Wednesday, August 26, 2015

DORITA FAIRLIE BRUCE, The "modern" Colmskirk novels (1945-1955)


One of my favorite subgenres of middlebrow fiction is that dedicated to stories about young women finding careers. It's either a surprisingly small genre or I'm just missing out on a lot of the works that fit the genre, but it's always nice to come across one. [Hmmmm, one wonders if a list of such titles would be a possible goal?]

I wrote very briefly about Dorita Fairlie Bruce's The Serendipity Shop (1947) after I read it on our trip to Italy last year. It got me through my jetlag, for which I was very grateful, and I enjoyed it a lot and immediately bought two more of Bruce's Colmskirk novels for my TBR shelves.


The Colmskirk novels, for those who don't already know, and according to the Girls Gone By intros, were a series of nine novels Bruce wrote in the 1930s to 1950s, all set in or around the same Scottish village of Colmskirk. Four of the novels are truly historical in nature, set well before the 20th century, one more—Wild Goose Quest (1945)—is classed as historical by Girls Gone By because it seems to have been written and be set in the 1930s, and four were "modern" (i.e. set in the late 1940s and early 1950s when they were written). The novels all stand on their own and feature different main characters, though there are both some "guest appearances" by characters from one novel in others of the series and occasional loose connections between modern characters and those from the earlier historical volumes. It's a charming concept, and Colmskirk itself (apparently fictional though based on Largs in North Ayrshire) makes one yearn to visit and perhaps even take up residence. (Admittedly, though, I would take up residence just about anywhere in the U.K. at the drop of a hat—if only immigrating were easier…)

The first of my Colmskirk acquisitions after The Serendipity Shop was Wild Goose Quest, which I confess I was a bit luke-warm on. It had such a promising plot—a sort of treasure hunt involving, among other things, a girl who has lost her memory due to a completely far-fetched personal trauma—but just never really took flight for me (no pun intended, should you be familiar with the plot…). It's entertaining enough, however, and if you find yourself interested in the Colmskirk series, then you'll certainly want to check it out.


After that, I was my usual slow self about getting round to the other book I'd picked up, but when I finally did, any reservations that Wild Goose Quest had inspired were promptly dissipated. Triffeny (1950) is about a spoiled girl yearning for an artistic career in London, who finds herself instead discovering a possible future in the family's pottery studio. I've long known (and you've surely figured out by now) that I'm more likely to get excited about novels with women as main characters than I am about stories featuring men. Go figure. But that might have something to do both with my luke-warm response to Goose, which focused more on male characters, and on my eager enjoyment of Triffeny, which has not only a female lead but several important supporting actresses as well. Plus a "finding a career" plot.

The introduction to the Girls Gone By edition of Triffeny notes that the heroine "must be one of the most quickly reformed teenagers in fiction," and it's true that Bruce's portrayal of Triffeny's recovery from being spoiled is rather blithely unconcerned with realism. But then, I wasn't exactly seeking realism when I picked up the book, and you shouldn't be either, but it was a hugely enjoyable read from beginning to end.

After which, naturally, I had to pick up the remaining two modern Colmskirk novels, The Debatable Mound (1953) and The Bartle Bequest (1955). And The Debatable Mound instantly became my favorite of the series so far. (By the way, GGB hasn't reprinted any of the historical volumes from the series yet, though there was a hint that they might be thinking of it. Fingers crossed that they do.)

The Debatable Mound is all about the arrival of an eccentric archaeologist, his children, and their wonderful middle-aged cousin, Miss Pennycuick, to take possession of a house located next to a mysterious ancient mound. He has purchased the house with the specific intent of digging on the mound and determining its history and purpose, but it emerges that the owner of an adjacent house, the crotchety Admiral Majendie, believes that the mound is his property. The subsequent conflicts and the ways in which family members and other characters both complicate and help resolve the issue are the structure on which the plot rests.

But undoubtedly the principal pleasure of the novel for me is Miss Pennycuick herself, who, although she certainly helps to maintain and watch over the family in the absence of the children's dead mother, also has her fair share of spunk, independent thought, and a tell-it-like-it-is sensibility, setting her apart from the standard "maiden aunt/housekeeper" stock character she at first seems to represent. Her personality and spirit inform the entire plot, even if she is not a constant presence. Here, for example, is Miss Pennycuick telling one of the girls about the car she purchased for herself for the move, and her experiences in learning to drive it:

'I believe,' replied Miss Pennycuick, with modest pride, 'I must have a natural flair for driving; it was no trouble to learn—no trouble at all. Only once did I make a really serious mistake, and that was a week ago, when I put my foot on the exhilarator going into the garage, just as my instructor was opening the door.'

'And was he very much exhilarated?' asked Lalage wickedly.

Miss Pennycuick eyed her with severity.

'Nobody was hurt,' she answered coldly, 'and the door was only slightly damaged.

And here, in a scene at the mound excavation site, is her no-nonsense reaction to the unpleasant use to which the site may have been put:

"I have found undeniable traces of their activities to-day. That stone on which you are sitting, Miss Pennycuick, has undoubtedly flowed over with the blood from human sacrifices.'

Cousin Pen settled herself more comfortably on her seat.

'Very disagreeable, indeed,' she assented, 'but it happened a very long time ago and has been well washed by the rains of several thousand years, so I'll just stay where I am.'

Added to such exchanges, her ongoing conflict with the Admiral about his complete inability to recall her name— and his substitution of such alternates as "Pennyfeather" or "Pennyfarthing"—adds humor to each development of the plot. In fact, of the Dorita Fairlie Bruce novels I've read so far, The Debatable Mound is undoubtedly the funniest and the one most obviously infused with high spirits and energy.

