Saturday, September 24, 2016

A ridiculous orgy of bookshopping

Well, this has been another of those weeks. The weeks when the Friends of the San Francisco Public Library have their Big Book Sale. The weeks that end in exhaustion and a mingling of giddiness and shame. The weeks when Andy imagines what life might have been like had he married someone less obsessed with books.

And this time, I am almost embarrassed to show you the photo of all the damage. I really don't quite know what came over me. It was, I believe, a particularly good book sale, so that there were many genuinely exciting finds. And the excitement from those finds somehow led me (much like an alcoholic on a bender) to get more and more carried away, which led to more exciting finds, which led to, well, you get the picture.

But I must face up to what I've done, and so I make a full confession of the scope of my depravity, in a single photo:


As Colonel Hastings so often says on the "Poirot" series that we've been addictively watching on Netflix, "Good heavens!"

The grand total: a staggering 96 books (and we were staggering, from exhaustion if nothing else, rest assured). This is actually the product of two different trips to the sale, one to the madness of the Tuesday evening "members only" preview, from whence 59 of the books came, and then a surprisingly successful reconnaissance mission today, which brought 30 more books into our apartment. (No, it's not that I can't do math, but 7 of the books actually came from a book giveaway, believe it or not, hosted in our neighborhood this past Sunday. See below)

I will say upfront that, alas, with our trip looming in less than two weeks now (!!!!) and last-minute planning going on at a frenzied pace, not to mention with the sheer numbers of books in this haul, I don't have time to do the full individualized book fetishization that I usually do for these posts, and which I dearly wish I could do this time too (I've kept returning to the piles of books all week long, merely to gaze adoringly at them, as Andy sighs). Perhaps I can return to them in November for further fetishization. But I will provide some more detailed pics and some brief explanations of some exciting finds.

First, those of you from the DES discussion list, and others who are fans of D. E. Stevenson, just look at this:


It seems ungrateful somehow to have any regret at all over finding an unprecedented six DES novels at one sale, but I can't help a tiny wish that I could have found just one more Mrs. Tim, Mrs. Tim Carries On, which would have made a complete (if slightly bedraggled) set. I don't even put DES on Andy's list of authors to search for anymore, because they're simply never there. But suddenly, on Tuesday night, there were four of them, and today, amazingly not picked over on Wednesday, Thursday, or Friday, there were two more. 

Other finds are perhaps less astonishing, but nevertheless very satisfying. Here are some of the best of the hardcovers I came across:


The one that you can't make out at all, in the middle of the pile, is, appropriately enough, a study of Bath by the eccentric and entertaining Edith Sitwell. I'm afraid it may have to make more of a reminiscence after our return than a preparation for it, as my time is limited in the next two weeks (what with the actual publication of the Furrowed Middlebrow books just a few days before we depart!), but I'm happy to have the book anyway. And I had just been thinking I needed to read Doris Grumbach's novel about the Ladies of Llangollen, and there it was in a pristine first edition! And here are even more hardcover finds:


I seem to be collecting Anita Brookner novels now. I've only read two of them, but I now have three more to add to the two that were already on my TBR shelves. Ahem. The Elisabeth de Waal novel on top was, as many of you know, a Persephone reprint last year, and I've always meant to buy it, so how could I resist a pristine copy of the American edition for $3?! I was delighted to find a lovely copy of Elizabeth Bowen's stories, and yes, that is actually a Mabel Esther Allan in there, another first for this book sale.

Of course, what is any book sale without a few lovely green Viragos:


I even had substantial success at the tables of paperbacks this time around, which I usually save for the bitter end because so few of my authors have been reprinted enough to be available in paperback:


That incredibly beaten up book on top, which you may not be able to read, is a 1947 Pan paperback of Rose Macaulay's Staying with Relations, a book I read only recently from the library (I hope to report on it here some time before the next presidential election!). I'm sure I'll be fetishizing that one here somewhere down the road...

