Friday, February 26, 2016

Book report: Winifred Peck

I finally got round to reading a book I've been meaning to read for about a year. Too many books, too little time, indeed!

As some of you will recall, I enthusiastically reviewed several of Winifred Peck's novels last year, beginning with The Warrielaw Jewel, the first of only two murder mysteries that Peck published. (With mystery writers being rediscovered and reprinted at a delightful pace in the past few years, it's shocking that no one has got round to these yet, but rest assured I'm doing everything I can to make it happen…) So, why it took me so long to read her other mystery, Arrest the Bishop? (1949), is a mystery even to me.

That earlier novel, as you may recall, was set in Edwardian Edinburgh, while Bishop surely makes some use of Peck's personal experience as the daughter of a bishop and the sister of not one, but two priests (one Catholic, one Anglican). The novel is perhaps not quite a true closed society novel, since it's set at the bishop's palace instead of in a monastery or other religious institution, but with the sometimes chaotic gathering of church figures gathered at the palace for an ordination, it comes close to being one. But because it takes place in a home, however atypical the home may be, the ecclesiastical mood is lightened now and then by domestic details and family drama as well as religious conflict and disruption.

In short, a blackmailing clergyman—who has already been paid off and silenced once a few years before—arrives at the bishop's palace on the eve of the ordination, where several of his blackmail victims (including the bishop himself) are conveniently gathered. That he doesn't remain alive for long after his arrival will surprise no one, but the mystery is worked out in classic Golden Age style and with charming, believable and sometimes hilarious characters. One of the candidates for ordination, Dick Marlin, gets pulled into helping the passionately anti-clergy local inspector, while also, as a long-time friend of the family, becoming involved in the conflicts and dramas surrounding the bishop's two daughters.

The bishop's palace itself proves a wonderfully evocative setting, a monstrosity from which multiple wings and new additions now branch off, resulting in hallways veering in all directions (and allowing, should one so desire, for easy and unexpected entries and exits). The palace itself is intriguing but add in that it's built next to the dramatic ruins of a medieval abbey, and the eerie stage is set:

Bobs lingered at the lattice. Yes, the snow had fallen and transformed the winter night. The moon fell on blanched lawns, and beyond them laid capricious fingers on the ruins of the Guest House and Infirmarium, visible from this side of the house. The walls lay dark and ominous but a white radiance lit up here a broken roof, there a fragile rose window and desolate turret stairway. Behind them the bare trees and shrubs stood like a ghostly concourse of those Carthusian monks who had paced the cloisters to the first Matins of Christmas long ago. There, beyond the frame of the luxurious rose-velvet curtains, far from the sparkling fire and table behind him, lay the true life of endurance, asceticism and world-denial, thought Bobs, fanciful for once.

As in The Warrielaw Jewel, too, and for that matter in some of her other novels, Peck effectively uses the technique of distancing her story in the past, but nevertheless making occasional references to the present. It's a bit more subdued here than in Warrielaw, in which the main character actually discusses the differences in her own perspective now compared to what it was then. Here, we never really learn who the narrator is (unless I overlooked it), but the technique still works pretty well. In this case, the story is set around Christmas of 1920, but Peck highlights, for example, the similarities or distinctions between that postwar period and the post-World War II period in which she was writing the novel.

Occasionally, this is rather subtle. For instance, surely there is a bit of Peck's post-World War II attitude in this passage about the post-World War I attitudes of the bishop's daughters:

Such a very carefully edited story of Judith's affairs had been given her by her parents that Sue, who knew all about it with the simple acceptance of a post-war youth which would never again confuse ignorance with innocence, sometimes forgot how little she was supposed to know. Victorian girls were not allowed to see or touch pitch for fear of defilement. Sue and her contemporaries had learnt to meet it and wash away the stains carefully afterwards.

