Thursday, 27 October 2016

'The Day Before Yesterday' - Noel Streatfeild

While waiting to get some keys cut in the market a few weeks ago, I had a rummage around the secondhand book stall and immediately my hand fell upon a lovely green hardback boasting the name of Noel Streatfield. Well known to many as the author of Ballet Shoes and all the subsequent spin-offs, Streatfield is a much-cherished writer whom many women of my age hold a very soft spot for. 

The Day Before Yesterday is a fantastic idea and an even more fantastic concept. Published in the 1950s, Streatfield realised that society was changing so fast that it needed to be recorded and it needed to be recorded by the people who had lived through those times. So with a focus on the period 50 years prior to publication, she asked all manner of people to share their stories of what life was like for them. And the ensuing book is presented at all stages of a girl's life, and crossing the class boundaries - for it is clearly a female reader for whom this book is intended. 

So we start with a Victorian nursery nurse, and move on to a school teacher, and a barely-teenage housemaid. We learn about the changes in transport, as the granddaughter of a coach king shares how her grandfather's empire grew from a few horse-drawn coaches to a fleet of thousands of motorised omnibuses that monopolised the London transport system. We heard first-hand from a suffragette on the frontline, in what is possibly my favourite segment - which is all the more poignant because it is not written by a 'famous' suffragette, but by a woman whose contributions and achievements to the women's rights cause might well otherwise be forgotten. 

This is a truly delightful book. A wonderful snapshot into the history of a long-gone ages that really wasn't so very long ago. As an added curiosity, the book I bought had originally been a school prize from a fee-paying girls' school in Bristol, won by a pupil in 1956. I wonder what happened to the woman who won this book and if she felt as inspired by it as I did, 60 years later? 

Tuesday, 25 October 2016

'Madame Solario' by Gladys Huntingdon

This feels like an ‘it’s not you, it’s me’ moment. An admission of my own failure and confirmation that surely I’m missing something crucial if I could but see it. Because I’m sorry, but I really couldn’t get on with Madame Solario, which is one of the three new Persephone Books for the autumn.

I’m certain this this must be a failing with me and not the book. It must be. Because trying to prove myself wrong, I scoured the internet and read other reviews of Madame Solario that were unanimous in their love of the book, reverential about the writing and which embraced the characters completely. So why did I find it such a slog?

Originally published anonymously in 1956, Madame Solario caused quite a stir in its day with its accounts of unashamed love in a hedonistic summer at Lake Como in 1906. By the time of a 1980s reprint that revealed the author to be American writer Gladys Huntingdon, Madame Solario was accepted as a little-known but well-regarded literary triumph.

All of the ingredients were there for me to enjoy Madame Solario as much as everyone else seems to. Set in glorious Italy at the end of a turn-of-the-century summer, as the over-entitled upper-middle-classes swan about with a mixture of disregard and unrequited love for one another. Fabulous! What’s not to enjoy?!

But it just didn’t work for me. It took such a long time for anything to happen, and then an even longer time for anything else to happen. There were too many characters to try and distinguish from one another in the early chapters that I kept having to skim backwards to refresh my memory as to who they were. I found it impossible to care about any of the main characters, once I’d worked out who they were, and whether they found the happiness they felt they were entitled to. Ultimately it became a chore to read… and when there are so many books in the world that you’ll simply never have time to read, it feels wrong to spend time on a book you are not enjoying.

Of course, it is impossible for everyone to like a book, no matter how good it is. It’s all a matter of personal taste. And I feel I have missed something significant by not falling in love with Madame Solario the way that reviewers such as this one and all these have. So perhaps this will be a book I return to in a few years with fresh eyes and see anew. Here’s hoping.

Friday, 21 October 2016

'The Grinning Man' at Bristol Old Vic

Photo: Simon Annand

Victor Hugo wrote his novel The Man Who Laughs while exiled from France to Guernsey in 1869; exiled owing to the political content of his previous novels. So instead The Man Who Laughs focuses on a boy, Gwynplaine, who was mutilated as a child to have a permanent grin carved onto his face, committing him to a life in the freak shows. But his smile becomes infectious and soon Gwynplaine is embroiled in a quest to uncover his past that, inevitably, flutters over the heart.

While two Hollywood films and several theatrical adaptations have been attempted in the past, here Bristol Old Vic director Tom Morris gives the story of whole new lease of life as a brand new musical called The Grinning Man.

With some of the Kneehigh Theatre crew helping out (Carl Grose has written the script, and Patrycja Kujawksa is in the cast), and with Morris re-enlisting some of the Gyre and Gimble puppetry tricks from the hugely acclaimed War Horse, The Grinning Man is setting its flag quite high with a strong pedigree.

Taking our seats in the Bristol Old Vic auditorium, you’re instantly hit by designer Jon Bausor’s impressive work - with the entire proscenium transformed into a terrifyingly huge grinning mouth, with the blood red mouth creases spreading up the sides of the theatre and poking into the upper circle.

