Tag Archives: Virago Modern Classics

My Cousin Rachel by Daphne du Maurier

My Cousin Rachel - Daphne du MaurierMy Cousin Rachel – Daphne du Maurier
Virago Modern Classics, 2003

Originally published in 1951
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Daphne du Maurier appears to be the queen of setting the mood for a book in just a few pages. And then she draws you in and won’t let go until the very end. At least, these are my conclusions after reading her Rebecca last year and finishing My Cousin Rachel a few days ago.

In My Cousin Rachel narrator Philip grows up under the care of his bachelor cousin Ambrose in a household solely run by men. During his customary travels through Italy undertaken under instruction of his doctor to avoid the English cold, Ambrose meets a woman called Rachel and ends up marrying her. Instead of returning home during spring as Ambrose usually does, he stays on in Italy in his wife’s villa. When Ambrose writes a letter to Philip that seems to suggest he distrusts his wife and is feeling ill, Philip follows his cousin to Italy. Once in Italy, Philip is met with the news of his cousin’s death. He returns to England the heir of his cousin’s estate. Soon, he is visited by his cousin’s wife, Rachel. But can she be trusted?

My Cousin Rachel is an unsettling story about the background to Ambrose’s death, Philip’s obsession with his cousin Rachel, and Rachel’s person and motives. It is incredibly engaging, beautifully written, and has a psychological mysterious ring to it that I think fits RIP season perfectly. Towards the end, some elements became a little predictable, but as this is not a story that needs to be read for the mystery itself, but more for how the characters respond to it and the way Du Maurier develops those scenes – I am not complaining.

Moreover, as Sally Beauman suggests in her introduction, there is a really interesting underlying theme of gender to this book. In the relationship between Philip and Rachel, mirrored by scenes between Ambrose and Rachel, we see different modes of power between the characters. Constantly, Philip aims to (re)establish his male dominance, and his appropriation of Rachel seems to know no bounds. At the same time, Rachel, by negotiating and breaking free from her traditional gender constraints at times, is able to gain other forms of power and becomes unsettling to her environment (and at times the reader, who comes to know Rachel through Philip’s narration after all, making the reader almost complicit to the social norms by exploring that theme). As a reader, I never quite knew where my allegiance lay and I might change thought three times within a few sentences, but that is exactly what makes this story so intriguing. Both Rachel and Philip can be read as victims, while both of them might also be conceived of as perpetrators.

My Cousin Rachel counts towards as much as three challenges for me. I read it as my pick for the Classics Club Spin, but it was also on the list for RIPVIII and is my 1951 entry for A Century of Books.

Other Opinions: Coffee-Stained Pages, bookgirl’s nightstand, Savidge Reads, Shelf Love, She Reads Novels, Book Chatter, The Literary Lollipop, The Literary Stew,  Hannah Stoneham’s Book Blog, A Work in Progress, Bookfoolery, You’ve GOTTA Read This, The Written World, Olduvai Reads, another cookie crumbles, We Be Reading, Yours?

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Wise Children by Angela Carter

Wise Children - Angela CarterWise Children – Angela Carter
Vintage, 1992

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I finally read an Angela Carter! Long as that took me, it actually wasn’t all that hard. I plunged in and did not let go and the book simply carried me to the end. I completely understand why I was nervous about reading my first book by Carter, even having finished it now. Had somebody told me what this book was going to be about, what it was going to be like.. I fear I might never have picked it up, thinking that it sounded the complete opposite of my taste in books. But if Angela Carter proves anything, it is that one cannot predict one’s taste by mere descriptions. It is the execution that defines the book, or in case of Wise Children anyway.

Wise Children is about the illegitimate twins Dora and Nora Chance and their interactions with their father’s family, the Hazards. This is a family of twins, legitimate and illegitimate. It is also a family of disclaimed, claimed, and false parentage, of transgressive sexual mores, of divorce and marriage, of adultery and hints of incest. Describing it like this, my reaction would be “it is a mess”, but I think that is exactly the point. Admittedly, it took me an embarrassing long time to understand, but Carter’s Wise Children can be read as a continuous nod to Shakespeare and his intricate and transgressive family dramas and comedies.