But wait, there's more, as they say. Here's a whole slew of other books not quite so directly related to this blog, but I was on a bender (and apparently laboring under the misapprehension that I would a. live forever, and b. have unlimited time for reader):


A few of these will be re-reads of books I know from my misspent youth as a scholar of modernism, but a few I don't even know anything about. Will the Maurice Baring be a keeper, one wonders, never having heard of him before? But it was published by Oxford Twentieth Century Classics, so I added it to my granny cart. And who on earth is Theodora Keogh? We shall see. But as for the book on top, Junichiro Tanizaki's The Makioka Sisters, some readers of this blog might find it as lovely and addictive as I did. It's a rather quiet novel of domestic family life in Japan in a time of social change, so I can't resist a quick recommendation of it.

I didn't neglect the mystery table, though I had perhaps a bit less success than usual:


Those are the last two Iain Pears art history mysteries that I didn't have, so I was pleased with that, and one of those might make its way onto the flight to England with me.

And last but not least (well, perhaps least as well, but not negligible anyway), I mentioned the book giveaway held in our neighborhood last weekend. We almost forgot all about it, what with the Emmy Awards on Sunday and preparations for our trip, as well as anticipation for the bookstore, but we sauntered down the hill on Sunday afternoon and I came back with seven books:


Yes, that makes three E. F. Bensons in all this week, in addition to the Mapp & Lucia series waiting patiently on my Kindle, all despite never having actually read one of his books. But smarter people than me adore him, so I am preparing to be addicted.

And that's that. A mere 96 novels to add to bookshelves I only recently culled with considerable agonizings and tearing of hair. Clearly, we need a bigger apartment...

But as a closing, here are some photos the nearly exact copies of which you've seen several times before, but Andy took a few pictures of me, the line, and the inside of the book sale for a co-worker who had never been, so I might as well share them with you as well:

Geek waiting (im)patiently in line

The (almost) full length of the line 15-20 minutes before opening

Early on in the sale, before all the hordes from further back in
line had made their way inside

All in all, a completely decadent example of lack of self-control. But, as the youngsters say these days, "Sorry not sorry!"

Sunday, September 18, 2016

ROMILLY CAVAN, Beneath the Visiting Moon (1940)

One of the novels that many bloggers—including myself—have been most excited about rediscovering in the past few years is the delightful Guard Your Daughters (1953) by Diana Tutton. I actually read it before I ever started blogging, so never quite got around to reviewing it here, but I've mentioned it glowingly, and you can always refer back to the blogger who seems to have blazed the trail in adoration of the novel—Simon at Stuck in a Book, whose 2012 review of it is here. (A quick Google search will reveal numerous other bloggers who have written about it since.)


Most blog posts about this marvelous, funny, yet surprisingly dark and profound novel go on to note, as I have also done myself, how inexplicable it is that the book remains out of print. On this occasion, however, having now had vast experience as a publisher (ha!), I shall no longer note this, as I am, sadly, no longer at all surprised that the book remains out of print. Ahem. What can I say? We tried. Here's hoping for the future, however.

But I hope that it will pique the interest of Guard Your Daughters fans that that book was constantly brought to mind when I was reading this marvelous novel by Romilly Cavan, and I think Beneath the Visiting Moon absolutely deserves to sit on an ideal bookcase right beside the later novel. Now, I know that's a pretty big claim, but Visiting Moon has many of the same attributes—an eccentric, hilarious family dynamic, charming young girls just coming of age and seeking romance, fabulously eccentric supporting characters, and a dark, tragic backdrop that subtly permeates even the most cheerful scenes.

In this case, the tragic backdrop is, in part, the relentless approach of World War II. Mentioned only in passing here and there throughout much of the novel, the story ends just on the eve of war, at Sarah Fontayne's 18th birthday party, with a sense that the festivities are the last that will be experienced for a long while. The sense of hauntedness throughout undoubtedly stems, then, from the instability of world affairs, but it also stems from other, more personal, elements—disappointment and heartbreak, social inability and financial insecurity, and, in some way, people always being the wrong age for what they want.

