Thursday, February 13, 2014

Diary of a Provincial Lady

Photo shamelessly stolen from Simon at Stuck in A Book,
partly because I can't find my camera & this is the only pic
of my edition I could find, and also because you should most
definitely check out his post on this book!
Diary of a Provincial Lady / E. M. Delafield
Chicago: Academy Chicago, 1983, c1931.
388 p.

I laughed so much reading this book -- it was just what I needed. Our narrator is a country wife, busily preoccupied with her uncommunicative husband, two children, French governess, cook and maid, local acquaintances and the Women's Institute. She also manages the comings and goings of two old school friends. She's always short of funds, and struggling with finding household help. The setting, a small town in post WWI England, is full of the usual suspects; the overbearing local Lady B, prosy old women, Our Vicar and Our Vicar's Wife, and so on.

She's continually going to meetings, having tea, sorting out household disturbances, and writing letters. And of course, entertaining the children.

The diary is full of sharp comments and asides, deftly caricaturing the people around her (including some amusing line drawings) as well as 'queries' and 'memorandums' to herself of things to investigate or remember. The effect is greatly entertaining, and the picture of this middle class life in 1930's England is at once distant and immediate.The social expectations of a small community are made clear in the number of calls and dinners that are exchanged without any real desire to communicate with the people involved. One such trial, the unexpected call of new resident Miss P, with writer Jahsper in tow, was understatedly hilarious, as it was made upon a rainy day in which the Provincial Lady was attempting to entertain her bored children with 'dress up' -- inevitably, the children storm the drawing room in various states of undress, using the visitor's hat as a prop.

These small occurrences are rendered amusingly in the realistically diary-like form that the Provincial Lady favours; not too many pronouns or unnecessary words, just the facts. But the choice of facts which are being shared is very telling. I recommend reading this little by little, as the style might be too much all at once. But it was very enjoyable, and I am fully planning on reading all of her others.

The depiction of her rather grumpy husband, and her talk of gardens, put me in mind of Elizabeth and her German Garden. A kind of similar touch somehow. And this book clearly influenced other British diary-form novels, such as Joyce Dennys' Henrietta books, which began as newspaper columns during WWII, down to the line drawings illustrating the story. Its influence can also be traced in more recent works like Bridget Jones' Diary (the same kind of British understatement, the same accident-prone main character). A very entertaining read, one that I thoroughly enjoyed and can recommend.



Monday, February 03, 2014

The Light in the Piazza

The Light in the Piazza / Elizabeth Spencer
Markham, ON: Penguin, 1986, c1960.
213 p.

My copy of this story is the first in a collection of three, the others being Knights & Dragons and The Cousins. I am glad of this, since I'll be reading all of them at some point, as my first introduction to Spencer's work was convincing.

The Light in the Piazza, a brief novella at 67 pages, was full of beautiful Italian light and warmth, just right at this dark time of year. Margaret Johnson and her daughter Clara are visiting Florence, enjoying the enchantment of the ancient city and exploring its streets. They meet a young man, Fabrizio Naccarelli, one day as they are sitting at a cafe, and then they seem to meet him everywhere.

A strong connection begins to form between Clara and Fabrizio, and Margaret watches as things begin to get serious. This puts her into an awkward position; she desperately wants her daughter to have a 'normal', happy life, but Clara (though beautiful) had been kicked in the head by a pony as a young girl and thus "has the mental age of a child of ten".

This aspect made me a little uncomfortable with the direction of the story. If she is so innocent, how could her mother think of leaving her behind in Italy? Near the end of the story, though, as Margaret is watching Clara with the Naccarelli family, "I will not be needed anymore, thought Margaret Johnson with something like a sigh, for before her eyes the strongest maternal forces in the world were taking her daughter to themselves." There is a kind of innocence to the story that fits with the era; I'm not sure it could be told out this way today.

In any case, the story is really more about Margaret than Clara -- how will she face this crisis, and what is the correct choice for her? She takes on the decision alone, choosing to avoid involving her husband (who is still back in the US) until it is too late for him to change things. She finds her own strength to shape Clara's life into the way she wishes it to be, and will live with the consequences.

This was really one of those reads that invades the mind; I became very involved with both the Italian setting and the characters. It poses a moral dilemma that I still don't have sorted in my own mind. For such a short novella, it contains much to think about.

The Light in the Piazza is probably Elizabeth Spencer's best known work, and it has been made into a movie, and more recently, into a musical.

A documentary about Spencer herself has also just been made (it looks fantastic) though it seems like it would be a miracle to actually be able to see it.


Sunday, February 02, 2014

His Mother's House

His Mother's House/ Marta Morazzoni; translated from the Italian by Emma Rose
London: Harvill, 1994, c1992.
111 p.

I discovered this small Italian novel set in Norway by chance, in my local used bookstore some time ago. I'm glad I had it to read in the depths of winter, as it takes place during a beautifully described Norwegian summer.

Haakon is a middle aged Norwegian living in Hamburg, who we meet in the first pages of this book as he is readying himself to leave for his annual 4 week vacation. He goes home to his mother's house near Bergen each year, and just like Haakon himself, his mother has a set daily routine. They both know how long he will stay, and what to expect from one another.

This year, however, Haakon finds that his mother has taken a young woman, Felice, under her wing; she's an employee of the local garden centre who has been helping with her new plants. Haakon's mother spends most of her time and emotional energy on her large garden, to the exclusion of Haakon himself. The few tasks that he used to assist her with are now being undertaken by Felice. Not only that, she is also about to move into their gatehouse.

Both his mother and Felice herself assume that he is upset with the way she seems to be taking over his role. Haakon is more awkward than usual, though, because he is somehow very attracted to her, to some energy that she seems to express. Being such a stifled man, he doesn't find a way to make this clear, and their relationship never straightens out; he can not breach the assumptions about his feelings.

Despite his internal struggles, his exterior life continues on just the same. His slightly passive attempt to change his habits comes to naught, and he follows in the same groove that he had set down in past years. Still, one does wonder if this small moment of upset to his routine will change him in larger ways -- I'd like to think he eventually finds more freedom in his life.

This story is brief, and appears simple at first glance. But Haakon's emotional life, both in the current moment, and with memories from childhood, is full of interest. He reveals both  passion and his connection to his home to the reader, if not to the other characters. The beauty of the lake and the mountains surrounding him are clearly described, as he hikes and swims and reflects on it all in his solitude. This holiday is a time out of regular life for Haakon, and it feels a little like a stopped moment for the reader as well, as the days pass in calm, quiet explorations of nature and Haakon's mother's garden. It's melancholy, mysterious with many of Haakon's questions left unanswered, and moving in its depiction of his inner life.

I felt like it ended somewhat abruptly, without a satisfactory conclusion or explanation for Haakon, but I suppose that fits with his character. It was a quiet read, a glimpse into a quiet life, perfect for the patient reader.