'A removal, Rhoda perceived, is like a slow journey across difficult country, full of halts and pauses, interspersed with odd meals and cups of tea consumed hurriedly, like meals and drinks in a station waiting room.'
It's Persephone tea with Cornflower today and Karen's choice this month, The New House by Lettice Cooper, and before I drop a clanger any hints on pronunciation?I have heard Lettice, when used as a name, pronounced Letteechay and I'm wondering whether that's for real or someone doing what we always do when we drive past Spud-u-like and chorus, 'Oh look, Spadoolikay.'
It would good to know if we're supposed to be talking salad leaves or something far more refined because I also see it's a variation of Letitia, the Latin for joy so I'd like to get it right.
It's hard to imagine quite what an upheaval moving house and downsizing might have been like in the pre-war days. It seemed enough of an accomplishment to get ourselves, three children, a dog, a cat, two guinea pigs and six chickens six miles up the road fifteen years ago and one thing I recall very clearly is how bereft I felt to leave our little terraced cottage. I had a ridiculously sentimental attachment to it as our first 'bought' home. Well, all £12,300 worth of it most of which was owned by the Halifax Building Society, but it had been the home we'd restored ourselves and brought all our newborn babies back to, and though it was the right time to move I came as near as possible to hating the people who had kindly bought it from us, as if they'd stolen something that was mine.
It took me months, if not years to get over that and I'd drive past and hope they were looking after my lovely kitchen and my gorgeous en suite bathroom, especially as we had to start renovating all over again when we arrived here. It took me a while to bond with the middle of nowhere yet now I can't imagine ever living near to civilisation.
The New House is another of those perceptive Persephone reads that captures the world on the cusp of change, published in 1936 and Family Powell, a generation 'yearning for wholeness' have seen the old order change in the aftermath of the First World War. With the death of the gentle, loving and tolerant Mr Powell (a merciful release it would seem when you get to know Mrs Powell) , son Maurice's marriage and move into the family business and daughter Delia's free-spirited escape, it's the unmarried daughter Rhoda who seems to have drawn the short straw. Stuck at home looking after mother, witnessing the 'fall from the ranks' and masterminding the downsizing from large family home to something much more modest...and heaven forfend within sight of other people's washing, poor Rhoda watches helplessly as life passes her by. With the chasms of change briefly exposed by the house move...and how interesting that it is a home that is left behind and house that they move to... perhaps the time is right for Rhoda to make her own bid for freedom,
' Today, she thought is like a crack in my life. Things are coming up through the crack and if I don't look at them, perhaps I shall never see them again. Ordinary life in the new house will begin tomorrow and grow over the crack and seal it up.'
With its themes of class, money and decorum...
'They saw her move past the window, bareheaded, in her jumper and skirt.
"She ought to put a hat on if she's going past all those houses,"...'
and marriage and women's lives, The New House is a perfect microcosm of a family of its time, all its foibles and temperaments delicately exposed and all revolving around Mrs Powell who, like a child at the centre of her own world, has an expectation that everyone else has been born to minister to her every need. As the maids, cooks and general factotums disappear the onus falls on her children and there's even a risk that the family will have to do their own housework, perhaps wash a dish, all much more than Mrs Powell can contemplate.
I wonder if it's because I'm still reading Virginia Woolf's The Waves (published in 1931) also with a character called Rhoda, that I sensed parallel moments in The New House, particularly that Freudian revelation of the inner consciousness and the Woolf-like exploration of the same scene through different eyes.
'If, thought Rhoda, you could, just for a single minute, get inside another person, and look at yourself and everyone from them, what a difference it would make to all the rest of your life!'
and she proceeds to remember moments as a child when she had tried to do that.
I had no idea that Lettice Cooper was related by marriage to Jilly Cooper and her Preface to the book offers some delicious insights into the possible family sources for The New House whilst also identifying Lettice Cooper's skill as a writer who
'seldom judged her characters and found humour and pathos in every situation...every time the reader becomes outraged at the monstrous egotism of a character, the kaleidoscope shifts and they do soemthing spontaneously and unexpectedly kind.'
A lovely read and for next month (April 28th) I've chosen The Casino by Margaret Bonham, short stories mostly set in Devon, and now it must be time for tea with Cornflower.