I have to make my frequent disclaimer that the solution to the mystery here does not strike me as a particular ingenious one. I had more or less guessed the killer and the motive by the time I reached the big reveal. But, per my norm again, I wasn't bothered at all by that, as the cleverness of the puzzle always takes a back seat to the characters and writing for me, but hardcore fans of puzzle-focused mysteries (do any hardcore fans of puzzle-focused mysteries still read this blog, after all the times I have undoubtedly disappointed them?!) may not be impressed.

This is dangerously close now to being a proper review, but I've managed to keep it a bit shorter than my old norm. So I'll sign off for now and save some other recent reading for next time.

Monday, February 22, 2016

Mysterious women (1 of 2)

Once the giant new update to my Overwhelming List finally went live a couple of weeks ago, I turned my attention to the need to update some of my other subject list with some of the many new additions who wrote mysteries or war-related fiction. I've now managed to finish my update to the Mystery List, and there were a few interesting new additions this time around—enough to fill two whole update posts, even!

Of course, there were also some about which so little is know that I can only guess about whether their mysteries are of interest (or even about whether their books are mysteries at all). WINIFRED BOGGS will be mentioned elsewhere for her other titles, but her second-to-last novel, Murder on the Underground (1929), certainly sounds like a mystery, even if I can find no details about it at all. Ditto with a late novel by ANNIE BRADSHAW called Murder at the Boarding House (1936)—could be intriguing, but unless one of you has tracked it down and can give an opinion on it, it remains a question mark. And G. T. OCKLEY (real name Grace Thompson, who was also a sculptor) wrote three novels—The Man Under the Window (1935), The Tempestuous Wooer (1936), and The Devil on Board (1937)—which are definitely crime-themed, but that's the extent of my knowledge.

LYN DEAN's two novels, Ask No Questions and The Rope Waits, both from 1937, seem to be mysteries, but I can't say for sure. And MARGARET DOUGLAS, an unidentified author of dime romances, published one book called Murder at the "Mike" (1936). The similarly unidentified DOROTHY JOHNSON published a title called The Death of a Spinster (1931), along with three other titles with unrevealing titles, so we can only speculate about them. ESSEX SMITH seems to have written somewhat melodramatic fiction, but what of The Wye Valley Mystery (1929)? And KAY ROCHE's two novels could be interesting, judging from a book cover, but I've found little to go on apart from the fact that The Shuttered House (1950) appears to be set in Tangier, while The Game and the Candle (1951) takes place in Spain.

Having got those out of the way, however, there are actually some authors who are either interesting in themselves or whose works sound intriguing. And there's even one (coming in the second part of this post) whose work is in print and readily available—will wonders never cease?

When I first came across a mention of Gory Knight (1937), by Barbara Rivers Larminie (already on my list) and JANE LANGSLOW, it didn't sound terribly promising. Described as a parody of the "round robin" detective novels that were popular at the time, it sounded like it might not have aged well, even if it was well done enough at the time. Then I came across a discussion of it by Martin Edwards, in which he describes reading it with another mystery writer, Margaret Yorke (also already on my list). He concluded:

The story parodies the celebrated detectives Hercule Poirot, Lord Peter Wimsey (and his manservant Bunter), Reggie Fortune, Dr Priestley and Inspector French—although the French character appears only in the final stages of the book .The sleuths gather, by improbable means, in an English country house, and are immediately greeted by the disappearance of the cook (the eponymous Ms Knight.) It is an entertaining piece of work. The plot is slight, and stretched out excessively, but to my mind there is much pleasure to be had in the way MRL and ‘Jane Langslow’ render the eccentricities of Poirot, Wimsey and Bunter in particular.

Apart from the fact that this description piques my curiosity about the novel, there is also some intriguing speculation by Edwards and Yorke that the unidentified Langslow was really the pseudonym of another novelist from my list, Maud Diver. You can read all the interesting discussion here.

