To show our scorn of pretending life’s a safe business

Dear Sylvia, Lolly Willowes (1926) is a satirical comedy of manners centred on an unmarried woman who suddenly decides to escape the claustrophobic domestic role her family tries to force on her. Funnily enough, the means she will use to fight against her family are no less morally equivocal than the life they were trying to…

Sylvia Townsend Warner

Sylvia Townsend Warner (6 December 1893 – 1 May 1978) was an English writer. She was home-schooled by her father. At the outbreak of World War I, she moved to London and worked in a munitions factory. During the rise of fascism, Warner campaigned on behalf of the Communist Party. She published novels, poetry, and short-stories. She was also a musicologist, and…

Virtue can sometimes be a little depressing

Dear Barbara, Excellent Women (1952) is a comedy of manners about a spinster surrounded by people who cannot see why she shouldn’t suffer for being single. She is perfectly fine, though – if anything, the married people in the book are the ones really struggling, or in pain. The narrator, Mildred Lathbury, is an unmarried…

Barbara Pym

Barbara Mary Crampton Pym (2 June 1913 – 11 January 1980) was an English writer. She studied at Queen’s Park School, in Oswestry, and attended Huyton College, near Liverpool. She then studied English at St Hilda’s College, Oxford. During World War II, Pym served in the Women’s Royal Naval Service. After the war, she worked at the International African Institute in London,…

Fire burn, and caldron bubble

Dear Ronald, “The Witch: A History of Fear, from Ancient Times to the Present” is an ambitious and detailed research on a wide variety of beliefs about witches, as well as on the many ways those beliefs may have shaped and given rise to the Western witch trials. The book starts with an outline of…

Ronald Hutton

Ronald Hutton (1953) is an English historian. He studied at Pembroke College, Cambridge, and at Oxford University. He is professor of British folklore, pre-Christian religion and contemporary Paganism at the University of Bristol. Books The Royalist War Effort 1642–1646 (1982) The Restoration: A Political and Religious History of England and Wales 1658–1660 (1985) Charles the Second, King of England, Scotland and Ireland (1989) The British…

I always lacked common sense when taken by surprise

Dear Anne, Agnes Grey (1847) had for me the strange quality of a double-pointed sword: we must read it carefully, or else it may kill precisely what it had promised to protect. Agnes, the eponymous protagonist and narrator of the story, is the youngest daughter of Richard Grey, a clergyman of modest means. Her mother…

Anne Brontë

Anne Brontë (17 January 1820 – 28 May 1849) was an English writer. She was educated at home, and later attended a boarding school in Mirfield, between 1836 and 1837. Anne worked as a governess between 1839 and 1845. Her poems and novels were first published under the pen name of Acton Bell. She died of pulmonary tuberculosis at the…

Florence Marryat

Florence Marryat (9 July 1833 – 27 October 1899) was a British writer. She was privately educated. After her marriage to an officer of the British Army, she travelled extensively through India, and returned alone to England in 1860. The couple had eight children. In the 1870’s, Florence lived together with a Colonel of the Royal Marine Light…

I’d forgotten it was summer outside

Dear Barbara, In your novel The Vet’s Daughter (1959), I felt I was being lured into a strange place, tender and cruel. I was being lured by a voice, tenuous but powerful, pushing me through the door into a confined domestic horror. It was lonely, dangerous and grotesque, but it was a voice I very…

Barbara Comyns

Barbara Comyns (Barbara Irene Veronica Comyns Carr, 1907 – 1992) was an English writer. She attended art school in Stratford-upon-Avon, and later moved to London to attend Heatherley School of Fine Art. She had various jobs (dealing in antiques, breeding dogs, drawing for commercial advertisements, cooking in a country house), and began to write professionally in the 1940’s….