Monday, January 30, 2017

LORNA LEWIS, Tea and Hot Bombs (1943)

This book has been on my Hopeless Wish List for years now. It's now vanishingly rare, and when copies do surface, they don't come cheap. I wasn't even absolutely sure if it was an adult novel or a children's tale, but I knew that it was set during the Blitz. I had also read that Lewis was the secretary and friend of E. M. Delafield (she is mentioned in the Provincial Lady novels, apparently appears in Virginia Woolf's diary as "Miss L," and was, according to the informative "Who's Who" website about Delafield, not much liked by Delafield's children).

But now, thanks to Grant Hurlock's incredible perseverance in tracking down the most obscure books on earth—as well as his generosity in sharing them—I have finally had a chance to read the book. Thanks very much for this opportunity, Grant!

And the opportunity turned out to be quite worthwhile. The book is a little bit uneven, a curious mix of adventure tale and wartime career story for girls, but its presentation of wartime events in and around London, through the eyes of a young girl experiencing them for the first time, is surprisingly effective and has a vivid ring of truth despite some obvious idealization.

Jackie Lawrence is an energetic seventeen (and a half) year old volunteering with the Emergency Mobile Canteen Corps until she turns eighteen and is able to join the WAACs. We meet her on her first day, as she is just learning the routine and having her first experience of driving a tea-van in London—having just slightly overstated her previous driving experience (I can't seem to find a clear reference to her home town, but she is from "the Downs," which I believe means Sussex). I can only imagine my own anxiety in such a situation, but Jackie takes it all in her stride. It's not long, however, until she (and we, through her eyes) begin to witness some of the drama and tragedy of the Blitz.

Although the dialogue and characters of the novel are a touch on the bland side, not terribly realistic and a bit too gung-ho and upbeat, even in the darkest moments, to be entirely believable, the descriptions of the city, of the Blitz, and of Jackie's first impressions of them are remarkably effective. I completely believed, for example, the sort of ghoulish thrill she feels at seeing bomb damage for the first time:

Then there was for her the added thrill of seeing so much real bomb damage, for the first weeks of the London blitz had left its mark pretty severely on the city. She gazed astonished at deep craters and huge heaps of ruins, at whole blocks of buildings of which there was little left but gaunt skeleton walls, twisted girders and torn woodwork. Sometimes the sight of half the floor of a house, its dusty, shell-torn furniture clinging precariously to it, or a wall ending in space but holding shelves on which books, kitchen utensils, ornaments and the like still perched, made her draw a breath of horror.

Ditto with the first time she hears the sirens, which though not really described in detail ("It was the first time Jackie had heard the weird wail of the raid alarm sound all over a big city.") somehow made me feel the eeriness of it a bit more than I previously had.

Of course, no reader will be even slightly surprised to find that it's not long until Jackie's desires to experience an air raid first-hand are fulfilled, and I think here too Lewis somehow managed, even with very simple prose, to capture some of the immediacy of the experience. Here are three bits from a scene that lasts several pages:

Jackie was just going to answer when there was a sudden sharp whistling sound as of something rushing through the air, followed by a dull heavy Broomph!

Charles Dale looked at Jackie. "Heard anything like that close to you before?" he asked.

"No. I suppose it was a bomb?"

"A bomb right enough. They must be gliding in. Generally you hear the zoom of the planes first. Ah, there go the guns!"

An outbreaking of loud banging had started, louder and nearer than anything they had heard so far.

They stopped at a cross-road for Mr. Dale to get out and see if the turning they wished to take was still open to traffic. For the first time Jackie noticed a steady zooming noise overhead, an eerie sound against the background of guns.

Mr. Dale stopped suddenly in the middle of his sentence.

For at that moment, with a shriek and a whistle, a bomb dropped apparently right over their heads and fell with a sickening crump! somewhere on the banks of the river just beside them. The van faltered, as though caught by a sudden blast of wind, then settled down and dashed forward again.

Before Jackie had time to recover from this surprise, there was another fearful whistling rush as another bomb fell. Then a third . . . . It wasn't until a fourth and fifth had fallen in quick succession, and the whole city seemed rocking with the crashes and the sound of their echo, that she realized that she was gripping the cash box with an iron grasp, that every muscle in her was drawn tight, and that she had clenched her teeth and held her breath, staring ahead of her with eyes that ached with the strain.

Whew! One can certainly believe, after such passages, this introductory note by Lewis at the beginning of the book:

Later in the book there's even more drama, including a slightly daft scene in which Jackie, otherwise a reasonably intelligent girl, idiotically demonstrates the risks of "careless talk," as well as the obligatory daring rescue and subsequent recognition, which might almost have been lifted from a school story of the time. But it's all entertaining enough, and if Lewis is by no means a great writer, her knowledge continues to come through in interesting details and effective description.

I admit I had rather hoped that, having been Delafield's secretary and friend, Lewis would have absorbed some of Delafield's wit. Alas, such is not the case, but her obvious first-hand knowledge of Jackie's experiences nevertheless make this book well worth reading.

