More books from my Month of Rereading, which is still going strong and very enjoyable!

Henry James – “The Europeans”

(25 April 1999)

It turns out that this is the first Henry James I read when I originally started on him. A society tale of two Europeans of slightly doubtful aristocratic descent who visit their austere cousins in Boston, and the effects of their rather different way of going about things. There is a lot of commentary on the constraints placed on women in society, even unusual and strong ones like Eugenie (which echoes Hardy’s “Hand of Ethelberta”, I felt) and the equal constraints for men, and some perceptive comments on the relationships with the next generation up, the parents, and their views on the pair-bonding going on.

Reflections on rereading: I didn’t remember much about this novel or James in general – I had a flurry of reading him and Edith Wharton in 1999, culminating in taking “Portrait of a Lady” on holiday to Tunisia that year, but I remembered that I liked him, and I like him even more on re-acquaintance.

My original review from July 1999:

I really had not expected to like this author, so this sort novel came as a very nice surprise. A witty comedy of manners, with a light touch and none of the turgid sentence structure I’d expected. Much like Edith Wharton, and very well done.

E.M. Delafield – “The Diary of a Provincial Lady”

(some time late 1980s)

Another sticky-backed-plastic-covered, “Elizabeth” labelled book, so dating from 1989 or before. I am sure that I’ve read this more than once already, but there’s a gap in my records between when I stopped keeping up my card index to the reading journal and when I started reviewing books on LiveJournal, so I can’t be sure.  Charming, acerbic and semi-autobiographical diaries, published in the 1930s up to 1940 (oh, the poignancy of war novels published before the war ended) in Time and Tide, then gathered into books then this one volume of all four (in the Introduction, Nicola Beauman counsels against reading all four in a row in one big gulp – but if you’ve got them there, how can you not?).

The first is the classic Provincial Lady at home in her Devonshire village, and is probably the bets, but all have their charms as she becomes more well known for her novels and gets a pied a terre in London, then goes on a lecture tour in America, and ends up in trousers in a wartime canteen. Mademoiselle and Lady Boxe are marvellous supporting characters as are the more satirically portrayed ones whose ridiculous speeches are presented in an effective and droll way.

Thoughts on rereading: familiar as a comfy armchair. I have read a lot of books set in wartime since reading this last, but this does not pall and stands up well – you can imagine her encountering the ladies in “To Bed With Grand Music” and not thinking much of them, for example. Eminently readable and rereadable.

I amused myself by noting instances of other Virago books and Persephones being mentioned (there is a thread on the Virago Readers LibraryThing group on this very matter): here is what I found without looking very hard:

February 28th – Notice, and am gratified by, appearance of large clump of crocus near the front gate. Should like to make whimsical and charming references to these, and try to fancy myself as “Elizabeth of the German Garden”, but am interrupted by Cook, saying that the Fish is here, but he’s only brought cod and haddock, and the haddock doesn’t smell any too fresh, so what about cod? Have often noticed that Life is like that. (Provincial Lady; p. 37)

September 5th – … dine on sausage-and-mash at Lyons establishment opposite to pallid young man who reads book mysteriously shrouded in holland covers. Feel that I must discover what this is at all costs, and conjectures waver between “The Well of Loneliness” and “The Colonel’s Daughter”, until title can be spelt out upside down, when it turns out to be “Gulliver’s Travels”. (PL Goes Further; p. 169)

October 17th – … I say that I have enjoyed nothing so much as “Flush”, but Miss Paterson again disconcerts me by muttering that to write a whole book about a dog is Simply Morbid. (PL in America; p. 289)

November 27th – … Miss Ramona Herdman and I then proceed to book-store, where we meet head of department, Mrs. Kooker. Talk about Vera Brittain – “Testament of Youth” selling superbly, says Mrs. K … (PL in America; p. 347)

October 3rd … What, I enquire in order to gain time, does Mrs. Peacock like in the way of books? In times like these, she replies very apologetically indeed, she thinks a novel is practically the only thing. Not a detective novel, not a novel about politics, nor about the unemployed, nothing to do with sex, and above all not a novel about life under Nazi regime in Germany. Inspiration immediately descends upon me and I tell her without hesitation to read a delightful novel called “The Priory” by Dorothy Whipple, which answers all requirements, and has a happy ending into the bargain. Mrs Peacock says it seems too good to be true, and she can hardly believe that any modern novel is as nice as all that, but I assure her that it is, and that it is many years since I have enjoyed anything so much. (PL in Wartime; p. 434)

October 3rd … Finally retire to bed with “The Daisy Chain” wishing we were all back in the England of the ‘fifties. (PL in Wartime; p. 434)

And rather amusingly, given that Persephone now publish this book, Nicola Beauman in her Introduction, written in 1984, when talking about how The Servant Problem loomed large in people of this era’s lives, says:

“How to Run your Home Without Help”, a book my mother used at the end of the 1940s, is exhausting even to read, with every moment timetabled wtih tasks that modern women think perfectly futile. (p. x)

Next up is Jane Eyre, which I have already started and am pleased to find I still love, even if my copy is littered with my pretentious University era notes on “Freudian” readings of the text!