My rating: 4 of 5 stars
I’ve known about Violet Needham for a while but never really known about her, the specifics, at all. I had a vague idea that she was a contemporary of Elinor M. Brent-Dyer and Elsie Oxenham, but then, as I never found her work either in the library, bookshops or charity shops, I sort of placed her in the background. Needham was texture; a name I knew, but didn’t.
A few days ago, I homed in on that familar Girls Gone By spine in a shop, and picked up a copy of Pandora at Parrham Royal. It’s a crazy title, backed up by the equally crazy blurb on the back. Let me directly quote the first three sentences: “When Pandora comes to Parrham Royal she finds many problems and a strange mystery facing her. During the war years she and her mother had lived and worked with a band of guerillas in Greece. After her mother’s tragic death she comes to England to live with her father, whom she barely remembers, and her cousins, whom she does not know at all.” I’ll stop there because, to be frank, there’s little else I can add to that remarkable opening. I’ve read a lot of books from the 40s – 50s, and can confidently say I’ve never read anything quite like this. It’s a book that more than lives up to its synopsis in a sort of remarkably distinct, and stubborn manner. I can see why it wasn’t reprinted, and I can see why it’s relatively unknown today, but my goodness, this is such a strange and fabulous and marked book.
One of its most notable characteristics is the spectre of the war upon it; Pandora, herself, spent the war living and working in a sort of M*A*S*H unit deep in the Greek mountains where she helped nurse soldiers back to life and helped them die in peace. I’m conscious that I’m overusing the word ‘remarkable’ when I describe this book, but there’s very little other words that will suit. I’m thinking in particular of the moment where Pandora is revealed to have an excellent throwing arm – one which is subsequently revealed to have been because the soldiers trained her to throw grenades. I mean – my goodness, this book.
Pandora’s not the only one marked by the impact of the war; one of her young cousins, Mary, suffers a type of post-traumatic stress from being trapped in a bombed out house, whilst the estate of Parrham Royal has half-seceded from the present day and instead found solace in a landscape
where Greek mythology can co-exist alongside wartime stress and strain. It’s a fascinating, complex, challenging book. It’s not an easy read; Needham’s an idiosyncratic wielder of commas, delighting in sentences that start to lead one way then turn sharply into something else. And, if I’m honest, the book’s ending could have done with some fierce editing and somebody going “So Violet, yes, it’s kind of madly magnificent and oddly compelling, but if you could – maybe – just – clarify a few points for me?”.
I don’t know what to make of this book, really, because it’s so fiercely singular. It’s compelling, though, even when it’s less than lucid, and I suspect that’s what’s going to stay with me. Pandora of Parrham Royal is so fiercely determined to be what it is and you can’t help but love that. Even when it doesn’t make sense, even when it thinks it makes sense but really doesn’t, this book is remarkable. There’s really no other word for it.