Although Bruce is clearly most famous for her school stories, and although even the Colmskirk novels were likely aimed at (or at least marketed to) a readership of teenagers or young adults, in the case of The Debatable Mound I feel like any fan of humorous village stories would get quite a lot of enjoyment from it. This might also be true of The Serendipity Shop and maybe even Triffeny, but The Debatable Mound in particular reminded me just a bit of Miss Buncle's Book or The Stone of Chastity and other village tales that are among my favorites.


All the more disappointing, then, to proceed eagerly to the final modern Colmskirk novel, The Bartle Bequest. Although this novel again features young working women as central characters, as well as some prominent cameos by characters from the earlier novels, and although it certainly has an entertaining enough plot—involving the establishment of a local museum, the young woman who becomes its first curator, the 16-year-old orphan girl she adopts as her companion and household help, and the sleazy young man who nefariously profits from the new curator's misguided trust—I also found it irritating in a couple of ways.

After I mentioned The Serendipity Shop last year, a reader emailed me and mentioned that she had enjoyed the whole series except for the sexism of The Bartle Bequest, and I think I know what she meant. Without giving too much away, let's just say that these novels, which are otherwise so intriguingly concerned with young women finding career fulfillment, mostly end with them giving up those careers in favor of being wives and mothers. Now, I can take that with a grain of salt, since that was indeed the way things often unfolded for many women in the middle decades of the 20th century, and it may even have been an improvement on their grandmothers' lives, where even a year or two of career fulfillment might have been impossible. But somehow, in The Bartle Bequest, it all just seems a bit more condescending and insulting than in other books in the series.

What's more, there's the case of Miss Pennycuick, whose praises I've already sung above and who appears in a supporting role here. When she first appeared in The Bartle Bequest, I was delighted to encounter her again, but that delight dissipated quickly. By the time this novel begins, Miss Pennycuick is a married woman herself, but more importantly, she seems to have had some sort of psychotic break. We learn, for example, that she has developed a sort of superstitious phobia of Egyptian artifacts such as some of the ones in Professor Crawford's home. What? The woman who shrugs off sitting on a stone where human sacrifices have been performed is now so frightened of the headdress of a young Egyptian woman that she can't bear to have it in the house? This seems quite ridiculous, and one wonders if all the overlapping characters didn't just finally get the best of Bruce, so that she forgot how vividly independent and no-nonsense Miss Pennycuick had been in the earlier novel. Regardless, the affection I felt for Miss Pennycuick in TBM was nowhere to be found while reading TBB. And Professor Crawford himself—a kindly, absent-minded father and scholar in the earlier novel—here appears only once, flying into such a rage that the museum curator tries to lure him into the office so she can lock him in and call the police.

Despite my obvious annoyance at these (mis-)characterizations, I do hasten to mention that these two characters appear only briefly in The Bartle Bequest, so for many readers they may not weaken one's reading experience very much. (And of course if you haven't read The Debatable Mound, then you won't mind them at all.) The novel is quite entertaining otherwise, and certainly worth reading if you've enjoyed the other Colmskirk novels. But while I can imagine re-reading The Serendipity Shop and The Debatable Mound, and quite possibly Triffeny as well, I believe I've finished with The Bartle Bequest for good.

I should note, for fans of Bruce's school stories, that the young curator of the museum in this novel is none other that Primula Mary Beaton, who apparently appears briefly in Bruce's Springdale series. At one point, too, Primula mentions her wartime service as a Wren, during which she became friends with Dimsie, the main character of that series. Among the other guest appearances here are Julia Lendrum, who was introduced in The Serendipity Shop and who seems to be quite a mover and shaker in Colmskirk, as she figures prominently in all the subsequent books. Julia's sister Merran, along with her Serendipity Shop, appear briefly, as does Susan from The Debatable Mound, and Triffeny is mentioned but does not appear in person.

On the whole, I'm very happy to have been introduced to the modern Colmskirk novels, even if I have a few reservations about them. Now, of course, I'm curious about the four historical novels from the series—The King's Curate (1930), Mistress Mariner (1932), A Laverock Lilting (1945), and The Bees on Drumwhinnie (1952). As luck would have it, a random Abe Books search has resulted in an affordable copy of A Laverock Lilting setting forth on its merry way toward my overcrowded shelves even as I write this. The other volumes are either virtually nonexistent (the first two) or prohibitively expensive (the last), so here's hoping that Girls Gone By will come through with new editions of all of them.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

More than a provincial daughter: ROSAMUND DASHWOOD (1924-2007) (and a teaser about E. M. Delafield)


I'm very excited about this post, but also rather embarrassed to be writing it after such an inexcusable delay. I mean, I am known to be slow at following through on my bloggerly intentions, but honestly, this is a new low (or more accurately a new long).

My initial intention to dedicate a post to Rosamund Dashwood came about shortly after my post on her mother E. M. Delafield's First Love (aka What Is Love?), which was more than a year ago now. That post led fortuitously to a comment on the post and then an email from Judy Truelove, who turned out to be E. M. Delafield's granddaughter-in-law. Judy is currently at work on a biographical book about Delafield which is likely to excite her many loyal fans. Here's how Judy described her project to me:

My book's focus is a collection of letters written by EMD to her husband while on tour in Russia in 1936. She was there to write I Visit the Soviets. I use a frame story about a trip to the UK that I made with my daughter to learn about EMD and her family. Interspersed are many excerpts from Roz's unpublished memoirs. Together, EMD's personal letters and Roz's memoirs provide a window into the life and character of EMD, a woman so far known only through her fiction.

A completely enticing description, isn't it? Unpublished letters, unpublished memoirs, a more personal glimpse of a much-loved author—what could be better? Judy is hoping to have a draft of her book completed by the end of this year, so let's all send inspirational literary vibes her way…

Of course, the "Roz" from Judy's description is Rosamund Dashwood. Now, from the perspective of a blogger specializing in lesser-known authors and enjoying the quest for information about them, Delafield—unquestionably one of the great authors of the feminine middlebrow and possibly the most beloved of all of them—is old hat. Her daughter, however, whom most of you know published a single novel, an homage to her mother's beloved Provincial Lady series called Provincial Daughter (1961, published as "R. M. Dashwood"), has remained a bit more of an enigma.

