Saturday, 29 August 2009

Persephone Week: The End

Apparently Persephone Week finished on Friday... but here at Stuck-in-a-Book we're going to keep it going right until the end of the week. No Weekend Miscellany this weekend, then, but instead the final two Persephones will be proffered. (And maybe even a redux tomorrow). No, I didn't manage to read six (though I'm quite pleased with four), but today you're going to hear about Lettice Delmer by Susan Miles and, more excitingly, see the product of Our Vicar's Wife's interaction with Good Things in England by Florence White (which is also coming out in November as a Persephone Classic, with a really beautiful cover, below)

Right - Lettice Delmer, my first novel in verse, and the only one which Persephone have published. [Edit: Sorry, I forgot, Amours du Voyage by Arthur Hugh Clough is another one.] Not in rhyming verse, at least most of the time, but in blank verse. (If you need a brush up on what blank verse is, have a look here.) I bought this in a secondhand bookshop a while ago and, to be honest, I might not have bought it otherwise - like a lot of people, I suspect, the concept of a novel in verse was a little off-putting. Me more than most, since I've always struggled with reading poetry - probably because I read quite quickly, and poetry really needs to be read slowly, or even aloud.

But, nothing daunted, I gave Lettice Delmer (1958) a go for Persephone Reading Week. If I'm ever going to read it, thought I, now is the time. The Publisher's Note writes that it is 'a novel, i.e. narrative with plot, characterisation and psychological insight, where the verse form is readable, not too intrusive - but essential.' Lettice Delmer is the privileged daughter of extremely charitable parents, who are always seeking to help others for the sake of Christ. She herself is uncertain at the welcome her parents give to Flora Tort and her young son Derrick. Flora was a patient at a Special Hospital (a euphemistic title) and her son is rather an unpredictable, savage creature - at first. The rest of this novel looks at the Delmer household; Lettice's leaving of it, and her subsequent life of difficulties, weaknesses, loves, losses and spiritual journey. The secondary depiction of a Christian girl struggling to communicate with God, and seeking further depth in her relationship with Christ, was very honest, moving, and genuine.

The Persephone edition has a Plot Summary section at the end, giving summaries of each 10-20 pages - I occasionally flicked to it to clarify a poin
t or two, but largely didn't find I needed it. Its inclusion does speak volumes about an anticipated readerly response - you can't imagine a plot summary at the end of a novel, can you? It is true that, now and then, I'd miss a pivotal event - perhaps because I read verse a little too fast, and the nature of its lay-out, with dialogue incorporated into stanzas alongside everything else, means that it's trickier to make significant points stand out. But this didn't happen very often, and in general, I didn't find the verse format a problem.

I suppose that's the central part of this review, in terms of whether or not I'll convince others to give Lettice Delmer a try - was I able to read it? For the first thirty pages, I thought I wouldn't be able to. It was tricky, I get stumbling, and r
ealising I hadn't taken in anything on the page - but then it clicked. Something suddenly worked - and, though every time I picked the novel up it would take a few lines before it clicked again, I was immersed more quickly each time.

But, of course, unobtrusive wouldn't be good enough. If a verse format did nothing but disappear into the background, it would be pointless. Of course, Susan Miles uses it to much better effect. Difficult to pin down what the verse *does* achieve: it is more of an atmosphere than anything specific. A subtle beauty and poignancy is lent to the pages, an almost ethereal quality. The verse enables Miles to discuss hard-hitting topics such as death, suicide, abortion, and depression without this feeling at all like a gratuitously gritty novel - they are serious topics, dealt with seriously, but almost through a glass darkly.

The lines I really want to quote give away a big spoiler. So I'm going to post them in white, and you can decide whether or not to read them. Below that are two other quotations, little moments in Lettice Delmer which were illuminating examples of how the verse can be used to accurately reveal a character. The last shows just how well this book fits into the Persephone canon.

He lets the subtle Tempter's guiding hand
direct his footsteps to the sea-dashed brink.

Not till the waters close above his head

does any plea for mercy stir in him.

