The N. E. Monsoon will soon be on us now. Last night it was gusty at times and the wind came all ways and it rained a good bit too. Now is the time we have to be careful and not let the wind blow on us at night as it is a feverish wind as it comes right over the land instead of straight from the sea. We are going to start taking quinine and will keep our north windows shut at night. This is where the benefit of sleeping upstairs comes in. It makes a huge amount of difference.
Oh, I was tired after the coach journey on Thursday. It seemed much worse than usual. I did not get over it till Sunday. I don’t think I shall go for a such a short time again, it isn’t worth it, only we could not afford to stay any longer. To our horror the Galle Face Hotel is much more expensive than the G. O. H. although we had always heard it was the same. But at the G.O.H. they always charge you so much per day however short a time you stay, but they don’t at the Galle Face unless you make special arrangements, but charge each item separately which of course makes it come to much more and also they charge half as much again for their drinks. Wasn’t it a sell and we were so pleased with everything. But we have bought our experience and shan’t be caught again.
I am making some knickers for biking, grey print ones. I hadn’t a pattern so cut them out from George’s and they aren’t half bad. We went on a ride Sat and Sun night and I am getting on capitally although I can’t go far as it makes my legs ache. While I think of it, George would like Hockey very much if you can really afford the ready and pay for it, but you are not to send it if you can’t as he wouldn’t mind a bit. He doesn’t know if it is still in existence, you must write and enquire. You must keep a strict account of what you spend for us and tell us when it is a respectable amount but it is not worth while us sending less than £1, if you can wait till it comes to that, but perhaps it has come to that by now. You seem to be always spending money on me. I hope you enjoyed the lengthy list of my wants that I sent you. It was certainly long enough and George would suggest the most ridiculous things, he very much wanted me to put down a ladies rifle. He thought I would like to shoot snipe, poor little things. I shall be very cross if you spend much on a present for me. I put down lots of nice useful small things for you to choose from. I am saving all my bestest table cloths and things in case we go to Colombo, there is always a slight chance of that.
Have I told you the manager, Mr Waldrock, who went home for a holiday just after I came out, has got the sack. They did not think he managed things well and he seems to have rubbed the directors up the wrong way so they have made the man next to him manager (Mr. Norman). He is a bachelor and fairly nice, very like Mr Humphrey, both in appearance and manners. I don’t get on with him extra well but I have never seen much of him. All the men in the office now are bachelors. George is the only married one.
Please thank Carrie very much for her letter and also kiss the chicks for theirs. I was pleased with them and so was George with his. They are without a cook again then, how unfortunate they are!
It is so silly about George’s books. Mrs Gillespy is really most foolish. He told her most distinctly he wanted every one of his books of any description especially the bound Mechanical Worlds and also his manuscript note books. He says they have all got their name inside. He doesn’t want the Engineers that is all. And a few more books won’t make much difference to the amount we shall have to bring home and besides we may be here another two years. He does so wish now he had brought them all out with him but as he thought he would be home again in a year he only took the very necessary ones, but he has often wanted to refer to some he left behind, especially the M. Worlds.
Thank you ever so much for getting the films but I do hope you can spare the money for them. Isn’t the difference in the price ridiculous? I suppose they often get them spoilt so they charge that much extra to make up.
How is your neuralgia, you didn’t say anything about it? I hope the rest at Fairbank has done Mother good. Don’t I wish I could have her to stay with me. It is beastly being so far away.
Behold us luxuriating in civilisation! Only for two days though, we came on Monday and go back tomorrow (Thursday). But still, it makes a little break in the monotony of one’s existence. We are staying here this time, we thought we would see what it was like and we like it better than the G of H which is right in the town. This is a little way out, quite on the edge of the sea and is much more breezy and open. We have got such a jolly bedroom with one window looking onto the sea. The beds, washstand and dressing table all up one end, there are thick curtains which can be drawn right across that part and the rest is furnished as a sitting room, with comfy chairs and sofa and a sort of little sideboard and tables. One could live quite comfortably in a room like that, in fact a lot of people do live here and at the G of H. It is almost less expensive than having a house.
We have had early tea at 7 in our room and George has gone down to the office. I have had a cold bath and have been sitting opposite to the sea to get a freshener. There is such a jolly breeze coming straight off it. There is a seawater swimming bath in the hotel but I have not the courage to go alone. I wish it was mixed so that George could come. Between here and the town is a long parade and drive (3/4 mile) by the edge of the sea. Everyone takes a constitutional along it early between 6 and 7, either driving, riding or hiking.
