Tuesday 29 June 2010

The Greengage Summer

He laughed and put his arm round my neck, his hand under my dress. I jumped as, quite casually and calmly, he felt my breasts, but he took his hand away. "Deux petits citrons," he said and laughed. Citrons! Lemons! He laughed again at the outraged look on my face ...
Frustrated by the spoilt behaviour of her adolescent daughters, Mrs Grey decides to take them to the battlefields of France to teach them a lesson in humility. On the journey she becomes desperately ill and has to deposit her five children who range in age from four to sixteen at a French hotel on the Marne. The owner of the hotel, Madame Zizi, is reluctant to take the children in until persuaded by her English boyfriend the kindly and debonair Eliot.

Thus begins a wild summer for the children. Befriended by Eliot they roam, Les Oillets, and its ancient orchard with seven alleys of greengage trees while their mother recuperates. Narrated by Cecil (short for Cicely) who is literally on the verge of womanhood it soon becomes apparent that the Gatsby-like Eliot is not all he seems. With her elder sister, Joss, blossoming daily matters come to a head when a party is held at the hotel and Joss decides to wear a dress called Sin.

Sunday 27 June 2010

Miss Happiness and Miss Flower

Miserable and homesick for India and her beloved ayah, eight-year old Nona is growing up with her cousins in England. When her great aunt sends two Japanese dolls, the sensitive Nona sees that they, too, are displaced and sets about finding them a Japanese dolls house enlisting the help of siblings, friends and strangers and building her own confidence in the process.

The details of the construction and furnishing of the dolls house are fascinating - sliding screens, a niche for a scroll and ikebana, tiny silk quilts and cushions and bamboo mats. Just as the dolls are about to move into their house. Nona's jealous cousin Belinda decides to take Miss Happiness for herself.

Rumer Godden's stories for younger children may feature dolls but there is a lack of sentimentality about them which makes them immensely vivid and real. Remember the cruel doll Marchpane in The Dolls' House? Re-reading Miss Happiness and Miss Flower kind of makes me wish I hadn't put my MA in Children's Literature on hold.

Saturday 19 June 2010

Rumer Godden

Nan used sometimes to play charms with them. She dropped pieces of lead tinfoil into a saucepan of boiling water, and, when they were softened, she lifted them out with a spoon on to a cold plate where they hardened. Whatever shapes they made told your future.
Four children, Bea, Harriet, Bogey and Victoria are growing up in colonial India. They live in a beautiful house with an exotic garden containing jacaranda trees, poinsettias, bamboos, bridal creepers, passionflowers and Harriet's special cork tree. Sitting on the veranda their Nan makes charms to tell their future. Bea's takes the shape of a ring, Harriet's a globe, Victoria's a bucket and Bogey's refuses to coagulate and take shape .

Like The Greengage Summer and The Peacock Spring, The River is one of those perfect coming-of-age novels which Godden excelled at. Told from the point of view of Harriet, a literary child on the verge of womanhood who keeps journals and writes stories, we learn of her jealousy of her beautiful older sister, Bea, who no longer wants to be her playmate and her affection for her rough and tumble brother, Bogey, whose penchant for searching for cobras in the garden ends in tragedy.
As Julie Myerson writes in her charming introduction to The River:

Plenty of great novels boom large and loud, but just occasionally along comes one so tiny and sneakily perfect that it stops you in your tracks.
I've never been lucky enough to come across a Rumer Godden novel in a second-hand bookshop so I'm collecting these bright and summery re-issues by Pan Books to read over the coming weeks.

Saturday 12 June 2010

George Eliot

I'm off to Coventry for a few days next week on a training course for work. I'm taking George Eliot - the Last Victorian by Kathryn Hughes and I've discovered that Mary Anne Evans lived in Coventry as a young woman. I do like a timely literary connection!

I've finished my re-read of The Mill on the Floss. Although not as perfectly constructed as Middlemarch it is beautifully written and who could not love Maggie Tulliver, the passionate and intelligent daughter of a mill-owner who longs for a cultured life. I enjoyed the conversations between Maggie's awful aunts - one penny-pinching, one extravagant and one who sits on the fence (surely some Austen influence there) and Bob Jakins clever sales pitch to Aunt Glegg when he flatters her into buying his damaged fabrics. The ending is foreshadowed throughout the novel and I won't give it away ... just keep a box of tissues handy!

I've read Silas Marner and Middlemarch but I'd like to read more Eliot when I've finished the biography. Any suggestions?

Tuesday 1 June 2010

Elizabeth Bishop

The art of losing isn't hard to master;
so many things seemed filled with the intent
to be lost that their loss is no disaster

Lose something every day. Accept the fluster
of lost door keys, the hour badly spent
The art of losing isn't hard to master.

Then practice losing farther, losing faster:
places, and names, and where it was you meant
to travel. None of these will bring disaster.

I lost my mother's watch. And look! my last, or
next-to-last, of three loved houses went.
The art of losing isn't hard to master.

I lost two cities, lovely ones. And, vaster,
some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent.
I miss them, but it wasn't a disaster.

-Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture
I love) I shan't have lied. It's evident
the art of losing's not too hard to master
though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.

A visit to Bath over the weekend meant a trip to Mr B's Emporium of Reading Delights an independent bookshop with extremely friendly and helpful staff, bowls of cheerful flowers around the store and a reading room upstairs. I also found this beautiful edition of Elizabeth Bishop's collected poems. The poem above is a villanelle called One Art.

I've been meaning to read more Bishop since discovering her poetry on the American Literature module I took a few years ago. Difficult to say whether the attitude to loss in this poem is flippant or sorrowful and the meaning seems to change each time you read it. What do you think?