ORIEL MALET, Beginner’s Luck (1953)
I admit that girls' ballet novels are not exactly a central concern of mine on this blog. I don't think I've ever actually read one before (though, as luck would have it, I stumbled across a nice vintage copy of Rumer Godden's A Candle for St. Jude at Shakespeare & Company in Berkeley a while back, so it looks like I'll be reading another soon!).
But Oriel Malet certainly fits the blog, and she's one of those writers about whose novels not a lot of information is available online—at least apart from Marjory Fleming (1946), which has been reprinted by Persephone. So when I came across Beginner's Luck at the giant book sale way back in April, I wavered for a moment and then tossed it in my basket. (I think it was the charming cover illustration of two girls in tutus—who appear, to my eyes, to be doing the robot dance rather than a pirouette?—that sealed the deal.)
|Am I wrong, or are they doing the robot dance?|
With this limited experience, I might not be the best person to judge, but I found this to be an enjoyable enough but rather run-of-the-mill story. It deals with three children whose famous show business parents were killed in a train crash and who now live with their stodgy aunt and befuddled uncle. Jenny, James, and Victoria have been kept in ignorance of their parents' fame because Aunt Horatia's sensibilities are appalled by the mere suggestion of show biz folk and she wants to keep the children on the straight and narrow. Aunt Horatia's personality is perhaps symbolically summed up with Malet's description of her house:
Aunt Horatia’s house was newer than the cottages, and it was rather like herself, a stiff, upright sort of house with a very neat garden full of paths and little flower beds and trees clipped short all over, like poodles. Inside there were quantities of small tables standing on very polished floors and loaded with fans and snuffboxes and all kinds of things which are very likely to tip over unless you are careful.
Jenny, who dreams of being a ballerina, has escaped until now her aunt's prohibition on show business because a doctor suggested that dancing might help her health. But as the novel opens Aunt Horatia has decided enough is enough and puts an end to her dance classes. Oh, dear.
Fortunately, as so often happens in children's books (and far too seldom happens in real life in my own personal experience), a series of not-entirely-believable coincidences result in the children being left entirely to their own devices for weeks on end: Aunt Horatia is called away to Canada (where James hopes she'll be chased by a herd of bison); the housekeeper, Mrs. Macdonald, quits in outrage because Aunt Horatia has arranged for a governess for the children without advance warning of the extra work involved; and finally, predictably, the governess writes to say she must cancel the engagement.
The children decide to use their unaccustomed freedom to track down a young maternal aunt, an actress in a repertory theatre in Brunsden. An equally liberal number of coincidences and benevolent strangers move the plot along enjoyably enough, and it would be hard to imagine a happy ending not following in their stead. In the meantime, James has adventures in a hoity-toity modern art gallery and a bookstore that sounds like a dream come true (with an owner who “is deaf, so he can’t hear what you say to him; he is short-sighted, so he generally counts your change wrong; but he once shook hands with Mr. Dickens, and some people think this is much more important than their change”), which reveal his innate comic abilities; Jenny learns that natural skill isn’t everything and dedication, work, and generosity have their place; and it emerges that the ordinary Victoria may be more extraordinary than expected.
As I said, enjoyable enough. But Beginner's Luck is just a bit blandly sweet for my taste—with little of the subversive sense of humor that has made later (and even earlier) children's books so memorable and beloved. In fact, sadly little humor at all can be found here beyond a rather obvious cutesy-ness and the occasional befuddlement of various adults faced with the mild mischief of the children.
By the way, the book's illustrations, by Fritz Wegner, are rather like the story itself—perfectly appropriate and adequate, but lacking any extraordinary charm or personality.
All of which makes me feel like I'm being curmudgeonly, so I will conclude, as I usually try to do, with one entertaining quotation, in which the children wrestle with adult morality:
“Children are not allowed to gamble,” Emily said. “It would ruin our morals. Like reading comics and going to the theater.”
“But we act in the theater.”
“That’s all the worse for us. We’re ruined already, then.”
“How interesting,” Jenny said. “I don’t feel ruined a bit.”
“Perhaps not yet,” said Emily darkly. “It only shows when you are grown-up. That’s why older people are so often wicked and children never are. Everybody knows that.”
interrupted, opening her eyes wide, “I believe you are talking nonsense.”
And that's about as good as it gets…
DOROTHY EVELYN SMITH, Lost Hill (1952)
Dorothy Evelyn Smith is an intriguing writer.
A while back, I wrote very enthusiastically about her 1959 novel Miss Plum and Miss Penny, which is now one of my favorites—funny, dark, just edgy enough, and very perceptive about both the darker side of character motivations and the ordinary side—the ways people get stuck in their habits and routines and obsessive pursuits, for example—the latter of which of course I know nothing about…
So, I promptly ordered two more of Smith's books, and enthusiastically dived into Lost Hill. Sadly, the enthusiasm died down a bit as I read on.
The novel centers around Jenny Rowland, a well-off widow whose husband, George, was generally unpleasant and is apparently missed by no one. As she is gradually reawakening from a kind of numb misery and realizing her newfound freedom and wealth, a handsome Gypsy, Gethin, arrives with a sick child, Clem, in tow and camps on her land. Around the same time, her handsome neighbor, Tod, returns from war service.
