Review 1412: Classics Club Spin Review! The Wise Virgins

The novel selected for me by the latest Classics Club Spin is The Wise Virgins by Leonard Woolf. This semi-autobiographical novel is partially about the courtship of Leonard and Virginia Woolf, in the characters of Harry Davis and Camilla Lawrence.

Harry and his family have just moved to the London suburb of Richstead and are shortly befriended by the Garland family, which has four unmarried daughters. Harry is disdainful of life in Richstead and of the fates of the spinster daughters, given up to good works or golf and tennis. The youngest daughter, Gwen, is naïve and gives undue weight to his discontented utterances. He amuses himself by giving her books and plays to read of Dostoevsky and Shaw.

In his art class, Harry is drawn to Camilla Lawrence, a cool beauty. When she invites him home, he finds it one of ideas and stimulating conversation. Camilla has suitors, but she is less interested in marriage than in a quest for self-fulfillment. She is repeatedly alleged to be passionless.

This novel was considered somewhat shocking in its time but was notable for examining the fates of conventional young women in Edwardian England. Harry is not a likable hero nor is Camilla very knowable. I personally did not like their glib and superior dismissal of whole classes of people. I always imagine the Bloomsbury circle snidely sniping at everyone else (and behind each other’s backs), and this novel didn’t make me rethink that idea.

This is probably taking the novel out of its time, but simply the continual reference to unmarried women by Harry as virgins irritated me to no end. He is so superior and supercilious. The introduction to the book says that “virgin” was synonymous with unmarried woman to Edwardians, but clearly for Harry there’s a sneer involved. One article I read calls Harry a truth-teller, but some of the things he says seem only designed to stir people up and make him seem more like eighteen than twenty-eight. Also uncomfortable for modern readers is the antisemitism that is accepted unquestioned by Harry and his family, who are Jewish.

Finally, there are lots of references to talking in this book, and for people who are looking for a purpose in life besides marriage and other predictable fates, they aren’t doing much actual acting. I think Woolf is pointing that out, though, by the chapter headings.

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Review 1405: Cakes and Ale – #1930Club

I previously read only one book by Somerset Maugham, The Razor’s Edge. Frankly, I did not enjoy that book about two frightful people tormenting each other.

That was a long time ago, though. So, when I saw Cakes and Ale listed under books published in 1930, I thought, Why not give the guy and another chance and read it for the 1930 Club?

Another book I have already reviewed for 1930 is As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner.

* * *

William Ashenden, a moderately successful writer, unexpectedly hears from Roy Kear, another writer. Although Kear is a perfectly pleasant fellow, Ashenden knows he wouldn’t be hearing from him unless he wanted something. But Kear doesn’t come directly to the point.

Around the same time, Ashenden receives an invitation from Mrs. Driffield, the widow of Ted Driffield, widely considered Britain’s most important late Victorian novelist. He ignores this summons as he doesn’t know Mrs. Driffield. Finally, Kear admits he wants to pick Ashenden’s brain. He is writing an authorized biography of Driffield, and Ashenden knew Driffield and his first wife, Rosie, when Ashenden was a young man. Rosie was a beautiful, vibrant force of nature who was massively unfaithful to Driffield. The second Mrs. Driffield has dragged Ted into respectability and is concerned for his legacy. She wants Kear to leave Rosie out of the biography even though Driffield’s most important work was written during their marriage.

This novel about class snobbery is also a character study of an unusual woman. Because of Rosie’s promiscuity, the novel was highly controversial in its time. I wondered whether Ted Driffield was supposed to be Thomas Hardy and found out that others had supposed that at the time, although Maugham denied it. He did admit that Kear was modeled after Horace Walpole, however.

I enjoyed this novel and am willing to give Maugham another trial. The movie of The Painted Veil that came out a few years ago was beautiful, so I may try it next.

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Review 1393: Friends and Heroes

Cover of Fortunes of WarAt the end of the previous book of Olivia Manning’s Balkan Trilogy, Harriet Pringle flew out of a besieged Bucharest without knowing whether Guy would be able to follow. She ends up in Athens, and the first person she meets is Prince Yakimov. Although he betrayed the Pringles to the Germans through his foolishness, Harriet is happy to see a friendly face.

Guy does arrive in Athens in the hope of getting a teaching job at the Academy. He finds Duderat and Toby Lush ensconced there as teachers. Although he employed them in Bucharest despite their lack of credentials, they do not repay his kindness with assistance. Instead, they lie to the director about him to prevent him getting a position. The director will not allow the Pringles to live at the Academy, so they find themselves with only a room to stay in and no money.

Even after they manage to establish themselves, Harriet feels alone. She understands that Guy considers her part of himself, but he therefore expends himself in work and helping others and hardly thinks of her. Out of loneliness, she finds herself attracted to a young soldier.

I didn’t like the turn the plot took with the soldier, whom I thought tiresome, but I have found this series more and more interesting. Although Friends and Heroes is the third book in the Balkan Trilogy, it ends with another evacuation and feels incomplete, so I feel compelled to read the second trilogy in the series Fortunes of War, the Levant Trilogy.

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Review 1388: Aurora Floyd

The heiress Aurora Floyd is the apple of her elderly father’s eye. At 19, she is dark and high-spirited, with a flashing eye and an air of pride. She has just returned from finishing school in Paris when Captain Talbot Bulstrode notices her.

From a family that prides itself on its blemishless past, Bulstrode is looking for a pure and wholesome wife. He is disdainful of Aurora’s interest in horses and racing. Altogether, he feels he would like his wife to be more like her cousin, Lucy Floyd. Nevertheless, he can’t take his eyes off Aurora even though there seems to be a shadow over her.