The cast of characters could, in less capable hands, be dizzying in its array. There's the aforementioned Sarah, her siblings Philly (short for Philadelphia, no less), Christopher, and quirky little Tom, her rather bewildered widowed mother Elisabeth, a neighbor, Julian, and his children Peter and Bronwen (a child prodigy who has already published her first book), local representatives of society and sophistication in the form of Mrs. Oxford, Lady Pansy, and Mrs. Welwyn, and various other friends and neighbors. A film version would have quite an epic cast—and no doubt an epic budget as well—but it all flows so smoothly and develops so naturally that I was never confused about who was who.


At first glance, Beneath the Visiting Moon seems like any other cozy village tale of family life. The Fontaynes have been left in slight financial straits by the death of their father (they can still afford a servant or two, though, of course). The four siblings are shaken when Elisabeth, a loving but rather dizzy woman, meets new neighbor Julian and the two families look like becoming a rather more intellectual version of The Brady Bunch. Sarah becomes hopelessly infatuated with a thirty-something diplomat who travels all over Europe trying to avert catastrophe. Philly endures being painted by a dull local artist. Bronwen pompously but entertainingly deals with the pressures of a literary life (and tries a bit too hard to lose weight). And, in the end, a valiant attempt is made to revive the decaying, long-neglected ballroom of the family home for Sarah's birthday party—perhaps a symbol of a disintegrating way of life having its last hurrah.

Indeed, much of the delightfully daft dialogue, particularly between the two sisters, Sarah and Philly, seems merely cozy (as well as distinctly Tutton-esque), as in this passage only a few pages into the book:

"I wish you wouldn't wear those stockings to go into the village," Sarah said, her entrancing thoughts diverted. "You look like a schoolgirl."

"I ought to be a schoolgirl," Philly said equably.

"It isn't fair to me," Sarah said sternly. "Everyone classes us together; and what do you think I can make of my life if I'm classed as a schoolgirl? And don't ask me"—she paused to stamp her foot—"what I am making of it, because I know the answer is nothing at all." She glared angrily at her younger sister's offending stockings.

Philly would not have dreamed of asking Sarah such a leading and impertinent question. She squeezed Sarah's thin little hand with her own broader stronger one.

"I'd go back and change now," she whispered, "but my only decent pale ones are full of holes."

"What? Oh, stockings ... " Sarah laughed, the tension gone. "You've broken all the bones in my hand."

But just a couple of pages later, one gets this distinctly unusual description of their village:

The place often had a satisfactory depthless look, with light and shadow lying in neat lozenges of effectively thought-out patterns. Times when windowboxes, slung casually from the second-story windows of houses that were shops on their ground floors and residences above, were not the mere artistic whims of nature-loving dwellers, but the very expression of a street made from a child's single-minded design and carried out with the expert aid of scissors and paint-box and glue. Walking, you felt the steep pull of exacting two-dimensional demands. You were flat with the road and the buildings, at one with a paper-flat aspect of life, as if you were no more than sketched in lightly, as brief human interest, on the final architectural design. This point of view, the girls had found, left you with a most pleasing sense of release from the ordinary irksome pressure of daily life.

Coming only on page 8, this description made me wonder if Cavan wasn’t intentionally highlighting the superficiality of the conventions (idyllic village, perky, eccentric characters, light romance) that she is both using and undercutting in the rest of the novel. In this, too, Cavan's novel is reminiscent of Guard Your Daughters (though as Daughters appeared thirteen years after Visiting Moon, perhaps we should say Tutton's book is reminiscent of Cavan's!), and I think Cavan succeeds in capturing the essence of the "uncozy" novel just as well as (perhaps even better than?!) Tutton did.