Yesterday morning I went shopping and then picked George up at the office and had a chat with the men there. Mr Waldrock, the manager, who went home just after I came out has got the sack. The reasons have not come to light, but he had been rather unlucky in his work lately and the directors, being in a cantankerous mood evidently, came to blows with him. It is hard times as he is married with two children, but he has heaps of friends out here and has got one small appointment already and will doubtless soon get one again. Mr Norman, the man next to him, is the manager now. They don’t seem as if they are going to put another man in at all.
Yesterday afternoon we went to call on the Stanley Bois but they were not at home and we have an idea that they, or at any rate she, is up country as their drawing room floor was being relaid. I was sorry as I should liked to have seen her. In the evening after dinner we went down to the G of H to see Mrs Maxfield. I expect I have told you about her. She is the mother of the man in charge of the Mill at Veyangoda. She is the matron, or whatever you call it, at the G of H.
The night before we went along Galle Face to get a blow before we went to bed. It is rather fascinating spinning along in a rickshaw at night, by the side of the sea with only the lights of the town in the distance.
I have been into the town again with George and now he has gone on to the office and I came back to write. I don’t think we are going to do anything much this afternoon except go to a nursery garden and try to get some little ferns for the table.
We got the mail last night, or rather I did. George was very disgusted as all the letters were for me. I had quite a bundle. It was jolly. Five altogether, from you, Kate, Jo, Mother and Maudie, the first time she has written to me. I shan’t have time to write to people this week so I am going to send Mother, Kate and Mrs G. pictorial post cards as they are rather good little views. I have put a mark against our bedroom windows, the front one is over the porch and the sea is to the right by the coconut trees. You can get a little idea of the Galle Face from the view on this paper. Then there is a view of the lighthouse which is in the middle of the town and you get a view of a bullock cart with its great big thatched roof. Then there is a picture of a catamaran. The one we went out in at Negombo was a little bigger than that I think. You can see the out-rigger where they put the braid across for us to sit. You can see a rickshaw in the hotel scene. They are not very comfortable as you have to sit forward and it makes your side ache after a bit.
This hotel is really quite palatial like the Metropole only of course with huge verandahs and corridors which make it more airy, but all the appointments are very good and plenty of servants about. I am using all sorts of paper as I began to write in the reading room. Now I’m in the Ladies drawing room and they give no smaller paper.
Then I am going to make your mouth water as it never did before – I’ve got a bicycle! We got so sick of walking along those beastly roads always the same way and George would not go out for a ride without me, so he got it for me, and it came down as a surprise. Wasn’t it sweet of him? It is an American machine. White is the maker and it is to cost R.187. George is going to pay for it in three monthly instalments. It would have been R.170 cash. Of course it is a fairly cheap one but it is strong and well-made and suits me capitally. I’ve only had it since last Wednesday and have been out three times. I got on all right only the roads are so rutty that sometimes I get off a little unexpectedly. But tell Mother I will be very careful. She is not to think I am going to be reckless and try to go fast or anything and besides George is much too cautious over me to allow me to do anything rash. But it will be so much nicer for us to go out for a little spin of an evening instead of just meandering along the road and of course the exercise will be much better for us and will be just the thing for my tummy.
I do hope you did not hurt yourself when you fell down those steps. It sounds horrible. The Long’s party does sound jolly. I wish I had been there. Your blouse does sound sweet, I do want to see it so badly. You must keep it till I come home.
Isn’t Jane awful? Do tell me all about it or send me a paper with her trial. Who is the child like? Sil Ryder is good to take it but why is it a handful? It must be quite small? How lucky Fay is. I should think she’s off her head with joy. I can quite imagine Ma being sceptical.
I am so sorry Aunt Lin has rheumatism so badly and hope it is better now. Tell her she had better come out here and all of the heat will work it out. George will be coming in for lunch in a minute. It is past 1.30 and I’m hungry so I hope he won’t be long.
Tell Jo I was awfully pleased to have her letter and will answer it soon.
After she had parted from Mr Mackenzie, Julia Martin went to live in a cheap hotel on the Quai des Grands Augustins. It looked a lowdown sort of place and the staircase smelt of the landlady’s cats, but the rooms were cleaner than you would have expected.
For six months Julia has been living in a shabby Parisian hotel on an allowance from her ex-lover, Mr Mackenzie. But now his cheques have stopped and she returns to London to try again. But on this ten day visit, Julia struggles to eke out even a basic living. She can’t rely on either her embittered sister or her terminally-ill mother. She can’t rely on her ex-lovers who are hypocritical feeble men. She can’t rely on her looks or her waning energy to find a new ‘protector’ as they have been ruined by her hard life and booze. Just how is she supposed to survive?
