The Holiday – Stevie Smith

Celia works at the Ministry in the post-war England of 1949 and lives in a London suburb with her beloved Aunt. Witty, fragile, quixotic, Celia is preoccupied with love — for her friends, her colleagues, her relations, and especially for her adored cousin Casmilus, with whom she goes on holiday to visit Uncle Heber, the vicar. Here they talk endlessly, argue, eat, tell stories, love and hate — moments of wild humour alternating with waves of melancholy as Celia ponders obsessively on the inevitable pain of love.

Alarm bells were ringing fairly early on with this one, it was all to do with the dreadful, disjointed, uninteresting conversation at a dinner party. A lack of speech marks didn’t help the book’s case either.

Getting over that hurdle early on, the book opened out into an assorted collection of meditations on the experiences of love and politics and the past, before becoming mildly irritating towards the end.  This is a book that will probably polarise opinions of all who read it.

There is little to add to the above blurb in terms of storyline, you are getting precisely what you read there.  It all rests on the quality of said writing and that is where this reader would have preferred more balance, what Smith says is much more interesting than the way She has written down.  Whilst the whimsical structure and thought processes of Celia and co. work well enough, it is the writing itself that troubled me.

There is plenty of repetition of certain words, whether in the same sentence or throughout a conversation, it’s distracting to be told four times within a page that the same character is saying something maliciously, for example.  Whether this writing is an intentional choice or through lack of a decent editor, I don’t know but it soon becomes tiresome.  There is a richness to our language and often I was mentally inserting my own words to avoid the repetitiveness.

It all feels very English, the countryside setting in summer is delightful and I enjoyed being there.  The novel possess a dreamy melancholia for the past (relationships and ways of life); as well as the uncertain future – to the backdrop of the Indian independence, and the waning of the British Empire – for the characters as well as the country.

The  publisher preferred the book to be set after the war to correspond with the times, rather than the WWII setting that was the original manuscript.  This is what gives the book a strange feel, slightly disjointed and fanciful which is no bad thing in this case.  Had I not known about the changing of the time period I wonder how that would have affected my reading and enjoyment of the book.

Apart from the way in which it is written – which I could have forgiven were that my only real gripe – there was one more thing that slightly ruined my reading experience and led to a number of eye rolls.  There was too many histrionics, especially towards the end, I find it hard to sympathise with people when they become plain annoying and childish.

It all feels quaint in today’s world but I did genuinely enjoy large portions of the book, the nostalgia of recalling long past feelings and evoking of places were the books main strengths.  Approaching this I had no idea what to expect and got more out of it than I imagined, based on the strength of the first ten pages.  This is a book of its time but retains a good offering of imagery and thoughts.

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29 Replies to “The Holiday – Stevie Smith”

  1. It sounds like a bit of a mixed bag. I’m glad you got over the slow start of it so that you could bring us such a genuine review here, my friend. Have a wonderful weekend!

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    1. It has its good points and I do like a challenge, especially when the book is short. Have a great what s left of the weekend yourself!

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  2. Interesting, I read something by Stevie Smith many years ago , it might have been this one. I have a vague memory of something that was fairly hard going.

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    1. This one was quick to read and light enough but the niggles I had were constantly underlining themselves, I probably wouldn’t pick up any of her other works but plenty more Virago books to choose from!

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    1. She sticks in a fair amount of poetry in this one and it hasn’t encouraged me to go seek out any more of her works. It had its high moments but it was too much of a mixed bag for me to explore her books further.

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  3. I have heard of Stevie Smith as a cult figure and a bit of an acquired taste; thanks for the warnings about her shortcomings. Life is just too short to read for the sake of being able to say I’ve read her, and impress people at cocktail parties (on the other hand, if you find yourself at a cocktail party any time soon, feel free at least to derive the benefit of your pain and suffering with the text to gain some points with any particularly cultish people you want to impress!).

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    1. Cocktail party, well I’ll accept any invites as I have never been to anything as posh. I had never heard of her before reading, just a random pick up. I never get people who read to name check authors, the pure joy should be enough. I do enjoy being all dramatic about my less than stellar reading experiences.

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      1. My, my, though, you are something else just as posh to be able to refer to Stevie Smith as “just a random pick up.” I guess you were driving your Alfa Romeo through town, and she stuck her thumb out along the way, and you stopped and gave her a ride, and the rest is history! He-he! Sorry, had to tease you about your phraseology. A friend of mine once referred to Higginson as the minister who was “one of Emily Dickinson’s regulars,” and got much the same racy-joke reaction from me!

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        1. Haha, the joys of language. Glad you see me in an Alfa Romeo, makes me seem all suave and sophisticated. Alas the truth of it is not half as exciting.

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    1. About halfway through I thought I would finish the book and write a really good review, it has its merits and I tried to balance what I liked and didn’t as I know others will probably see something else in what I disliked. Maybe it just isn’t my thing, nonetheless I am glad I read it.

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    1. I find it interesting how the same words appeal to different people, it’s the joy of reading and sharing. I hope you enjoy it when you source a copy.

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    1. I looked at some reviews out of curiosity afterwards and she is divisive but I like that, it creates alternative viewpoints for when I do a reread. I don’t think I’d have much patience for her poetry though.

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  4. Thank you for not adding to my to-read list! It sounds like it would be fun to travel to this time and place but I’m sure there are less annoying books for that kind of a thing.

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    1. I’m an all round service, I read books so you won’t have to sometimes. Overall, despite its good points and unique voice it just didn’t cut it with me overall.

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  5. Well, I won’t rush out and buy this book, in fact I will probably never buy it. However, that is not all because of your review, but rather my lack of reading time. I’m looking for what is the best for me to read, which is why I read your reviews.
    Have a great week, Ste J!

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    1. I always appreciate you reading my posts my friend, I will find you the best books. It’s a shame you don’t have the time to read and write as I know you would love to. Stay awesome my friend.

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  6. When something repeats words in a sentence, in a conversation or on a page, or even uses words that are generally only used between friends “geez Louise” is a big hate for me. As is the use of vulgarities and contractions outside a conversation. There is no reason to swear for descriptiveness. George RR Martin did that in one of his books and I stopped reading it there and then. He used one of my most hated words to mention a part of a woman’s anatomy.

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    1. I understand the use in context of the setting and such but yes it is nothing more than a colourful way of referencing something. I haven’t any of his books but do watch Game of Thrones on TV, it is way overhyped of course but it means I can give the repeats of The Krypton Factor and The Crystal Maze a rest.

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  7. It sounds like a great reading. I liked those ending lines from the post: “The novel possess a dreamy melancholia for the past (relationships and ways of life); as well as the uncertain future”… Beautifully penned! 🙂 Happy Spring dear Ste. Love & best wishes. ⭐

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