In Praise of the New 

Louise Pfanner shares her latest discoveries.

August 2017

Gleebooks Bookshop - Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Richmal Crompton was best known as the author of the classic Just William stories, about the irrepressible and unrepentant William Brown—these books have been favourites of many since they appeared in the 1920s. However, she also wrote over 40 books for adults, long forgotten and now mainly out of print. So I fell on Family Roundabout, when I saw it had been republished by the excellent Persephone Books, and was completely taken with it. Starting in 1920, and set in a village very similar to William’s stamping ground, it tells the story of two very English families, each headed by a widowed mother. They each have five children, but are polar opposites in their approach to parenting, and most other aspects of life. Their children intermingle, mainly through marriage and engagement, and with varying degrees of success. This is such an interesting novel. It’s very easy to read and written with a wonderfully clear structure—there is very little back story to the characters, so the reader feels immediately amongst them as the dialogue is so wonderful, and the setting so vivid. The female characters are particularly believable, with their ever present needlework—sewing, mending, embroidering—all this handiwork runs like a thread through the narrative. There is also a very interesting theme of writing, with one character who is an aspiring writer, and another who is a successful author, both in love with the same girl, and neither of whom are very appealing. World War 2 is looming by the end of the book, and the sense of change is very present.
Meanwhile, in another English village at the same time, in ‘Real Life’, Tirzah Garwood was writing her autobiography. Tirzah was married to the English artist Eric Ravilious, and together, and with several friends they became incredibly prolific artists, chronicling the rural life they were living. There has been a resurgence of interest in these artists, partly because they were so willing to put their collective hand to many projects—from children’s handkerchief designs, to book covers, to large beautiful murals—and their art has more than stood the test of time. Long Live Great Bardfield: The autobiography of Tirzah Garwood, also published by Persephone Books, is an account of these artists’ lives. Not written for publication, but as a record for her children while she was recuperating from surgery, this book is quite extraordinary—for the way it’s written, for its content, and for the indelible impression it leaves on the reader. Garwood has a remarkable recall of her childhood, and for the tiniest, most amusing details. She is extremely astute and perceptive, and writes about the many people she has met—as an artist in her own right, and as Eric Ravilious’ wife. They must have been a compelling couple, people were always falling in love with them both—she writes about these complications without rancour or blame, and  with utmost candour. I was reminded of the writing of Barbara Comyns when I started reading this book, but ultimately I realised Tirzah Garwood had her own voice, and this autobiography was not like anything I’ve ever read before. The book is illustrated with the author’s woodblock pictures, black and white photographs, and with fabulous endpapers by the artist.
After reading Long Live Great Bardfield, I wanted to know more about Eric Ravilious, so I am reading Ravilious & Co: the Pattern of Friendship by Andy Friend. This is a very well researched and comprehensive book about Ravilious and his extensive circle of friends and fellow artists.  The book is beautifully produced and illustrated with photography, patterned papers, and really excellent reproductions of many paintings, illustrations and designs. Part of the appeal of this volume lies in the fact that most of the work of the artists was done for reproduction, so it sits well in book form. Ravilious often worked in tandem with Edward Bawden and it’s sometimes hard to distinguish their work; sadly Ravilious died young in WW2, but Bawden continued until the 1980s, with his work influencing many generations of illustrators. Louise

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