Crampton Hodnet – Barbara Pym

I love Barbara Pym, there is some modicum of comfort to be found in those unique slices of village life that she recreates and I have greatly enjoyed her novels, Excellent Women, Some Tame Gazelle, and Jane and Prudence in the past. To this list, I will now add Crampton Hodnet, another lovely novel with a brand new enticing avatar to match.

Set in North Oxford, Crampton Hodnet is a delightful comedy of manners with its full arsenal of vicars, curates, spinsters and tea parties – elements so characteristic of Pym’s magical world.

The book opens in Miss Doggett’s elaborately decorated Victorian drawing room where she’s hosting an afternoon tea party for the young Oxford students, some of them have been regulars, others invited for the first time. Assisting her is her companion, Miss Morrow, a spinster reasonably young but generally viewed (by Miss Doggett at least) to be past her prime or in other words, a generally accepted “marriageable” age.

Miss Doggett is a demanding woman with a dominating personality, always a commanding presence in a party or a gathering and ready to ingratiate herself with the wealthy aristocratic class at the drop of a hat; in sharp contrast, Miss Morrow is a quiet, sensible woman who for the most part is content being relegated to the background. Often having a low opinion of herself, she has learned to adapt to Miss Doggett’s views and way of living, however rigid, although there are times when she is struck by an air of wistfulness. Miss Morrow sometimes wonders about her limited existence in North Oxford, whether being a companion to an elderly lady is all there is to life.

Miss Morrow did not pretend to be anything more than a woman past her first youth, resigned to the fact that her life was probably never going to be more exciting than it was now.

We are also introduced to Miss Doggett’s nephew Francis Cleveland, a respected professor of English Literature at one of the Oxford colleges, his easy-going wife Margaret, and their daughter Anthea who has fallen deeply in love with Simon Beddoes, an ambitious young man hoping to make it big in politics. Miss Doggett thoroughly approves of Anthea’s relationship with Simon given his influential family background, although the young Anthea frets over Simon’s commitment, he adores Anthea but there’s a sense that there might not be much substance in his feelings towards her.

Things in this sleepy Oxford town begin to get exciting with the arrival of a young curate Mr Latimer, an assistant to the vicar Mr Wardell. Mr Latimer is a good-looking man with a charming personality, rumoured to have been caught up in some romantic entanglements, a past he is looking to shake off and begin afresh. At the vicar’s request, Miss Doggett readily agrees to lodge him at her home; after all, what temptations can there possibly be in her household that can lead Mr Latimer astray?

When Mr Latimer arrives, Miss Doggett quickly takes him under her wing and at first, he is relieved at the fact that there’s no attractive woman in the house to tempt him. However, he and Miss Morrow quickly become friends, and when thoughts of marrying and settling down begin to assail him, he wonders whether Miss Morrow might not make a suitable match. She is a practical, straightforward woman after all, and the two of them get along quite nicely.

For a woman who makes it her business to know of all the happenings in the town, Miss Doggett is surprisingly unaware of the possibility of romance brewing in her very own house. However, the vicar’s meek wife Mrs Wardell has observed Miss Morrow and Mr Latimer together and Mr Latimer in a desperate attempt to ward off gossip, cooks up some long-winded story of how he visited a distant parish in the Cotswolds called Crampton Hodnet lending the book its name (“Was there such a place? Miss Morrow wondered. She was sure there was not”). It’s a tale that astonishes Miss Morrow who never imagined that a clergyman would resort to telling lies.

But there are more complications in store. Francis Cleveland seems to have begun an affair with his student, the intelligent and attractive Barbara Bird much to the chagrin of Miss Doggett, who although aghast, secretly revels at the idea of interfering in the outcome of the affair. After all these years, the Clevelands’ marriage has reached a comfortable space where Mrs Cleveland is happy to have her own time without her husband always pottering around…

After the first year or two of married life one no longer wanted to have him continually about the house. Mrs Cleveland hardly noticed now whether her husband was there or not, and she was too busy doing other things ever to stop and ask herself whether she was not perhaps missing something. The best she could say of Francis was that he gave her no trouble, and she thought that there was a great deal more than could be said of many husbands.