Aurora has another admirer, John Mellish, a large, bluff Yorkshireman who worships her at first sight. In the beginning, Aurora pays little attention to either man. Then she seems to favor Captain Bulstrode.

Aurora has a secret, however, that will threaten her happy future. It is not a difficult secret for the reader to guess, but when a murder is committed, she finds that it must come out.

Mary Elizabeth Braddon was a writer of popular Victorian sensation novels, combining melodrama, intense emotion, and crime. Her best-known work is Lady Audley’s Secret, so if you are familiar with that, you know what to expect. The story evokes some true suspense, and the main characters are either likable or despicable, as intended. Occasionally, Braddon departs into little lectures, some of them loaded with literary allusions. They reminded me of some of Dickens’s writing, only I found them a little cumbersome and overbearing. Still, this novel is readable and generally moves forward at a good pace. I enjoyed it.

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Review 1384: The Spoilt City

Cover of Fortunes of WarThe Spoilt City is the second book of Olivia Manning’s Balkan Trilogy. I was confused about why this series had two series names until I read recently that this trilogy along with her Levant Trilogy are called The Fortunes of War.

The war, of course, is World War II. The Spoilt City begins during the summer of 1940 in Bucharest. When newly married Harriet Pringle arrived in the city less than a year before, it was opulent in its wealth, and Romania being agriculturally rich, loaded with good food. Although the country is neutral, it has been sending most of its food to Germany, and now it is becoming difficult to find anything good to eat.

King Carol has been trying to maneuver between threats from Germany and Russia. Romania has been an English ally, but when Russia is rumored to be ready to invade, Carol throws his lot in with the Germans. They immediately cede large portions of Transylvania to Hungary. The Iron Guard, an outlawed group of Fascists, reappear in the streets, and Germans begin arriving. People begin calling for Carol’s abdication. The English, who were formerly welcome, begin to feel threatened.

Harriet, who has married on three weeks’ acquaintance, is beginning to understand her husband, Guy. While he is popular with everyone and has an open, gregarious nature, he glosses over difficulties that she must tend to. He has offered the impoverished Prince Yakimov a place to stay while he acted in Guy’s play. When the play is over, Harriet doesn’t know how to get rid of him. Later, Yakimov repays this hospitality with a foolish betrayal.

The impending Drucker trial is all anyone talks about. Drucker, a wealthy Jew, is facing trumped-up charges after refusing to hand over his oil leases to the King’s mistress. Much of the family money is in the name of his son, Sasha, who has been forced into the army. Sasha, formerly Guy’s pupil, deserts and comes to Guy for help. Guy and Harriet hide him in a room on the roof, another danger to them.

Now that things have got going, I found this second book a lot more interesting than the first. I didn’t really like Harriet in the first book but found her much more likable in the second. With such a naïve and impractical husband, she is often faced with having to take care of unpleasantness. I am looking forward to the third novel and will probably also read the Levant Trilogy.

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Review 1381: Miss Ranskill Comes Home

When I read that Miss Ranskill Comes Home is about a woman stranded on a desert island, I thought of some romantic comedies from the 50’s. But the novel is more serious than that. It’s about a woman struggling to find her place in a world completely changed.

The novel opens with Miss Ranskill burying the Carpenter, which is what she called the man who was her companion on the desert island where they both have been stranded since falling overboard. The Carpenter died, but he left her the boat he’d been building. When she casts off, hoping to encounter a ship, she occupies herself with the stories they used to tell each other about going home.

Miss Ranskill is picked up by a ship, but World War II has begun since she was lost. She doesn’t understand how the world works or have any papers. She gets off to a bad start after she arrives in England when she leaves her escort out of embarrassment. Even when she returns to her sister, she is made to feel like an encumbrance. Having lived literally stripped to the essentials, she doesn’t feel much sympathy for wartime bureaucracy or the pleasure some seem to take in their deprivations.

This novel is an unusual one. At times I didn’t buy what happened to Miss Ranskill after she returned home, particularly her reception. I also got irritated with her seeming determination to ignore the rules of wartime, even if some of them were silly. Still, this is a thoughtful examination of some of the attitudes of that time and ultimately a touching story.

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Review 1376: A Harp in Lowndes Square

In a lonely attic, a neglected child sits and makes clothing for her doll out of old clothes. Everyone is out, surely, but she hears voices on the stairs. These voices belong to her two children, twenty years in the future.

Those children are twins, Vere and James, who have been taught by their mother that all time is simultaneous. The two do indeed experience flashes of visions and sounds from other times, events that occurred in the room years before.

Vere and James’s happy growing up, along with their sister, Lalage, is interrupted by the death of their father. The family is left in financial difficulties and must move from their suburban home to a small house in London. This brings their mother, Anne, back into the orbit of her own mother, the formidable Lady Vallant.

It is clear that, when she returns from visits to her mother, Anne appears to be more worn than usual. Anne’s children know that the two don’t get along and suspect that Lady Vallant harasses Anne. However, a chance remark reveals to them an aunt they didn’t know existed, Myra, who died when she was young.

Vere and James receive impressions of serious events that are not talked about. They begin trying to find out the secrets in their family’s past.

This novel is a ghost story but not in the sense of one meant to scare. It reflects Ferguson’s interest in houses and her sense that actions taken in a room stay in that room’s atmosphere. This idea also occupied A Footman for a Peacock, which I found considerably less likely than this novel, which is set during World War I.

I like a ghost story, but this novel has more going on than that. It’s a story of how family events can affect the lives of others who weren’t even alive when they happened. It’s a good character study of Vere, who cares deeply about a few people but is meticulous and reticent in nature. It is also about a chaste love affair with an older man—and his wife. I didn’t really understand the charms of that relationship, but I very much enjoyed this novel.

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