Reviews: W

Review: “Greenbanks” by Dorothy Whipple [1932]

Disclaimer: This is a review copy kindly sent to me by Persephone.

Beginning in 1909, Greenbanks is largely a poignant examination of the changing role of women but also a quiet family saga taking place during a critical period in history. The Ashton family reside in the estate Greenbanks. Louisa, a kindly and gentle housewife, is the matriarch and is happiest looking after and loving her children and grandchildren. Her husband, Richard, is a philanderer, which is an open secret within the family but Louisa turns a blind eye. Three of the grown Ashton children continue to live at Greenbanks while two of the girls are married. Letty has married Ambrose, the antithesis of her father, for his safety and stability and who is the mother of four children. The youngest at four years old, Rachel, is Louisa’s favourite grandchild and constant visitor at Greenbanks.

As events unfold, the Ashton women struggle to define or redefine their role and place. Letty, having married the stable but utterly boring and arrogant Ambrose, is stifled by her domestic and maternal duties:

‘Is there something wrong with me?’ she asked in alarm. ‘This is no more than other women have to put up with. Why don’t I like housekeeping?’

She thought of her mother who loved it, who snatched opportunities from every season: seville oranges for marmalade in January, strawberry, raspberry, plum as they appeared; who hailed the first spring cabbage with delight and presented early garden peas in triumph to her family; who used up unripe tomatoes in chutney and excess of mint in jelly for the winter mutton; who always had a pot of this or that to give to friends when they called … Her mother lived for and through other people, but Letty wanted something for herself. – p. 40

But Letty is committed to her place in life and the husband that she has chosen and she goes about her duties half-hearted waiting for the day when she can finally be free from her domestic duties. Letty is afraid of controversy and village gossip and Kate Barlow remains a constant warning to her.

Kate, a childhood schoolmate of the Ashton children, is a fallen woman who inadvertently returns to Greenbanks. As an orphan living with her grandfather, Louisa took pity on Kate and took Kate under her wings, trying to include her in activities Louisa’s own children participated in. Later as a teenager, at a dance Louisa chaperoned, Kate falls in love and has a short-lived fling with tragic circumstances, forcing Kate to leave the town in disgrace. Louisa bumps into Kate in London and after re-establishing a friendship with Kate, invites her to move to Greenbanks as Louisa’s companion to mixed opinions. Kate, however, remains suspicious of the society that has shunned her and who is resigned to repenting for her disgrace for the rest of her life.

Louisa herself is constantly changing and re-adjusting her role as her family grows and moves on, marries or simply become inaccessible. What is Louisa’s place after a lifetime spent as a Wife and Mother when she is no longer a wife and mother?

All her children had left her, she thought; died, married, gone to other places. All but one, now. It was one of life’s ironies that the only one left to her should be Jim, the one, she admitted, she could have best done without. They had all gone, but nothing in her life had been like this; this was a rending hole that nothing could fill again. – p. 79

Louisa’s relationship with her granddaughter Rachel is perhaps the most endearing and marks the contrast between two women from different generations. As the novel spans over sixteen very turbulent years, Rachel grows up in rapidly changing times and ideals. When selecting schools to send Rachel’s brothers, Ambrose muses that he:

intended to send his three sons to public schools; but it would be a severe strain on his resources and he was glad to be able to save on Rachel. She need not go away to school; nobody asked where a girl had been educated. And he did not believe in all this education for women; in fact, he considered knowledge definitely unbecoming to them. It destroyed their charm; they did not listen so well if they knew too much. – p. 137

But Ambrose too is struggling to retain his place in society and as the patriarch of the family, acting only in a way that he has been bought up to know. Admittedly, his stubbornness prevents him from seeing the bigger picture or accepting an alternative perspective which is highlighted when a brilliant seventeen-year-old Rachel finally stands up to Ambrose:

‘Oxford – bah! Do you think the men want you there? Poking in, trying to ape men. I’ve no patience with these women intellectuals – lot of frumps!’