It’s this very indifference that irks Francis Cleveland who is taken in by Barbara’s attention towards him, and the fact that they can converse on so many intellectual topics. But while Francis contemplates the prospect of leaving his marriage and a comfortable home and setting up all over again with Barbara elsewhere (the idea of an affair being more thrilling to him than its execution), it soon becomes clear that Barbara’s idea of love is of a different kind – she is much more interested in intellectual compatibility rather than romantic love or physical intimacy which to her has ‘sordid’ written all over it.

Crampton Hodnet might come across as a light-hearted novel and in many ways it is, but it is also filled with some universal truths about people and relationships. Some of the themes the novel explores are – the ups and downs of marriage, the idea of romantic love versus platonic friendships, the meaning of happiness and a sense of life having passed by, disappointments in love that the young take too seriously, and the perennial debate between seeking excitement by beginning something new as against being content with what you have, the comfort of familiarity.

Pym as usual has a marvellous, subtle flair for comedy and while there are many such moments peppered throughout the book, the memorable conversation between Mr Latimer and Miss Morrow as they devise possible explanations for their late evening walk which could unnecessarily raise eyebrows was a particular favourite of mine.

Flawed yet endearing, the characters are brilliantly etched and Pym has a knack for making astute observations on their personalities – the domineering and interfering Miss Doggett; the practical, attention-avoiding Miss Morrow; the childish, but much older Francis Cleveland torn between his exciting affair with Barbara Bird and being fussed over in his comfortable home; his absent-minded, easy-going wife Margaret who does not take her husband too seriously (“after nearly thirty years of married life she had come to take very much for granted the handsome, distinguished husband whom she had once loved so passionately”); the charming, frivolous curate Mr Latimer and the idealistic Barbara Bird with her desire for love more as a concept inspired by the great poets.

In Crampton Hodnet, not all set-ups that signal the possibility of romantic love necessarily have a happy ending, and it’s this aspect where Pym’s wisdom shines through. As the introduction to the novel points out “the characters themselves seem very satisfied” with these outcomes and that is what makes the novel such a fulfilling read.


A View of the Harbour – Elizabeth Taylor

I am steadily making my way through Elizabeth Taylor’s novels, such a terrific writer she is. All the novels I’ve read so far – A Game of Hide and Seek, Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont, The Soul of Kindness, A Wreath of Roses – are superb. A View from the Harbour is another addition to this stellar list.

A View of the Harbour is a beautifully written, nuanced story of love, aching loneliness, stifled desires, and the claustrophobia of a dead-end seaside town.

The main plotline revolves around Beth Cazabon, a writer; her husband Robert, the town’s doctor; and Beth’s friend Tory Foyle who lives next door and is divorced. However, like the wonderful The Soul of Kindness, this is a book with an ensemble cast where the lives of the other members of the community are interwoven into that of the Cazabons. This is a drab, dreary seaside town where for desperate want of drama and excitement, the lives of its residents become fodder for speculation and gossip.

The opening of A View of the Harbour unfurls like the brushstrokes of a painting. A vivid panorama of the harbour is captured – the cry of the seagulls, the trawlers heading out to the open sea and the subtle transformation of the harbour landscape from a place dotted with derelict buildings to that of a picture postcard town once you are further away at sea; the distance blurring the drab contours of the harbour front.

No gulls escorted the trawlers going out of the harbour, at tea-time, as they would on the return journey; they sat upon the rocking waters without excitement, perching along the sides of little boats, slapped up and down by one wake after another. When they rose and stretched their wings they were brilliantly white against the green sea, as white as the lighthouse.

To the men on the boats the harbour was at first dingy and familiar, a row of buildings, shops, café, pub, with peeling plaster of apricot and sky-blue; then as the boats steered purposefully from the harbour-mouth to sea, houses rose up in tiers the church tower extricated itself from the roofs, the lettering on the shops faded and the sordid became picturesque.

