Tag Archives: Forgotten Classics

The Far Cry, by Emma Smith

I had three choices for Persephone Reading Week after a little library spree, and was attracted to read The Far Cry, by Emma Smith first because of the beautiful, evocative language used in the excerpt (see previous post), which describes the book’s characters, stepping out into the streets of Calcutta at night-time. Reading the full story, I discovered that this was just a small sample of Smith’s excellent prose.

At the beginning of The Far Cry, Teresa a young girl is pulled out of school by her father – Mr Digby, who is terrified that his second wife, now divorced is going to take her away from him. It is a surprising and dramatic reaction considering that he doesn’t seem to be very emotionally attached to his daughter. In fact, in the passages that describe them being together it is clear that Teresa, a sort of inward-looking and sometimes spiteful child, has really missed having a caring, feminine figure to look after her. Teresa and Mr Digby set off to India where they plan to stay with Ruth, (Mr Digby’s eldest daughter from his first marriage) who is both beautiful and serene – the two qualities he admires both in a woman. The journey, by boat and across land from Bombay to an out-of-the-way place not far from Calcutta is a long one. During the trip Teresa encounters other young children who she sort of adopts and then discards. It is as if she desires admiration, and finds unattractive little children that she can influence to make herself feel in control. That is until she meets Miss Spooner, an elderly spinster on the last leg of the trip and strikes up a fleeting but important friendship before landing on the shores of the new land. On reaching India they part, lost in the hustle and bustle of Calcutta. Teresa and Mr Digby continue their journey to see Ruth and her husband Edwin who are experiencing their own relationship problems.

The Far Cry really is a journey, emotionally as well as physically for Teresa. The sights and sounds in the story are inspired by the authors own experiences (at the age of 23, Emma Smith went to India with a film crew that included Laurie Lee), but as she states in the preface that the characters she created were fictitious characters, although she later realised that Teresa “…had a good deal of me in her personality”. Smith wrote a diary on her trip and later used it to conjure up the sights and sounds of India in The Far Cry. I felt it was really lucky that she had captured her experiences at the time so that they could be woven into this story.

Smith’s prose really is gorgeous. The metaphors she uses never feel strained and her descriptions are full and invoke all the senses. Below is a passage from the night that Teresa goes with Miss Spooner to the Kali Puja festival:

“Lights, no bigger than the candles on a Christmas cake, fringed every balcony, every wall, every stall, every hovel, a multitude of tiny red flames flickering alive in the huge dark night. They were still being lit: glistening haunches bent forward, hands poured a trickle of oil into saucers…The warm air was soft with sorrow. They trod among the muddy unseen ashes of the dead. Widows lay along the slushy steps, prostrate in grief, or crouched forward silently setting afloat their candles in little boats of tin the size and shape of withered leaves.”

The nuances of the relationships within the book between Teresa and her father or Miss Spooner, Ruth and Edwin were perfectly balanced. At times I did feel a little frustrated. At the beginning of the book particularly Teresa seems cruel and difficult to understand. The relationship between Ruth and Edwin is painful and I found it was sometimes difficult to empathise with. At times, I did feel as if I was delving into hearts and minds of people who I wasn’t all that bothered about, however I could see that Smith’s way exploring people’s behaviour was clever and sensitive.

The Far Cry is as pretty as a picture but with emotional weight behind it that makes it simultaneously involving and frustrating. While the characters in the story didn’t always strike a chord with me, they were superbly developed and the prose was so vivid that it made me want to pack my bags! A good book to read when you want to be transported to far-away lands.

My rating:

7.5 out of 10

Have you read any books that make you want to pack your bags and visit a new country?

You can find links to more reviews of Persephone Books here and here.

Forgotten Books by Well-loved Children’s Authors

Back in March, I posted this missive to other book bloggers looking for help to compile a list of forgotten authors.

I had some great suggestions as there is definitely love out there for digging-up neglected books especially amongst those who have discovered Persephone Books.

In fact it was two Persephone books (Saplings and The Shuttle) along with a rogue A.A. Milne mystery novel that inspired me to create the list. Of course, it’s also Persephone Reading Week at the moment (more details here and here) so I’m hoping to discover others!