‘Good Lord, do you think I’m going to bother about whether the men want me there or not?’ cried Rachel. ‘And when have you seen any women intellectuals, Father? And aren’t men intellectuals ever frumps? These reasons for refusing a State Scholarship are all silly – positively silly.’ – p. 238.

These four women mark a period of mass transition  – both socially and historically. A world war transpires within the novel at some stage which stuns the world and Greenbanks.

This is such a wonderful and beautiful story and rather heartbreaking too for what once was. The heartwarming relationship between Louisa and Rachel bookends the generations and Rachel is such a feisty character. She says one of my most favourite lines I’ve ever come across in a novel:

‘… have you had lunch?’

‘Er – no,’ said John. ‘Will you come to Reece’s?’

‘I’d love to, but I must pay for myself, because I want to eat a lot.’ – p. 324

Now there’s honesty for you! Dorothy Whipple writes so eloquently and quietly. The passing of time is so seamless. Characters grow and age without you realising it and by the book’s end, sixteen years have lapsed. I have read only one other Whipple, Someone at a Distance, but I think I Greenbanks tops that. A wonderful and, at times, a desperately sad read.

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Review: “East Lynne” by Ellen Wood [1860]

Spanning across nearly a decade, this sweeping Sensation novel charts the disgraceful downfall and eventual partial redemption of aristocrat Isabel Vane. Left impoverished after her father’s death and at the mercy of her cruel and spiteful aunt, the quiet and timid Isabel accepts the marriage proposal of Thomas Carlyle after they meet again. Mr Carlyle, a humble, albeit a successful and popular, lawyer had earlier purchased the Vanes estate, East Lynne. Isabel, with no other options, marries Mr. Carlyle believing that she will one day learn to love him. Isabel admires and likes Mr. Carlyle enough and he in turn is thoughtful, considerate and deeply in love with Isabel. Although Isabel had believed that coming back to her former home at East Lynne would bring her happiness, Isabel is lonely and dominated in her house by Mr. Carlyle’s older sister, Cornelia, who has moved in with them and leaving Isabel with no say in the running of the domestic. After the birth of their three children, Isabel’s health deteriorates and she is sent to recuperate at the seaside. Despite her pleas for her children to accompany her, Isabel is denied this by the doctor and Cornelia who admonishes her about the expenses.

“The children are not going to the sea-side,” said she [Cornelia]. “They are not ordered there.”

“But they must go with me,” replied Lady Isabel. “Of course they are not expressly ordered to it. Why should they not go?”

“What should they not?” retorted Miss Corny. “Why, on account of the expense, to be sure. I can tell you what it is, Lady Isabel, what with one expense and another, your husband will soon be on the the road to ruin. Your journey with Joyce and Peter will cost enough, ma’am, without taking a van-load of nurses and children.” – p. 209

Left alone at the seaside to recover her health, Isabel bumps into Captain Levison whom she had previously felt attracted to when they were acquainted in their youth. Despite having been warned by Isabel’s uncle that Captain Levison was a bad influence, Isabel can’t deny his allure. Frightened and confused, Isabel flees back to East Lynne but a series of coincidences have Mr. Carlyle invite Captain Levison to stay at East Lynne. While Mr. Carlyle becomes heavily involved in acquitting a falsely condemned man, the brother of a family friend, pretty Barbara Hare, Isabel grows jealous and is swayed under Captain Levison’s influence. One night, both Isabel and Captain Levison disappear.

The hand-writing, his wife’s, swam before the eyes of Mr Carlyle. All, save the disgraceful fact that she had flown – and a horrible suspicion began to dawn upon him with whom – was totally incomprehensible. How had he outrages her? in what manner had he goaded her to it? – p. 281

A year passes and Lady Isabel is hiding in France, deeply regretting having run away with Captain Levison who, as soon as he received what he wanted, treats Isabel badly and leaves her unmarried just as she is about to give birth to their child. Seeking repentance, and missing her other children dreadfully, Isabel begins her journey back to England when she is involved in an accident. Misidentified, the authorities notifies her uncle that Isabel has died and the news travels back to Mr. Carlyle who is now married to Barbara. Isabel, with her face and figure scarred, adopts a disguise and a new name and, again, through twisted coincidences is recommended as a governess to Mr. Carlyle’s family which includes his children with Barbara. And so Lady Isabel returns to East Lynne once more, this time under an eccentric disguise and a new name, Madame Vine, and as a stranger to her children in a house that was once hers.

