Thursday, August 28, 2014

E. M. DELAFIELD, First Love (1929)

My relationship with E. M. Delafield has undoubtedly been a bit on again, off again.  The Provincial Lady novels, of course—I mean, what can I say that hasn't been said before?  They are wonderful and have, frankly, acted as a literary therapist for me on untold occasions.  But for some reason it took me forever to read any of Delafield's other, more serious work, and now that I have, I must report that my experience has been a bit mixed.

I finally started, a couple of months ago, with The Way Things Are (1927), which featured prominently in Nicola Beauman's discussion of women's fiction in her book A Very Great Profession and which is practically the quintessential feminine middlebrow novel.  I found it to be simultaneously a more realistic version of the Provincial Lady's life—allowing the deeper stresses and strains and dissatisfactions to come through—and a more romanticized, fantasy version, as the harried main character falls in love with a handsome, debonair, doll of a man who (of course!) adores her back and wants nothing more than to marry and live happily ever after.  She sacrifices true love, however, for the sake of her children, thus providing a comforting warm glow of noble self-sacrifice for the novel's readers—many of whom might have related quite well to the frustrations the novel describes and the temptation to escape them, and might have enjoyed the thought that true love with a perfect man could be waiting for them as well if they, too, weren't so noble and self-sacrificing.

I had a lovely time with The Way Things Are, but didn't feel I had anything scintillating enough to say about it to warrant a full review.  Then shortly after I realized that, tucked away on the bottom shelf of my "to read" bookcase, was this book—a happy find at one of the San Francisco Public Library's giant book sales a couple of years ago.  I had forgotten all about it, and when I rediscovered it I couldn't wait to dive right in.

While The Way Things Are focuses on a wife and mother who resists temptation, however, First Love begins with one who gives in to it.  Delafield's fascination with this theme might make one wonder about the relative level of fulfillment she felt in her own marriage in these years—just a year or so before she created her immortal Provincial Lady, who made such a lovely frolic of the same frustrations.  But be that as it may, when First Love opens, Fay Carey, mother of young Ellie, has run off with another man, and Ellie, piecing together what has happened from what little she is allowed to hear, romanticizes the event she is forbidden to discuss:

The version that presented itself to her mind of her mother's story had become part of her phantasies. Phrases that she could not remember having heard recurred to her when she lay between sleeping and waking, and gave her a strange, frightening and yet ecstatic thrill.

"He must have been waiting for her at the station—the last train, too—close on midnight."

"She went out of the house with only her lovely velvet cloak, and her jewel case in her hand—Marie never missed it till next morning."

"You may say what you like, but they've given up the whole world for one another."

It was with that last sentence, and its romantic implications, that the thrill became definite. To love, and to be loved, formed the sum of all Ellie's daydreams. For herself she craved nothing less than romance—and nothing else.

Although the adults around her express concern that Ellie might inherit her mother's disposition, in fact this early romanticizing of what is ultimately a tawdry fling (there are clear indications later that Fay hasn't been faithful to her second husband either) seems to cause Ellie to grow into a fragile, naïve, and emotionally needy young woman.  She is contrasted throughout the novel with her cousin Vicky, who is sophisticated and liberated and cynical in the inimitable post-World War I style (a flapper in spirit, if not in practice), and who comes to resemble her aunt in more ways than one—much more than poor, awkward Ellie ever does.  I admit that while Ellie never really excited my interest as a character, the following passage, which absolutely reflects my own experience with anything requiring manual dexterity, did produce a spark of real empathy:

She had been told, ever since she could remember, that she was clumsy, and untidy, and that her fingers were useless, and she knew it was true, for she always picked things up by the wrong end, and put her clothes on back to front, and catches and doors and safety-pins and knots that worked quite easily for anybody else always defeated her.

(I only rarely put my clothes on back to front—luckily for Andy, who is practically required to be seen publicly with me—but otherwise this could be taken as a description of your poor hapless middlebrow blogger!)