However, I had a little chat to myself (as you do) and told myself that  I needed to be a bit stricter about my criteria because otherwise it really is a bit of a vague topic. As what had attracted me to doing this at first was reading books by authors who were known for their children’s writing, I decided that would be the backbone of a sort of organic list of titles.

Below is the beginnings of my list (once I get a few more I’ll add a more comprehensive page to Novel Insights).

  • I Capture The Castle by Dodie Smith (101 Dalmations)
  • Saplings, by Noel Streatfeild (Ballet Shoes)
  • The Family Roundabout, by Richmal Crompton (Just William)
  • The Red House Mystery, by A.A. Milne (Winnie the Pooh, The House at Pooh Corner)
  • The Shuttle, The Making of a Marchioness by Frances Hodgson Burnett (The Secret Garden)
  • Eight Cousins, Rose in Bloom, Work, and The Chase, by Louisa May Alcott (Little Women)
  • The Blue Castle, by L.M. Montgomery (Anne of Green Gables)
  • Apricot Sky, by Ruby Ferguson (Jill’s Gymkhana)

I’ll also be doing a bit of hunting myself. I did a bit of Googling the other day and discovered that Hans Christian Anderson and J.M. Barrie had written adult books but as is often the case these are mostly out of print. Also, as Eva of A Striped Armchair pointed out in her review of Castle Eppstein “sometimes classics fall into obscurity for good reason” – so I’d like to vet them first!

Have you got any more to add? If so, I’d love you to drop me a comment (feel free to include links to reviews for my page!)

Saplings by Noel Streatfeild

Image of Noel Streatfeild courtesy of the Persphone Books Website

Noel Streatfeild is better known for her children’s books (Ballet Shoes, Tennis Shoes, White Boots etc.) than for her adult writing, despite having written quite prolifically for adults – books that are now forgotten and out of print. So it was with my own fond memories of Ballet Shoes that I picked out the Persephone edition of Saplings from my local library with curiosity to see what Streatfeild’s ‘grown-up’ writing would be like.

Saplings is a story about the well-to-do Wiltshire family. It charts the effect of the Second World War on what begins as a seemingly happy family unit with an almost idyllic lifestyle, focussing mainly on the children in the family and how they come to terms with the changes that are inflicted upon them – evacuation, educational changes and grief and loss.

The central characters are the children. Streatfeild goes to quite remarkable lengths to convey the perspective of each child and really bring you into their thoughts and concerns.

There is Tony who really looks up to his Dad, and although one of the eldest children (perhaps partly because of that) is really the hardest hit by the situation. Throughout the main part of the book he retreats into himself as a result of a traumatic visit that he makes into London which leaves him unable to match reality to what he feels he has experienced.

Laurel, the elder sister is initially serious but happy in the glow of her father’s approval for being a ‘good all-rounder’ but struggles when she changes schools . Marked out by her mis-matched uniform, she hopes to prove herself best at something, but when she does find something to grasp on to, the teachers believe that she is behaving inappropriately.

The extrovert of the family is Kim who, although he initially suffers from Dad’s disapproval, actually weathers the situation the strongest of all the children. I really found Kim’s character interesting, as from the beginning of the book I found sympathy with him and the sense that Streatfeild was conveying the cracks already in the supposed ‘perfect’ family.

There is also Tuesday, the baby of the family who needs protection and senses the changes that are happening with such a painful sense of worry. Psychological concerns, as with Tony manifest themselves into the physical.

We also get a unique perspective on the children’s mother. Lena has been devoted her whole life to her husband and needs to be adored by him. She provides a happy home for the children, but as the war makes its impact on the family, Lena is pushed to her limits and doesn’t cope well. I felt so sorry for her and felt that Streatfeilds comments on female desire must have been quite unusually honest for the time.

The key theme of the book – nurturing of the children – is continuously highlighted through the metaphor of organic growth (which of course the title of the novel Saplings refers to), with comments from various perspectives about how the children are tended. The children’s former governess Ruth muses on how she grew up “All right but bruised” but what happened if the Wiltshires were more than  just bruised;

“What happened if they grew mis-shapen?”

