Wednesday, August 16, 2017

RUMER GODDEN, A Candle for St Jude (1948) & Cromartie vs. the God Shiva (1997)


I only finally wrote about Rumer Godden here back in February (wow, time flies), when I finally got round to reading the wonderful China Court. I've read a good many of her other books before I ever started blogging, so she had never turned up here, despite being one of my favorite authors. But recently, I finally turned to two of her books that I had never felt compelled to sample before. The first of these was also the first of Godden's dance-themed books that I've experienced.

I love my vintage paperback edition
of this book, so can't help sharing it with you

I think I always imagined that, not being particularly interested in ballet, I would find her dance books less interesting or enjoyable than her other novels, but in fact I found Candle just as difficult to put down as any of her other books. If it's perhaps not, for me, absolutely in the top tier of Godden's novels, it's still very, very good. The aging Madame Holbein, once a great dancer herself, now a great teacher, can be added to the many inspiring women characters Godden created (I picture a film version, with a marvelous opportunity for an older actress—hmmmm, who should it be?), and the dynamic between her and the young dancers—her favorite, who is letting her ego get the best of her, and the brilliant student Madame resents, perhaps, for being too good—is fascinating.


Of course, as much as anything, it's Godden's unique and compelling style that makes the book succeed. I love her description of the poor theatre dressmaker:

Miss Porteus wore a little hard black velvet pincushion pinned to the left breast of her dress in the shape of a heart. To her niece, Lollie, it seemed that it was Miss Porteus' heart, withered and worn, stuck with sharp pins. Madame would have added, "Filled with sawdust instead of good red blood," but that was too old a thought for Lollie, who worried about her aunt.

And then there's this passage, which evokes the passage of time that Godden explored so eloquently in A Fugue in Time and would again in China Court:

Tomorrow Archie would dart, every nerve alive in a tumultuous effort to please, his eyes hot and dry, his cheeks burning, his heart beating like a clapper with excitement. It happened again, in every season, with every performance, with each entrance of each dance. Time passes, that is what they say, but that is what it doesn't do, said Madame. In each one, with each one, Madame lived through it again. It left her exhausted, but that was why she lived.

After Candle, I went on and read a couple of other books, but Godden's siren song soon proved too strong.


After enjoying Fugue and China Court so much, I had immediately placed an order for a couple more of the new-ish Virago editions of her work, so there was Cromartie vs. the God Shiva waiting patiently on my TBR shelf, seducing me into picking it up.

Cromartie was Godden's last book, published in 1997 (I hadn't quite registered that she published anything that late). It's set mostly in India where a young London attorney is investigating the background behind the theft of a valuable Hindu sculpture from a once-grand hotel, and is loosely based on a real case in which a similar sculpture was siezed by police as stolen as it was being examined in a museum. His resulting romance, and the details of his investigations, however, are pure fiction.



The book is enjoyable—it's hard for me to imagine anything by Godden not being that—and satisfying enough. It's just on a smaller, less complex scale than much of her earlier work, and therefore I suspect it won't linger in my memory for quite so long. But if you've exhausted most of Godden's work, and just can't bear not to have her humane, thoughtful authorial voice in your head yet again, Cromartie vs. the God Shiva may be just what the doctor ordered.

Monday, August 7, 2017

LORNA REA, Six Mrs Greenes (1929)


Many of my reviews this year have been of books I've been meaning to read for ages, which have just gradually, patiently made their way to the top of my TBR list. But this one was a more spontaneous addition to my recent reading. I got an email from Nicola Slade, whose blog is here and whose mystery novels set in Winchester are now calling my name as well. Apart from letting me know she'd been enjoying the new Elizabeth Fair titles from Dean Street Press, Nicola was also kind enough to recommend two of her favorite, quiet, obscure titles from my period, which she thought I'd enjoy. The other title she mentioned was Catherine Cotton's Experience (1920), and it's been added to the TBR list as well, but something utterly superficial about Lorna Rea's name and the intriguing title Six Mrs Greenes made that the immediate choice.

The premise lives up to the intriguing title. The officious and imminently dislikable Mrs Rodney Greene has summoned the other five Mrs Greenes to her home for a dinner party that, in addition to bringing three generations of Mrs Greenes together, will also serve to celebrate newlywed Jessica's arrival into the family (though it will mainly, like most other things in Mrs Rodney's life, allow her to bully and stage manage everyone else). The novel is divided into six sections, each around 50 pages and each dedicated to one of the Mrs Greenes, whom we come to know and (sometimes) like.

A family tree at the beginning of the book helps keep them all sorted. First and foremost, there's elderly Mrs Greene, matriarch of the family, the Mrs Greene, slightly cantankerous (one doesn't envy her companion, Miss Dorset, who has a tragic past of her own) but somehow likable, still mourning the loss of her husband years before and sometimes a bit shaky on the distinction between past and present:

When she was tired she talked to herself, and her talk was a jumble of names. Her sons, her grandsons, her granddaughter, her granddaughter's husband, jigged about in her brain. They formed groups, advanced towards her in a solid phalanx, broke up and receded again. The pattern of their comings and goings was shot with pleasure at some remembered incident, or again with intense irritation that found vent in mumbled phrases. "She's always been a stupid woman."

We catch some glimpses of her feelings toward the other Mrs Greenes, particularly her two daughters-in-law, about whom she minces no words, but more poignantly we feel her sense of lingering loss:

"When a woman has lived with her husband and loved her husband for over fifty years, she shouldn't live on after him. She's only a cripple. There's no place left for her, and no power. I saw one of my sons marry a girl I didn't like, and the other a girl I despised. I lost Edwin in the war, and Edwin's son soon after. Geoffrey and I were old; we were on the shelf, but we still had our place in life. Now Geoffrey's dead, and I'm lost. I'm Grannie and Great-grannie; I'm an old woman, to be humored and treated kindly and encouraged, and taken here and there for her own good, but I'm not Mrs. Geoffrey Greene. She's dead."

