Rosie: Scenes from a Vanished Life by Rose Tremain

I don’t think I’ve read enough of Rose Tremain’s books to really describe myself as a fan or as any kind of expert on her work, but I’ve enjoyed the little I’ve read by her – Restoration and Merivel, her two novels set in 17th century England and France, and The Gustav Sonata, set in Switzerland before, during and after the Second World War – so I decided to give her recent memoir, Rosie, a try.

Judging purely by the cover and the subtitle Scenes from a Vanished Life, I was expecting something light, charming and nostalgic, but the reality was very different and the book left me feeling quite sad. It’s a slim book covering only the first eighteen years of the author’s life and I think it’s fair to say that Rose – or Rosie, as she was known when she was younger – didn’t have the happiest start to life. Born into an upper-middle-class family, with all the privilege and opportunity that comes with that, the one thing Rosie lacks is parental love. She is ten years old when her playwright father, Keith, leaves her mother, Jane, for a younger woman. Jane quickly remarries and sends Rosie and her sister, Jo, to boarding school, an incident Tremain thinks of as ‘The Great Casting Away’ and which she describes with both resentment and an attempt to understand:

When we were safely away in our cold dormitories at Crofton Grange, she and her friends could forget all about their children’s future. Instead, they could go to plays, go to films, go to restaurants, get drunk at lunchtime, flirt, shop, swear, take taxis, waste money, go dancing, have sex, and wander through London in the dawn light, laughing, determined to forget the war that had stolen their youth and so many of the people they’d loved.

The child Rosie is often hurt and confused by her mother’s actions, and not much has changed by the time she reaches adulthood; when her first play is broadcast on BBC radio in 1976, Jane says she is too busy to listen as she is going out to lunch that day. Rosie does acknowledge, however, that her mother’s lack of affection for her could be partly due to her own upbringing. Many of Rosie’s childhood memories revolve around holidays spent at her maternal grandparents’ home, Linkenholt Manor, but it quickly becomes clear that it is the house that holds a special place in her heart and not her grandparents themselves. Mabel and Roland Dudley, Jane’s parents, are depicted as cold, stern people who have struggled to move on from the loss of their two sons and see their daughter as a poor substitute; their granddaughters interest them even less. I found this so sad because my own childhood relationship with my grandparents was completely different – warm and loving and full of fun. The only love Rosie seems to receive comes from her nanny, Vera Sturt, and I was glad that she had at least one person who cared about her, although even this relationship was lost when she was sent away to boarding school.

As the title of the book suggests, the world of Tremain’s childhood is a world that has now largely vanished. Her account of her school days, of beliefs and attitudes and of society in general could only have been written by someone growing up in the 1950s and belonging to a certain class. As Rosie becomes a young adult and sets her sights on attending Oxford University, she sees her dreams shattered yet again when her mother insists on sending her to a Swiss ‘finishing school’ instead. Jane doesn’t see the need for her daughter to continue her education when all a woman needs to do to succeed in life is to find a rich husband.

Despite her privileged background then, Tremain still had obstacles to overcome as she grew from Rosie into Rose and embarked on her writing career. Because her memoir ends before the publication of her first book, she doesn’t spend a lot of time discussing her writing, but she does give us a few insights into how incidents, people and places from her early life later found their way into her novels. I’m sure this would have meant more to me if I had read more of her work! The book ends very abruptly, which was disappointing as I would have liked to have continued to follow Rose through her adult years. Still, it was interesting getting to know the young Rosie and her world. I will have to read more of her books soon; if there are any you would recommend please let me know.

Thanks to Vintage Publishing for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

The Oaken Heart by Margery Allingham

Having read several of Margery Allingham’s detective novels, I was intrigued to come across The Oaken Heart, an account of life in her small English village during the Second World War. Originally published in 1941, it was apparently based on letters written to some American friends and expanded into a book at the suggestion of her publisher. It’s interesting to think that she was writing this while the war was still taking place and when nobody knew how much longer it would last or what the outcome would be.

Allingham’s village was Tolleshunt D’Arcy in Essex, but she refers to it in the book as ‘Auburn’ after a line from the poem The Deserted Village by Oliver Goldsmith. She is obviously very proud of Auburn and the way the people who live there work together to cope with whatever the war throws at them; it’s true that all towns and villages have their own unique characteristics, but I think it’s also true that the wartime experiences of the residents of Auburn will have been similar to the experiences of people in other parts of Britain.