Another organic reference is in Streatfeild’s description of Laurel’s struggle with her adolescent body.

“Laurel was still small and childish looking for her age, but her body was deceptive. It housed a creature floundering in the mud and flowers of adolescence.”

Saplings is beautifully written. Streatfeild’s descriptions are wonderful – in the first few scenes at the beach, I felt that I could hear the sea, really see the children and the hazy glow, almost as if in my own memory. She paints such clear characters, that a few days after finishing the book they are all still vivid in my mind. Although the book has a central story, I did feel that it was more of a sketch and I do think you need to sort of settle into it rather than being in a rush. I will admit that at first didn’t find myself wanting to pick it up all the time but when I was reading it I became absorbed. I did feel that there were some slightly contrived parts in the novel but similarly I think that this reflects that the book was written for a purpose and to make the reader think about how children suffered during wartime, which it definitely achieves.

Overall I felt this was a very poignant and accomplished novel which while being very different to her children’s stories, demonstrates Streatfeild’s unique gift for inviting the reader to see life through the eyes of a child. Very interesting and thought-provoking.

Book Review – The Victorian Chaise-longue by Marghanita Laski

I think that I’m quickly becoming a devotee of Persephone Books. I think it’s a bit like a boutique, in the way that lovely gems of stories seem to be picked and gathered together so that you can try something a bit different but still be confident that the time you spend reading them won’t be wasted.

Although I used to work near to the Lambs Conduit Persephone shop, I only ever once wandered in by chance and at the time just saw lots of grey books (albeit very pretty ones) by authors I’d never heard of, and wandered out again. Much later, after reading glowing reviews of a number of Persephone publications I picked up a copy of The Shuttle from the library. Delighted with that I started looking out for the elegant grey spines whenever I pop in to borrow books and my second Persephone, The Victorian Chaise-Longue did not disappoint.

The Victorian Chaise-Longue came out in 1953 and was written by Marhanita Laski the daughter of the socialist thinker Harold Laski, and better known for being a journalist. The plot centres around a young married woman (Melanie) who, after giving birth and recovering from tuberculosis moves to recuperate on an antique chaise-longue and finds herself trapped inside the body of a young woman (Milly) 90 years previous. The normally pampered Melanie, frightened out of her wits, struggles to understand the situation and new identity.

The Victorian Chaise-longue is less than 100 pages which I think was just right. Long enough to develop the character of Melanie and short enough to hold the suspense. I suppose you would categorise the book as a horror story – a very unusual one. I did think it had the feel of Rosemary’s Baby, with the element of the vulnerable young mother and it’s definitely an unsettling book.

I really enjoyed reading the character of Melanie. It seemed that Laski was making a comment about the way in which women can have an external ‘face’ with men which seems suppliant while actually being quite conscious and active in their behaviour.

“‘But I like you silly,’ said Guy, and so he does, thought Dr.Gregory, watching them. But Melanie isn’t the fool he thinks her, not by a long chalk, she’s simply the purely feminine creature who makes herself into anything her man wants her to be.”

I also liked the fact that Melanie was a vibrant and passionate character, much to the annoyance of her doctor:

“As he had expected, by the time he had finished Melanie was sitting bolt upright in bed, suffused with excitement. He sighed theatrically, and instantly she shot down again. Why, in heaven’s name, can’t she do things gently, said the doctor to himself.”

What I think is good about Laski’s storytelling is that it is a subtle. She sows the seed of an idea in the reader’s mind, but leaves you to think about what might have happened without exactly telling you. For example, throughout the story different characters allude to something that Milly has done which is sinful, then a confrontation with another character gives clues to what has happened. I found this element of obscurity worked really well, and I didn’t find it frustrating as I did when I read Henry James’ Turn of the Screw.

I really felt that I’d been treated to an original story in The Victorian Chaise-longue and one that was elegantly told. It’s not currently in print, unfortunately but if you like off-beat slightly unsettling stories like me I would definitely recommend you keep your eyes peeled for a second-hand copy.