She also thinks the idea of a dinner with all the Mrs Greenes is misguided:

"There'll we be, three widows and three wives, each of us supposed to stand for something, and the whole idea quite false. I'm not an old Greene grandmother any more than Edith is a Greene mother and Jessica a young Greene wife; I'm Margaret Hill, and Jessica is Jessica Deane, and we married men of the same name and the same blood, but nobody but Edith would ever expect that to link us up in a chain."

But the dinner's misguidedness doesn't make getting to know these women less intriguing. Apart from the Mrs Greene, there's her sister-in-law Sarah, Mrs Hugh Greene, likewise at a loss since her husband's death and childless as well, who finds comfort in her beloved nephew and his wife (on her side of the family, not Greenes). Presumably, it's Edith, Mrs Rodney Greene, imperious, shrewish, and emotionally needy, whom Mrs Greene merely doesn't like, and Dora, Mrs Edwin Greene, already a whiny martyr even before the loss of her husband in World War I and her son to a tragic accident, whom she despises. Then there's the current, modern generation, Edith's two daughters-in-law, Helen, Mrs Geoffrey Greene, an artist who furiously resists the traditional limitations of marriage but falls in love with Geoffrey anyway, and Jessica, Mrs Hugh Beckett Greene, the energetic newlywed. There's also Edith's daughter Lavinia, who is not a Mrs Greene but who seems to be Mrs Greene's favorite among her descendents and who seems to play an important role in the novel, possibly a symbolic one.


Following the six main sections, there's a short closing section of the novel. It was a bit anticlimactic to find that this section didn't actually include the women's dinner together, but perhaps that would have been asking too much. Rather, it features Edith's final preparations, a visit from Lavinia, and a slightly bewildering comment by Lavinia which ends the novel. I won't give it away, as it's the last line of the book, but it was intriguing enough that I'm going to have to go back and do some re-reading to figure out what on earth Lavinia means by it.

Perhaps it's best that the dinner itself be left to the reader's imagination. Indeed, it's hard to imagine the dinner living up to all the drama that has led into it. Apart from that, however, the novel made for some wonderfully entertaining reading. If the women occasionally seem a bit like types—the tough, resilient older women, the shrew, the martyr, the bohemian, and the perky young flapper—rather than fully developed, unique characters, I can't say that I gave it more than a passing thought. I picked the book up and didn't put it down again until I my eyes were too sleepy to focus or my lunch break was over, which is a pretty good recommendation in itself.

My thanks to Nicola for bringing Lorna Rea more centrally to my attention. She has been included on my Overwhelming List for some time now, but I had no details about her work. It turns out that Six Mrs Greenes was her first novel, followed quickly by three more—The Happy Prisoner (1931), Rachel Moon (1932), and First Night (1932)—and one story collection, Six and Seven (1935), after which she appears to have fallen silent, though she lived for another forty years.

I had already come across a Bookman review of First Night, which I believe is a textbook example of "damning with faint praise," but I have to admit that it rather makes me want to read the book and see where Rea got to with her writing…

As amusement "First Night" is excellent if ephemeral. It scintillates where it should, in the foyer, broadens into humour in the pit, touches sentiment in the gallery, and generally varies in mood and in tempo as the elf of Miss Rea's imagination insinuates himself into the breasts and brains of author, actor, critic, first-nighter and all the other cleverly drawn theatre-goers to whom she introduces us. It has almost as many good points as it has pages—brilliance, wit, humour, atmosphere, emotional skill, verve, gaiety. But there it ends, in brief amusement—the only end it could possibly serve. One looks in vain for anything more than an almost photographic record with its inevitable shallowness. Yet cleverness rarely or never keeps company with profundity and, superficial though it may be, one is grateful for such lively diversion and vivid portraiture as are here.

I could disagree with all sorts of assumptions in the review, but overall it sounds pretty irresistible, doesn't it?

Then, while poking around a bit for this review, I came across this capsule review of The Happy Prisoner in, of all places, the Wisconsin Library Bulletin:

Lorna Rea, the author of Six Mrs. Greenes, writes a delicate little novel of a girl who, because she was deaf, had been shown only the beautiful side of life. When she is suddenly cured of deafness she is so hurt by the world as it really is that she gladly retreats into her own again. The technique is that of the short story, full of idealistic pathos. Attractively illustrated with wood engravings.


And I discovered that the Spectator (after, I should note, an utterly condescending dismissal of Elizabeth Cambridge's Susan and Joanna, along the usual masculine party lines) dismissed Rea's story collection as "tepid and banal," and added that "while Miss Rea will tell you all about the interior decoration of her heroines' flats, she tells you nothing about their characters." Well, I'm sure some of you will agree that this too sounds intriguing!

Monday, July 31, 2017

Wish-fulfillment fantasies (MABEL ESTHER ALLAN, MONICA REDLICH)

I recently dived into some children's fiction that I've had on my shelves for ages. For whatever reason, I haven't done a lot of reading in that area in the past few months, but suddenly the urge seemed to hit me and in rapid succession I read several of the books from my shelves. I originally thought I'd mention all of them briefly, because I know some of you are or might in the future be fans of the authors, but it seems I have so much to say about the first two that they make a post by themselves.


I've been doing quite a bit of reading of MABEL ESTHER ALLAN's books in the past few years, and I can't even quite recall whether she first came to my attention because of Greyladies publishing some of her previously unpublished adult fiction, or whether it was because of Girls Gone By publishing some of her children's books. Whichever it was, my interest was quickly piqued and I quickly read all the books both publishers had reprinted and still wanted more, which led to me tracking down this lovely copy of Changes for the Challoners (1955), one of her fairly early family stories that Girls Gone By haven't got round to yet. (They can be readily excused, since Allan wrote over 200 books in all, and they have continued publishing more of her work in the past year or two—see here—but at this rate it will take them a good long time still.)