Rosamund Dashwood, taken at the same time as
her Provincial Daughter author photo, circa 1961.
Photo courtesy of Judy and Patrick Truelove.

Like many readers, I came across Provincial Daughter while in the distraught state of withdrawal and anguish which typically follows the realization that one has finished the fourth and last of the wonderful Provincial Lady novels. I first read it a few years ago and found it a delightful updating of provincial lady-ish concerns and hilarity from the 1930s and early 1940s sensibility of the original novels to the early 1960s sensibility of Dashwood's novel. I then more recently used preparation for this post as an excuse to read the novel again.

No homage is likely to be quite as brilliant and hilarious as the originals to which homage is paid. But then, Dashwood herself would likely not have expected such a thing. Her original introduction to the book made this charmingly modest disclaimer:

It seemed natural to write it in the same idiom, but if the result seems to any reader too imitative, or even plagiaristic, I can only ask their forgiveness, as the original Provincial Lady would, I am sure, most warmly have given hers.

On the other hand, however, Provincial Daughter is hard enough to resist on its own terms. From the opening lines, I felt I had a treat in store:

Am disconcerted, at breakfast, to receive letter from old school friend saying What am I doing with My Brain these days, and isn't it a Pity to Let It All Go? Know what she means but am very angry nevertheless, and lose myself thinking out some really telling replies. Am recalled by Toby asking thoughtfully How Do You Make Soggy Paper? and by Ben flinging toast in all directions from his high chair. Two older children applaud this warmly, and James says, in tones of utmost besottedness, that Ben's Manners are Atrociable. Lift Ben down and send all three children away and give Lee a second cup of tea (why can't men help themselves?).

It was, in fact, difficult to choose only a couple of quotes to share with you, there were so many possibilities. There is, for instance, a marvelous set-piece about a young woman from the nearby horticultural college touring the provincial daughter's garden and offering advice:

Grand tour of garden ensues. Young Woman, says her name is Miss Englefield, is kind about everything and says we ought to be able to make something out of it. Fear Capability  Brown touch emerging and say All I want is to be told names of flowers and what to do about them, and produce piece of paper and pencil in what I hope is business-like way. Miss E then tells me a great many names, most of which I cannot spell, and adds sometimes You ought to Prune this, and sometimes I shouldn't Touch That. Get notes very muddled. Ask What about this, and indicate rather pretty little creeping flower that I think looks well. Miss E says Oh that stuff, it is a nuisance isn't it, terrible to get rid of, and I try to pretend I knew it was a weed all along. (Am well aware that Hermione is not deceived by this.) Miss E then comes to a sudden halt rather like a pointer dog and gasps in astonished admiration in front of meagre little bush that I have never even noticed before, and says Surely not a Carborundum Mysterioso (or something), crawls excitedly round it like Sherlock Holmes looking for clues, and finally admits that it is a Carborundum Mysterioso and we obviously go up by leaps and bounds in her estimation.

But my favorite passage must be one which deliciously skewers my fellow Americans, but in such a vivid and believable way that I couldn't possibly be offended (I've met more than a few such Americans myself—of both sexes, I should add). This is only part of the wonderful scene:

Charming American, recently met at cocktail party, rings up to say Its very short notice but she is giving small birthday party for Junior who is Ben's age and would Ben care to come along? Make rapid mental plans to send James and Toby to Susan on return from school, and accept. J and T are offended at not being included but agree to go and watch Television at Susan's and Ben and I set out. Quite incredible scene of confusion greets us at birthday party. Charming American is exactly like something out of Gone With the Wind, beautifully dressed and made-up but clasping a shrieking baby and in despair because she Seems to be Kinda Disorganised. Nothing is ready for the party. Charming American, name is Maybelle, says she has Sent Cliff round to the store for a Few Things but she can't think what's keeping him. "Few Things" apparently include all food for the party except what she refers to as Candy and Cookies, which she proceeds to ask me very nicely to arrange on the table for her. By this time am already holding the still-shrieking baby but do my best. Another mother is called into service to blow up balloons. Maybelle says again that she can't think what's keeping Cliff, and spills a bottle of orange squash all over the floor. Another mother mops it up.

I was laughing out loud all over again just queueing up that quote. I'm sure there must be ineffectual young British women (and men) as well, but to my mind there's just nothing like an ineffectual young American helplessly putting everyone around her to work. I'm afraid, as well, that it sounds a bit like a party or two I've given…

But this is not just an admiring review of Dashwood's one and only novel (or a bemoaning of the fact that she only wrote one, though I could certainly bemoan that).

Rosamund Dashwood in 1966.
Photo courtesy of Judy and Patrick Truelove.

One of the first things I mentioned in my initial email exchange with Judy—who is married to Patrick Truelove, the third of Dashwood's four sons—was that I very much wished for a better photo of her. When Virago reprinted Provincial Daughter in 2002, they used a tiny photo of Dashwood, looking eminently likeable but distinctly blurry, presumably taken around the time that her novel first appeared in 1961. And that's the only image I've ever been able to track down online. I asked Judy if she and Patrick might have another photo they would be willing to share and would allow me to use on this blog.

They certainly came through for me, with not just one photo, but five, spanning nearly a quarter of a century of Dashwood's life, from the days just before Provincial Daughter appeared to an adorable family photo of her with three of her grandchildren in 1983. Judy and Patrick very kindly granted me permission to use all the pictures here (see above and below), and I'm thrilled to be able to share them with you so that this talented and interesting woman isn't represented only with a tiny, grainy, black-and-white photo!

Rosamund Dashwood in Vancouver, 1979.
Photo courtesy of Judy and Patrick Truelove.