What suspenseful stories have you read lately that you enjoyed?

The Shuttle by Frances Hodgson Burnett

If you pop by Novel Insights occasionally, you might notice that I updated my header today. I was inspired to do this for three different reasons. Of course the first reason is that I wanted something new for 2010. The other two reasons are to do with my latest favourite novel – The Shuttle by Frances Hodgson Burnett. The grey tone is inspired by Persephone books, which are beloved by bibliophiles for the simple grey exterior and beautiful end-papers. and the image in the header is of Scheherazade telling her tales, because the thing that struck me when I read this beauty of a book is what an absolutely wonderful storyteller Frances Hodgson Burnett was.

Frances Hodgson Burnett

Although, I had read The Secret Garden as a child and adored it, I didn’t realise that Frances Hodgson Burnett (1849-1924) was a prolific and in fact a very succesful writer. I don’t love introductions to novels as a rule, however I found Anne Seba’s foreword in the Persephone edition to be just the right amount of information and enlightening. I was left with the impression that she was an interesting, and strong woman, and I felt that this understanding meant that I was more aware when reading The Shuttle of her distinctive voice and led me to wonder how her own experiences might have impacted her very vivid characters.

If I had simply read the synopsis printed on the book (something about ships, international marriages and English drawing rooms) I don’t think I would have picked it up, but it came so highly recommended through Savidge Reads and Paperback Reader that I snapped it up when I saw it in the library.

In brief summary, it is the story of the weaving together of English society with American at the dawn of the new century. Glamorous American millionairesses marry debt-ridden landed gentry in tumbledown English country homes for better or for worse. Hardships are endured, but wonderful characters endure also!

The plot of the novel revolves around the marriage of Englishman Nigel Anstruthers, (a decidedly shifty character with a title but no money) to the sweet and simple American heiress Rosalie (Rosie) Vanderpoel. We are party to the dynamics of their marriage at the outset and then we skip a few years to when Rosie’s sister and heroine of the novel Bettina (Betty) comes to visit the Stornham estate. I was actually slightly over-excited at the name, as my Dutch Grandmother’s maiden name is Van de Poll and random fact – this is actually the reason that my name is Polly as it was her nick-name as a young woman. Vanderpoel is a version of the same name so there you go!

Anyway… even more exciting was the beautiful writing, characters and fabulous plot line. Betty Vanderpoel is a wonderful character and I felt as if Burnett had really poured her soul into creating her. In fact she almost wrote of her as a proud mother might. I loved this description of her:

“Her hair was soft and black and repeated its colour in the extravagant lashes of her childhood, which made mysterious the changeful dense blue of her eyes. They were eyes with laughter in them and pride, and a suggestion of many deep things yet unstirred. She was rather unusually tall, and her body had the suppleness of a young bamboo. The deep corners of her red mouth curled generously, and the chin, melting into the fine line of the lovely throat, was at once strong and soft and lovely. She was a creature of harmony, warm richness of colour, and brilliantly alluring life.”

And she is not only beautiful but strong, intelligent and wilful and with her family’s wealth, she wields power too. Nigel Anstruthers is the most fascinatingly vile character you could conceive, Rosalie is sweet and to be pitied, her son Ugtred is old before his years and always by her side.

Burnett introduced me to a fascinating piece of social history I never knew about, and conjured the feeling of the time vividly. There was an exploration of the relationships of husbands and wives at the time, which seemed to me to be quite bold in its criticism. The plot manages to combine social history with romance and gets seriously dark in parts. It is also funny! I laughed out loud a couple of times at G Selden’s character. Was it gripping? I read the nearly 500 pages in nearly two days – so take from that what you will.

I will definitely look out for more of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s writings and other Persephones to see what other forgotten treasures there are out there (I am quite enjoying finding less well-known books by famous authors at the moment such as The Red House Mystery by A.A. Milne). I think I will have to go on a pilgrimage to the Persephone bookshop in the not too distant future.

Have you read any Persephone books or can you recommend forgotten gems?