Friday, October 10, 2014

Time Travel Book Shopping: 1941


Two of the most addictive novels I've read in recent years (and some of the only "sci-fi" I've read, period) are Connie Willis's compulsively readable tales of historians from a future Oxford travelling back in time to England during the Blitz, Blackout and All Clear.  The historians manage to get themselves into the middle of many of the high points of the war (which undoubtedly were low points for those who had to live through them), including the evacuation of Dunkirk, codebreaking at Bletchley Park, and the fight to save St. Paul's Cathedral from incendiaries.  The novels are completely addictive, thanks in large part to Willis's thorough research on the period and her vivid attention to detail. 

But at some point in my compulsive reading, I found myself imagining an exciting event more uniquely tailored to my own obsessions.  I mean, I would happily bound around the dome of St. Paul's to extinguish incendiaries (though, as clumsy as I am, it's probably more likely that I would extinguish myself in the process), and I'd be more than a little delighted to hang out at Bletchley Park for a few weeks.  But honestly, if I were going to travel back in time to 1941, surely, surely I would also manage to make a bit of time for an excursion to Hatchard's?  And if I were to smuggle a couple of trunks full of books back through the portal to the future, well, who would be the wiser?

Why Hatchard's specifically?  Well, when we were in London a couple of years ago, actually shopping at Hatchard's (I picked up several of the wonderful Stella Gibbons reprints from Vintage UK), I acquired the bookmark shown below. At the time, I really didn't look that closely at it, assuming, I suppose, that the photo on the bookmark had been taken only recently. But when I got home and started looking, I was able to pinpoint the actual date of the photo to a much more interesting period.  The presence of Hemingway's For Whom the Bell Tolls, Ngaio Marsh's Surfeit of Lampreys, and Kate O'Brien's The Land of Spices in the picture (you should be able to enlarge the photo fairly considerably—let me know if you identify other well-known titles) more or less pinpoints the year of the pic to—you guessed it—1941. So it actually provides us with a nice concrete aid for our fantasizing.

Now, I can't make my time travel book shopping an actual physical reality—at least not yet—and perhaps, judging from the very real dangers Willis's characters get themselves into, I wouldn't really want to make the journey anyway…or would I?  But I realized that by harnessing the power of my obsessively maintained database, I could at least torture myself and all of you by imagining what other tantalizing titles those gorgeous book tables might have contained in 1941. 

It's well nigh overwhelming to think about, too.  Can you fathom having the opportunity the stock up on pristine first editions (ah, the smell of the paper and ink fresh from the press!) of STELLA GIBBONS's The Rich House, DAPHNE DU MAURIER's Frenchman's Creek, and D. E. STEVENSON's Mrs. Tim Carries On??!! And that's really just the tip of the iceberg.  (Sure, many of these would be printed according to the War Economy Standard, and would be destined to get yellowed and brittle by about the mid-1950s.  But nevertheless!)


So, here we are.  The shop is a bit dim, perhaps, because of the blackout on its windows, and it might even be a little dusty from the debris and ash not far down the street, but it's still piled high with lovely new books, and if the sirens begin to wail while we're shopping, I for one may find it difficult to tear myself away. 


Though they don't seem to appear in the photo, surely there are fairly prominent displays of two major posthumous publications by recently dead giants—VIRGINIA WOOLF's Between the Acts and F. SCOTT FITZGERALD's The Last Tycoon.  But those are old hat for time travellers like us, and readily available in 2014, so let's bypass the neatly-stacked piles (pausing only to admire the lovely cover of Woolf's book, designed—like most of her others—by sister Vanessa Bell) and go in pursuit of books that, unbeknownst to our fellow shoppers, will only be coveted years from now—and even then only by the most obsessive of obscurity fiends like us.


On the way, I find myself drawn inexorably into the mystery section—I already see a spanking new copy of AGATHA CHRISTIE's N or M that I will certainly be unable to resist.  While I'm here, I have to at least glance at GLADYS MITCHELL's When Last I Died and GEORGETTE HEYER's Envious Casca, and pay proper homage to CHRISTIANNA BRAND's Death in High Heels, and MARGERY ALLINGHAM's Traitor's Purse, lying nearby.  And knowing how much I'll wish I could get my hands on them back in the future, I have to add WINIFRED DUKE's Unjust Jury and MARGARET LANE's Walk Into My Parlour to my shopping basket.