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

WINIFRED PECK, Tranquillity (1944)

Those of you who have been reading this blog for a while already know that I’m a fan of Winifred Peck. I’ve reviewed several of her books previously, and her 1940 novel Bewildering Cares was my favorite read of 2014 and has subsequently been released on the Furrowed Middlebrow imprint from Dean Street Press. Her two mysteries, The Warrielaw Jewel and Arrest the Bishop?, have also been released in Dean Street’s Golden Age mystery series.

But it’s been a while now since I found time to continue exploring Peck’s other novels. There are still a dozen or so of her books that I haven’t read, and it was high time I got back to exploring them. The immediate inspiration this time was the most recent issue of The Scribbler (see my post on The Scribbler here), which discussed Tranquillity, 
which, like Bewildering Cares, is set in wartime, though several years later. And what an interesting contrast!

Set in the titular rest home established by sisters Mary, Paula, and Agnes Brown, primarily for the elderly and infirm whom war has deprived of the servants and caretakers who had hitherto made independent living possible, Tranquillity is a surprisingly somber and meditative novel by comparison with the earlier work. There is little plot to speak of—the nurses and staff interact with the patients and each other and have discussions about the war, religion, love, and aging. 

Some readers might find it a bit too uneventful, in fact, and perhaps the religious content a bit more intrusive than in most of Peck’s other work. And if it didn't completely work for me as a novel, I still found it compelling, and the religious discussion seemed completely sincere, perhaps the result of Peck’s own soul-searching in the midst of the war. Regardless, there is no doubt that the cheerful stiff upper lip of Bewildering Cares has given way to a more fatigued and philosophical trudging along. The horrors of the Blitz have taken place between the earlier novel and this one, and if Bewildering Cares was overwhelmingly life-affirming, Tranquillity is in many ways a novel about death.

The novel opens, in fact, with a discussion among Tranquillity staff members about the relative worth of the elderly and infirm as opposed to the young and vibrant, with one nurse (later proved to be a thoroughly dislikeable person for other reasons) suggesting that many of their patients should simply be put down like animals so that the energies of the staff could be more usefully spent. That theme, of the value of the old or disabled, is then revisited in the novel’s closing pages (I won’t spoil it here, but it works fairly well, I thought). I couldn’t help but wonder if this theme—clearly a central one in the novel—wasn’t also a result of Peck’s own soul-searching, not only as a woman in her 60s, but more generally as a noncombatant in wartime.

The following passage, too, about the nurses keeping busy to keep their minds off the war, is perhaps a bit shocking by comparison to the tone of Peck’s earlier work:

For like all women to-day they could only cling to sanity by fixing their minds on their immediate job and trying to find zest and interest in it. When once those eyes of the mind wandered to the world tragedy they were lost: in one moment their surroundings vanished, and they saw men, half-starved, half-drowned, hanging to rafts, their comrades screaming vainly for aid on burning tankers: they saw soldiers roll over in anguish on rocky crags of African hills or crucified on barbed wire in Tunisian deserts: they saw simple, single-hearted boys fasten themselves grinning into the seats of aeroplanes, who would be but charred skeletons by daybreak: they heard the laughter of bombers' crews like the rattling of the dice of Death. From these horizons everyone must tum to work of some mechanical kind, practical duties which would involve that utter fatigue which alone can give peace and sleep.

But if Tranquillity isn’t nearly as cheerful as Bewildering Cares or Peck’s mysteries, it does have a typically varied and vivid cast of characters. The story of the three sisters, for example, and how they came to own Tranquillity, is a typically double-edged Peck tale of independent women coming up against society’s restraints—in this case to ultimately succeed in their own quiet way:

When the World War began Mary was Matron of a famous London hospital; Paula Sister of a maternity hospital, and Agnes Head Sister of a Clinique for Rheumatism, and they held their posts with heroism while the Blitz raged over London. And then one by one had been summoned from work, success and responsibility by calls which not one of this very old-fashioned family thought of disobeying. Mary went home to nurse her mother, struck dumb and helpless with paralysis. Paula was called to an aunt who had aided the family financially for years and was dying by inches of arterio-sclerosis. And finally Agnes had to give up her work to nurse their little-known Cousin George, just because he was so cruel, miserly and dirty that no hired stranger would stay with him. And strange to say, all these Victorian sacrifices really did meet with the reward which would have been theirs in a Victorian novel. Agnes returned from her mother's funeral to find Cousin George at death's door. Paula, ringing up to say that her aunt's long imprisonment was over, heard that Cousin George had died of heart failure (in an attempt to cross the room and put out the gas stove for economy). A week later, in March 1941, the sisters found themselves free of all responsibilities and Agnes the heiress to a property beyond their dreams of magnificence.

Sister Agnes feels an affection for Dr. Lash, but Peggy, the most worldly of the sisters, has also set her sights on him. Then there are the nurses—the terrible Nurse Clegg; Nurse Zedy, “a small, stout, vehement little woman”; “Nurse Prime, a fat, ageing, fluffy blonde, with a terrible capacity for obvious remarks and pointless reminiscences”; “tall, lank, sentimental Nurse Ventnor,” who hails from a maternity hospital; and Nurse Storey, “a pleasant, substantial, middle-aged woman with a pug nose, small dancing eyes, a ready tongue and a great capacity for hard work.”

