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At Home With …Virginia Woolf

Virginia Woolf at home

High on my wishlist of literary destinations to visit, is the weatherboarded cottage bought as a country retreat by Virginia Woolf and her husband Leonard. 

Monk’s House lies in the small village of Rodmell, a few miles south of Lewes, in East Sussex. The couple bought the place on 1 July 1919, paying £700 at an auction. 

Monk House, home to Virginia Woolf

Monk House was a fairly modest sized property dating from the sixteenth century. It had few mod cons but over the years the Woolfs made many additions and improvements. They upgraded the kitchen, installed a hot water range and a bathroom with water closet. In 1929 they added a two-storey extension. At some point they added a large conservatory. 

Monk House, Home to Virginia Woolf

Initially the house came  with three-quarters of an acre of garden including an orchard and a number of outbuildings. In 1928 the couple bought an adjoining field to preserve the beautiful views from the garden towards Mount Caburn.

Monk House had been purchased as a country retreat, a place where they could escape from city life, to read, write and garden. But they spent more and more of their time in Rodmell, eventually living there full-time from 1940 when their flat in Mecklenburgh Square, Bloomsbury, London, was damaged during an air raid.

Retreat From City Life

The solitude of village life allowed Virginia respite from the tumult of London. “This place has great charms” she said while noting that Monk’s House had no water, gas or electricity. It was a quiet existence in which she could retreat to write in a small wooden lodge at the bottom of the garden.  It was a purpose-built replacement for the converted tool shed she used in the early years at Rodmell. It was here, and in her bedroom (built as a sanctuary with no indoor link to the rest of the house) that she wrote  Mrs Dalloway To The Lighthouse and Orlando.

But this was not a solitary existence: many of the members of the Bloomsbury Group, including T. S. Eliot, E. M. Forster, Roger Fry and Lytton Strachey visited the house. Virginia documented their visits, together with other scenes at Monk House Monk’s House in a series of photographs, now held by Houghton Library, at Havard University.

The peace and tranquility of Monk House were not, however, sufficient to counter her concerns about her mental wellbeing. She lived in fear of a further mental breakdown; a return of the severe depression from which she had suffered for many years. On 28 March 1941, Woolf drowned herself by filling her overcoat pockets with stones and walking into the nearby River Ouse near her home.

The letter she left behind for her husband indicates her state at the time:

Dearest, I feel certain that I am going mad again. I feel we can’t go through another of those terrible times. And I shan’t recover this time. I begin to hear voices, and I can’t concentrate. So I am doing what seems the best thing to do. You have given me the greatest possible happiness. You have been in every way all that anyone could be. I don’t think two people could have been happier ’til this terrible disease came.

Virginia Woolf’s remains were buried under one of the two intertwined elm trees at Monk House which she had nicknamed “Virginia and Leonard.” Leonard marked the spot with a stone tablet engraved with the last lines from her novel The Waves:

Against you I fling myself, unvanquished and unyielding, O Death!
The waves broke on the shore.

After Virginia’s Death

Leonard continued to live at Monk’s House, playing an active role in village life as manager of the village school and president of the horticultural society.

Upon his death in 1969 the house was bequeathed to his close friend, the artist Trekkie Parsons, who sold it to the University of Sussex in 1972. It was eventually turned over to the National Trust in 1980.

Visitors to the property today find a house filled with the Woolfs’ art collection as well as personal items including a collection of 39 Arden Shakespeare plays that Virginia hand-covered and her portrait painted by her sister Vanessa.

Monk House, Virginia Woolf's final home
The sitting room at Monk’s House

Monk’s House is closed at the moment as a Covid-19 protection measure. But when it does re-open you can be sure I’ll be writing my name in that visitor’s book. Anyone else care to join me??

if this has whetted your appetite, take a look at the National Trust website for Monk’s House and drool over the photos of the garden. Or watch this short video

Passion and Cruelty in Turf or Stone by Margiad Evans [book review]

Turf or Stone is an “amazing, fantastical, invigorating reading experience” according to Kate Gramich in her foreword to the Library of Wales edition of  Margiad Evans’s novel. 

Turf or Stone

That was a long way from my experience. I find it hard to accept that such a dark, troubling and uncomfortable novel about the extremes of human emotion could be invigorating. Passion, violence and cruelty are ever present, with only a few moments of unexpected tenderness to lighten the darkness. 

We’re only a few pages into the book when this becomes evident. Mary Bicknor, a servant cum companion to an eccentric lady, is to be married. She has hitherto enjoyed a comfortable existence but falls from grace when she discovers she is pregnant by Easter Probert, a groom at a local farm.  The vicar hurriedly pushes the pair into marriage. But this is a relationship clearly doomed never to work. 