Like many other villages, Auburn, in 1938 when the book opens, is still suffering from the effects of the previous war which ended just twenty years earlier. There’s a sense that Allingham and her friends are putting all their faith in Neville Chamberlain, not really believing or wanting to believe that war could possibly happen again. Of course, it does happen again – after a year of preparations, gas mask distributions and discussions of who should take in how many evacuees. The subject of evacuees is an important one to the people of Auburn; at first they are excited at the thought of groups of little schoolchildren from London arriving in the village (since the First World War there has been a shortage of young people in Auburn), but the reality is very different – hundreds of young mothers and babies! Allingham’s descriptions of the newcomers, the culture differences and how the villagers dealt with all of this are quite funny to read about.

I have never read anything about Margery Allingham as a person before, so I don’t know what she was supposed to be like or what impression the people who knew her had of her, but based on her own words in The Oaken Heart, she seems very likeable and down-to-earth. She makes a few references to her writing career now and then (she was working on Traitor’s Purse at the time), but there is never any sense of self-importance or superiority over anyone else in the village. Her writing style is warm, conversational and, as you would expect, very readable.

This is a wonderful book, which I would recommend to anyone who enjoys reading about life during the war. The fact that it is a first-hand account written in 1941 rather than a memoir written years later gives it another layer of interest. As we reach the final page, there is still no end to the war in sight and nobody has any idea if or when it’s all going to stop. I was sorry that the book ended when it did, as I would have liked to have continued reading about the people of Auburn and to find out how they fared later in the war.

A Chelsea Concerto by Frances Faviell

a-chelsea-concerto I had a nice surprise a few months ago when I unexpectedly received two ebooks from Dean Street Press who were launching their new imprint, Furrowed Middlebrow (in conjunction with Scott from the Furrowed Middlebrow blog). The first one I chose to read was A Chelsea Concerto, a Second World War memoir originally published in 1959.

Frances Faviell lived at 33 Cheyne Place in Chelsea – one of the most heavily bombed areas of London during the war due to its location, close to the Royal Hospital and to several bridges over the River Thames. Her memoir opens in the early days of the war, a period known as the Phoney War because it seemed as though very little was actually happening. During this time, as well as continuing her work as an artist, Frances becomes a Red Cross volunteer, taking part in air-raid drills and trying to ensure that the people of Chelsea are as fully prepared as they can possibly be for whatever may follow.

What follows, of course, is the Blitz, which Faviell describes in vivid detail. Night after night, people living in Chelsea are subjected to one bombing raid after another, emerging from the shelters each morning in fear of what they might find: their home destroyed; a friend or neighbour dead; the roads blocked; an unexploded bomb in the street. With her work as a volunteer, Frances is often at the centre of the action, experiencing and witnessing the most horrifying things, while throughout it all, the Green Cat – her most treasured possession – sits in her window as a symbol of safety and prosperity.

Serene and aloof he sat in the window in the sunlight, surveying with contempt the activities in the street. Everyone begged me to put him down in the cellar with some of the paintings which I had stored there now. But I would not move him. Was he not the Guardian of the Home? He must be treated with respect.

Before the war, Frances had travelled widely and learned to speak several languages, something which enables her to offer help and support to the refugees who have fled to Britain as the Nazis sweep across Europe. There are some real characters amongst the refugees – in particular ‘The Giant’, a large and outspoken Belgian fisherman – and some funny moments, such as the story of Monsieur D, who is suspected of being a spy when mysterious lights show from his window during a blackout. Many of these people, though, are frightened and traumatised and look to Frances for advice and protection. She becomes particularly close to Ruth, a Jewish refugee from Germany, who attempts to kill herself, leaving her young daughter in need of Frances’ care. Nineteen-year-old Catherine, who arrives in London pregnant and unmarried, is another troubled young woman whom Frances finds herself taking under her wing.

Despite the terrible things going on around her – and the terrible things she experiences herself – Frances keeps her sense of humour and often manages to see the funny side (when she remembers a government information leaflet on what to do if German parachutists land, for example, or when she talks about her dachshund, Vicki, known as Miss Hitler).

