You will find elsewhere on this site, my review of Kitchen Essays by Agnes Jekyll, one of Persephone Books' collection of exquisite, out-of-the-ordinary, often long-forgotten titles. Lettice Delmer by Susan Miles is another such gem. Susan Miles was the nom de plume of the British author, Ursula Roberts (1887-1975). She was a respected writer of her era and was accomplished both as a novelist and as a poet, so it is not surprising perhaps that she rose to the challenge of writing this novel of hers in verse form. Ms Roberts was also a socialist, a pacifist and a feminist so it is not surprising either, that aspects of all these philosophies colour and enrich her story.
I am reluctant to give away too much of the plot of this charmingly written tale and perhaps it is best that I focus instead on allaying anxiety that 'all that poetry' might be difficult and inaccessible to the average reader. Lettice Delmer, set during the time of World War I and first published in 1958, is an account of the tragic life of the young woman of its title whose name is pronounced 'Laetitia'. In it we meet and trace the life paths of a variety of people, all of whom are drawn by the author with deft wit and understatement.
Lettice Delmer introduces the reader to,
Lettice, stepping sweetly
and to the polite, charming, yet angry young man
who smites a foe garbed as a tennis-ball,
making a weapon of his tennis bat.
Also to a lost little five-year-old lad who displays for all to see,
H.M.S. Dreadnought on his cap, and dread
written, no less insistent, in his stance.
and the kindly, well-meaning Mr Briggs:
His false teeth do not fit him very well;
they make him dribble. His approaching gait
suggests a barn-dance in its eagerness.
These and many other delightfully sketched characters people Lettice Delmer and we follow their lives as some of them fall into love at first sight,
her eyes meet Conway's eyes. The Delmers fail
to note her sudden flush - or Conway's tremor.
while another plunges the depths of despair;
He lets the subtle Tempter's guiding hand
direct his footsteps to the sea-dashed brink.
Not till the waters close above his head
does any plea for mercy stir in him.
Some of the cast find togetherness and contentment in this life,
.... All, like beads
diverse in shape and colour, share one string
and form a single pattern in the house
for another, happiness must wait until she draws her last breath
"Startled into Eternity by joy:
startled, yet peaceful - that is how she looked."
This beautifully bound little book is a page-turner as the reader is enticed along the story lines. It is also a novel that can be read slowly and again to appreciate the fine turnings of phrase and the elegant verse. Enjoy!
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Written by Susan Miles
Published by Persephone Books Ltd
Reviewed by Moira Richards
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