In addition, Patrick and Judy came through with a hilarious, provincial lady/daughter-ish anecdote about Rosamund that only makes her seem more charming and likeable.

In Judy's words:

Once in a crowded tube station in London, Roz asked a passerby for directions to a certain platform. He was in a hurry, so he brusquely responded that the sign was right in front of her. Embarrassed, she said, "I'm blind," meaning that she should have noticed it. The unfortunate man took her literally, apologized profusely, and insisted on taking her arm and guiding her to the platform. Too mortified to correct him, Roz had to act the part, pretending to be blind even after he'd left her in case he were watching!

Recalling our own experiences in the London Tube, and the frantic (if astonishingly polite) rush of commuters, I couldn't help but laugh at the mental image this story provides.

Meanwhile, with some additional details from Judy and a little trawling of the internet, I was able to piece together a bit more about Dashwood's life before and after her novel. From her rather sparse Wikipedia page I learned that she was in the WAAF during World War II and that her work involved radar, which was still very much top secret at the time. After the war, she attended Somerville College at Oxford and met her husband, Leslie Truelove, who went on to become a doctor, with whom she had four sons—Paul, Simon, Patrick, and Michael.

Rosamund Dashwood in Saltspring, 1980.
Photo courtesy of Judy and Patrick Truelove.

This of course means that Patrick is none other than the real-life model for the toast-throwing Ben in the quotation above, and I had to ask how he felt about this fictional representation. Judy said that he thought "it was fun to be a character in a book" and added, "he remembers that it was funny for our two kids, too, to read it and imagine their dad as a baby flinging toast around the room."

According to Judy, the family emigrated to Canada in April of 1960, where they settled in Winnipeg. Patrick remembers that Dashwood, like Delafield herself, was often on the phone doing work for three different women's auxiliaries: at the arthritis and rheumatism clinic where Dr. Truelove worked, at the school her sons attended, and at their Unitarian church. She also served as president of the Winnipeg chapter of Voice of Women, a feminist anti-war organization.

In 1968, with their children grown, Rosamund and Leslie relocated to Vancouver, where she was for a time a radio interviewer at local station CJVB. After the move, the couple decided to improve their physical fitness. In an interesting interview on the Prairie Inn Harriers website, Dashwood describes how they casually took up running after years of being couch potatoes and fast food junkies. After Leslie's tragic death while running in the Vancouver marathon in 1976, however, Rosamund's own running became both more serious and a part of her grieving process: "I would recommend that anybody who is going through a bad patch, for whatever reason, get out there and run. Or something. Centre yourself. It doesn't alter the situation, but it helps you deal with it."

Rosamund Dashwood with three of her grandchildren, 1983.
Photo courtesy of Judy and Patrick Truelove.

By 1983, she had relocated again to Victoria and was running her first marathon, and she eventually became one of the top female masters runners in Canadian history. (If you aren't familiar with the concept of masters athletics—I wasn't—here's a Wikipedia page for your edification.) In 1989, at age 65, Dashwood scored two world records for her age group, and three more Canadian records, which is pretty extraordinary for a former couch potato. (Maybe there's hope for me yet—hopefully before I turn 65!)

The interview was given when Rosamund was 68 years old, but you can certainly see her energy and spirit coming through. I will, for example, remember her attitude toward injuries:

"I have an optimistic theory that exercise-induced injuries sooner or later get better, given half a chance. Injuries from stresses, aches and pains that you get from inaction, from just sitting around, become chronic. So I cherish myself with that one when I'm sore after a run."

And if this is not necessarily an attitude all doctors would agree with, she adds for good measure:

"Sometimes a doctor will tell a runner that they will never run again, but when that happens, a dedicated runner will find another doctor. One who runs."

(I wonder if the same could apply to readers overcoming eyestrain?)

Rosamund was still running and competing at age 73. When she died in 2007 at age 83, her running club organized a Rosamund Dashwood Memorial Walk and Run, and they also added her name to a memorial bench in Beaver Lake Park in Victoria (had I but known when we were there a couple of years ago, I'd have a snapshot of it to share with you).

My sincere and enthusiastic thanks again to Patrick and Judy Truelove for the lovely photos and the additional details of Rosamund's life. It's such a pleasure to share them. And keep writing diligently, Judy—that book can't come soon enough!

Friday, August 14, 2015

Reading diary: HELEN ASHTON, WINIFRED DUKE

HELEN ASHTON, The Half-Crown House (1956)

Image courtesy of Jerri Chase

I've had this book lying around for a year or more, the remains of one of my earlier Big Book Sale excursions. I don't know why I hadn't picked it up before, as it clearly had loads of potential, but somehow I kept pushing it aside for something else.

I'm glad I finally got round to it, however, as I found it completely addictive. It takes place all in the course of one day, which happens to be the final Saturday of the year on which the house and gardens of a once-prestigious family, the Hornbeams, are open to the public. These visits have been a last-ditch effort to raise enough money to keep the crumbling house functioning for one more year. It's also the day on which an American military man steps up his efforts to win the heart of Henrietta Hornbeam, the only survivor of the family's current generation, and on which Henrietta has promised to entertain some family friends to tea. And, it's the day on which her nephew, son of her dead twin brother and the heir to the estate, is brought by her brother's widow to make his home with the family and be sent to a public school.

Quite an eventful day. But the contemporary action—such as it is—takes a definite backseat to the history and furnishings of the house itself. I don't even think of myself as particularly fascinated by home d├ęcor, but I found myself absolutely gobbling up the extended descriptions of the rooms and the ruins of the Hornbeams' once-lavish possessions. And the stories told by Henrietta and her cousin Charles—who lost an eye and one arm in the war but is still more useful than most of the family's remaining staff—along with the imperious and now bedridden Lady Hornbeam's class-conscious secretary, as they show visitors around the rooms, stories which include a queen's visit and numerous family tragedies, are great fun as well. The family is basically required to live submerged in the past, and the sense of decay and claustrophobia is palpable (but also entertaining).

