Cheerful Weather for the Wedding

Simon T
announced on his blog that he would be doing a January readalong and discussion of Cheerful Weather for the Wedding by Julia Strachey in preparation for the film release in early 2013. I’d been meaning to read more Persephones and this was one of the titles that I kept coming across on many a blog.

It’s the morning of Dolly’s wedding and as she is getting prepared, her sister Kitty, friend Evelyn, her mother Mrs. Thatcham and assorted relatives are running around getting things in order, arranging food and making sure everyone will be at the church on time. And then there is Joseph, Dolly’s friend, who is not quite part of the wedding party and who seems to be jittery and morose, waiting only for a chance to speak to Dolly. The summer before, they were as thick as thieves, but something had shifted and now Dolly is getting married to Owen and preparing to leave for South Africa. As the hour approaches, Joseph is getting nervous. And Dolly is downing the rum.

I’m not sure what I was expecting, but I was expecting there to be a little more action than what I encountered. Strachey’s short novel is a single morning on Dolly’s wedding. The story is very sparse, and yet there is an awful lot of bickering. I just found it dull and verbose and the most interesting bits of the story and by that I mean Joseph and Dolly’s sub rosa history was very restrained and ultimately confusing. Part of the reason why I probably didn’t gel with the book is that I didn’t really find any of the characters endearing. Mrs. Thatcham is probably the most notable of the characters because of her rather caricaturish treatment a la Mrs. Bennet. And Owen seems an affable bridegroom but a little dim. Joseph, with his weeping and shuddering, I don’t really know what to make of, he seems utterly lacking in charm and Dolly, rather vacuous and obviously not knowing her own mind. I just didn’t really care what happened to them.

Part of the charm may lie in the story’s sparcity but I wished Strachey had fleshed it out a bit more. I get that it’s a slice of life, a glimpse into one chaotic morning. Maybe looking at it as a morning that will have repurcussions is wrong. Maybe it’s better to see it as the critical juncture at which something ends.

However, I felt that I was missing something. Cheerful Weather for the Wedding is a favourite of so many readers and I wanted to know what it is about the book that makes people love it so much. So I re-read it a month later with a variety of books sandwiched in between. And I think I’m beginning to understand why Strachey’s prose has bewitched so many.

Yes, I still wish there was more in the tale. But I think that may have been Strachey’s tack, just holding back enough, just hinting, never quite getting to the point, just like her characters and just like so much of real life.

There is no denying Strachey’s ability to write. Her descriptions are so vivid, her snippets of conversation so targeted that altogether they create one vital moment just before a wedding that will change everything. Mrs. Thatcham’s ghastliness kept taut, shattered by Joseph and then rebuilt in a flash is pure genius. The novel is like a snowball, rolling down a hill, gathering momentum, shattering or absorbing everything in its way. And inside is this yearning, this big what if. Sometimes things go wrong and things are left unsaid. And Strachey has bottled this and delivered it in Cheerful Weather for the Wedding. This is a queer one. It’s so intense but suppressed by superficial gentility and inane chatter. The more I think about it, the more interesting it becomes. And I know I will be revisiting it again.

The film adaptation looks exciting and probably has a lot more of the story filled in compared to the novel. Plus there’s Elizabeth McGovern. She makes everything better, doesn’t she?

You may or may not recall that I’ve only read two Persephone books so far, one of them being Mollie Panter-Downes’ wartime stories, Good Evening Mrs. Craven, which I enjoyed very much. So looking through my collection of seven unread Persephone titles, I could not help but be drawn to her post-war stories, ten of which are collected in Minnie’s Room. I also chose it because it’s a slim volume and I wanted to make sure I could actually finish one book during Claire and Verity‘s Persephone Reading Weekend!

The stories published between 1947 and 1965 range from a tale of a cherished cook leaving her employers for a room of her own, economic emigration, the realisation of ageing parents, living in a more austere climate to love across the class divide.

I think the striking thing about Panter-Downes’ stories is her tight focus on the everyday, and what some may call the mundane things in life, which take on a greater significance in the years after the war when people’s lives are returning to normal yet with profound changes and adjustments. What also is striking is her wit and sense of humour which is abundant in the stories even though most of them are melancholic and deal with themes of death and adjustment. However, I don’t want to put you off the stories, because Minnie’s Room isn’t depressing. They are full of realisation and hope and you get a real sense of the scale of changes from the simple to the dramatic that affected people’s lives after what, to many, must have been a difficult and traumatic war.