And this is to say nothing of the patients, which include an aging Colonel, “the ruin of a once smart, soldierly, efficient gentleman,” a kind upper-crust lady who has come to Tranquillity because her servants were all called up, scandalous old Mrs Coppetts, eccentric Professor Alured, recovering from a nervous breakdown after months of obsessive work (and now perhaps to be offered work in a secret government office), Miss Lyon, a passionate social reformer, suffragette, and officer in the WAACs during WWI, now fiercely resisting the decline of her physical powers, and numerous others. With the sad description of Miss Lefever, “so dim-sighted and so deaf that she seemed to pass most of her time in a coma,” we get another taste of Peck’s wry, subtle feminism, her frustration at the limitations of women’s opportunities:

And indeed Miss Lefever's life had been noted for as few virtues as vices. She had worn out her youth in a dull existence with her parents in a dismal mansion in Denmark Hill. She was forty before she had any control of herself or her money at all, and had not the least idea how to begin to enjoy herself when she had finally interred her relatives in another mausoleum in the cemetery. She knew nothing of the careers opening out to women at the end of last century: free to dispose of her life she decided, with health and plenty of money at her command, to enjoy nothing but a Little Ill-health.

There’s surely a touch of Peck’s trademark humor in that paragraph as well, and this is not the only place we find a lighter tone in Tranquillity. But such instances are certainly fewer than in other works. One observation that I enjoyed, uttered by Mrs Arroll though reported to us by Mary, concerns mystery novels (so perhaps Peck was already thinking of returning to that genre?):

She said that if only one had a nose for murder one need never pay rates or taxes, as the first remark of the police officer in command was always that no one must leave the house. If you could stay on in country houses for inquests, and adjourned inquests one after the other, you could manage, she said, without a home at all!

Ultimately, I found Tranquillity to be a touching and rather inspiring portrayal of (mostly) decent, dedicated people carrying on in very dark times. It’s not a perky, "we can take it" type of portrayal, but more of a sad "we’ll do our best for as long as we can" perspective. It’s undoubtedly a bit idealized, intended to be inspirational reading in a particularly difficult period, but it does also face up rather starkly to the realities of death and suffering and old age in a way that not a lot of "light" fiction did at the time. Leave it to dear Winifred to have surprised me yet again with the scope of her quiet observations about life!

I've managed to get my hands on another postwar Peck novel recently, and hopefully I'll get round to that one soon. Frustratingly, however, the one I'd most love to get my grubby little hands on, the follow-up to Bewildering Cares, called A Garden Enclosed, set in a Victorian rectory, seems to have practically ceased to exist. If anyone ever happens across a copy, or if anyone has actually read it, I'd love to hear about it. One for a new Hopeless Wish List, I'm afraid.

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

The wartime stories of Sylvia Townsend Warner

It was a little shocking for me, in preparing this post, to realize that I haven't written about Sylvia Townsend Warner here since my very first review back in 2013—which was, appropriately, of my all-time favorite novel, Warner's first, the amazing and lovely Lolly Willowes (1926). Though, to be honest, perhaps it's not all that shocking, since many of Warner's later novels are notoriously challenging to engage with. I read and quite enjoyed Summer Will Show (1936), but that was before I started this blog and so I haven't written about it here. And then I attempted, in succession, Mr Fortune's Maggot (1927), After the Death of Don Juan (1938), The Corner That Held Them (1948), and, most recently, The Flint Anchor (1954), and somehow never managed to finish any of them.

Mind you, I love the way Warner writes, and Corner has the unusual distinction of being absolutely positively my favorite novel of all time that I've never actually finished. It's set in a medieval convent, and is fascinating in its historical detail and its sharp, icy prose that is somehow so fitting for a book about that period. And for what it's worth, I love it tremendously in theory. It's just in practice that I get into trouble… (Do you have books like that? That you like for many reasons, but are unable to finish?) Similar things happened with my attempt to read The Flint Anchor. And as for Mr Fortune's Maggot, some of you will have noted that I picked up a new copy of the old green Virago edition in the U.K. in October, so I'll be making another attempt there soon. (I'm optimistic about it, as other bloggers seem to have liked it—I think I was just in the wrong frame of mind when I approached it before.) In fact, I'm hoping that 2017 will be the year of properly discovering all of Warner's work, and as I have a good deal of it already on my bookshelves, that project, at least, will require little or no book shopping expenditures!