Image courtesy of
Jerri Chase

I was pretty sure, by the time I got to the following description on page 17—about the elderly nanny perusing the nursery before the young heir's arrival—that I was going to quite enjoy The Half-Crown House:

Generations of Hornbeam children had used the room in the nursery tower. The faded roses and figures of a Kate Greenaway wallpaper scarcely showed any longer between the framed Christmas supplements which covered the walls, Bubbles, Cherry Ripe and Miss Muffet. The dappled tail-less rocking horse, which his father and grandfather had ridden upon, waited for Victor by the window; the intricate fantasies of the faded scrap-screen, which his great-aunt had made in the seventies, kept off the draught from an ill-fitting door. His great-grandmother's dolls' house stood by the wall, foursquare and Palladian, with pediment and portico, made by the estate carpenter in imitation of Wilchester Castle, demolished these ten years. All its bright windows glittered; Nanny had rubbed them up faithfully, because even a boy ought to be amused by this copy of an ancestral house. The mantelpiece held children's treasures, brought back from seaside holidays, fifteen, twenty, thirty years ago; the glass lighthouse striped with coloured sand from Alum Bay, the paper-weight with the view of the Brighton Pavilion underneath, the glass ball waiting for Victor to shake up the snowstorm inside, the ship-in-a-bottle made by Nanny's sailor brother, the cracked Staffordshire jug with the heads of Admiral Nelson and Captain Hardy on its bulging sides. In the big toy-cupboard the child would find his father's toy fort and boxes of soldiers, the model theatre, the red-and-white bricks, the maps and puzzles with the pieces missing, the boats, spades and buckets, the small bats and cricket-stumps, the toy tricycle with one pedal gone. Nanny did hope that some of this junk would please him.

It's possible that some readers who don't fetishize old houses with rich, odd histories might find that Ashton's novel is focused a bit too much on the house and a bit too little on the characters. Fair warning of that. But for fans of, for example, Ruby Ferguson's Lady Rose and Mrs. Memmary, also about a house that's seen better days, then The Half-Crown House is likely not to be missed.

And one more element that I found wonderful about the book is the way it grounds itself solidly in the postwar world. Although published eleven years after the end of World War II, The Half-Crown House is permeated with the after-effects of the war—class shifts, food difficulties, taxation, and, most significant of all, the injuries and losses still felt by those left behind. For those interested in that postwar austerity mood in their novels, this is also a great choice.

Image courtesy of Jerri Chase

I have to give an enthusiastic thank you to Jerri Chase, who provided images of her copy of this book, complete with a lovely dustjacket, and granted her permission for me to use them here. (She may have nearly forgotten that she provided them now, as it's taken me nearly a year to use them, but my thanks is no less warm for that.) The dustjacket also includes a charming photo of Ashton and two paragraphs of author bio. Ashton joins the expanding group of women on my Overwhelming List who studied medicine, which one might have suspected from the fact that several of her books—including Doctor Serocold (1930), Hornets' Nest (1935), and Yeoman's Hospital (1944)—center around the medical profession. 

I also note that the author bio says only that the apartment she and her husband lived in was "destroyed by fire" in 1941. According to Persephone's Helen Ashton page, however, it was destroyed in the Blitz. Both statements may be true, of course, but it's interesting that the publishers of The Half-Crown House chose to mention the destruction but not its direct cause.

Now it's high time I get around to Ashton's one Persephone reprint, Bricks and Mortar, which undoubtedly many of you have already read. It just moved quite a bit further up my TBR list. And then there's her novel about the early years of World War II, Tadpole Hall... 



WINIFRED DUKE, Dirge for a Dead Witch (1949)


I wrote about my first encounter with Winifred Duke a little over a year and a half ago, after happening upon a copy of The Dancing of the Fox in a Victoria second-hand bookshop. It was one of my best and most intriguing unexpected book finds of recent years, and I vowed at the time to explore Duke's fiction a bit further. In view of the usual amount of time it takes me to get around to doing anything I say I'm going to do, for me to have read a second Duke title in just over a year and a half is not all that bad…

So little information about Duke or her books is available online that I wound up, a few months ago, just grabbing the most affordable book I could find on Abe Books with an intriguing title and an intact dustjacket. I had no idea what I was getting. While Dancing was a sort of crime novel—but not so much a who-done-it as a what-were-the-aftereffects-of-its-having-been-done—Dirge for a Dead Witch is historical drama, though certainly still with a crime element in the form of a witchhunt and its long-lingering repercussions.


The present day of the novel is the late 18th century, with a long middle section flashing back to more than a century before. In the present day, Mr. Raeburn, a new clergyman in the village of Drumbannock is writing a book on folklore, including witches, and takes an interest in the tale of Anne Chalmers, who was hounded by the villagers a century before and who then mysteriously vanished without a trace. The flashback tells Anne's story, though it is only when we return to the novel's present, that we discover its final ending.

As I would have expected from my earlier experience of Duke's work, Dirge is highly atmospheric and eminently readable. Here's a snippet from page 12, telling of Mr. Raeburn's mother's reactions to their new abode:

Mrs. Raeburn followed. Her teeth were chattering. Ridiculous! The evening was so close, so enervating, that she had felt compelled to loosen her cloak, and her bonnet pressed heavily on her moist temples. Yet here a chill, dank atmosphere enwrapped everything and seeped to her very bones. She trod past the kirk, towering, sinister and forbidding, amongst its neighbouring gravestones. It was not an agreeable reflection that she must look out upon it every day. Behind the bald solid block it made she discerned a house. There was no garden, no approach, except a little narrow path of earth, and beyond—Those great trees looked highly unwholesome. What a dark, awe-inspiring place! Hers was a comfortable, unimaginative mind happed in a healthy body, but the mere proximity of the den caused her to think of ghosts and bogles, of old, blood-curdling superstitions and eerie tales once heard and easily forgotten. Never, never, even in the daytime, she told herself wildly, could she summon up courage to enter the uncanny place. Would it be possible to have those rank, evil-looking trees cut down? If they proved to be on glebeland and under the jurisdiction of the minister this must be done. In their ugly closeness might breed fevers, dark, malignant things. Already she saw in this spot menace, fear, the unknown. Her heart yearned for Dumfries, its lights, its kindly folk, its security and certainty. Here she felt threatened by she knew not what.