This view is something aspiring painter Bertram Hemingway is keen to capture but is continuously defeated in his efforts. Bertram is now retired and wants to spend his leisure days dabbling in his hobbies – painting and seeing more of the world. He resides in a room above the town pub called Anchor and has promised the owner to deliver a painting of his own at the end of his stay. Bertram is an outsider in this seaside town, an object of curiosity and while he takes an interest in the lives of its residents, enjoying the prospect of helping them whenever he can, he makes sure he is not deeply involved. He prefers to remain on the town’s fringes, happy with his role of an observer.

And what he and the reader observe are the lives of the residents playing out, their daily struggles and how they are beset by a sense of chronic unhappiness. Tory Foyle lives alone, her husband of many years has abandoned her for a younger woman and she is trying to come to terms with the fact that she must fend for herself. Her son, studying in a university, is a constant source of worry to her. But despite this setback, Tory is a strong-willed woman and has not let herself slide into apathy. She remains stylish and poised, maybe even a little cold and aloof.

Her best friend Beth is the complete opposite, absent-minded and living in her own world. Beth is an author of dramatic novels and so engrossed in her craft of plot construction and character development that she does not much care for appearance, and domestic duties seem like such a burden. Beth and Robert have two children (20-year old Prudence and 5-year old Stevie), and she is sometimes anguished about not being a good mother. Her marriage to Robert has settled into a comfortable space driven by routines with not much room for passion and intimacy. But Robert feels trapped by the sameness of his job and married life, and looking for a spark he begins an affair with Tory.

Then there’s Lily Wilson, a young war widow, who is frequently overcome by utter desolation.

When she saw the light swinging over the water she felt terror and desolation, the approach of the long evening through which she must coax herself with cups of tea, a letter to her brother in Canada or this piece of knitting she had dropped to the floor as she leant to the pane to watch Bertram, the harsh lace curtain against her cheek, the cottony, dusty smell of it setting her teeth on edge.

Her life centers around running the waxworks exhibition during the tourist season and making trips to the library for books she can lose herself into, activities that further accentuate her sheer loneliness and her craving for human contact. Her desultory conversations with the charming Bertram give her a new lease of life and she starts frequenting the pub more often to have a chat with him and be escorted home.

And then there’s the ghastly Mrs Bracey, a bitter, gossipy, crude woman confined forever to bed because she is paralysed from the waist down. Mrs Bracey takes advantage of her hopeless physical condition to boss her daughters around, to the point that they are both resigned and filled with hate for her at the same time.  Iris works in the pub and has lofty dreams of a glamorous life although she is also aware of the futility of this ever happening. She refuses to regale Mrs Bracey with stories and scraps of gossip for which the latter is so hungry.

Maisie secretly wishes that her mother dies soon. Maisie’s expectations from life are prosaic compared to those of Iris, but her onerous duties of a caregiver bog her down and dash her hopes. Given that Mrs Bracey can no longer rely on her body which has given up on her, she lets her imagination run freely, even occasionally displaying a sharp, perceptive mind, however unwelcome.

Last but not the least is Robert and Beth’s daughter Prudence, a blossoming young woman stuck in a dead-end town. Robert worries about Prudence’s prospects, she does not have the talent to carve out an independent life for herself and the possibility of marriage also seems remote. But Tory knows that Prudence is perceptive; she has gauged correctly that her father is having an affair, a development that torments her greatly.

Virago 40th Anniversary edition

A View of the Harbour, then, is a bleak but beautiful novel that explores the themes of loneliness, solitude, betrayal, dashed hopes and of feeling constricted in a small, dismal town. Lily’s loneliness is devastating. Ravaged by fear because of an uncertain future, she yearns for company, someone to talk to and at one time even contemplates spending time with the coarse Mrs Bracey if only to dispel the emptiness gnawing inside her. Tory is more self-possessed than Lily but also very lonely. She ponders over the future of her relationship with Robert which appears to be doomed. Can she afford to deeply hurt her best friend, the one anchor that possibly keeps Tory rooted in that town?

And what about Bertram? Bertram so far, considers himself lucky for not having formed any romantic attachments. But he is also beginning to feel the weight of his years and the idea of marriage and settling down sounds comforting in a way that it never did before, maybe something of the isolation of this seaside community begins to get mirrored in him too.