It could just be my perverse love for the most obscure books over those that are readily available, but I have to say that as much as I've enjoyed other of Allan's books, Changes might well be my favorite so far. And I actually don't think it can be entirely perversity, since even the merest outline of the plot—young girl moves to fictional city of Francaster, lives in old house backing onto abandoned shop in the city's medieval high street, makes friends with young aspiring archaeologist, and goes in search of lost Roman ruins—would fairly obviously (at least to anyone who read my post about our trip to England and Scotland last year) be quite enough to make me salivate.


Sure, it's all a bit of a wish-fulfillment fantasy. Charming, outgoing Perry goes out exploring on her first evening in Francaster and promptly rescues Charles from the storehouse he's got himself locked in while looking for evidence of Roman columns. They become fast friends, he shows her around town, and they rescue Laura, who has fallen into the river while boating with her cousin Gareth, and now they're a solid foursome. Record time for establishing a circle of friends in a new locale!

So no, it's not always terribly realistic. But as someone who would love little more than to relocate to a town like Francaster, it's a marvelous fantasy indeed. I would even be excited about unearthing previously unknown evidence of the old Roman settlement, though admittedly I'd prefer to do it with little physical effort and without getting overly dirty. Or having to dig.


There's a further subplot about Perry's sister Greta, who is only a bit older but has reached that awkward age when she thinks she should only care about fashion and shopping and acting sophisticated. When their cousin Angeline, the same age as Greta, arrives, Perry decides to blackball Angeline from the adventures she has with her friends, in the hopes that Angeline will make friends with Greta and make her cheerful rather than elegantly melancholy. But of course, Angeline has other ideas.

Knowing Mabel Esther Allan a bit, I had a feeling that Francaster would have been based on a real city, so I poked around a bit, and indeed, a listing on the Peakirk Books website asserts that it was closely based on Chester. All the descriptions of walking on the city walls and in the narrow medieval streets had me picturing York while I read (which no doubt made the fantasy more vivid, since Andy and I had already decided, after our trip, that York is precisely the city we'd like to move to, preferably without having to rescue people from rivers in order to make friends), but I'm sure the folks at Peakirk Books know more than I do. Which means I need to add Chester to our list of places to visit on our next trip…

From Changes, I moved on to what I now realize is another wish-fulfillment fantasy for me. MONICA REDLICH's Five Farthings (1939) is about a young girl who moves with her family to London (oh, the horror!) in order for her father to get medical care (for some odd illness that is conveniently serious enough to keep him in hospital for several months—while young Vivien and the rest of the family familiarize themselves with London and learn independence and self-confidence—yet trivial enough to never affect his cheerful mood or inspire any real concern).


The children stumble across the perfect flat for the family, which—as if the book were written only to fulfill my fondest wishes—just happens to be a mere block or two from St. Paul's, in the heart of the City. The following exchange will surely give anyone who knows about London real estate today a slightly bitter chuckle:

'And it wouldn't be any dearer than Kensington, would it?' added Vivien.

'It might even be cheaper,' said Mrs Farthing. 'I've always heard that City rents are fairly low.'

Young Vivien decides to keep house for the family so that their mother can go out to work while their father is happily ailing in hospital. The keeping house part is not so much a part of my fantasies, but in her spare time Vivien allows me to live vicariously by stumbling across a lovely small (fictional) church, learning that it, like St. Paul's, was designed by Christopher Wren, and exploring the city to find more of Wren's churches and other historic buildings. For part of this process, she has the assistance of a kindly man she meets in one of the churches, who happens to work for a nearby publisher:

He took her to the old, old church of St Bartholomew's in Smithfield, to Gray's Inn and Staple Inn and Lincoln's Inn Fields, to the Roman Bath tucked away a few yards behind the Strand, and down to the Embankment Gardens to see the beautiful water-gate designed by Inigo Jones three hundred years ago.

Although the book itself is quite cheerful, this paragraph, and some of the other churches and building mentioned, led me to a melancholy wondering about the fates of said structures within a year or two of the book's publication. I had to poke around a bit, and at first glance was happy to see that all the structures seem to still exist, but on further reading I discovered that St Bartholomew's and Gray's Inn, at least, along with St Bride's Church, which Vivien visits elsewhere in the book, were all significantly damaged or outright gutted during the Blitz, though apparently the famous spire of St Bride's, second only to St Paul's, did survive. (I also learned, for what it's worth, that the "Roman Bath" near the Strand is apparently likely not a bath at all, but a cistern from the 1600s, but it still looks interesting and it did survive the Blitz. These are the interesting tidbits one can only get from reading fiction.)


But apart from this melancholy distraction, Vivien goes on to fulfill my fantasies by becoming further entangled with the publishing world. Having dabbled just a bit myself in publishing, I loved the part where she learns about jacket blurbs:

'Well,' he went on, 'a blurb is the bit about a novel or some other book which makes you convinced that you must read it immediately. You know—"This dramatic life of William the Conqueror is as thrilling as any detective story,'' or "The everyday disasters of matrimony are sketched in with a light and witty touch." That sort of thing.'

'Oh, are those blurbs? I've often thought how difficult they must be to write.'

'They are. They're ghastly. Sackville's a genius at it, but it nearly makes him sick every time.'

I can't say that writing blurbs makes me sick, exactly, though I have agonized a bit about some of them. On the other hand, I'm hardly a genius at it either.

Five Farthings makes a very charming, entertaining family story, and a very charming fantasy about London life just before the war. And believe it or not, at the time that I first acquired it, it was actually still available from Margin Notes Books. Then, it sat on my shelf for two years, and of course there's now no mention of it on their site. Dammit. But I happened across my copy second-hand, so there is hope!

