Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Book review, on location

Here it is, the second of my Persephone buys; in fact, this is the one book I had gone to the store to buy, before I realized I'd be saving money by buying three (saving money!). Read the website description and you might get a sense for why I was eager to read this one; as I've mentioned before I have a special fondness for books about happy people. Greenery Street is, to sum it up in a nutshell, the story of a lovesick young couple, Ian and Felicity Foster, and the early days of their married life. Unlike, I suppose, most Persephone books this one was written by a man -- a point I shall return to shortly.

Greenery Street is based directly on the author's own experience of married life -- to such an extent that apparently Mrs Mackail was fairly embarrassed by it. (I should note that I am taking all my information on this side of the book from the Persephone preface by Rebecca Cohen.) Thus, it is not hard at all to identify the real-life 23 Greenery Street as 23 Walpole Street in Chelsea. Would you like to see pictures? Of course you would.

COTLB exclusive!
There she is, 23 Walpole/Greenery Street. You know who else lived in this house besides the newlywed Mackails? P.G. Wodehouse. Also the lady who wrote Mrs Miniver, but I don't care about her. Wodehouse. One of the attractions of the book is a chance to marvel at how standards have changed since the 1920s -- I won't reiterate the whole preface (go buy the book yerself!), but it is worth noting that the house is now split into flats. And they're almost certainly way too expensive for penniless newlyweds.

But some things haven't changed.
A picture began to form itself in Felicity's mind of two rows of symmetrical doorsteps, of first floor French windows which opened on to diminutive balconies, of a sunny little street with scarlet omnibuses roaring past one end and a vista of trees seen facing the other.
Chelsea Hospital toward one end
I didn't realize I actually got a bus in this photo until I got home - go me!
Mackail describes the young wives standing out on the balconies looking for their husbands to come home, which I could picture perfectly as I scurried around taking photos, hoping I didn't look suspicious.

As a single person (a Single-American?), I thought the novel was cute but I could sense how it might have deeper resonance for married people. It might make a nice anniversary gift for a close friend, but I don't want to commit to that. I don't know anything about picking wedding/anniversary gifts, except for the words of wisdom from my father which I will treasure forever: "Think carefully before you give people knives because you don't want to be complicit in any stabbings."

I suppose what makes it special is that it's a fairly emotional novel about how great marriage is, by a man. If Greenery Street had been written by a woman, it would be entertaining but not much more than that. I don't feel like I'm giving it much of a pass on this count though. Where I am giving it a pass is in that it's so directly autobiographical. The preface makes a pretty irresistible case for the novel being an almost 1:1 account of its author's feelings, if not experiences. Usually I'm a little disappointed to discover that an author has based the events and/or characters of a novel on their own life. I won't lie; when I read that Barbara Pym had worked among anthropologists it took some of the shine off her choice of anthropologist characters in Excellent Women. I freely admit that this is irrational, and I do my best to discount it when weighing up my final analysis of a book, but it's my first reaction. Except with Mackail. Somehow reading about how deeply important his marriage was for him made me all the more interested in "Ian Foster".

Overall: well worth it, and not just because it was wanting this book that led me to find the Persephone store in the first place.

1 comment:

  1. You know how I love pictures of things. And I laughed at this: "COTLB exclusive!"

    Wodehouse AND Mrs. Miniver Lady??? What was up with that house? Maybe all these writers kept recommending their writery friends as tenants.

    Oh, I'm oh-so-happy that you journeyed out there and took pictures.