Three novels by women

Here’s my latest round-up of recent reading.

Winifred Watson, Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day Persephone Books, 2008; 19381

 I’d read some glowing reports of this novel, and admire Persephone’s initiative in publishing works by women that have often been neglected. Unfortunately, I didn’t get on with this confection at all. I gave up halfway through. Its tone and content were similar to those frothy romantic comedy films of the 30s starring people like Cary Grant and Katherine Hepburn – but lacking, I thought, their charm and wit. I didn’t warm to dowdy Miss P, whose transformation from impoverished and timid duckling (she’s an unsuccessful children’s governess) to confident swan (I presume that’s where it was going; she was just beginning to develop as I gave up) just didn’t ring true.

I know it’s not intended to be taken too seriously, but I also struggled to raise interest in Miss P’s unlikely new friend and employer, the supposedly glamorous nightclub singer and socialite Delysia La Fosse, whose name is as implausible as her characterisation. I found her susceptibility to caddish men irritating – and in fact, even allowing for changing social attitudes, the portrayal of sexual relations at the time was strangely disturbing, and not as funny as I think it was meant to be. But I know that most other readers had a much more positive response.

Rosamond Lehmann, The Ballad and the Source VMC, 1982; 19441

This was more to my taste. Sibyl Jardine, one of the central characters, is an elderly woman when the novel opens, but she has had an eventful past. She’s described by Janet Watts in the introduction to this edition as ‘one of the strangest and strongest heroines in English fiction, and her story is not for the squeamish’. It tells of ‘love corrupted into viperous hatred; of friendship betrayed; of treachery begetting treacheries’. What’s not to like? Puts mousy Miss Pettigrew into perspective…

The structure is unusual. Much of the novel is narrated from the viewpoint of precocious 10-year-old Rebecca, who quizzes this enigmatic, imposing Mrs Jardine (a neighbour whom her mother knows about and clearly mistrusts), whom she adores for her flamboyance, erudition and mystique, to find out that back story. (These long sequences were also a feature of her earlier novels.) It involves two generations of spirited women leaving failing marriages for more attractive prospects, then finding that leaving children behind as well as unwanted husbands brought unbearable consequences.

As the years pass and WWI breaks out, the web of relationships around the three generations of linked families becomes ever more tangled. Revelations cause Rebecca to reconsider her initial worshipping attitude to the formidable Mrs Jardine. The author’s handling of this complex plot, and of the differing accounts of the past (told by not entirely impartial or reliable adults to fascinated youngsters eager for intrigue and romance) is admirable. The young women’s eyes are gradually opened to the not-so-glamorous reality of the tainted loves they witness and are told about, and the poisonous fallout of failed relationships that damages the children as much as their parents. This causes the young women to confront and question their own burgeoning sexuality.

It’s a slow-burning novel, but fiercely intense. Mrs Jardine is an enchantress: alluring and deadly, vengeful and heartbroken. She’s an amazing creation.

There’s a link HERE to my posts on other RL novels, all of which deal in some way with sexual relations and the inevitable pain that goes with the bliss (usually more for the women than the feckless men): Invitation to the Waltz; The Weather in the Streets; The Echoing Grove.

Sarah Moss, The Fell Picador, 2022; 20211

 This novella is the first Covid lockdown fiction I’ve read. That soul-numbing solitude and sense of foreboding we all endured as a consequence – when we were told not to leave our houses and forbidden from mixing with anyone outside of them – is a key feature in The Fell.

It’s difficult to summarise the plot without spoilers. Let’s just say that when free-spirited, rather hippy-ish single mother Kate decides she’s had enough of going stir crazy in domestic confinement with her teenage son, and impulsively goes out for an early evening hike on the hills referred to in the title, all does not go well.

I enjoyed it, but not the structure and style. It consists of interlocking internal monologues from the points of view of several characters involved in Kate’s life. Through these various perspectives we slowly build up a composite picture of Kate’s character, and those of the individuals whose lives overlap with hers. But I found the colloquial, demotic prose failed to bring them entirely to life (except the wilful Kate). I’m not quite sure why she had the foresight to pack a rucksack with basic provisions when she set out for the fell on a whim, but didn’t take her phone. The hallucinatory sequences with a talkative corvid were pretty weird, too.

Sarah Moss’s novel Bodies of Light is stronger, I felt; my post about it is HERE.


26 thoughts on “Three novels by women

  1. Of your three, the only one I’ve read is Miss Pettigrew. For me, it was a bit of a “meh” read — o.k. but I didn’t join its large group of fans (in fact, I became a little bored and started to skim).
    I’ve several books by Lehmann, none of which I’ve read. I did try The Echoing Grove (just read your review BTW) but never made it past the first forty pages or so. The Ballad and the Source sounds more promising .
    Sarah Moss’s The Fell is on my own TBR pile, where it might remain for awhile (lots of competition there)!

