A Taste of Lucy Boston

November 29, 2013 § 1 Comment

The stone giant strode across the lawns with his bare feet and soon came to the river.  At the edge there was thin, loose ice that shivered like a window-pane as he stepped in. The water rushed round his legs and the reflection of the moon was torn to wet ribbons.  (The Children of Green Knowe)

He looked backwards and saw his own dragging footprints like wounds in the snow.  (The Children of Green Knowe)

In those days an arrival was a real and prolonged excitement. Instead of a mere sweep of headlights so dazzling in their approach as to make everything else invisible and the brisk slam of a car door, there was first the clatter of the postillion’s hooves on the gravel to announce that the chaise was following. Then the wonderful moment of certain expectation when everyone ran out with lanterns. The chaise was heard bowling up the drive and the leading horses came into the swinging lantern light, and it shone fierily on wheels and windows, on horses and grooms and footmen, and on the ladies being handed out by gentlemen.  (The Chimneys of Green Knowe)

When he had shown it [the eel] to the others he hurled it up into the sky where it shone silver for a moment before entering the water again with no splash at all, like a needle entering silk.  (The River at Green Knowe)

The entrance hallway was delightfully enclosing and reassuring, full as always of flowers and birds’ nests, the lights relayed from mirror to mirror all down its length, and all the scatter of happy living—secateurs, baskets, books, letters and anything-to-hand lying on the tables.  (An Enemy at Green Knowe)

Its [Green Knowe’s] atmosphere was as certain and permanent as the smell and sound of the sea in a shell.  (An Enemy at Green Knowe)

 Its [leopard] narrow body passed through the undergrowth like an eel through water-weeds.  (A Stranger at Green Knowe)

Ping loved the meals he had with Mrs. Oldknow. There was just enough ceremony to make each occasion feel like a special one. It was not a discipline that cramped but a ceremony that one could play with and expand and even laugh at.  (A Stranger at Green Knowe)

 They ran, so buffeted and tossed that Ping might have been a detached willow leaf and the old lady a dress on the line.  (A Stranger at Green Knowe)

 The rain intensified till it was almost unbroken water. It hissed, it roared, and Ping could no more see out of the window than if a hose had been playing on it. The lighting, launched its sizzling missiles into the helpless earth while the thunder sounded like broken sky whose crashes and avalanches could be heard rumbling away in unimaginable distance. (A Stranger at Green Knowe)

 The basket which he examined was an old-fashioned kind having a handle across the centre and a hinged lid on either side. He looked like a very important gentleman taking a picnic in a quiet spot, having shaken off even his secretary. Ping admired again his appearance of being superbly well dressed—black bearskin sleeves, silver-grey shirt and opossum trousers, worn with style and pride as if he were fully conscious that he was turned out to strike the fear of God into lesser beings. But now he was off duty, enjoying himself in  privacy. He looked first in each side of the basket to see what had been provided, and made his choice. The sandwiches looked ridiculously dainty in his massive hands but he ate them one by one, taking his time and savouring the different flavours—egg and lettuce, cream cheese and tomato, brown bread and honey, and he glanced at Ping as if to say: That’s something I never had served to me in the zoo.  (A Stranger at Green Knowe)

 

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Lucy Boston

November 29, 2013 § 1 Comment

Not all writers write well. Yet writers who do not write particularly well may go far, may even win prizes: prizes that are awarded for, amongst other things, literary merit. Such writers distinguish themselves sufficiently by writing a “strong” story.  A writer who writes very well, but whose ability to develop a story is less certain will never fare as well as the “storyteller”.

Lucy Boston was not a great storyteller but she was a writer of distinction. Her home Hemingford Grey was the inspiration for the Green Knowe novels. She wrote six, but only the five written in sequence concern us here.

The series begins with The Children of Green Knowe (1954). Tolly visits his great-grandmother Mrs Oldknow in her house Green Knowe for the first time. Green Knowe is 900-years-old. Through his great-grandmother’s storytelling and his own sightings of ghosts (or does he sight ghosts, is it make-believe?) we meet Toby, Alexander, and Linnet who lived at Green Knowe around the time of the Great Plague.