Kay Seaton

There's also been some online speculation about another new addition to the list, KAY SEATON. Unlike Langslow, her identity is not in question—she really is Denice Jeanette Bradley Ryan, and no one disputes that she's the daughter of R. R. Ryan, who wrote numerous thrillers himself. Or did he? There has been some speculation (how credible depends on your point of view) that Denice Ryan/Kay Seaton may actually have written some or all of her father's novels as well (see here and here). Unfortunately, though, I could find little information online about the four books she indisputedly wrote, apart from the fact that they are likewise thrillers.

I suspect that there must be some more detailed information online about the eight mysteries written by JEAN MARSH, who was also a children's author, creator of a number of radio plays (some adapted from her novels), and, later on, author of about 20 romance novels. But my attempts at some adept Googling have been hopelessly hampered by her namesake, the much better-known British actress and screenwriter, who created and starred in, among numerous other projects, the original Upstairs, Downstairs series. They're certainly not the same person—Marsh the author's first novel appeared three years before Marsh the actress was born—but they make for some challenging Google searches. More to come, perhaps…

Molly Spencer Simpson

I already wrote a bit in an earlier post about the tragic MOLLY SPENCER SIMPSON, who died suddenly at age 21, having already published two well-received noir-ish thrillers. You can read about what John Herrington and I uncovered about her here.

Writing certainly ran in the family for MARGARET JEPSON. She was the daughter of Edgar Alfred Jepson, who wrote adventure tales, mysteries, and stories of the supernatural. She was also the sister of Selwyn Jepson, who wrote numerous mysteries and film screenplays. And, what's more, she was the mother of novelist Fay Weldon, whose publishing career started a few years too late to include her on my list. Now, with all those famous relatives you'd think that Jepson's own work would be fairly well documented, but alas, I could find almost nothing about the seven novels she wrote, mostly under the pseudonym Pearl Bellairs. They are purported to be thrillers, thus her inclusion on the Mystery List, but I can't provide any other information.

And finally, anticlimactically, two more authors about which I know very little. MARY KENT (real name Mabel Mary Andrews) was the author, in collaboration with her husband Michael Kent (real name James Chapman Andrews), of a single novel, The Armitage Case (1942), about which I could find no details. And AYLMER HALL (real name Norah Eleanor Lyle Hall), best known for her historical children's adventures, including The Devilish Plot (1965), set in Napoleonic England, and two later tales set in historical Ireland, Beware of Moonlight (1969) and The Minstrel Boy (1970), had earlier published two novels, The Mystery of Torland Manor (1952) and The K. F. Conspiracy (1955), which appear to have contemporary settings and which, though also written for children, presumably have mystery elements that just (barely) qualify her for this list. But that's about the extent of my knowledge.

And that's it for now.  But there are a few more interesting new additions that I'll update you on next time. Are any of these jumping out at you as absolute must-reads?

Thursday, February 18, 2016

If you haven't noticed...

That title is completely facetious, because I would think only the most obsessive among you could possibly have noticed (you'd have to be as obsessive as I am, and surely I don't wish that on anyone…), but at long last the new update to my Overwhelming List, which I've been working on for the past few months, has gone live. It actually went live about a week and a half ago, but I'm just getting round to mentioning it.


The new total is 1,904 authors on the list, a net gain of somewhere in the neighborhood of 370 authors (I'm not up to mathematics at the moment). I have, by the way, solemnly sworn that I shall never attempt an update with such a large number of authors again. It was threatening to take over my life there for a while. 

In large part, this one grew to such an unmanageable number because of my methodical perusal, several months ago, of the New General Catalog of Old Books and Authors, a site I've known about and occasionally relied on for a long time. But this time, instead of casually poking around or looking up specific authors, I actually went through every single page of the listing and scouted for any potentially British women writers who may have written fiction. I can't swear that I still haven't missed any, but obviously, I gained quite a number.

