Thursday, 28 June 2012

Elizabeth Taylor centenary year

Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont by Elizabeth Taylor

The novelist Elizabeth Taylor has been described as the unsung heroine of British twentieth century fiction and the thinking person’s dangerous housewife. In her novels – 11 in all – and in her short stories, there is a tenderness and compassion as she dissects the minutiae of people’s lives, always with a psychological insight and more than a dash of comedy.

How deeply I envy any reader coming to her for the first time wrote novelist Elizabeth Jane Howard.

Elizabeth Taylor was born in Reading in 1912 and worked both as a governess and a librarian before her marriage to a sweet manufacturer in 1936. Her first novel At Mrs. Lippincote’s was published in 1945 – the same year as actress Elizabeth Taylor appeared in the film ‘National Velvet’.

The writer, Elizabeth Taylor, has been likened to novelists of the calibre of Jane Austen and Barbara Pym and one can also detect similarities with the work of Anita Brookner whose novels are often also about anguish, loneliness and despair – yet in Elizabeth Taylor we also find elements of  farce and gentle comedy, both lacking in Brookner’s work.

My personal favourite, Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont, which was published in 1971, tells of the eponymous heroine who, recently widowed, decides to move into a London hotel and end her days there. As the book opens Mrs Palfrey is in a taxi, apprehensive about what the Claremont – reduced winter rates, excellent cuisine – will be like. Once inside, she realises that The Claremont is less a gentlewomen’s hotel and more like a residential home.

Mrs Palfrey is about to join the ranks of the rejected;  Mrs Arbuthnot, crippled with arthritis; Mr Osmond - forever dashing off outraged letters to The Daily Telegraph; Mrs Post - constantly knitting; the bloated Mrs Burton - reeking of whisky by lunchtime. All have just enough money and pride to live out their days in a residential hotel and all are drawn by Elizabeth Taylor with sympathy, ironically strengthened by the novelist’s objectivity.

Soon after her arrival, Laura Palfrey hears herself praising a considerate grandson who doesn’t actually exist. She does have a grandson but in her anxiety to appear part of a loving and caring family she transforms the dull, pedantic Desmond into the grandson of her imagining – charming, considerate and interesting.

Following on from embroidering the truth, she encounters Ludo, a penniless writer, who comes to her aid. In an inspired moment, she persuades him to pose as Desmond and invites him to dinner at the Claremont so that the others will believe she has family willing to visit her. Despite disposing of the ghastly three courses with rapidity, ‘Desmond’ meets with the approval of the other residents and Laura begins to enjoy her wickedness and to delight in the deception. To discover how events unfold I recommend you read the book for yourself. You won’t be disappointed.

If you’ve not read Elizabeth Taylor before, it is particularly apt that you do so this year for, in 2012, we celebrate the centenary of her birth.  Radio 4’s Bookclub  programme this coming Sunday, 1st July at 4.00pm, pays tribute to her with novelist and comedian David Baddiel in conversation with broadcaster Jim Naughtie about this signature work, Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont.

I especially enjoyed this quote from the novel and wanted to share it with you - No one that he (Ludo) knew stood in awe of writers. The Major had told him one day that in 5 year’s time no one would read any more. Later, archaeologists would ponder on, argue about, what books had been for. ‘It’ll all be telly, visual aids,’ the Major insisted. I am certain that reading Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont will inspire you to go on reading and prove the Major wrong.


Saturday, 9 June 2012

Fiction and Truth Reading as a Reader, Reading as a Writer

 I would point out that in the Iconic reading group teased me that I read these books as a writer, not purely as a reader.  This is evident here in this post, I think... I did protest to them that this was true. I am indeed a writer! 

Suite Francaise  - really a suite of two novels which might have grown been three -  was famously written by Irene Nemirovsky was what I was: a writer!during the German occupation of France  before her removal in 1942 to Auschwitz and ultimate death. The rediscovery and  publication  of the work sixty five years later is a story in itself.

Irene - already a well known writer - embarked on the novel in the rural  village of Issy-l'Eveque where she and her husband and two small daughters lived, having fled occupied Paris.

I have just finished writing my latest novel - to be called The Art of Retreating - partly set in Occupied France and partly in the present day, so had read dozens of scholarly histories,  factual anecdotal memoirs and factual personal stories to get inside the particular experience of one of the six  main characters -  the aged writer Francine Costington.

I  kept Suite Francaise - at the far side of my table -  to read after I had finished writing my own novel.  This was because,  being fiction, this novel is essentially a secondary source; secondary sources are normally weak and can lead to thin storytelling and unconscious imitation..

It turns out though that t Suite Francaise relates intensely ... Read on. 

Tuesday, 5 June 2012

Summer Book Tove Johannson: Reading for Myself

Reading for  Myself
When I read a new novel I make a habit of not reading any commentaries, reviews or introductions as I don't like to be told what Ishould think or feel about  a new book. I like to come to it afresh.  I may read such commentaries afterwards but my own first close reading is my reference for what the book means to me.

But you can't close your ears and Tove Jannson 's Summer Book came to the Iconic reading group laden with insightful praise from my reading guru Gillian. She certainly made me want to read it.

As I read it  I admired its beautifully written spare, poetic tone. I found it  hard to sort out whether this was down to the elegant translation or the original writing by a writer, whose reputation is built on writing for children. Of course the best children's writers know in their hearts about diamond bright use of language  to convey precise, often deep meaning,. Tove Jannson certainly does this in this story about a small girl who spends the summer on an island on the gulf of Finland with her Grandmother, who is a marginally eccentric artist and has no problems rowing in the water around the island.   (MORE...)

Sunday, 3 June 2012

The Loss of the Amazing Mary Davies

Mary and her Polish Friend Halina

I have just heard from Jan Atkins of the death (aged 93) on the Isle of  Arran of my old  friend Mary Davies, a gifted painter, writer and healer.  My novel The Woman Who Drew Buildings was inspired by tales told to me by this wonderful  and somewhat  mystical writer and artist who  lived  in retirement on the Isle of Arran and who  also, in her time, drew buildings for a living. She was - remarkably -  a note taker and reporter for architectural historian Niklaus Pevsner and in her time helped to save important buildings from demolition.

Drawing from Mary's stories, experience and documentation the novel takes place in Poland in 1981 and Britain in 2006 . What’s it about? It’s 
about  the consuming nature of art, the shadowy place between now and the hereafter; it’s about passionate encounters arising from a confluence of cultures and the long journey of a mother and son to mutual understanding.   (more...)

Friday, 1 June 2012

STOP PRESS for readers, writers and listeners

Don’t forget to join me this Sunday at Noon on the 3rd June to The Writing Game  on Bishop FM where Gillian, Avril and I dig into the inspiration of the garden.
This month on The Writing Game we are making the connection between the creative processes of gardening and writing. Many gardeners are writers and many writers are gardeners. Both activities require a combination of inspiration, hard work, creativity and patience. The only way to become accomplished at both writing and gardening is  actually to do it – not think about it or theorise about it but to actually practice the art. Some people would say that in both cases you have to be willing to get your hands dirty!
On this month’s programme we visit the garden in Low Etherley of Mary Smith who is both a great gardener and a member of Wear Valley Writers. ..  – read more  at