Heavens to Betsy

 

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Reminded by Beth Bonini’s cheerful Instagram feed of these delightful books (I’ve posted about their companion volumes here and here before), I think I’m getting ready for a re-read.

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Lots of commentators compare these books to Meet Me in St Louis, and as well as the period details (the hairstyles! the dresses! the slang! the excitement over a telephone!), what I love most is the inherent optimism – progress is always good, and friends and family remain stable whilst welcoming new developments – but also the complete acceptance that a job, writing, singing, making your own mind up, are all important to a girl and in no way conflicted with the rest of her being.

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I find it depressing that a modern book wouldn’t show this, or would have to make a big point about it. Written in the 50s about the 1900-1910s, Betsy, Emily and Carney are in fact far more progressive than any characters today.

Amy Sweet

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“I climbed three rickety flights to her flat to share her gulls’ eggs, and as soon as I reached the door, I knew that Amy’s home was not as other homes. Instead of a bell push or door-knocker, a Persian scimitar was attached precariously to the door, and you had to announce yourself with that…Amy herself let me in, wearing an exotic deshabille consisting of flimsy Turkish trousers, a short embroidered velvet jacket and masses of jangling gold bracelets. Her hair was hidden under an enormous Russian fur hat, with blonde curls escaping here and there… I squeezed into the narrow hall, nearly smashing a blue Victorian lustre with my right shoulder…Having negotiated this hazard, my left elbow banged into a china  jardiniere holding a castor-oil plant which sprouted to the ceiling. My head just grazed a small chandelier which hung from a hook, and the feather on my hat tickled a row of china jugs hanging on a shelf on the wall… “Wait a few minutes,” said Amy, “and I’ll bring in the lunch.”

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Lesley Blanch (photos above),sketched by her colleague Anne Scott-James in her memoir In the Mink. Cunningly, Lesley’s pseudonym recalls Amy in Little Women, and Lesley’s own adventuring was certainly wrapped in similar levels of fantasy, coquetry and almost overpowering femininity as Amy March. Later on Anne remarks that she always liked to appear in public swathed in masses of veiling, but she also accurately recalls how within a few days of “Any” leaving for Tunis or Helsinki, her friends were writing to her begging her to come back. Whilst I don’t think I could have stood her in person, Blanch’s own writing is irresistible and her fluttering exterior hid a great deal of determined toughness.

The heroic Margery

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Margery Gill was the illustrator of so many of my favourite books as a child (Apple Bough, A Little Princess), so I find her choppy, modern style very familiar and comforting. I like this website too, which praises the heroic age of illustration, an age that went hand in hand with a deliberately liberal social and moral view, the benevolent didacticism of the BBC and Penguin/Puffin books, and some cracking good stories.

Coffee for the mind

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Absolutely a fan of the idea behind Morning Short, a series of short stories that come to you when you join their mailing list.

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An encounter with Kate Chopin‘s writing the year before GCSEs bit me with the short story bug, and I’m still convinced they enforce the best kind of writing.

I also like these illustrations by Miles Hyman very much; they exactly capture how I feel when I’m reading.

Aratea

At seemingly random points across the composition (but not at all random in reality) the page is studded with tiny squares of gold leaf. These are the stars in the constellation depicted. The text, which runs to several pages, explains that the stars rotate ceaselessly between the celestial poles, and that these are guarded by the bears of Crete, who had protected Jupiter as a baby from his cannibalistic father, Saturn, in return for which they had been set in the sky to mark the poles. They are known as Helice of the seven stars and Cynosura, who has never deceived Phoenician sailors guided by her. Between them…runs a giant snake, like a river, with stars along its body…These are the constellations which we still know as Ursa Major and Ursa Minor, with the Plough.

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Tantalising writing by Christopher de Hamel about the Leiden Aratea, here. Image from Medieval Fragments.

Sunshine

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I came across this Virginia Woolf quote below, which reminded me of this favourite book, with its invitation to “those who appreciate wisteria and sunshine” to hire an Italian castle for the month of April. Yes please…

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If life has a base that it stands upon, it is a bowl that one fills and fills and fills – then my bowl without a doubt stands upon this memory. It is of lying half asleep, half awake, in bed in the nursery at St Ives. It is of hearing the waves breaking, one, two, one, two, and sending a splash of water over the beach; and then breaking, one, two, one, two, behind a yellow blind. It is of hearing the blind draw its little acorn across the floor as the wind blew the blind out. It is of lying and hearing this splash and seeing this light…

Abandoned

Not many people talk now about the villages requistioned and abandoned in the Second World War, but Tyneham is one of them and Ben Pentreath visits it here.

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There’s something so poignant about the photos of these families, and it was a burning issue in the 50s of course. One of my favourite childrens’ authors, Geoffrey Trease, even set one of his Cumbrian novels round it.

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