Transferring the narrative from Hugo’s France to Morris’ Bristol, our revamped story is narrated by the bitter clown Barkilphedro (actor Julian Bleach steals the show), who has served a lifetime in the royal court at the hands of the selfish and unappreciative Clarence family. But how is this story intertwined with that of the small boy, now named Grinpayne (and played by Louis Maskell)?

Child Grinpayne is portrayed by a puppet, and shows us the young boy being brutally separated from his mother and left to fend for himself owing to his hideously disfigured face. Upon saving a newborn baby whose mother died in the snow, he and the blind baby, Dea (Audrey Brisson), are taken in by kindly travelling performer Ursus (Sean Kingsley) and his dog Mojo (a work of puppetry genius from Gyre and Gimble). They grow up to live a life in the freak shows - notably the Stokes Croft Fair: a seedy underbelly of Bristol for those cast out by respectable society.

Of course, the stories of Grinpayne and the royal Clarence family become inextricably linked, and as Barkilphedro boasts of his past glories we uncover the true story of just what caused child Grinpayne to be separated from his natural parents and to be sentenced to an agonised life in the carnival. And all the while, Bausor’s designs continue apace throughout The Grinning Man, turning freak show carts into palace boudoirs, and the entire stage into a gothic cathedral complete with pillars and smashed stained glass. It’s all quite literally a work of art.

Combining the carnivalesque, the pantomime and the musical, Morris’ The Grinning Man is a feast for all of the senses - especially the ears, thanks to the live performances by the musicians at the side of the stage. Bravo!

Photo: Simon Annand
Read director Tom Morris’ diary about creating The Grinning Man in The Guardian here.

The Grinning Man is performed at Bristol Old Vic’s main theatre until 13 November. Click here for more information and to buy tickets.

Saturday, 1 October 2016

'A Footman For The Peacock' by Rachel Ferguson

Rachel Ferguson is one of those unfairly neglected turn-of-the-century novelists whose novels are being diligently kept alive by a variety of publishing houses. 

She first came to my attention via the 2006 Persephone reprint of her 1937 novel Alas, Poor Lady. Also via Persephone, I found the 1988 Virago Modern Classics edition of her 1931 book The Brontes Went To Woolworths, which I fell in love with first for its beautiful cover and second for its whimsical title, and finally for its magical story (you can read my review here). Later on in 2009, the same book was also reprinted by The Bloomsbury Group, an imprint of Bloomsbury, which reprints (is it still going, does anyone know?) long-forgotten turn-of-the-century titles. 

The discovery that Rachel Ferguson had been a suffragette and a leading member of the Women's Social and Political Union (an era of history that fascinates me, as regular blog readers will know) then inspired me to hunt down a few of her autobiographical novels, and I was lucky enough to track down original hardback editions of both Royal Borough (1950) and We Were Amused (1958), which I heartily recommend. Only Passionate Kensington (1939) is still out there, waiting for me to find it... 

So when I recently heard that new publishing house Furrowed Middlebrow, which is an imprint of Dean Street Press, was planning to reprint a series of forgotten novels by brilliant female authors, I was very excited. In the first volume of nine releases, there are three novels by Rachel Ferguson - of which A Footman For the Peacock is just one. 

So having now set the scene, and with the certainty that I will be writing about further Furrowed Middlebrow titles in the future... here's a short piece about A Footman For the Peacock.

This 1937 novel was considered controversial upon initial publication as it seemed to mock the privileged upper classes, those elite who were living a bizarre life of indulgence and isolation in their palatial country home - one where even the resident peacock's every whim is catered for as standard. But, as with much of Rachel Ferguson's writing, A Footman For the Peacock is a satire; a social commentary of the times. This is an era between the wars (well, World War Two starts during the narrative... although it takes the self-absorbed characters several days to realise it) when the age of the country house was dwindling and the power of the landed gentry was rapidly fading. 

In many ways, the Roundelay family who live within various quarters of the house of Delaye are reminiscent of Dorothy Whipple's classic novel about another faded country pile The Priory (republished by Persephone). In A Footman For The Peacock, the residents of Delaye are treated by Rachel Ferguson with the same lack of respect that they show to outsiders to their home. And her fantastical style of writing, which she carried off so well in The Brontes Went To Woolworths, is reminiscent here, although I feel it doesn't work quite so well with such a huge range of characters. 

I'm going to be honest: this isn't my favourite Rachel Ferguson book (and you can tell from what I've written above that I really do like her writing), but simply by judging a book by it's cover I feel certain that Furrowed Middlebrow will continue to keep reprinting lovely and fascinating novels by a variety of women who have been neglected by history. And with Rachel Ferguson's A Harp in Lowndes Square (1936) and Evenfield (1942) both also republished by Furrowed Middlebrow, and both still yet to be read by me, there is every hope that one or both of them will tick the Rachel Ferguson boxes that, for me, A Footman For The Peacock didn't quite manage to. But you never know, this might turn out to be your favourite Ferguson... We're all different...