It was the darkness that got you. It was heavy darkness, greasy and compelling. It made walls around you, and shut you in so that you felt you could not breathe. You wanted to beat at the darkness and shriek to be let out.
Julia is displaced, ghost-like, wandering through the labyrinth of Bloomsbury foggy streets, lost, alone, alienated. Something that resonated deeply with the author herself.
Rhys was born in Dominica in 1890, to a white Creole mother and a Welsh father. She is most famous for writing ‘Wide Sargasso Sea’, a retelling of Jane Eyre which was published when she was 76. Her earlier novels were largely forgotten and she was presumed dead – but was in fact living as a recluse in the West Country. ‘After Leaving Mr Mackenzie’, her second novel, is short and sparse with pared-down prose, crammed full with poignancy and an uncomfortable truth. Published in 1930, it was far ahead of its time and still has relevance for today’s reader. Unsettling. Harrowing. With moments of short-lived hope.
She was crying now because she remembered that her life had been a long succession of humiliations and mistakes and pains and ridiculous efforts. Everybody’s life was like that. At the same time, in a miraculous manner, some essence of her was shooting upwards like a flame. She was great. She was a defiant flame shooting upwards not to plead but to threaten. Then the flame sank down again, useless, having reached nothing.
These moments where Julia is most self-aware – such as when she ignores a proposition on the tube, head held high – are the points of hope, where that defiant flame shoots upwards. And we are left wondering what kind of life she could have led had she been educated or employed, instead of reliant on men.
Of all the idiotic things I ever did, the most idiotic was selling my fur coat…the sort that lasts for ever…people thought twice before they were rude to anybody wearing a good fur coat.
Julia has no protection in a harsh, unforgiving world. A haunting, touching, atmospheric read.
This in some senses is the story of two women. One is possibly the best known woman in the world; Queen Elizabeth II. The other comes from a family well known only in the local area of London, Elizabeth Sarah Sunshine, Undertaker. It is such a personal, clever book which actually tells the story of the more obscure and fictional Elizabeth, looking back over decades of a life lived amongst the people of part of London. Her family, her friends and her clients make up the back drop of a woman who stayed in one place despite war, peace, happiness and sadness, and the departure of so many in all senses. This is the story of an ordinary life, but as with all seemingly ordinary lives, extraordinary things happen. In the background there are the comments of the more famous Elizabeth, always interesting, sometimes broadly relevant, always well known. I…
If you read my post earlier about the first time I thought about writing #BetsyandLilibet, you would know that I got the name Sunshine from a lovely talented woman who sold me a bespoke candle in a coronation mug at #KillertonHouse, a National Trust property.
Well. I searched the internet and managed to message Sam Sunshine and told her that ‘Betsy and Lilibet’ is published today. And she got back to me and said she has a four year old dog called Betsy! How cool is that?
London, 1926. Two baby girls are born just hours and miles apart. One you know as the Queen of England, but what of the other girl – the daughter of an undertaker named in her honour? Betsy Sunshine grows up surrounded by death in war-torn London, watching her community grieve for their loved ones whilst dealing with her own teenage troubles… namely her promiscuous sister Margie. As Betsy grows older we see how the country changes through her eyes, and along the way we discover the birth of a secret that threatens to tear her family apart.
My fourth novel with Legend Press is published today. (Hurrah!) ‘Betsy and Lilibet’ has been a long time coming. The first idea came to me about five years ago when I was browsing at a vintage fair in the grounds of Killerton House in Devon. I came across a local candle maker who uses vintage jelly moulds and china. I bought a Coronation Mug filled with her homemade scented natural soy candles. And when I read from her business card that her surname was Sunshine, I asked if I could possibly borrow that name some time in the future and she kindly said yes. It also turned out that our daughters went to the same school. The stars aligned that day.
I didn’t know then that I would be writing a novel about two Elizabeths but as the Queen approached ninety years of age, I felt drawn towards her story. And I wondered about another girl who might’ve been born on that same day, with the same name, and the path that she might’ve taken.
Betsy Sunshine is born into a family of undertakers, Sunshine & Sons. But there are no sons, just a troublesome younger sister, and that is how Betsy becomes the head of the family business, dutifully serving her community just as her namesake serves her country. Over the course of ninety years – oh, the births, marriages, deaths, war, terrorists and, of course, the coronation – the two Elizabeths will meet three times. And at the heart of the novel lies a secret that Betsy has kept in the shadows since 1947. As she approaches her ninetieth birthday, it is time that this secret is aired in the sunshine.
