'How pleasant it is to spend an evening in this way! I declare that after all there is no enjoyment like reading! How much sooner one tires of any thing than of a book! — When I have a house of my own, I shall be miserable if I have not an excellent library.' No one made any reply. She then yawned again, threw aside her book, and cast her eyes round the room in quest of some amusement. — from Pride and Prejudice, by Jane Austen (1775-1817)
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January 4, 2013

Persephone no. 31: A House in the Country


I feel a little as though telling you guys about a Persephone book is like carrying coals to Newcastle, or bringing shoes to the cobbler's children, or ... It's just that I'm so relatively new at reading them.  But I'm happy to be in a position to recommend this one, just in case it isn't already one of your favorites. :)

This is the kind of book (or the kind of author) that draws me in even when I'm reading the introduction:

Throughout the 1950s a woman in her middle years could be seen riding her out-sized bright yellow bicycle through the streets of South Kensington. She could have been, more often than not, on her way to the Institut Francais to study Proust. She was striking, with her cropped hair and trousers, and her name was Jocelyn Playfair.
      A well-known, somewhat eccentric figure in the London of her day, her name is virtually unknown today. But between the years 1939 and 1952 she produced ten novels, ranging from murder mysteries to romance. They were well-received by reviewers...
      There us a certain neatness about her output:  she started to write as the Second World War was imminent, and she stopped in 1952, as life returned to normal -- a direct result, it is easy to say, of the boredom, loneliness and frustration experienced by so many women during the war years. But for Jocelyn Playfair that very loneliness was an opportunity to think, to ponder huge questions such as the validity of war, the quality of human kindness, the conflict between love and duty, and between tradition and the need to look to the future. ,,,
      The title is misleadingly cozy, and so is an outline of the plot:  a valiant gentlewoman struggles with the inconveniences of running a large country-house in wartime, and dreams of the man she loves. ... But to say any of this is to underestimate Jocelyn Playfair's thoughtfulness and intelligence:  she had things to day, and she said them in a setting that she knew well -- a setting that we in turn know well from the work of Mollie Panter-Downes and Jan Struther, and none the worse for that.


There's something kind of irresistible in that portrait, and in that 'neatness,' at least for me.

The country house  {'Georgian, you know, quite lovely.'} is Brede Manor, and the gentlewoman is beautiful, unconventional {trouser-wearing, tea in the kitchen}, self-deprecating, Cressida Chance. We know from the formality of the time that she is Mrs. Chance, but we're not immediately sure if there is still a Mr. Chance {'One doesn't speak of it.'}, or if he is the man that she loves. We also know early on that the house has been left for her use by Charles Valery; we know where he is, but not what will happen to him.

      'Oh, God,' Miss Brent remarked flatly, 'all passages, I suppose and the bath'll be cold.'
      Miss Ambleside bridled. A rush of affection for, and pride in, Cressida, overcame her.
      'I have never,' she stated loudly, 'had hotter baths than my niece provides.'
      'Has she always let rooms?' the young woman, as Miss Ambleside had begun angrily to classify her, went on undaunted.
      'My niece,' she said sternly, 'does not let rooms.  She is kind enough to allow people to stay in her house because the war has filled the country with people who have nowhere to live.' And no right to exist, her tone implied.
Other than the glamorous {and temporary} Felicity Brent,  and  Tori, a refugee from Europe, an old friend of Charles' and a new one for Cressida,  most of the paying guests are there for color and background. There are also visits from Cressida's army-officer brother, Dolphin, the famous singer who he loves, and Cressida and Dolphin's aunt, Miss Ambleside. 

The 'misleadingly cozy' description {which is perfect} comes from the way the story turns from funny scenes {like this one} to scenes where the war has a definite and tragic effect, or to chances {Cressida meeting her neighbors as she walks through the village, Charles drifting for days in a lifeboat} for the characters to think about why men fight, or what it means to be kind.  This is the kind of book where youi're often hearing the writer's (or at least the narrator's) voice, instead of a character's, but that shifting from the sweet and funny to the serious and provocative is unexpected, and gives the book its unusual strength.  This book surprised me, and held me reading, and like all of the three or four Persephones I've read so far, I enjoyed it and wpuld recommend it very much.



7 comments:

Bellezza said...

"carrying coals to Newcastle"...you make me smile. Although, they're new to me, too, so I'll take all the coals you can bring.

elizabeth said...

Thanks for the recommendation! I haven't read this one, but I will look for it. I love the idea of a "misleadingly cozy" book.

Claire (The Captive Reader) said...

I am keen to read this one, but then I could say that of every unread Persephone I have sitting on my shelves! Truly, they have published some wonderfully surprising books and I am always eager to sample their offerings. I am sure I will enjoy this and I only hope it doesn't take me too long to get to it.

Sidenote: I love that the country house is Georgian. I have great difficultly with books where characters wax on about how beautiful and enchanting their cramped little cottages and low-beamed Tudor houses are, since I can imagine nothing less appealing. It immediately puts me at odds with a book and its characters. But when the house in question is Georgian, I am as happy to swoon over it as any of the characters. Clearly, I need to work on being more broadminded architecturally.

Lisa May said...

It's not coals to Newcastle for me either, since I've read exactly two. I've honestly been afraid to spend too much time on the Persephone site, since my brief visits have made it clear that it's the equivalent of a chocolate shop, and I might well lose all restraint when I start ordering. When I do, though, I think this one will be high on the list.

Karen K. said...

I liked it too, but I agree, it's not the cozy domestic story I was expecting -- it's quite a serious story about life during wartime.

And Persephones are DANGEROUS. Whenever I can, I try and get them via ILL, though they're usually older editions. Of course I do break down and buy them sometimes, usually through The Book Depository (though if you buy them direct you get the nice bookmarks.) And sometimes the Persephone shop has specials, like buy two get the third free, so be sure and get on their email list!

FleurFisher said...

I could happily read about Persephone books all day, and you're not doing any damage to my wishlist, because any of the books I don't have are on it already.

I have yet to read this one, but it's high on my list of priorities, and I remember Nicola Beauman refering to it as the quintissentila Persephone book. Or words to that effect.

Marie said...

Another to add to my list. Persephone is one of my favorite publishers!

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