I have to leave you with one passage of the novel that would likely be considerably revised if it appeared in a new novel today. It's about nothing more shocking than a game Vivien and her siblings play of calling dibs on each of the unusual urban dwellers they come across. But in the chapter called "Queer People," it is just slightly jarring to modern ears:

'I'll tell you what, Vivien—I 'm going to start a collection.'

'What of?'

John propped his elbows on the marble-topped table.

'Of queer people we meet—un-ordinary people. In fact it can be a competition, if you like. Yes, that's even better. We each get a mark for any one we meet who the other agrees isn't ordinary. We'd have Dinah in it too, of course. What do you think of that?'

Vivien was not quite sure. It was a good idea, in its way—but collecting queer people was her own special province, as an author looking for material. She did not much care to share so important a matter with two irreverent children.

However, John was busy elaborating his idea.

'We ought to start fair, so I won't bag that old woman,' he said magnanimously. 'We'll begin to-morrow. Let's say that the first person to claim a Queer, after two at least of us have been talking to him (to the Queer, I mean), gets a point if the other one agrees. Wouldn't that do?'

I can't possibly add anything to that.

Monday, July 24, 2017

VERILY ANDERSON, Our Square (1957)


This makes the last of Verily Anderson's six humorous memoirs that I've read, though it was the second to be written. I've written about three of the others, but unfortunately I read Spam Tomorrow (1956) and Beware of Children (1958), the two books that sandwich Our Square chronologically, before I was blogging, so will have to use that as an excuse for re-reading someday soon. The three that I have written about are Daughters of Divinity (1960), The Flo Affair (1963), and Scrambled Egg for Christmas (1970). Of the six, Spam Tomorrow, which describes Verily's World War II experiences, and Daughters of Divinity, which describes her adventures at boarding school, are my favorites, but all six make for delightful reading, and Our Square proved no exception.

This volume traces Verily and her family's life in London in the years after the war, when the family's budget shortfalls and the city's housing shortage resulted in their house becoming a sort of cheerful three-ring circus:

Neighbours could let themselves in to help themselves to the right-sized pudding basins and friends and relations in London for the day, could use our house to wash and brush up without our even being at home. If at times it was rather like living on the pavement of Kensington High Street, so little privacy did it allow us, it gave our house that pleasant lived-in atmosphere some houses strive for centuries to achieve. Most of our country friends and relations only came to London once a year, but there seemed to be three hundred and sixty-five of them, for hardly a day passed without a country visitor.

Among other things, Verily must face the challenges of finding an appropriate school for her children (a memorable search, with careful investigation of a nearby school whose students seem unusually happy and well-behaved leading her felicitously to the local State school), finding—and affording—domestic help ("Nanny came. From the start she made it fairly obvious that it would take her years to reform our children. In fact, Marian would be almost grown-up before we could expect to notice a change."), dealing with Donald's sudden period of unemployment, and encountering a slightly eerie doppelganger family just across the street.


And of course, it wouldn't be a Verily Anderson book if illness didn't come into play. They do seem to have been a bacterial and viral hub! In this installment, the family weathers mumps, quickly followed by influenza, treated by a rather half-hearted woman doctor:

I sent for the doctor. He had 'flu. His partner came. She could just as easily have been a bishop's wife interested in art, or a hockey mistress interested in food. Her physical development was so great in all directions that she was unable to ascend the stairs without knocking at least one picture off the wall, which she then picked up and admired for its depth of colour. She was intense; she was verbose; she was apparently quite uninterested in being a doctor.

And those illnesses are punctuated with Verily's diagnosis with a gynaecological issue that may be limiting her ability to contribute further to the chaos of their home, and which may require surgery to correct:

A gynaecologist who had cured me after a year's tiresome illness following Marian's birth told me yes, there was something definitely  wrong. The details he gave me of my present complaint were sufficiently alarming to make me have to hang on to the back of the heavily carved chair to prevent myself from falling over. By the time he had finished, in his quiet polished unemotional tone, I had decided that the best thing for the children, as well as Donald, was for him to marry again as soon as possible after my untimely decease. I even put up one or two candidates in my mind's eye.

Of all the authors I think would have made lovely neighbors, Verily Anderson might be near the top of the list. She approaches even crises with her wry sense of humor and a "more the merrier" kind of zest. Of course, I might specify that she should live just a few houses down from my own, in my ideal literary neighborhood, as the noise might be a bit much to have next door…

I always look forward to the appearances of Verily's mother, and I wasn't disappointed here. One gets a clear sense of her energy and (almost too) lightning-fast mental processes from Verily's description of her arrival on a visit:

"I hope you make them put their beds up themselves," my mother said. "You must eat them today. They were shot on Saturday. They were both on leave together." Which meant that my mother's mind, hopping with the ease of a tit on a twig, had jumped from visiting relations to a brace of dead pigeons, which I now noticed she had laid across the arm of a chair. It was not they who were on leave, but their slaughterers, my two brothers in the Navy. "I wish I could get some nice long ones," she went on. "The last ones were so short they hardly lasted any time." She was off my brothers now and on to wicks from Barkers. I could tell that by the way she started looking for her bag and gloves.

My only regret now is that having read all of these lovely memoirs I have no more to look forward to. I don't know of any other memoirist who can quite match Verily Anderson, and I rather wish she had written 20 more. I have to take this opportunity, also, to share again the wonderfully informative obituary of Verily (see here) which Grace, a commenter on this blog, shared the last time I wrote about her. It gives such a vivid sense of how much fun it would have been to sit down to tea with such a witty, compassionate woman, who had seen hard times and weathered them with her humor and cheerfulness intact. (In fact, I rarely refer to authors by their first names, but it seems to come unthinkingly in the case of Verily.)