I’m really proud of ‘Betsy and Lilibet’, delighted that it is finally in the bookshops, and hope you get the chance to read it.
And if you are able, you are invited to the book launch at Hugh Mills and Gaye undertakers in King Street, Newton Abbot on Thursday 18th October at 6. Just RSVP to email@example.com
Told with wit and warmth, this is a gritty, truly British, saga; from war time childhood fortitude though to a lifetime of love, loss and laughter. Dive in and enjoy! Paul McVeigh
A charming and funny look at family, loyalty and love during the Queen’s reign. I think Her Majesty would approve. Cathy Bramley
So atmospheric you can almost smell the Brylcreem… Laurie Graham
Clever and charming, I loved this look at the complications of family life. Katie Fforde
Tom glanced behind him and saw the man coming out of the Green Cage, heading his way. Tom walked faster. There was no doubt that the man was after him. Tom had noticed him five minutes ago, eyeing him carefully from a table, as if he weren’t quite sure, but almost. He had looked sure enough for Tom to down his drink in a hurry, pay and get out.
‘The Talented My Ripley’ is the first of five novels known collectively as the Ripliad. I’ve only read the first but I can see why Highsmith couldn’t leave Ripley alone. He’s a sociopath, psychopath, an amoral anti-hero, but such is his charm and complex depth of character, we literally want him to get away with murder.
Highsmith famously said Ripley was her. Like Ripley, she was an outsider. Like Ripley, she left America where she never found her place, choosing to spend her time in Europe. Like Ripley, she too was a complex human being. I don’t really want to talk too much about her as a person; suffice it to say she doesn’t appear to have been terribly nice, going so far as to write racist letters to the papers under a pseudonym, for example.
But there’s no doubting this is a remarkable book, far more than the mystery or detective stories popular in the USA in the 50s. It has never been out of print, has been made into films and plays, and right now is the perfect book to satisfy the current appetite for psychological thrillers. Tightly plotted, with its close third person narration, full of subtlety and existentialism, ‘The Talented Mr Ripley’ really deserves its place as a classic.
If you wanted to be cheerful, or melancholic, or wistful, or
thoughtful, or courteous, you simply had to act those
things with every gesture.
Highsmith offers no point of view other than Ripley’s and he is a character that makes you unsettled – about those you love and about yourself. Not many books play on your mind as much as this one.
And if you watch the 1999 Anthony Minghella film, don’t compare it to the novel as there are some big differences. But the essence of Tom Ripley is captured well by Matt Damon.
Believe it or not, I think I’ll be revisiting Ripley soon.
Blog Post 35: The Trick is to Keep Breathing (1989)
I can’t remember the last week with any clarity.
I want to be able to remember it because it was the last time anything was in any way unremarkable. Eating and drinking routinely, sleeping when I wanted to remember but I don’t.
Now I remember everything all the time. You never know what you might need to recollect later, when the significance of the moment might appear. They never give you any warning.
They never give you any warning.
When I began this series, I wrote a list off the top of my head of my favourite novels written by women in the 20th Century. I had no plan other than to choose a hundred of these. But I did know the series would be unlikely to include Virginia Woolf or Sylvia Plath; I know their writing well enough, studied as part of my English degree, but so much has been written about them. I wanted to choose some lesser known writers. Janice Galloway is far from unknown, but The Trick is to Keep Breathing is often compared to Plath’s novel, The Bell Jar. So I chose this as an alternative. And I much prefer it.
The Trick is to Keep Breathing charts the breakdown of Joy Stone, a drama teacher, following the death of her married lover. But far from being self-indulgent or depressing, this novel, with its rawness and brutality, has spirit and, ultimately, hope. It is a stunning depiction of the human mind in free fall and has rightly become a classic, establishing Galloway as one of the foremost Scottish writers of our time.
There are two reasons this novel stands out. The first is the use of the text itself; the different fonts, the out-of kilter layout, the words that sometimes fall off the page, the form really does reflect the content. The use of repetition, sections of dialogue exchange, adverts, agony aunt letters, horoscopes, flashbacks – all these fragments make up the whole of her confused mind and, like Joy, we must navigate our way through the disjointed narrative, filling in the gaps.
The second is the character of Joy herself. She has a history of family suicide, PTSD, an eating disorder – this should be a terribly downbeat novel. But Joy’s dry wit, her sarcasm, and her desire to find some meaning in her mess of a life, drag this piece kicking and screaming into the light. In part existential, in part an intimate portrayal of the daily grind of routine, this is an extraordinary read. I highly recommend it.