The meaning of the "first love" of the novel's title is not quite as obvious as it might seem.  Although the story does hang primarily on Ellie's terrible choice of Simon, a shallow, superficial young doofus, as her first love (words like cad and bounder were created for such chaps), it may also refer to Fay's experience in finding her first love (such as it is) only after she was married to someone else.  Or it could refer to Ellie's father, who rather touchingly never quite recovers from his foolish first love for Fay.  He, in fact, became one of the novel's most relatable characters for me—eternally cranky due to his own unhappiness and solitude, torturing Ellie with his contempt, being generally a poor father whose (rare) attempts at real parenting only backfire and cause her pain, and yet, somehow, nevertheless seeming to warrant a big hug.  Who could read of his first face-to-face encounter with his ex-wife, many years after she abandoned him, without feeling a trace of compassion?:

Lady Dallinger raised her head, carefully looking straight in front of her. An additional tinge of exquisite sadness seemed to pass over her face. Her profile, only, was presented to George Carey's gaze. His hand went up to his mouth, in a series of nervous, agitated movements. He dropped his top hat, and Ellie heard him cursing beneath his breath, as he stooped to recover it. When he straightened himself again, white-faced and breathless, she had passed on. The anti-climax, with its graceless, awkward triviality, seemed pitifully characteristic of him.

Passages like that one show Delafield's perceptiveness and empathy—and her ability to bring a character to life in just a few words—fully intact.  Unfortunately, though, for me such moments were a bit too few and far between here.  Somehow I suspect that Delafield didn't intend Ellie's irritable, sharply critical father, who mostly fades into the novel's backdrop, to be the only character who awakens compassion or interest.  But the others are all people I wouldn't bother to walk across the room to talk to at a cocktail party—which rather subtracts from the novel's power. 

In fact, I'm not quite certain who was meant to be the heroine here—the easy-breezy Vicky, who is unimpeded by social mores and is able therefore to coldly plan a loveless marriage in order to remain a party girl for life, or the rather dim-wittedly traditional Ellie, who is so emotionally raw that one might feel an impulse to ship her off to the Foreign Legion for some therapeutic toughening up (the WAAFs didn't exist when this novel appeared, but Ellie is indeed a prototype for one of the kinds of women who, a decade or so later, might have been saved from themselves by the prospect of some challenging war work).  Vicky memorably advises Ellie at one point not to listen to "the people who want you to purr and lay eggs," but the advice is probably wasted on Ellie, who seems to aspire to just such a life of purring and egg-laying.  (Or perhaps I'm missing the point altogether and Delafield intended neither to be a heroine?  Perhaps she was making a bitter statement on the condition of modern women?  Well, you be the judge.)

Despite what I found to be the novel's weaknesses, there is one really striking passage about halfway through the novel, in which Ellie, tormented with doubt about whether Simon (aka The Cad) really really likes her, decides to give up on him, leaving London and returning home to the country.  Her train ride and her first day or two at home provide a powerful evocation of pain and heartbreak:

All her thoughts came carefully now, like wounded people, creeping very cautiously, on tiptoe, afraid of being hurt anew—or like frightened things, noiselessly seeking a way out of some place that was fraught with peril.

Ellie looked out of the window.

How very far away from London she was already. There would be no need, to-morrow and the days following, for her to dread going, out, because of that utterly irrational expectation of an encounter, that always ended in the sick flatness of disappointment.

"Take your seats for the first luncheon, please." It was a great help to move, and to walk down the narrow swaying length of the corridor, all one's attention taken up by the effort of not letting oneself be thrown against the sides of the train.

Lunch occupied nearly an hour.

Certainly, First Love has its moments.  Just perhaps not enough of them.  But for die-hard Delafield fans, it’s no doubt a must-read, if only because of the intriguing perspective it offers on the works that came shortly before it (The Way Things Are) and shortly after it (the first Provincial Lady) in Delafield’s body of work.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

LORNA HILL, The Other Miss Perkin (1978)

Since most of you know that this blog hails from beautiful foggy San Francisco, I thought I'd add a note that, although Andy and I were indeed awakened by our special Bay Area alarm clock (i.e. an earthquake) at 3:20 AM this morning, and although it was the largest one I've been in so far (a 6.0), all is well with us and as far as we can tell nothing so much as stirred on our shelves. Sadly, as the epicenter was in the Napa area, there was significant damage there and also several very serious injuries. My thoughts and best wishes go to the folks recovering and cleaning up there.  Now, back to our previously scheduled programming...

I had a wave of good luck a while back finding Greyladies titles at reasonable prices, including several sadly now out-of-print titles.  One of those was this gem of a cozy novel from Lorna Hill, better known for her children’s books, including the “Sadlers Wells” ballet school series and the “Vicarage Family” series.  Late in life, Hill also produced two novels for adults, both published in 1978. 