I quite enjoyed this book, being a huge fan of Sensation fiction. This, along with Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White and Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s Lady Audley’s Secret makes up the core Sensation trilogy. Many of the plot lines were contrived but I quite enjoyed it. It’s like a Victorian soap opera. Isabel remained an elusive character though and while I didn’t despise her, I also didn’t quite warm to her although I did pity her and her tragic circumstances. Unlike other adulteresses in many other Victorian fiction, Isabel is not painted as a ‘scarlet woman’ but merely a woman who made one mistake that ultimately cost her everything.

Review: “The Midwich Cuckoos” by John Wyndham [1957]

Something strange is happening to the quiet and closed off town of Midwich. Between the late evening of 26th September and the morning of 27th September, an unusual and unseen occurrence have encircled the boundaries of Midwich causing everybody within, and whoever crosses, the perimeter immediately lapse into unconsciousness. Once the phenomena, dubbed the Dayout, has been lifted, the townspeople goes back unharmed to their daily lives until a few months later where all women of childbearing age find themselves pregnant. The children borne are unsurprisingly unusual, not only in their identical looks, but it also becomes clear that these babies exert some unnatural influence over their mothers:

Mrs Brant had gone into Mrs Welt’s shop one morning to find her engaged in jabbing a pin into herself again and again, and weeping as she did it. This had not seemed good to Mrs Brant, so she had dragged her off to see Willers. He gave Mrs Welt some kind of sedative, and when she felt better she had explained that in changing the baby’s napkin she had pricked him with a pin. Whereupon, by her account, the baby had just looked steadily at her with its golden eyes, and made her start jabbing the pin into herself. – p. 99

As the children grow, the the women find themselves detached from their children. The Children (now with a capital C) now also seem capable of rapid learning and have a form of unnatural intellectual connection with one another. When one of the boys or girls learn something, the entire gender group will suddenly also absorb the new knowledge. The Children grow rapidly and suddenly, they become a much larger threat than Midwich initially thought putting everybody at risk.

Despite its fascinating premise and storyline, I found this quite boring. Perhaps it’s just me, not being a sci-fi fan, but I found I just couldn’t connect with the characters and the writing sort of just plodded along and was rather dry. I kept losing track of which character was who. The first part started off quite well but then it just sort of withered down. Interesting but it was just a bit ‘blah’ for me unfortunately.

Review: “Maisie Dobbs” by Jacqueline Winspear [2003]

I have been anticipating reading this series ever since I first heard about it from If You Can Read This and also from seeing its gorgeous covers floating around at work.

Maisie Dobbs is the first book in the series starring…Maisie Dobbs! Set in 1929, Maisie is trying to establish herself as a private investigator in a country, and world, that is still haunted by the horror of WWI. As a single, young woman working in an unorthodox career, Maisie was always going to be a little unusual. Her first case brings her Christopher Davenham who suspects that his wife is cheating on him. To Davenham’s surprise, Maisie questions his intentions with any information Maisie will provide him about his wife:

“The information I gather will be presented in a context. It is in light of that context that we must continue our discussion, in order for you and your wife to build a future.”

“My job is rather more complex than you might have imagined, Mr Davenham. I am responsible for the safety of all parties. And this is so even when I am dealing with society’s more criminal elements.” – p. 14

Integrity and morality is what sets Maisie apart from the typical private investigator. She does eventually get to the bottom of Davenham’s wife’s regular, unexplained disappearances which is connected to the aftermath of the war, which in turn forces Maisie to remember her own past.

Born into a lowly, but well loved, family, Maisie is sent at the age of 13 to the Belgravia estate of Lady and Lord Compton to work as a maid. Harbouring a passion for reading and displaying deep intelligence, Maisie soon concocts a way to read her way through the Compton’s rich library undetected by sneaking up early in the morning before the household chores.

