Wednesday, 9 April 2014

‘Wilfred and Eileen’ by Jonathan Smith

It’s a rare event for Persephone Books to publish a book by a man, so you know that when they do it must be a very carefully thought through choice. And in many ways Jonathan Smith’s retelling of the real-life romance of Wilfred Willett and Eileen Stenhouse (simply called Wilfred & Eileen) is reminiscent of another excellent Persephone book - William, An Englishman by Cicely Hamilton.

Both books are carefully considered constructions of young men in England on the eve of the First World War, set against a backdrop of women’s suffrage, while focussing on a crushing an all-consuming love affair. I’ve written about William - An Englishman before (review here), and heartily recommend it.

In Wilfred & Eileen, we meet ambitious medical student Wilfred Willett as he is graduating from Cambridge University in 1913… and where he meets the enigmatic Eileen at a formal dinner. Although he is just setting off for a placement in a London hospital, Wilfred can’t get Eileen out of his head and despite working hard at the hospital under two equally demanding surgeons, Wilfred spends his spare time falling in love with Eileen. Much to the dismay of both of their families who think the pairing unsuitable.

As the love affair grows, so does the spectre of the First World War which creeps up quicker than either suspected, and despite the shrugs of society it refuses to blow over as quickly as everyone hoped. With Wilfred sent away to France, all Eileen can do it pace around at home, getting increasingly frustrated with her family… waiting to hear news of her beloved from the Front.

What results is a compelling and nerve-wracking story of love in a miserable climate. Wilfred & Eileen is only a short book, but it tells an important story of how war crushes not only romantic passion but also academic passion. The fact it is based on a true story makes it all the sadder, as does the fact it surely echoes a million other young couples and their curtailed love affairs in the same period.

Wilfred & Eileen was adapted into a four-part BBC series in the early 1980s, which would be fascinating to see. Perhaps we can collectively persuade Persephone to arrange a screening event for all the people who loved this book, especially with the centenary of the First World War looming.

Tuesday, 1 April 2014

'The Diary of a Provincial Lady' by EM Delafield

There’s something about the diary format that lends itself to comic fiction. Whether it’s spilling the innermost secrets of joyously naive Charles Pooter in The Diary of a Nobody (1892), lovelorn hypochondriac Adrian Mole (1982), or eternal singleton Bridget Jones (1996)… over the decades, the diary format has brought many a novel to life.

Maybe it’s the informal first person narrative, maybe it’s the unashamed insights into someone’s deepest thoughts, maybe it’s the illusion of unedited ego. Whatever it is, EM Delafield’s The Diary of a Provincial Lady (1930) truly has it in spades. And happily, Persephone Books has just reissued the diary in a beautiful new volume.

Originally conceived as a light-hearted column in the feminist magazine Time & Tide (of which Delafield was a director), the diary follows an unnamed middle-class wife living somewhere near Devon as she deals with the daily troubles of running her home, keeping her children under control (her son is away at boarding school while her daughter is home educated by a French governess), appeasing her gruff husband who hides behind The Times, and the eternal servant problem as staff come and go. 

Our nameless heroine is preoccupied. The bulbs she planted (in pots she definitely did not buy in Woolworths) are refusing to flower, no matter what room she puts them in, and the endlessly competitive Lady Boxe is driving her up the wall with her constant one-up-man-ship and determination to patronise our lady at every turn. 

Mademoiselle refuses to speak a word of English, but thinks that the lady’s daughter Vicky is the most angelic little bean ever born. While son Robin repeatedly returns from boarding school with an increasingly unlikely succession of unpopular friends who have come to stay with no warning whatsoever. And all the while, hard-working husband Robert is huffing behind The Times, and the staff are constantly threatening to hand in their notice.

I know… to a 2014 reader, it may not sound like the most absorbing material for a book. But that is where the majesty in EM Delafield’s writing is. The Diary of a Provincial Lady is un-putdownable. I first read it about six years ago (as a single 20-something) and loved it so much that I immediately read the subsequent three books in succession (not something I’d advise - spread the joy!). To re-read it again as a married 30-something, I loved The Diary of a Provincial Lady even more and have dug out my copies of the sequels to re-read in a leisurely fashion. 

On so many occasions, I kept thinking ‘That’s such a Bridget Jones thing to do...’, but of course our provincial lady pre-dates Bridget by 66 years, and maybe Bridget was simply acting a a provincial lady manner?! The gentle humour of the provincial lady is compulsive, endearing and identifiable. If only she didn’t have a cook, she would certainly be serving up blue string soup to Lady Boxe. 

Our provincial lady is concerned with flitting up to London on the train to keep herself kitted out in the right clothes, while constantly pawning and buying back her grandmother’s diamond ring to enable her to do so. Our provincial lady is cataloguing her awful and exhausting trip to France with the children, in a way that reminds me of Bridget’s trip to the Edinburgh Festival but inability to see any shows while there. Our provincial lady is invited to give talks at neighbouring WI meetings, in the way that Bridget falls backwards down a fireman’s pole live on TV. It’s the same but different… Bridget lives in a different age, but in many ways the provincial lady is her QVC-loving mum.

The popularity of the first Diary of a Provincial Lady in 1930 led to three further volumes, and these are readily available in collected editions. But to my mind, the original diary is the best and most enjoyable. And this new edition by Persephone (2014) is an absolute delight - it contains the original line drawings by Arthur Watts, and the endpapers are the covers from the 1930 edition. 