Looking back through some of the passages I marked in the novel, I'm surprised even now at how many of the most hilarious parts have just a bit of an added edge, a ghostly darkness lurking beneath the cheerful surface. What, for example, of this passage about the elitist Mrs. Oxford's poor undervalued niece:

"Pansy always was difficult. Emily, sit up." She noticed now, as she had noticed previously, that her granddaughter invariably and incomprehensively blushed at the mention of Lady Pansy's name.

Emily sat up, the blush deepening. How tell anyone of the sense of shame brought by that name? How tell anyone that for years you had mistaken a picture of Lady Pansy, in the awesome fashions of her youth, for an authentic portrait of God, and had said your prayers to it accordingly, night after unnumbered night? That great plumed hat and shawl-like robing, and the prominence that Grandmother had given the picture: was it really any wonder that you had gone on praying to Lady Pansy for so long? But now—when the truth had at last come out—it was not only that Lady Pansy no longer seemed to have any real identity. Neither, alas, had God.

Are we merely to laugh at the daft idealizings and misunderstandings of youth, or are we to note that their result in poor Emily has apparently been an agnostic jadedness?

And then, when Sarah decides to move to London and earn her own living, she inspires this rather irrelevent rant from the formidable Lady Pansy herself:

"I shall be going away to a job soon, but not quite yet."

"You won't like it," Lady Pansy said flatly. "I once had a hat shop and you simply couldn't possibly imagine anything more horrid." Her voice rose indignantly. "All the loathsome little receipts and things people expected! And the obscene foundations lying in wait for you all naked in the workroom! And all the terrible trivia of velvet bows and eye-veils and quills! No—for real soul-destroying disillusion, give me a hat shop."

"I'm not going into a hat shop," Sarah said.

"I should hope not." Angrily she sniffed at the exotic mules. "Horrible little raw foundations reminding you every day how hollow life is when you get down to its bare bones."

Hilarious misunderstandings, perhaps, but one wonders if the hollowness of life "when you get down to its bare bones" isn't one of the themes of the novel as well.

I love these passages that may be read as both surface silliness and more disturbing undercurrents, and dark comedy is one of my favorite things in the world. I'm a firm believer that some things are just too dark and disturbing not to joke about. But of course not every reader will necessarily feel the same. Some readers, too, might be disappointed by the way the novel consistently undercuts any traditional kind of happy ending. It's true that it does this, sort of, but I found the slightly melancholy and anticlimactic closing completely appropriate for a story set at such an uneasy time. And on a more personal level for its main character, I think the ending (I won't spoil it except to note the general tone) is thematically appropriate in capturing the almost simultaneous giddiness and angst of being a teenager and facing tremendous change in oneself even while the world is threatening to collapse around you.

Ultimately, Beneath the Visiting Moon is one of my favorite discoveries in a long, long time, and I happen to know that at least one reader has already sampled it too—as a result of an earlier mention I made of it, where I quoted a review and noted how intriguing it sounded. So feel free to chime in with anything I've forgotten or gotten wrong, Faith!

By the way, Visiting Moon is a surprisingly weighty novel in more ways than one—a big tome weighing in at nearly 400 pages. But how I would have loved if it could have gone on for at least another 400!

Sadly, Cavan (real name Isabel Wilson) published only six novels in all, of which this is the last. The others are Heron (1934, aka The Daughters of Richard Heron), To-morrow Is Also a Day (1935), The Splendour Falls (1936), Characters in Order of Appearance (1938), and Mary Cloud (1939). Of course, I was immediately hot on the trail of more of her books, and have just finished reading one of them, which I'll report on as soon as possible (considering the long trip looming in my future). Sadly, too, although interesting, the other novel didn't at all live up to Visiting Moon. Do any of the other four? Hmmm...

Sunday, September 11, 2016

RUTH ADAM, Fetch Her Away (1954)



Some of you may be familiar with Ruth Adam from her second novel, I'm Not Complaining (1938), which was an early Virago reprint, or from her wonderful historical look at the changing roles of women in A Woman's Place 1910-1975 (1975), available from Persephone. Or you might already have read about two of her more obscure works—the wartime mystery Murder in the Home Guard (1942) and the charming late novel A House in the Country (1957)—on this blog (see here). I find her a consistently interesting author, largely because her work is always informed by a vibrant awareness of social issues, but also because of her attention to detail and to the humorous absurdities of her characters' situations. She doesn't shy away from reality or provide easy answers to her characters' problems, but she also doesn't hesitate to find the humor in them.