Dora Chance, the narrator of the story at 75, tells us about her current setting before diving into her childhood, youth, later years, and then returning to the day of their 75th birthday, which is also her father’s and his brother’s  – who is claimed as their father in public – centenary.

Dora and her sister are a bit miffed by the way they have gone unacknowledged by their father. Born as illegitimate children, with a father who refuses to acknowledge them and a mother who is dead, they are raised by their adoptive grandmother. Dora and Nora quickly learn to make their own way for themselves, performing as dancing and singing girls – but always on the margins of respectability, never truly admitted into their father’s family side of true Shakespearean theatrics.

As we follow Dora’s narration, things quickly turn from the absurd to the outrageous, but it works. I cannot quite capture how marvelously Angela Carter manages to work with these absurdities, how humorous this book is – particularly its narrator with her humour and liveliness that constantly balances on the coarse but never really feels like it. I did love this book. And I cannot wait to read more by Carter, even if I think I agree with Jenny that I wouldn’t be able to read one of her books straight after this one, even if I am tempted to.

If you know me a little, perhaps the above attempt at a plot summary and the description of humour bordering on the coarse, might have given you a glimpse of why I said that this sounds like the complete opposite of what I like usually. Books that claim to be funny? They usually make me hesitate. But this one is. In a way that is inexplicably lively, joyous, optimistic even when the most dreadful things are happening. Dora is a great character, a great narrator, to evoke all these feelings.. Most of all, Angela Carter is a magician with words and prose, the way each sentence simply works. Yes, I admit, I am a little bit in love..

Another thing that stood out as completely-not-me-and-yet-I-loved-it? It was the way this book handles sexuality. It is rare that a book manages to describe sex, to evoke sexuality, and not make me cringe or feel complete and utter shame. But Angela Carter manages to describe it in a way that made me feel none of these things. Moreover, in Dora and Nora and all of their family, she seems to go completely against conventional sexual mores but in a way that never once bothered me, that was instead elusive-and-yet-explicit enough, normalising it in a manner that I have not encountered before. More than ever it made me realise how much female sexuality is usually shamed, or how that shame is reinforced perhaps not through the story itself but through the marketing of it as “erotic fiction for women” or whatever. It made me realise – I think perhaps for the first time – how it need not necessarily be so. Not that this is erotic fiction, I would say, yet it oozes sexuality in a way? It was sort of liberating to notice, really. I cannot quite explain it.

Can I also pinpoint the smallest drawback of this book? It is its complicated list of characters (which can, I later found out, be found at the end of the book). The complicated relationships these all have with each other daunter me a little at first, and I wasn’t sure if I would be able to tell them all apart. However, it all comes together in the end, so it was more something that made me hesitate during the first half and then became quite familiar in the second.

More Angela Carter from now on? Yes please! What do you suggest should be my next read?

Other Opinions: Stuck in a Book, Litlove, Lovely Treez Reads, Steph and Tony Investigate, Reading the End, Yours?

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Thursday’s Children by Rumer Godden

Thursday's Children - Rumer GoddenThursday’s Children – Rumer Godden
Virago Modern Classics, April 2013 (
First published 1984)
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Thursday’s Children is about the Penny family. Mother concentrates all her hopes on Crystal, the fifth child and longer-for girl after four boys. Crystal is to be a ballet dancer, groomed by her mother who was once a chorus girl and longs to see her former dreams realised through her only daughter. Doone, sixth child and clearly an “accident”, has to accompany his sister to ballet class when there is no one to watch over him at home. There, he secretly becomes fascinated by dancing, and he starts practising in the hallway so that no one will see him. Doone has his reasons to keep his dancing a secret. His mother would not understand, focused as her attention is on Crystal, who is her one and all. His father thinks dancing is not suitable for boys. And his brothers never really seem to bother much about him. Nevertheless, Doone is willing to do everything he can to become a ballet dancer.