Disastrous Start to Marriage

The bride cries all the way through the marriage service. There are no witnesses or guests. Mary is presentably dressed but Easter turns up in old and dirty clothes. He’s forgotten a ring so at the last moment has to take a thick twisted one from his hand that is far too big for the woman. On their way home, he snatches the ring back and pushes her over into the mud

Easter continues to be a cruel husband. He’s a serial womaniser who takes pleasure in hurting and humiliating his wife. Mary is driven to despair. She contemplates suicide but finds comfort instead in an affair with her husband’s employer, a married man with three children. She applies for a legal separation order so she and her young son can start a new life away from both men. The novel ends with Easter on the receiving end of a form of poetic justice. 

A Monstrous Womaniser

n Easter, Margiad Evans has devised a protagonist who has few redeeming qualities. He is sullen, insolent and brutish. Appropriately Easter is described repeatedly in nightmarish, animalistic terms. When his employer’s daughter Phoebe hears him knocking the door one night, she’s confronted with the grotesque vision of a man peering through the window looking “livid, the upper teeth were showing and a large spider’s web, really on the inside, seemed at that distance to be hanging from his mouth. 

Enough to give you the creeps. Yet he has no trouble persuading women into his bed. He seems to have a strange and perplexing hold on them; they recognise the danger he presents and are repelled by him but they still don’t walk away.

Moral Complexity

However much he bears a resemblance to some brooding Gothic figure, Easter is not a caricature. Evans invests him with moral complexity, particularly in his relationship to women. We’re told he “loved women who were sad and gentle, and suffered him,” That word “suffer” is central to understanding his constant swings swings between sexual desire and hatred, between a desire to be loved and violence when he isn’t. 

He’s hoping that Mary will be kind towards him but when she doesn’t “suffer” him, he takes revenge in brutish behaviour. One of the most terrible scenes in the novel takes place when his wife is five months pregnant. He comes home with “a surprise”: a dead rat he puts into her bed.

And he pushed it deeper and deeper into her flesh, till, hanging round his neck, she dragged herself up, and with the poisonous little carcass crushed between them, seized him by the ear and tugged.They struggled furiously in the darkness.He did not strike her; he half carried, half dragged her across the room and poured a jug of water over her head. 

The details are horrific. Told that the “rats eyes are running, there are flies’ eggs in the fur, the tail’s half off,” Mary crawls away “like a thrashed animal in snarling despair” to cower with her face against the wall. The scene ends with Easter swamped by ‘voluptuous tenderness’ sleeping with her in his arms. 

Childhood Influences

Turf or Stone suggests the reason for his Easter’s appalling cruelty lies in his neglected childhood. Which created in him a deep seated desire for human warmth. I’m no psychologist but can’t see how violence will get him what he most desires. Even if I understood his motivation, it didn’t make me warm to him in any way, particularly when you see the predatory way he creeps around his employer’s fifteen year old daughter. 

This is a novel thick with misery and strife. Too much of it really for me to enjoy. If it had come with more light and shade, and if we’d been given more access to Mary’s side of the relationship, I think I would been more interested. I’d been looking forward to reading this having heard for years about Margiad Evans but in the end it was a disappointment.

Turf or Stone by Margiad Evans: Endnotes

Margiad Evans
Margiad Evans

Margiad Evans was the pseudonym of Peggy Eileen Whistler who though born in England developed a lifelong affinity with the Marches, the area on the English/Welsh border.

She became aquainted with this part of the world when she was a child and visited her aunt and uncle’s farm near Ross on Wye. Her family moved to a house just outside Ross when she was aged 12. After her marriage she went to live on a nearby farm.

Margiad Evans wrote extensively throughout her life: novels, short stories, autobiography and poems. She kept a journal, often written on scraps of paper or in exercise books. After her death her husband Michael Williams donated many of her letters, journals and diaries to the National Library of Wales.

Turf or Stone was her third novel, published in 1936.

In Death There is Still Joy: Dear Life by Rachel Clarke

Dear Life by Rachel Clarke

We live in an age when people share the most deeply personal aspects of their life with complete strangers.

Magazines are plastered with articles detailing celebrities’ experiences of eating disorders/sexuality/mental health/abuse just to mention a few. And I’m not sure how daytime television would survive if it didn’t have a steady stream of guests willing to open up on issues that a few generations ago would have been considered taboo.

