Aug 2013As promised, once the non-fiction was read and enjoyed, and I review the second of those today, I’ve started to fairly gallop through the fiction, with the Mary Webb finished off during an energetic if stationary cycle ride at the gym (when people see me in there with my book, I think they think I’m in there for an easy ride, but no: moderate effort with a hard effort every fifth page does me very nicely, thank you, although I obviously take pains not to get my book damp!). Two lots of Virago here, a newer volume and a proper Virago Modern Classic, and two good reads, tied together, perhaps, by the grey castle garden in the Mary Webb.

Deborah Kellaway (ed.) – “The Virago Book of Women Gardeners”

(8 March 2013 – bought in Paignton)

A charming and well put-together book collecting women gardeners’ writings, mainly from the 1870s to the 1970s, with some earlier pieces, organised into sections on diverse topics such as countrywomen, townswomen, kitchen gardeners, colourists, etc.

Vita Sackville-West and Elizabeth von Arnim are there of course, and Gertrude Jekyll, but a host of others, too, professional and amateur, and the often beautiful writing is not just decorative, but has a lot of advice and experience that is useful  now (although I have to admit skimming slightly when it got to the bit about flower arranging as I much prefer a houseplant or the flowers on their plant and outside to cut flowers).

The introduction has a useful history of women gardeners through the ages, and there are useful potted biographies of the contributors at the back. Some illustrations might be nice, but all in all a compendium that can be read, re-read, enjoyed and consulted – the best type of non-fiction book.

Mary Webb – “Armour Wherein he Trusted”

(25 April 2013 – from Dee, LibraryThing Virago Group)

The title piece is a literally spell-binding unfinished novel written in a convincing medieval vernacular (like T.H. White for grown-ups?) and as full of weird happenings, religious symbolism and mysticism, courtly love and gentle knights as a Middle English or Old English epic poem. Also heavy and redolent with the Shropshire dialect, a real tour de force that loses something, true, but not everything, by the abrupt breaking-off. Some of the scenes in this book will stay with me for a good while, and the writing, while I’m sure it is not to everyone’s taste, is pretty amazing.

This long piece is accompanied by a set of short stories, some a couple of pages long, others more substantial: as the Introduction points out, some are like drafts for longer works, others are complete in themselves. They are full of the concerns of her novels: love, truth, death, mystical connections, long memories, lonely cottages in the brooding landscape, and familiar Webb themes of loss, fate and irony. “In Affection and Esteem” is almost unbearably poignant, although none of them are exactly jolly, but a connection to land and myth make them satisfying.

Curiously, the Introduction reminds us that Webb was not Hardy or Lawrence. I’m not sure what business a Virago Modern Classic introduction has in comparing her to the male canon. She has a peculiar mysticism and yes, an earthy, female feel which is different from them, not better or worse. She was gently mocked in “Cold Comfort Farm” (but so were the boys) and I personally find a lot to enjoy in Webb’s peculiar and dramatic work.

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Currently reading: I’m very much enjoying Susan Glaspell’s “Fidelity”, set in a small town with small town views and treating a woman who breaks away from the established norms. It’s Persephone No. 4 – how on earth did I not get this one until April this year, as it very much conforms to a type of scenario I’m known to enjoy? Odd! I’m going to start an E.H. Young for the odd bus journey before the end of the month, and might squeeze one more in after that.

I’m looking forward towards September now. Really, I need to read and review two books by friends and three sent to me by their publisher, so it’ll be another month of picking through the TBR, not taking it in acquisition order. Is this the end of an era, or will I revert to the old ways once these are taken care of?