Rural Herons – 6 April 2024

At the Clifton Literary Festival last year, I sat alongside two fellow booksellers and announced my Desert Island Books. The impossibility of the task – choosing six books above all others – was clear from the moment it was set and weighed on me more seriously than it ought. For several weeks I tweaked my longlist, removing a title here and adding one there until I had a selection wholly different from the one with which I had started. Then I changed it all back again. How I ended up defending a list which included no George Eliot I hardly know. My choice of Mrs Dalloway over To the Lighthouse was so difficult as to become almost arbitrary.

Not long after, I found myself in possession of a book I knew little of but had reason to believe I would adore, Dusty Answer by Rosamond Lehmann. The novel was added to one of the several ‘priority’ to be read piles but its position at the top was continually usurped by more pressing reading. Until I had that moment when I looked up (yes, the waiting towers of books are taller than me) and the book and I recognised each other. Now, I thought. I opened Dusty Answer.

There I met Judith Earle, the novel’s heroine. I fell in love with each of the Fyfe cousins, who come to stay nearby and interrupt her lonely childhood. I was transfixed by, if a little loathsome of, Jennifer, whom Judith loves at Cambridge. I learnt to dance, had my heart broken, relished the pain and grew up, a very little. Had I known, Dusty Answer would have made the Desert Island list.

I tell you this because this week a book about Virginia Woolf, Sylvia Townsend Warner and Rosamond Lehmann has been published: Rural Hours by Harriet Baker.

Each of these writers moved for a time to the country, for different reasons and with differing abilities to face country life, and there undertook new kinds of writing. Baker reveals what happened on the days when nothing happened, the import of quiet and solitude, the significance of sitting down when one’s boots hurt.

She examines closely the writing projects, some literary, some routine, of the three women and finds in their various forms of life-writing that it is, ‘possible to trace the contours and gradations of their author’s days, to map and sometimes to imagine.’ She writes, ‘I listened for their voices in country lanes, followed their footsteps home over the Downs.’ There Baker finds the authors and offers us a new picture: Virginia Woolf recording her success, or lack thereof, with that day’s mushroom picking, Rosamond Lehmann writing short stories, surrounded by dogs, and Sylvia Townsend Warner building inventories of the house and garden whilst decidedly not building a bathroom.

Rural Hours asks a question about the spaces in between the big events, between those milestones or pivots which might dominate a traditional biography of such writers and might dominate our own version of our lives, were we to tell it. Those spaces are quiet, subtle, fruitful for the writers on whom Baker is focussed and surely for their readers too.

I am not saying that you have to read Rural Hours directly after having your heart torn out and stamped on by Roddy Fyfe. Nor do you need to read this in the country, having found a goat to take for a walk, gone moth-hunting and then spent time indoors making jam and counting pillowcases. But that you may long to. For the experience of reading Rural Hours encourages that level of engagement, draws you into a gap in which you fit perfectly, ‘socketted’, as Baker and her authors would have it.

There is a list here of just some (difficult choices, again) favourite books from the three authors Baker writes about so elegantly and some related recommendations, including the following:

  • Square Haunting by Francesca Wade looks at the house on Mecklenburgh Square in which, at different times, H. D., Dorothy L. Sayers, Jane Harrison, Eileen Power, and Virginia Woolf lived.
  • The World Broke in Two by Bill Goldstein explores 1922, ‘the year that changed literature’, when Ulysses, The Waste Land, Mrs Dalloway, A Passage to India and Kangaroo were published.
  • After Sappho by Selby Wynn Schwartz is a kaleidoscopic novel, imagining Romaine Brookes, Colette, Virginia Woolf, Josephine Baker and many others, moved by Sappho, taking ownership of their bodies and demanding what men have taken from them. 
  • And we must all read Katherine Mansfield’s short stories and her novel The Garden Party. From Rural Hours I learnt that Virginia Woolf once wrote that she was always on the point of reading one of Mansfield’s stories. So, she and I have something in common. But I am going to cross over that threshold now into actually doing so.

Like Rosamond Lehmann, we love to be surrounded by dogs. We will be delighted to see you all at our event on Thursday, the launch of Jack-Jack: A Dog in Africa by Ben Garrod. Dogs, children and well-behaved adults are all welcome. Goats less so.

Next Saturday, our monthly Poetry in Herons sees Bob Walton and JJ Haines take to the stage (for stage, read ‘corner of the shop’). We hope to see you then.  

May your weekend offer hard, quiet choices such as which book to read first and whether to have some more jam. (Yes, to the latter, Virginia Woolf advises.)