Yes, I know that 1978 is well after my time period on this blog, but this novel feels like it fits right in nevertheless.  It’s set in the 1950s and seems very much of the mindset and culture of that period.  Hill would have been in her mid-seventies when she wrote it, and so perhaps she was recalling the days when she herself would have been about the titular Miss Perkin’s age.  At any rate, the old-fashioned style and feel of the novel was enough of a selling point for me.

The Other Miss Perkin is an absolutely charming Cinderella story that could sit with head held high (if books had heads that they could hold high, that is) next to Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day on any reader’s bookcase.  The main character is a 40-something orphan who has worked for the eight years since her father's death as an underpaid housekeeper for Linda Anderson, an old school "friend," and her family—husband Harold, daughter Dilys, and son Richard.  We learn right off the bat that she was born to serve:

Miss Perkin was the daughter of a country vicar, the youngest of three children. When her father had first beheld his infant daughter's ugly red face looking up at him from the old wooden cradle, he had exclaimed: "Why, bless my soul! A proper little Martha, if ever there was one!" So Martha she had been christened, and it must be admitted that the name suited her splendidly.

For the most part, she good-naturedly allows the Armstrong family to exploit her because they provide her with the family feeling she lacks elsewhere.  She makes their problems her own, and feels genuine affection for them—particularly Richard, the only one who doesn’t take her utterly for granted.

But—happily for the reader—there is also the “other” Miss Perkin of the novel’s title—the one with a backbone and a strong sense of her own dignity and equality, which is what gives this novel a bit of an edge on some Cinderella tales.  Mind you, it’s about as fluffy and cheerful as a novel can be, and yet Miss Perkin’s sense of her own identity and her strength take it to a higher level and lend it a touch (if perhaps only a touch) of realism.

Hill doesn’t waste much time setting her scene.  Only a few pages into the novel, Miss Perkin receives a shocking phone call informing her she has won first prize in a magazine contest, which she has nearly forgotten entering.  Rather poignantly for a woman who spends all her time in the kitchen or in her tiny bedroom, it’s a home decorating contest, for which Miss Perkin has painstakingly chosen from the pictured decorations to furnish the rooms of a home such as she herself will never (she assumes) possess.  Our heroine is clearly a homemaker-in-waiting!

The contest’s first prize is a trip to New York on a first-class airliner, plus one hundred pounds in spending money.  At first, the beaten-down Martha tells her caller that such a trip would be out of the question for her.  But then, as Linda and Dilys react in their usual self-absorbed ways, that “other” Miss Perkin seems to awaken:

"You don't mean—you can't possibly mean you're thinking of accepting it?" said Mrs. Armstrong, aghast … She certainly didn't relish the thought of her home-help traipsing off to America or somewhere. Whatever would she do without Martha Perkin? Whatever would they all do? Weeks she'd be away no doubt, and Dilys on the brink of an engagement. There'd have to be an engagement-party, she supposed, and no one to clear up the mess afterwards. It was enough to make one's head reel even to think of it. "You can't go, anyway," she added triumphantly. "What would you live on over in America—if that's where you're thinking of going. It costs money, and plenty of it, I've been told, to live over there."

"Yes, it is America," confessed Miss Perkin. "But the money side has all been taken care of. I'm to have one hundred quid—I should say pounds—for expenses. The reporter explained all that to me."

For once in her life, Linda Armstrong was struck dumb with shock.

And suddenly, despite Linda’s warning that perhaps her job would not be waiting for her when she returned, Miss Perkin finds herself rather determined to go, and soon she is on her way, experiencing for the first time the luxury of a first-class train trip to London and then her first-class flight to the U.S.  Along the way, she rather hilariously discovers the pleasures of champagne:

''I'll have another of those, waiter," she said, as the man passed down the gangway with his tray. "They're extra—emely good." Funny, she had meant to say "extraordinarily good" but the other had popped out. The two words were extraordinarily alike. Didn't the waiter think so? Extraordinary, wasn't it? "Couldn't you put it in a tumbler?" she asked him. "It would save a lot of pouring out. Besides, the bubbles tickle my nose. Such a silly little glass!"