The feeling inside that [Maisie] experienced when she saw the books was akin to the hunger she felt as food was put on the table at the end of the working day. And she knew that she needed this sustenance as surely as her body need is fuel. – p. 87

The secret visits to the library continued for some time before she is caught out by Lady Compton. This ultimately works out to Maisie’s advantage who demonstrates her intelligence and  becomes the Compton’s and their family friend, a highly regarded intellectual, Dr. Maurice Blanche’s protege. Life goes quite well for Maisie until the outbreak of the war where she eventually volunteers herself as a nurse and she is shipped to France.

The past and present becomes interconnected. To solve her case, Maisie must not only analyse the physical, but also the psychological, scars left by the war, horrors unforseen by anybody in the world.

Maisie Dobbs is a lovely first book and establishes the characters and setting. This is indeed somewhat a cozy crime fiction but the psychological examination of WWI and the surviving soldiers return to society gives it an edge. Maisie is an interesting character but I couldn’t help thinking some areas of her life were cliched and at times, she seemed a bit weak. However, I did thoroughly enjoy this first book and will seek out the other Maisie Dobbs books soon! And is it terrible of me to think that this would make the most lovely mini series?

Review: “Before I Go to Sleep” by S. J. Watson [2011]

S. J. Watson’s debut novel is a pretty terrific and creepy read. Before I Go to Sleep is narrated by a woman named Christine who, as we discover at the same time pace as Christine, has a unique form of amnesia. Ever since an accident more than two decades earlier, Christine cannot form new long term memories but has the ability to retain short term memories for the day. When she goes to sleep, every memory that has been made during the day is lost again.

Every morning Christine wakes up not knowing who or where she is or even which moment in time she is in. She could wake up thinking she is an eighteen year old or a newlywed. It could be any point in time leading up to the day of the accident. Every morning, Christine’s husband Ben needs to remind her of who and where she is and go through what has happened. The bathroom wall is covered with various photographs of their life together:

Photographs. Taped to the wall, to the mirror itself. Pictures, interspersed with yellow pieces of gummed paper, felt-tip notes, damp and curling. I choose one at random. Christine, it says, and an arrow points to a photograph of me – this new me, this old me – in which I am sitting on a bench on a quayside, next to a man. The name seems familiar, but only distantly so, as if I am having to make an effort to believe that it is mine. In the photograph we are both smiling at the camera, holding hands. He is handsome, attractive, and when I look closely I can see that it is the same man I slept with, the one I left in the bed. The word Ben is written beneath it, and next to it Your husband. – p. 13

When Ben leaves for work that morning, Christine gets a phone call from a Dr. Nash who claims to be a neurologist that she has been secretly seeing while Ben is at work. Initially suspicious and skeptical, Dr. Nash tells Christine to look in her diary which she can find in her bag and she will see that she has written in their appointment. Christine agrees to meet up with Dr. Nash and during their meeting, he gives her her diary that Christine has been writing in for the past few months in order to help her remember. When she opens to the first page, Christine sees that she has written DON’T TRUST BEN.

This book is quite the thriller. Even though it has a small cast of characters made up largely of Dr. Nash, Ben and Christine, I never knew how the story would turn out right until the very end. A few of my suspicions were right but Watson makes you work for it and doubt your guesses numerous times beforehand. I have to say, however, that the ending does make you want to go back and re-read the book and it will probably be even more disturbing the second time around.

Review: “Wyse Words: A Dictionary for the Bewildered” by Pascal Wyse [2009]

This funny little book is a collection of words that should exist, but don’t, that was featured (as it tells me so in the blurb) in a regular column in the Guardian a few years ago. Most are clever wordplay but others made no sense as to how Wyse came up with that word! I picked some bookish-related words:

Libobia (noun) – Fear of running out of things to read on holiday, resulting in the purchase of large quantities of JETBLAG at the airport.

We’ve all experienced that!

Jetblag (noun) – A brainy, aspirational magazine that you only ever buy in an airport bookshop. You have always fancied reading it and this flight offers an excellent opportunity to catch up on the latest gossip in quantum philosophy circles. At 30,000 ft, the extent of your delusion becomes clear and you borrow a copy of Hello.