Elizabeth Taylor displays wonderful sensitivity towards her characters who are such lost souls, they are flawed but she does not judge them. She is great at depicting the small dramas playing out in the lives of these ordinary people with her characteristic flair for astute insights into human nature. This is a community struggling to feel important, where an annual innocuous, humdrum festival becomes an event to talk about given the lack of entertainment otherwise, and where the inhabitants’ lives never go unobserved.

She is also superb at showcasing a vivid sense of place – the vastness of the sea conjuring up infinite possibilities is juxtaposed against a small harbour town devoid of excitement, burdened by limits which induce a notion of being stalled and going nowhere. The light over the sea keeps changing, in sharp contrast to community life which essentially remains unaltered.

The view of the harbour (giving the novel its name), including the lighthouse, is a permanent fixture in the book and is symbolic of different perspectives to each individual. To Mrs Bracey, the view from the window is an opportunity to observe what’s happening outside and satisfy her need to be in the thick of things.

Up at her window, and in some discomfort, Mrs Bracey sat in judgment. Guilt she saw, treachery and deceit and self-indulgence. She did not see, as God might be expected to, their sensations of shame and horror, their compulsion towards one another, for which they dearly paid, nor in what danger they so helplessly stood, now, in middle-age, not in any safe harbour, but thrust out to sea with none of the brave equipment of youth to buoy them up, no romance, no delight.

To Prudence, the view from the window possibly signals danger, she did inadvertently chance upon her father and Tory together and its implications make her wonder whether their family life is in peril.

Female friendship also forms one of the core themes of the novel explored through the relationship between Beth and Tory. Beth and Tory’s personalities could not have been more different but they complement each other. But this bond could be derailed by Tory’s affair with Robert of which Beth is unaware and is unwittingly the cause.

“You and I…” Tory said. “We are so different. But nothing with men is so good as our friendship. If women love one another there is peace and delight, fun without effort. None of that wondering if the better side of one’s face is turned to the light…”

Strangely, for what it’s worth, Beth seems the happiest of the town residents, her books and writing keep her occupied and maybe protected from the harsh realities of life around her. We even scent a whiff of feminism in her when she secretly laments at how men can plunge headlong into their careers, a kind of freedom denied to women because of domestic responsibilities.

In a nutshell, A View of the Harbour is Taylor once again at her finest. Her stunning, gorgeous prose and evocative use of language effectively conveys the quiet, desperate dramas of a community dulled by the smallness of its existence, the bleakness made bearable by great compassion and depth in the portrayal of her characters who must navigate their private lives on their own. Highly recommended!

Jane and Prudence – Barbara Pym

Jane and Prudence is the third Barbara Pym novel I’ve read, and it’s wonderful, right up there with my other favourites – Excellent Women and Some Tame Gazelle.

Penned in 1953, Jane and Prudence is a joyful and poignant read from Pym’s oeuvre, reminding us, as quoted by Anne Tyler “of the heartbreaking silliness of everyday life.”

Jane Cleveland is a vicar’s wife, who after her marriage returns to Oxford to take up a teaching job. Prudence Bates at the time was one of her pupils, but they remain good friends despite the wide difference in their ages. But even keeping their age gap aside, the two could not have been more different.

Jane is in her forties and when the book opens, we learn that she and her husband Nicholas, a mild mannered man, have moved to their country parish, where Nicholas will take on his new duties as a vicar. Jane begins to more or less settle into her role as the clergyman’s wife, although she’s quite terrible at it. Having studied at Oxford and bestowed with an academic mind, Jane had a bright future ahead of her with the possibility of writing books, but that ambition falls by the wayside once she marries.

It was a cold November day and she (Jane) had dressed herself up in layers of cardigans and covered the whole lot with her old tweed coat, the one she might have used for feeding the chickens in.

Carelessly dressed and socially awkward, she can cause a stir by saying the wrong thing at the wrong time. With no inclination towards domesticity or even displaying a flair for it, she manages to soldier on relying on her competent cook Mrs Glaze and her efficient daughter, Flora.