Pretty effective stuff (unless you happen to live alone between a cemetery and a dark forest, I suppose). And there are also fascinating characters who have real depth and seem—even when they're completely unpleasant—to live and breathe. As would also be expected, the scenes portraying the villagers' growing suspicions of witchcraft and the eventual arrest and trial of Anne—who seems to have nothing against her except her beauty and her status as a stranger in the village—are harrowing and sad, and Duke dissects the villagers' suspicions and fears quite convincingly.


Ultimately, I might have to admit that the outcome of the novel felt a bit anti-climactic, but I think this is because it was all done so well that it seemed to be leading up to something bigger and more dramatic. Though the fact that it remains understated and suggestive rather than over-the-top and obvious seems to be in keeping with Duke's style, and there are so many ways in which over-the-top eerie stories can go awry and so many ways that merely suggested horror can be more effective, that some readers might see this as a strength in itself.

I also have to note that much of the dialogue—of which there is a lot—is in Scots dialect. This was interesting, and I have to admit I was surprised at the extent to which I got used to it after a while—rather like reading Shakespeare—but it did slow the flow of the novel a bit. But again, some readers might particularly enjoy this.

But those minor quibbles aside, Duke's writing and her perspective on these events made Dirge well worth reading, and I do recommend it for fans of historical fiction and of things that go bump in the night. I'm glad I've now sampled one of Duke's non-mysteries, and I'm hoping also to sample one or two more of her books in the near future, if the Interlibrary Loan team at the SF Public Library is able to manage it. She is simply too interesting to be as completely obscure as she is. Perhaps one should be The Needful Journey, described on the back flap of Dirge?


It's odd that virtually none of Duke's books seem to have ever been reprinted, despite the fact that, according to the cover of Dirge, her earlier novel Death and His Sweetheart had apparently been a veritable bestseller (being, at the time Dirge appeared, in its "38th thousand"), and despite the fact that crime fiction seems to be one of the most eagerly collected and reprinted genres of fiction from the early to mid 20th century.

I shall have to do what I can to rectify that. Hopefully in less than another year and a half…

[And of course, I couldn't resist sharing the dustjacket with you, especially since no one else ever talks about this author. You know, too, how much I enjoy publishers' book lists on the backs of books, and this one is no exception. Alas, I didn't find any new authors for my Overwhelming List, but there were new names for my phantom Overwhelming List US. Theda Kenyon (1894-1997) was an American novelist and poet who apparently once shared the stage at a speaking gig with Edwin Arlington Robinson and Robert Frost, though she appears to be primarily remembered now for a book called Witches Still Live: A Study of the Black Art Today (1929), which makes her a slightly ironic presence on the back of Duke's book. Lenore Glen Offord (1905-1991) was an Edgar Award-winning American mystery novelist who, incidentally, lived on Russian Hill in San Francisco, and Ann Chidester was also American, though information about her and her books is sparse. Ethel Mannin, Eileen Bigland, and Margaret Archer are all already represented on my list.]

Sunday, August 9, 2015

Mysteriously yours

Being a mystery fan myself (and I know many of you are as well), it's always fun to come across new authors for my Overwhelming List who also belong on my Mystery List. With this most recent update, there were eleven authors who published one or more mysteries or thrillers.

Now, the majority of these are on the obscure side, as one would expect. But one in particular is a rather embarrassing oversight. I would venture to guess that not many of the authors who qualify for my list but have not yet been added were the authors of massive international bestsellers within my lifetime (and it was still all over bookstore shelves when I was old enough to be reading, no less), but perhaps I flatter myself. Because MARY MARGARET KAYE (better known to her legions of readers as M. M. Kaye) was practically a household name following her 1978 epic about the British Raj, The Far Pavilions, and still I had somehow forgotten to include her on my list until now. Oops!

M. M. Kaye

I can only guess that I assumed Kaye must be too young for my list since Pavilions appeared so far after my cutoff. But that will teach me to assume things, since she in fact began her publishing career in the late 1930s with a couple of children's books, followed by her first adult novel in 1940. She also qualifies for my Mystery List because of her 1950s series of mysteries set in various exotic locales where she and her husband were stationed. Predictably, following the success of The Far Pavilions, these mysteries were re-released in revised editions (presumably to update them so that readers would believe they were more recent writings?). As it happens, I just picked up one of these titles at our library's $1 book sale, so perhaps I'll be reporting on it here soon.


Also not terribly obscure—at least in one sense of the word, since mystery fans are likely to have heard of her and perhaps even have read her novels—is CLARA BENSON. I had actually heard of Benson a while back, but initially hesitated to add her to my list. Her official story, as presented by her publishers, is that Benson wrote numerous mysteries in the first half of the century, most featuring Angela Marchmont as their detective, but never attempted to publish them. They began to be released as ebooks in 2013, beginning with The Murder at Sissingham Hall



There remains a bit of mystery, however. First, some readers believe the books contain anachronisms or stylistic anomalies for books written in the 1930s or thereabouts. I haven't read any of them yet, but Jerri Chase, a reader of this blog, reported to me that she found them entirely plausible and consistent with other works from the time, which is good enough for me (thanks for your input, Jerri!). More puzzling, however, researcher John Herrington has been able to find no trace of Benson in official records—at least using the birth and death dates released by her publishers. There could be explanations for this, of course. Perhaps the name Clara Benson is a pseudonym and her family (or whoever the copyright holder might be) wishes her true identity to remain a secret? Regardless, since I am unable to prove or disprove the information released by the books' publishers, I figured it was time to add her to the list, even if there's a bit of an implied question mark next to her name.