The threat of falling bombs outside isn't the only thing that makes the children's section of Hatchard's dangerous. Here in 1941, a whole slew of titles have just appeared, many of which will still be highly regarded more than 70 years on. The precocious PAMELA BROWN has just published her debut, The Swish of the Curtain, and there it is propped against NOEL STREATFEILD's hot-off-the-presses The Children of Primrose Lane.  Fans of girls' school stories will hardly be able to resist stocking up on shiny new copies of ELINOR BRENT-DYER's The Chalet School Goes to It, ELSIE OXENHAM's Jandy Mac Comes Back, and PHYLLIS MATTHEWMAN's rather unfortunately titled The Queerness of Rusty, not to mention Gretel at St. Bride's by MARY K. HARRIS, with its timely and sensitively-portrayed main character, a refugee from the Nazis worried sick about her father left behind in Germany and her aunt who may be seriously ill in Switzerland. 


Indeed, the war is hard to escape even in children's books.  DORITA FAIRLIE BRUCE has carried one of her popular series characters into adulthood and into war in Dimsie Carries On, MARY TREADGOLD focuses on the invasion of a fictional Channel Island in We Couldn't Leave Dinah, RICHMAL CROMPTON brings the incorrigible William into wartime with William Does His Bit, and P. L. TRAVERS is taking some time out from Mary Poppins to publish I Go by Sea, I Go by Land, about evacuee children.   Knowing what a fortune I'll have to pay for the Girls Gone By and Fidra Books reprints, respectively, of GWENDOLINE COURTNEY's Well Done, Denehurst! and OLIVIA FITZROY's Orders to Poach when I get back to the future, I will be a savvy shopper and snatch up snazzy first editions while I'm here.  Perhaps I need ELIZABETH GOUDGE's The Well of the Star as well?  Or what about Auntie Robbo, the much-loved book by ANN SCOTT-MONCRIEFF, who, sadly, will be dead in two more years at the tragically young age of 29?


As much as I'd love to think that Hatchard's in 1941 had a whole lovely section devoted to charming middlebrow fiction by brilliant women writers, the truth is that we'll have to sort through the many prominently-displayed copies of Vladimir Nabokov's The Real Life of Sebastian Knight, Louis-Ferdinand Celine's Guignol's Band, and W. Somerset Maugham's Up at the Villa—and push aside quite a few copies of MARGARET MITCHELL's Gone With the Wind, which is several years old but still selling like hotcakes (the desolation of an earlier war on another continent providing an escape from the desolation of this one)—to get at the likes of E. M. DELAFIELD's No One Now Will Know, ANGELA THIRKELL's Northbridge Rectory, IVY COMPTON-BURNETT's Parents and Children, ROSALIND WADE's Man of Promise, and (as we can see in the photo) KATE O'BRIEN's The Land of Spices.  (I confess I might get distracted along the way by the prominently-displayed first editions of Jorge Luis Borges's The Garden of Forking Paths and Gertrude Stein's Ida, though they have little to do with this blog.)

U.S. edition of The Land of Spices

MARGUERITE STEEN's The Sun Is My Undoing, about the Atlantic slave trade, will be thoroughly forgotten (but readily available, thanks to its enormous print runs) in 70 years, but for now it's a bestseller on both sides of the pond.  And MARCH COST, similarly doomed to future obscurity, is a perennial favorite here in 1941 as well, so her latest, Miss Domore, is surely available too.  But if you're wise, you'll dig around and snatch up freshly-minted copies of RICHMAL CROMPTON's Narcissa, WINIFRED PECK's A Garden Enclosed, and MABEL BARNES-GRUNDY's Paying Pests, because you'll have a hard time tracking them down when you're comfortably back home in 70 years' time.  And PHYLLIS BOTTOME's charming Blitz novel London Pride is underappreciated in 1941 and, sadly, will still be underappreciated in 2014.