In her late twenties, Prudence is elegant, beautiful, and still single with a flurry of relationships behind her. She is getting older but has lost none of her good looks. Having reached the age when the prospects for marriage look dim, Prudence sometimes is beset with sadness and frets whether she will ever settle down with a man.

Prudence looks lovely this evening, thought Jane, like somebody in a woman’s magazine, carefully ‘groomed’, and wearing a read dress that sets off her pale skin and dark hair. It was odd, really, that she should not have yet married. One wondered if it was really better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all, when poor Prudence seemed to have lost so many times. For although she had been, and still was, very much admired, she had got into the way of preferring unsatisfactory love affairs to any others, so that it was becoming almost a bad habit.

And yet Prudence is doing reasonably well for herself. She is an independent woman with her own stylish apartment and works in a publisher’s office in London run by Mr Grampian. Mr. Grampian is an older, married man, but Prudence has taken a fancy to him, although he rarely notices her or only when it’s convenient to him. Jane is aware of Prudence’s feelings for Mr Grampian but remains doubtful of anything meaningful coming out of it.

Meanwhile, as she begins to mingle with the residents in the village, Jane is introduced to Fabian Driver, a man in mourning having recently lost his wife Constance. Fabian is good-looking but with an unsavoury aura around him – it is rumoured that he was frequently unfaithful to his wife during their marriage. And yet, he is now milking the ladies’ sympathies as an inconsolable widower.

Jane, in some ways is like Austen’s Emma – she is good hearted and greatly desires to find a husband for Prudence. Her introduction to Fabian brings out the matchmaker in Jane, and she casually mentions him to Prudence. When Prudence visits the Clevelands, she and Fabian get along quite well and begin to see each other regularly. Will anything significant come out of it? Has Prudence finally met her man?

As was evident in Excellent Women and Some Tame Gazelle, Pym excels in describing the eccentricities of parish life, its small time politics, how a woman meeting a man can set tongues wagging, and how rumours of people’s lives fly thick and fast.

As ever, Pym’s writing sparkles with humour and astute observations on the personalities of people…plus, her plotting and character sketches are top notch. We also get an inkling of the social fabric of the 1950s, where the women were chiefly concerned with finding someone to love and cherish and finally embracing marriage. Still, Pym raises the point that being single and living independently also brought its own share of rewards.

“I suppose I’ll never get a man if I don’t take more trouble with myself,” Eleanor went on, but she spoke comfortably and without regret, thinking of her flat in Westminster, so convenient for the Ministry, her weekend golf, concerts and theatres with women friends, in the best seats and with a good supper afterwards. Prue could have this kind of life if she wanted it; once couldn’t go on having romantic love affairs indefinitely. One had to settle down sooner or later into the comfortable spinster or the contented or bored wife.

Food is quite vividly described especially afternoon teas with their abundance of hot buttered toasts, iced walnut cakes, cucumber sandwiches, chocolate biscuits, buns and so on. Not to mention the occasional sherry. Tea can also provide the much needed respite from a dull office job. Indeed, at Prudence’s place of work, the sameness of their desultory conversations gets on her nerves, as her cronies constantly upstage each other over who got to work earliest. The only bright spot then is the tea trolley being wheeled in at four in the afternoon. These set pieces, particularly, highlight Pym’s genius for dry wit and comedy.

Jane and Prudence, then, is sprinkled with liberal doses of both laughter and melancholia. Each of the characters evokes the reader’s sympathy – whether it’s the well-meaning, blundering Jane, the gorgeous, self-centred Prudence, or even the frightful Fabian, who might have possibly gotten a raw deal towards the end.

This gem of a novel is awash with nostalgia for youth and its vista of seemingly endless possibilities. But with great depth and subtlety, Pym explores how, as we grow older, our lives can completely deviate from the path we had originally envisaged in our idealistic youth. We might not live the life we had planned, but once we accept it, we can somehow make it work.

Tea Is So Intoxicating – Mary Essex

The British Library, under the imprint The British Library Women Writers, has released some excellent looking titles recently, mostly books written by women in the early 20th century, which have largely been forgotten or sunk without a trace. I had already bought a couple of them – Mary Essex’s Tea Is So Intoxicating and Rose Macaulay’s Dangerous Ages, and based on my extremely enjoyable experience with the Essex novel, I plan to explore this series more.