And while re-reading that obituary, I noticed something I must have read before but hadn't properly registered. Verily's third memoir, Beware of Children, about the Andersons' time running a holiday home for children, was filmed as No Kidding in 1960 (though apparently released in the U.S. with its original title?). As literary kismet would have it, it featured Geraldine McEwan in Verily's role and Joan Hickson as the cook who liked her drink rather too much. Both actresses, of course, are best known now for playing Agatha Christie's Miss Marple in two different television adaptations of the novels. To stretch the connections a bit further, a supporting role in the film is played by Irene Handl, who later wrote two novels that are just out of my date range.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

HILDA HEWETT, A Week at the Seaside (1955)




Mrs. Grose stood there, savouring to the full the exciting situation and her own part in it as purveyor of the news.

My, here was something to liven-up Seaview Terrace. Not five minutes' walk away, neither. Be able to stand at yer own front gate and watch 'em going to the show. See who went, and who didn't, and who went along with who! Almost as good as being on the route of the Carnival procession, she shouldn't wonder. A free show, almost. And talking of free shows, be able to sit in yer winder and hear the music.

The arrival of "The Seaside Frolics" for a week of performances at the run-down, largely abandoned pavilion is big news for Southsands, and will provide several local residents with more than mere entertainment…

I recently wrote about how I came to start reading Hilda Hewett, and reviewed her wonderful eighth novel, So Early One Morning. (I was so excited, too, to get to be a part of the new issue of The Scribbler on the very topic of Hilda Hewett!) After that positive experience, I immediately requested two of her earlier novels via interlibrary loan, and I snagged an affordable copy of this, her thirteenth, from Abe Books, rather bedraggled in itself but bearing an intact and very seductive dustjacket. (And no wonder the book itself is a bit bedraggled, as it bears a label from a W. H. Smith lending library—see pic below.)



If I can't rave quite as much about A Week at the Seaside as about the earlier novel, I can nevertheless report that it was very entertaining—a nice bit of light, effortless holiday-oriented reading, a little reminiscent, both in its show business themes and in tone, of Noel Streatfeild in her Susan Scarlett mode.

Most of the cast members of the Frolics find drama of one sort or another in Southsands, and each of the novel's plot strands involves at least one of them. At center stage, though only minor characters themselves, are the Frost sisters, Milly, Nelly, and Molly, who run the Collegiate School for girls, a rather deteriorating concern. Much is made of their flair in pronouncing "y" endings—happay, Mollay, busay, rainay, and so forth—which is frequently amusing but perhaps just a bit overdone. Their nephew is Hugh, a married man who's stepping out with Wendy, the Frolics' gold-digging soprano. This week, his estranged wife Helen has dropped their daughter Becky off with the Frost sisters at Hugh's request, to spend some time with her father. It's only later that she (and Becky) realizes that he's really in Southsands only because Wendy is there. The expected drama and discord follows.


Then there are various neighbors—gossipy Mrs Grose, officious Mrs Cole and her harrassed husband and son Robert, the latter of whom falls hard for Paddy, the Frolics' "soubrette" (or light flirty vocalist, as I discovered from Googling the term), the widowed Mr Belling, proprietor of the local hotel, who is ruthless in exploiting the labor of his daughter Pam, and the demanding Miss Coombs and her rather beleagured companion Miss Croucher, who develops her own crush on Cecil, the Frolics' manager and operatic singer, perhaps as an escape from her sometimes stifling home life:

It was characteristic of the regime at Sea Breeze that Miss Croucher's really prostrating headaches were dismissed scornfully as "her silly heads," whilst Miss Coombs's billious-attacks, brought on by over eating, were alluded to reverently as "her bad turns."

But it's really Becky who shines here, and I'm getting a clear feeling that Hewett's best strength is in portraying young girls. Becky has—as is usually the case—figured out far more of her parents' situation than they imagine she has, and is miserable at the thought that they might divorce. She is broody, and feels (understandably) betrayed by her parents, a feeling that's heightened when she's unfairly accused of losing the new trinket given to her by Hugh, when it was in fact stolen by another child with whom she spends an enforced and unpleasant visit. In her loneliness, she finds comfort in a friendship with Gerald, one of the Frolics' comedians, whose mother was a friend of the Frosts. He gives her a bit of her dignity and self-respect again by treating her as an equal, not condescending to her or scolding her, and he is himself an intriguing character because Hewett makes matter-of-factly clear that he's a gay man:

Gerald began to talk. He was not of the school of thought which thinks that conversation with a child must be initiated by a species of catechism. He did not ask her how old she was, whether she liked school, or the name of her favourite subject. He simply talked; and before they had walked very far Becky had acquired quite a lot of information about his flat in Dean Street, his friend Rupert, who lived with him, and his Siamese cat, Prudence.

If all the characters sound a bit dizzying presented in a couple of paragraphs, they're far more smoothly presented by Hewett (though there's a handy cast of characters at the front of the book if you do get confused). Wendy's charms start to wear thin with Hugh when he sees how self-absorbed she is, Robert and Paddy suffer the turmoils of young love, and Pam finds a shot at freedom from her father's tyranny after kindly offering to sew up a costume for the Frolics. Then there's a major London impresario whose car breaks down and decides to attend the show, a huge break for the performers that's threatened when Dorothy, the pianist, is struck by a car.