Rosamunde Pilcher, inexplicably left off my list until now

I'll be doing posts in the next couple of months highlighting many of the authors added to the list. There are, for better or worse, many new authors of romances, including many "unidentified" authors who published short, inexpensive novels—possibly "dime novels" for lack of a better term—for publishers like D. C. Thomson and J. Leng. These publishers had stables of authors who often used pseudonyms, frequently multiple pseudonyms, and they undoubtedly include men who used feminine pseudonyms. Therefore, when I've designated these authors as "unidentified," bear in mind that they could easily be pseudonyms (possibly of other authors on the list), or male, or, for that matter, non-British. I decided to list them in the interests of inclusiveness, but many of these are likely to remain unidentified for at least the foreseeable future, and some, if they were identified, would likely be merged together or removed from the list. Such is life.

But there are also quite a few rather more interesting new additions to my list. I haven't yet had a chance to update the Mystery List, the War List, or the World War II Book List, but I'll be doing that as time allows, and I'll post about the new authors being added, some of whom sound quite intriguing. And I'm also compiling a post about some intriguing new authors that sound right up my middlebrow alley.

For now, I will limit myself to mention one absolutely humiliating oversight that I've just corrected. It's true that each of my recent updates seem to have corrected at least one embarrassing omission, but how the !@#$% had I never added an enormously successful author like ROSAMUNDE PILCHER?! My only defense is that I've never read her work (though perhaps I should have?) and I think it's not general knowledge that she published a number of early novels (starting in 1949) under the pseudonym "Jane Fraser." So perhaps it's forgivable after all, but even if I can't be forgiven for leaving her out for so long, at least I've added her now.

Stay tuned for more posts about more newly-added authors.

Saturday, February 13, 2016

Book report: Beatrix Lehmann

This is not a review. This is not a review. This is not a review.

I will keep telling myself that, and keep trying to rein in my wilder impulses of wordiness.

My recent fling with several Viragos has given me several very worthwhile reads (and seems to be ongoing). My favorite of the bunch remains E. H. Young's Miss Mole, which I wrote about not long ago. But not too far behind—on my second shelf, if not the top one—was Beatrix Lehmann's Rumour of Heaven (1934).

But be that as it may, I certainly don't think Rumour is a perfect novel—it is a bit uneven, and some parts are better than others—but when it's good I actually found it rather amazing. The opening chapter, which sets the stage and introduces William Peacock, his ballerina wife Miranda, and his three children, Clare, Viola, and Hector, and explains how they ended up isolated on the southern coast of England (Cornwall, I'm guessing), made me forget where I was and what I was doing (fortunately I was lying in bed, rather than missing a train or a flight, or forgetting to go to work). The novel thoroughly creates a fairy tale world—fantastic and fascinating, but also somehow grounded in reality, in coherent if gloriously odd characters, so that it begins to seem entirely plausible that three small children could have grown to the brink of maturity living basically in feral (if more or less intellectual) isolation on the southern coast of England, with only the feeblest of attempts at intervention from the outside world.

The plot, as one might expect from such a scene-setting, revolves around the reactions of these marooned characters to the arrivals of several new characters. (The outside world always has a habit of intruding on our private paradises, does it not?) The children's reactions, in particular, are brilliantly done, and contain some excellent descriptions of anxiety and its manifestations, and how it can drop on one's head when one was, a moment before, perfectly content and relaxed. Here's one sample, describing Hector's fascination for young Tony, and his horror when he finds himself trapped inside a room with strangers:

When Tony closed the door Hector wanted to scream, but he could only edge to the window  and seat himself on a chair as near the fresh air as possible. His pale face in profile against the open window was like a cameo in a frame.

Paul gave him a puzzled look and said something quite gently. He was always kind to sick people and children.

But Hector could only hear a confused murmur and he refused to turn his head to look at the prison that had closed around him. Silently he cried out for help.

The descriptions of the family's wild paradise sometimes become a bit lush for my taste, though that might be an intentional bit of self-parodying on Lehmann's part, since one of the invaders of their marvelous isolation is a bestselling author whose work is entirely built up around lavish descriptions of a lost paradise island that he insists is real, though no one believes him. And I also found the invaders, as characters, to be less interesting than the family itself, so the novel lost a bit of momentum in the middle before events begin to hurtle toward their tragic but inevitable conclusion. But these are really only quibbles about what is a compelling and fascinating novel—and, by the way, a quite self-consciously Bronte-esque one—Wuthering Heights is never far in the background (and indeed is quite often in the foreground).