Tea Is So Intoxicating, then, is a delightful comedy, a hilarious take on the challenges and pitfalls of running a tea-house in a quaint English village.

David Tompkins and his wife Germayne have arrived in the village of Wellhurst with dreams of opening a tea-house. The dream is more of David’s, who believes cooking is a simple affair if certain methods are followed. David is a retired Naval officer, and it is during a bout of illness that the idea of starting a new venture begins to take shape. What also gives David much confidence is his prior stint as an accountant at the Dolly Varden Cosy Tea Shops Ltd, although he has no practical experience of any kind on the actual running of a tea-house. But this is a point David refuses to acknowledge.

She [Germayne] was dubious about the success of the proposed tea-house. But, meanwhile, David had launched himself out into the thought of selling lunches packed ready to take on the road with you, teas in the garden, teas in the inglenook, teas you took away with you, or teas you took away inside you. In fact, it was a comprehensive plan, and it covered every line of resistance that man could offer. His flights of fancy took him into realms of the type of lunch that no hiker or biker wants, but that did not worry him in the least. He would educate them. Lobster mayonnaise in cartons, fresh salmon with cucumber discs, cut hyper-thin; smoked trout and cheese soufflé, trifle and pêches melba. He believed that he could make the wildest success of it all.

David wants the tea-house to be a classy affair, with the right china and ambience that attracts quality people and not the riff-raff.

The trouble was that these wretched country people did not understand how very first-class the place was going to be. Something ormolu. Something that was dignified and smart, nothing slapdash and likely to appeal to the scum. He was strongly against scum. His place was to be the best, providing the best and only for the best.

Meanwhile, David and Germayne set up residence in a cottage called Higgins-Bottom, a name David despises. He is hell bent on calling it Cherry Tree Cottage, but the villagers are having none of it and Higgins-Bottom stubbornly sticks. The Tompkinses are delighted with the prettiness of the cottage, although there are several practical drawbacks once they instill themselves there.

Essex also expertly weaves in brief backstories of both David and Germayne and how they end up as a couple into the main storyline. David was in a relationship with a woman who was not the marrying kind, an affair that dies a natural death. Germayne was earlier married to Digby, a wealthy man with a comfortable home, but quite set in his ways and also determined to turn Germayne into a new leaf. Both are ambivalent about parenthood, but end up having a daughter called Ducks. While motherhood continues to flummox Germayne, Digby finds himself thrilled to be a father despite his initial reservations. Doting immensely on Ducks, he spoils her silly, giving her free rein in the way she conducts herself. Feeling thoroughly stifled, and also because she considers Digby an insufferable bore, Germayne begins to see a way out when she meets David.

Romance blossoms between the two and Germayne divorces Digby to begin a new phase of life with David.

But with new beginnings come seemingly insurmountable challenges. First, is the capital required to set up the tea-house.  Despite his ambitions, David can’t cook to save his life. There’s this funny, wonderful set-piece in the earlier part of the novel, where wanting to tap into his friend George for investing into his venture, David invites him and his wife Gertrude to spend the weekend at their cottage. But it turns out to be a disaster. David concocts an elaborate menu for dinner, but botches it up. Breakfast is also a paltry affair where David serves omelettes “looking exactly like pieces of yellow window leather.” Obviously, asking an irritable and hungry man for money is hardly going to yield the desired result.

Miraculously, David manages to raise some money anyway, and the project gets going. Things considerably liven up, when Mimi, the cake-cook from Vienna (“ma poor Vienna”, as she calls it) makes an appearance. The men find her utterly charming. George, who did not want to have anything to do with the tea-house earlier, is now open to the idea of lending money, if Mimi’s going to be a permanent fixture. Even Colonel Blandish, a striking figure in the village with a forceful personality, comes around to the view that a tea-house will be a welcome addition to the village, a refreshing change from the overall stodginess that characterizes the place.

