Sunday, February 27, 2011

Persephone Reading Weekend: Emma Smith and Margaret Oliphant

Little sheep that I sometimes am, I started collecting Persephone Books in March of 2009. After accumulating eight, I read my first, Julia Strachey's Cheerful Weather for the Wedding, a couple months later. While I certainly enjoyed it, I didn't find it deserving of level of fuss Persephone fans had lavished on these pretty dove-grey books. I ILLed an earlier edition of Christine Longford's Making Conversation, at that time one of the more-recent Persephone reissues, and it was at that point--now that I owned 11--that I began to wonder if I were wasting my time and money on these expensive books. Making Conversation was obviously an inside joke and I just. didn't. get it.

But here I am, participating in a Persephone Weekend, so you know this story's going to turn around, don't you?

Summer of 2009 I read Richmal's Crompton's Family Roundabout and Joanna Cannan's Princes in the Land and I adored the both of them. I have continued to enjoy all the Persphones I've read since, although these two remain my favorites. In fact, I wish Persphone would devote to Crompton the same attention given to Whipple--although I say that as someone who's managed to collect four Whipples without reading a one of them. Yet.

Last week I read one of my very first Persphone purchases, Emma Smith's The Far Cry, the 1949 winner of the James Tait Black Memorial prize for best novel.

He guided the Austin carefully over the planks on to the ferry. He wanted, he urgently wanted to say more, but hesitated, not wishing to antagonise her. He wanted to say: Yes, everything is different; differences are bewildering. Do not, in order to be rid of your bewilderness, attempt to reduce what is extraordinary to the limts of your ordinary appreciation. That is what most people do. They try to commonise, to reduce, because they are afraid of being bewildered. Let yourself be astonished. Be small. That is enough for you, and for me.

It's the story of a 14-year-old, Teresa, who is abruptly pulled from school and taken by her father to stay in India with a married half-sister and her husband. It seems that her father, a teacher, has a lot of unresolved issues where his ex-wife is concerned. When she writes that she'll be returning to England from the States now that her second marriage has ended, he determines, rather dog-in-the-manger-ish style since he doesn't have much of a relationship with their daughter himself, that he's not about to let them meet.

The novel details their hurried preparations, their journey to and through India, and life on a tea plantation, their ultimate destination. There's a lot of gorgeous description of India itself, the country, the people, its customs and celebrations. Midway through the book the focus shifts its focus from Teresa to her half-sister and husband, who despite their love for one another, have a most unhappy marriage, before circling back to Teresa, and where and how she should live.

I'm not in any way doing this book justice, but I highly recommend it!

Yesterday I read a selection from my latest Perspehone purchase--Margaret Oliphant's "Queen Eleanor and Fair Rosamond," the second novella published within The Mystery of Mrs Blencarrow. Claire and Desperate Reader both wrote about this one yesterday, so I'll send you off to read their reviews and won't attempt to duplicate another here.

I will say that I am always drawn to stories where the husband, the father of a large brood, walks out on his family without a word of explanation and the woman is left to carry on. (My favorite of these, indeed, one of my all-time favorite novels, is Anne Tyler's Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant. I thought a lot about the Tyler novel yesterday, so much so that I decided that it's time for another reread.)

Unlike many of these stories, Eleanor Lycett-Landon actually undercovers what's behind her husband's disappearance. She decides to make no attempt to get him back; her main concern is to keep the children from learning the truth. There is to be no legal action taken, no attempt at punishing their transgressor. She and the children will have to evade, equivocate, endure the questions asked about why Mr. Lycett-Landon never comes home, but that is Eleanor's choice, made despite the advice of one of her husband's cotton-broker business partners.

'You are mad!' cried the old man. 'You have lost all your good sense, and your feeling too. What, your own husband! you would let him go on living in sin--happy--'

She stopped him with a curious kind of authority--a look before which he paused in spite of himself.

'Happy!' she said; 'I suppose so; at fifty, after living honestly all these years!'

He stopped and shook his grey head. 'I have known such a thing before. It seems as if they must break out--as if common life and duty became insupportable. I have known such a case once before.' 

Why worry about punishment, or bringing daddy back home, when there is money enough for every day life to go on satisfactorily, happily, otherwise honestly, without him?

No wonder this Victorian era novella has been called un-Victorian!

I'm definitely interested in reading more works by Margaret Oliphant. I downloaded The Doctor's Family on my Kindle this morning.

And my thanks to Claire and Verity for hosting Persephone Reading Weekend. I would have let these books languish on the shelves for much longer without this little push.


  1. We're happy to give the push when required!

    Considering you like stories where the husband walks out, Someone at a Distance may be the best Whipple to start with.

    I haven't The Far Cry yet but do want to. I own the book and an apron made from the pretty fabric of the endpapers.

    Thank you for joining us for Persephone Reading Week, SFP.

  2. This is one that is new to me so I appreciate you educating me to this author. Thanks so much

  3. I remember when I started reading The Far Cry I wasn't all together loving it because of the main character but in the end I really liked it.

    You know Cheerful Weather for a Wedding I think was also my first Persephone and it was ok but I didn't love it but luckily almost every other I've read after I've really enjoyed. And, yes, you'll have to try Whipple soon :)

  4. Cheerful Weather was okay but I agree, I didn't get Making Conversation either. I read three Persephones in a row in January that were a little disappointing (the other two were Ruben Sachs and Farewell Leicester Square) so it was a huge relief to read Dorothy Whipple which broke the streak -- I read three more that were great. I've loved both of the Whipples I've read so far and I just finished my second Laski, Little Boy Lost. It was wonderful so you'll have to read Laski as well if you haven't already.

    The Far Cry is on my list of Persephones to buy next -- I'll have to put Mrs. Blencarrow on the list as well since I didn't win the drawing. :-(

  5. Anonymous2:26 PM

    I really enjoyed reading your post. The Far Cry and Princes in the Land were both options at the library when I was choosing my book for this weekend. Now I'm encouraged to try them both! I haven't read many Persephones (yet!) but can also highly recommend Someone at a Distance.



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