The wording of the pamphlet which we knew was designed to try and avoid the same panic flight as in Belgium and France caused such hilarity everywhere that every current show included some skit on the arrival of parachutists. In the FAP we went about chivvying one another with the words of the clauses about seeing anything suspicious and “Be calm, be quick, be exact” became a joke in every place of work or exercise which we had to carry out with the Civil Defence.

Most of her memories are quite harrowing, though, such as when she describes the horrors of trying to reassemble pieces of bodies blown apart by bombs and the time she was lowered headfirst into a hole in a collapsed building to assist an injured man. But the most vivid and dramatic episode of all comes near the end when Faviell’s own home is bombed – and although we know that Frances must have survived to be able to write this book, the tension and the sense of danger come across so strongly in her writing that we worry for her anyway.

I haven’t read many wartime memoirs and I couldn’t help comparing this one to the few that I have read. It didn’t have quite the emotional impact that Vera Brittain’s Testament of Youth had on me, for example, but I still found it a fascinating and moving read. Frances Faviell wrote several other books which are also available from Dean Street Press; has anyone read any of them, and if so, which would you recommend?

Cider with Rosie by Laurie Lee

Cider with Rosie Laurie Lee was a British novelist and poet most famous for his autobiographical trilogy which begins with Cider with Rosie and continues with As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning and A Moment of War. Published in 1959, this first volume looks back on Lee’s childhood in the small Cotswold village of Slad in Gloucestershire. Lee moved there at the age of three with his mother and siblings at the end of the First World War. In Cider with Rosie he writes about his family and friends, his school days and the eccentric characters who lived and worked in Slad.

I had never considered reading this book until now, partly because it reminded me of being at school (we never actually read the whole book, but I remember having to study excerpts from it for English comprehension exercises) and I think that was enough to put me off! The scene that I particularly remembered was the one where Laurie’s sisters send him off for his first day at school wrapped in scarves with a hot potato in his pocket. When he comes home he tells the family about his disappointing day:

“They never gave me the present!”
“Present? What present?”
“They said they’d give me a present.”
“Well, now, I’m sure they didn’t.”
“They did! They said: ‘You’re Laurie Lee, ain’t you? Well, just you sit there for the present.’ I sat there all day but I never got it. I ain’t going back there again!”

I’m glad I waited until now to read this book, as I don’t think I would have appreciated it when I was younger. It’s not the most exciting book to read – it doesn’t seem that anything particularly dramatic happened to Lee in his early years and being an autobiographical work (or semi-autobiographical, as Lee admits at the start that “this is a recollection of early boyhood and some of the facts may be distorted by time”), it is not a book with a ‘story’ or a plot. However, it is still worth reading for the beauty of Lee’s descriptions and imagery and because it paints a portrait of a world that has gone and will never come back again.

The book has quite an interesting structure with each chapter devoted to a different theme with titles such as ‘Village School’, ‘The Kitchen’ and ‘Mother’. Laurie does age gradually throughout the book, so that the earlier chapters are seen through the innocent eyes of a small child and the later ones are more mature (including the famous scene drinking cider under a hay wagon with the Rosie of the title), but otherwise the book doesn’t follow strict chronological order.

Some chapters are more enjoyable than others (I loved ‘Grannies in the Wainscot’, which describes two of the Lees’ elderly neighbours) but my favourite is actually the final chapter, which shows how life in the village starts to change with the coming of progress. With the arrival in Slad of cars and electricity, for example, the world suddenly becomes a different place and the simple life Laurie Lee has always known begins to disappear forever.

Cider with Rosie has been reissued by Vintage Classics in a beautiful new edition and I received a copy for review via NetGalley. The book includes drawings by John Ward and although I don’t think you really get the full benefit of them when you’re reading an ebook version, it’s always nice to see illustrations!

Review: Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi

This is the first graphic novel I’ve read. There, I’ve admitted it. I can’t explain why it has taken me so long to read one. It’s not that I think they’re childish or ‘not real literature’ or anything like that; it had just never occurred to me to read them and until I started blogging I didn’t even realise how popular they were. When I did decide I’d like to try one I thought a graphic memoir might be the best to start with and as I’d seen Persepolis reviewed on so many blogs it seemed a good choice. And it was, because I loved it.

