Reviewed by Simon Thomas
Devotees of Persephone Books will know that the best thing about this reprint house is bringing to light authors whose work has long lain unjustly neglected. While it’s lovely to see authors like Katherine Mansfield and Virginia Woolf in new covers, or to discover novels by much-loved children’s writers such as Frances Hodgson Burnett and Noel Streatfeild, or even to have the next in a line of Whipples, nothing quite compares to an unknown author brought to a wider public. I suspect I am speaking for the vast majority when I say that the name Rosalind Murray meant less than nothing to me. Now her 1926 novel The Happy Tree has been reprinted and, since the 1920s is my favourite decade for literature, what could I do but read it?
The Happy Tree is probably the most relentlessly linear novel I’ve ever read – which is certainly no bad thing. It reminded me of another Persephone title (Christine Longford’s Making Conversation) in its strict adherence to the Bildungsroman style – taking a character from childhood onwards; from event to event. After a couple of pages of present-day reflection, we are taken back to the beginning of Helen’s life, and the garden which held the ‘happy tree’:
The beginning is Yearsly. People say that places ought not to matter – still less houses, but I think they do. Yearsly has mattered to me, and it did to Guy and Hugo. It stood for something very stable, very enduring, and very sympathetic. Yearsly without Cousin Delia might have been something quite different; it is quite different now; but I think of them together, complementary to each other.
And so the novel begins. We are thrown into a whirl of names; the older female relative who looks after Helen in a sort of idyllic childhood, and the two male relatives who will frame it for her – who (like so many of Austen’s heroes) are not quite brothers, and not quite anything closer.
As Helen’s life goes on, we see her time at school, her time at Oxford, and her marriage… to whom is no secret. We are told in the first pages that she marries Walter; that Hugo is dead; that Helen is unhappy. The rest of the novel simply takes us on that path, showing us how the one happened, how the other happened, how the third was inevitable because of the other two. It is engaging, because Murray is an engaging writer, but it is perhaps not out of the ordinary. Helen is an intelligent, emotionally sensitive, affable woman – like the heroine of so many 1920s novels. The first half of the novel is good; the love triangle between Walter, Helen, and Hugo is told quietly and without elaborate drama. When the war comes, the novel is much better.
The arrival of war is not, obviously, uniquely portrayed in The Happy Tree, but the anxious unhappiness of a young mother, married to a man she does not love but does not despise, is an original take on the common premise.
‘It is quite inconceivable, I think, that Great Britain should be involved in a European War.’
He spoke with a note of exasperation in his voice, as though everyone were being silly. I thought they could not all be silly, for they were saying different things.
Helen’s life is struck by a double tragedy: the personal tragedy of decisions that were not the right ones, and the national tragedy of a country losing its young men to a pointless war. The Happy Tree is beginning to sound like a very miserable book, isn’t it? That wouldn’t be fair. The title is not a cruelly ironic choice. Instead, the tone is one of melancholy and nostalgia, but ultimately also one of resilience.
Murray will not be joining the pantheon of great English writers across time, nor is she perhaps Persephone’s greatest discovery to date, but the novel is undoubtedly worth of reprinting, and a poignant reminder of the pains of WW1 as we commemorate its centenary – and, at the same time, a reminder of the fact that other aspects of human life, and other elements of human tragedy, were not paused for four years as the battles played out.
Completing the book is a very good introduction from Charlotte Mitchell, which provides plenty of valuable information about Murray’s own marriage, other writings, and (always a plus) encounters with Virginia Woolf, as well as a brief but interesting analysis of the novel. And, of course, those beautiful endpapers for which Persephone Books are rightly famed; these are abstract red, orange, and blue flowers, equally reminiscent of a fantastically idyllic child’s garden and, appositely, Flander’s poppies.
Simon is one of the editors of Shiny New Books.
Rosalind Murray, The Happy Tree (London, Persephone Books, 1926 repr. 2014), 978-1903155981, 321pp, paperback