The stories told about Toby, Alexander, and Linnet do not relate to each other particularly. Their stories form a sort of patchwork in which we discern no pattern. They are pleasant stories but not compelling. If the stories had coalesced better, the book would have been a far more powerful one.

The second Green Knowe book The Chimneys of Green Knowe (1958) is a great advance on the first. Toby, Alexander, and Linnet, though deeply involved in the history of Green Knowe, do not appear. We can’t help but feel that Lucy Boston will banish characters from Green Knowe when they can serve no useful purpose in another story.

Susan’s story succeeds better than those of Alexander, Toby and Linnet’s because her story has a beginning, middle, and end. We see her in the beginning, constrained, not so much by her being blind but by the attitudes of her nanny and mother to her blindness. Her world is opened up by Jacob, a small black boy, brought from Barbados to be her companion. Jacob helps Susan to interpret the world around her, and also the world which Susan has not experienced, such as the sea.  We are not to like Susan’s frivolous mother or selfish brother Sefton. Neither character cares very much for Green Knowe: generally only good people care for Green Knowe.

In The Chimneys of Green Knowe we are swept along by one main story. What will happen next? What will become of Susan and Jacob? Will Sefton come to a bad end?

Lucy Boston is going from strength to strength, we expect very good things of The River at Green Knowe (1959), but we are most shockingly disappointed. Mrs Oldknow has let Green Knowe to an academic, Dr Maud Biggins and her friend, Sybilla Bun (she is very preoccupied with food) for the summer. Mrs Oldknow’s departure is the first in a series of departures from reality. The letting of Green Knowe is a contrivance to allow “new” children even greater freedom than they would have had with Mrs Oldknow. As Mrs Oldknow is deeply involved in the life and history of her home, it would have been hard to exclude her completely from any adventures: the only thing to do was banish her completely.

Dr Biggins is far too engrossed in her study of giants that once inhabited the earth to bother herself much with the children. The only stricture imposed is that they should turn up to meals on time. It is a wonder that it ever occurred to Dr Biggins to give the refugee children, Ping and Oscar, a holiday. (Ida is related to her.)

The children concern themselves very little with the house, Green Knowe, and are entirely taken up with the river.

Had Mrs Boston a number of story remnants which she wanted to find a receptacle for and thought to unite them all as adventures had on the river? But these adventures are without sufficient bounds. Mrs Boston is not at the helm of her story. As the children drift around on the river, so the story drifts too. We are not even restricted by the 900-year-history but venture back to stone-age people. Neither do we stick to the real world but venture into the fantastical, we have flying horses, and a shrinking Oscar (Or was that a dream?). As Mrs Boston so ably deals with the real world and its phenomena, we cannot quite understand why she had to go on such flights of fantasy. For example, the children’s meeting with a London man turned wild man, one of the realistic phenomena, is more interesting than their meeting giants. (But we do question the wild man’s ability to induce himself to hibernate.)

In The River at Green Knowe we feel that anything and everything could happen but this is a negative rather than a positive feeling.

We do not know what to make of The River at Greene Knowe. It doesn’t seem to belong in the series. What have Green Knowe and Mrs Oldknow to do with the story?

Now if I were just recovering from the “shock” of The River at Green Knowe and Lucy Boston approached me with the idea for her next Green Knowe novel, I should have tried to steer her away from it: hadn’t it been abundantly proved that the further back in time Mrs Boston went, or the further geographically her stories took place from Green Knowe, the more everything failed.

A Stranger at Green Knowe (1961) opens in the Congo in an equatorial forest where we make the acquaintance of a Gorilla family. And yet this book about the Gorilla, Hanno, who is captured and taken to a Zoo in England from which he later escapes to Green Knowe is Mrs Boston’s triumph. Were we to make a line graph of her art, we should, after the sharp descent of The River at Green Knowe, now rapidly ascend to the apex of her achievement.

