E. M. CHANNON, Little G (1936)
"And you really want to banish me to this beastly village, Cardew?" he inquired, with pathos.
"You can make your own choice, my man. Six months in Challingley, leading the sort of reasonable life that I've suggested, or a real genuine breakdown, with a real genuine rest-cure in a nursing home to follow."
"Good Lord!" said the Mathematician, in blank horror, with a swift vision of himself quite helpless, at the mercy of innumerable designing young hussies in becoming uniforms.
"I can tell you," said the Doctor, "that I'd be glad enough to change places with you. I've spent more than one holiday in Challingley, and always been sorry to come away. Plenty of people would envy you your luck."
I recently had two weekends in a row lost in reading two cheerful, funny, and distinctly cozy novels. This one was the first, and I was particularly eager to read it because I had just sampled my first school story by E. M. Channon—the genre for which Channon is probably still best known. For those of you who are fans, the school story I read was The Honour of the House (1931), and I enjoyed it very much despite the fact that I never got round to discussing it here. It's funny and smart and sweet and just a little bit edgy all at the same time—characteristics it has in common with Channon's final novel, Little G.
The opening pages, from which the above quote is taken, somehow brought to my mind Elizabeth von Arnim's marvelous Enchanted April, in the sense that both books are about characters getting the opportunity to retreat to holidays most readers would (as the doctor points out) be delighted to experience. John Furnival, a Cambridge mathematics don, obviously isn't quite as enthusiastic about his holiday as the women in von Arnim's novel are about theirs, but both holidays sound glorious to me.
|Greyladies unearthed this rare photo of|
Channon and have it on their redesigned website
Furnival spends some considerable time interrogating his doctor about the residents of Challingley—particularly about the presence of any young unmarried women, the thought of which sends chills down the confirmed-bachelor's spine. There are three orphaned children who live with their stern aunt Miss Augusta Campion—an almost mythical figure of discipline and responsibility of whom we see no more than a glimpse in the novel, though her reputation precedes her. There's the village vicar and the village doctor, single men obsessed with their gardens. And there's Mrs. Parnell, the still-young widow of the previous vicar, but Furnival's doctor reassures him that Mrs. Parnell has bigger fish to fry than bagging a Cambridge don as a husband.
One wonders, though, if the doctor's failure to mention one more resident of the village—who provides one of the meanings of the novel's title—is intentional, or is she, in the doctor's sensibility, merely part of the novel's backdrop…
Upon his arrival in Challingley, Furnival encounters a charming villageful of characters who are far too friendly for his tastes. Now, I can, truth be told, relate just a bit to Furnival's anti-social instincts, as I tend to love to be left alone with my books too, though it must also be admitted that my books do little to increase my fitness levels, so perhaps the tennis parties and strolls the don keeps getting invited to would be an improvement to my overall health. Furnival resists the villagers' sociality fiercely, but is not always successful, as with this invitation from Mrs. Parnell:
"Come and play tennis tomorrow—half-past three. I hope you've no other engagement. I've just had my court marked out for the first time—have you?"
"Thank you!" Furnival called back, non-committally furious that he could think of no excuse, furious with her for inviting him, furious most of all at the manner of the invitation. If it had been formally written, he could certainly have found means to get out of it; but one cannot shout subterfuges across many intervening yards of green turf—and wild horses would not drag him back now to her perilous neighbourhood...He must trust to luck. Perhaps, mercifully, tomorrow would be wet.
Indeed, the first parties to break down the professor's general misanthropy are not the vicar or the doctor or, indeed, any of the women of the village, but the three downtrodden children who live next door with their terrible Aunt Augusta. The children are one day caught spying on the professor as he wrestles with his books in his garden, and his weakness for children leads him, in an off-guard moment, to make up a story for them out of his mathematics books, with the action revolving around the character of Little G (known to the rest of us as gravity, and the other meaning of the novel's title).
|Back cover blurb from Greyladies edition of Little G|
Everything proceeds from there much as you can probably imagine. As far as plot developments, there are no very significant surprises to be found here. But Channon handles her tale so charmingly and humorously that readers are unlikely to be looking for a shocking denoument here any more than they would have in reading Enchanted April.
