Frost in May

This is the story of 4 years in the life of Fernanda ‘Nanda’ Grey. It opens in 1908 when Nanda is 9 years old and being taken by her father to her new school. Lippington is a convent school of the order of The Five Wounds and home to girls of old European, wealthy Catholic families. Nanda is singled out from the beginning for being middle class and the daughter of a ‘convert’. The school is on the outskirts of London but could be anywhere, ‘catholicism isn’t a religion, it’s a nationality’ says one of the older girls and a Lippington girl is a Child of the Five Wounds for the rest of her life.

The cold, clear atmosphere is described through Nanda’s eyes. The school commands absolute authority, every child is under constant observation, not allowed to walk about in two’s or form close friendships.

‘Some of that severity which to the world seems harshness is bound up in the school rule which you are privileged to follow . . . We work today to turn out, not accomplished young women, nor agreeable wives, but soldiers of Christ, accustomed to hardship and ridicule and ingratitude.’

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The Exiles Return

Elisabeth von Ephrussi was born into a Jewish banking dynasty in 1899, her scholarly father was Viktor von Ephrussi and her beautiful socialite mother the Baroness Emmy Schey von Koromla. Raised in the Palais Ephrussi on the Ringstrasse in Vienna, she was at the centre of a city that had become a great collection of nationalities and ethnic groups. As her grandson Edmund de Waal says in his introduction ‘her memories were of a polyglot upbringing in a polyglot city.’ She attended the University, took up poetry and writing and had a significant correspondence with the poet Rainer Maria Rilke. In 1923 she married a Dutchman Henrik de Waal and after living in Paris and Switzerland settled in England.

In 1938 after the German occupation, Elisabeth returned to Vienna and in 1939 managed to get her father to safety in England. At the end of the war she returned again to find out about the rest of her family, and fought for a decade to get justice for the wrongs that had been committed, battling the hostile authorities. This sketchy family history is important because this is such a deeply personal novel. Not published during her lifetime, it was written sometime in the 1950’s and is set during 1954 and ’55 in Allied-occupied Vienna when the city was still divided into occupation zones. This is a novel about finding a home, but very specifically about finding a home in Vienna after the Anschluss. Told through the stories of 3 exiles, each seems to encapsulate something of Elisabeth’s own experience and the adversity she found; the drama that unfolds is as thrilling as anything shown at the Vienna State Opera.

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Wheels within Wheels

Beginning on her birth day November 28th, 1931 this wonderful memoir covers the first 30 years of Dervla Murphy’s unusual life. Her parents Fergus and Kathleen Murphy had arrived in Lismore, County Waterford on their wedding day with all their possessions and a golden haired collie called Kevin in the cab of a lorry. They rented half a decaying mini-mansion and Fergus became the county librarian. As Dubliners the locals were already suspicious, that they were penniless and displayed eccentric bourgeois tastes the reception was hostile and resentful. But that doesn’t seem to have mattered a jot, Fergus and Kathleen travelled together around the county setting up branch libraries, sleeping in the small mobile library van to save money needed to buy more books. When the Doctor arrives at the library to tell Fergus he has a baby daughter, Fergus wraps up the 9 records of Beethoven’s Choral Symphony and walks 4 miles to the hospital in Cappoquin, where with a borrowed gramophone they start family life.

The essence of this memoir is answering the question ‘who makes us what we are?’ what is the series of intricately connected events, plots and circumstances that influence each other and decide who we become? The countryside around her, her insatiable love of books, her richly unconventional home and her republican relations, all gather in her determined, strong-willed self.

For my tenth birthday my parents gave me a second-hand bicycle and Pappa sent me a second-hand atlas. Already I was an enthusiastic cyclist, though I had never before owned a bicycle, and soon after my birthday I resolved to cycle to India one day. I have never forgotten the exact spot, on a steep hill near Lismore, where this decision was made. Half-way up I rather proudly looked at my legs, slowly pushing the pedals round, and the thought came -If I went on doing this for long enough I could get to India.’ The simplicity of the idea enchanted me. I had been pouring over my new atlas every evening travelling in fancy. Now I saw how I could travel in reality – alone, independent and needing very little money.

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Norwegian Wood

Now 37, Toru Watanabe arrives in Germany on business and as the plane touches down an orchestral version of the Beatles’ ‘Norwegian Wood’ plays from the speakers. As always he’s reminded of his beautiful, fragile friend Naoko and their time together in Tokyo 18 years earlier, when in the late 60’s he was a student, Norwegian Wood was her favourite song and they were both coming to terms with the death of their best friend, Kizuki.

This is an intimate book, a tight cast of characters surround Toru, as he negotiates the confusion of moving on with his life and the deep sorrow that he feels. Naoko is beautiful but emotionally fragile and spends much of the novel in a mountainside psychiatric hospital, where she becomes close friends with her room mate Reiko a talented musician. Nagasawa is a student friend who, despite having a long term girlfriend, has a habit of trailing bars for one night stands, a habit that starts to include Toru and then there’s Midori, Naoko’s complete opposite. She’s a free spirit, impetuous and alive to adventure and could be his future.

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Every Eye

I seem to be dashing around Europe at the moment in my reading and this time it’s Harriet and Stephen Latterly who travel to Ibiza by train and boat for their honeymoon.This is Hatty’s story and she begins by telling us that her Aunt Cynthia has died. Married to her Uncle Otway, Cynthia has been a difficult but important relation in Hatty’s life which doesn’t seem to include any one else other than a largely absent, bullying mother who is a master of acerbic lines and black humour.