The ‘ordinary’ and ‘everyday’ did not interest Mrs Boston very much and she certainly did not want to write about them. A writer who risks writing about ‘everyday’ things may write dull stories, and the writer who favours drama may well write of the far-fetched and improbable. The lack of reality which infuses The River at Green Knowe is not present in A Stranger at Green Knowe. In writing of an escaped gorilla, already befriended by Ping who has met him in the zoo, we certainly have our dramatic story.

Readers, even in the very best stories, have to nod at something that is just a little unlikely. It is quite a coincidence that Ping should happen to be staying at Green Knowe when Hanno hides out there. But writers earn our indulgence and Lucy Boston, after conjuring up the Congo and gorilla family life, earned mine.

Lucy Boston’s characters aren’t always compelling. Up until now, apart from Susan and Jacob, we can take or leave them. However, we feel very drawn into the world of Hanno. We too become irresponsible. We approve of Ping’s actions in concealing the presence of the gorilla. We want Hanno to escape detection, to even perhaps make his way back to the Congo. Such is the power of the story that we want and hope for the impossible. But in this story Lucy Boston’s feet are firmly on the ground: the impossible does not happen and the climax is superbly emotional.

Ping’s status as a refugee child, which was really of no importance in The River at Green Knowe, resonates here. Who better to feel for Hanno in his little cement-floored cage in the Zoo than the child who has been displaced too: from one cement-floor to another.

Some writers are content to set out on a story without knowing how the story is going to end. We have, as readers, to wonder if that is the right approach, because when we read a story where the beginning contains the seeds of the end, we have a deeply satisfying experience. We feel A Stranger at Green Knowe took shape in Lucy Boston’s mind and that every incident was contributing to the inevitable end, an end that we wish were otherwise but we know is the right one.

For An Enemy at Green Knowe (1964), we are back in Green Knowe with Mrs Oldknow and Tolly and Ping. The evil Melanie D. Powers makes her appearance. She is trying to unearth some information about, or some of the effects of, a Dr. Vogel who stayed in Green Knowe centuries before. She is deep into black magic and in her efforts to wrest Green Knowe from Mrs Oldknow, she sends plagues of maggots and cats and even resorts to more conventional, if very implausible, legal fraudulence.

Here we feel that Green Knowe’s long memory and history gave Lucy Boston an unmanageable freedom. In 900 years there is little that could not, in theory, have happened in a house.

Maitland Pope, a rather detached scholarly tenant of Mrs Oldknow’s, is hardly to be deflected from his studies by the goings-on of Melanie Powers, but ultimately he does combine with them to defeat her.

This story compares well only to The River at Green Knowe, and is superior because it has a main story which does develop, if on improbable lines. Even the reactions of Tolly, Ping and Mrs Oldknow don’t accord with our notions of realistic behaviour. It is very possible to forget that Green Knowe is very close to civilisation, is in suburbia and there is a police force that might be called upon.

An Enemy at Green Knowe ends on what should be a moving note but we are not moved because Lucy Boston has not prepared us for this closing scene. The book has accustomed us to melodrama, and its echoes are too strident to let the book’s “poignant but happy” ending be felt.

Creating an interesting story with characters that act in a believable way is extremely difficult and, at times, defeats all writers. Most stories are weak in places. We accept that. What is often less acceptable is the way stories are written, the careless use of language, and  the use of similes and metaphors that not only fail to illuminate the writer’s meaning but also confuse the reader. Lucy Boston cannot be accused of any such faults. When we read Lucy Boston’s books we receive a masterclass in the art of describing nature in her many different moods. How might a writer, for example, describe a storm, a stone giant on a winter’s night, a gorilla and his family moving through an equatorial forest? Such phenomena present no problem to Lucy Boston. How writers must wish when engaged on that desperate business of description that the spirit of Lucy Boston would hover near and that she would throw to them some description that she never got round to using herself: it is unlikely to be surpassed by anything they will write.

