Thursday, 22 July 2010

The devastating boys (Taylor)

I had been very keen to read The devastating boys since reading about it on someone's blog last year; it may have been Darlene's but the only review I can find is one on Rachel's blog which I didn't even comment on at the time! Anyway, I finally laid my hands on a 1p copy on Amazon, and was lucky enough to recieve a pristine original green edition of the book (it's always a bit hit and miss I find with Amazon marketplace, you can never be sure quite which edition you're getting and what sort of condition it will be in when it turns up). It has proved the perfect read for my teabreaks this week - I've finally come off the medication which was preventing me from reading, but I still felt a little daunted by the Viragos I have waiting for me, the majority of which are either large, or have very small print, or are large and have small print - whilst short stories they are, they are long enough to be really absorbing.

The title story was perhaps my favourite; a couple respond to an advertisement to take children from London for a holiday, his attention was attracted by the fact that coloured children might be sent (obviously more of an issue in the 1960s!). She anticipated having two little girls, who might be surrogates for her grown up daughters who have yet to fill the gap with grandchildren. But two boys are sent. The boys are confused by their surroundings and the couple are confused by their boys, the fact that they are not easily entertained, their tantrums and destructiveness. She counts down the days until their departure right from the start. In a fairy tale or book this would have an obvious happy ending; in a short story, there isn't such a need. We witness a tiny, imperceptible change in the boys towards the end of the stay, and although she is still keen to see them go, she is surprised to feel sad when she puts them on the train.

Onto the covers! I think the pictures used for the green Elizabeth Taylor covers are among some of the best of the original green Viragos (And I'm sorry Virago, but the latest Elizabeth Taylor covers are just not a patch on them). I love the beautiful flowers on my copy (although I would quibble that they're really not much in line with the title), and the flowers on the later modern green edition are equally beautiful and reminded me of the cover to my copy of Hester Lilly. Now this is definitely something that I'd like to own both editions of, purely for the covers.

Wednesday, 14 July 2010

The true heart (Townsend Warner)

Townsend Warner's The true heart was kindly sent to me by Elaine from Random Jottings last month; I was looking forward to reading this, partly because I have enjoyed other of Townsend Warner's novels, but also because my experience of reading her books is that they are very diverse and I wasn't sure what to expect from this one.

The true heart tells the story of Sukey Bond - we meet her as she "graduates" from the orphanage where she has spent all of her life - she is obviously a model pupil, being presented with 5 prizes including one for good conduct. She is then sent off to a farm on the Essex Coast (in an introduction to the book Warner describes how she was motivated to write the book after finding a map of Essex in a shop which she used to inspire her writing of it) to work as a maid. She falls in love with Eric, a simple minded man, whose mother, Mrs Seabourne, keeps him hidden away on the farm. They decide to marry, but Mrs Seabourne is appalled, sacks Sukey, and whisks Eric away. What will Sukey do? Since no-one else will help she decides to seek assistance from the highest authority in the country and sets off to see Queen Victoria! The book reads like a fairy tale; its the sort of plot that would only really happen in such a setting, but it makes for a delightful read. Sukey is a wonderful character, naive, but full of charm and hilarity. My favourite episode occurs when having been sacked, she finds accommodation at a "disorderly" house (as described by the landlady). Not having come across this term before, and anxious to please the woman who may be able to give her a room, although she thinks that the house is untidy, she tells the woman that the house cannot possibly be disorderly when it has such a beautiful parrot. This sends the woman into fits of laughter, she realises that she will not be able to employ Sukey, but does decide to give her a bed for the night.

Warner's introduction also reveals that this book was loosely based on the rather obscure Greek myth of Cupid and Psyche - this is not a myth that I am familiar with, but not knowing about it did not detract from enjoying the book!

Although this was one of the earliest VMCs, it's only been published once, with an original green cover. Big thanks again to Elaine for passing this on to me.

Monday, 12 July 2010

Cullum (E Arnot Robertson) 322

Cullum was my third novel by E Arnot Robertson, but it was actually her first. It was written when Robertson was only 24 and I think that the writing and themes are characterised by a certain sort of youthful exuberance which wasn't something I recognised from reading either Ordinary Families or Four frightened people.

It's the story of obsessive love between Esther and Cullum. Esther, in her late teens, lives at home in Surrey, among a family of horsey people - while she happily partakes in hunts etc, her real love is literature and writing. When she meets Cullum, another young author, it is inevitable that she will fall in love with him and be seduced by his way of life. And the book is the telling out of what happens.

Of all of Robertson's works I enjoyed this one the most, although it wasn't by any stretch a favourite VMC. Another author completed anyway!

I like this cover image of a rather bored looking young lady - or at least I think she's bored looking. It's too much of an unpleasant expression to call it wistful. I fear it is an expression I may occasionally wear. Just the one edition, the original green cover version.

Saturday, 10 July 2010

New acqusitions

I have two batches of new acquisitions to write about this weekend. Firstly, about a week ago I recieved a huge box from Elaine at Random Jottings, a fellow Virago lover, and reader of this blog. I should have taken a picture of the box and its contents, but unfortunately I didn't get around to it! Elaine had had a clear out and very kindly offered to send me some of her unwanted books before taking them to the charity shop (I in return made a donation to Mind since Elaine asked for a donation to charity instead of paying her for postage). I was lucky enough to get copies of some books which were new to me as well as my own copy of a couple, and they were all in original green - lovely! . There were a couple of duplicates which I am passing on to fellow Virago lovers in my vicinity. Thank you Elaine - you were very kind.