Wednesday, 26 March 2014

'Supergirl' Is On Her Way

Bristol Bad Film Club is teaming up with What The Frock! to show Supergirl… the reason Wonder Woman is still waiting to have her own film.
In-between the disastrous Superman III and the god-awful Superman IV: The Quest For Peace, producers Alexander and Ilya Salkind were still looking to wring as much cash as possible from their superhero franchise. Their brilliant idea? A spin-off, starring Superman’s cousin – Supergirl!
Starring the likes of Peter O’Toole, Faye Dunaway and Peter Cook (all of whom were clearly strapped for cash), Supergirl attempted to replicate the success of the first Superman movie by surrounding the unknown lead with some famous faces. It didn’t work.
We know what you’re thinking: “But I love Supergirl! It was great when I was a kid!” Yes, we grew up loving Supergirl as well, but you have to admit, it’s one of the most bizarre, cheap-looking and nonsensical superhero films ever made. Need proof? Just look at the opening scene.
It starts with Peter O’Toole (wearing a glorious sweater and clearly thinking about when Happy Hour begins), playing Argo City’s resident artist and eccentric Zaltar, stealing the city’s power source (which resembles a glowing Christmas ornament) in order to create a tree. Kara (aka Supergirl) then makes a dragonfly using Zaltar’s magic wand, which then ruptures Argo City’s ‘membrane’ (seriously, is this incredibly cheap-looking space city surrounded by skin thinner than clingfilm?!), prompting Kara to try and retrieve in it an inter-dimensional pod.
Rumour has it, that Melanie Griffith, Brooke Shields and Demi Moore all turned down the role, until relative unknown, Helen Slater was finally cast.
While she is perfectly fine in the role, it is a shame that the overall film never saw her career take off. Plus it doesn’t help that while she’s taking it seriously, everyone else seems to be be there for the money or just bemused by the whole thing.
The film went on to under-perform in every possible way. It has the lowest box office returns of any Superman film (just $14 million) and even got Peter O’Toole and Faye Dunaway nominated for two Razzie awards.
It is one reason DC Comics are so reluctant to put money into a female-led superhero film (Catwoman can also take a lot of the blame), but for that reason alone, it stands unique among the plethora of spandex-clad superhero films out there.
As well as the film, we will also have comedian Amy Howerska doing a comedy set beforehand. A movie AND a night of stand-up comedy?! Bristol… you are welcome.
When: 8pm, 24th April 2014
Location: The Cuban, Harbourside, BS1 5SZ
Tickets: £7 (in advance)/£8 (on the door) (all profits going to One25)

Sunday, 23 February 2014

'Jane Eyre' at Bristol Old Vic

Emerging from Bristol Old Vic after seven hours inside the theatre I felt a little like a hibernating creature blinking wildly in the new daylight. The famous theatre is staging a bravely long two-part version of Charlotte Bronte’s famous Jane Eyre, although there’s no rule that says you have to see both parts in the same day!

Directed by Sally Cookson, this new version of Jane Eyre is an impressive one. With a multi-purpose, split-level stage (which reminded me of an adventure playground), the set is easily adaptable for Jane’s many life stages, and with four-and-a-half hours at her disposal, Cookson has plenty of time to take us on a tour of Jane’s tumultuous experiences. Although I was desperately wishing that the characters would stop running up and down ladders as it was becoming very distracting and kept making me think they were in a giant game of Snakes and Ladders.

As Jane, Madeleine Worrall is never off stage, which is an amazing feat of endurance. More so for the fact that the quality of her performance never slips, and it seems impossible to imagine a more perfect actor for this role. Having previously seen Madeline as Wendy in Peter Pan (another Cookson production for Bristol Old Vic), to see her as Jane Eyre felt like a natural evolution.

Is it safe to assume you know the story of Jane Eyre? If you don’t, shame on you and I urge you to read the novel immediately. It’s one of my favourites and stands up well to multiple re-readings. But there is always a risk of potential disappointment when seeing one of your favourite novels reworked into another format. However, Cookson’s version does not disappoint. She has said that she wanted to divide the play into two parts to allow space for the story to breathe and grow, and to show how the character of Jane has evolved due to the hardships, cruelty and misery she has endured.

There are moments of light relief to temper the relentless gloom in her life, though. The transitional coach scenes are great fun, and Craig Edwards as Rochester’s dog Pilot is an absolute delight.

An absolute highlight of the production is Benji Bower’s music throughout, which at times bordered on the Lynchian. Bower’s band achieve the combined tasks of blending into the middle of the set, as well as joining in with the ensemble cast at times. And the music itself was sublime, especially when sung.

But the outstanding highlight of the production was Melanie Marshall’s Bertha Mason, the mad woman in the attic. Marshall has the most mesmerising voice, and added a layer of errie threat to the entire production. Although as lovely as her renditions of Gnarls Barkley’s Crazy and Noel Coward’s Mad About The Boy were, I did feel that such contemporary songs didn’t necessarily fit in this period piece. Although Marshall’s performance of both was thoroughly absorbing.

I felt part one of Jane Eyre was much stronger than the second, although that may well have been because I was struggling with endurance by the second part! It’s ambitious to produce such a long adaptation of the book, but ultimately Cookson pulls it off - especially with the wonderful addition of Bower’s music.

For more information and to buy tickets, please click here. My recommendation is that you spread the joy and see the two parts on different days.