Review by: Moira Richards

May 2003

Lettice Delmer
By Susan Miles
ISBN: 1-903155-215

"these are the kind of books you simply won’t want to lend to your friends in case they don’t give them back."
-- Charlie Lee-Potter, BBC Radio (qtd. from publisher's website)

     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 published by Persephone Books.

     Susan Miles was the nom de plume of the British author, Ursula Roberts (1887-1975). She was a respected writer of her era (in 1920 Harold Monro singled her out in Contemporary Poets as one of the fifty most important poets then writing) 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. Roberts was also a socialist, a pacifist, and a feminist, so it is not surprising either that aspects of all these philosophies color and enrich her story. (The small graphic to the right of this paragraph is Lettice Delmer's "cover art"-- part of Persephone Books' tradition of publishing a fine "endpaper" chosen especially to match the date and mood of the book.)

     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." To quote the publisher's website, the novel is: "Set largely in London, . . . from, roughly, 1912 when she is eighteen to the later 1920s." 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
into womanhood!

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 boy 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!

For more details on this book,the publisher's goals and other titles, as well as a longer quote from the verse novel, go to the publisher's website: Persephone Books

Note: some small details were added to this review by the Editor-- Moira's original writing is intact, but details about the endpaper and small "facts" were added for editorial clarity.

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