My enjoyment of The Honour of the House and Little G made me want to find out more about Channon's other titles. A biographical essay about Channon by Hilary Clare, co-author of The Encyclopaedia of Girls' School Stories, can be read here (with a disclaimer that it may be used without permission), and the essay also appears as an introduction to the Greyladies edition of Channon's mystery novel Twice Dead (now out-of-print, though Channon's other mystery, The Chimney Murder, is still available). From that informative essay, which effectively answered every question I had in mind about Channon, I am particularly intrigued by two of her other titles, which both remain challenging to find. Her early novel, Miss King's Profession (1913), deals with women writing, which is always a topic of interest to me. Clare also says of that novel that it "has the underlying teasing irony which is one of E. M. Channon's hallmarks. (It has the other one too: vivid domestic detail.)" I'm sold.
And then, I am also particularly intrigued by Clare's description of Channon's 1926 holiday story, The Surprising Holidays, "where the theme is the lack of domestic capability of an English middle-class family. For a variety of reasons all the servants leave, and coincidentally the father's business is in difficulties so there is no money either. Cooking, cleaning and the baby (a rumbustious toddler) have to be dealt with, and only the presence of a competent cousin from New Zealand saves the day." Sold again.
As I mentioned, neither of these titles are currently very readily available. But there may (??) be hope for the latter, at least. Books to Treasure, an independent publisher, has been doing heroic work reviving girls' school stories by Evelyn Smith, Ethel Talbot, Dorothea Moore, Bessie Marchant, and (you guessed it) E. M. Channon, and has been releasing them not only in physical format but as very reasonably priced e-books. So far, they've released Expelled from St. Madern's (1928) and its sequel, Her Second Chance (1930), as well as another intriguing title, A Fifth-Form Martyr (1935), which Clare describes as Channon's funniest school story. Here's hoping that they may decide to proceed with The Surprising Holidays.
By the way, there is one Channon title currently available in the U.S. from Hathi Trust and Google Books—1912's The Real Mrs. Holyer. Presumably, Miss King's Profession would likewise be out of copyright in the U.S., so hopefully they'll get around to posting that one as well.
MARGERY SHARP, The Nutmeg Tree (1937)
This was the other of my recent weekend reads, and I have to preface this by noting that it remains one of the great mysteries of life (right up there with what makes socks vanish in the dryer and why people are interested in the Kardashians) why Margery Sharp's adult novels are still so completely and utterly out of print. As far as I can tell, not one of them is in print in the U.S., and only one, The Eye of Love, appears to be available from Virago in the U.K. Even her children's books—most famously her Rescuers series—are mostly out of print. And publishers are certainly missing out, as Sharp is a popular rediscovery just waiting to happen. Several publishers have led the renaissance of D. E. Stevenson's novels, and the rise of e-books is ushering in the revival of various other authors, so it's high time publishers do the same for Margery Sharp.
It had been a while since I'd read Sharp, and I had almost forgotten just how delightful she is. Somehow I've never managed to write a proper review of one of her books, though I did write a little about The Stone of Chastity, which has always been one of my favorites, here. I've enjoyed several of her other books as well. But now I'm thinking that The Nutmeg Tree, a fortuitous book sale find a couple of months back, may be my new favorite. It proved to be the perfect weekend read—funny, charming, spunky, and mildly transgressive—and I found it impossible to put down (just ask Andy).