I personally am okay with leaving FLORA THOMPSON's Over to Candleford, MOLLY KEANE's Two Days in Aragon, STORM JAMESON's Cousin Honore, and BETTY MILLER's Farewell Leicester Square behind, secure in the knowledge that they'll be rediscovered and reprinted in a few decades.  Your feelings might vary.  It will take a lot longer, however, (until 2014, to be exact), before a savvy publisher will finally reprint EDITH OLIVIER's Country Moods and Tenses, so I'll grab that one while I can.


I'll also have to pile HELEN ASHTON's Tadpole Hall, BRIDGET CHETWYND's Crown of Stars, and ELEANOR FARJEON's Brave Old Woman into my increasingly weighty basket (those trunks are going to be back-breaking to drag back through that portal—why oh why didn't anyone invent wheeled suitcases in the 1940s?!).  And I'm going to pick up at least 10 copies of URSULA ORANGE's Tom Tiddler's Ground, knowing full well how much I'm going to want to rave about it and give it away to all my friends when I'm back in 2014.


We've already picked up a fair number of war-related titles, but we shouldn't forget all the powerful journalistic works about the war which are already starting to appear.  MARGERY ALLINGHAM's The Oaken Heart, about village life in the early years of the war, will be periodically reprinted in the coming decades, but a first edition would surely have some extra caché.   ELSPETH HUXLEY's Atlantic Ordeal: The Story of Mary Cornish, about the terrible sinking of the City of Benares and the rescue of Cornish and six surviving children who were being evacuated to the U.S., has gotten a lot of attention.  Trailblazer HILDE MARCHANT has detailed the Battle of Britain in Women and Children Last: A Woman Reporter's Account of the Battle of Britain, and American newscaster EDWARD R. MURROW has released This Is London.  It must be gut-wrenching for readers all over England to peruse JAMES POPE-HENNESSY's History Under Fire: 52 Photographs of Air Raid Damage to London Buildings, 1940-41, whose main attraction is the photographs by CECIL BEATON.  And although it's really a novel, INEZ HOLDEN's short but powerful Night Shift is so journalistic in its recording of wartime factory life that it perhaps belongs in this pile.


I can't possibly leave 1941 without stopping into the romance section.  Whether the real Hatchard's would have had a separate section for such fluff is irrelevent—my fantasy version has a plethora of crisp new romances, and the titles and covers alone are enough to seduce me into spending a bit of time here.  Add to that the sheer amazement that begins to accumulate as I ponder the prolificity of some of the authors.  It's well worth pondering! The wonderful MARY BURCHELL (real name IDA COOK—see my Dolphin Square post to be reminded why she's so wonderful) has published four novels this year, while Aussie MAYSIE GREIG has outdone her by producing six.  But they both look like slackers by comparison with the unfathomably productive URSULA BLOOM, who in 1941 alone has seen ten new books into print.  It's amazing she has time to eat and sleep! 


We could peruse for hours among the charming titles and covers of new books by ELIZABETH CARFRAE, WINIFRED CARTER, MAY EDGINTON, ELIZABETH HOY, ANNE MAYBURY, and ANN STAFFORD.  NOEL STREATFEILD has quietly (and, apparently, with some embarrassment) published two more light, entertaining novels under her Susan Scarlett pseudonym this year, and both Babbacombe's and The Man in the Dark will be vanishingly rare for the next 60 years or so until Greyladies reprints them.  (Little does she know how much more in demand they'll be than her rather cold, bleak, "serious" novels!)  I've heard good things about LEONORA STARR, whose Gallant Heart is hot off the presses, and I enjoyed the one FRANCES TURK I've managed to track down, so I'm a bit tempted by her two new titles of the year, Dear Professor and Lovable Clown.