At any rate, all of this was before I had ever really engaged with Warner's short stories, and it's they who have now given me a proper excuse to write about her again. I had been meaning to read the two story collections that include her wartime stories—A Garland of Straw (1943) and The Museum of Cheats (1947)—ever since a couple of the stories were mentioned in Jenny Hartley's marvelous Millions Like Us. Which was a few years ago now, so I'm right on time in finally getting round to them now…

Many of these stories first appeared in The New Yorker, not unlike the more famous wartime stories by the likes of Elizabeth Taylor, Elizabeth Bowen, and Mollie Panter-Downes. I know I make this sort of comment constantly, but I do wonder how it is that Warner hasn't garnered her own collection of wartime stories like Panter-Downes' excellent Good Evening Mrs Craven from Persephone. I happened to check, after reading these two books, to see which of them were included in the Selected Stories volume published in 1988 (and reprinted later by Virago), and I have to say that almost none of my favorites from these books were included. Was it just that publishers assumed readers in the 1980s couldn't relate to war stories? Whatever the reason, it's yet another reason for a collection focused specifically on wartime themes.

Which is not to claim that every story in these collections is a winner. There are a few bits of somewhat obvious propaganda ("Apprentice" and "A Functionary", for example), and a few more that I found a little bewildering ("The Museum of Cheats", "Unknown to History"). But most of the stories are entertaining at the least, and a good many are out-and-out brilliant.

To cut to the chase, my favorite from both collections is easy to select. "From Above" from A Garland of Straw, struck me as distinctly Lolly Willowes-esque in its story of a woman whose home—stuffed to the gills with her husband's highly cultured and treasured posessions—is threatened by a time bomb, and who finds herself feeling giddy with freedom and exhilaration at having a day away from the posh confines of her home:

With guilty alacrity she jumped on a bus; shameless and nimble as any cat running off with the cold pheasant, she ran off to make the most of her holiday. Hourly becoming more depraved, she told the manicurist all about the time-bomb in the Mews, and lapped up the sympathy that followed. At the record-shop too she told the man about the time-bomb, and he agreed with her that music was what she needed, music was the only possible comfort and solace. She played through an album of songs by Debussy, a type of music that James detested, and went out, having bought nothing, humming to herself a vague incantation of wholetone scale melodies in her husky voice that was like a pastel, for it smudged and never could stay in tune.

It's a funny story, and definitely a surprising direction for a time-bomb story to take, but it manages to get in a lot of subtle observations about married life and the quieter forms of feminine oppression and resistance.

"The Trumpet Shall Sound," also in Garland, likewise manages to take some morbid humor from the Blitz, as a gathering of mourners at a cemetary (of a man who has fallen over a bicycle in the blackout, no less) must seek shelter from a daylight raid by climbing into the freshly dug grave.

Then there are the stories about the unusual living arrangements inspired by wartime. "Sweethearts and Wives," from Museum is about a household comprised of three women whose husbands are away at war, along with their three children, and deals with the logistical difficulties of communal living. And "View Halloo," in the same collection, is the story of Antoinette, a woman who has taken a house in Wales to be out of harm's way, has advertised for fellow tenants, and is apparenly cheerfully living with the results—until she discovers the children playing at ghoulish ways of killing an apparently fictional woman named Mrs. Lawther. What starts as light and cheerful ends up as a rather disturbing, powerful little tale (I won't spoil it here).

Then there are the darker stories, at which Warner is also terribly effective. "Noah's Ark," from Garland, is about evacuees who give their hostess nightmares with their obsession with the wild animals in the London Zoo. Which doesn't sound like much of a theme, but it ends up quite poignant. And "Time's Silvering Hand," from Museum, is about a young boy entertaining an elderly woman with tales of the horrors he's witnessed in the Blitz, which she seems to enjoy a bit too much.

Warner is particularly brilliant with the little touches that show the ongoing effects of war. In "Mutton's Only House," a woman habitually looks for the quick glimpse of her own house through the trees as she returns home on the train, and mentions that now and then she has missed it and automatically imagined that the house has been bombed. And in "The Way Back," we see, in a simple reflex action, how war traumas linger in a returning soldier.

Most of these stories will certainly reward rereading. I've reread a few of them already, and noticed new things—Warner's delicate, skillful touches that that are so simple as to be easily missed but that, given proper attention, cause the story to open out with new meanings and new significance.

(As it happens, Simon at Stuck in a Book only recently wrote about Museum of Cheats as well—see here—and in fact named it as one of his top reads of the year. Happily, he was as enthusiastic as I am, and in fact his writing about one story in particular, "To Come So Far," made me go back and pay closer attention to it. I think I had rather breezed through it the first time, so thank you Simon for making me appreciate it more!)

At any rate, I had a great time with both collections, and they've led me to dive into reading Warner's diaries, which were reprinted by Virago, and to request Claire Harman's biography of Warner from the library. Plus, I'm happy knowing that Warner wrote a whole slew of other stories—a dozen or so additional collections in all. So, you'll likely hear more about her in the coming months.

In the meantime, I will leave you with a particularly amusing and wonderfully morbid metaphor, taken from "Boors Carousing" in Museum:

Beyond this, suddenly and surprisingly whitewashed and neat, was Miss Metcalf's dwelling, like a bandbox abandoned on the river's brim by someone who had committed suicide.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Sneak preview: March 2017 Furrowed Middlebrow covers & intros

I'm excited to be able to share with you now the official covers for the eleven new Furrowed Middlebrow titles being released by Dean Street Press in early March (if you missed the announcement just before Christmas, see here). I might be biased, but I think they've turned out brilliantly and I can't wait to see the finished products.