Like in all short story collections, there are a number of stories that stand out more than the others. In this collection, I particularly liked the titular story Minnie’s Room, Intimations of Mortality and Their Walk of Life. Each was different with Minnie’s Room reminding me of Virginia Woolf’s essay A Room of One’s Own, although in Minnie’s case it is her promise to herself that ‘if she had not married by the time she was forty-five, she intended to leave private service and take a room of her own somewhere. The family had laughed occasionally about Minnie’s room.‘ Naturally her employers, the Sotherns, are devastated as Minnie is a first-class cook who still produces wonderful meals in increasingly austere times and has been with them for 25 years. They cannot grasp why she would want to leave their comfortable home to go and live south of the river in a small, rented room and each family member tries to convince her otherwise. It’s probably a situation that still plays out in our society today where some people cannot grasp the idea that freedom is much more precious that a comfortable living.

‘A room of her own!’ Mr. Sothern was saying angrily. ‘Hasn’t she a room here, perfectly decent and comfortable? she must have gone out of her mind!’ Yes, wailed Mrs. Sothern from the bed, Minnie was plainly demented. How could she keep herself on her own, for one thing? ‘By daily cooking,’ growled Mr. Sothern, and there was a stricken silence. It was an unfurnished room, he added, in a district too far from Bayswater to make it even possible that Minnie would come to them by the day.

In Intimations of Mortality, a child remember her nurse, Kate, who looked after her for 8 years and recalls a trip into an unfamiliar London to visit Kate’s sick relative.

Her London, I discovered, was not all beautiful. Dickens was still close in those days, it seems to me now, and so were Sherlock Holmes and Moriarty. I knew none of them then, but I was glad of the warm feel of Kate’s hand when we stepped out inot the labyrinth of streets where I had learned, alas, that even a Celestial City has its sad citizens.

We rattled away through the crowded streets, past the shops, the black old churches sitting squarely among their black tombstones like hens over a clutch of sooty chicks, ann the rows and rows of ugly little houses.

And there, in a tiny, grubby house, the child experiences ‘the odours of death and poverty – a part of the sinister air of London – seeped into my lungs for the first time.

And she sees a side of Kate that is a stranger: ‘What was more, she was talking so rapidly and had slipped insto such an easy, rough accent (as a French-woman who has beent alking French with great precision out of kindness to your dull ear suddenly, and with relief, starts rattling away incomprehensibly to a compatriot who has entered the room) that I could not follow much of what she was saying.

Although it is only for a fleeting moment before the child is absorbed back into her comfortable life, we have glimpsed a London that is chaotic, grimey and poor, a London from which Kate has escaped.

Their Walk of Life is a lighter story where a couple struggles to accept their daughter’s choice of husband.

Their hopes had crashed round their ears almost audibly, so resounding was the shock. Naturally, they had expected Rosalie to marry. she was an extremely pretty girl of eighteen, who took after Christine, but in Rosalie everything in the picture was bright and new. … Everything about her glistened delightlyfully, like a leaf on a fresh summer morning. … It had not occurred to him to look for his future son-in-law in a ditch, which was where he remembered last seeing George Tupper; one day not so long ago as he was drivng along the road toward his office.

But it’s a warm tale for when finally meeting the prospective in-laws, who are also unsure of this alliance, they realise the choice is not theirs to make.

Mollie Panter-Downes certainly has an eye for detail, especially her observations of people. All in all, a satisfying read. Now, what Persephone title to read next!

is just around the corner. Yes it is! This year, instead of a whole week, it’s just a weekend. Long enough to squeeze in one book, in my case. Both Claire aka Paperback Reader and Verity aka Cardigan Girl Verity did a tremendous job hosting Persephone Week last year, rounding up reviews, writing short summaries, introducing readers as well as reading books themselves that I’m sure it must have been exhausting! So a weekend is kind of nice. Short and sweet.

I’ve only read two Persephone titles so far: Good Evening, Mrs. Craven: The War-time Stories of Mollie Panter-Downes and A Very Great Profession: The Woman’s Novel 1914-1939, both of which I enjoyed. So what will I be reading next weekend? I have a choice of seven titles and haven’t quite decided yet.

What about you? Will you be joining us?

A Very Great Profession was conceived ten years ago when I first saw the film of Brief Encounter on television. In it the heroine, Laura Jesson, goes into the local town every week to do a bit of shopping, have a cafe lunch, go to the cinema and change her library book. This is the highlight of her week. It was the glimpse of her newly borrowed Kate O’Brien in her shopping basket that made me want to find out about the other novels the doctor’s wife had been reading during her life as ‘a respectable married woman with a husband and a home and three children.’