But there’s one topic about which we are strangely reticent even though it affects every one of us. Death. 

t’s a form of denial, a basic human instinct to avoid what is uncomfortable. We even avoid using the actual word. Instead we turn to euphemisms which sound less direct, less harsh, less final in a sense. We don’t say a friend/relative died, they “passed away” or “passed over” or simply “passed”. 

The Fear Factor

Our own death is more difficult to contemplate than that of our loved ones. So we don’t prepare for it. We treat it a bit like those tax return demands, a task we know we have to deal with – but at heart we’re afraid. So the longer we can delay the task, the happier we are.

Few of us would, out of choice, spend our days surrounded by people whose time on this earth can be measured in weeks or days. 

But that’s exactly the world Rachel Clarke decided to embrace. After more than a decade as a doctor who fought to save lives, using every drug and machine at her disposal, she changed direction. Now as a consultant in palliative medicine she cares for people whose battle for life is over. A specialism that’s little understood or valued.

If neurosurgeons are the rock stars of the medical hierarchy – its sexy, alpha, heart-throb heroes – then palliative care doctors are the dowdy support act. A low-rank medical speciality, we lurk in the shadows, too close to death for comfort …. No one in the hospital is quite sure what we get up to, and usually does not wish to know either. Death is taboo for many reasons, not least the fear that it might just be catching.

Dear Life begins as an autobiography, charting Rachel Clarke’s life as the daughter of a hard-working dedicated GP. She considered following in his footsteps but instead followed the path of literature and the arts, becoming a television documentary maker. 

Rachel Clarke, author of Dear Life

In her late 20s she re-assessed her life, abandoned the broadcasting world and retrained as a doctor. What she witnessed in the emergency unit, convinced her to make palliative care her specialism. 

Despite my love of acute and emergency medicine, I found myself drawn to patients with life-limiting illness precisely, in part, because some other doctors ran a mile.

Learned Detachment

Clarke is critical of doctors she heard curtly despatching their patients to the “palliative dustbin” as if they felt that once in a terminal phase of illness, human lives were no longer worth engaging with. But she tempers her censure; acknowledging that from detachment is an essential requirement in the medical profession. It’s a lesson that begins the day that an aspiring doctor begins their medical training.

We might have chosen medicine because we wanted to help people, but doctors could not and should not allow their compassion free rein. … The challenge then for every doctor was to acquire sufficient detachment to be useful while maintaining one’s essential humanity.

That need for detachment is put severely to the test when death comes right to the door of Rachel Clarke’s own life. In his 70s her father was diagnosed with bowel cancer. Clarke was ever the professional as they discussed at length his diagnosis and his treatments. But as his health deteriorated and it was clear he was close to death, it was the daughter who took over, who bathed him just as he had once bathed her in childhood.

Candid and Sensitive

Dear Life is candid yet overwhelmingly sensitive and moving account of what it’s like to work in the world of the dying. A uncomfortable book to read you might think, one that would be far too depressing; too emotional, too heartbreaking. 

Of course it’s emotional. Of course it tugs at the heart. How could it not? But Rachel Clarke shows that even when people are at their lowest ebb, they have the capacity to love and embrace moments of unadulterated joy.  Dear Life gives us a wedding, a fiercely independent woman coiffured and dressed in pearls for her final bridge session and an elderly woman who had lovingly frozen portions of fruit and fish so her husband would be able to survive without her.

These anecdotes were the ones that brought the tears to my eyes. Because they’re not about death, but about life and how people like Rachel Clarke help us prepare to say goodbye in a way that truly means we can rest in peace.

Dear Life is quite simply a stunning book. I urge you to cast aside any fears it will touch on too many nerves and get yourself a copy. I guarantee you will not regret it.

A Novel of Two Unequal Halves: Dear Edward by Ann Napolitano

Dear Edward by Ann Napolitano

Two words sum up my reaction to Dear Edward by Ann Napolitano: Potential Unfulfilled.

This was a novel described variously by bloggers as “powerful”; “unique” and “dazzling” when it was published in January 2020. It turned out to be less exciting and thought-provoking than indicated by those reactions.

Dear Edward is a tale born out of a tragedy. On a summer morning, the Adler family board a flight for Los Angeles. They are swapping their New York residence for a new home in California where their mother can advance her career as a scriptwriter.

The plane crashes in Colorado mid flight , causing the deaths of 191 passengers. Only one person survives – twelve-year-old Edward Adler.

This is a novel of two halves.

One half  chronicles the effect of the crash upon the young boy, following him from hospital to his new home with his childless aunt and uncle. Physical therapists and a counsellor provide practical support but the biggest effect on his recovery is his friendship with Shay, the teenage girl who lives next door. With her support he begins to eat, get to school and, eventually to connect with the relatives of the passengers who died.