And when she determines to use her spending money to travel across the U.S. by train to see the Grand Canyon, and along the way meets widowed, wealthy Mr. Harman, who is tired of the grasping women he meets and charmed by Miss Perkin’s grateful acceptance of his kindness—well, the writing is on the wall, in bold font and perhaps in fluorescent orange.  But the inevitability of the outcome doesn’t detract from its charm, and there are a few unexpected twists.  The necessary complication comes from Mr. Harman’s misunderstanding of her relationship to the Armstrongs—a misunderstanding, that is, of the exact logistics, but a humorously accurate assessment of the family members’ personalities:

Most of the time he was thinking more about Martha Perkin's history than the Grand Canyon's. Her family, for instance. She hadn't told him much about them, but he had put two and two together, and as is so often the case, had added them up wrongly. Harold (her husband) was something in an industrial firm in Whitehaven, which, he gathered, was a small town on the north-west coast of Cumberland, England. She had three children—Dilys, who was learning shorthand and typewriting; Richard, whom she obviously adored, and who was in the car business. Then there was Linda, the eldest. Linda was a bit of a mystery. She clearly didn't have a job. Maybe she was delicate. Between you and me, Mr. Harman didn't think much of Linda—somehow he got the impression that she was a drone, sitting back and manicuring her nails, and letting her mother do all the work. She was beautiful, oh yes. Martha had told Mr. Harman many times how good-looking Linda was, but "handsome is as handsome does," thought he, and he'd like to bet she couldn't hold a candle to her mother—in character, anyway. And as for Harold—his blood boiled at the mere thought of that gentleman.

Re-reading these quotations now makes me rather want to pick up the novel and start it all over again…

There is one small caveat I think I should mention.  Miss Perkin's encounters with African-Americans and American Indians are, for better or worse, predictable enough, with Mr. Harman matter-of-factly dismissing the entire Indian race as lazy and the African-American train waiter speaking in utterly stereotypical Hollywood dialect.  I should add as well, though, that Miss Perkin's own attitude toward these characters—as apparently toward everyone she meets—is one of curiosity and interest rather than hostility or bigotry.  Here is her reaction to the waiter:

“Yo take ma advice, marm. Don' yo go settin' here all de time. Yo go stretch yor legs! There's a wista-dome on dis train, where yo can see most everyt'ing. Yes, marm. Glass all de way round, and dat include de roof. Jest two coaches down de train, marm."

"'All God's children got shoes'," murmured Miss Perkin, feeling she was speaking to Paul Robeson.

"What's dot yo say, marm?"

"Oh, nothing," said Miss Perkin hastily.

Of course, these scenes are not particularly surprising for the time period portrayed, and there certainly doesn’t seem to be any mean-spirited intent, but I do confess that a little of them went a long way with me, and it was fortunate that there is only a very little of them in the novel. 

That said, however, The Other Miss Perkin was so much fun overall that I just had to look a bit more closely at Lorna Hill’s other work.  I have to admit that, from what I've read, the Vicarage Children stories are tempting me quite a lot, but I also checked into Hill's other novel for adults, The Scent of Rosemary, published the same year as Miss Perkin.  Greyladies describes it in their author bio by saying it “draws upon her experiences in hospital.”  I'm not sure whether that's an encouraging description or not, but happily I will soon be able to elaborate on it, as I’ve already snagged a copy of the book, a 1980 paperback reprint in the “Aston Hall Romance” series.

Yes indeed, here I am reading "romance" again...

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

List highlights: Enigmas (and an appeal for your knowledge)

This is probably not going to be the most scintillating of posts in its own right (and certainly not containing the best of cover images, as these authors and their books are so thoroughly lost that most of their covers can only be imagined), but I wanted to do it in the hope of harnessing some of the massive brainpower and wealth of reading experience that you lovely smart readers have at your disposal.  I'd love to flesh out my information on 21 authors from the most recent update to my Overwhelming List. 

A good many of the authors in my recent update came to me courtesy of John Herrington, for which he has my thanks, but there are a few included here for which even he couldn't locate detailed information.  There are others whose titles or other glimmers of information sound intriguing enough that I'd like to learn more about their work.  For instance, is MARGARET EVELYN DRAKE's only novel, Chrysantha (1948), about a 19-year-old girl’s search for “a suitable man,” as interesting as it sounds?  Or not?

And there are a healthy number of other titles here that pique my interest but about which I know nothing.  What about ESTHER HALLAM MOORHOUSE's Grave Fairytale (1931) or English Spinster (1939)?  Or MARY FRANCES CODD's Nephew-in-Law (1934)?  Perhaps MARJORIE BURGESS, who wrote a book about "the amateur ciné movement in Great Britain," applied some of her knowledge of filmmaking to her two novels, Great Possessions (1927) and Provincial Interlude (1932)?

And then there's M. A. DORMIE, who may well turn out to be American, but I just don't know.  Her three novels—Snobs (1931), Expatriates (1932), and Middle Age Madness (1935), the last about an American novelist married to an Englishman—seem potentially entertaining, though.

