Something a little more melancholy & nostalgic this week. This poem is called Sunset. The cosy feeling of the end of the day darkens as the thought of the war returns.
There's nothing so sad in the world as to stand alone On a velvet lawn at the end of a summer's day, Watching the purple shadows fall, Hearing the distant ping of a tennis-ball, The sound of happy voices calling 'Away!' A thrush singing. A rose full blown. Indoors they are clinking the spoons, the baths are run; Nanny looks cheerfully out of the window at the sky, It will be fine, she says, to-morrow. Oh, but the strange unfathomable sorrow Of croquet mallets leaning on hoops awry, And crumpled cushions crimsoned by the sun. They will come home by way of the gooseberry-nets. No spell can bind them who are young and brave To this most melancholy hour, When hope dies, and fear busts into flower, When the heart illogically seeks its grave, Stabbed by incomprehensible regrets.
Another very funny Home Front poem, Let's change the subject, about the new preoccupations of a woman who is suddenly more concerned with missing teacups than Noel Coward.
My thoughts are centred now on strange concerns. No longer do I find my spirit yearns To talk of theatres, or art, or books, Or love affairs, or other people's cooks. Dead as the dust of ancient dreams they lie, And cannot comfort me, or edify. But should you speak to me of bones, or tins, Or swill for pigs, or sanitary bins, My heart will leap to yours and in my eyes The lust for aluminium will rise. Ah me! A year ago I talked of Rome, And Beatrice Lillie and the Hippodrome, And roses and the Rhine and fruited trees As yet unplundered by evacuees. My conversation burgeoned forth and flowered From Bach to Matthew Smith and Noel Coward; I did not seek a restless bed afraid I had forgotten to inform Miss Wade That through some misdemeanor unforeseen Some forty cups were gone from the canteen. And now it seems, whatever may befall, My life, my soul, my heart, my hands, my all Are linked with sausage-rolls and wool and gauze, Bound with old saucepans to the common cause.
Listening to Isobel Graham's determination to go out to France as an ambulance driver on the BBC's Home Front reminded me of this book about two other young women who decided to use their practical skills for the war effort during the Great War.
Elsie Knocker was 30 years old in 1914. Born Elsie Shapter, she was orphaned very young & her siblings were separated, going to live with relatives. Elsie was adopted by Lewis & Emily Upcott. They were educated & artistic people & Elsie was well provided for by a legacy from her father. Elsie made a disastrous marriage, to Leslie Knocker, an accountant ten years her senior, who may have been influenced by Elsie's inheritance. Leslie got a job with an insurance company & they travelled to Java where he took up a position. He turned out to be violent & cruel, subject to mood swings which may have been influenced by alcohol. Eventually, Elsie returned to England & they divorced after six years of marriage. This was a bold step for Elsie to take as divorced women were not considered respectable. Elsie was determined to be free of Leslie & she had a son, Kenneth, to think about as well. Her adoptive parents cared for Kenneth while Elsie looked for work. Eventually she decided to train as a midwife.
Mairi Lambert Gooden-Chisholm was the daughter of a well-to-do Scottish family. Born in 1896, she had a traditional upper-class upbringing. She & her brother were to be seen & not heard. Her education was scrappy & not very thorough. Mairi wasn't particularly close to her parents. They had an estate in Trinidad & often traveled there to attend to business. Mairi rarely accompanied them & when they settled there permanently, she didn't visit them in over 30 years. Mairi's passion was for motorcycling & this is where she met Mrs Knocker, who was a dashing figure in this new circle of friends she met through her membership of the Gypsy Motor Cycle Club. Both women could not only ride but were also excellent mechanics, skills they would find useful during the war.