And although Welsh writer MENNA GALLIE is scarcely a household name, she too is at least in print from Honno Press, a small press specializing in Welsh literature (I don't know how I had neglected to add a link to Honno in the right column, but I've rectified that now). She is also not primarily known as a mystery writer, but her debut, Strike for a Kingdom (1959), is described as a poetic detective story set in a small Welsh town during the 1926 miners' strike. Honno has also reprinted most of Gallie's other novels—has anyone read any of her work?

Menna Gallie

The other eight new mystery writers are all distinctly more obscure, though MARGARET TURNBULL, at least, was apparently well-known in the show business world. Born in Scotland but emigrating to the U.S. in youth, Turnball was a successful screenwriter in both Hollywood and London, which formed the backdrop of some of her fiction. It's unclear whether any of her other titles might be crime-related, but The Coast Road Murder (1934) certainly is; it was described by Kirkus as follows: "American so-called society with a girl reporter acting detective. The setting is a roadhouse where a week end house party is disporting itself." Hmmmm.

Kathleen Hewitt

KATHLEEN HEWITT may also have been a success in her day, racking up as she did nearly two dozen novels from the 1930s to the 1950s. But it took a comment from Grant Hurlock about Hewitt's World War II-related novels to bring her to my radar. Grant was particularly interested in her 1943 novel Plenty Under the Table, which deals with the black market, but also mentioned two other titles. Lady Gone Astray (1941) is about a young heiress with amnesia up against unscrupulous refugees, and The Mice Are Not Amused (1942) deals with a legal secretary who takes a job as doorman at a block of flats infested with Fifth Columnists. Of Hewitt's other works, presumably at least Murder in the Ballroom (1948) is also a mystery or thriller. (Thanks to Grant for mentioning Hewitt and providing information about her books!)


Scottish author KATHERINE JOHN only qualifies for both of my lists by the smallest possible margin, co-writing only a single title—1933's Death by Request (1933)—with her husband Romilly John. She was also a book reviewer for the Illustrated London News and a translator of numerous books from Scandinavian languages into English. Sadly, I recently made an unsuccessful attempt at reading Death by Request, but I don't begrudge her a spot in my lists.

I don't know very much about MOLLY THYNNE's work, but one of her most horrifyingly intriguing titles, Murder in the Dentist's Chair (1932), is available from the HathiTrust in the U.S., so I have no excuse (except too little time and way too many books) for not giving it a try. She wrote a total of six novels, all in a six year period, and then fell silent. Is she a great lost puzzler? Probably not, but then again, you never know!

And what about the remaining four authors I've added to my Mystery List? I've been able to find very little about any of them online, but one or more of them could be a treasure for all I know. Perhaps PAMELA FRY, who emigrated to Canada when she was 12 and later published two mysteries, Harsh Evidence (1953) and The Watching Cat (1960), as well as, rather oddly, a cookbook called Cooking the American Way (1963)?

Or could the treasure be LORNA NICHOLL MORGAN? We haven't been able to identify her beyond the fact that she published four mystery novels in the 1940s—Murder in Devils' Hollow (1944), Talking of Murder (1945, briefly discussed here), The Death Box (1946), and Another Little Murder (1947).

Maybe MILDRED RICHINGS is a lost great? She published three novels under the pseudonym John Knipe which sound like they could be thrillers—The Watch-Dog of the Crown (1920), The Hour Before the Dawn (1921), and Whited Sepulchres (1924). Or are they historical dramas instead? Too little information is available for me to be sure, but she definitely wrote one later historical novel under her own name, Men Loved Darkness (1935), as well as a well-regarded history, Espionage: The Story of the Secret Service of the English Crown (1934).

And finally, KATHLEEN GROOM certainly seems to have written at least a couple of mysteries and/or thrillers—at least, I assume Detective Sylvia Shale falls into the category, and probable The Folly of Fear and a few others. But I suspect there may still be a bit of mystery about Groom herself. The dozen or so novels I've found for her were written under four pseudonyms, but there are some intriguing gaps in her writing career. Her final novel as "Kit Dealtry" appeared in 1909, her first as "C. Groom" only appeared in 1918. And a similar gap lies between her last title as "Mrs. Sydney Groom" in 1924 and her first as Kathleen Groom in 1947. With an author as fond of varying her nom-de-plume as Groom obviously was, I can't help but wonder if there are additional titles under as-yet-undiscovered pseudonyms which might properly flesh out her body of work. Will we ever know what they are? Well, you know I'll keep poking around just in case!

What do you think? Are there any new mystery authors here that you simply must sample for yourself?

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Reading diary: ELINOR M. BRENT-DYER, RITA COATTS


ELINOR M. BRENT-DYER, The School at the Chalet (1925) & Jo of the Chalet School (1926)

In the past year and a half or so, I've read a handful of Elinor Brent-Dyer's Chalet School books and have enjoyed them very much. But as some Chalet School fans have realized from my occasional passing mentions of the series here, I've been reading them in a rather haphazard order, starting with (naturally for me) The Chalet School in Exile, often considered the best of the series and the one that makes the most dramatic use of World War II. But I know a big part of the appeal of this series to its fans is tracing the characters' development and evolution over time, so I recently decided I would try to start at the beginning and gradually (very gradually, considering how many other authors and books I'm always trying to read at the same time) work my way forward in the series.