A ghastly photo of a pretty ghastly cover

So if you happen to have come across any of these authors in your reading or other research, or if you've actually read some of their work, please do feel free to comment or email me with information, and I'll flesh out the author's entry on my list.  And if not, well, who doesn't enjoy an enigma?

MARJORIE BOOTH (1895-1969)
(real name Marjory, married name Grey)
More research needed; author of at least 10 novels 1929-1948, including A Gem of Earth (1929), Caps Over the Mill (1932), Portrait in Pastel (1935), Monday's a Long Day (1937), and The Timeless Realm (1948); Winterfield (1934) is described as a psychological study of jealousy.

Another bad photo, but an intriguing cover?

More research needed; author of four novels in the 1930s—Sun's Shadow (1934), These Our Dreams (1935), Bitter Seed (1936), and Before High Heaven (1937)—about which little information is available.

LOUISA R[EID]. BOYD (1873-1948)
More research needed; author who lived in Scotland and published at least three books which seem to be novels—The Quest for Joy (1912), Comrades Here (1930), and An Idle Diary (1934).

(sometimes Lovell-Burgess)
More research needed; author of two novels, Great Possessions (1927) and Provincial Interlude (1932), plus a book about “the amateur ciné movement in Great Britain” (1932); other information is lacking.

(née Bickerton)
More research needed; sister of explorer Frank Bickerton; poet and author of four novels, about which information is hard to find, including The New Wood Nymph (1912), Dunbarrow (1926), The Third Angel (1929), and Translate No Further (1933).

MARY CHISENHALE (dates unknown)
More research needed; author of three novels—Man's Love (1929), Common to Man (1930), and Tiger's Whisker (1934)—which have settings including Mesopotamia and India; possibly a pseudonym, but she remains a mystery for now.

More research needed; author of four novels in the 1930s—Sisters' Children (1933), Nephew-in-Law (1934), Lover's Random (1935), and A Faery's Child (1936), about which I could find no details.

(aka Daniel Dormer)
More research needed; author of three early pseudonymous novels, including Out of the Mists (1886) and The Mesmerist's Secret (1888), and three later works under her own name—The King's Tryst (1920), The Romance of Mary the Blessed (1927), and A Garland for Ashes (1930).

Proof at least that M. Sylvia Craik existed and
wrote books, but little enough to go on...

M[ARIE]. SYLVIA CRAIK (1884-1955)
(née Robson)
More research needed; author of at least two novels of the 1930s—The Splendid Smile (1930) and Petronel's Island (1931)—but information about her is very sparse.

More research needed; author of three early novels of the 1900s—Snares (1904), Corry Thorndike (1908), and Golden Aphrodite (1909)—and one additional work, The Gospel of Elimination (1939), which could be a novel, but I haven't located any information about it.

JOAN DE FRAINE (1901-1988)
(married name Smith)
More research needed; author of three novels in the 1930s—Adventure for Three (1933), No Fuss (1934), and Eighty in the Shade (1935)—possibly for children?; she also wrote a one-act play, Saturday Sensation (1933), and an abridged edition of Wilkie Collins’ The Moonstone for children (1971).

ANGELA DEAN (dates unknown)
More research needed; author of a single novel, Till the Corn Grows Brown (1942), about which I can find no information and which seems to exist only in major British libraries.

LORNA DEANE (1909-1973)
(pseudonym of Lorna Hilda Kathleen Gibbs, married name Wilkinson)
More research needed; poet and author of three novels of the 1940s—The Solitary Reaper (1944), Strawberry Street (1946), and Portrait of a Man (1947), about which I've so far located no information.

M. A. DORMIE (1897-1956)
(pseudonym of Marian [sometimes Marion] Edna Dormitzer, married name Sharrock)
More research needed; author of three novels—Snobs (1931), Expatriates (1932), and Middle Age Madness (1935), the last about an American novelist married to an Englishman, which suggests the author could be American (?).

(née Douglas, aka Mrs. Douglas-Pulleyne)
More research needed; author of three novels in the 1920s—Spring Sorrel (1926), about a dancer following her love around the world, This, My Son (1927), and The Frantic Master (1927).

More research needed; apparently the author of a single novel, Chrysantha (1948), about a 19-year-old girl’s search for “a suitable man”; Drake also published a book about gardens, Challenge to Gardeners (1943).

Again, proof that such an author did indeed exist,
but not exactly informative as to the nature of her work

More research needed; apparently the author of only one novel, Sowing Moon (1936), about which I could locate no information.