Thomas Macaulay writes of Killarney, Co. Kerry, Ireland

November 5, 2013 § Leave a comment

Killarney is worth some trouble, Macaulay writes to Mr. Ellis. I never in my life saw anything more beautiful; I might say, so beautiful. Imagine a fairer Windermere in that part of Devonshire where the myrtle grows wild. The ash-berries are redder, the heath richer, the very fern more delicately articulated than elsewhere. The wood is everywhere. The grass is greener than anything that I ever saw. There is positive sensual pleasure in looking at it. No sheep is suffered to remain more than a few months on any of the islands of the lakes. I asked why not, I was told that they would die of fat; and, indeed, those that I saw looked like Aldermen who had passed the Chair.  (Macaulay visited Killarney in August 1849)

One of the boatmen gloried in having rowed Sir Walter Scott and Miss Edgeworth, twenty-four years ago. It was, he said, a compensation to him for having missed a hanging which took place that very day.  From Killarney, 24th August 1849

From The Life and Letters of Lord Macaulay by his nephew George Otto Trevelyan

I borrowed this book on 28th of September 2013 from Hornsey Library’s reserve stock. The borrower before me was supposed to return the book by 21st September 1972.

Who are all these authors?

April 30, 2013 § 1 Comment

Sometimes you can’t help but look around a library, a bookshop or a charity shop and wonder who all the authors of the shelved books are. Who are they? Why have they escaped our notice?

Over sixty years ago, George Orwell estimated that 10,000 books were published a year in the UK; now that figure is closer to 200,000.

Who are all these authors?

Some names are so familiar. On the literary front, to mention a few, Ian McEwan, Graham Swift, Rose Tremain and, more recently, Tessa Hadley. The same authors are reviewed by different broadsheets. Will no one take a chance on an obscure author?

How often do these names crop up in bestseller lists: Lee Child, Clive Clusser, and Martina Cole. Their thick-spined books can’t be missed. Yet I haven’t read a book by any of them.

Would we ever get to know about most of the Man Booker prize contenders, if they did not make that shortlist? It is so hard to become known, to have a name that means anything to the browser in shops and libraries.

Then there are other award-winning writers from abroad, who we become aware of long after they have become famous in their own countries, (Claire Messud and Richard Russo).

And what about those other authors who are described as distinguished, who have won awards and who have written a number of books but their names mean nothing to us? Where are they now? Do they still write? Do they live off the proceeds of their writing? Perhaps they have a loyal following: readers who await their next book with impatience.

And we must not forget about the vast legion of unpublished writers. Are they like the characters in Tama Janowitz’s short story ‘Physics’: Most of the people, I know were doing one thing but considered themselves to be something else: all the waitresses I knew were really actresses, all the Xeroxers in the Xerox place were really novelists, all the receptionists were artists.

What might Jane Austen have said to Elizabeth Bowen about ‘The Heat of the Day’: A writer must be wary of introducing circumstances of apparent consequence which lead to nothing

March 12, 2013 § Leave a comment

A new intimacy evolves among those who have not fled, and the carelessness of people with no future flows through the evening air. Stella is part of this society. Living in strange rooms, she holds on to the past and weaves the present around Robert, her lover, and Roderick, her son.

Then she discovers that Robert is suspected of selling information to the enemy and that Harrison, who is trailing Robert, wants to bargain, the price for his silence being Stella herself. Slowly, the flimsy structures of Stella’s life begin to break into pieces around her. Extract from Vintage Classics blurb of The Heat of the Day.

Elizabeth Bowen is excellent at scene setting and making interesting relations between characters. One such scene is Louie’s encounter with Harrison in the park. Yet the full significance of the various characters and how they relate to each other is not made clear to me. Various scenes in the book appeared portentous. Of what did they portend? What did the hints and implications amount to? Here is a list of some things that puzzled me:

1. Why have the two disparate stories of Louie and Stella been put together?

2. Nettie, wife of the deceased Francis, is apparently mad and is confined to a home. What form did her madness take? Something dark seems to be hinted at, but it is never elucidated.