The triangular plot which develops is a sort of romantic melodrama—admittedly not one of my favorite types of novel—with some requisite examples of rather embarrassing prose, such as this passage from the perspective of Jenny's brazen housemaid, Iris, meeting Gethin for the first time:
Her eyes rested on him in frank desire. The black, wiry curls, the brown skin, the eyes dark and unfathomable as the
grace of his thin, supple body. … The afternoon might be passed in a pleasanter
fashion than picking filthy bilberries.
In its defense, however, Lost Hill does contain some traces of the strengths of Smith's later book. Only a couple of pages after the above gushiness, Smith comes up with this stronger bit of descriptive writing:
He flashed a sudden white smile at her and turned away. The cart’s wheels began to creak again. The pony tossed his head and the flies rose, buzzing, and settled back, obscene and insatiable.
And although humor of the kind found in MPAMP is absent here, there are definite traces of a sharper, more ironic sensibility, as in the housekeeper's view of the dead:
The dough creaked and smacked in the earthenware bowl as the brown, stick-like arms worked powerfully. The old woman thought poorly of Mrs. George, as she had of George himself when he was alive. She did not approve of the living. The dead were different. Virtue emanated from them with their latest breath; hung mistily in the memory for evermore. Even Owd Missus, with whom she had waged bitter warfare from the moment she entered her service, forty years back, had now become a saint in her mind.
There is, in all honesty, not a large number of these high points, but I do have to say that I still found the book highly readable. Its most interesting element is perhaps that, although it purports to be a romance, the real passion in the novel is in Jenny's love for the little boy, Clem, who awakens what might be motherly instincts—or might, indeed, be merely a more selfish need to be loved—or to steal his love from Gethin. When Jenny contemplates a lifetime of wandering with Gethin, her real priority is clear:
She gave her fancy full rein, whispering the name to herself, watching her lips whisper it in the dim circle of the mirror. Gethin was a forest of whispering leaves. A dark forest, full of unknown paths and bottomless pools flecked with pale weed, stirred by secret slither of unseen life. … And enchantment? Wasn’t there supposed to be enchantment in forests? If you were not alone in the forest, say, but held the warm, loving hand of a little boy close in your hand? Wouldn’t that be enchantment enough?...
But Clem is not just the vulnerable (and initially very ill) little boy that she imagines, and the conflicts all three of the main characters experience in relation to him do provide some real depth of character. I'm not sure I can passionately recommend the novel on that basis, but it's enough for me to retain my interest in Smith. Could there be another Miss Plum and Miss Penny among her other novels?
By the way, my copy of Lost Hill is a People's Book Club edition, which means that it has those nice illustrated endpapers that PBC often did so well. The ones here, by Barye W. Phillips, certainly fit the melodramatic tone of the novel, but are really rather nice nevertheless.
|Endpapers of the People's Book Club edition of Lost Hill|
The other title I picked up after reading MPAMP is The Lovely Day (1949), which appears to be less of a romance and more of a comedy—though looks can be deceiving. It seems to have gotten bumped down my "to read" list at the moment, but I will definitely report on it here when I get to it.
Sadly, Smith is one of the writers about whom information seems to be sparse. The bio on the back of my copy of Lost Hill says she was the daughter of a Methodist minister, who began publishing stories as far back as World War I, but didn't publish her first novel, O, the Brave Music, until 1943. She was married, and she and her husband lived in
Essex. This, and the fact that she wrote about
eleven novels in all, the last in 1966, is the sum total of my knowledge about
If anyone has additional information about Smith, please do contact me!
HAZEL HOLT, Mrs. Malory and the Silent Killer (2004)
No, I am not planning to start reviewing contemporary cozy mysteries here—however much I may enjoy one every now and again when it’s been a rough week and my brain needs to rest. (And Hazel Holt is certainly one of my go-to brain-rest therapists, and I do recommend her if you enjoy getting cozy.)
Rather, this is a sort of amusing followup to a comment I made off-hand in my original Overwhelming List. I was writing about Edith Olivier’s wonderful—if sadly little-read—novels, and I said:
In particular, The Seraphim Room (1932) (published in the U.S. as Mr. Chilvester's Daughters), which centers around the maniacally old-fashioned Mr. Chilvester, who refuses any and all changes and upgrades to his 18th century house, is a peculiar examination—according to Olivier's journals—of the ways in which houses impact and form personalities. This may sound dull, but is in fact hilarious and fascinatingly strange. Among other oddities, it emerges that the deaths of Mr. Chilvester's two wives—and the lingering illness of one of his daughters—have resulted from his failure to upgrade the drains (i.e. sewers) in his house. Never has raw sewage figured so centrally in a novel by a "lady" writer!
Well, apparently I was quite wrong in my final assertion. Here is the inimitable Mrs. Malory—who during most of her investigations manages at one time or another to mention her interest in Victorian and Edwardian women writers—discussing Victorian author Charlotte M. Yonge’s Three Brides with the local police chief, also a Yonge fan:
“What do you think of it?”
“Mm. It will never be my favorite but it’s got some splendid stuff in it. All that business with the drains and the casual way she killed off one of her main characters, poor Raymond, in the typhoid epidemic!”
“I know. Her females weren’t supposed to have any interest in drains, it was thought unwomanly. But they pop up in most of the books, and not just hers. I’ve always wanted to write a paper on ‘The Importance of Sanitation in the Victorian Novel,’ but I’ve never had the time.”
I love the fact that not only did I learn my lesson about broad generalizations based on my reading of books from a very specific period, but that I was taught the lesson while reading a very charming mystery.
Thank you for schooling me, Hazel Holt!