As with most of my authors, little enough information about Adam's lesser-known fiction is available (and online searches are plagued with irrelevant results because of the ordinariness of her name—Ruth Adams and Ruth Adamses abound in staggering numbers). But I've always been struck by ODNB's passing reference to two of her other late novels and their inspiration:

In 1955 Ruth Adam, with her friend the London county councillor Peggy Jay, co-founded the Fisher Group, a think-tank on social policy and the family which gave evidence to government committees of inquiry and contributed to such legislative reforms as the 1963 and 1969 Children and Young Persons Acts and the Local Authority Social Service Act of 1970. Arising out of this concern Ruth Adam wrote her disturbing novels Fetch Her Away (1954) and Look Who's Talking (1960) about girls in care, which are rare in their sympathetic depiction of women social workers.

I was a wee bit ambivalent about these novels, which sounded rather like those old TV movies-of-the-week that tackled pressing issues of the day (usually in completely reductive terms). But I knew I could rely on Adam not to be overly reductive, at least, and probably to make even an issue close to her heart interesting and entertaining. Fetch Her Away is hardly a novel I would recommend to everyone, but if you have an interest in the hardships of neglected children and the workers who attempt—hope against hope—to help them, then it's quite an interesting portrayal.

Just FYI, some unavoidable spoilers here, though I doubt if they would come as a great surprise to anyone who reads the first 20 pages of the novel.

The story centers around Suzanne, a young girl whose mother is dead and whose rather superficial stepmother, as the novel begins, is leaving her abusive husband and moving on to what she imagines will be greener pastures, and around Jackie Duffie, a child welfare worker who tries first to reunite the family with assistance, then to find a suitable foster home for Suzanne, and finally, as the years pass, to find a home for a pregnant Suzanne and a man she barely knows.

It's a bleak story, but a realistic one, which effectively delineates all the forces that keep the cycle of neglect and despair churning. And sadly, it doesn't seem as though this cycle has changed very drastically in the intervening 60 years since the novel was written, though drugs and violence have undoubtedly increased and further complicated matters. However, although one is likely to feel a bit sad and thoughtful upon finishing Fetch Her Away, there are some excellent examples of Adam's charm and humor scattered here and there throughout, particularly in relation to the workers and others trying to help Suzanne.

Here, for example, are Jackie's musings on the perils of temporarily removing children from troubled homes:

It was risky to offer to take a child "for a time," because it always turned out to be a remarkably long time. The working-classes had just discovered a fact which had been known to the aristocracy for hundreds of years, and to the middle-classes for a century or so-that family life is a lot less trouble if you arrange to have your children brought up by paid officials at a comfortable distance away from home. They looked upon the Children's Department as a free boarding-school. Once you housed an unwanted child, the parents were liable to settle down happily without it until it reached years of discretion.

And here we see how her work deprives her even of the most popular method of fighting insomnia:

Jackie turned the pillow over a hundred times, in the hope of discovering a comfortable side to it. She watched the car-lights loom up and recede across her window, listened to the chanting of late revellers and  counted the chimes of the clock. She even descended to counting sheep jumping through a gap, until she found she was separating them into possible boarding-out and definitely institutional sheep. Still she was obstinately wakeful.

And finally, the passage that most made me laugh, from late in the novel, here's Jackie seeking help from a powerful and immensely practical community organizer:

"I know," said Jackie. "But if no one can do anything, I have an awful feeling that Robert and Suzanne are doomed to go on repeating the pattern—deserting as they were deserted, betraying as they were betrayed. It's exactly like one of those old families which have a curse on them that goes on in each generation and no one can ever get away from."