It's all quite entertaining, and for the most part everything works itself out just as you would expect it to. It's in no way as subtle or profound as So Early One Morning, but I didn't mind that very much. By this time in her career, Hewett was publishing with Robert Hale, a publisher that seems to have specialized heavily in romance and melodrama, and I couldn't help but wonder if she may have been pressured to tone down her best literary qualities and go for something with more immediate lending library appeal. Even so, however, her insight into young girls and how they think and behave come through here and there. One of my favorite examples is this passage featuring Becky and the terrible daughter of one of her mother's best friends (a different terrible girl from the one who steals her trinket—she apparently has bad luck with girls her own age):

Poppet was what she called Babette, though Becky thought Babette was a silly enough name, without inventing anything else. Having to be on show in the drawing-room, with Auntie Rosemary watching everything she did, and making remarks to Mummy in French was awful. She and Babette were allowed to take it in turns to choose what they wanted to do. Babette never chose something sensible, like Happy Families or Snap. She always wanted to listen to some music on the gramophone, something called " Swan Lake," and another thing with a funny name that was French. There she would sit, listening with her head on her hand, and her blue eyes very wide open. Auntie Rosemary would nod towards her, and whisper to Mummy:

"Miles away, isn't she?"

Becky, who had seen her rehearsing that particular expression in the bathroom looking-glass, along with a number of others to be assumed at suitable times, wondered how grownups could be so silly.

They certainly can be silly. Just look at our president…

Overall, the book is a light bit of "frolic", but one with some definite high points.

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Recent reading (MARGARET YORKE, STELLA GIBBONS, JEAN RHYS)

Here are three books I've read recently and didn't manage to do full-fledged posts about, but which are interesting enough to deserve a mention.




MARGARET YORKE, The Limbo Ladies (1969)

I picked this one up at a library book sale in the past year or two and was intrigued. Yorke is best known for her crime fiction, which I have yet to explore, so this novel about divorced women in the late 1960s seems to have been a bit of a departure. And it did indeed turn out to be somewhat intriguing, though perhaps more for its odd placement in time and literary history than as a novel I would highly recommend.

Yorke would have been in her forties herself when she published Limbo Ladies, so was perhaps writing from her own experience or that of women she knew.

'You're probably a bit over-prickly. Sarah,' Frances said. 'We limbo ladies often are hyper-sensitive.'

'Limbo ladies? What do you mean?'

'Oh, the state in which we live. Manless women of our age exist in a social limbo, don't you agree? It's different when you're younger. But after about, say, thirty-two or so, the pattern is, tidy pairs, and anyone who isn't neatly partnered off is out of the club.

The novel is a strange combination—somewhere between a late example of a cozy melodrama that Dorothy Whipple might have written (Sarah begins a new life after inheriting a cottage from a suffragette aunt!) and a somewhat old-fashioned, conservative entry into the realm of Margaret Atwood and Margaret Drabble—the edgier authors who were already exploring the complexities of women's lives with or without men (or perhaps most commonly recovering from relationships with men), seeking new, more feminist meaning in their lives.



It must have seemed like rather a strange anomaly even when it appeared, and now it doesn't really seem to fit in any category we recognize. I'm afraid my feeling was that it ended up neither fish nor fowl—neither lively and entertaining enough to be truly cozy nor quite interesting or profound enough to really shed light on the situations of the women it portrays. It was pleasant but, alas, rather forgettable.



STELLA GIBBONS, Here Be Dragons (1956)

A while back I raved about the final novel by Stella Gibbons, Pure Juliet, only finally published last year, while acknowledging that by no means everyone felt the same about it. This novel, from right in the middle of Gibbons' career, seems to have garnered more positive responses, though I was interested that several of the positive blog reviews nevertheless noted some reservations about it.


I was particularly struck by something Desperate Reader said, that "when reading Gibbons there is often something that jars in her work." This was in the context of a very positive review of the novel, and it made me think about the other Gibbons novels I've loved and why I've loved them, and I have to wonder ultimately if perhaps this jarring isn't exactly what draws me to her so much. Although there are any number of books I love that are delightfully polished and pristine, where every word and every character seems to fall into place exactly the way it should, I think some part of me feels that a book that jars a bit, that challenges me to understand why the author made the choices she did, or makes me interpret the point of it all in a more complex way in order to come to terms with what seems a discordant character or plot twist, is somehow more vivid and alive, more like real life. Books that jar somehow seem to fulfill a potential of literature that more polished works can't achieve.

Thus ends my literary philosophizing for the day. But ironically, after that, I have to admit that Here Be Dragons isn't my favorite Gibbons. Not so much because it jarred. Perhaps it didn't jar enough.

It's an odd novel, wonderfully atmospheric about artistic London in the 1950s, and yet distinctly unromantic in presentation. I made a note while reading it that the characters are interesting and sympathetic only to the degree that the reader is able to empathize with the young and stupid. Perhaps that's overstating it a bit (and anyway I generally have a pretty high tolerance for the young and stupid, within reason), but it is true that the characters, particularly the heroine's cousin John, spend a lot of time trying to be themselves, or to be free, to be artists, or to liberate themselves. What a lot of effort they expend with very little apparent result! They—or at least the more artistic of them—certainly romanticize their situation, but Gibbons never really does, with the result that much of the novel seemed rather drab and dreary to me.

This may be a negative in terms of having an entertaining read, but it's a refreshing contrast to some novels of the period (perhaps particularly those by male authors?) which seem to suggest that suffering for art (and making those around you suffer for it as well) and generally agonizing and wallowing and avoiding all civilized responsibility, are the most glamorous and brilliant of occupations. This is John's attitude, it seems, however unwarranted by any actual achievement on his part, but it's rather wonderful that Gibbons refuses to see him as the romantic figure he so wants to be.

And what prevents the novel itself from being merely drab and dreary itself is that the reader gradually sees the main character, Nell, growing, taking on more confidence, becoming more than the rather bewildered waif she was in the beginning. It's a difficult and—again—entirely unglamorous process, but once one realizes what Gibbons is showing us, it's a fascinating one. I have to admit, though, that in the end I wasn't sure it was all worth it. The setting certainly gives it bonus points, but next to the Gibbons novels I love the most, like Westwood or The Matchmaker or, yes, Pure Juliet, Here Be Dragons pales a bit for me.