    • Janakay: your response to Miss P sounds very similar to mine. The Echoing Grove does move slowly too, but I found it worth persevering with. You’ll devour The Fell in 2-3 hours: it’s very short.

  2. I’m more of a fan of the movie version of Miss Pettigrew than I am of the book. I had some of your same reservations when I read the book, but the movie went in a different direction. Oh, and Delysia’s name in the movie (I can’t remember in the book) is definitely a pseudonym. The book Miss Pettigrew just seemed like an incompetent sad sack. It was hard to empathize with her. But Frances McDormand is such a good actress it was easy to invest your sympathy with her. Plus Shirley Henderson made such a great bitchy villainess, and Ciaran Hinds was a great male lead (his character had one of the bigger changes in the movie).

    The book ends with Miss Pettigrew pretty much where she started. Rags to riches back to rags. A bit anticlimactic.

    • Paula: Good to hear from you again. I was aware of the film version- maybe I’d enjoy that more than the novel, which seemed stylistically creaky and overwrought, but I love those zany romcoms of the 30s. I’d like to see Francis McD, too. She’d probably give Miss P a bit of depth and complexity, both lacking in the novel, I thought.

  3. Washington DC
    February 16, 2023

    Hello Mr. Lavery,

    Your book reviews today were a fine mood lifter, and I want to thank you for making me want to read two of the three suggested tomes.
    As for Sarah Moss, The Fell, you say it concerns the Covid crisis. When the lockdown or the quarantine started in earnest in the US that first full weekend in March 2020, a serious column soon appeared in the Washington Post which said that it would take an estimated five years to produce a really classic or worthwhile novel about Covid. Now I can see if that prediction was right. (And enjoy a thriller in the process.)
    The spirit raiser was the book version of Miss Pettigrew Lives For A Day. Having seen and enjoyed the feature film, I had no idea that it was originally a novel or that it was almost filmed in America with our Billie Burke. What a change of pace it would have been for that actress, most noted for Glinda in The Wizard of Oz. That the book reached publication in the fall of 1938 and not at the start of the war (as in the movie) is hugely significant. I want to look at Winifred Watson’s text to see how thickly the war clouds were gathering. Releasing that novel at the time of the Munich conference may not have been the author’s intention. And I love the backstory of the re-release. Anne Sebba got into the action with her later interview of Winifred W. I’ve read AS’s books; met her at a signing; and of course she is so very pretty and smart as well as talented.
    Please keep those reviews coming. Wishes, Mr. Lee Levine

    • Howard: thanks for taking the time to read this post and comment. I did wonder if this kind of light comedy (Miss P) was a diversion or distraction from the terrible tensions and imminent danger in 1938. I don’t recall any hint in the first half of the novel of looming war. Maybe that absence is significant. Oh, and call me Simon!

  4. I’m interested in what you say about Miss Pettigrew because I thought I was the only one who didn’t get it, I am going to try and read it again because it’s so well loved that I must be missing something! I haven’t read the Lehmann so thank you for the recommendation as she’s an author I must get around to reading and lastly, I did read The Fell and was gripped, except for the delusional conversation which I mostly skipped over and you’re right why did she pack a back pack if she was just going for a stroll. . .

  5. Hi Simon. I enjoyed Miss Pettigrew when I read it last year, though I concede it could be seen as a bit of escapist froth. I haven’t read The Ballad and the Source, but it sounds good and I will certainly seek it out now. It’s funny you should mention lockdown novels, in relation to The Fell, because I’ve just finished reading Elizabeth Strout’s Lucy by the Sea which covers the same period. I enjoyed it, but I think it helps if you’re already familiar with her other Lucy Barton books.

    • Hi Bobby, I’ve nothing against escapist froth, I just didn’t warm to these characters (in Miss P). I think you’d enjoy the Ballad and the Source; Lehmann is a real favourite of mine. I’ve read the previous Lucy B novels, and found the previous one a bit of a slog. Nevertheless I’ll probably give L by the Sea a go.

  6. Ha – Loved Miss P, didn’t like The Ballad, don’t like Moss on principle as her book on living in Iceland annoyed me and I don’t really want to read Covid novels (though I have done, and two Covid football books, weirdly). Takes all sorts, etc., and you’ve got a great discussion going on in the comments!

  7. One book I love (Miss Pettigrew), though fully understand your reasons against – and two novels I’ve been intending to read. I’ve owned the Lehmann forever, and have enjoyed others of hers (particularly Invitation to the Waltz), whereas I haven’t read any Sarah Moss yet but intend to. I get her confused with Sarah Hall, which doesn’t help (and whom I also haven’t read). Sounds like this is not the one to start with – your description makes it sound quite annoying.

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