This edition is actually two books in one: The Story of a Childhood and The Story of a Return. They can be bought separately but you really need to read the first book before the second.

These two books are the memoirs of Marjane Satrapi. In The Story of a Childhood she tells us what it’s like to be a child growing up in Iran during the 1970s and 80s. Due to the Islamic Revolution and the Iran-Iraq War, Iran becomes an oppressive and often dangerous place to live, particularly as Marjane develops into a rebellious teenager. Her concerned parents eventually decide that the safest option is to send their daughter away to start a new life in Europe.

Before beginning this book, I didn’t know very much at all about Iranian history and politics. I found that seeing things through a child’s eyes was fascinating and informative. Marji is an intelligent, imaginative girl and like all children she’s always curious and full of questions, so for someone who knows very little about Iran, this book offers an opportunity to learn along with Marji.

In the second volume, Marji is living in Austria, struggling to adapt to life in a country with an entirely different culture. This second book is more about the personal problems she faces with relationships, drugs and money and although I had a lot of sympathy for the situation she was in, I didn’t enjoy reading this book as much as the first one. I did find it more interesting towards the end when she finally returns to Iran several years later and finds she has as much trouble fitting back into her old life as she’d had fitting into life in Austria.

Although this was definitely a new experience for me, I was quickly able to forget that I was reading a ‘graphic novel’ and become absorbed in Marjane Satrapi’s story. The simple, stark black and white drawings were perfect and made it easy to understand what was happening. Rather than just illustrating the text, the pictures played an equally important part in telling the story.

I enjoyed this book much more than I expected to. It was a powerful and moving story, with some moments of humour too. So, if you are also new to graphic novels and unsure where to start, I have no hesitation in recommending this one to you!

Review: Wild Swans by Jung Chang

Wild Swans is the story of three generations of women in Jung Chang’s family.  The first is her grandmother Yu-fang, who grew up in pre-communist China, a time when women had their feet bound as children and could be given to warlords as concubines.  The second is Chang’s mother, De-hong, who became a senior official in the Communist party following their victory over the Kuomintang.  The third is Jung Chang herself and the longest and most compelling section of the book is devoted to her own experiences during Mao’s Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and 70s.

Before beginning this book I didn’t know very much at all about Chairman Mao, but I’m obviously not alone in that.  As Jung Chang says in her introduction to the 2003 edition, ‘the world knows astonishingly little about him’.  This book helped me understand why the Chinese people initally welcomed communism and how millions of children grew up viewing Mao as their hero and never dreaming of questioning his regime.   It also explained why many people eventually became disillusioned and why the system started to break down.

Reading Wild Swans made me realize how important books like this one are.  Wild Swans presents almost the entire 20th century history of China in a highly personal way that makes it so much more memorable than just reading the same information in a text book would have been.

One of the most horrible things in the book occurs within the first chapter when Chang describes her grandmother’s footbinding.  It’s so awful to think of a little girl being forced to undergo this torture just because tiny feet (or ‘three-inch golden lilies’) were thought to be the ideal.  Soon after her grandmother’s feet were bound the tradition began to disappear.  However, this is just one small part of the book and the first in a long series of shocking episodes the author relates to us.  For example, during the civil war between the Kuomintang and the Communists, inflation rose so quickly that currency became worthless and people began to take desperate measures to get food, with beggars trying to sell their children in exchange for a bag of rice.

Jung Chang’s parents both worked for the Communists during and after the civil war, rising to high positions within the party.  Chang’s father was completely devoted to the Communist Party, putting it before his wife’s welfare.  Every time she found herself in trouble with the party for some trivial reason, her husband would side against her.  However, this attitude extended to the rest of his family and friends too – he refused to do anything which could be construed as showing favouritism.

Some parts of the book made me feel so angry and frustrated, such as reading about the senseless waste of food when peasants were taken away from the fields to work on increasing steel output instead, as part of Mao’s ‘Great Leap Forward’.  There are some shocking accounts of starving people being driven to eat their own babies.  The famine shook a lot of people’s faith in the Party and afterwards even Jung’s father was less inclined to put the party’s needs before his family’s as he had done in the past – in fact during the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s, he found himself denounced and arrested, and eventually emerges as one of the most admirable people in the book, at least in my opinion.