Now, you know how much I love the quest to read an obscure and hard-to-find book, so when I finished Rumour of Heaven and decided I quite liked it, I immediately turned my attention to Lehmann's only other novel, published two years before Rumour. Of course, that novel, But Wisdom Lingers (1932), had never been reprinted and was apparently held by exactly one American library apart from the Library of Congress. Most of you know me well enough by now to see that such obscurity immediately made the book irresistile to me. I wondered not only what Lehmann's first foray into fiction would be like, but also why Virago chose not to reprint it. Was it just less polished and less mainstream, or was it (as I rather hoped) even odder than Rumour, so that it fell beyond Virago's scope?

Happily, that one library, at the University of North Carolina, was willing to lend the book, and so I got my hot little hands on it and made short work of reading it. So what was the verdict?

Well, I can safely say that I completely understand Virago's decision not to reprint it. I think that no matter how you slice it, it's a weaker novel than Rumour. It's a melodramatic little tale about a tormented artist and his tormented love for a step-aunt (??—well, he's an orphan who was raised by a cousin, and his love is for the much younger sister of the cousin who raised him, so what on earth would that relationship be called?), who is more than a little tormented herself. In short, there is plenty of torment to go around.

Now, a little bit of navel-gazing, soul-searching, intellectual moaning goes a long way with me, and so there were parts of But Wisdom Lingers that lost me a bit. Here's a sampling:

What if he resisted this desire to please them at the expense of his own soul. … ? Well, what then? Who would listen to the raging fount of words dammed up in his brain? How could he express the thoughts that nagged and teased at his peace of mind? Where was the source from which these things flowed? Back through the winding tributaries to truth. … Who cared for truth? Every thought was stale, world-soiled. … The poets—word-mongers—had woven all his thoughts into hackneyed quotations. … Easier to learn their words than strive to make new bottles for old wine. Nobody wanted the truth—they only wanted your help to crush it, forget it—dancing over the scattered dust of truth.

Oh, my.  You see what I mean?

Sample pages from the prologue of But Wisdom Lingers

But that said, there are also places that clearly preview how much better Lehmann would become as a writer in a mere two years. In fact, even in another sample of Richard's bemoaning of the superficial theatre world (which Lehmann would have known quite well, being better known as an actress than an author), there is a passage that, swivelled just slightly, could be humorous and even rather thought-provoking:

Characteristics that were lovable or humorous were exaggerated to an absurd degree. Indecencies were committed with such an air of righteousness as to make one believe that one was seeing the shackles of Victorianism cast off by the free spirits and emancipated souls of a new and enlightened generation. Anything approaching unpleasantness was whitewashed liberally so that anybody would be only too eager to identify themselves with these witty, scapegrace moderns; and that, of course, was the secret of his swift success.

People who drank themselves silly, committed adultery, expressed horrible opinions to their elders and betters, suffered from that curious nervous habit called kleptomania, could be gilded and turned into the sort of person anybody would be glad to be. It only depended on the point of view and the treatment.

In addition, the prologue, which follows the eight-year-old navel-gazing-artist-to-be, Richard Saville, and his young cousin Terence on a holiday with their absent-minded young novelist aunt, is an excellent evocation of childhood (something Lehmann would do even more brilliantly in the later novel) and has some really strong writing. It's only when we jump forward in time to see Richard Saville as a successful young playwright, the toast of London but mainly focused on draping himself forlornly across the furniture, bemoaning his dissatisfaction with life, that things start to fall apart. And even then there are occasional high points, when Lehmann allows the characters to behave naturally and compellingly instead of like silent film stars chewing the scenery. But, admittedly, there are not quite enough of these high points.


Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Backs of books: a list from Molly Clavering's Spring Adventure

In a recent post, I finally got round to sharing some lovely photos of two of Molly Clavering's virtually lost novels, sent to me months ago by Jerri Chase. And I had intended to take a look at the just-barely-legible (and perhaps more tantalizing as a result?) list of other books published by Clavering's publisher for that title, Robert Hale. But I babbled on a bit too long about Clavering and ran out of time. So here goes.

One of several "diadem" titles for Lee,
an alter-ego of Marie Bartlett (aka Valerie Rift)

If you've been reading this blog for long, you know how much I love coming across book jackets with listings of a publisher's other books. I can't begin to count the number of authors I've added to my list as a result of such lists, and even now, when you'd think I would be coming to the end of all the women who could possibly have published fiction during my specific 50 year period, I'm still finding new authors fairly regularly. Will I get lucky again with the list from Clavering's book?

By increasing the contrast on Jerri's photo, I think I've made it more or less legible, and I've edited out the rest of the pic, so it should show up a bit larger, in case you'd like to peruse it for yourself.

Now, admittedly, the list is described as "New Romantic Fiction," which might lead me to think that most of the authors won't be my cup of tea, but then again, Molly Clavering (and, for that matter, D. E. Stevenson, Anna Buchan/O. Douglas, and Elizabeth Cadell, just to name a few) were also often marketed as a writers of "romance," so who knows what we might find here?

VIDA DERRY was the author of about a dozen novels for Robert Hale, of which several of the later ones seem to be hospital romances. As it turns out, she does belong on my list, and will be added in my next update, though I'm not sure I'll rush to check out any her fiction.

I knew that MARY ESSEX sounded familiar to me, and sure enough a quick look at my database revealed that she's already on my list—as one of the many pseudonyms of URSULA BLOOM. Simon at Stuck-in-a-Book wrote a few years ago about three different novels published under the Essex name, and the first two sound irresistible while the third, he reported, was a bit more uneven. One wonders which category the oddly-named Dr. Guardian of the Gate would fall into?

And while I'm at it, I'll jump down the list to another Ursula Bloom pseudonym included here, SHEILA BURNS. ODNB reports that Bloom used the Burns pseudonym, as well as "Rachel Harvey," for a series of hospital novels, which don't immediately sound as enticing as the Essex novels Simon discussed.

Continuing with pseudonyms, which were common for romantic novelists, VALERIE RIFT was the pseudonym of MARIE BARTLETT (full name Primrose Marie Bartlett), who also published novels as ROWENA LEE. Some of her titles lead me to believe she's more of a standard romance writer than Molly Clavering was (i.e. Secret Splendour [1957], Joyous Bondage [1958], Reckless Love [1961], etc.), but her memoir of her life in Kenya, published under her own name, has the more evocative title The Rhino Stayed for Breakfast (1958).

I'll skip around a bit and mention that VICKY LANCASTER was one of several pen names used by DOROTHY PHOEBE ANSLE. I have to admit Doctor in Suspense is not calling to me to read it, but Barb at Leaves and Pages read another of Ansle's books—this one under her "Laura Conway" pseudonym—a while back. You can read it about it here.

Meanwhile, THERESA CHARLES is one of a whole slew of pseudonyms used by IRENE MAUDE SWATRIDGE, who may be better known to some of you as IRENE MOSSOP (her maiden name), under which name she wrote a number of girls' school stories. I've never even begun to get a handle on all of the hundreds of books Swatridge wrote (there's a task for a rainy day!), and Ring for Nurse Raine isn't exciting me much, but there could well be other treasures hidden among her other novels.

BARBARA BLACKBURN was already on my list, the author of dozens of romances for several different publishers.

And DOROTHY UPSON, also already listed, published nearly 60 novels for Mills & Boon and Hutchinson over nearly thirty years. 

(A particularly hideous photo, but the best
I could do for an Irene Knight cover)

IRENE KNIGHT, meanwhile, is a new addition to the list, though she appears to have published only four novels in all (unless she, like many of her colleagues in romance, had other pseudonyms as yet unknown), with the listed title, Someone for Julia, being the last.

