18 January 2017

Long Live Great Bardfield: The Autobiography of Tirzah Garwood

During my last trip to London I visited the Dulwich Picture Gallery to see the Ravilious exhibit.  Knowing very little about the man, my interest in his work springs from its pleasant blending of English countryside, soothing colours, and war art.  When Persephone Books announced they would be publishing his wife's autobiography I ordered a copy.  To be perfectly honest, reading about Tirzah's life was meant to be a way of gleaning more information about Eric.  Now that I've mournfully turned the last page of Long Live Great Bardfield my interest has been completely turned around...and how could it not be?  While a picture may be worth a thousand words, to read Tirzah's thoughts on art, family, love, sex, and the war with such honesty is to feel as though you've been been welcomed into this sphere by Tirzah herself.

Tirzah Garwood was born into a life of privilege in 1908, although this shouldn't be misunderstood as 'stuffiness', although anything appearing to be 'common' is greatly avoided (and usually quite comic).  For every mention of something such as a man arriving to wind clocks there are chickens, bunnies, dogs, foraging, and a passion for collecting things like birds' nests and beetles.  Such passions can have their downside...

'My mother was unfortunate enough to have been married when the fashion for pewter pots was at its height.....'

Art figured prominently in Tirzah's family with both her mother and father taking up pencil and brush.  Mr Garwood's eye for sketching nudes from photography book caused no small amount of embarrassment.  In fact, there were many instances when Edwardian values turned to carefree adventure.  Aunt Rose arranged for the eldest three Garwood children to experience a ride in a seaplane while the younger two were compensated with a lunch out.  On the surface, Tirzah was mesmerized by the way the pilot's hair moved in the wind but a hand stained red from the ticket reveals a bit of anxiety.  And who could blame her?

Another fascinating aspect of this book are the references to health conditions and how they were treated during this era between the wars.  Eating too much can bring about a liver attack, another woman apparently went deaf because a bag had been popped behind her, and quinine is recommended towards the end of pregnancy.  At one point, while Tirzah is in hospital, she writes about a twenty-two year old woman who has been under observation for thirteen weeks because she has grown a beard.  It's obvious to us in 2017 that this is a hormone issue but there's another glaring point...today you wouldn't be admitted for half that time if you required a heart transplant.  And I did laugh at an ineffective way to beat sunstroke....

'It was a very hot day and my mother went bathing, which she occasionally did, wearing a voluminous alpaca bathing dress with a longish skirt.  She was always very careful to wet the top of her forehead first when she went in, I think her mother had told her always to do this.  It seemed a poor sort of reward for years of such caution that she should in spite of this get sunstroke, but there it was, she came home with her memory completely gone and kept offering Joe more helpings of rice pudding for lunch.'

As you can see, at barely a third of the way into Long Live Great Bardfield there is already much to recommend it.  By the time Tirzah's writing has moved on from her childhood to concentrate on her relationship with Eric Ravilious, my heart had been lost to her.  

Every book I read over the next eleven months will be judged against this one.  Each page comes alive with the minutiae of Tirzah's relationships and marriage, England's art scene during the thirties, and village life.  It's also the story of a woman who bravely faces the many challenges of raising a family with an often absent husband, having her creativity put on hold, standing up to others when she is firm in a decision and facing cancer as a young woman.  There's a remarkable lack of complaining despite situations, such as Eric's affairs, when it would have been perfectly understandable to unleash a tirade.  I'm left with the sense that Tirzah knew her value, kept a bit of her heart for herself, and admirably dealt with certain dire situations with an incredible amount of decorum.

To anyone interested in a long list of topics such as the interwar period, artists, social history, women's rights, village life, domestic history, World War II, England, etc., I can not recommend this book highly enough.  Also, for anyone contemplating a good read for a book group this would make a wonderful choice.  As I mentioned before, I knew very little about Eric Ravilious and nothing at all about Tirzah but was completely swept away.  A final bit of advice - have a box of tissues nearby for the last chapter.

 Duffy Ayres, portrait of Tirzah Garwood (1944)

1 January 2017

Five Favourites from 2016

This is the best time of year for increasing an already too long list of 'must-read' books.  It's especially good for highlighting reissues of books I never knew existed.  One title that jumps to mind is Fair Stood the Wind for France by H. E. Bates (thank you, Kim from Reading Matters).

While it wasn't my most prolific year for reading down to having lots of exhausting fun with a new pup, most of what I read was quite good.  It was impossible to narrow down the books I've read to one favourite, but each of my top picks had a pull that made me yearn to get back to them and left a lasting impression.  And it has just occurred to me that four of the five titles are by authors I've never read before.

This new year of reading is already off to an excellent start with Long Live Great Bardfield by Tirzah Garwood.  I'm only a few pages in but absolutely loving it so far.  Full of anecdotal tidbits of childhood perceptions and social mores from around the time of the Great War, it's tiding me over nicely until more copies of Terms and Conditions by Yselda Maxtone Graham are printed.  I placed my first order with Slightly Foxed the other day for Issue 52 of their quarterly magazine.  No doubt the start of another bookish obsession....Happy New Year!      

24 December 2016

Merry Christmas!