Hooray! I’ve been meaning to finish this book for months since I first began it for the Persephone Reading Week way back in May 2010. Oops. It wasn’t that it was hard or slow to read, just that I got side-tracked by other novels. Because, you see, A Very Great Profession is a non-fiction, literary and social history of the woman’s novel from the interwar years. It all makes sense when you recall Nicola Beauman is the founder of Persephone Books and I’m reading the Persephone edition of her book. But it just shows how out of touch I am with reading non-fiction since I hung up my academic hat.

I do have to say that when I got back to reading A Very Great Profession I went right back to the beginning and started it anew. Beauman’s study is very candid, full of dangerous information for the serious bibliophile interested in women’s fiction or the interwar period and is immensely enjoyable to read. The book is divided thematically covering war, surplus women, feminism, domesticity, sex, psychoanalysis, romance and love with liberal sprinklings of quotations taken from novels written by women during this period. Beauman also discusses the growing freedom of women and their realisation that they can do things for themselves.

At once a feminist text and a social history of the woman’s novel in the interwar years, it is also a book about the middle class woman. Beauman doesn’t apologise for this and why should she? Most or all of the novels published by women during this period were written by and for middle class women. If you are chronicling them, then it must by so.

If you have read any Persephone or Virago books, you will be familiar with the themes Beauman addresses. What probably strikes one the hardest is that if you take away modern conveniences and the rise in female employment, education and marriage laws, many of the themes questioned by the women in these novels remain the same today.

Often described derogatorily as domestic or interior, the literary world did not take these novels seriously, something Virginia Woolf was also complaining about in A Room of One’s Own. Unless it was about war, sport, the aristocracy or politics, male literary figures were not interested. Perhaps that is exaggerating the point but I don’t think it’s something you can dismiss. And you all know what I think about the term ‘women’s fiction’. I do understand that they it’s a genre (and I’m becoming lazy and use it myself which makes me uncomfortable) but then why don’t we use the term ‘men’s fiction’ when talking about books written by men with male characters? Grrr.

Some of the themes she discusses include employment, single life vs marriage (spinsterhood vs imprisoned wife), domesticity as a yoke where increasing modern conveniences, employment and education meant women were saddled with more and needed to juggle all aspects of their lives (a dilemma also faced by many women today) and the ‘hidden life’ of many housewives, a very good profession that remained unacknowledged and unpaid.

I enjoyed this book tremendously. It’s articulate, informative and makes you want to go out and get these books Beauman talks so enthusiastically about. Often the novels depict a tragic/oppressive situation and is often pretty dark. I hardly think they qualify as ‘silly novels written by women’. To the women who wrote and read these novels, the issues addressed are often serious and tragic for the female characters. As Beauman says, it’s the ‘drama of the undramatic’.

My favourite bit of the book is Beauman’s afterword written in 1995, 12 years after it was first published, where she describes the circumstances that led to her writing this book and the changes that were made to its first incarnation including the history and influences that affected her. What an inspiring woman and it’s making me look at my Persephone books with new eyes. Highly recommended and it’s a keeper.

Persephone Secret Santa

15 December, 2010

This is my first year participating in the Persephone Secret Santa (or any bookish secret santa) so I was mega excited when not one but TWO packages popped through the post from Persephone Books! And what was inside?

Lovely Claire from Paperback Reader thoughtfully chose Minnie’s Room by Mollie Panter-Downes because I had previously read Good Evening, Mrs. Craven: The Wartime Stories of Mollie Panter-Downes and loved it. And she also sent me To Bed With Grand Music by Marghanita Laski which, unknowingly, is also one of the titles I was greatly interested in when it was published last year. Thank you Claire, you’re a mind reader:)

I’m just waiting anxiously to see whether my Santee on the other side of the pond will get her present in time for Christmas. The post isn’t as reliable as one would like it to be especially with the weird weather, but I’m keeping my fingers crossed.

Persephone Secret Santa

31 October, 2010

Just a reminder that the lovely Claire aka Paperback Reader is organising this year’s Persephone Secret Santa so head over to her blog to sign up before 5th November! Hurry!

I was disappointed I didn’t get around to joining last year so jumped at the chance this year. Plus it gives me an excuse to visit the bookshop again^^ Head over to Persephone Books to see what gorgeous books are on offer and check out their blog too. I’ve only read one and a half so far (yeah, I’m slow) but they’ve been brilliant. And so beautifully finished too.

BBAW: Unexpected treasures

15 September, 2010

Book blogs are wonderful sources of books and there are many titles I have come across that I wouldn’t have known about otherwise. Today’s topic for BBAW is a book or genre that we wouldn’t have tried without our interest being piqued by another blog. As I’ve been reading books for many, many years, I’ve found that certain genres work for me and others not so much although I’m pretty open to trying. I normally read books that are mysteries, fantasy, historical fiction, especially those set in the medieval or interwar years and contemporary literary fiction plus a few classics and non-fiction thrown in.