(née Geipel)
More research needed; author of two utterly forgotten novels of the 1920s, Purity (1926) and Put Asunder (1928), about which I can found no details at all.

(aka Hugh Fleming)
Poet and author of two pseudonymous collections of stories, Candied Fruits (1923) and Octave (1924), about which little information is available.

TRISTRAM HILL (1888-1971)
(pseudonym of Yseult Alice Mary Lechmere Guppy, married names Low and Bridges, aka Yseult Bridges)
Later the author, under her own name, of several true crime stories about famous murder cases, in the 1930s Bridges published two long-lost novels—Questing Heart (1934) and Creole Enchantment (1936), about which little information seems to be available.

(married name Meynell)
Although many of her works, including biographies, nonfiction, and novels, were popular enough to be reprinted several times in her day, little data about Moorhouse remain; titles include Sea Magic (1916), Grave Fairytale (1931), Time's Door (1935), and English Spinster (1939).

Friday, August 15, 2014

JOSEPHINE BLUMENFELD, Pin a Rose on Me (1958)

Sometimes my own rather warped sense of humor makes me hesitate when recommending a book, and this is definitely a case in point.  Although I found Josephine Blumenfeld's one novel (if you can call it that) distinctly uneven, I enjoyed it a lot, and in several spots I found myself laughing so hard that I couldn’t continue reading. Andy once again thought that I had lost my mind, and somehow reading even the most hysterical of passages out loud never quite comes across, so if anything he thinks I’m more mad when I try to share the humor.  But will others find it equally funny?

Pin a Rose on Me is a bit like one of E. M. Delafield’s Provincial Lady diaries as penned by Morticia Addams, or perhaps it’s like one of Shirley Jackson’s wonderful humorous memoirs of domestic life, if Jackson had let loose all the more morbid gothic impulses of her fiction instead of keeping them fairly muted.  Much of Rose’s wildest humor might just as well inspire shrieks or groans, and I'm afraid your sense of humor will need to be a bit on the dark side to go the hilarity route.

First, some background:

Josephine Blumenfeld was married to Pan Books founder Alan Bott, and was herself the author of occasional collections of humorous sketches and/or stories.  There’s little enough record of her work online.  I first came across the following short blurb, which instantly seduced me:  “A novel about a middle-aged English woman's quest for independence. Her search for her identity and a life outside of being a mother and grandmother. The story is richly detailed and includes what could be called madcap events.”

Kirkus, meanwhile, ended its review by saying that Rose was “in the tradition of many female commentators—the American Mrs. Appleyard and others of British origin—and adds to its international appeal by its complete femininity and happy scitter-scattering of random imaginings along with its pianissimo recital of daily doings. For that less than youthful audience.”

And finally, I was happy to come across a photo of the full cover of Blumenfeld’s later story collection See Me Dance the Polka (1962), which included not only an intriguing description of that book, but also some other critical reaction to Rose.  The Sunday Times made the obvious connection: “one of the best books of domestic sketches since E. M. Delafield's minor classic, The Diary of a Provincial Lady.”  (Never mind that condescending "minor" which made me grit my teeth a bit.  Obviously the Times writer was a "minor" critic.)  Nancy Spain called it “true and gay and touching.”  And Madeleine Henrey (whom some of you will know from frequent mentions to her in Virginia Nicholson’s WWII book Millions Like Us) was most lavish of all in her praise:  “Josephine Blumenfeld has written a little masterpiece, a book that will live beyond our generation and be for our daughters a poignantly nostalgic picture of the gentler aspects of mid-Twentieth century London.”

Alas, Henrey’s prediction was a bit overly optimistic, since the book appears to have barely survived its own generation, let alone becoming a perennial favorite for future generations.  But be that as it may.

Apparently, though, none of these commentators found Blumenfeld’s humor particularly dark.  "Gentler aspects" indeed!  But I’ll let you judge for yourself.  Unquestionably, the chapter which made me gasp for breath the most was an early one in which Mrs. Appleby’s daughter Flavia leaves her infant son Lucas with Granny while she goes for an afternoon of shopping.  Why Mrs. Appleby, obviously herself the mother of several children, should be so paralyzed and inadequate in dealing with an infant grandchild is never explained, but the terror, realistic or not, leads her to some hilarious/gruesome thoughts indeed:

She leaves a contented and gurgling Lucas in the garden, and we watch it from the drawing-room window. It laughs, it coos, it isn't sick, its eyes focus, and it doesn't look as though it were going mad. It looks nice. It is nice. I quite like it, I even feel proud to be its grandmother, and make a vow not to be intimidated by it; but to go on being proud of it.