But there are strong dissidents. Mr and Mrs Percy, who run a desultory tea place of their own, are hostile because they fear the competition. Mrs Arbroath, lady of the manor, with her domineering personality and conservative views, thinks she runs the village and is dead set against the idea of a tea-house being set up that will attract ‘foreigners.’ To add fuel to the fire, rumours doing the rounds that David and Germayne are ‘not properly married’ only antagonize the residents further. As for Mimi, the women of the village, including Germayne, see right through her and consider her a bad influence.

Her pathetic, “I ‘ave no ‘ome, I ‘ave no love, I work ‘ard, but people misunderstand, and poor Mimi she go on struggle,” brought a round of applause from the gentlemen and a peculiar chilliness from the women, who had no patience with her at all.

 All these ingredients mixed together rustle up a scenario of complete chaos, and when the utterly spoilt Ducks shows up at the village all hell breaks loose.

Will the tea-house become a raging success despite all odds? Or, will David’s best laid plans go awry?

Keeping the comic elements aside, Tea Is So Intoxicating perfectly captures the dynamics of village life – how it is resistant to the winds of change, the petty jealousies and politics, the lives of villagers bandied about as fodder for gossip, and how everybody makes it their business to poke their nose into other people’s affairs.  The novel also examines what makes marriage work (is an exciting, adventurous spouse preferable to a dull, dependable one), and how divorce, though legal, was still frowned upon in conservative circles.

The novel also subtly explores the sweeping changes that were being felt across England post the war, particularly with the imminent prospect of the Labour government coming into power. Rationing was still an issue, and with aristocracy dwindling, people of Mrs Arbroath’s ilk could no longer maintain their mansions, having to sell parcels of land to raise money.

Mrs Arbroath steeled herself against what was coming to the world, and she clung on to her previous glory with two clutching hands…Her income had started to drop, which was the fault of that miserable surtax, which she had always thought was thieving, and she had had to sell a few fields. Instantly there had sprung up a pale mushroom growth of awful little houses, with asbestos roofs, which made her groan. She could do nothing about it, though she tried, and what was worse, she had never given up trying.

Essex is witty and displays a wicked sense of humour, and her writing is deliciously tongue-in-cheek. All the characters are wonderfully realized and unique with their own set of quirks – the obstinate David with his inability to think quickly, the self-assured but dull Digby who believes his Ducks has verve and personality, poor shabbily-dressed Germayne who is driven crazy by the two men in her life, the formidable but lonely Mrs Arbroath who loves to relentlessly argue and have her own way, the dashing Colonel Blandish who can impress women with his “Simla finesse and Poona technique”, and of course not to be left out, the enchanting Mimi in her dirndl skirt and plunging neckline who can set men’s hearts racing.

Tea is certainly intoxicating, as is Mary Essex’s wonderful novel!

And the Wind Sees All – Gudmundur Andri Thorsson (tr. Bjorg Arnadottir & Andrew Cauthery)

The ‘Home in Exile’ series from Peirene Press is a real hit. I had loved both Soviet Milk and Shadows on the Tundra as soon as they were released, but somehow missed And the Wind Sees All, the third in the series. I am glad that I read it now because this was a gorgeously written novella.

And The Wind Sees All is set in a small, Icelandic fishing village called Valeyri. We are transported into this region by the wind, which comes in off the sea…

I see the secrets. I see people cooking, peeing, pottering or skulking about. Some weep, some listen, some stare. I see people silent, or screaming into their pillows. I see people throwing out rubbish and useless memories, and I don’t look away. I never look away. I see all.

As Kata, a choir conductor wearing a polka dot dress, bicycles her way to the concert hall, she passes through the village lanes and is seen by almost all the residents as she flits past their homes.

This framework gives the book an impressionistic feel, as it is composed of short vignettes on the characters that make up the village. It is almost as the entire lives of the villagers are encapsulated in the single time horizon of two minutes (that it takes Kata as she cycles past).

As is the case in small communities, everyone pretty much knows everybody else, it is difficult for secrets to stay hidden for long. But the village somehow accepts who you are and moves on.