“I thought of my father’s life, his wasted dedication and crushed dreams…There was no place for him in Mao’s China because he had tried to be an honest man.”

The descriptions of the Cultural Revolution are horrific; it went on for years and resulted in countless deaths.  One of the most frightening things about this period was that nobody was safe – people who had been high-ranking Communist officials before the revolution suddenly found themselves branded ‘capitalist-roaders’ or ‘counter-revolutionaries’ (sometimes by their own children) and some of them were driven to suicide.

Some of the parts I found most fascinating were Jung’s accounts of how the Chinese viewed the ‘capitalist countries’ in the west.

“As a child, my idea of the West was that it was a miasma of poverty and misery, like that of the homeless ‘Little Match Girl’ in the Hans Christian Andersen story.  When I was in the boarding nursery and did not want to finish my food, the teacher would say: ‘Think of all the starving children in the capitalist world!’

The book is complete with a family tree, chronology, photographs and map of China – all of which were very useful as I found myself constantly referring to them and without them I would have had a lot more difficulty keeping track of what was going on.

As you can probably imagine, it was a very depressing book, as Jung and her family experienced very few moments of true happiness.  She only really sounds enthusiastic when she’s describing the natural beauty of some of the places she visited – and the pleasure she got from reading books and composing poetry, both of which were condemned during the Cultural Revolution.  However, it was also the most riveting non-fiction book I’ve ever read – I kept thinking “I’ll just read a few more pages” then an hour later I was still sitting there unable to put the book down.

I don’t think I need to explain why this book counts towards the Women Unbound challenge.  All three of the women featured in Wild Swans – Jung Chang herself, her mother and her grandmother – were forced to endure hardships and ordeals that are unimaginable to most of us, but remained strong and courageous throughout it all.  However, Wild Swans is not just the story of three women – it’s much broader in scope than that and is the story of an entire nation.  So much is packed into the 650 pages of this book that I’ve barely scratched the surface in this review and if you haven’t yet read the book I hope you’ll read it for yourself – no review can really do it justice.

Highly Recommended

Genre: Non-Fiction/Memoir/Publisher: Harper Perennial/Pages: 650/Year: 2004 (originally published 1991)/Source: My own copy bought new

Review: Testament of Youth by Vera Brittain

I chose to read this book as part of the Women Unbound Reading Challenge. I selected this book for Women Unbound because it is the memoirs of a woman who lived through World War I and it’s considered an important example of feminist literature.

I don’t read many non-fiction books or biographies/autobiographies so this was something different for me.

Vera Brittain was born in 1893 and grew up in Buxton, Derbyshire. Her father was the owner of a paper mill, therefore she had a comfortable, privileged childhood. Vera was well-educated and ambitious and longed to break away from what she frequently refers to as her ‘provincial’ life in Buxton. She already considered herself to be a feminist and wanted more out of life than just to leave school and get married like most of the other girls she knew. Her father finally agreed that she could go to Oxford University, but just as she was beginning her studies, war broke out in Europe. With her fiance Roland, brother Edward, and two close friends fighting on the front line, she was unable to concentrate on her studies and decided to enlist as a V.A.D. nurse.

It was fascinating to read a personal account of the effects the war had on one woman’s life and on society as a whole. Reading this book made me realise how little I actually knew about World War I. A lot of the places and events mentioned in the book were unfamiliar to me and left me wanting to find out more.

Rather than just relying on her memory, Brittain uses a number of different sources, including her private diaries and correspondence and verses from poems, some of which were written by Roland or Vera herself. As I read about all the pain and sorrow she was forced to endure, I became completely absorbed in Vera Brittain’s story. I found it very inspirational that despite having her entire world torn apart by the war, she was still able to go on to build a successful career for herself as a novelist, feminist and pacifist.

Although Testament of Youth was a long, demanding and often heartbreaking book, I’m glad I read it and I feel I learned a lot from it.

Highly Recommended

Genre: Non-Fiction (Autobiography)/Pages: 640/Publisher: Virago/Year: 1933/Source: borrowed a copy