Every Eye is only 119 pages in my Persephone edition and rather than chapters the story is told in alternate sections, either written in the present tense about the honeymoon or in the past tense when Hatty reminiscences about Cynthia, about her first love Jasper Lomax, (an old friend of Cynthia and Otway’s) and about her first meeting Stephen in France. There’s a lot of jumping around, but I thought the structure worked really well, there’s a naturalness that made it feel very personal.

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A Time Of Gifts

In 1933, 18 year old Patrick Leigh Fermor decides to leave London and England and set out on foot across Europe from the Hook of Holland to Constantinople, living as a tramp or pilgrim.

Written in 1977, A Time of Gifts tells the first part of his journey from the Hook of Holland to the middle Danube. Starting with his original diaries and notebooks he expounds on the history of Europe, through its artists and music, architecture, languages and dialects and the movement of its tribes and sects.

Able and willing to talk to anybody and sleep wherever he could, it’s his encounters with other people that I enjoyed the most. There are lots of barn floors covered in hay and a blanket for the night, sent on his way with a cheery wave and a thick slice of black bread and butter and drunken evenings in bars and on boats with the locals. Or my favourite, Konrad, who he meets in the Salvation Army hostel in Vienna, when he notices him reading Titus Andronicus and for a while they become as tight as (almost) thieves! But he also has a letter of introduction to a Baron in Munich who then goes on to write letters to his friends across Europe, so that every so often Paddy has a bath and a dressed up night on the town. And we get the wonderful contrast caught in lines like:

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A Moment of War

This is the third part of Laurie Lee’s autobiography that started with Cider With Rosie, looking back at his childhood in the Slad Valley. At the end of the first volume in 1934, he leaves his home on a bright Sunday morning in early June. He’s 19, ‘still soft at the edges, but with a confident belief in good fortune’ and jumps straight in to the second volume, As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning, (which I read but I’m afraid never got around to reviewing). With a tent, a change of clothes and his violin he ends up in Spain in 1935 and wonders through the country, a hapless young troubadour until he returns to England on board a Naval destroyer in 1936, just as the civil war is spreading.

At home, ‘deep in the grip of a characteristic mid-thirties withdrawal, snoozing under old newspapers and knotted handkerchiefs’ , he begins to feel shameful at having left Spain so readily and decides to return as soon as possible. He begins his journey on foot and steps straight in to volume three.

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My Name is Lucy Barton

On a writing course Lucy Barton is told that ‘we all have only one story to tell‘. Now a successful writer she remembers a time in the mid 1980’s when she was first living in New York with her husband and two young daughters and a trip to hospital for a routine operation lasted for nine weeks.

One day she realises that her mother, who she hasn’t seen for years, is sitting by her hospital bed. She stays for five days and through their conversations we get Lucy’s story. Memories of poverty, humiliation and loneliness are told in a solid, unfussy style. She speaks directly to us, as her memories and her mothers anecdotes interrupt and overlap each other and she wonders about the vagaries of her memory as she thinks about her life.

‘We were oddities, our family, even in that tiny rural town of Amgash, Illinois.’

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Mansfield Park

‘Fanny Price was at this time just ten years old, and though there might not be much in her first appearance to captivate, there was, at least, nothing to disgust her relations. She was small of her age, with no glow of complexion, nor any other striking beauty; exceedingly timid and shy, and shrinking from notice; but her air, though awkward, was not vulgar, her voice was sweet, and when she spoke, her countenance was pretty.’

The three Ward sisters have made very different marriages. Miss Maria Ward has married a baronet, Sir Thomas Bertram of Mansfield Park, her older sister has married a clergyman the Rev. Mr. Norris and has taken the living offered to him at Mansfield Park and the youngest, Miss Francis Ward set out to rebel and married a Lieutenant in the Marines, with no connections, fortune or education. When he’s disabled from active service and spends their small income drinking and socialising Mrs Price realises that she can get rid of one of her nine children onto her rich sister. After much worry Sir Thomas and Lady Bertram, egged on by Mrs Norris decide they can make room for Fanny, with their own four children Thomas and Edmund, Maria and Julia

When the Rev Norris dies, Mrs Norris moves to a small house on the estate and a new vicar arrives with his wife. In turn her step brother and sister, Henry and Mary Crawford arrive, like the glamorous Kuragins from War and Peace. Now Maria and Julia have Henry to flirt with and Edmund falls head over heels for Mary and as Tom seeks his pleasure elsewhere that just leaves Fanny. Quiet and contemplative, always at the beck and call of her aunts or with her nose in a book, Fanny never loses her meekness but she’s no pushover. She’s not afraid of being serious and doesn’t need the validation of popularity but she’s always present, she observes everything and knows that Mary Crawford needs an audience to believe she exists and Henry Crawford is nothing more than a rake.

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The Lark

Reading this is to be wrapped in sunshine, just looking at the cover makes me happy!

First published in 1922, it’s 1919 when cousins Jane and Lucilla, after spending the war years tucked away in a small boarding school, are finally set free in the world. Their guardian meanwhile has gambled away their inheritance and the girls find themselves with just a small cottage in the English countryside. After deciding against marriage they agree that they’re going to earn their livings. They won’t see themselves as genteel spinsters but as adventurers with the world before them.

‘If we’re going to worry all the time about the past and the future we shan’t have any time at all. We must take everything as it comes and enjoy everything that is – well, that is enjoyable. . . Live for the moment- and do all you can to make the next moment jolly too, as Carlyle says, or is it Emerson?’

Picking themselves up and jollying along, presence of mind and the belief that everything will be a lark (the lark of the title), while still having breath to whistle Mendelssohn is the order of the day, and the girls’ carry on with aplomb; meeting an assortment of characters and getting mixed up in a series of misadventures until everything ends happily – I won’t give the plot away but there’s no point even considering that this is a novel with an unhappy ending!

But before we all dissolve in a puddle of brown sugar Nesbit saves us with her humour.

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