I creep to the window and peer at Lucosade, or whatever his name is, through the side of the curtain. The curtain moves; he sees me, and waves a menacing arm in my direction. I drop to the floor like a stone and wait, and although I have sat on a drawing pin, nothing will get me up till I think he is asleep.

Type for a bit, then look again. It has changed its position and is lying face downward. Its red, knitted hat has slipped over its face, and from the window it looks as though the cap strings, tightly twined round its neck, are eating into the flesh. It looks as though it had suffocated and hung itself.

Should I go out? It is only ten past three, and she said it would be all right till five. Decide to leave it. If it is dead I can't bring it back to life by five, and if it isn't dead at least it's quiet.

Funny?  Offensive?  What do you think?  Never mind that one of the most jarring elements of this scenethe leaving of infants outside in yards or alleys or gardens for hours at a time, blissfully unattended—merely reflects the widespread predilection of the day, shocking to us perhaps, but obviously not to them.  But even apart from that, there's certainly a bit of darkness in Mrs. Appleby's anxiety.

Not all of Blumenfeld’s humor is quite so morbid, though it always has a tendency toward surreal exaggeration and a challenge to respectable standards.  Here she is preparing dinner for her visiting children:

Lay table and prepare spaghetti well in advance so as to get in some reading before they arrive. Read for too long, change in a hurry, rush down to kitchen, fall at stove, and bring down saucepan and spaghetti. Spaghetti falls out of saucepan and lies like a splintered baby on the linoleum. Fanny gets out of her basket and licks it. Rush to telephone and ring competent sister-in-law.

"What should I do?"

"Pick it up of course," she says in her competent, assuring voice.

"Yes, yes. But how does one pick up spaghetti?"

"With a big fork, silly. Twiddle it like the Italians do, have the saucepan near so it doesn't slip away again."

Evening and dinner success. AlI of them ecstatic about spaghetti.

And elsewhere in the novel, whether she is volunteering in a hospital ("'Is he dead?' I whisper to Miss Eureeka, because it seems to me there is no point in disturbing him if he is"), visiting friends in the U.S., or going yachting, Mrs. Appleby's experiences are always extreme and silly and distinctly subversive.  Not all of the chapters—which are, by the way, basically completely independent of each other and of any progressive plot, leaving me to wonder why this book is called a novel while Blumenfeld's other books are called stories or sketches—are equally entertaining.  E. M. Delafield she is not, despite the Times comparison.  But I found them all to be readable and fun, and worthy of resting on a slightly lower shelf in the library of domestic comedy.  (Oh, dear, I am treading dangerously close to the Times reviewer's condescension, aren't I?)  

I'm certainly going to be up for tracking down more of Blumenfeld's work, but will you be up for tracking down even one of her books?  I guess that depends on whether you've laughed at these quotes, or if you've gasped (or, worse, merely yawned).  Which is it?

In parting, I can't resist sharing this snippet of Mrs. Appleby attempting to come to terms with a legal document.  As someone who works in the legal profession, it gave me particular pleasure:

How beautiful they are, these deeds. Dignified, faultlessly spelled, and generously spaced on voluptuous pale blue paper, edged and topped by cherry-colored margins. Lovely to look at, and delightful to hold, but even my extra strong desk lamp cannot help me over sentences such as…

"Trustees of the Trustees. In consideration of the said party. Accumulations of weather. The Beneficiary's retrospective statutory power of parties or seals. In this first year of five million thousand and forty six, in the month of yesterday, to be signed at the afore-shown crosses, here, there, and everywhere, in the presence of two witnesses, both of whom must leave the room simultaneously or apart at the time of signature, giving their full size, stature, and occupation at time of birth."

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Quite a miscellany: Las Vegas, being mellow, more about Anton, lovely ruins, and the new job

I mentioned last week that Andy and I were headed out for a weekend in Las Vegas.  Now ordinarily, as I'm sure you all know, what happens in Vegas should indeed stay in Vegas.  But in this case, although it has nothing whatsoever to do with the topic of this blog and is totally self-indulgent on my part (the woman involved in this case not even being British, but Aussie, and the author of nary a novel), I thought I'd share the main event of our weekend in Sin City.

