My new favorite literary obsession is the wonderful novels from Persephone Books. Please visit their website to learn more about this small press and the fabulous books they publish: http://www.persephonebooks.co.uk
First, I would like to mention that each Persephone book comes with beautiful endpapers and a matching bookmark. Each endpaper and bookmark pattern that are chosen have a history of their own. The picture here is the endpaper from The Happy Tree and is a replica of a 1926 printed woolen plush by TF Firth & Sons.
This novel shows us the devastating effects that World War I has on ordinary people who are trying to carry on in their daily lives while chaos and death have broken out around them. The story is told from the point of view of Helen Woodruffe, who spends her childhood with her Cousin Delia and her two sons, Guy and Hugo. Helen’s own father has died and Helen’s mother wants nothing to do with raising a child. So Helen’s paternal relations step in and raise her. She spends many happy days running around the family estate at Yearsly with Guy and Hugo. Helen is particularly close to Hugo who is about her same age; they seem to have a special understanding of one another’s sensitive personalities and they share the same interests.
As Helen and Hugo develop into teenagers, it is evident that there is a strong attraction between them. Everyone who is close to them assumes that they will eventually marry. But when Hugo takes interest in another girl, Helen agrees to marry a man named Walter because she thinks Hugo is lost to her forever. Walter is a good husband and loves Helen and it is sad that she comes to the conclusion that she has married the wrong person. Helen has three children with Walter and she does seem happy for most of her married life with Walter.
The most interesting part of the book is reading about people’s reaction to the war; Helen and her family are at a dinner party when Franz Ferdinand is assassinated and no one believes that there will be a war and any fighting that does break out they believe it will be minor. When Great Britain is pulled into the war and all of Helen’s young friends, including Guy and Hugo, join the fighting no one believes that the war will last for very long. As the war drags on, Helen gets notice of one friend after another who has been wounded or killed in the fighting. In the meantime, she has to deal with food rations, long lines and fuel shortages. This begins to wear her down and she becomes very depressed, especially when her second child is born.
One of my favorite quotes from the book is one in which Helen describes the struggle of everyday existence during the war years:
This was not life, this daily drudgery, this struggle to keep going, to get through, to exist. I was marking time, we were all marking time, waiting and waiting for the strain to relax, for the war to end; and meantime our youth was going.
THE HAPPY TREE is a realistic view of World War I as see through the eyes of Helen and the everyday British citizens whose lives were worn down by this horrible conflict. Persephone Books has given us another great classic that should go on the “must read” list for all those interested in World War I historical fiction.
About The Author:
Rosalind Murray (1890-1967) was the daughter of the well-known classical scholar Gilbert Murray and Lady Mary Howard. Brought up in Glasgow and Oxford, she was educated by governesses and at the progressive Priors Field School. She published her first novel, The Leading Note, in 1910 when she was 20, her second, Moonseed, in 1911 and her third, Unstable Ways, in 1914; this was the year after her marriage to the historian Arnold Toynbee, with whom she had three sons between 1914 and 1922. The Happy Tree came out in 1926; it was followed by another novel, Hard Liberty, and by a children’s history book. During the 1930s Rosalind Murray’s interests turned to theology; although brought up agnostic, she was received into the Roman Catholic Church in 1933, and published several books about faith and religion. She parted from her husband in 1942 and spent the rest of her life farming in Cumberland.