Elsie & Mairi joined Hector Munro's Flying Ambulance Corps almost as soon as war was declared. They had gone to London to join the Women's Emergency Corps & were hired as dispatch riders. Hector Munro recruited them for the ambulance corps he was setting up to go to Belgium along with a varied group of women including the novelist May Sinclair, drivers, cooks & orderlies. Their role would be to get as close to the front line as possible & transport the wounded back to the Casualty Clearing Stations & hospitals further back. Elsie & Mairi were excited to be given the opportunity to do such worthwhile work & their experiences in those first weeks gave them the idea that would make them famous, the most photographed women of the war.
Elsie was horrified at the number of men who died from shock & exposure as they were being driven to hospital. She felt that if they could be given immediate first aid & somewhere to rest before making the dangerous, uncomfortable journey to hospital, more lives could be saved. This was the genesis of her idea to set up an outpost virtually on the front line at Pervyse. Pervyse was on the Yser Front, the northern section of the Western Front, midway between Nieuport-Bains on the coast to Ypres in the south. Although the English authorities did not approve, the Belgians welcomed Elsie & Mairi & they set up a soup kitchen & first aid post within sight of the trenches. For nearly the next four years, the two women went into No Man's Land to retrieve the wounded (the Germans said that if they wore woolly hats they wouldn't be fired on but if they wore tin hats, they could be mistaken for troops), received official visits from dignitaries including King Albert of Belgium, made a lot of friends on both sides of the conflict & saved many lives.
When the women wanted to retrieve bodies from no-man's-land they sent Shot, their little black-and-white dog, over to the Germans with a note telling them what they wanted to do. Mairi had fond memories of how well the Germans behaved when they were in no-man's-land: 'they looked upon us, I suppose, as being thoroughly daft ... but they were always nice to us'.
There were also personality conflicts with Hector Munro & the other Ambulance Corps members, clashes with officialdom, petty squabbles, the occasional jaunt to a nearby town & romance when Elsie met a dashing airman, Baron Harold de T'Serclaes, whom she later married.
One of the amazing things about the women's work at Pervyse was just how precarious their position was. Not only did they have to keep the work going but they had no official funding. They often had to dash off to England & raise funds by going on speaking tours & courting any publicity they could get. There were so many worthy causes & charities that they had to use every contact they had to raise the money to buy food & supplies. Elsie was an inspiring speaker & she would give lectures illustrated with photographs of the outpost & showing the dreadful conditions they lived in. On one visit Mairi went to Bournemouth to meet her mother & sister, Lucy.
The sight of her in grubby breeches, dusty boots and coat, carrying that lance (a German souvenir) , brought the place to a standstill: 'all the porters flocked round and I had difficulty moving about with it as a crowd followed everywhere'. The sight of a young girl, dusty from the battlefield, like Joan of Arc, brought the war to the heart of London in the same way as the sight of hundreds of soldiers. Her fellow passengers on the train to Bournemouth were fascinated by her stories of the war. When she told them that blankets and pillows were urgently needed at Furnes Hospital they gave her fifteen shillings and wished her well.
The end of the first aid post came when they were gassed in March 1918 & barely escaped with their lives. They returned to England to recuperate & that was the end of their war service. After four years of constant companionship, Elsie & Mairi went their separate ways & never saw each other again. Like many men & women who served during the war, they found it difficult to adjust to civilian life. Elsie's marriage to the Baron didn't survive. She had told him that she was a widow & when his very Catholic aristocratic Belgian family discovered that she was a divorcée, the marriage was doomed. Elsie eventually found her niche as a housekeeper & ran hotels, work that used her gifts as an organiser. She was also active in many volunteer organisations. Mairi became a poultry farmer & was secretary of the Clan Chisholm Society. Elsie gave an interview in 1964 about her war work which is played in this BBC Radio 4 clip from Woman's Hour. I love the photo of the two women in their ambulance - Elsie driving & Mairi beside her. There's also an interview with Diane Atkinson about the book here. This is a terrific book about two brave & determined women who made a great difference to so many wounded men under the most difficult circumstances.
This poem reminds me of Lady Catherine de Bourgh, who would have been a great musician - if she had only been taught.