Okay, I'm beginning to feel the need for tea, and I'm getting that neurotic jumpiness that one gets after too long in a book shop with too many exciting finds (you know, where you find your eyes moving furiously, wildly, all around you, searching every nook and cranny—behind doors, under tables, even perhaps, now and then, overhead, as if you expect a thrilling treasure dangling from the light fixture), so it's time to drag our stacks and stacks of spanking new books to the checkout line.  (Happily, the exchange rate from 2014 U.S. dollars to 1941 British pounds is quite favorable.)

A 1947 reprint of Northbridge Rectory; of course,
ours will be the first edition...

We'll have to hurry if we want to get our fill of fresh scones and cucumber sandwiches before hustling along to see the theatre hit of the season, Noel Coward's Blithe Spirit.  Just a little surprise I managed to work up for us (I have contacts).  We've worked hard at our shopping—we deserve some pure frivolity before we head off to the portal!


Here's hoping we haven't disrupted the space-time continuum too much by smuggling our trunks of books a mere 70-odd years into the future.  If I return to a future where anyone at all has heard of Ursula Orange, I'll know we've changed history.  Oops!

18 comments:

  1. Scott, I hope it's a pretty big time portal - I think lots of people will want to accompany you!

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    1. The more the merrier, Michelle Ann! But if anyone has experience putting out incendiaries, they move to the front of the line...

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  2. Northbridge Rectory is my all-time favorite Thirkell novel, so I was thrilled to see it - ALAS ALAS - for many years it was hard to find, probably because of wartime restrictions, and the blitz, etc. but finally! BUT - not the cover, so very glad to see your picture and now I know what it looks like. THIS was a GREAT column, Scott. Many thanks! Tom

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    1. Thanks, Tom! It was a lot of fun to put together.

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  3. This is such a gorgeous post - I hadn't given any thought at all to bookshops in the war, though one does see those sad pictures of bombed libraries on the internet.

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    1. Maybe I should research for sure whether Hatchard's was ever hit by a bomb before scheduling my visit?

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  4. What a wonderful fantasy. Apart from the war, 1941 would be a lovely year to revisit in London, all those books...

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    1. Thanks, Lyn. It was fun to imagine all of these books being on bookstore shelves at the same time.

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  5. Scott, I've previously thought about books that were lost forever in the bomb raids - authors that may not have resurfaced at all. But, the Connie Willis idea is intriguing - whether it's ok to interfere with the natural play of events by saving books.

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    1. That's true, Linda. Sad to think that some potentially lovely books might have been entirely destroyed before they ever had the chance to leave their printers. Maybe I should stage a rescue mission while I'm there?!

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  6. Oh what an entrancing post Scott. I love reading time travel books anyway but to imagine ending up in a bookshop in a period of your choice!!

    And one could extend that to other hobbies - in my case I need to be in the Hamleys toy shop of the 1930s. The dolls house section....

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    1. Okay, Cestina, but just remember, even if we put wheels on our steamer trunks, there may be limits to what we can bring back!

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  7. Scott, what a wonderful post.

    I'm a big fan of Connie Willis's time-travelling historians, and the concept of a book-buying spree into the past is delicious (with visits to the theatre, too, one of my big time-travel dreams, if only to see Angela Lansbury as Mame or George M. Cohen in anything, or Fred and Adele on the London stage in 1922).

    In fact, the whole idea of having a time portal right inside a bookshop has a lot appeal. Think of the author readings on offer!

    There was a scene in To Say Nothing of the Dog where the historian (Nick?) inadvertantly arrives in an Oxford bookshop in the 1930s. He doesn't think to do any shopping, however. He meets a woman working there, and I admit I can't figure out who it is. Not DLS, I think, though she is mentioned in passing.

    Now I must go through my bookshelves and see if I have any books that might have been bought on an expedition to 1941.

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    1. Thank you, Susan, and now you've made me want to re-read To Say Nothing of the Dog. I don't recall that scene, though I loved that book as well. And time travel for other purposes is just too overwhelming to wrap my head around at the moment!

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  8. As long as you're traveling in time, you might as well get a signed copy of your favorite books.

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    1. And now you've opened up a whole new possibility. Perhaps I can swing by London Hospital and get Dame Agatha to autograph N or M while she's doing her wartime volunteer work! The possibilities are endless...

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