Librido (noun) – Specific form of sublimated sexual tension found only in libraries.

I’m not sure I’ve experienced that yet or have I been missing out?! Anyone care to enlighten us? 😉

Novulating (verb) – Obsessively clicking on to Amazon to see how well your book is doing in the sales ranking.

Yes, once I’ve actually written and published my book…

Tolkeen (verb) – To find yourself compelled to hunt for books you already own when browsing in a bookshop.

OR obsessively checking the price of the same book in order to 1) feel smug if the price has inched up, 2) to feel ripped off if it has gone down and 3) check whether it has a better cover design than the one you already have.

Finally, I don’t think any of us have this problem:

Witrat (noun) – The annoyance felt at yourself for pretending to have read a novel, because the person you are trying to impress now seems to want a conversation about its literary merits.

An excellent little book to pick up and put down. It made me do a feel funny, unexpected laughs while reading this lounging around in the park.

Review: “The Little Stranger” by Sarah Waters [2009]

As usual, I’ve come late to the party of popular books. This Booker short-listed title is a strange and creepy Gothic story set in England in the years after the second World War. This period is one of transience – where century old social customs, hierarchies and grand family estates that have been in families for generations are crumbling down everywhere.

The Little Stranger is narrated by Dr. Faraday, the only son of a maid and grocer whose parents have invested all their energies and money into their son’s education so to give him the chance to rise up in the world. Faraday’s mother, once a nursery maid at the majestic mansion called Hundreds Hall, first takes Faraday to the mansion as a boy and who later returns as a middle-aged bachelor (this point is strongly emphasised). Called to the hall one day to look over the Hundreds Hall only maid, a fourteen year-old girl named Betty, Faraday is shocked to see the mansion in such disarray. Half the mansion has been closed off, a lot of the estate’s land has been sold off to developers for Council houses and the Ayres family seem to live in constant poverty. The remaining occupants of the Hundreds are Mrs. Ayres, who is nostalgic for the old days, and her two grown children, Caroline and Roderick, who is physically and mentally scarred by war. As the ‘master’ of the house, Roderick does whatever he can to save the crumbling estate.

As Faraday becomes more involved with the Ayres family and the sorry state of the house, strange things begin to happen. After a little girl is bitten on the face by the Ayres’ usually gentle and goofy dog at a party one night, Betty is convinced that there is something unnatural in the house:

‘There’s a bad thing in the this house, that’s what! There’s a bad thing, and he makes wicked things happen!’

I stared at her for a moment, then lifted my hand, to rub my face. ‘Oh, Betty.’

‘It’s true! I’ve felt ‘m! … It wasn’t an accident! It were the bad thing, whispering to Gyp, or — or nipping him.’ – p. 130

Other strange and unexplainable things begin to occur that suggests that Betty may be right and that there is something in Hundreds Hall. Queer scorch marks are found under the paint in Roderick’s room, phones begin to ring in the middle of the night even though the telephone exchange has no record of anybody ever calling the Hall and strange, incessant noises lead them to bizarre childish handwriting on walls. While there are creepy elements to The Little Stranger, it is not essentially a ghost story but rather an exploration of the quickly disappearing social classes, their wealth and sweeping new modern reforms such as the Health Service and affordable housing for all.

While I did enjoy Little Stranger, I was expecting more of a ghost story and was slightly disappointed it wasn’t more so. The creepy parts were really quite frightening even though the ‘stranger’, whatever was in that house, is never identified as anything more than a dark blur at the corner of the eye and as a ‘he’ by Betty. Other reviews have compared similarities to Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw, where the fear and creepiness comes from what you’ve imagined yourself, and I have to agree. Dr. Faraday got on my nerves more than a few times by his sheer inability to open his mind and his stuffy attitude towards everything. I did wonder though, how easily accepting readers are (or at least I was) to the supernatural aspects rather than the rational. While there was no concrete proof of a ghost, I was more ready to believe the Ayres’ stories than Dr. Faraday’s explanations. The book was a tad too long and I thought some parts were sloppily edited. It could have easily been shorter.