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One Woman's Year

by Stella Martin Currey
Persephone book no:

134 135 136


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A Well Full of Leaves
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272pp

ISBN 9781910263259

This beautifully designed book, first published in 1953  is unusual in being a mixture of commonplace, diary, short story, recipes – and woodcuts. The book is dedicated to Tirzah Garwood (then Ravilious and later Swanzy) but the woodcuts are not by her because she had died two years before. They were done by a friend, Malcolm Ford (who, like Stella Martin Currey’s husband, taught at Colchester Royal Grammar School).

These are the contents for January: there is a quotation, as there is before every month, from the British Merlin (1677), an Almanac known nowadays as Rider’s British Merlin. It starts ‘This is the Season for good husbands to lop and prune superfluous Branches and Fruit trees’ and ends: ‘The best physick is warm diet, warm Cloaths, good Fires, and a merry, honest Wife.’ Then there is a ten-page essay on ‘Books for the Family’. Of course it is now a bit out of date, but the mention of Pamela Brown, Eve Garnett and Belloc’s Cautionary Verses (among dozens of good suggestions) can never be dismissed. After this is a funny piece about a visit to the hairdresser. Next there are a few pages about a burst pipe, a cake recipe, a description of A Visit to the Tower of London, an extract from Jane Eyre and finally an extract from our own Tea with Mr Rochester.

November again has an extract from the British Merlin (‘Set Crab Tree stocks to graft on’), eight pages on the art of embroidery (‘One of the loveliest and most lovable rooms I have ever seen had copies of old flower paintings and they were all embroidered in delicate stitches on very fine yellow silk… Another fascinating adventure in embroidery is to copy an old map’). Then there are suggestions for a Guy Fawkes Party (‘sausage rolls, gingerbread men, conspirator biscuits and toffee’), a quite detailed piece on ‘deciding whether you can eat the mushrooms which grow in the garden’, a recipe for the said biscuits (you cut them to look like conspirators), a short piece on visiting an art gallery with children (pick out the animals eg. the little dog in The Arnolfini Portrait, the dragon in St George and the Dragon), an extract from Elizabeth and her German Garden by our very own Elizabeth von Arnim, and finally an extract from Emma.

But it is Stella Martin Currey's novelist's eye and ear that makes One Woman’s Year such a gem. In between the sometimes period details are many extremely useful pieces on dressing-up boxes, phrases to be used in thank-you letters, an extract from The Young Visiters, or which flowers to have in vases for every month of the year. One cannot imagine anyone who would not find this book both useful and endearing. The journalist Sarah Lonsdale wrote in a recent book: 'One Woman's Year, the diary of a 1950s housewife battling with poor food and a small budget, has become something of a classic among those interested in life in austerity Britain.'

Endpaper

A early 1950s textile design by Sheila Bownas. © Sheila Bownas Archive Ltd

Picture Caption

Woodcut from One Woman's Year


Read What Readers Say

Adventures in reading, running and working from home (blogger)

Stella Martin Currey’s ‘One Woman’s Year’ is one of Persephone’s domestic non-fiction volumes, which I enjoy just as much as their reprinted novels, even though I am far from domestic myself. Each month has a beautiful woodcut as an opener, then an excerpt from ‘The British Merlin', 1677, with gardening, cooking and health tips. Then you have a longer essay (for example, “Books for the Family” which included many classics of my own childhood), the Most Liked and Most Disliked Jobs (getting one’s hair cut when the children go back to school versus getting the sand out of sandwiches), a recipe, an excursion (the Tower of London or, more prosaically, a modern telephone exchange), and then a couple of linked excerpts from novels or poems. It’s a jolly read with plenty of domestic mishaps and disasters, from buying a piece of furniture slightly too large to go up the stairs comfortably (we donated ditto after trying to move it up a floor a little while ago) to having a sticky kitchen moment when attempting to make brandy snaps. It’s gentle and sweet, quietly acerbic about rudeness and chores, quietly perceptive about England seen through a French schoolboy’s eyes, and obviously a period piece but also comforting as the months roll round and things aren’t maybe quite so different as one would imagine.

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Stella Martin Currey is a wonderful writer, one who is happy to laugh gently at herself but who is also able to dish out advice with a marvellous post- war firmness. Recipes are practical and unfussy. References to the family’s war-time experiences crop up occasionally and it’s clear that life is to be appreciated, even the “Most Disliked Job” of each month. She talks directly to her reader with a warmly self-assured manner, which verges on the tone adopted by self-help tomes. And she does it in a way that you enjoy. I also liked her chosen Anthology extracts for each month. It’s clear that this is a writer who loves hanging texts together (there’s also sage advice on how to hang pictures around the home), presumably to send her reader off to read her selections in full. It is a middle- class voice very much of its time (‘One Woman’s Year’ was first published in 1953) and I loved it. This is another Persephone book I’m going to keep going back to, to dip into on a Sunday evening as a comfort read.

Categories: Grey Books Childhood Cookery Books Country Life Diaries Education House and Garden Humour

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