I know I could write music so entrancing, the nightingales would faint from off the trees, I'd set the young girls singing, shouting, dancing, I'd make the old men hum like bumble-bees. Oh lovely, lovely tunes! Some sweet, some gay, with violins soaring lark-high to the moon, and some for brassy bands on holiday, and some to make the jitterbuggers swoon. I'd bring a song of comfort for the lonely, I'd make the quietly-beating heart go boom, I could be Brahms or Beethoven if only the piano wasn't in the other room.
Mystery in White is another in the terrific series of Golden Age mysteries that the British Library are reprinting. Appropriately for the time of year, it's set at Christmas & is a very clever variation on the locked room mystery.
A group of travelers are caught on a snowbound train on Christmas Eve. Lydia Carrington & her brother David are on their way to stay with friends, Jessie Noyes is a chorus girl going to Manchester for a job, elderly Mr Edward Maltby is a psychic researcher investigating a possible sighting of the ghost of Charles I. There's also a timid clerk, Thomson, who likes to fantasise about rescuing maidens in distress & a bore (later we discover his name is Hopkins) who has a story for every occasion, always with himself as hero.
As the storm worsens & there seems no likelihood of the train moving, the group discuss their options - to stay put or to try to reach another station & take a train from there. Suddenly Mr Maltby takes off after seeing a man running from the train. eventually, the others, except Hopkins, decide to follow him, concerned for his welfare & also hoping to complete their journeys. After losing their way & Jessie twisting her ankle, they stumble upon a house. The door is unlocked, fires are lit, the kettle's boiling & tea has been set. However, there's no one home.
Hopkins, who brings news of the murder of a man in the next compartment to theirs on the train & Maltby, who has lost sight of the man he was pursuing, soon join the group. They decide to make the best of it & hope the owners of the house will be understanding when they return. However, the empty house has an uncanny atmosphere & the arrival of a menacing Cockney who says his name is Smith, doesn't exactly lighten the mood. Jessie seems to be receptive to the strange atmosphere of the house & is frightened by a chair in the dining room & the bed she is put into. David & Mr Maltby try to find some clue to the disappearance of the owners but everything they discover only deepens the mystery.
"Nothing explains anything! If it were a fine day it might be quite natural to run out of a house for a few moments while a kettle's boiling, but in this weather - can you explain that? Where have they gone? Not to post a letter or to cut a lettuce! Why don't they come back? I didn't tell you, the kettle wasn't boiling in a nice respectable manner, it was boiling over. Oh, and there was a bread-knife on the floor."
Mystery in White is an atmospheric mystery that is very hard to put down once started. The claustrophobic atmosphere of the house with the snow falling & the menace within is exceptionally well done. I don't find it at all hard to believe that it's been a surprise bestseller. The mystery is ingenious, reaching back twenty years into the past & involves several murders & family secrets. The characters are interestingly varied & there are moments of real tension as David & Maltby test their theories about the mystery of the abandoned house.
A Struggle for Fame is the story of a young woman's journey from obscurity to fame & the price she pays for it. Two young people, Bernard Kelly & Glenarva Westley, are passengers on a ferry ride from Ireland to England. Barney Kelly is looking for opportunity & thinks he's sharp enough to take advantage of any chance he gets. He is going to stay with a relative, Mat Donagh, who has the reputation in the family of being a literary lion & who is going to give Barney a start. Glen Westley is traveling with her father & their journey is a last-ditch attempt to salvage a life from financial disaster. The story follows both Barney & Glen &, although they come across each other in literary London, they follow very different paths.
Barney & Mat don't get on. Mat is pompous & very superior, regretting the invitation to Barney almost as soon as he arrives because Barney isn't taken in by his manner as Mat's sister & aunt are. Barney is at rock bottom, ready to give up on his literary dreams after accidentally antagonising his rich, influential uncle, & take a position as a clerk if he can get it, when he meets the Dawton family. Mr Dawton is an actor, past his best now but still living on past glories. His sons work at the Galaxy, a literary magazine that Mat Donagh works for but failed to get Barney an introduction. Barney does start writing for the Galaxy although he doesn't have the touch & the Dawton boys have to discreetly edit his work to make it acceptable.