Although I’m interested in women’s fiction, I haven’t really read many books in that genre (although I’m a bit ambivalent to the term ‘women’s fiction’ as a genre as it seems to denote something separate from normal fiction which I take issue with), it was only through the book blogging world that I came across the books published by Persephone Books. I’m sure everyone’s familiar with the green-spined Virago Modern Classics but Persephone Books was something new for me (even though they’ve been around for 10 years. It’s a wonderful publishing house that has re-discovered neglected works by female authors, what some would term ‘domestic fiction’ that chronicles the lives of women in a domestic setting. Persephone Reading Week is hosted in May by Paperback Reader and The B Files.

So far I’ve only completed one book Good Evening, Mrs. Craven: The War time stories of Mollie Panter-Downes for this year’s Persephone Reading Week but am in the middle of Nicola Beauman’s A Very Great Profession: The Woman’s Novel 1914-1939 which I’m enjoying very slowly. Beauman is the founder of Persephone Books and A Very Great Profession is a treasure trove of titles which isn’t very healthy for my TBR pile. I would recommend anyone interested in the social history of the early twentieth century and the interwar years to give it a try.

I also came across the Women Unbound Challenge co-hosted by Aarti of Booklust, Care of Care’s Online Book Club and Eva of A Striped Armchair. All three have wonderfully well thought out blogs where they really get to grips with lots of interesting issues raised by the books they read and I recommend that you check them all out. The challenge really made me think about issues that women face and the state of feminism in the 21st century. It also made me finally take up the books that I’ve been meaning to read for years but never actually got around to, both fiction and non-fiction, such as To Live and to Write: Selections by Japanese Women Writers 1913-1938 edited by Yukiko Tanaka and Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own.

So although I’ve still got some way to go before completing the challenge, I’d say that both the Women Unbound Challenge and the Persephone Reading Week have made me focus a lot more on issues of feminism and the role of women in literature.

And I just have to sneak in The Samurai by Shusaku Endo which I really enjoyed and was impressed with despite me thinking it would be a rather dry and difficult read. Endo’s most famous book Silence delighted many bloggers participating in Dolce Bellezza‘s Japanese Literature Challenge and also by Tanabata who blogs at In Spring It Is The Dawn and although I didn’t manage to get my hands on it, I found The Samurai instead. Most of the Japanese books I read are contemporary or set in the early 20th century but Endo’s book about a 17th century samurai struggling with his heritage and the encroachment of Christianity is historical fiction at its best: passionate, thoughtful and full of soul.

These are just a handful of books I’ve discovered which have enriched my reading experience. What about you?

coz I’m Slightly Peckish again! Check me out at mouthwatering Umamimart!

London is once again dull, grey and horrible. What is going on?

As if to make things better, the wonderful Persephone Books is offering a free Persephone Classics (slightly shop-soiled but it’s what’s inside that counts) with every grey Persephone book purchased (offer applies to one book only).

From Persphone Books’ newsletter:

On another subject: you may not realise but a huge proportion of books are returned by bookshops and then pulped because the cost of having them sent back to the publisher and cleaned up is far greater than printing new copies.

We could not go along with this because it so environmentally unfriendly, and asked for a thousand unsold Classics to be returned to Lamb’s Conduit Street. This cost £500! Which makes the point that it is almost as cheap simply to throw away and reprint.

Sadly, most of the Classics are very slightly damaged: they either have a small mark or the remains of a bookshop sticker.

Since we cannot sell these either to our mail order customers or in the shop we have decided to give them away. So — if you order one grey book at the normal price we will send you a free Classic. PLEASE DO NOT PAY FOR IT. Simply pay for your grey book as normal and write in the Additional Information box – free Miss Pettigrew Classic please, or something similar. (Nb. overseas books will be sent surface mail. And the offer only applies to one book.)