3. Why does Robert a grown man address his unmotherly mother as ‘Muttikins’?

4. We are to understand that the Kelways are an odd family: is their oddness responsible for Robert’s supposed treachery? The Kelways don’t seem at all like real people. And as novel people, I don’t understand their function.

5. Mrs Kelway gives a parcel (containing socks, I think) to Stella. She is insistent that it be posted from London as there is no Sunday evening collection where they live. Stella gives this parcel to Harrison to post. A lot of attention is drawn to this parcel: are we supposed to draw some deduction?

6. Roderick is uncomfortable about inheriting Mount Morris in which Nettie (the deceased’s wife) is given no share. He visits Nettie to appease his conscience and to discover if she is as mad as it suits people to think. Their meeting doesn’t throw enough light on anything but seems only to present more unanswered questions. Have bad things been done to Nettie?

7. Louie’s thinking is too involved for someone who often behaves in a perversely stupid manner.

8. Why did Elizabeth Bowen give Stella the married name of Rodney.  Her son’s name is Roderick, so he is Roderick Rodney. Her lover is called Robert. ‘Rodney’ and ‘Robert’ and ‘Roderick’ is a confusing list. Harrison’s name is also Robert. But as we only discover the duplication towards the end of the book, it does not matter.

Elizabeth Bowen, no doubt, worked much into The Heat of the Day in the time (1944-1949) she wrote it which the casual reader does not perceive. Elizabeth Bowen was not a casual writer who wrote words for the sake of filling up her pages. The following two quotations from her ‘Notes on Writing a Novel’ indicate the purposefulness of what she intended to write:

The weak novelist is always, compensatorily, scene-minded. (Jane Austen’s economy of scene-painting, and her abstentions from it in what might be expected contexts, could in itself be proof of her mastery of the novel.)

What must novel dialogue . . .  really be and do? It must be pointed, intentional, relevant. It must crystallize situation. It must express character. It must advance plot.

I accept that as a reader I am often deficient. I may read carelessly, and not take in the literal words never mind their meaning. But even allowing for my deficiency, it seems there is some deficiency in The Heat of the Day. I supposed everything mentioned had significance but I did not know what the significance of some characters’ actions were. There seemed to be a foreshadowing of some revelations about the shady doings of cousin Francis.  Our appetite was whet for disclosures that never materialised.

Elizabeth Bowen could hardly have be unaware of introducing circumstances “of apparent consequence, which will lead to nothing.”* So what was going on in The Heat of the Day?

Jane Austen to Anna, 1814: Jane Austen Selected Letters 1796-1817 edited by Chapman

What is the matter with Cyril Hare’s Frank Pettigrew (‘Tragedy at Law’)?

March 1, 2013 § 1 Comment

Hare showed from the first an agreeable liveliness in writing dialogue, and an unusual capacity for using his legal knowledge. In his fourth book, Tragedy at Law (1942), his gifts coalesced, and the account of the life of a judge on circuit is done with a sense of comedy and a feeling for character that keeps one totally absorbed in the misadventures of the Honourable Sir William Hereward Barber, Justice of the King’s Bench Division of the High Court of Justice. Julian Symons in Bloody Murder

I feel indebted to the late Julian Symons for bringing Tragedy at Law to my attention. I first read Tragedy at Law (borrowed from Highgate Library) about three years ago. I recollect reading the start with a great deal of pleasure, but feeling dissatisfied with the end.

The plot was not entirely satisfactory. But that would not have been a cause for dissatisfaction: the resolution of a crime novel rarely is satisfying.

