Saturday, 22 April 2017

The Provincial Lady in America

Miss S. of the Post-Office draws me aside to ask if it is true that I am going to America? I admit that it is, and we agree that America is a Long Way Off.
I’m not sure about the cover of this Penguin Modern Classics edition of The Diary of a Provincial Lady, somehow it doesn’t say 1930's to me. Good introduction by Rachel Johnson, though. With each re-read I’m struck by how fresh and funny these fictional diaries are. I’ve also read the Violet Powell biography of E M Delafield but I think we are overdue for another examination of her life and work.
Invited by her American publishers to take a literary tour of the United States the Prov Lady boards the passenger liner for the crossing and finds herself feted in America although (as usual) her wardrobe never quite comes up to scratch and she bitterly misses Robin and Vicky and Robert. Her publishers have her on a relentless schedule, but upon reaching Boston she insists on taking a trip to Concord to visit the family home of Louisa M Alcott.
All is snow, silence and loveliness, with frame-houses standing amongst trees, and no signs of either picture-houses, gasoline-stations or hot-dog stalls. Can think of nothing but Little Women, and visualise scene after scene from well-remembered and beloved book.  
Could willingly remain there for hours and hours. Time, however, rushes by with its usual speed when I am absorbed and happy.
This theme comes up again when the Prov Lady runs into Mademoiselle in New York and they go to see a film of Little Women. This must have been the 1933 film with Katherine Hepburn as Jo March.
Home again where Robert is Glad to See Her and Our Vicar’s Wife hopes they will come to tea on Thursday, five o’clock, not earlier because of Choir Practice.

Saturday, 4 March 2017

Anne Bronte

Agnes Grey is one of my favourite Bronte novels and I've never needed convincing that Anne Bronte had a creative genius equal to that of her two sisters, but it is good to read a passionate defence of Anne. Take Courage - Anne Bronte and the Art of Life by Samantha Ellis isn't a conventional or heavily academic biography. It has a traditional 'womb to tomb' structure but it also includes elements of the author's own life. Yet it's not exactly a bibliomemoir in the style of Rebecca Mead's My Life in Middlemarch either.

I loved the chapter about Tabby, the Bronte's devoted housekeeper who was something of a mother substitute to the young girls and regularly took them for walks on the moors, fostering their love of the natural landscape. It was Tabby who told them that when she was a girl there were fairies on the moors and the details about wild bilberries and bogs bursting and moorland flora and fauna are fascinating. Ellis is astute in her literary criticism and observes that Anne and Emily's early passion for 'botanising' surfaces in the heavily autobiographical Agnes Grey.

This book creates a portrait of a resourceful, independent young woman who wasn’t easily daunted and wrote two highly accomplished novels while still in her twenties. Of course, she didn’t reach her thirties and the account of Anne’s death at Scarborough is heart-breaking, particularly as Scarborough was where she set the final romantic scenes of Agnes Grey. Maybe she had written the happy ending she would have liked for herself. Ellis’s account of seeing Anne’s blood-stained linen handkerchief at the Parsonage sends a chill down the spine as you consider the realities of consumption.

This account of the life of Anne does not always reflect well on Charlotte and I'm not convinced that she actively suppressed her younger sister's writing career. That said, I enjoyed this book. There is an impressive bibliography and Ellis lists The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett which she re-read while researching the Yorkshire landscape. I must re-read it, too!

Tuesday, 17 January 2017

Love in a Cold Climate

One morning I sat by my window gazing idly at the pattern and thinking idle thoughts, wondering if it would ever be warm again, thinking how like a child’s snowball Christ Church looked through a curtain of flakes.
I’ve been reading Love in a Cold Climate and admiring it all over again. I’ve always preferred the practical Fanny who sells her diamond brooch to pay for central heating in her little Oxford house to the beautiful Polly Montdore who, like the snow queen, has ‘a chip of ice in her heart.’ When Fanny at eighteen is invited to her first country house party at the home of Lord and Lady Montdore she is acutely aware of her ill-fitting tweed skirt and uncontrollable hair that ‘grows upwards like heather’ but relieved to find the fashionable guests take no notice of her at dinner. Until it is discovered that she is the daughter of the Bolter that is ...

There is, of course, an enduring appeal to coming of age stories set in country houses in the 1930‘s but Nancy Mitford’s subversive humour and gift for dialogue elevate Love in a Cold Climate to a timeless classic. I liked the Oxford setting, too, and all the little references to Fuller’s walnut cake, Cooper’s Oxford (marmalade) shopping in Woolworths and of course the digestive biscuits much admired by Jassy and Victoria. 'Not digestives! Vict. - look, digestives!’

A lovely read for a cold winter.