The first chapter focuses on Kata and we get a glimpse of her relationship with Andreas suffused with sadness and missed opportunities. Although Kata becomes merely a presence in the subsequent chapters, the sense of lost chances remains.

Love and loss

A sense of profound loss dominates the lives of many of the characters. There’s Arni Moneybags later nicknamed Arni Going Places, with a successful advertising career under his belt. He has an instinct for creating stellar campaigns, and captivating the minds of the audiences. But his relationship with his partner gradually deteriorates. While Arni is glued to his computer, Agusta increasingly withdraws into herself until one day she disappears.

We are also introduced to husband and wife Gudjon and Sveinsina, who are in the same room physically, but miles apart in thoughts. Sveinsina, particularly, reminisces about her first husband Biggi, a guitarist, and how she lost him so young when their son Teddi was only five.

She is thinking about Biggi and the long winter when he dies, that winter in Reykjavik in that godforsaken block of flats, and Teddi was only five and followed his daddy out onto the balcony and watched him climb over the rail on the seventh floor and jump, watched his daddy briefly soar through the air – soar through his white and wonderful dimension – before hitting the pavement.

In another vignette, Gunnar finds the presence of his childhood sweetheart, who he meets after many, many years, almost too painful to bear. Josa, meanwhile, ruminates on her relationship and subsequent marriage with Kalli before he abandons her for another woman Sigga. And yet, they all manage to co-exist in that small community.

Cast of varied characters

More people and sketches of their lives abound. A lot of the characters are in some way related. After her husband Kalli leaves her, Josa is aware that there is life outside but prefers an existence of solitude indoors. Her one contact is her son Gummi, who occasionally visits her to cook a sumptuous meal, and during one of these visits admits to being in relationship with a woman during the height of the Balkan War only to lose contact with her later.

Svenni is an industrious foreman in the factory machine room, polite and respected. And yet he has those days when he calls in sick and holes himself up in the house with bottles of drink.

Sigga is married to Kalli after he left Josa and although she is welcomed in the village wonders whether she really fits in.  

There is one particular piece called the Aroma of Ashes, which focuses on two well-to-do couples who are also best friends. Their lives are filled with expensive holidays and family get-togethers. We learn that while one of one of the couples has a stable marriage, the other pair has a strained relationship.

The sanctity of village life

Is life better in a bigger city such as the capital Reykjavik? Svenni’s parents certainly didn’t think so. Settled in Reykjavik, they send their then 11-year old son to the countryside to appreciate the virtues of hard work and toughen up in the process.

His parents thought that it would be much better for a boy to spend the summer months in the countryside than on the streets of Reykjavik, which would just mean hanging about like a slob and losing his appetite. He would become a pale, apathetic couch potato. In the country, he would find out what real life was all about.

For Teddi, possibly haunted by his father’s suicide when Teddi was five, the village and his vibrant family are beacons he hangs on to remain sane.

As you make for the harbor, there is this peace inside you. The beacon is there, and all you need to do is to aim for the beacon, if you stick to that you’re safe, whereas if you forget about it you are lost, you end up in the shallows, fall, sink into the deep.

Complex lives

And the Wind Sees All ultimately shows us that human lives are complex, whether you stay in a bucolic fishing village or in a fast paced larger city.  Indeed, people staying in small communities also have their share of disappointments, relationship issues, happiness and success. This is beautifully expressed in each of the vignettes, which cumulatively leaves a much larger impression on the reader of how the characters have intricate inner lives.

A gorgeous gem

And the Wind Sees All then is an exquisite novella where the language is lush and lyrical. In descriptions of both man and nature, the author’s writing is rich heightening the feeling of a calm exterior beneath which secrets and emotions simmer.  

All this movement: the sea is eternal, it nourishes, heals, rinses, gives and takes, is made of currents that have been in motion for millions of years, slipping beneath each other in one continuous swirl, because the sea is, above all, movement.

Although not as hard hitting as either Soviet Milk or Shadows on the Tundra in the ‘Home in Exile’ series, slivers of sadness, nevertheless, seep through each sketch dedicated to a character or group of characters in the novel.

All in all, Peirene Press has clearly scored a hat-trick with this particular series.