And before you scroll down and spoil the surprise, I'm delighted to be able to note that one of the covers is a particular standout thanks to the generous permission of one of the U.K.'s foremost and most beloved illustrators, none other than Shirley Hughes herself, who has allowed us to use her absolutely marvelous original jacket art from Elizabeth Fair's The Native Heath. Several of the original Fair jackets were enticing, but none so much so as this one, and I'm really thrilled that we were able to re-use it. We also got a warm feeling from the fact that Hughes and her daughter gave us positive feedback on our cover designs in general. 

In addition to fetishizing the covers, though, I wanted to mention the newly-commissioned introductions these books will include.

Some of you are already familiar with Elizabeth Crawford thanks to the wonderful intros she provided for our Winifred Peck and Rachel Ferguson titles last time around. I'm delighted to say she will also be providing an introduction to the six Elizabeth Fair reprints we'll be releasing in March. What's more, I understand Elizabeth has now made contact with a relative of this elusive author, so I'm very eager to see what information she is unearthing even as I write this!

For the Monica Tindall novel, we have an introduction by no lesser literary figure than Gillian Tindall, the author's niece and a spectacularly acclaimed author herself, while for Ursula Orange we have an intro from businesswoman and television producer and director Stacy Marking. I've had a glimpse of these two intros already, and quite apart from my excitement at the reprinting of the novels themselves, I'm very happy to have some fascinating new information about the authors' lives and careers.

And finally, for our edition of E. Nesbit's The Lark, we have a new introduction by author and historian Charlotte Moore, herself a Nesbit fan. Moore, many of you will already know, is the author of the acclaimed memoir George and Sam, about her family life with two autistic sons, as well as Hancox: A House and a Family, about her Tudor family home in Sussex.

As I mentioned before, the books will be released in early March. They should start becoming available for pre-order on Amazon and other sites in the next few weeks.

But now, without further ado, the covers!

Saturday, January 7, 2017

Playing catch-up (as opposed to ketchup) part 1 (GWENDOLINE COURTNEY, MAUDE S. FORSEY, MABEL ESTHER ALLAN)

I do have some catching up to do on recent reading to mention, and I'm starting off with an unusually cranky post about three children's books I've read in the past few weeks. Oddly, two of them—the ones I'm cranky about—were by authors I have otherwise loved and enjoyed quite a lot, while the third, which I'll place in the middle of my discussion to alleviate the snarkiness, and which proved to be an absolute delight, is by an author I'd never read before (and who, indeed, wrote very little else).

First, GWENDOLINE COURTNEY, author of one of my absolute favorite "children's" books (scare quotes because although it's certainly suitable for children, there's really very little reason adults can't enjoy it just as much), the wonderful postwar Sally's Family (1946), as well as other terrifically enjoyable books like Stepmother (1948, aka Elizabeth of the Garret Theatre, aka Those Verney Girls), Long Barrow (1950, aka The Farm on the Downs), and The Girls of Friar's Rise (1952). I've written about her a couple of times before here.

Now, At School with the Stanhopes (1951) falls right in the middle of those favorites, time-wise, so perhaps I was just generally in a bad mood as I was reading it. It certainly seems to have all the elements of a fun, frivolous, girl-ish read—16-year-old Rosalind is pulled from her classy boarding school and stuck living with her older brother Richard, a stodgy but brilliant historian, and his teenage "factotum" and general housekeeper, Henry (an odd domestic arrangement all around). Richard and Henry are both distinctly anti-girl (no, not in that way—though frankly it might have been more fun if that were the case), and Rosalind is a waifish, insecure girl prone to navel-gazing and moping around such that I would have been even more opposed than Richard and Henry to the thought of her living with me. Ahem.

Fortunately, there's the charming Stanhopes to save the novel from tedium, even if they were unable to save it completely in my eyes. Kate Stanhope is a young mistress from Rosalind's old school, who inherits a property nearby and decides to bring her numerous younger sisters and start a school for them. So it's sort of a school story, though certainly not in any traditional sense, as most events still take place outside of school hours. Rosalind is naturally invited to be a student, and the madcap younger Stanhopes make it their mission to wear down the defenses of Richard and Henry. And to be fair most of their escapades are entertaining enough—Courtney is always on firmest ground when she's writing about feisty families.

Overall, though, it seemed to me that Courtney was struggling to keep the story going, and the plot of Rosalind's meek, cardboard drama queen personality and Richard's obsessive stodginess had already dragged out too long at the end of 50 pages, let alone 200. It was compromised too by Courtney's determination to have it both ways—presenting them both as kind-hearted, smart, and loving, and yet remarkably stunted emotionally when it came to working through conflicts and misunderstandings that should have been resolved in a matter of days. I rather wanted to knock their heads together on more than one occasion.

