a sudden cool, calculated and beautiful Louise steps into their lives…

Louise needs to preoccupy her mind and at first is unsure of how to engage herself. Finding nothing better to do, she takes charge of old Mrs. North’s dressing, paying attention to every little detail of adornment. Mrs. North is charmed with the attention that the young French girl pays her and grows to care and depend on her.

Mrs. North gifts the French girl a diamond ring upon her return to France. But even Louise is surprised when Mrs. North leaves a considerable amount of money to Louise in her will.

Louise returns to England to claim the bequest for herself. Unwillingly, Avery and Ellen North let her into their perfect home but Louise shows no signs of leaving. She is jealous of the Norths’ happiness, of the love they share in their small family and she is determined to ruin it.

When Ellen discovers the affair that is going on in the very same house that she lives in, she is shell shocked. It seems impossible to her that her devoted, loving husband could forsake all that he holds dear, to be with a callous, cruel young woman.

In her moment of strife she looks towards religion but can find no comfort.

“All those books, all those prayers and she had got nothing from them. When everything went well for her she had been able to pray, she couldn’t now. There was such urgency in her present situation that until the pressure was removed she couldn’t think about God. She hadn’t the patience to pray. It was a shock to her. Surely God was for these times?”

Avery does not return to her. Ellen regards his desertion as a sign of his love for Louise but nothing could be further from the truth. He despises Louise and takes to drink to drown his sorrows and to forget that he has lost everything that he holds dear.

He marries Louise out of his need to cling to someone and Louise holds onto him for financial gain.

Ultimately it is a situation where no-one is happy. Is there retribution for Louise? Are Avery and Ellen able to reconcile their differences? I will leave you to find out.

The book is a story about adultery. It is a story about a husband’s weakness, a wife’s short-sightedness and a young, ambitious girl’s yearning to rise up from her provincial upbringing and to destroy the happiness of others. But the book is more than the sum total of these individual parts and the title reveals this.

The title ‘Someone At a Distance’ is a curious one. It is only towards the latter part of the novel that the significance of the title emerges and one realizes it has been used with much thought.

The title deals with the idea that a person’s negative actions and thoughts can have a far-reaching consequence on the lives of people far removed from them. It is like a ripple effect. A strong undercurrent of ill-will may wreak havoc on the hitherto peaceful lives of people on distant shores. Such is the inter-connectedness of the world and its people.

This is a beautiful book. I read it in one breath. It was virtually unputdownable. Whipple’s storytelling is superlative. The psychological tension she develops in taut situations can be felt acutely. When Ellen grieves in the aftermath of her husband’s desertion, which has been dealt to her out of no wrong-doing of her own, we grieve along with her. We feel and comprehend her every emotion. We sympathize with her and we yearn for her strength and salvation. On the opposite side of the spectrum we despise Louise’s every movement and intention. And we hope and pray for some kind of justice. Whipple manipulates our emotional well-being, during the reading of the novel to good effect and delivers yet another stellar story.