Very tempting…

I had grand plans for this year’s Persephone Reading Week hosted by Claire and Verity but only managed to finish one book, Good Evening, Mrs. Craven: The Wartime Stories of Mollie Panter-Downes which was a delightful volume of short stories. I tried hard to finish A Very Great Profession: The Woman’s Novel 1914-1939 by Nicola Beauman but I’m still only half-way and couldn’t quite finish this weekend. No matter, I can now read it slowly and not feel rushed (but when did I ever read fast?) It’s a brilliant study of women’s literature which Beauman has resurrected with Persephone Books and there is ample discussion and quotations taken from the books which illustrate the evolution of interwar literature, mainly from a woman’s perspective. And who better than Beauman to do this, as she is probably the most knowledgeable of writers when it comes to this subject. For lovers of the interwar period and women’s fiction, A Very Great Profession will put a huge dent in your wallet and increase your TBR pile enormously. What I also find fascinating, and at the same time a little sad, is that the plight of many women do not seem all that different from the current situation (there have been huge changes, but you would be surprised at how many of the sentiments I have come across in my life I find in the literature dating back to the 1920s and 30s. Shocking, I know.)

Anyway, speaking of fascinating things, the first UK Book Bloggers’ Meet-up happened this Saturday. We all met in the Persephone Bookshop on Lamb’s Conduit Street before heading across to The Lamb for some sustenance both liquid and bookish. It was really wonderful to meet so many of you that I’ve become friends with since I started blogging. A big thank you to Simon from stuck in a book for organising this special event.

And of course, I will leave you with some books I got on the day:

Black Venus by Angela Carter which I won from Claire of Paperback Reader
26a by Diana Evans which I got for the bloggers’ book swap on Saturday from Polly of Novel Insights

And of course some Persephones:

Every Eye by Isobel English
A Woman’s Place 1910-1975 by Ruth Adam
Daddy’s Gone A-Hunting by Penelope Mortimer

And I’ve had my first plagiarism alert thanks to a kind reader. Someone called ‘Megan’ has ‘borrowed’ this review and posted it on a book review site word. for. word. Not impressed. Why would you do this? How difficult is it to write your own review? As you can tell, it pissed me off a little. The review site has corrected the error and taken her off the list. Naturally.

I know, I know, so many of you lovely participants of the Persephone Reading Week hosted by Claire at Paperback Reader and Verity at The B Files must have already read this book, but I always seem to lag behind in the trend stakes. But it’s my first Persephone (although I did purchase it in September last year) and I’m excited! Emerging from a seriously crap week as we said farewell to our beautiful and funny dog Puccini who passed away after 11 wonderful years leaving us all heartbroken, I had all these reading plans for the Bank Holiday which went down the drain. But I’d promised myself I’d read at least one Persephone this week and I chose Good Evening, Mrs. Craven purely because it was a collection of short stories (and I am a lover of all stories short) and it was a slimmish book.

I started reading it yesterday and you know what? Slowly, the pain unknotted itself and by the time I was halfway through I was feeling warm again. I didn’t really expect this reaction because I knew the stories chronicled the lives of women left behind during WWII. But Mollie Panter-Downes‘ stories were warm, funny and bittersweet; showcasing feelings we’ve all had albeit in situations we’ve only heard about through stories and TV. Some stories touched me more than others, but I liked that they varied in length and were snapshots of everyday scenes and people, some familiar and some not so.

The stories that touched me the most were Fin de Siècle, Good Evening, Mrs.Craven, Goodbye, My Love, Combined Operation and It’s The Reaction. I admire Panter-Downes for the way she can flesh out a character with only a few words. They weren’t cardboard cutouts, but real, breathing, quiet and enduring, just like people we know. And some of the stories reminded me strongly of Sarah Waters’ The Night Watch (I will one day stop going on about this book, promise.) The everyday niggles, the irritating habits people have which magnify uncontrollably in close quarters made me laugh out loud. And the cameraderie people experienced during the Blitz, neighbours talking to one another and getting glimpses into lives which otherwise they could only imagine, which slowly died away once it was over felt so much sadder and reminded me that the human condition is the same everywhere and in whichever era you live.

This was a beautiful book, and the Persephone edition is so lovely to handle, I’m definitely going to check out Minnie’s Room: The Peacetime Stories of Mollie Panter-Downes. This was a definite hit for me. And it surprised me to learn that Panter-Downes (who was British) worked for the The New Yorker for over fifty years but was relatively unknown in the UK.

And talking about Persephone’s, I only realised when I looked at the title page that this book was first published in 1999! I didn’t even realise Persephone Books had been around for so long, especially since I used to hang around that area as a student. Mind you, I used to live just down the road from Charles Dickens’ house and only managed to visit it last year (after which I dragged my parents to the Persephone Bookshop which left them very impressed.) My mother has made it her habit to swipe all my Persephone bookmarks when she’s in town. Can’t blame her when they’re so beautiful.

So now, the question is, what should I read next: Someone at a Distrance by Dorothy Whipple, Family Roundabout by Richmal Crompton or A Very Great Profession by Nicola Beauman? I find myself leaning a little towards the third title.