This is the tale of Julia, a lovable middle-aged sexpot who has ridden the waves of masculine love and support, but who as the novel opens is distinctly between waves, with furniture repossessors at her door and no certainty from where will come her next meal. In the midst of this turmoil, which Julia characteristically takes cheerfully and with bohemian flair, she receives a letter from her daughter Susan, the product of a short-lived wartime fling with a lieutenant from the Gunners (who then promptly got himself killed), whom Julia has allowed to be left to the tender, upper-crust mercies of her rather posh in-laws. Susan has barely had contact with her mother for most of her life, but now her letters arrives from the blue, inviting Julia to help her sort out her relationship woes, and Julia is thrilled to be bustling off to France to help her daughter with what is surely her primary area of expertise.
|Marked-up press photo of Margery Sharp|
from the Baltimore Sun archive
For who better to help with romantic issues than Julia, who at one point mulls over her unique qualifications while conversing with a married man:
"I don't say I'm easy," pursued Mr. Rickaby fairly. "I dare say I'm a bit more complicated than most men. I like all sorts of things—good music, you know, and scenery. I've got—well, I suppose I've got ideals. But it takes a woman like you to understand."
Julia nodded. She had often pondered this question of why wives didn't understand when women like herself did; and the only conclusion she had reached was that to understand men—to realize the full value of their good streaks, while pardoning the bad—you had to know so many of them. Then when you came across one fellow who was a soak, for instance, you could nearly always remember another who soaked worse; and he in turn might have qualities of generosity or cleverness which raised him above a third man who was a teetotaller. But to know all that you had to have experience, and wives as a rule hadn't. They knew only one man, where women like Julia knew dozens; but then women like Julia rarely became wives. It was a rotten system, when you came to look at it…
Passages like this one made me realize that, although The Nutmeg Tree certainly has all of the characteristics of a cozy read, it also has a bit of edginess. In fact, it occurred to me that Julia is a rather surprising heroine across the board.
I wonder what readers accustomed to other women writers of the 1930s would have made of Julia. She has not seen her daughter for sixteen years, choosing to leave her to her in-laws because she found herself too stifled in their high class lifestyle (an abandonment from which Dorothy Whipple or E. M. Delafield might well have made a tragic melodrama). She has chosen instead to enjoy her bohemian lifestyle of enjoyable flings and financial ups and downs without wasting more than an occasional casual thought on her offspring:
[O]ne of the worst elements in her boredom was the lack of someone to love. She had her child, indeed, and was very fond of it; but "someone,'' to Julia, meant a man.
Can one imagine such a character appearing at all in a D. E. Stevenson novel, much less as a heroine? And had Agatha Christie included such a woman in one of her novels, she would surely have made her the murder victim. Elizabeth Taylor or Sylvia Townsend Warner might have explored the complexities of her situation, but would likely have felt obliged to make the story a sad one. And Stella Gibbons might have made her likeable but undoubtedly comically self-absorbed and victimized.
What, then, can readers of such authors have made of a novel in which such a character is the thoroughly lovable protagonist, while the abandoned daughter is seen as rather stuffy and prim and drab? Sharp was certainly making the most of the middlebrow reader's interest in bohemian freedom!
What's more, although most readers of Sharp's novels probably wouldn't have been specifically seeking a message of feminine sexual liberation, this novel is one of the only places I can recall in middlebrow fiction where a heroine is allowed to be truly sexual, a woman with desires that are explicitly beyond the romantic, beyond a desire for love and stability and protection, but also—perhaps most importantly—independent of male fantasies of "sexy" women. Julia's attitude toward Fred Genocchio, the best-looking of a family of trapeze and high-wire artists she meets on the boat to France, is about the most blatant sexual objectification of a man I know of anywhere in the fiction of the time. Fred is not a particularly good catch, and there is little to appeal to Julia beyond his profile and the fact that he looks extraordinarily good in tights.
Of course, there are certainly other novels in which women become involved with undesirable men, and in some of those cases the involvement may stem in some way from her physical desires, but it is almost always veiled beneath a layer of romance—she at least deludes herself that she is falling in love with him, however much it may be lust that causes the delusion. But Julia is refreshingly no-nonsense about her attraction to men. Fred is indubitably not husband material, but he might be quite nice to share a few giddy weeks with.