The MARGARET A. COLE listed here is not to be confused with the crime writing Margaret Cole, who, better known as M. I. Cole, wrote more than 30 well-received mysteries. The romance writer is Margaret Alice Cole, who wrote 24 books, including two children's books. I have to admit that Love on the Long Walk is somehow a rather intriguing title for me. Are we talking about a hike, an adventure holiday, or a walk to the nearest gas station after one's car has died? Her later book, Scottish Rhapsody (1966), also has a rather grand title for a romance.

And speaking of evocative titles, the last two authors on the list excelled at them, at least part of the time. Summer Isles of Eden by AMY J. BAKER may not be one of those—it's a little over the top for my taste. But Baker, who published 40 novels 1911-1962 (Summer Isles is the last), also came up with titles like The Impenitent Prayer, The Crepe de Chine Wife, Six Merry Mummers, Hell's Odyssey: Coal Boat Cargo (which surely is more of a thriller than a romance?), and the scandalous-sounding The Temptress: Monte Carlo.

Finally, MARGARET FERGUSON did even better with the titles of some of her 60+ novels, published 1930-1973, and I even know a little about a couple of them. Flambeau (1934) is set in the Cotswolds and is about "a large family and the closely, richly woven fabric of their lives and reactions to each other." Okay, not a terribly informative description, but better than what I know about some of these titles. And Harvest of Nettles (1952) is a crime novel set in Ceylon, about a nurse suspected of overdosing a patient. (I'm paraphrasing the information I found to remove a spoiler—not that anyone is likely to be reading the book any time soon, but on the off chance…) Other catchy Ferguson titles are The Pinching Shoe, Thorn Harvest, The Happy-Go-Luckies, A Bed of Brambles, and A Pennyweight of Love. Perhaps such titles will seduce me into sampling one of her novels!

I have several more "backs of books" posts that I'm planning to do—I've stumbled across several of these enticing lists lately and want to explore some of the authors. So, more to come!

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Some enticing Molly Clavering dustjackets & a couple of biographical tidbits

This is another post that I've been planning to do for months, and I was almost ashamed to go ahead and do it, but who could possibly resist sharing dustjacket art and blurbs from two more of Molly Clavering's impossibly obscure novels, which Jerri Chase, a friend of this blog, shared with me ages ago.

Jerri was in Scotland for a time last year, doing research for the first full-scale biography of novelist D. E. Stevenson—which news will undoubtedly excite Stevenson fans everywhere. As some of you know—from my earlier posts about her if not from other sources—Molly Clavering was Stevenson's neighbor and friend in Moffat, a Scottish Borders town of about 2,500 people (nowadays, according to Wikipedia—perhaps fewer in their time?). It's not entirely surprising, then, that Jerri's research led her to a couple of new tidbits of information about Clavering (see below), as well as to a felicitous opportunity to read both Because of Sam (1954) and Spring Adventure (1962), two of Clavering's books that have virtually ceased to exist outside of national libraries. If her time in Scotland didn't make me jealous enough, the glimpse she got of these rare books would tinge me with green.

She first read Because of Sam, which must have appeared very soon after Clavering's one more readily available title, Mrs. Lorimer's Quiet Summer (reprinted in the U.S. as Mrs. Lorimer's Family), as the cover features blurbs about Mrs Lorimer. Jerri didn't have access to a scanner, but her photos of the book's cover are a huge improvement on what was available before (i.e. nothing). Here's the full cover as photographed by Jerri:

And then I decided to experiment with adjusting the photo a little and focusing on the front cover:

Jerri also sent me the jacket flaps, but the image, while just readable if blown up a bit, may not come through here, so I'm transcribing the text:

Millie Maitland sometimes said that the name of her house should be changed from Fernicknowe to Dog Hall, for though there were large clumps of fern, high banks and a steep, winding drive, the dogs—Millie's boarders—seemed much more noticeable.

She was quite content with her life in the Scots village of Mennan; she was perfectly happy taking her dogs out for walks up the glen, cooking in her old-fashioned oven, even country dancing at the Women's Institute.