* * *

"It's want of confidence, I truly think,
that keeps him so resentful.
I've watched poor Flora hold a stick - quite low -
and try to make him jump.
It seemed as if he were afraid to raise
both feet at once in case when they came down
the earth would not be there!"

* * *

For Lettice insists scratchily
that aching to be in the war is a whim that merits contempt.
"You are doing far better serving at home humbly
than seeking false glory, it seems to me, Hulbert,
out on the battlefield,
for unmarked, unpraised, wholly unheroic home service
is, to my mind, self-satisfying or not self-satisfying,
much more admirable than a soldier's blatant offering."

To conclude, I thought I'd find Lettice Delmer impossible to read - but I was pleasantly surprised. Though it won't become one of my favourite Persephones, the novel has a lyrical beauty for which it is worth acclimatising yourself to the unusual form. Do have a step outside your comfort zone, and give this novel a try.

Onto the second Persephone title of the post:

Our Vicar's Wife had a flick through Good Things in England, (in its Persephone Originals edition) trying to decide what to make - the first thing she found was something involving a pig's head, and thought not. Which is nice for me, because I'm vegetarian. Instead, she opted for gingerbread. 'Eliza Acton's Gingerbread', no less, appropriately enough a recipe submitted from a Rectory. Here Mum is, holding her offering (doesn't she look nice?)

And this is what it looked like when sliced up.... it's even nicer than it looks. The yummiest gingerbread I've ever eaten, and a fitting end to Persephone Reading/Eating Week. Mmmm.


  1. I have to admit I passed over Lettice in the catalogue when I read it was written in verse and I am not sure if I will give it a chance but I am willing to think it over. The gingerbread looks lovely (as well as your mum) and the Good Things cover is gorgeous.

  2. The source of the Stuck-in-a-book baking gene revealed!
    How lovely to see OVW, and that gingerbread looks scrumptious!

  3. A book in verse, perhaps one day but your Mum in the kitchen with that gingerbread - any day! I bet that tastes wonderful with a cup of tea. The new cover is very pretty, I'm going to be buying that one when it comes out.

  4. OVW does indeed look nice! Ummmmm, that gingerbread reminds me we haven't had any around here in a Very Long Time. It's one of my husband's favorites. A friend who used to live here loved making it - and put ginger into it in every form imaginable, from powdered to grated to diced candied ginger (I'm trying to remember if there might be any other form I've left out).

  5. What a beautiful photograph of the good lady Mrs Thomas. The gingerbread looks rather lovely too :-) The novel-in-verse looks interesting...I've had 'Aurora Leigh' on my shelf for ages without having read it, but as a massive Arthur Hugh Clough fan, I've actually read most of 'Amours du Voyage' and really enjoyed that, so that could be another one on your list...


  6. QUICK! Make a house out of it!!

  7. Happy to hear you're extending Persephone week for a few more days. My computer crashed and my internet connection got cut off this week so I was only able to post now. Check out:

    That gingerbread cake looks delish!

  8. I love the photo of your mum! And that new classic cover of Good Things is the best one yet! I've decided to stick with the greys for uniformity, but that is a tempting one!

  9. Delighted to see Persephone Reading Week extended; due to Verity's holidays we had to end it on Friday, which is just as well as yesterday I had a headache and couldn't function let alone read. Next time we will aim for longer though - I didn't want it to end!
    Lettice Delmer and its "ethereal quality" certainly intrigues me, outwith my comfort zone or not.
    I love the cover for the Classics edition of Good Things! Beautiful. Is it the only one this Winter, along with Making of a Marchioness?
    Lovely looking gingerbread!

  10. The gingerbread looks wonderful- I'm no cook, but I couldn't leave GTIE behind when I found it in a charity shop last month, but have struggled to find anything in it that I'd actually want to make (Norwich-fed cygnets and Spitchcocked eels don't really appeal), but the gingerbread is a definite possibility...

  11. I've been curious about verse novels for a while, but didn't know of any that I wanted to read. Maybe I'll look into Lettice Delmer. It sounds quite interesting.

  12. I don't own that recipe Persephone, and I can see I must do. Well done Vicar's Wife I say!! Thanks for joining in Simon.


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