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The Happy Tree

by Rosalind Murray

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Maroon and Gold by Ruth Simpson

PREFACE BY CHARLOTTE MITCHELL
344pp
ISBN 9781903155981

This 1926 novel begins with the death of a young man during the war, flashes back to his happy childhood shared with the young woman who is the narrator, and then describes how the war – inevitably – took them unawares, destroyed their happiness and has left her, the young woman, emotionally maimed. In one sense it does not sound very entertaining. But the quality of the writing is extraordinary and it tells the reader as much about the after-shock of the war as, say, Testament of Youth.

Unlike Wilfred and Eileen, which focuses on the years 1913–15 and does not show the aftermath, The Happy Tree is focused on what happens when the war has ended. This is why quoting the closing lines of the book, here, does not ‘give the plot away’: And this is all that has happened. It does not seem very much. It does not seem worth writing about. I was happy when I was a child, and I married the wrong person, and some one I loved dearly was killed in the war . . . that is all. And all those things must be true of thousands of people. A contemporary reviewer wrote about The Happy Tree, having quoted these lines: ‘Well, they are “true of thousands of people”, but most women of forty cannot sit down and see how life has taken them and shaped their plans into others and ignored their hopes for beautiful things that never happen. Most women, too, the thousands who might have written this story, cannot take disappointment and ugly houses and imperfect husbands and change such elements of life into a spiritual experience that is beautiful, and something that is not a sordid string of complaints. Clarity and proportion, rare words to apply to the new fiction. The Happy Tree stands almost alone.’

As Charlotte Mitchell writes in her new Persephone Preface: the novel ‘tells the story of Helen Woodruffe, who grows up partly in her grandmother’s London house in Campden Hill Square and partly with some cousins, the Laurier family, who live on a country estate called Yearsly. There, sometimes under a special “Happy Tree”, she passes an idyllic childhood with Guy and Hugo Laurier. Helen is more or less in love with Hugo, but since he doesn’t seem to want her she drifts into marriage with one of his Oxford contemporaries, Walter Sebright, who comes from a hard-working middle-class family not in sympathy with the Lauriers or with the gentry’s attitude to life. When the First World War comes Walter is judged medically unfit to fight,but Guy and Hugo go to war; only Guy returns.’

People occasionally ask how we find our books and we are often stumped. But in this case there was a specific recomendation: we discovered Rosalind Murray’s novel because a Persephone reader was intrigued by a mention of her in Virginia Woolf ’s Diary and started looking for her books. Then we read that EM Forster called her first novel The Leading Note (1910) one of the ‘two best novels I have come across in the past year’ (the other was Felix Wedgwood’s Shadow of a Titan). Sadly, the only place we could discover anything about Rosalind Murray (1890–1967) was in William McNeill’s biography of her husband. Here it transpired that she was the daughter of the classical scholar Gilbert Murray and of Lady Mary Howard and was only in her early ’20s when her first three novels were published; by the time The Happy Tree came out she was married to the historian Arnold Toynbee and was the mother of three small boys. It is a pity that her husband’s biographer is, in Charlotte Mitchell’s words, ‘markedly unsympathetic to Rosalind, accusing her among other things of being snobbish, imperious, badly-dressed and responsible for her husband’s not fighting in the war. The Happy Tree, her own analysis of her chances and her choices, offers the possibility of a more nuanced view, and records the impact of the war on a generation of women torn between an old world which had been destroyed and a new world whose rules they had not yet learned.’ In 1926 LP Hartley wrote about The Happy Tree: ‘One cannot help liking the book: one cannot help admiring its phenomenal freedom from vulgarity, its disdain of worldly lures, its fastidious avoidance of second-rate consolations. It is marked by dignity and distinction and the indescribable grace of a rare spirit.’.

 

Endpaper

 

The endpaper fabric is a 1926 printed woollen plush by TF Firth & Sons

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Categories: Childhood    Family    House and Garden    WWI    Young Love   
 

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