Last Autumn I bought my own copy of Tragedy at Law from Oxfam. In January, I chanced to pick it up, intending to read only a few pages. All the same, I carried on reading until I finished it. Not only does Cyril Hare write well but he writes with a particular kind of English good-humoured humour that I take great pleasure in. Those who knew Barber best used to say that whenever he was particularly faddy or exacting he invariably excused himself by referring to the high standards set by his colleagues or, in their default, his predecessors. One had a vision of a great company of masterful beings, in scarlet and white, urging on the modest Barber to abate no jot of his just dues in the interests of the whole judiciary of England, past and present. Certainly Barber usually showed no reluctance in obeying their summons. (Chapter 1)

Cyril Hare shows a fine management too of the long sentence: a type that the writer can so easily lose control of. In place of the monastic seclusion of the Canon’s house in the Close, the Judge’s household was lodged in a gaunt Victorian mansion, with vast ill-furnished rooms which contrived to be at once chill and stuffy, whose huge plate-glass windows gave on to a wilderness of smokey chimneys by day and raised perpetual difficulties over the black-out at night. (Chapter 9)

There are so many good things, the atmosphere, the personalities and the real sympathy we feel towards an intelligent barrister like Frank Pettigrew who has not had so successful a career as it first promised to be. Looking back at the confident, and—he could fairly say it now—brilliant young man who had opened his career at the bar beneath that self-same flaking plaster ceiling, he fell to wondering what had gone wrong with him. Everything had promised well at first, and everything had turned out ill.  [Then Pettigrew thinks less about blaming other things and more about acknowledging some deficiency in himself.]  Something that he lacked and others, whom he knew to be his inferiors in so many ways, possessed in full measure? Some quality that was neither character nor intellect nor luck, but without which none of these gifts would avail to carry their possessor to the front? (Chapter 1)

Pettigrew is intelligent and good-humoured but he didn’t attract Hilda, William Barber’s wife. She, we infer, had a chance to marry Pettigrew (the long drawn out agony of his pursuit of Hilda, and What a dance she had led him on!) but she didn’t take it. Why? It is hard to see why William Barber attracted her unless it was because he made a lot of money at the bar (before he became a judge) or she wanted to vicariously enjoy a legal career by manipulating her husband’s. (Hilda had been called to the bar, but, in those days, her career was hampered by the fact that she was a woman.)

We are not the only ones who wonder why she married William Barber. He is not a nice man. Independently, her brother and Sebald-Smith (the victim of the pivotal car accident) both wonder aloud, to her face, about her choosing to marry William Barber. She does not satisfy their curiosity or ours. (Was this a novelist’s sleight of hand? In the sense that Hare decided to deal with the strangeness of the marriage by showing us he was aware of it.) Do we just accept the marriage. There are marriages which the imagination, even the most practised literary one, cannot conceive. You must just accept them, as you do in the theatre when you see the ancient and doddering married to the beautiful and gay, as the given premises on which the farce is mechanically built up. (Little Lizzy by Thomas Mann)

The marriage between Hilda and William is not, in truth, farcical, we simply feel dissatisfied by it. As we are, in real life, when we can’t account for marriages between certain people.

But these wonderings are beside the point: why didn’t I enjoy Tragedy at Law more? I lay the blame on the character of Frank Pettigrew.

Pettigrew took his defeat [at the hands of William Barber] with resignation, with good humour even. He put up a semblance of a fight, but he knew he was beaten, and it was not his habit to prolong the agony in hopeless cases. In this, perhaps, he was unwise. Clients are human, and derive much consolation from “a good fight”, however vain. (Chapter 6).

But perhaps Cyril Hare made a mistake in the drawing of Frank Pettigrew’s character. There is room in literature for the brilliant man and the bitter unsuccessful man, but the mild unsuccessful man appeals less. We are human too and we want something more than a middle-aged, unsuccessful barrister. From my first reading, I remembered Pettigrew only as a recessive middle-aged man disappointed in love, unsuccessful there as well as at the bar.

When I came to the book again I was surprised to find that he was so humorous, intelligent, feeling and sympathetic. We don’t see very much of him in the second half of the book. As a main character, he should have appeared more. He begins even then to fade in our minds.