JEAN RHYS, Sleep It Off Lady (1976)

My copy of this book was my very first charity shop acquisition on our trip to the U.K. last year. It came from the tiny unmanned (and unwomanned, for that matter) shop at Bodiam Castle, complete with a slot through which to place your pound coins or notes, trustingly assumed to be all present and correct for the books one carries away. I paid all of £2 for this pristine first edition with a pristine (and very lovely) dustjacket, and I knew my charity shop pillaging was off to a grand start.


I hadn't read Jean Rhys in ages. Probably around a decade ago I read her bleak Paris novel, Good Morning Midnight (1939), which I quite liked despite its bleakness, and went on to her final novel, Wide Sargasso Sea (1966), her most famous work and, as many of you know, a sort of prequel to Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre, explaining how the madwoman in the attic came to go mad in the first place. I hate to keep using the word "bleak," but Rhys certainly had a difficult life and so her perspectives are unsurprisingly a bit on the dark side. And her writing is, nevertheless, lovely and, for me, worth all the bleakness she can throw at me.



Sleep It Off Lady was Rhys's third and final story collection, mostly written, it seems, after her she was "rediscovered" with Wide Sargasso Sea (she published virtually nothing from 1939 until 1966, and had fallen into poverty and obscurity to the extent that she twice had to be advertised for—by the same actress, no less—for rights to dramatise her work for the BBC—rather incredible for an author now considered among the most important women writers of the century!). Her second collection, Tigers Are Better-Looking (1968), contained mostly work done in the 1960s, though some may have been from her earlier, "lost" years. Which means that Sleep It Off Lady, published when Rhys was in her mid-80s and only three years before her death, contains most of her very late work indeed.

There are a few stories here that I found a bit light, not entirely memorable, but there are others that are absolutely unforgettable. In "Heat", a child is awakened to witness, out the window, the eruption of Mt. Pelée and the destruction of St. Pierre in Martinique. That story wonderfully highlights the difference in perspective between superstitious natives who assume the destruction was to punish its wickedness, and the English on the island for whom the wickedness involved (the theatre and the opera house, for example) were small potatoes.


Similarly powerful is "Pioneers, Oh, Pioneers", set in 1899, when a Mr. Ramage arrives in Dominica seeking peace and quiet, married a native girl, and over time goes (or is driven) mad by tropical life. But while Mr. Ramage goes mad by "going native," another British "pioneer", Mrs. Menzies, is seen pompously riding her horse through town, carrying ice for her tea and wearing the "thick, dark riding habit brought from England ten years before". Unlike Mr. Ramage, Mrs. Menzies rather madly refuses to compromise her standards at all.

And there's even something here for fans of girls' school stories, of all things, since "Overture and Beginners Please" is a surprisingly humorous story perhaps reflecting on Rhys's own school days and her progression from school to her unsuccessful career in the theatre.

Three of the stories in particular—"Rapunzel, Rapunzel", "Who Knows What's Up in the Attic", and the title story—deal explicitly with getting old. They're all quite bleak (there's that word again), certainly not for the easily distressed reader, or the reader looking for a bit of good cheer! On the other hand, they are also powerful and dreadfully real in their perspective on the fears, comforts, and vulnerabilities of aging. One of the things one can love about Jean Rhys, if one is not too easily distressed, is her absolutely unflinching honesty and lack of sentimentality about the harsher realities of life.

These stories reminded me how much I love Rhys's voice—so much so that I've now picked up her other short stories, so I can keep it in my head for a while longer.

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Newbies (4 of 4)


The final batch of new additions to my main British Women Writers list is not filled with exciting discoveries, but there are a few interesting tidbits. Among them, it contains one of my favorite discoveries of the past year (I can't believe it's taken me so long to get her added to the list), and two more authors I came across as a result of my thrift store shopping in the U.K. last year. (I know, I know, this is the last time I'll mention it, I promise—at least for awhile.)


If you're a regular reader of this blog, you've already heard a lot about MONICA TINDALL, whose fascinating only novel, The Late Mrs Prioleau (1946), was reprinted by Dean Street Press as a Furrowed Middlebrow book a couple of months ago. 


I even ranked it #1 on my 2016 Furrowed Middlebrow Dozen last December. Tindall was the sister-in-law of Ursula Orange, three of whose novels were also reprinted by Dean Street, and she was the aunt of acclaimed author Gillian Tindall, who wrote the informative introduction to Dean Street's edition of The Late Mrs Prioleau. It's an underrated gem.


Of the two authors unearthed in Oxfam shops last year, I actually acquired a book by DOROTHY VERNON WHITE. I have Frank Burnet (1909) patiently waiting on the top shelf of my TBR bookcase, but I seem to keep checking other books out from the library, so I still haven't managed to read it. However, White is an intriguing figure. She published two other novels—Miss Mona (1907) and Isabel (1911)—so she just squeaks into my list's time frame. Her Times obit describes Frank Burnet as "a moral fable about weakness and strength of character, written with great intelligence and gusto." At age 30, she married William Hale White (who wrote fiction as "Mark Rutherford"), 45 years her senior. He died only two years later, after which she stopped publishing fiction. However, her Times obit also singles out The Groombridge Diary (1924), an account of their life together, as a particularly interesting work. For many years, too, White took Bible classes for impoverished youths, and she wrote about those experiences in Twelve Years with My Boys (1912).


On the other hand, I didn't pick up the book I came across by ELSPETH PROCTER, which might be just as well seeing as how the majority of her books turn out to have been Bible-related tales for younger children. The Mystery Plane (1935) looked somewhat entertaining, and it might well be, but I decided I could live without it. Her other books for older children include Shipwreck Bay (1938), The Pony Trackers (1952), and The Treasure Riders (1955). Has anyone come across any of these?