As many of you predicted in the comments of my library loot post, I really really enjoyed Thursday’s Children. What’s not to love? There’s ballet! And a child overcoming obstacles! There’s heartfelt writing! And social commentary! Basically, I wanted to travel back in time while reading this, and push the book into the hands of my childhood self. The hours I spent dreaming of being a professional dancer back then! The hours I spent dancing in the living room, the bedroom, on the street while walking somewhere, even on my bike.. Godden does a really good job at capturing the fascination for music and movements, the emotions it can evoke, and all the romantic feelings associated with dance. But she also highlights the difficult aspects of pursuing a career in dance: the rivalry and ugliness between children and parents that are all part of this world as well.

However, if you do not care much for ballet yourself, I think this book might still be of interest. The thing is, it really is about pursuing the things you love, the sacrifices you have to make in the process, but also the importance of love and family relations.

I was reminded of Eva Ibbotson when I read Thursday’s Children, although perhaps they are not that much alike. Like Ibbotson, Godden highlights the ugliness of classicism through the interactions of, particularly mother and Crystal with other girls in class.  Perhaps more than Ibbotson, Godden portrays extremes of hurt and ugliness, particularly towards the end of Crystal’s storyline. And in Doone’s portrayal, the sympathy evoked for him, and the overall sympathetic outlook on the world, she occasionally seems to share Ibbotson’s rose-coloured glasses. I somehow feel I am being unfair to both authors by comparing their work, because I think the strength of their writing is that it is so recognisable and individual. I guess what I meant to say is that I felt the same warmth and feeling radiate from Thursday’s Children as I do in Ibbotson’s novels.

Most of all, I think Godden shines in portraying the family interactions between the Pennys. It is hurtful and difficult to read about the treatment of Doone sometimes. Godden walks a fine line between invoking stereotypes of parents pursuing their own hopes and dreams through their children and forgetting about the other children in the family. However, she manages to remain realistic, I think, and handles these storylines really well. Even more so because, especially towards the end, she manages to complicate them: she shows both the hurt and the love that is part of so many families, she shows how every family member might stand up for other things, fight for some while forgetting about others, and how in their effort to do right all of them make mistakes.

Colour me impressed. And a little regretful that I did not discover Rumer Godden earlier. So.. which book should I read next?

Other Opinions: Jenny’s Books, Yours?

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Thank Heaven Fasting by E.M. Delafield

Thank Heaven Fasting - E.M. DelafieldThank Heaven Fasting – E.M. Delafield
Virago Modern Classics, 1988

originally published in 1932
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Thank Heaven Fasting tells the story of Monica Ingram, daughter of a well-off family. As the book opens, Monica is about to have her formal “coming out” and prepares to attend her first ball. From there on out, she tries to live up to the expectations of her family, and society, by presenting herself in the best possible way, in order to do her duty as a girl and marry  a respectable husband.

The story consists of three parts. Part I is titled ‘The Eaton Square Tradition’ and focuses on the beginning of Monica’s years in society; Part II is called ‘The Anxious Years’, which portrays the period after Monica has failed to receive an offer of marriage during her first season; the ending is given in Part III, aptly titled ‘The Happy Ending’, although one might wonder whose definition of happiness Delafield favours with this title.

Like Consequences, which I read in 2011Thank Heaven Fasting  focuses on the lot of girls and women in society. Starting from the opening paragraph, this book provides insight and commentary on women’s place in society during the early years of the twentieth century. And so, the story begins with the reflection that:

“Much was said in the days of Monica’s early youth about being good. Life—the section of it that was visible from the angle of Eaton Square—was full of young girls who were all being good. Even a girl who was tiresome and “didn’t get on with her mother” was never anything but good, since opportunities for being anything else were practically non-existent.”