Glen Westley's childhood in Ireland was idyllic until the death of her mother & the financial troubles of her father meant that they had to leave the family estate & move to a cottage on the coast. Mr Westley had inherited the property late in life but without the money to keep it up & his financial speculations have only made matters worse. Glen is happy in their cottage, playing with the local children, including her particular friend, Ned Beattie, & writing. She's a natural writer & writes because she can't do anything else. She hasn't had anything published &, when the family finances are at their lowest, she decides that they must move to London, the heart of the literary world, where she can find a publisher for her work.
Glen suffers many knockbacks & dismissals as she trudges around London visiting publishers & magazines. Mr Vassett, owner of a small publishing house, gives Glen some advice on rejecting her manuscript,
'My dear young lady,' he said, in his best manner, 'how can I tell you what I do not know myself? There is no Royal road to fame. Those who have achieved it tell me the path is rough, and hard to find; that it is lonely, often dark, always toilsome; while for those who never reach the goal - ' 'They have attempted, at any rate,' she finished, as he paused, and there ensued a dead silence. It was Mr Vassett who broke it. 'Literature,' he began, speaking in a general and didactic manner, 'is, so far as I am aware, the only profession in which persons imagine they can embark without the smallest training or preparation, or the remotest idea of the labour involved in producing an even moderately successful work.' 'I am not afraid at all of any trouble,' came from the special 'person' for whom this rebuke was intended. 'If you only tell me what I ought to do I will try to set about it at once.'
This is no fairytale. Glen works hard & gets nowhere. She finds she can't write at all in London, she needs the fresh air & beauty of her Irish home. No one wants Irish stories & she doesn't know enough about England to adapt her work. Her father's health declines & the only luck he has is in collapsing in the street & meeting a man who helps him home & then becomes interested in Glen & tries to help. Mr Logan Lacere falls in love with Glen & she eventually agrees to marry him. He turns out to be kind & adoring but just as ineffectual as Mr Westley, with a grasping set of relatives who depend on him financially & despise Glen for her background. Eventually Glen finds a measure of success with her novels but she wonders if the price she has paid has been worth it. Glen is a strong, determined woman & the challenges she faces inevitably change her.
It was a miserable experience, one bad for soul and body, which left ineradicable traces on Glen's face and mind. For ever the calm, peaceful look of youth left her brow, and though her character strengthened, there grew at the same time a mental irritability as well as a weary unrest, foreign to her original nature. To anyone who had known her at Ballyshane, the change would have seemed most marked; indeed, when, after the lapse of two long years, Edward Beattie saw his old friend again, he asked himself in astonishment if this grave, cynical, self-contained woman could ever have been light-hearted, frank-spoken Glen Westley.
This is such an interesting novel. I loved the details of Glen's struggle, which are obviously based on Charlotte Riddell's own experiences. Riddell was a prolific & successful novelist but she, like Glen, had moved from Ireland to England with an invalid parent to try & earn a living by her writing. Riddell married but had to support her husband when his health broke down. She edited magazines as well as writing short stories & novels & experienced the highs & lows of such a precarious life. She is scathing about publishers & the difficulties of getting adequate payment. She is also very funny, especially in the story of Lady Hilda Hicks, one of Mr Vassett's authors. Lady Hilda is a society woman, separated from her titled husband & writing scandalous bestsellers libeling him which upsets Mr Vassett & his reader, Mr Pierson. Although she's his bestselling author, Mr Vassett can't cope with her high-handed demands & total disregard for the libel laws.