Mrs. Hardy looked doubtful. So far as she had ever thought about family curses, she had supposed that they could be cleared up by re-housing the family in uncursed premises and perhaps turning the old place into a youth hostel or even a Child Guidance Clinic. But she got Jackie's point.

Fetch Her Away is not, then, a novel that most of you will want to rush out and read for yourselves, but it's certainly an interesting one in relation to Adam's other work. She was clearly an author who was passionate about improving the problems she saw around her, and applied her efforts to entertaining fiction that she must have hoped would help readers understand them better.

I'm hoping to also track down Adam's So Sweet a Changeling, apparently also published in 1954, which one reviewer described as an "[a]musingly told story of the unauthorised adoption of an illegitimate baby." And there's one of her novels, 1947's Set to Partners, that seems to be completely inaccessible, which you know only makes me more intrigued—I don't even have a clue about its subject matter. (I've been lucky in finding a couple of her rare early works, though I've been grossly remiss about writing about them here—mea culpa and hopefully I can rectify that at some point.)

Have any of you read any of Adam's other works?

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

The first advance copies


I've shared with all of you just about every step of the process, over the past few months, as I've progressed from fantasizing about books I'd like to publish to actually working with Dean Street Press to publish some of my favorites. So I have to also share my excitement over the first advance copies, which I received in the mail yesterday. I haven't been able to stop holding them and thumbing through them and generally fetishizing them. Amazing how holding the actual physical books makes the process so much more of a reality! And I think they're gorgeous, though of course I might be slightly biased...

These two books were finalized a bit before the others because they were included with our press release to media outlets and other folks we thought might take an interest. Therefore these are the only two currently available for pre-order (in paperback format). The e-book editions of these and both editions of the other seven titles will be available for pre-order soon. Stay tuned.

Meanwhile, just a few more pics to share my fetishization with you more fully. (Well, really, I have to show you the backs, with the Furrowed Middlebrow colophon I previewed here a while back, right?)





Thursday, September 1, 2016

RACHEL FERGUSON, Popularity's Wife (1932), Charlotte Brontë (1933), and The Late Widow Twankey (1943)

I've posted several times in recent months about my ongoing obsession with tracking down and reading all twelve of Rachel Ferguson's novels, as well as several of her other works, many of them now quite rare. And believe it or not, this project started even before I knew that I would be publishing some of her books under the Furrowed Middlebrow imprint from Dean Street Press. I've posted already about all three of the novels we're reprinting in October—A Harp in Lowndes Square (1936), A Footman for the Peacock (1940), and Evenfield (1942). Now I'm reporting on three more of Ferguson's extraordinarily unusual works.


Popularity's Wife (1932) was published the same year as The Stag at Bay, which I mentioned in an earlier post and which I found rather unsatisfying. I don't know for sure which came first, honestly, though I've guessed that Stag was her third novel and Wife her fourth. The latter is certainly an enormous improvement on the former. While Stag had, for me, few high points at all, Popularity's Wife shows more of the humor, personality, and quite distinct perspective that had, only a year or so before, made The Brontës Went to Woolworth's so memorable.

The novel is about a squire's daughter, Mary Arbuthnot, who runs off to marry a singer, Dion Saffyn, to the horror of her father, and then has difficulty coping with his "popularity" with other women. It follows them through the challenges of setting up house together—with far fewer servants and resources than Mary is accustomed to—on to childrearing and into middle age. If the plot didn't quite come together, for me at least, there are certainly passages here and there that might have written by a slightly tipsy Barbara Pym. Some of my favorites are near the beginning, as in the scene where Mary and her friend Leslie are coping with the "excellent women" of the village church:

An ideal of excessive punctuality was intangibly diffused all the week previous to the Festival, and the parish hacks gathered early, stacking their offerings neatly. It was etiquette which then prevented them from setting to work. Their allotted places differed not from year to year; nor must they helpfully encroach upon the uncharted territories of the Wyatt set. But, on the other hand, Mrs Wyatt and Miss Pragman reserved to themselves power to take over any person's job. The rankers, then swelled in numbers, waited about, and upon the signal began to tumble over each other to make up for lost time, always in the dark as to whether the toil of their hands would be passed.