Frank Pettigrew’s personality is overcast by his failure. In recollection, he is far less interesting than he really is. His failure dims him too much.

Justice Barber did not act fairly by Frank Pettigrew. Some of Barber’s actions are deliberate, some, perhaps, impersonal and no more than the actions of a man who is not admirable. We are to understand that Justice Barber was deeply influenced by Hilda  that she, in fact, wrote his judgements for him. Why didn’t Frank Pettigrew resent Hilda a little more? His career needed a boost not judgements from Williams Barber that were made more damaging by her meddling.  We would have had more sympathy for Pettigrew, if he had liked Hilda (the person who is harmful to him) less. We can’t feel for him if he doesn’t feel for himself. Most people, when they have been bitten, do not put out their hand to be bitten again, and we don’t respect them when they do.

Why was Frank Pettigrew hanging around unmarried all that time? Later he marries, so why did Cyril Hare make him wait so long? We can only hope it was not because of Hilda. His constancy to Hilda when she had made her life with another man, and one Pettigrew did not like, seems neither natural nor admirable. What was he waiting for? Characters who don’t feel enough for themselves have a neutralising effect on the emotions of readers. We don’t want them to wallow in self-pity but we want them to feel something so we can identify with them. Futh in The Lighthouse by Alison Moore produced a similar but more pronounced reaction in me; he seemed to be abnormally passive. In such cases, it is hardly my place, as a reader, to usurp the functions of a fictitious character and experience emotions which that character neither can nor will experience.

Tragedy at Law does deserve a place in the top 100 crime novels of all time. But I would consider that no. 85 is too low.

Don’t sink below the Whipple Line: Virago would not publish Dorothy Whipple, Persephone did

February 26, 2013 § 2 Comments

Wouldn’t we like to be Nicola Beauman, founder of Persephone Books? Wouldn’t we like to be the person that others must please, the person with the power to say ‘No’ ? I rather fancy the idea of sitting on the other side of the desk, being the one in charge. Let others try to please me for a change, because I am tired of trying to please them.

Persephone reissues books, but only those that Nicola Beauman likes.

Nicola Beauman had for much of her life, probably, no intention of founding her own publishing company. Years ago she tried to persuade Carmen Callil (Virago) to reissue the novels of Dorothy Whipple. But the novels of Dorothy Whipple were not at all to Carmen Callil’s taste. They were not good enough. We had a limit known as the Whipple line, below which we would not sink (Carmen Callil to the Guardian, Saturday 26 April 2008).

What are you supposed to feel when your read that, and like Dorothy Whipple’s novels? Are you to conclude that you have bad taste or even worse that you have a taste for the middlebrow?

I do like the novels of Dorothy Whipple. She was the only relatively unknown author I discovered at home. Sadly for me, those books have since disappeared. The Other Day, Young Anne, Because of the Lockwoods, The Priory and High Wages were the ones I read. Of those books, Persephone has only reissued The Priory and High Wages.

However, I have enjoyed all the Dorothy Whipple novels that Persephone has reissued. Yet I don’t think that I preferred those that were new to me Someone at a Distance, They knew Mr Knight, They were Sisters and Greenbanks to those I had read before. Perhaps our affection for books is strongest for those we read when we were young.

If you too have had the bad taste to like Dorothy Whipple, no doubt you will be consoled to learn that the once highly-regarded Ivy Compton-Burnett* kept Dorothy Whipple novels in her bedroom. Perhaps she left Proust in the drawing room.

So Virago was having none of Dorothy Whipple. Time passed, Nicola Beauman came into some money, and Persephone Books came into being. One of those businesses that was born, in part, out of frustration: if you want something to be done, do it yourself.

Nicola Beauman has been vindicated: Dorothy Whipple is her best selling author. Does Nicola Beauman have a line she will not go below? Is it the Sharp line?

*Can’t recollect where I read this, perhaps in Ivy When Young by Hilary Spurling

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