Aug 2013So, here we have the first two book reviews for All Virago / All August, which I’m embarking on this month. I’ve taken part in other Augusts, but I’ve never spent the whole month reading just books published by Virago (and Persephone Books, and The Women’s Press and Virago authors not in Virago editions). If you count books that fall into the categories included in those parentheses, I have 18 appropriate books in my TBR, so this seemed a feasible way of reducing the TBR and taking part along with my friends in the LibraryThing Virago Group (a delightful, tight-knit yet welcoming group of ladies and gentlemen spread across the world, who try to meet up, send books to each other and encourage one another in Virago collecting).

First up, we have a Persephone and a Virago Green, both sent to me by Heather for my Virago Secret Santa Christmas gift in 2012 (I’m currently reading the third one from that parcel). Both really good, in rather different ways, although have a great deal to say about the condition and treatment of women in the Victorian and Edwardian eras.

Virginia Woolf – “Flush” (Persephone)

(25 December 2012)

Woolf’s slightly fictionalised biography )do I classify it as fiction or non-fiction in my statistics?) of Elizabeth Barrett-Browning’s much-loved pet spaniel but, of course, also a discussion of the captivity, training and domestication of women in the 19th century and beyond.

It’s an interesting read on both levels, as Elizabeth and Flush’s experiences are told in parallel and compared. The stream of consciousness of the little dog’s explorations, delineating sight, sound and especially smell, give a finely grained evocation of London and Italy and are carefully and beautifully thought out and described, as is the relationship between woman and dog, making it far more than a piece of charming frippery.

The footnotes bring an added dimension, particularly in their long discussion of the biography of servants, as Elizabeth’s faithful maid has to be conjured up out of vague mentionings and half-knowings, even more than the dog does (the dog featuring more in Elizabeth’s letters than her maid did). An excellent introduction by Sally Beauman makes the work and its context clear.

I am really glad that I was given this slim volume, or I might not have read it, and would have missed what turned out to be a real treat.

Edith Wharton – “Roman Fever” (Virago)

(25 December 2012)

An excellent collection of short stories which I missed in my previous greedy Wharton-devouring session back in 1999.

The title story is full of twists and turns and is a masterclass in the gradual reveal of both plot and relationship between the protagonists. “Xingu” is a hilarious piece about snobbery in a women’s discussion group and the snobbery of an author when confronted with her readers. “The Other Two” takes a seemingly impossible – or at least implausible – situation and contrives to make it happen pretty believably, while also being a clever psychological study of a man married to a woman who has been married (twice) before.

“Souls Belated” examines a woman who thinks she’s conventional and what happens when she comes smack up against the conventions she thinks she’s escaped (classic Wharton territory in some ways, but a little shocking in others), while “The Angel at the Grave” looks at literary reputation and fashion and provides a stern if subtle warning against becoming too subsumed by the literature industry and wasting your life on a man. “The Last Asset” is about the most manipulative woman possible – I did see the main twist coming but it’s a wonderful study of personality seen from the outside. “After Holbein” is a rather creepy story about ageing, and “Autres Temps” is a heartbreaking story of history repeating itself, and about the breakdown in trust between a woman and her mother.

Seen as a whole, this collection shows off Wharton’s skill and range. It is very frank about the sexual and financial forces that underpin and undermine the fabric of society – perhaps more so than in her novels, where there is more room for subtlety. There’s an interesting introduction by Marilyn French to add that last layer to the treat (I always read the introductions last in Viragoes and Persephones!).

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I’m currently very much enjoying Wharton’s “The Custom of the Country” with its horrendous heroine, as well as making my way through the second half of “A Dance to the Music of Time: Spring” with Matthew and Linda. All good!