Then, excitingly, I recieved the latest VMC to come out, by the author Bessie Head, not someone who I have encountered. The book actually contains two novels - When Rain Clouds Gather, and, Maru - and I shall be writing about it in due course (when I have read it rather than just admired the cover!)

Tuesday, 6 July 2010

Hester Lilly (Taylor) 350

A kind present from Julia, I had hugely been anticipating these stories by Elizabeth Taylor, having greatly enjoyed her novels (which I still need to blog about as they pre-date my Venture). And they were hugely enjoyed, particularly as they arrived at a time when I was struggling to focus on reading - I could just about manage a short story. It's been published in both an original green cover and a modern green cover; I love both of the cover designs. Julia sent me the later edition, but this is a book I would happily own in both editions for the beautiful pictures! And I'm still on the look out for the other ET short story volumes if anyone spots theM!

I'm still trying to get back into reading, but I am struggling to complete anything particularly weighty, or honestly, most things other than cookery books or children's literature. So I'm planning to slow down my VVV somewhat and just post once or twice a week, thus taking off some of the pressure to keep ploughing through literature which I know I would enjoy if I had my usual concentration levels. Please do keep checking in!

Monday, 5 July 2010

Mother and son (Compton-Burnett) 394

I've never read any Ivy Compton-Burnett, and am glad to have had the chance to experience her through my Virago venture, as she is quite an eminent writer, and one whom fellow blogger Simon from Stuck-in-a-book enthuses about. In fact it was Simon who kindly lent me a Virago copy of Mother and Son. Mother and son is also one of the VMCs that won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize, so seemed as good a place to start as any.

It's the story of a family, centring around the matriarch Miranda. We meet her in search of a companion, interviewing but not finding favour with one Miss Burke. Miss Burke is then dispatched by the family cook to another household, this time of two spinsters, where she may be suited. The two households become linked, and the story provides a chance for Compton-Burnett to explore questions about family relationships.

I most liked the domesticated setting of this novel - reminiscent of good Persephone books - although the book purports to be set in the late 19th century, as the introduction points out, it seems to reflect more the time in which it was written (1950s) with its emphasis on shortages and disquiet surroundinmg excessive consumption of cake. What I did not like so much was the endless stream of dialogue between family members which threatened to take over the narrative. I'm not yet won over by ICB, but since I have three more of her books to sample on my Virago reading list, I may yet be. This has been published just once, with an italic green cover.

Friday, 2 July 2010

Marcella (Humphrey Ward) 155

Marcella is a somewhat chunky VMC, but immensely readable - I was daunted by its size but was immediately gripped in following the life and dilemmas of the young woman in the 1880s. Following early years spent in a boarding school (where she wasn't exactly a model pupil; she used sometimes to be sent to bed by the teachers which was especially punishing as those in bed during the day were considered to be ill, and were not permitted to take their arms out of the bedclothes, allowing them to read!), we meet her as a 21 year old art student, living in London and trying to work out her socialist ideals. But as the book opens, her father inherits the family estate, Mellor Park, located very near to Oxford (I loved the mentions of various south Oxfordshire villages which I know!) and Marcella moves to join her family. At first this fits with her idealist views; she can work with the poor who live around the estate to try to alleviate their poverty. But then she falls in love with the Tory Aldous Raeburn who is set to inherit the nearby estate of Maxwell Court. Marcella becomes torn between wanting to live up to her principles and to marry Aldous and become mistress at Maxwell. The rest of the book describes what happens after that, so as usual, I don't want to go on and spoil the plot!

I found Marcella an extremely likeable young lady and the book gave a good insight into the world of the 1880s for privileged ladies; she seems to have been quite well done by for the period having the opportunity to pursue her own desires rather than being constrained by the period as is often a feature of this date.

It's the only novel by Mrs Humphrey Ward published by Virago; although she wrote a number of novels the rest seem to have long vanished into obscurity. And this novel was published only the once with an original green cover.

Thursday, 1 July 2010

The street (Petry) 200

I love finding VMCs which I have not heard of in a charity shop; it makes me feel like they might be particularly rare, simply because one most often sees Antonia White or Molly Keane or Rosamund Lehman. And when it's a VMC that you don't know anything about - it could be a dud, or one to struggle through, or it might be something really good. The street was a VMC that I hadn't heard of, and it turned out to be absolutely phenomenal.

Set in 1946 in Harlem, it is mainly the story of young Lutie Johnson, a woman who has escaped a broken marriage with her son (she had been working as a domestic in Conneticut, sending home money to her unemployed husband, but left the job when she found out that he had been carrying on with another woman), and finds accommodation in 3 rooms in a house in a neighbourhood in Harlem. But it is also the story of the neighbourhood, or "The street" in Harlem, and the characters who inhabit it. The street itself is extremely bleak; Lutie is nearly raped by her landlord and constantly invited to work in a brothel by another inhabitant of the house. Lutie however tries to hold onto the "American dream" and move beyond all of this; she genuinely believes that she can build a decent life within this sordid environment.

I won't say more about the plot - the ending is sudden, shocking and I found it unexpected. But the book overall was such a pacy read and gave me such a good insight into Harlem in the 1940s that I forgave the book that.

It's been published just once by Virago with an original green cover, although I see from librarything that there are a number of other editions by other publishers, and I hope that if you should happen to stumble upon a copy in a charity shop, you will remember this post and pick it up, or if you don't remember the post, you take a risk on it. Definitely worth it!