Janet Wolff has lately returned to Manchester, her home town, after many years away - including 18 years in the United States. She has taught at the University of Leeds, the University of Rochester (New York) and, most recently, Columbia University, and is now Professor of Performance, Screen and Visual Cultures in the new Centre for Interdisciplinary Research in the Arts at the University of Manchester. She is the author of six books, including The Social Production of Art, Feminine Sentences, Resident Alien and AngloModern. She is currently completing a book of essays with the title The Aesthetics of Uncertainty, and also working on a book of memoir and cultural history. Here Janet writes about Lettice Cooper's The New House.
Janet Wolff on The New House by Lettice Cooper
For many of us, I think, a major problem in life is how to shelve our Virago paperbacks. Over the years since Virago first began publishing in 1973 (Virago Modern Classics in 1978), I've discussed with my sisters and my friends the dilemma produced by our desire to keep those gorgeous dark green books together, thus undermining an otherwise orderly alphabetical system. The problem is compounded by the fact that some of the books are non-fiction – for example (among my favourites), Carolyn Steedman's Landscape for a Good Woman and Liz Heron's edited collection, Truth, Dare or Promise. Over the 33 years of its existence, some of them as an independent publisher, some as imprint or subsidiary of larger presses, Virago has also introduced a lighter, yellower, to me less appealing green. Now the press is republishing some of its own books, both classics it rediscovered in the 1970s and 1980s (the novels of Elizabeth Taylor, for example) and its own original publications (including, on the 20th anniversary of its original publication, my friend Janina Bauman's memoir of the war and the Warsaw Ghetto, Winter in the Morning, now re-titled Beyond these Walls). The abandonment of any green covers seems a bit like a betrayal, but at the same time, with regard to the shelving problem, it's also a relief.
Lettice Cooper's book, The New House, was published by Virago in 1987 in the Virago Modern Classics series. The cover (dark green, of course) has a 1929 painting called 'Titbits', by Harold Harvey, on the front – a domestic scene of a young woman about to give a morsel of something or other to a patiently sitting small dog, while another (older) woman, in hat and coat, watches. I am talking about the copy I have, though last week I also got hold (via abebooks) of a copy of the 1946 Penguin edition of the book (orange Penguin Fiction series). The original version, published by Victor Gollancz in 1936, doesn't seem to be available.
In 1987, the book made a big impression on me, and I've re-read it a couple of times since then. Lettice Cooper (1897-1994) is a compelling writer, and the author of 20 novels (including Fenny, 1953, also reprinted by Virago in the 1980s). She was born in Eccles, Lancashire, and grew up near Leeds. After studying Classics at Oxford, she returned to Yorkshire, where she worked in the family business and published her first 10 novels. She moved to London to serve as Associate Editor of Time and Tide, and during the war she worked in the Ministry of Food and for the Civil Defence. After the war, she wrote fiction reviews for the Yorkshire Post for a decade, and continued to write novels. In 1976-8 she was President of the English Centre of PEN, and she was awarded the OBE in 1978.
Whatever the artist Harold Harvey intended in the scene chosen for the Virago cover, it makes sense to interpret the characters as mother and daughter. Centrally, the novel is about the difficulty the main character, Rhoda Powell, confronts in asserting her independence from her recently-widowed mother, Natalie. The entire novel takes place during the course of one day (and is divided into three sections – 'Morning', 'Afternoon', 'Evening'). It is the day of the move to a new house. Rhoda's brother, Maurice, is married and already a parent. Her younger sister, Delia, has moved to London. Rhoda, 33, is unmarried and still at home. Her mother's move to a smaller house is, perhaps, the opportunity for her to leave and establish herself apart from her demanding mother. Her unmarried aunt Ellen, whose life has been one of self-denial (and of spoiling her younger sister, Rhoda's mother), represents her likely future otherwise - as daughter, sister, aunt. The epigraphs to the three book sections, all of them from Shakespeare plays, spell out the drama of the tripartite day:
'Pray you, Sir, whose daughter?' 'Her mother's, I have heard.'
'Who is't that hinders you?' 'A foolish heart that I leave here behind.'
'What pleasure, Sir, find we in life to lock it from action and adventure?'
Natalie is selfish; Delia is firm in her independence; Maurice is weak, and not entirely happy with his demanding wife. But Cooper portrays all this with the kind of subtlety that both engages the reader in the exchanges between family members and insists on a real sympathy for each of them, in spite of their less pleasant characteristics. And on nearly every page there is an encounter between family members which, almost painfully, portrays the tensions, affections and struggles going on in even the most trivial matters. Here's one example, early in the book. Rhoda has taken her mother tea in bed; she explains that she has brought it herself because the maid is a little late down after packing for the move until very late the night before. Her mother's reply provokes a typically complex and perceptive series of thoughts.
'Still, I don't like you to bother about me!' And that, Rhoda thought, was not quite true, although her mother didn't know it. She thought that she tried to arrange everything so that Rhoda should have a good deal of time to herself. She always urged Rhoda to go away for week-ends, or to go out with friends for an afternoon or evening. She said, 'You'll enjoy it, dear. I want you to accept. I like being alone'; but when Rhoda was setting off she always said, 'You won't be coming back late on Monday, I suppose?' or 'What time do you think you'll be home, dear? I shouldn't think you'll be late.' A strong, invisible current, proceeding from her real wishes, reached Rhoda and pulled at her, cutting short week-ends and spoiling parties. She would remember how unselfishly her mother had spared her, and would be sucked back under the compulsion of a morbid conscience. This conflict, not so noticeable before her father's death, had grown more acute in the last year.Whatever the personal (autobiographical) resonances for me in the novel (though, in a literal sense, I had long since left home by 1987), I am now wondering whether the particular experience of reading it then had to do with being on the verge of making a more drastic familial break by moving within the year to the United States. And, perhaps, my choice of this book, which I had felt the desire to re-read just recently, coincides (though it is not really a coincidence) with my return 'home' after 18 years. As it happens, I have come back to discover that the most recent edition of The New House is not only not green - it is not even published by Virago, who must have ceded the rights. The edition now in print, a Persephone Books paperback of 2004, comes with a Preface by the writer Jilly Cooper - wife of Lettice Cooper's nephew - who tries (perhaps a little too hard) to make one-to-one connections between the characters and the author and her family.
Persephone continues Virago's tradition of publishing 'forgotten classics' by 20th century women writers. Its book covers are all identical – a plain dove-grey jacket, with plain modest typeface, and endpapers based on fabric design 'chosen especially to match the date and mood of the book'. The New House has as its endpapers an attractive gold and grey pattern, taken from a 1936 block-printed velvet design by Margaret Calkin James 'for her new house, "Hornbeams" in Hampstead Garden Suburb'. Perhaps the plain grey cover seemed too dull to Amazon, who reproduce a detail from the endpapers instead of the book jacket. But I can already see a new shelving dilemma looming, with the desire to keep the Persephone greys together.