In one of the earlier posts in this series, I had the mysterious D. Katherine Brereton, whose one book, The Savages on Gale Island, doesn't appear to exist in any of the major library catalogues. Sue Sims helped shed some light on the mystery, by noting that that book's publisher, Spring Books, doesn't seem to have bothered to send their books to the major libraries. I have a similar mystery author in this post, and what do you know? She's also published by Spring Books. JOYCE BEVINS WEBB also published only one book, the school-themed The Clue in the Castle. That book is also in neither the British Library catalogue or Worldcat, but Barbara at Call Me Madam tracked down a copy and discussed it here. She described it as "a mad web of intrigue and coincidences," which apparently include a 29-year-old woman masquerading as a schoolgirl.

One of Jean Ure's pseudonymous romances

And speaking of Sue, I somehow missed adding JEAN URE to my list until now, despite the fact that she was clearly listed in Sims and Clare's Encyclopaedia of Girls' School Stories. Her first book, Dance for Two (1960), a ballet story, just barely qualifies her for this list, so perhaps that's how I missed her. Sims & Clare note the tremendous range of Ure's children's fiction, which includes a number of later examples of school stories. The Girl in the Blue Tunic (1997), for example, contains "one of the very few real ghosts to be found in school stories." For adults, Ure also published nearly two dozen romantic novels, including a series of Georgian romances under the pseudonym Sarah Mcculloch.


There are two more authors in this batch who are best known for children's fiction. JULIA RHYS published only two books—Crab Village (1954) and The Tinsel November (1962). The latter is described as: "A fantasy tale of a gloomy All Hallow's Eve, an old English house, some mysterious antique marionettes and a magical time of dark November days which will usher in the candle-glow of Christmas." 


ISABEL WYATT, meanwhile, is known mainly as a popular reteller of legends and folklore for children, including The Book of Fairy Princes (1949), Seven-Year-Old Wonder Book (1958), The Dream of King Alfdan (1961), King Beetle-Tamer and Other Lighthearted Wonder Tales (1963), and The Witch and the Woodpecker (1970). She also published non-fiction analyses of Shakespeare and the legends of King Arthur. Two early titles—Maid's Malady (1930) and Cheese Carnival (1934)—appear to be novels, but little information is available beyond the fact that the former may be a dialect novel set on "the moors."


Of the remaining authors, I find myself most intrigued by D. Y. RALFS, who published four novels—Alex and Me (1952), The Reluctant Lovers (1954), Babes in the Bois (1956), and Find Me a Daughter (1958). The Reluctant Lovers deals with the romance of a widow with her boarder, a widowed military man, and the complications their respective families cause, while Babes in the Bois, which has an irresistible cover illustrated by Virginia Smith, is about a middle-aged couple's first trip to Paris. Future ILL requests, I suspect.


VALENTINE TRAIL was the author of four novels, of which little seems to remain except largely negative reviews. Titles are David Armstrong's Curse (1904), John Paxton: Gentleman (1907), Was He a Coward? (1909), and The Mock Brahman (1931). Of the first, The Publisher's Circular said, "The story is badly written and as amateurish a performance as we have read for many a long day." Ouch.

Eileen Tremayne

What I know so far about EILEEN TREMAYNE doesn't inspire much more interest. Reading 1900-1950 reviewed Those Who Remain (1942) here. In The Flyer: British Culture & the Royal Air Force, 1939-1945, Martin Francis described Four Who Came Back (1941) as "a socially conservative novel, in which the heroes are officers from affluent families and the villain a pregnant working-class ATS typist, who wrongly accuses an army lieutenant of being the father of her child, in the hope of gaining his family's money." Hmmm. Perhaps not my cup of tea. She published eight other novels as well.


ELMA M. WILLIAMS was recommended for my list by David Redd (thanks, David!). She is one of numerous authors on my list who might be more interesting for their non-literary work than for their writing. Her 16 volumes of fiction appear to be mainly romantic thrillers, along with one children's title, Paul's Secret Courage (1967). But once she started earning money from her books, she acquired a hill farm in Wales and created an animal sanctuary, Pant Glas, which overlooked Dovey Estuary. She began publishing memoirs about her life among the various animals, and became even better known than for her novels. Those titles include Pig in Paradise (1964), Animals Under My Feet (1965), Heaven on my Doorstep (1970), and Ride a Cock Horse (1971).


I have some doubts about whether LOUISE ROURKE belongs on my list, but I decided to include her until I know for sure. She may have been born in South Africa, and she certainly seems to have wound up in Canada, as The Land of the Frozen Tide (1928) is a memoir of her life in Fort Chipewyan in Northern Canada. Her only novel is The Tree's Shadow (1930), which was included in a list I came across of works dealing with the Canadian prairies, but other details are lacking.

There's little to say about the final three authors in this post. AUGUSTA A. SMITH wrote three novels in all—The Fawcetts and Garods (1886, under her pseudonym), Matthew Tindale (1891), and the much later She Was His Wife (1936). The last was reviewed here. LILLIAS WASSERMANN was apparently a journalist and wrote nearly a dozen works of fiction, including several co-written with one Isabella Weddle (all too early for Weddle to get her own entry on my list). Wassermann's final novel, The Rest Cottage (1923), earns her an entry here.

And finally, E. KANE WEBB, real name Eileen Mary Webb, publishing four novels. Quinton's Rock (1927) and The Golden Chance (1931) are listed in Hubin as having a crime element, but no details are available. The others are The Shining Path (1924) and Temple, K.C. (1928).

Thus this post runs the gamut from some very interesting authors to several about whom too little is known to muster up much excitement. It's still always fun for me to come across them all, though, even if I don't feel compelled to rush right out and read their books.
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