There was just one cloud. As Mr. Ramsay had said of Millie's daughter long ago: "Amabel will have more intelligence than heart. If only her clever, capable Amabel were kindlier, less fiercely undomesticated. If only she would marry."

Because of Sam also has an author bio, which I don't think contains any new information, but I'm including it in the interests of completeness:

Molly Clavering was born in Glasgow, but lived in the country from a very early age. After six years' service with the WRNS, she settled in Moffat, Dumfries, where she is now the only woman member of the Moffat Town Council.

Her chief interests are anything to do with the countryside and country life, history, folk lore, Scottish Border traditions and country dancing—and an unclipped black poodle.

Jerri reported that she quite liked Because of Sam, which is set in a Borders village not unlike Moffat, and suggested it to Greyladies as a possible follow-up to their edition of Near Neighbours (fingers crossed!). She was a bit more lukewarm about her other Clavering reading experience, but it's a pleasure to get a glimpse of the cover of Spring Adventure, whether or not the book is likely to be a favorite. Again, here's the full cover from Jerri:

And again, I tried to improve just the front cover a little—you can be the judge of the results:

And here is the description of Spring Adventure from the jacket flaps:

Spring in Touraine, 'the garden of France': blue skies, flowering water meadows, the wide Loire flowing by below the historic Chateaux ... everything is so different from her Cotswold home that Joanna, suffering from the shock and humiliation of being jilted in favour of her friend Rosamond, finds her wilting self-confidence gradually restored, though she is determined to have nothing more to do with men.

Her elderly cousin Nigella, writer of children's books, who has brought Joanna to France, thinks otherwise but says nothing. Young men 'bob up' as Joanna feels, quite unnecessarily, and cousin Nigella encourages them because she finds them useful. When her interest in history leads cousin Nigella into strange places, the young men prove very useful indeed; and in the end one of them provides a fitting climax to Joanna's Spring Adventure.

I would obviously jump at the chance to read any of Clavering's other novels, and am still curious about the quality of the numerous, presumably shorter, novels she serialized in The People's Friend. But alas, my chances of tracking any of them down seem about as low as the chances, recently, that I would win a $1.5 billion lottery jackpot (it didn't happen, needless to say).

As I mentioned above, in the process of her research on Stevenson, Jerri learned a couple of details to help fill in our knowledge of Clavering. Probably most interesting is that she learned that the friendship of Clavering and Stevenson goes back at least to the 1930s, when Stevenson and her family (and presumably Clavering) were living in Glasgow. Jerri noted that Stevenson's diary from those years regularly references visits to "the Claverings" and to "Molly." She speculates that Clavering may have decided to settle in Moffat after the war because of the presence of Stevenson and her family.

The other mentions of Clavering that Jerri came across are smaller but still interesting details. For example, Stevenson's daughter Rosemary recalls that the sight of Clavering in her WRNS uniform early in the war inspired her to change her plan of becoming a "driver" and join the WRNS herself. And Jerri learned that Stevenson's husband served on the Town Council, probably during the same years that Clavering did, so presumably they regularly worked together there.

Finally, Jerri discovered that Stevenson had encouraged Clavering in her writing, giving her a gift of a new typewriter (in addition to the dog I mentioned in an earlier post) and trying to interest her American publishers in Clavering's work (perhaps her influence played a role in the American publication of Mrs. Lorimer?). Molly also helped Stevenson with typing at times, though it's unclear whether she did this as a friendly favor when no other typist was available, if she did it when times were hard and she could use the extra money, or perhaps a combination of the two.

It's nice, particularly with such a little-known author as Clavering, to get a few details here and there to help flesh out the picture of her life and work, so a big thanks to Jerri for the information and photos, and for permission to use them here!

I had intended to include a look at the list of authors on the back cover of Spring Adventure, which—if you strain—you can just make out. But I've rambled long enough for one post, so I'm going to include that in another post instead.
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