Coming of Age

This half of Dear Edward is essentially is a coming-of-age narrative in which Edward struggles with the loss of his family and his feeling that part of himself was also lost in the sky. It’s handled sensitively and with good insight into the psychological dimensions of grief and survivor guilt.

My problem with the book lay in its other half. In this Ann Napolitano winds back in time to the plane itself, recording the backstories of some of its passengers as it journeys to the moment of oblivion.

In the first class section there’s an irritable old business tycoon who is in the late stages of cancer. Across the aisle is a younger version of him, a Wall Street whizzkid with a drug abuse problem and Edward’s mother who is struggling to complete a script.

Back in the economy section are a soldier injured while on duty in Afghanistan, a larger-than-life woman who is running away from her controlling husband and a young woman flying to meet the man she hopes will be her partner in life.

Two Unequal Halves

My problem was that I didn’t feel these chapters really added much to the overall narrative. We already knew the plane crashed so all we were left with was the human interest angle. But I simply couldn’t connect with any of Ann Napolitano’s characters. They weren’t fleshed out enough to make me feel they were real and I never felt invested in their stories.

It might have made more sense if Dear Edward had just focused on the members of the Adler family. Or better still, just focused on Edward himself and how his survival impacts people who have never met him. These strangers feel a desperate need to reach out to him, sending him letters (hence the book’s title) asking him to fulfill the hopes and dreams of their loved ones who never made it.

How Edward responds to these expectations is one of the most interesting aspects of this book. The novel had so much potential to explore the consequences of a traumatic incident both on the immediate victims and the wider circle of friends and relatives.

I just wish Ann Napolitano had stuck to this main story rather than diluting the novel with, what to me, felt like a side story of the plane in motion.

Dear Edward by Ann Napolitano: End Notes

Ann Napolitano

Ann Napolitano is the Associate Editor of One Story literary magazine. She received an MFA from New York University and has taught fiction writing in the USA. She currently lives in Brooklyn.

Dear Edward is her third novel, following on from A Good Hard Look and Within Arm’s Reach. It was published by Dial Press in the United States, and by Viking Penguin in the United Kingdom.

My thanks to Viking for a proof copy in return for an honest review.

Copyright © 2020 bookertalk.com – All rights reserved

10 One Word Book Titles

This week’s Top Ten Tuesday topic is Books With Single-Word Titles.

I’m giving my list an international flavour because this week marks the start of two reading months celebrating the literature of Celtic nations. Wales Reading Month 2020 (otherwise known as Dewithon2020) and Irish Reading Month are highlights of the year. We’re also in the midst of the Japanese Literature Challenge.

So I’m going to build my list entirely from books by Welsh and Irish authors. that I’ve either read or have on my “to read” shelves.

Books

From Wales

Pigeon by Alys Conran: A debut novel from an author who is a talent to watch. Alys swept the boards at the  Literature Wales Book of the Year Awards 2017 with this tale of a prank by two children from broken homes. It goes disastrously wrong, with consequences for the rest of their lives.

Cove by Cynan Jones: A stunningly atmospheric novella about a man who is incapacitated while kayaking in the midst of a storm. All he hopes is to make it back to land, to the woman and unborn child who need him.

Resistance by Owen Sheers: a highly regarded novel which imagines what might have unfolded if wartime German troops had occupied a remote Welsh community.

Blacklands by Belinda Bauer: I had to include Belinda because she lives very close to my home! This is her award-winning debut work that is part one of a crime trilogy set on and around Exmoor national park in South West England. 

Ghostbird by Carol Lovekin : Lovekin’s novel draws on Welsh folklore, in particular the fables found in the collection of medieval Welsh folk tales known as The Mabinogion. 

From Ireland

Brooklyn by Colm Toibin: a quietly understated but no less effective novel set partly in a provincial Irish town in the early 1950s. The central character has to make a choice between remaining in the town with its limited opportunities or seeking a new life in New York.

Troubles by J G Farrell. This is the first title in Farrell’s Empire Trilogy. The plot concerns the dilapidation of a once grand Irish hotel (symbolic of the declining British Empire), in the midst of the political upheaval during the Irish War of Independence. Though it’s a commentary on the state of Ireland, the novel is very funny at time because the set is is rather bizarre with the frayed-around=the edges guests forced to share their accommodation with a large number of feral cats.

Milkman by Anna Burns: one of the most well-deserved winners of the Booker Prize in recent years. It takes patience to tune into the digressive, stream of consciousness narration where no character is given a name. But this novel set in Belfast, Northern Ireland during the 1970s Troubles is incredibly powerful.