I also have to say, although I hardly expect girls' stories from the 1950s to be pillars of feminism, one really sees quite clearly here Courtney's rather traditional views of women and their roles. Which is fine, it's just a bit too explicit here for my enjoyment. All of the characters seem to view it as a tremendous victory when Richard deigns to allow Rosalind to begin cooking and cleaning and acting as hostess when he has a guest. Kate Stanhope, head of the school, notes that Rosalind is 16 years old and it is therefore high time that she get used to serving as hostess. Ah, yes, Rosalind clearly has a bright future as some man's doormat ahead of her! Of course, it's all tied up with the ridiculous relationship between brother and sister, and so there is some plot-specific justification for seeing things in this way (by asking her to host a luncheon party, Richard is acknowledging Rosalind's existence and capabilities), but it definitely grated on my nerves.

Sadly, I don't think this particular title from Courtney will ever require a re-reading.

On the other hand, MAUDE S. FORSEY's Mollie Hazeldene's Schooldays (1924), also a rather nontraditional school story in its way, I embraced wholeheartedly.

It's a very quiet, sweet little story, refreshingly free of near-drownings, avalanches, bear attacks, sniper fire, or any of the other melodrama that school stories sometimes resort to (okay, maybe the last two are exaggerations—or are they?). Schooldays focuses on ordinary, mundane school life, beginning with the charming, gently troublemaking Mollie's first arrival at school and continuing until her schooldays are complete. Some of the big dramas include Mollie and chums learning to ride a bicycle, planning an entertainment for girls from another school, and producing a school magazine—generally quite plausible and unsensational, though with an occasional schoolgirl silliness that made me giggle more than once. Two of my particular favorites to share—first, the girls mockingly bringing the slightly dim Leah Sheepwash to her senses over her collection of fraudulent and far-fetched supposed historical items, by sharing with her a few relics of their own:

"You wouldn't sell me that quill, I suppose?" she hazarded doubtfully, looking at the treasure with longing eyes.

"Sell the Langton heritage?" exclaimed Alice dramatically. "No—not for Venice!" Wrapping the feather in pink tissue paper, she replaced it in her box, and held up the next—a dried piece of orange peel. "Now, Leah, you've no doubt heard of the downfall of Napoleon?"

"Oh yes, of course," agreed Leah.

"Well, this is what he fell on."

"I didn't think it meant an actual downfall," put in Leah doubtfully.

"This was the cause of his second downfall, and was picked up on the island of St. Helena, and handed to a sailor ancestor of mine, a certain Jack Langton, by the great Bonaparte…"

Purely silly, but I dare you not to grin a little at Leah's gullibility. I also loved, later on, Mollie's defense of her controversial ending to the potboiler the girls have been writing in installments for the school magazine, alternating chapters between them:

"What made you so cruel as to send the dear young man with the copper-coloured hair to prison, Mollie Hazeldene, and to marry the heroine to a perfect stranger?" demanded Jessie.

"Considering he had shot two villains in Chapters VI. and VII., and made off with a bag of gold in Chapter VIII., I thought it was about time,'' I announced. "Any stranger was better than that hero. Besides, only a stranger would ever marry the heroine. No one who knew her would take her on."

Not exactly riotous humor, admittedly, but so genuine and energetic I couldn't resist it. Unlike many of the school stories I've read, this one will certainly make for an occasional cheerful, comforting re-read.

Of course, if you prefer your schoolgirls defeating smugglers, crawling out of the chimney of a burning room, or sliding down a glacial crevasse to their almost-certain doom, Mollie Hazeldene's Schooldays isn't the place to look. But for a really gentle, charming look at more or less realistic school life in the early years of the 20th century, you could hardly do better.

Oddly, after publishing Schooldays in 1924, Forsey doesn't seem to have published again until one more school story, Norah O'Flanigan, Prefect, in 1937. An earlier book, Jack and Me, appears to be for younger children (though a contemporary review praises it for some of the same strengths I mention above, so it might be worth checking out, given a chance), and several other titles listed in the British Library, mostly in the years 1937 and 1938, appear to be the short plays for children which Sims and Clare mention. From what researcher John Herrington was able to discover, it appears that Forsey had been a schoolteacher for some time before her marriage in 1925 (the year after Schooldays appeared, so perhaps we have a reason for the long delay of her next book after all?). She would have been 40 years of age when she married (born August 30, 1885), and she lived on until 1971. If only she had found time for more writing!

From that high point, it's back to another low point. If At School with the Stanhopes was the least of my Gwendoline Courtney reading, then A Summer at Sea (1965) is surely the dregs of the MABEL ESTHER ALLAN reading I've done.

As many of you already know, I am ordinarily an enthusiastic fan of Allan's work, especially those novels focused on teenage girls just on the verge of adulthood, which I think she does especially well. I've previously written about her several times—you can click here if you want a trip down memory lane—but this one just didn't quite work for me.

The heroine of A Summer at Sea, 18-year-old Gillian, is sent for a summer on a sort of low-budget small cruise ship, to help out her aunt who runs the ship's shop. In part this is to help her recover from a heartbreak at the hands of an older man, Robin, who has strung her along and then dumped her for someone else. The ship travels to destinations such as Amsterdam, Copenhagen, Bergen, and an unplanned stop on the Scottish isle of Barra. As one would expect, Allan's travel descriptions are a high point—she clearly loved travel herself and here as elsewhere that enthusiasm comes across.

