Friday, May 27, 2011

Bound for Kent

The acceptance has been sent, the airline tickets have been purchased and I've booked a B&B in London for this September.  But this isn't about me, The Heiress will be studying Criminology at the University of Kent in Canterbury!

Ever since a mother/daughter trip to London when she was sixteen, The Heiress has dreamt of studying overseas.  Her love affair with England began as a toddler, cuddled up on the sofa with me watching Jane Austen films.  When she was 6 years-old I had to do her hair just the way Emma Thompson wore hers as Elinor in Sense and Sensibility.  The interest in criminology began while taking classes in deviance during her Sociology degree and the very mention of such things as terrorism or youth violence make her eyes light up.  Where The Heiress will end up is anyone's guess but the journey is sure to be an interesting and hopefully, fulfilling one. 

So in September, we will fly to London for a couple of days and then board a train for Canterbury.  Once she's settled and my bank account has been nearly wiped out at the university bookshop I'll return to London to see some sights.  A visit to Cath Kidston for a cheery new bag with a new Persephone title tucked inside should console me during the lonely flight back home.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Sidetracked on My Way to the Butcher

Have you ever started out somewhere and ended up somewhere else, accidentally on purpose as they say?

The last time I was at the Reuse Centre it was to pick up a lonely copy of Brightness by Elizabeth Jenkins.  It really is a deplorable wasteland of garage sale cast-offs with seventies soft rock playing in the background but one man's junk is another man's treasure.

There are stacks and stacks of contemporary fiction but in another area is the tiniest hallway, little more than shoulder to shoulder.  Two books stood out and despite leaving them behind on my last visit they've been haunting me so I decided to end it and bring them home.  I really enjoyed my last Dickens read of The Winds of Heaven recently reissued by Persephone so it was worth taking a chance and this copy of Flowers on the Grass is extra special as it's a first edition.

 "Embracing all levels of society, this is the trouble-laden saga of Daniel Brett, psychologically displaced after the war, unwilling to face any responsibility, and bringing wreck and ravage in his train. With the death of his wife, who was gentling him into home life, he finds refuse in a boarding house where his drunkenness hurts a maid, another lodging where the landlady wakes up to the fact that he is not reliable, on to a tutorship which does not help his epileptic pupil, a job as a teacher where he is almost the cause of, but turns out to be the savior, of a devoted young girl student in the school. It is the hospital, and a neighboring patient who brings him back to a small sense of obligation that makes him bestow undreamed of happiness on a young couple. Stop-watch episodes, this offers a panorama of post-war England and many of its problems...readable if erratic." (Kirkus Reviews)

 My American by Stella Gibbons is about to be reissued by Vintage.  Despite not being able to find a synopsis anywhere the opening paragraph was inviting enough for me.
"It was autumn, Kenwood House, the eighteenth-century mansion on the edge of Hampstead Heath, had been recently opened to the public by King George the Fifth and its beauties were still sufficiently unfamiliar to attract crowds of Londoners, as well as foreign visitors, to stare at them and admire the collection of pictures inside the building."
During my last trip to London in 2009, I was one of those foreigners visiting Kenwood House.  I had walked from the Hampstead tube stop in new shoes and was never so glad to see a bench...I digress.  Since there were no reviews to be found on either of these novels I was wondering if anyone has read either of them and can tell me if they enjoyed them or not.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

The Other Elizabeth Taylor by Nicola Beauman

During the summer of 2008, I stood in a bookshop skimming through the beautiful cloth-bound reissues of several books published by Virago.  Reading a few lines here and there of A Game of Hide and Seek it was placed back on the shelf and I purchased a copy of Diary of a Provincial Lady by EM Delafield instead.  One year later I came to read In a Summer Season by Elizabeth Taylor and realized that this was an author who stood apart for me and the collecting of her other novels began.

It was the afterword in Blaming in which Taylor's daughter, Joanna, wrote how her mother had included some humourous dialogue from when she was a child that made me want to know more about the sort of woman Taylor was at home.  Ironically, Elizabeth Taylor's children were not pleased with Beauman writing about their mother.  However, I am very glad that she did.

I couldn't have asked for a more perfect resource to find out more about an author I have come to admire.  The quality that strikes me most is how ordinary this author's life was as a mother struggling to find uninterrupted time to write while her children were at school or asleep.  Loving the countryside and eschewing a materialistic lifestyle, Taylor wrote from her domestic surroundings in Buckinghamshire rather than the hustle and bustle of London where she would have been surrounded by many of her contemporaries.  Which is not to say that she didn't long for the intellectual stimulation or ponder with frustration that unmarried women authors, or males, could write at their leisure without the interruptions of childcare and housework.

