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Lettice Delmer


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Success Stories

by Susan Miles

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ISBN 1 903155 215     
Published by Persephone Books, 2002
196pp, paperback
Retail price 10

If the "cover image" displayed with this review looks a little strange, that's because it isn't one. Persephone Books have a house style - simple dove-grey covers with snazzy period designs on the endpapers (and matching bookmark). This is, perhaps, designed to encourage readers to collect the whole series simply for the sake of having a nice, matching set of books on their shelves - something that is increasingly rarely seen in people's homes.

The idea is tempting but, with this particular book, it was the content that intrigued me. Novels in verse are extremely unusual - I'd be hard pressed to name another. Yet Lettice Delmer isn't an antique. It was first published in 1958, sank without trace, and is now re-published by Persephone under their policy of producing attractive reprints of classic or neglected works by women authors.

Of the author, little is known. "Susan Miles" is the pseudonym of Ursula Roberts, a Northamptonshire rector's wife who, being childless, had time to spare for writing poetry and meditating on life. Like her husband, she became a campaigner for social reform, and this is reflected in the book's various themes. My first question, before even opening it, was: why choose to write a novel in verse? Susan Miles had written novels before, but in a more conventional form. It's possible that she considered herself, first and foremost, a poet, and felt more comfortable with verse. There was certainly no fashion for such works at the time; John Betjeman's Summoned by Bells, the only book I can think of that in any way resembles Lettice Delmer, would not be published for another two years.

The publishers have thoughtfully provided both an introduction, giving the background to the novel, and a plot summary, just in case this unconventional method of story-telling should prove obscure. I was grateful for this, not only because of the insight it gave me into both author and book, but because, yes, I did at times find it hard to be certain what was going on. By putting the story into verse, Susan Miles reduces the word count to the point where questions go unasked and unanswered; euphemism and understatement rule. It isn't that her chosen means of expression is flowery, more that it was a product of a time when certain subjects were not spoken of in polite society (there is a suspicion that parts, at least, of the book might have been written thirty years before its publication).

The action begins during the First World War, when Lettice Delmer, the rather spoiled teenage daughter of a prosperous doctor, finds her world turned upside down by events beyond her control. The death of her father is made harder to bear by the decision of the man everyone had thought would marry Lettice to marry her maid instead. Hot on the heels of this disappointment comes her mother's swift deterioration into a feeble-minded invalid, a situation for which life has not prepared Lettice. Her response to these trials is to leave home, letting herself in for an even worse time. The events which follow are tragic and truly moving, but (even after reading) I am uncertain whether versifying them has the effect of distancing the reader, and, if so, whether this was the author's intention. This is not, at any rate, a depressing book. The author's strong faith in God and human nature wins through, and the ending is what a modern reader might call "uplifting".

As for the writing, it has a very old-fashioned feel to it. Although mostly in blank verse, there are subtle variations throughout, changes of rhythm and metre and, in places, self-contained poems such as the little ditties composed by Lettice's mother:

"Smiling and placid, Mrs Delmer sips,

feasting her eyes on Lettice, snowdrop-pure

in her cool dress with pale jade ornament.

'Lettice, stepping sweetly

Into womanhood

Someday, sweet Lettice Conway?

Romping in merry mood' "

Despite the author's skill in the use of verse forms, the poetic language makes us feel we are in the nineteenth century rather than the twentieth. This doesn't make the characters any less real or affecting. The reader's sympathies are drawn particularly to Hulbert, Lettice's older stepbrother, a man who is carried through life by his sense of duty, suffering vicariously from other people's problems.

Whatever one's perspective, this is a very unusual book. I recommend it, as much for its curiosity value as for its intrinsic quality. In the final analysis, we are not looking at "great" poetry. It is not even "great" fiction. It is, however, both interesting and inspiring, and would certainly make a lovely present for anyone who finds joy in reading.

Open Book

Review by Deborah Fisher

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