Mary sometimes heard people say: ‘I can’t bear to be alone.’ She could never understand this. All her life she had needed the benison of occasional solitude, and she needed it now more than ever. If she could not be with the man she loved, then she would rather be by herself.
Mariana opens with Mary, in a remote cottage during a storm, her telephone line down, waiting to hear news of her husband whose ship has struck a mine and sunk, with the loss of many lives. She has no way of finding out tonight if her husband is one of the survivors picked up by a merchant ship. She must wait for the morning to come. Meanwhile she replays the events of her life up until this point to keep herself occupied.
This is a coming-of-age novel, often compared to Nancy Mitford’s The Pursuit of Love or Dodie Smith’s I capture the Castle. It’s truly a charming and witty read, a precedent for a later generation of novelists such as Jilly Cooper with her Prudence series. In fact, the marvellous Jilly Cooper has a quote on the back cover of my edition by Persephone Books. I galloped through it, pushed on by the breathlessness of the young narrator, whose idyllic 1920s childhood and 30s teenage years are brimmed full of nostalgia in the run-up to what we, the reader, know lies ahead. The opening is a stark reminder of this.
As with many other novels in this series of blog posts on #100WomenNovelists of the twentieth century, Mariana is semi-autobiographical and, though it is extremely accessible, this doesn’t mean there is no depth. As well as the intimate period details, there is a strong sense of place (who will ever forget Charbury, her grandparents’ country house?). But ultimately, this is a story of a young woman finding herself in a world that has largely cushioned her in girls’s schools, a (disastrous) drama school and as a lady’s companion. Her mother is central to this. Often strapped for cash, she has brought up Mary pretty much single-handedly, has always worked incredibly hard, been a solid, surprising role model. But Mary only wants one thing: to be married.
On a stormy night during the War, Mary waits to see if her childhood ambition will be crushed. Is she now a widow? In the agony of ignorance, she has a moment of clarity:
You had to go on. When you were born, you were given a trust of individuality that you were bound to preserve. It was precious. The things that happened in your life, however closely connected with other people, developed and strengthened that individuality. You became a person…Nothing that ever happens in life can take away the fact that I am me. So I have to go on being me. There’s only me now.
Helena Cuthbertson picked up the crumpled Times by her sleeping husband and went to the flower room to iron it.
The opening sentence to The Camomile Lawn says so much in so few words. We get a glimpse of Helena’s life. She has a husband, sleeping. She has a ‘flower room’. She likes to read the Times, pristine, so much so that she needs to iron it. We see her frustration with her husband from the outset, a frustration that is a recurrent theme throughout the novel, for most of the central characters.
I first came across The Camomile Lawn when it was dramatised for Channel 4 in 1992 with a wonderful cast of characters and much sauciness. I’d never seen anything like it; the war time experiences of young people on the Home Front, losing their innocence, grabbing life by the throat because there might not be a tomorrow. When I read the novel I realised how good the adaptation was. And when I became a fledging novelist in my thirties, I was delighted to discover that Mary Wesley wrote this book in her seventies.
Based on Wesley’s own wartime experiences, the novel opens with the various teenage cousins spending the summer of 1939 in Cornwall, at Aunt Helena’s house, like they do every year. But they understand this will be the last time for who knows how long. War looms over those rocky cliffs, casting shadows over the camomile lawn laid by Helena who was wrongly warned it would never flourish. It is still there, years later, when the cousins finally return in their late middle age to attend a funeral.
In 1939, ten-year-old Sophy lives with Helena and her Uncle Richard (the sleeping husband), having been born out of wedlock to Richard’s half-sister who subsequently and inconveniently died. Helena has no experience of children, having been widowed in the last war and finds the task of motherhood trying to say the least. And while Helena lost a husband and the possibility of her own family, Richard lost a limb in the trenches and can’t do the things he’d like to do because of ‘his leg’.
Added to this unusual mix of upper class relatives, is a Jewish musician and his wife, both German refugees. Max and Monica have left behind a son in a camp, with no idea of what will become of him. But they bring music and good housekeeping and sex and each member of the family will be changed by them.
Flitting between London and Cornwall, between the past and the present, Wesley weaves a tale of love and loss, of frustration and rejection, of hope and dreams. Her wit is cutting. Her rambling viewpoint brave and deft. You are left feeling breathless with longing for something that is gone, relieved that you never had to live through this time, knowing there will never be a generation like this again.