Followed by such paragraphs such as,

“She could never, looking backwards, remember a time when she had not known that a woman’s failure or success in life depended entirely upon whether or not she succeeded in getting a husband. It was not, even, a question of marrying well, although mothers with pretty and attractive daughters naturally hoped for that. But any husband at all was better than none. If a girl was neither married nor engaged by the end of her third season it was usually said, discreetly, among her mother’s acquaintances, that no one had asked her.”

and,

“But, Monica,” cried Cecily, “surely you wouldn’t hesitate for a minute? There are so awfully few men to go round, any husband would be better than none – and he sounds so splendid.” And she added piteously: “We can’t all three be failures.”
“Don’t,” said Frederica, frowning. “You talk as if marriage was the only thing that can make women happy. But there are lots of unhappy married women.”
“They aren’t unhappy in the same way. And people don’t despise them, anyway,” said Cecily simply.
The three looked at one another.
“If even one of us could find a husband, it wouldn’t be so bad,” said Cecily suddenly. “I mean, Fricky and I. You’ll get married, I expect, Moica, one of these days.”

Thank Heaven Fasting, like Consequences, is not about the rebellious girls who manage to make their own way in life despite circumstances. Instead, it focuses on girls that are so ingrained with society’s expectations that they cannot quite look beyond them. Consequences featured a girl making a decision for herself, despite expectations, and her facing the fall-out of said decision. In a way, Thank Heaven Fasting features a small glimpse of a similar situation, but its focus is nevertheless a little different. In Thank Heaven Fasting the emphasis is places on the ingrained feeling of failure that girls might experience, and the emotional and psychological effects of this. Monica tries very hard to live up to her parents’ expectations, of which she is constantly reminded by her father in particular, and by her mother in a slightly more sympathetic light. When she fails to become married right away, she is burdened by the knowledge and fear of impending “failure” as a woman, which would be a double failure, as it is already one to be born a girl instead of a boy. It is not for nothing that when one of the persons in the novel gets married, Delafield states that, “she prayed that she might be a good wife (…), and that if ever they had a child it might be a son.”

Delafield makes sure to point out the fact that, in many ways, Monica was privileged. She had good connections, her parents were comfortably well off and could afford to buy her pretty clothes and help her on her way. Moreover, Monica, like I imagine most people in a class-based society, is shown as ignorant of those “below” her station in life. At one point, Delafield observes that “she had a dim idea that the kitchenmaid did actually sleep in the boxroom.” And even though she is portrayed as sympathetic for what the house staff does for her each day, Monica is also shown to take their service for granted. Interestingly, this does not take away from the reader’s sympathy for Monica, just like her failure to be rebellious, yes, even her blatant dismissal of sufraggettes out of ignorance and conformity, does not take away from the sympathy the reader feels for Monica’s fate. Delafield, then, manages to evoke pity and sympathy for what Monica had to suffer for being born a woman, while at the same time pointing out the limitations of taking this one case as the universal model of female suffering. This is one of the things I appreciated very much about this novel, on top of the fact that I loved its theme and general storyline. It shows how smart Delafield is, how sharp, how humane, and how critical without blatantly pushing her opinion in your face.

In some ways, Thank Heaven Fasting reminded me how lucky I am to be born where I was born, to be living at the time I am living. On the other hand, in its commentary on social expectations, it still strikes a chord. We may not always acknowledge it, but being a single woman is still often frowned upon. Society still reiterates the idea that to be single is to fail at life in some ways. Even for those in relationships, the lack of marriage, or children, is often brought to the fore as a failure to accomplish what everyone, and particularly women, should strive for, because it is what life is supposed to be. I *am* grateful that I am living the life I am living, having read Thank Heaven Fasting, and I particularly appreciated it for its historical commentary on gender expectations, but it is also interesting to consider what it might tell us about our world today, and the constrictions we, and society, often place on ourselves.

Long-Awaited Reads Month Reflections:
There is a reason why I read this book for Long-Awaited Reads Month, even if I bought it only recently. Had I bought it earlier, which I wanted to do but failed to accomplish because this title has proved pretty difficult to find, I think I might have needed the push of this month to read it anyway. Why? Because it came highly recommended by Ana. Personally recommended even. In her post, Ana compares Thank Heaven Fasting with Consequences, and Consequences happens to be one of my favourite reads of 2011, and probably an all-time favourite. To say that I had high expectations of Thank Heaven Fasting  is an understatement; another title by Delafield on the societal pressures on women to marry promised to be right up my alley. I am very happy to say that it was exactly what I had expected. Actually, it was better than I expected. I don’t think it quite tops Consequences for me personally, but it is definitely up there with it.

