The last of my lovely Christmas 2017 books and a fabulous Persephone given to me by Ali (we have a great tradition of exchanging Persephone books and I love going to the shop in the late autumn to do the book-buy). Although I know Eric Ravilious’ work I wasn’t that familiar with all the other artists mentioned, or indeed, with Tirzah’s work, but that doesn’t matter as what does matter is the lovely engaging tone that makes the pages fly by.

Tirzah Garwood – “Long Live Great Bardfield”

The autobiography of the wood engraver and painter Tirzah Garwood, wife of Eric Ravilious, who lived in a succession of challenging houses around Essex for the most productive and family orientated parts of their lives, both sadly dying young. It’s told in a rather flat, naive and artless style with many non-sequitors which reminds me a bit of Dodie Smith, Barbara Comyns and new favourite Elizabeth Eliot, it’s a charming and absorbing read, even though it’s quite a long book. Lovely examples include the way in which she uses her netball skills in later life – “I can nearly always get things in [the bin] from right across the kitchen” (p. 67), but the most wonderful sentence, wholly encapsulating her attitude to life, animals and people, and which wouldn’t be out of place in a Comyns novel, comes in the middle of the book:

I had bought the tortoises from Woolworth’s to save them from death in the same spirit that we [later] offered our home to German refugees. (p. 315; brackets, editor’s)

Tirzah maintains this matter-of-fact tone throughout the book, from descriptions of early family rows and odd neighbours through domestic disasters to upsetting love affairs conducted by both her and Eric, but it’s curiously sweet and intimate. Her openness leads her to discuss her lovers and the complicated affairs of the  group of friends but also her struggles with her periods, something not often discussed so openly. She’s relatively breezy and lighthearted on most subjects and is aware of this and not being “put out by misfortunes as much as most people” (p. 280): she puts this down to her ability to be absorbed in her art. She states late on that she wants to write her autobiography while she’s happy because that’s the kind of book she prefers to read.

A lot of artists and other characters come in and out of the narrative and are seen by Tirzah’s beady eye: she’s great at seeing the continuity in someone’s behaviour through the years and I loved her portrait of Edith Sitwell in particular.

She wrote the main body of the book in hospital in 1942, recovering from a mastectomy; the rest of her story and a missing part caused by lost notebooks is deftly told by her editor (her daughter), who interweaves letters and notes from other characters in the story, including letters from Eric, to complete the picture. Lovely illustrations by Eric and Tirzah complement the text in this Persephone edition.

A lovely book which would merit a re-read, and a great addition to my Persephone shelf. You can read Ali’s own review here.