A couple of months ago, I read Charlotte Riddell's Weird Stories, reprinted by Victorian Secrets. I was very excited to see that another small press, based in Ireland, Tramp Press, was reprinting A Struggle for Fame as the first of their Recovered Voices Series. I look forward to seeing what other gems they find. Apart from the contents, the book itself is beautiful. Almost trade paperback size, it has French flaps, good clear print & a hot pink spine with yellow endpapers as well as that gorgeous portrait on the cover.
Isn't it odd how some ideas seem to be in the atmosphere? I spent a lovely afternoon last week rereading the early issues of the Persephone Quarterly & remembering those first Persephones & how much I enjoyed reading them & discovering new authors. Persephone Books have sent me off on so many reading trails & it's thanks to them that authors like Dorothy Whipple & Marghanita Laski have been rediscovered. I decided to reread some of the Persephones that I enjoyed from my pre-blogging years & maybe make it one of my reading goals for the year. I try not to have too many of those because I inevitably fall behind. Then, on Friday, I read the latest Persephone Letter. The Persephone website was hacked just before Christmas & Nicola & her team have taken the opportunity to rethink the website as they put it all back together again. One of her ideas is a new section called Random Commentary (after Dorothy Whipple's book about her life as a writer) which will highlight some of the lesser-known Persephones. This was exactly my idea. The first books I want to reread areBrook Evans by Susan Glaspell, Marjory Fleming by Oriel Malet & Reuben Sachs by Amy Levy. I remember enjoying them very much on first reading but it's more than ten years since I read them & I think it's time to revisit them.
What does this have to do with Sunday Poetry? Several poems from this collection, Consider the Years by Virginia Graham, were featured in those early Quarterlys so I thought, as I'm in a Persephone mood, I'd post a poem or two from the book. The years in question are 1938-1946 & the poems are witty, funny, often quite poignant. One of my favourites is Somewhere in England, published in 1939, full of the spirit of women doing their bit for the war effort on the Home Front.
Somewhere there must be music, and great swags of flowers, leisured meals lasting for hours, and smooth green lawns and roses. Somewhere there must be dogs with velvet noses, and people lounging in big chairs, and bees buzzing in the pears. So short a while, and yet how long, how long, since I was idling golden days away, shopping a little and going to the play! Somewhere the red leaves must be fluttering down, but I am on my way to Kentish Town in Mrs Brodie's van, which has no brakes and rattles like a can. To-morrow I shall go to Wanstead Flats with bales of straw, or a cargo of tin-hats, or ninety mattresses to aid the nether portions of the Fire Brigade. Not for me a quiet stroll along the Mall, I must be off to Woolwich Arsenal with our Miss West; and it seems I cannot rest, there shall be no folding of my feet at all till I have been to Islington Town Hall with a buff envelope. Some day it is my tenderest dearest hope to have my hair washed, and I would love to buy something - anything so long as I could stop for a moment and look into the window of a shop. Somewhere there must be women reading books, and talking of chicken-rissoles to their cooks; but every time I try to read The Grapes of Wrath I am sent forth on some occupation apparently immensely vital to the nation. To my disappointed cook I only say I shan't need any meals at all to-day. Somewhere I know they're singing songs of praise and going happily to matinées and home to buttered toast, but I at my post shall bravely turn my thoughts from such enjoyment. Ah for the time when, blest with unemployment, I lived a life of sweet content - leisured and smug and opulent! Fear not, Miss Tatham, I am ready as you see, to go to Romford Hospital or Lea. Be not dismayed, I will not stray or roam, Look how I fly to Brookwood Mental Home! See with what patriotic speed I go to Poplar, Ealing, Beckenham and Bow!
I'm an avid reader who loves middlebrow fiction, 19th century novels, WWI & WWII literature, Golden Age mysteries & history. Other interests include listening to classical music, drinking tea, baking cakes, planning my rose garden & enjoying the antics of my cats, Lucky & Phoebe. Contact me at lynabby16AThotmailDOTcom