A Virginia Woolf Christmas 
Amanda White

My husband and I had Kip in tow as we strolled along the snowy sidewalks in Oakville late in the afternoon yesterday.  The festive decorations on the historic homes down by the lake are beautiful in their simplicity...holly, green boughs, and red ribbon.  Then, as daylight crept away, the lights started to shine from inside cosy homes.  Bless those people who left their curtains thrown back so we could thrill at their starry trees.  Everyone we passed smiled as we exchanged wishes for a merry Christmas and Kip was lost in his own glory with so many cuddles.  We bought a gingerbread man, a mince pie (the best ever!) and a brownie from the bakery and tried not to eat them on the drive home.  We almost made it, but what's wrong with dessert before dinner every now and then?

We're spending this evening with friends just around the corner.  I hope their dog doesn't mind that we're bringing two large boxes of Christmas crackers...the ones with the loud 'SNAP!'.

Wherever you are, and however you celebrate, I wish you a very merry Christmas!  

21 December 2016

Beyond the Vicarage by Noel Streatfeild

While standing on the fourth rung of a library ladder at Ten Editions, a bookshop in Toronto, I was thrilled to find a book by Noel Streatfeild.  Pulling the hardcover from its spot, the cover featured an illustration of a young girl in Women's Volunteer Service garb including a tin hat.  This all happened over a year ago but I remember it well because the twenty dollars I paid for two books were tucked into the blouse of the woman behind the counter.  Well, perhaps her cash register was out of order, but I digress.

Published in 1971 Beyond the Vicarage is the third book in a trilogy and autobiographical.  There is a slightly odd component though - Streatfeild refers to herself as Victoria and uses a third person narrative.  She describes her reasoning in an author's note...

'I made, and make, no pretence that I am not the Victoria in the three books, but the thin shield of anonymity has helped me to feel unselfconscious when writing the story of my life.'

A swift reprise at the beginning brought me up to speed.  'Victoria' had three sisters: Isobel, Louise,  Theodora (who was seventeen years younger than the author) and a brother, Dick.  Isobel and Louise were married, and Dick was working in Bangkok.  Her father, a Bishop, dies while riding the train to see a dentist.  This tragic event happens on page four so apologies to anyone who considers that episode to be a bit of a spoiler.

'Victoria' feels an intense need to move on from the world of acting to try her hand at writing.  Her mother must have had plenty of patience and confidence as she secured a line of credit for one year so the aspiring author could live in a hostel on Cromwell Road.  Fortunately 'Victoria' finishes her first project called The Witcharts and signs a book deal in 1931 for £50.  Imagine her surprise when the plan is to move on to something else only to have the fine print pointed out - she is under contract to write two more books.

Being incredibly naive about the whole business, 'Victoria' makes the gaffe of her life.  While at a cocktail party she's introduced to a woman....

'The small woman looked at Victoria as if, Victoria told friends later, she was an earwig and asked: "Do you write?"  It happened, as it does at parties, that this question and Victoria's answer fell into a lull in the general conversation, so all around heard what Victoria replied.  "Yes.  Do you?".  The small woman moved gently on her way while an acquaintance hissed at Victoria:  "That, my poor ignoramus, was Rose Macaulay."'

By the time Streatfeild wrote Ballet Shoes she believed she was expected to live a certain lifestyle which didn't include living in a hostel so she moved to Mayfair.  Mind you, it was in 'the seedier parts of Mayfair'.  Being the first to admit her shortcomings in the world of domesticity, 'Victoria' goes through a series of women trying to find good help.  I laughed when she employed an Austrian refugee who complained that she needed space for her fur coats and ballgowns.  Also, Mrs Schmidt refused to do any work that required being on her hands and knees.  Once the bombs began to fall in earnest Mrs Schmidt acquired a doctor's note saying she needed 'many weeks of lying down' and left.

What follows is the recounting of various events during 'Victoria's' years of war service.  Organizing canteen trucks, meals, endless pots of tea, but also retrieving and identifying body parts after air raids. To bring a bit of levity to a horrible time, there was an occasion when a monkey was found among the rubble.  One of the air raid wardens, diagnosing a case of shock, gave the monkey a cup of hot milk and wrapped it in a rug.  The poor thing was eventually sent to a zoo to recuperate.

Once the war was over 'Victoria' takes a flat in Belgravia but it's worn and bare.  An Irish maid working for the woman who owned the house mentioned the name of a horse likely to win the Grand National; a tip from the maid's brother.  The odds were 66 - 1.  'Victoria' placed a bet and won.  With her winnings she created a lovely garden with the help of students from a nearby boys' school.

'She then raked the earth into beds which she marked out with stones from the ruins next door.  Then - and a great moment that was - she planted flowers starting with a border of pansies.'

Despite the somewhat precious tone of the writing and the fact that Streatfeild refers to herself in the third person, with a different name, I did enjoy the storytelling.  It would be interesting to read a biography about Noel Streatfeild as I'm sure there's more than meets the eye here.  She definitely was a woman of her time and found the seventies rolling towards an era she wasn't going to be comfortable in.  And yet she was feisty.  In her later sixties 'Victoria' was determined to go out on a lobster boat while visiting New England despite rolling seas and a bucket for nature's call.

The last few pages wrap up quite quickly, speeding through the time when 'Victoria' was in her later years.  She loved staying with friends but clearly learned very little along the way when it came to lending a hand around the house...

'Of course, you made your bed but what else?  Victoria made helpful noises to show willingness, but as a rule she was told "no". the hostess found strange help more trouble than it was worth.  But occasionally Victoria's noises were taken at their face value and she was told: "You really would be an angel if you would clean the bathroom."  Victoria all her life had been hopelessly incompetent in a house, so her idea of help had not gone beyond dead-heading the roses or picking the peas.'

Endearing and entertaining to the end.

Noel Streatfeild