Now, this is a bit easier said than done, because although paperbacks of the series are generally pretty readily available, those editions have often been rigorously chopped up and abridged (you can learn a bit about this here—though many of you already know far more about it than I do). Girls Gone By has been reprinting unabridged editions, but understandably it takes a long time for a small publisher to work their way through more than 60 titles. (Less understandable, perhaps, is the bewildering order in which they've been reprinting them, which doesn't seem to prioritize either the series order or—as might also have made sense—the titles that were most abridged in paperback editions, or even for that matter the titles that seem to be the hardest to find. The logic escapes me, but perhaps there is one somewhere, and regardless I am grateful to them for reprinting them at all.)

Add to this, though, that GGB editions tend to go back out-of-print fairly quickly and become collectible and prohibitively expensive themselves, and I realized how much of a challenge I had set myself in trying to approach the books in series order. I quickly adjusted my goal to merely acquiring GGB editions of the books that were most seriously abridged in paperback, resigning myself to the earlier paperback versions of those titles that had only minor edits. And I may not even be able to accomplish that—we shall see.

Elinor M. Brent-Dyer

Naturally enough, the first volume of the series, The School at the Chalet, is one of the most in-demand of the titles, and sadly it was also badly abridged in paperback. The GGB print edition has already gone out of print and become about as costly as one might expect an original manuscript—written in EBD's hand and bearing evidence of her blood, sweat and tears—would be. Happily, GGB has released it (as well as Exile, which was also brutally cut in paperback, and two other Chalet School titles) as an ebook, but only for U.K. customers (as I learned after I eagerly tried to place an order without reading the fine print). But I viewed this setback as a challenge rather than a defeat, and enlisted the help of a kind friend in the U.K. who aided and abetted me in acquiring copies of both. My thanks to this aider-and-abetter shall remain anonymous, out of fear that GGB staff members or an international copyright militia might show up on the doorstep with flaming torches, but he/she knows who he/she is...

At any rate, I was very happy to be able to start back at the beginning of this most famous and probably most beloved school story series. I loved reading about the initial idea for the Chalet School, and the planning and setting up of it, not to mention its exponential growth (had it continued at such a rate of growth for long, the Chalet School would surely have been giving Oxford a run for its money by about Book Five!). It was also great to see the initial introductions of Grizel and Simone and many of the other characters who figure so prominently in later tales. And we see Joey's first exposure to a badly-written school story here (a tome by the name of Denise of the Fourth, by Muriel Bernardine Browne), which will have lasting aftereffects.

The first book is considerably longer than most of the other books in the series, and very focused on character development and making the best possible use of the Austrian countryside Brent-Dyer loved. And while it's not necessarily the most realistic presentation of the theme of a young woman finding a career, it nevertheless enjoyably partakes of that theme, which is one of my favorite sorts of tale. 

I can't resist also noting a scene during Madge and Joey's trip to Paris on their way to set up the school. The girls make a side trip to Versailles, and I have to wonder if Brent-Dyer was self-consciously evoking the "Moberley-Jourdain incident," which I've mentioned here before and which is endlessly fascinating to me:

From there, they went on to the Trianons, with their dainty artificiality, where poor Marie Antoinette and her court ladies had played at being milkmaids and shepherdesses clad in flowered silks, while, less than twenty miles away, the Paris mob was beginning to cry aloud for bread. The whole place was peopled with gay, exquisite ghosts for both Madge and Jo, and even Grizel became infected by them, and half expected to see some hooped and powdered lady, with raised fan and brilliant eyes, beckon to her from behind one of the statues.

Moberly and Jourdain's book, An Adventure, had certainly been popular enough following its publication in 1911, so one wonders if it had entered into the culture thoroughly enough for Brent-Dyer to play off of it and assume that her readers would recognize the reference?


After enjoying The School at the Chalet, I plunged straight ahead into Jo of the Chalet School, which I acquired in a cheapo paperback version reputed to have only minor edits from the original. Now, calling one of the Chalet School books my favorite, when I've only read five or six in all, might not make all that much of an impression—especially on those of you who have read the complete series and know them in depth—but for now, I think that Jo of the Chalet School is my favorite. Cheerful and fun, but relatively low-key (only two or three near-death experiences, and those kept fairly brief), and set—like so many of my favorite novels—amidst the gleam of snow and ice as the school weathers (literally and figuratively) its first Austrian winter, there's also the added excitement of a flood, not to mention, less climactically, Jo's first attempts at writing. I found it hugely enjoyable, and it's one I could see myself happily re-reading on a cold rainy day.

Next up in the series is The Princess of the Chalet School, which is happily already resting on my TBR shelves. So far, so good!




RITA COATTS, School on an Island (1938)


After the two Chalet School books had got me thoroughly back in a girls' school frame of mind, I couldn't resist picking up this book, which I mentioned here a whileago when Karen of Kaggsy's Bookish Ramblings very kindly gifted it to me after finding it in a thrift shop. (Thanks again, Karen!)

I had already had enough trouble resisting the book because of its adorable dustjacket and the fact that it's one of the oldest school stories in my collection. And for the most part, the seductiveness of the cover paid off. The story—involving two girls' schools (one noble and cheerful and fun-loving and moral, the other standoffish and joyless and distinctly chilly) which go on a round-the-world cruise (sure, why not?!) and get shipwrecked on the proverbial desert island—is thoroughly ridiculous and implausible in every way, and the characters—except for the very noble, brave, charismatic lead—are barely developed at all—but the story is also completely enjoyable and fun, with cheerful high spirits and well-plotted (if unfathomably unlikely) adventures throughout. I had a great time with it and am so happy to have it in my collection.

My only proviso here is that, perhaps not entirely unexpectedly for a novel written in the 1930s, the tale is weakened a bit by somewhat racist portrayals of a black character and a Chinese one. I should add that these are not hateful portrayals—in fact both characters play important roles in the survival of the girls and their teachers—but they are about as stereotypical in speech and character traits as they could be, and they do appear fairly regularly throughout the novel. This didn't seriously hinder my enjoyment of the novel, but it might for some readers.

Now, the question is, what shall my next school story be???
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