Sadly, however, Gillian, although her emotional state is understandable to an extent, is not a terribly enjoyable character with whom to be sightseeing—whining and moaning and fretting her way along in an apparent determination to wallow in self-pity to the fullest extent possible. Where many of Allan's heroines have a sort of self-possession and quiet dignity that shines through even their natural insecurity at facing the world, Gillian seems peculiarly wet blanket-ish. (Perhaps she and Courtney's Rosalind might profitably have spent some time together, and I would be all in favor of such a therapeutic friendship—as long as I don't have to read about it.) Her anxiety and fear about opening herself to a new romance, too, is comprehensible, but not particularly effective as a plot device. The book is a pleasant enough read, but not a memorable one, and for rereading purposes I'll happily stick with the greater subtlety and polish that The Vine-Clad Hill/Swiss Holiday or Catrin in Wales have to offer.

Bookseller label from my copy of A Summer at Sea

Yikes. As you know, I rarely talk a lot about books I don't like here, as I enjoy focusing on the positive. I also don't like to bash books that others may actually enjoy quite a lot, and so I do wonder what other Courtney and Allan fans think of the books I mention here. But I also have to admit that I have another of these cranky posts gurgling along in my psyche at the moment, that will probably be following soon as part of my attempt to catch up on my recent reading. After that, I promise I'll be back to raving about how wonderful the books I've read have been and dammit, why aren't any of them in print!

Monday, January 2, 2017

Not quite resolutions...

I'm one of those people who tend to see January 1 as just another day—usually just one day closer to the end of the holidays and a dreaded return to the workaday world. I've never been able to see it as some kind of magical chance at a new beginning, as a few of my acquaintances seem to. For me, I think it's always today that matters, whether today is January 1 or June 12 or October 27. Any of those days are opportunities to take charge of our lives, to organize our desk, clean out the closets, polish up the résumé, get to the gym, or (more likely, in my case) just barely manage to do one of those things.

Which is why I don't do any kind of New Year resolutions—at least not any that are different from the things I'm constantly resolving I should do the rest of the year. On the other hand (you should know by now that I usually have several hands, rhetorically if not—alas—in physical reality), I do find that the end of a nice relaxing vacation can be quite an inspiration in itself and can leave me feeling a bit more resolved about goals and tidying up (including blog tidying). So, this post is a weird hash of what we did on holiday and what I'm looking forward to doing in the coming months. But without any real resolutions of the traditional kind—though come to think of it, cleaning out the closet wouldn't be a bad idea...

I really haven't done anything blog-related since the middle of December, except that I finally got round yesterday to responding to the lovely comments on my last post. In fact, I was hardly online at all—only checking email enough to ensure that comments got posted and any crises were dealt with (none arose, happily)—and let me tell you, being offline for a week or so now and then is a truly liberating thing.

Adding to my ability to stay offline was the fact that that our apartment was the site of a mini-mass extinction of electronic equipment reminiscent of the culling of beloved celebrities over the holidays (so heartbreaking about Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds, and gut-wrenching to have heard about George Michael—whom I saw in concert on the Faith tour years and years ago—in the middle of Christmas dinner). Apparently it was all too much for my cell phone, which also died some time between December 23 and December 30—I was off the grid to such an extent that I hadn't looked at it between those days, so perhaps it died of holiday loneliness. I would say good riddance, maintaining a healthy loathing for cell phones as I do, except realistically I shall probably have to replace it before long, even if it's mainly used for calling Andy on my way home to see if I should pick up something for dinner.

At almost the same time, my Kindle had a sort of nervous collapse (grief at the loss of George Michael?), suddenly rebooting itself dozens of times in succession until the battery went dead. Recalling all the personal data undoubtedly stored on it, I managed to get it restored to factory defaults (i.e. deleted everything that wasn't on it when I bought it) when it briefly returned to its senses, and it has been limping along sporadically ever since—albeit less usefully without any of my information on it—while I await the arrival, any day now, of a brand new one. Note that while I loath my cell phone, my Kindle is more or less a constant companion. But at least it scheduled its nervous collapse for the holidays, when I needed it less than at other times.

In between coping with this strange devastation of devices, however, we had a marvelously restful, enjoyable eleven days off from work. We had a lovely Christmas dinner with friends, and did absolutely no travelling (the UK in October was a dream trip, but rather exhausting, and we spent Thanksgiving with Andy's family in San Diego, so it was bliss to be at home for a nice long stretch).

We worked on a jigsaw puzzle of one of our possible next travel destinations, Spain, a tradition of ours at the holidays, when it tends to be rainy and chilly in San Francisco (though, alas, no snow, ever). We saw one movie, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them—enjoyable but not on par with the Harry Potter films, I thought? But we spent a lot of the time in between wrestling with the puzzle watching British television on Netflix and Acorn TV. We finished off (years behind everyone else) the last of Poirot, which I thought was impeccable and Andy loved as well—though it did have some of the unevenness that is inevitable from the varying quality of the novels. Who knew, though, that Five Little Pigs, one of the dullest of the novels, would adapt so well for television?! We've now started watching the Marple series. Not quite so good, I think. The main problem for me is casting, which was so perfect in the case of David Suchet. Geraldine McEwan seems like she should be perfect too, but somehow it doesn't work quite so well. I wonder why? And sadly, I already know from a horrified encounter with the series when it first aired that I won't be able to stomach Julia McKenzie at all. As Colonel Hastings would say, "Good heavens!" What on earth were they thinking?