Slammerkin by Emma Donaghue. This is one I bought several years ago (but have not yet read) after I read her hugely successful novel Room. Slammerkin is also a story of survival, this time set in the 1760s. It focuses on Mary Saunders, a teenage girl forced to make her own way in the world after being put out on to the streets by her callous mother.

Girl by Edna O’Brien: At the age of 88, Edna O’Brien, is showing no sign of losing her capacity to write thought-provoking novels that tackle contemporary issues. Girl is a story set in an unnamed country but is recognisably Nigeria and imagines the lives of the girls abducted by Boko Haram. This is high on my “to read’ list.

Do any of these appeal to you? What would you have put on your own version of this Top 10?

Take To The Streets With The Suffragettes in The White Camellia by Juliet Greenwood

The White Camellia is an atmospheric novel of family secrets and revenge set against the background of the Suffragette movement.

Juliet Greenwood plunges us into the lives of two women from vastly different backgrounds but united in their determination to control their own destiny.

One is Sybil Ravensdale, a Cornishwoman of lowly stock who has become a wealthy owner of hotels in the United States. When the book opens she has returned to England to expand her business and decides to buy Tressillion House, a Jacobean style manor on the Cornish coast that has fallen into disrepair.

The other is a young woman born into riches but now living in straightened circumstances in London with her widowed mother and younger sister. Beatrice Tressillion had to leave Tressillion House when her father died and the family was tainted with the scandal of an accident at a mine on the estate.

Revenge And Mystery

As the story unfolds it’s evident that Sybil Ravensdale is a woman seeking revenge; for what we don’t exactly know. But it’s somehow connected to Tressillion House and to Beatrice. The mystery element is well handled because, though there are plenty of hints, Sybil’s secret is not revealed until the very final pages of the book.

Juliet Greenwood does a fabulous job of creating the atmosphere of the two principal settings. The London sections come full of dark alleys, poverty and drunks while Ross and Demelza Poldark would feel quite at home in the chapters set on the Cornish coast. There’s even an abandoned iron mine (rumoured to contain a rich seam of gold) for Ross to try and re-open.

Even more appealing however was the historical context for the novel. The year is 1909, a time which marked an escalation of the fight for the right of British women to vote in public elections. After years of peaceful campaigning and meetings, the women and their male supporters take to the streets with larger scale demonstrations and even greater determination. The police are equally determined to stop them.

Beatrice stumbles into this world via The White Camellia Tearoom. It’s a fictional location but represents the kind of London cafe and tearoom that allowed women to meet in safety without fear of molestation or accusations of improper behaviour. The women who work and patronise the tearoom give Beatrice courage to face her dilemma: to secure her family’s future by marriage to a wealthy man or follow her own desire for a career and a life of freedom from control.

Fighting for Independence

The White Camellia shows the issue at the heart of the suffragette movement; the constraints felt by the women of this period and their lack of opportunity. With the marriage her mother desires, Beatrice will get security and status but lose her independence and her dream of becoming a journalist. Without marriage, she will be confined to lowly paid jobs and a life of hardship.

Faced with the same challenge, Sybil Ravensdale decided to take the path of independence, fighting her way to prosperity against men who viewed her as a commodity:

.. she’d seen other women fall for a charming smile and attention, until marriage gave a suitor control over their lives and a fortune. As far as she could see that was hell on earth. She would never hand over to another the power to take all her hard work away, leaving her back on the streets.

This could so easily have become a novel bogged down by detail and ‘message’ But the factual information was so skillfully woven into the book that I got the benefit of the context without feeling I was being subjected to a lecture. And the characters are so vividly constructed that when they talk about their attitudes to freedom and female emancipation they don’t sound as if they’re reading from a script.

That authenticity is exactly what you need in a historical novel. If you want a book that gives you the feeling of being on the streets during a suffragette march, or underground in a disused mine, The White Camellia will more than satisfy your need.

The White Camellia: End Notes

Juliet Greenwood, author of The White Camellia

Juliet Greenwood is a historical fiction author based in Wales. Having worked in London for nearly ten years, she now lives in a traditional Welsh cottage in the mountains of Snowdonia.

She began writing seriously about ten years ago, after a severe viral illness left her with debilitating ME/Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. Now recovered she spends her time writing, working on local oral history projects and helping aspiring writers.

The White Camellia was published by the Welsh independent press Honno in September 2016. Juliet has two other novels also published by Honno: Eden’s Garden and We That Are Left.

Want to discover other authors from Wales? Check out my list of 88 novels or join in with Dewithon2020 – a month long celebration of Welsh literature. #dewithon20

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