This pic will sum it up nicely:

Hopefully most of you are old enough to know who Olivia Newton-John actually is (as opposed to some of Andy's nieces and nephews, who, in reply to our "You know, she starred in Grease," replied "What's Grease?").  I've actually been a fan since even before her big screen debut as "Sandra Dee."  My older brother was a fan before me, and by about age 10 I had commandeered most of his early ONJ albums (I was surely the only kid in my Midwestern school who knew every word of "Have You Never Been Mellow"!).  So how could I resist a pilgrimage to Olivia's current Las Vegas residency at the Flamingo?  And how could I resist springing for seats right next to the stage and a VIP meet-and-greet?!

Now, I am very, very happy to have done the meet-and-greet, and the pics will always prove that I was actually there and actually did meet and even chat briefly with Olivia, but I have to admit that, although I have a very clear recollection of watching other people meet her, I apparently more or less blacked out at the actual moment, focused as I was on not fainting or saying something incredibly daft.  It's just a total blank.  I am happy to say I did not in fact faint, as Andy can attest, but for all I remember I might very well have said something incredibly daft.  Oh, well, it was nice to be a "VIP" for once in my life:

While on the subject of Vegas, let me note that neither Andy nor I are in any way, shape, or form "high rollers."  But after throwing some small amounts of cash away on slot machines, I rediscovered roulette, which I had played only once before, several years ago—quite unsuccessfully, I might add.  But this time my luck changed.  I had an ill-advised determination to keep playing the same four numbers (apparently this is called a quad bet?), including 13, which is my birthday number.  Ill advised or not, though, 13 came up no less than three times.  Low roller that I am, my bets were not large, so the resulting windfall is hardly a heartstopping amount, but at least I now have just a bit of supplemental book money to flesh out my "to read" shelves.  I'll keep you posted on what I decide to purchase with it...

Now, enough of such irresponsible (but highly enjoyable) frivolousness and on to (slightly) more bookish topics.

When I wrote recently about Marghanita Laski's Apologies, an odd but likeable little book about cliches and excuses and copouts, I speculated about its illustrator, "Anton," whom I had been unable to identify.  Happily, Susan Daly was able to track down this link, which provided me with her (of course, how could I not have guessed?!) real name and led me in turn to this informative bio.  And then another reader, Del (who has at least two lovely blogs herself—see here and here—came across a wonderful collection of Anton's Punch contributions, which you can't afford to miss if you enjoy wartime humor—see here.  Of course, I can't resist sharing a few of my favorites...

In my recent review of Catherine Aird's A Late Phoenix, I pondered a bit on World War II and memory and the way Aird used the fading memories of wartime life to great effect in her mystery.  These cartoons are perhaps a worthy sequel to that pondering, as how funny you'll find them likely depends on how much you know about wartime life.

For example, this one made me laugh hysterically:

But it didn't translate at all for a friend who didn't recognize the object in question as an Anderson shelter and didn't get the humor about its relative sturdiness.

This one also made me giggle, but it would lose something in the translation if I didn't know a bit about the coastal landscape of wartime England:

And finally, this one made me practically cry with laughter, but by the time I had explained it to Andy, he was utterly bored.  I guess you either get this one or you don't:

Thanks to Del for sharing that link, and be sure to go and check out the numerous other hilarious (and some not quite so hilarious) Anton cartoons, as well as cartoons by many other artists.

And while I'm sharing links and other people's images with you, I wonder if you all noticed this slide show and article on CNN about a photographer in Poland who specializes in documenting gorgeous abandoned buildings like this one, which looks like the set from a long lost Harry Potter movie:

The morbid side of me has always loved ruins and abandoned spots, so I was quite taken with these pictures, some of which it seemed simply must be fake.  But apparently they're not.  I could wander (physically and imaginatively) in these locales for days.

And since I'm talking about ruins anyway, one of the Italian sites I'm hoping we can get to during our upcoming trip in October is the lovely Abbey of San Galgano in Tuscany (see more about it and its surroundings here):

That visit will have to tide me over until we get back to the U.K. and, this time, spend most of our time in the countryside and smaller towns.  Tintern Abbey here we come (eventually)!

And by the way, thanks again to all those who offered up good luck for the new job or inquired how it was going.  Nearly four weeks in, everything is going quite well.  My colleagues are extraordinarily nice, I've learned a lot, and once the first couple of weeks had ended I had (for the most part) stopped feeling like a total idiot.

Which at least helps to make up for the fact that I may have made a total idiot of myself with the star of the biggest movie musical of all time.  It all evens out, you see?
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