Tuesday, 17 July 2012

A book from beyond the grave




My mother and I are different in many respects. While we’re very close, we agree we have few shared interests. She likes to travel alone to far-flung corners of the globe; I like coupled-up holidays in sunny spots. She has no qualms about building a cupboard from scratch; I think I’ve achieved the same if I assemble a flatpack shelf. But one thing we do share in common is a passion for old-fashioned women’s novels of the type republished by Persephone. What’s extra pleasing is that this is an enthusiasm that was also passed down from her mother, who died in 1978 just before I was born. 

So my mother and I swap and gift Persephones, Bloomsbury Classics, Virago Modern Classics and original Penguin paperbacks (among others). We read and talk about authors like Monica Dickens, Rachel Ferguson, Dorothy Whipple, Noel Streatfeild and more. We think we’re up to date if we’re reading Diana Athill.

When my grandmother died, my mum inherited boxes of her books, most of which fitted the above category. And over the past 34 years, these books have been shuffled around – between bookshelves, bedrooms, homes and sometimes – on an ill thought through whim – to the charity shop, only to be regretted. Some of the books we’ve read and loved, some we’ve thought: ‘What was she thinking?’ But to me, who never knew my grandmother, they offer a glimpse into her interests, and her way of life: most of these books were contemporary novels at the time she bought and read them. As an added bonus, some have handwritten inscriptions in.

And then something happened.

My mum was rearranging the bookshelves last weekend, creating a library of women authors in my old bedroom. And in the process of transferring books from several rooms to one, she leafed through some crumbly Angela Thirkell books (seemingly my grandmother’s favourite author, judging by the quantity of her books that we have) and two very old picture postcards fell out. They were addressed to my grandmother and sent by her next-door neighbour (who was on holiday at the time) in the early 1950s. This being the era when the postcard ruled, they contained mundane messages asking her to leave a particular pot in a safe place, and something to do with the bins. But added in a corner, in pencil, as an afterthought, was a recommendation for a book: A Picnic In The Shade by Rosemary Edisford. There was no comment about it, just the title and author.

Taking this as a sign, my mum went to Amazon and tracked down a second-hand copy (the book is long out of print), and is now eagerly awaiting its arrival. We’re both very excited, and my mum is firmly convinced that it will be a most enjoyable book – one that we will later deliver to Persephone for them to reprint, along the lines of the Miss Pettigrew Lives For A Day story

I can find little information about Rosemary Edisford online. A Picnic In The Shade is listed on Amazon as her only book, however Google tells me she wrote a short story for the New Yorker in 1961 and possibly a guide to the saints. I’d love to know more about her. I’m intrigued and keen to romanticise this note from 60 years ago…

Once the book arrives and we’ve read it, I’ll report back. In the meantime, if you happen to know anything about Rosemary Edisford, please let me know.

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