Elizabeth Taylor had very close friendships with Barbara Pym and Elizabeth Bowen.  I particularly enjoyed reading about a time when Taylor went to stay with Bowen and they spent their days in separate rooms while they wrote, joining each other later for drinks and conversation.  Taylor commented that the air in Bowen's room was so filled with smoke you needed a very sharp knife to cut through it.  But I was startled to learn there was a group referred to by Robert Liddell as 'The Lady-Novelists Anti-Elizabeth League', consisting of authors such as Kate O'Brien, Pamela Hansford Johnson, Kathleen Farrell and Olivia Manning, who ridiculed Taylor's work and lifestyle.  With a childish sense of relief and loyalty I am happy that none of these authors grace my bookshelves. 

One drawback of reading a biography before you've completed an author's oeuvre is that you discover the endings of unread novels.  I'm counting on the sort of mental lapse which has me forgetting why I went dashing into a room in the first place on keeping plots fresh for future reads.  But how delightful to find out that Elizabeth and her husband, John, had boys to stay with them just as in The Devastating Boys and how sad to learn that Martha's character who ends up committing suicide in Blaming is based on Elizabeth's friend, Maud.

Beauman has done a marvellous job of painting a picture of the Elizabeth Taylor I wanted to know more about.  In fact, twice my eyes stung with tears, not at any particularly poignant moment but from the sheer bliss of a fabulous read.  Despite some sensational moments in her life the images that stay with me are of a woman quietly sipping tea in a restaurant or something stronger in her local while she takes inspiration from customers for future characters.  And of a woman who could paint beautiful scenes with words on paper but was rendered practically speechless by interviewers due to her shyness.

Elizabeth Taylor passed away in 1975, I wish she knew how much I am enjoying her writing and that her books will, hopefully, be in print for many years to come.  To Nicola Beauman, thank you for all of your efforts over the fifteen years it took to bring this book to print, it was everything I had hoped for.

Monday, May 9, 2011

A Play on Mother's Day

When we ordered tickets for Billy Elliot way back when it didn't even occur to us that the performance date fell on Mother's Day, R and I just wanted the weather to be nice.  So digging out the tickets and the calendar last month it just made sense that The Heiress would step into the role and take R's place as my companion for the day.

The performance was fantastic and the kids were outstanding.  Not only could they act, dance and sing but their ability to mimic a northern England working-class accent was pretty admirable.  My favourite scene was most definitely when Billy (Marcus Pei) stops by Michael's (Jack Broderick) house and catches him trying on his mother's dresses.  The two of them end up decked out in wildly patterned polyester separates while dancing and singing and it was hilarious!

Billy Elliot is playing at the Canon Theatre in Toronto.  It dates from 1920 and featured vaudeville but when large cinemas became popular it was restructured in the seventies.  I can't even imagine such a wonderful place cut up and decorated in garish colours.  Thankfully it has been restored to its former glory, and does that feeling of splendor ever get old when you walk through a doorway to see chandeliers and sweeping staircases?  I think not.

The Heiress and I had a fabulous day and even though my favourite Mother's Day celebrations included hand-made cards and construction paper flowers, this one rates as one of the best.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

The Tortoise and the Hare by Elizabeth Jenkins

It would take a stellar read to hold my attention with The Heiress back from school and being the lone dog walker and play toy of Deacon with R away.  The Tortoise and the Hare was definitely that and so much more, and to think it was a serendipitous purchase due to a riveting pair of red stockings on the cover.

Considering that I must be one of the last in this sphere of bloggers to read this quiet masterpiece I won't go into much detail about the synopsis.  In the simplest of descriptions this book is about a woman slowly coming to the realization that her husband is having an affair.

Imogen Gresham is younger than her husband, Evelyn, a handsome and confident barrister with an office in London.  Her day usually consists of seeing to the whims of her son, Gavin, who holds the same regard for her as his father.  She is nothing more than an ornament, someone who runs their errands or sees that their clothing is bought from the right shops.  I haven't quite decided if it's down to Jenkins' writing or my finally coming to terms with the character of the quiet woman but Imogen failed to frustrate me.  Yes, I wanted her to call Evelyn on his neglectful behaviour and excuses to spend time with Blanche the Bloated but I was willing to wait patiently for the eventual outburst.  Well, at least I hoped there would be something of the sort.

Disliking Blanche, Evelyn and even Gavin made it easy for me to put them on a team early on and separate them from Imogen.  I sat on the sidelines as quietly as Imogen, waiting for her to come to the conclusion that she deserved happiness from life for her own sake.  When that moment came it would have been easy to write a scene of a woman emerging as a butterfly in technicolour but I thought Jenkins stayed true to Imogen's character and the ending was a most satisfactory one.

The handful of peripheral characters were a wonderful respite, the Leeper family with their house in disarray added an element of fairy tale from which little Tim escapes his bohemian family.  And wasn't Cecil Stoner wonderful with her subtle yet potent jibes to Blanche?  Oh, just writing about it makes me want to turn right back to the first page and start all over again.

Thank you to everyone who told me I would love this book, you were right!  In fact, I enjoyed Jenkins' writing so much that I'm off to the dusty Reuse centre to pick up a copy of, Brightness, that I left behind last time.