Other Opinions: Things Mean A Lot, A Work in Progress, Verity’s Virago Venture, Desperate Reader, Book Snob, Bunny Stuff,  books as food, Yours?

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Surfacing by Margaret Atwood

Surfacing - Margaret Atwood

Surfacing – Margaret Atwood
Virago Press, 1979
I read the Dutch translation “Boven Water”, translated by Aris J. van Braam & published by Rainbow Pockets
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I did not pick the easiest book as my first encounter with Atwood. The most dominant thought upon finishing Surfacing was “I do not really know what to think”. Now that a few days have elapsed, I’m still not exactly sure.

The thing is, I think this is possibly one of the most complicated books I have read in a long time. Most of the time I felt I was skimming the surface of the meaning of what was being said, and even then I was quite happy that I actually got these small glimpses.

The basic premise, of which I am going to say very little in order not to give too much away, is that a young woman returns to her parental home in Quebec, to investigate the mysterious disappearance of her father. She is joined by three friends that she has only known for a few months. One is her boyfriend, and the others are a befriended married couple. Over the course of two weeks, during which the four stay at the deserted island where the young woman’s parents used to live, tensions between the friends come to the surface while the main character slowly confronts her past and future.

I am sorry if that sounds impossibly vague, but I truly feel I cannot tell you anything more about the book without spoiling the main plot developments. I do feel that in this case spoilers won’t really detract from the book, as it is in the execution, the feelings and questions that the story evokes, that the real power of the narrative lies. But I’d like to not scare away regular readers with all my spoilerly posts lately.

As I said, the power of the book lies in its execution. Margaret Atwood’s prose (although I fear it might have been weakened a little by the Dutch translation that I read) can paint the most evocative pictures in your mind. Mostly, in the case of Surfacing, it is not so much the landscape itself that she establishes, but a feeling of paranoia, a hauntedness, a claustrophobic feeling that something isn’t quite right. I know that this is perhaps the staple feeling that comes with island settings (if they’re not used to illustrate quirky communities), but Atwood does it so well. From the very moment the narration starts you know that something is off with either the main character or the setting through which she navigates. To be honest, for a moment there I imagined a dystopian society more than one set in what I guess are the seventies. I guess this illustrates how much I have come to associate this kind of literary claustrophobia with dystopian novels, or perhaps it just illustrates that Atwood has you puzzled from the start.

What adds to this sense of unease are the frequent allusions to animals. Atwood constantly seems to question the boundaries between nature and humanity, conscious and unconscious “evil”, animal instincts and human rationality. It is not that Atwood is not funny. Actually, when a paragraph on wild animals is directly followed by a sentence in which the main character remarks on her boyfriend’s hairy body, I couldn’t quite keep from smiling. But those weren’t comfortable giggles. Mostly they were the opposite.

Another theme that frequently recurs is the objectification of women. The woman who is part of the married couple does not dare show her face to her husband if she has no make up on, there are frequent allusions to using sex as a weapon to bring the opposite sex down, mostly on the side of the men, etcetera. Actually, the main character’s struggles, the blurring of the boundaries of animals and humans, in some way or other, seem to refer to the objectification of women, the perceived “lack” one is made to feel, and the symbolic violence that is part of any relationship and perhaps in Atwood’s mind, even more so for women.

As I said, I have difficulty explaining exactly what I found in this book as I constantly feel that I have not quite grasped it. Perhaps this was not the best Atwood to start with. It is not that I disliked it, it is just that I found it very difficult at times. It’s another example of how deceiving the length of books can be. For a book that is relatively short (249 pages in Dutch), especially for Atwood, it kept me occupied for quite a long time. What I missed most of all though, was some form of framework to understand Surfacing. I think the English edition actually has an introduction? I usually skip over them, but reading a version without an introduction made me feel that I could have certainly used one.

Other Opinions: Savidge Reads, Verity’s Virago Venture, Jules’ Book Reviews, More Than Just Magic, CoffeespoonsKatrina’s Reads, Eve’s Alexandria.
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