And while I'm catching you up on our TV watching, we also got Acorn TV again, and so were able to watch all nine episodes of the Agatha Raisin series, which Del, a kind reader of this blog, had alerted me to. Andy and I both loved it, and are yearning for more episodes, but it seems as though the one series may be all? I read that ratings were not all that could be hoped and a second series was unlikely. Drat. It was funny, though, that we sat and watched all nine episodes, and kept thinking and commenting how familiar the village of "Carsely" was. But it wasn't until we finished watching that we looked it up and found that we had, in fact, been there on our trip in October. To prove it, here's a pic of Andy in front of Agatha's house.

Andy paying a visit to Agatha Raisin

And, since we have Acorn TV again, we can also now finally watch the last season of Doc Martin, which Netflix didn't have. That has become one of Andy's favorites, and it gives us another idyllic locale to fantasize about, though in this case we did not make it to Cornwall on our trip, so I have no pics of us in "Port Wenn" to share with you.

Obviously, with all this flollopping around watching telly and working jigsaw puzzles and watching my electronic devices die (we did make it to the gym several times, by the way, so it wasn't all lying and sitting around), I didn't spend any time at all on the blog or my research—with one bit of an exception.

A while back, a couple of different commenters on the Not-Quite-So-Overwhelming List—my shorter list of some of the particularly well-known middlebrow women from my Overwhelming List (which I realize I haven't updated or revised in any way in ages)—suggested the possibility of a list of the best books by these authors for new readers to start with. And the suggestions seem to have triggered my inate love of lists to such a point that I kept glancing at my bookcases, or at blog posts from other bloggers, and thinking, "Well, obviously, that would have to be on the list."

The idea that I'm working with a bit—and I might as well bounce it off of you all here—is a list of books (I'm thinking 100, but we'll see), limited to a single title by each author (so, obviously, 100 authors). It will not be a "100 best" list, which I find absurd, since reading is so subjective and different readers enjoy different things. I don't want to get into trying to judge which books or authors are better than others, and I want to be as objective as possible in including books and authors that I don't love myself but I know that others love. So I wondered if I could put together a kind of syllabus, you might call it. A class syllabus—at least if it's a good class—should always be a sort of gateway that leads you into lots more good reading and knowledge on your own. It should just give you starting points, logical places to begin, from whence you can see where your own readerly instincts take you.

So, I have been poking around a bit at that, and suggestions as to approach are certainly welcome. It's a work in progress, but will hopefully be ready for posting in a month or two.

And while writing about upcoming things, I can tell you I've also been working on a new, expanded version of the Overwhelming List, which will come to replace the one that's currently posted. I've long known there was a desperate need for me to go back over the whole list. In some cases, I have lots more information in my database than is included in the list, and I hate to have research go to waste. When I first created the list and it was growing by such leaps and bounds (it still is growing, but a bit more slowly), I was rigidly limiting myself to a few lines about each author. Now I want to throw away that limit (though obviously some restraint will still be necessary about an author like Agatha Christie, for example, about whom volumes could be written). I want to include all the information I have about authors who are less well-know, about whom information elsewhere on the internet is very sparse, and I want to include at least the main salient points about even better-known authors.

I've already been working on this project, too, though it's a slow process. I've reached the C's after a couple of months of work. Yikes! So, I think I'll begin posting it as I complete each section, rather than waiting until it's all complete. I have to figure out the logistics, and make some more tweaks, but I hope to get the first couple of pieces of that list up in the next couple of months as well.

Lists and research are, as you all know, what I love doing most. But I do also have some new reviews for you, and I really need to go back and catch up a bit on what I've been reading in the past couple of months. I hate it when I read something interesting and then don't get round to writing about it until I've forgotten half of what I wanted to say. Alas. But I'll be working on that as well.

And finally, I already announced the new Furrowed Middlebrow titles are coming from Dean Street Press in early March, and I'll have the covers of those ready for posting in the next couple of weeks (Rupert at Dean Street has outdone himself, in my opinion). After that, as I mentioned, we're targeting a September release for our third batch of titles, and I'm excited to say that I've already sent Rupert my proposed titles for that batch. These include one that might be me setting my sights a bit high, but we'll see what happens! Do keep your fingers crossed for amenable heirs and estates, and hopefully we'll have some exciting revelations about those down the road.

It's rather melancholy that our lovely vacation is nearly over. I'm certainly feeling rested and rejuvenated, though I am by no means looking forward to getting back to my day job. But, needs must! (Note to self: time to play the lottery a bit here and there...)

Hope you all had wonderful holidays!
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