'It's like The Jungle,' whispered Leslie West. 'D'you remember where they made it a rule in the stockyards that the work was to be speeded up, and speeded up and the bosses stood by with stop-watches, and then when the men were dripping with blood and sweat they were told that as they had done double the work in exactly the same time they wouldn't be paid extra, as it wasn't overtime.'

'I don't quite see the connection,' Mary answered.

'Nor do I really, but we follow the shape of that system,' Leslie added vaguely.

And a bit later in the same scene:

Leslie appeared on the moment with a paper bag in her hand. Miss Pragman laid aside her notebook with finality. 'Miss West, we are all here, could you not manage to be a little earlier? It makes the organisation of the wark so difficult when the warkers are not up to time.'

'I'm sorry, I was here before—anybody, and I just went out, as there seemed to be nothing doing.' Miss Pragman blinked, but refrained. 'Now, ladies, we can begin. Miss Leech, will you do the two Norman columns? Thank you. Your sister will help you. I expect you will prefer to wark together.' Vigorously she united the old sisters, who had had a bitter feud over the breakfast table on the subject of scorched eggs. Miss Lettice had deliberately omitted an instruction to the servant about supper in order that, as they started, she might run back and thus do away with the otherwise unavoidable necessity of walking with Bertha to the church. Stiffly she excused herself as she carried out the ruse, and Bertha had countered with a reference to imperfect housekeeping. Both sisters recognised the injustice of the gibe.

Hilarious stuff, and certainly a strong hint of what was to come later in Ferguson's career.

Fortunately, the class obsessions that made The Stag at Bay and Ferguson's satirical works Victorian Bouquet and Sara Skelton rather painful to wade through are more muted here. There is some concern, for instance, with the idea that Mary has married beneath her, though in fact the marriage, for all of its oddities and Dion's apparent infidelities, seems like a basically happy one. And it's quite an interesting relationship for Ferguson to be portraying in 1932, especially considering how much better Mary seems to feel about Dion's women once she starts doing a bit of philandering (or at least some serious flirtation) herself, and their three daughters' perspectives on all of it are fascinating as well.

I do admit that, like The Stag at Bay, there were times when I had a bit of trouble following along in Personality's Wife. Ferguson is known for her rather intricate, practically Proustian prose, a characteristic that would develop gorgeously—and, unlike Proust, hilariously—in her later novels. Here, it perhaps hasn't quite coalesced yet, so I did find myself now and then re-reading and turning pages trying to figure out what had just happened. But there's also no doubt that it's a striking advance over Stag (assuming as I am that it really did come after), and as a preview of coming attractions it's well worth reading.


The year after she published Personality's Wife, Ferguson made her one foray into drama. It's ironic, considering her love for the theatre and how frequently actors and performers appear in her fiction, that she only made a single attempt to involve herself with it as a writer. I haven't found any references online to how successful the play was, but somehow a copy of it found its way to the San Francisco Public Library, where it resides (in circulation, no less) to this day.

The Brontës were all the rage in the 1930s, and a goodly number of writers from my Overwhelming List wrote fiction or non-fiction about them (as well as, of course, about Jane Austen, who was having one of her many vogues at that time as well), so Ferguson was playing it unusually safe by titling her one effort Charlotte Brontë and dramatizing the major life events of poor Charlotte, both just before and after the loss of her sisters.

For my fellow book fetishists, I can't resist sharing this image of the
vintage library card holder and the Date Due slip which suggests
I was the first person to check out the book in 56 years!

She was also playing it safe in her mode of presenting the Brontës. She had gently joked about the sisters in The Brontës Went to Woolworth's, but here she mostly plays it straight, with the result that little of Ferguson's more outrageous (and entertaining) personality comes through. We get a taste of it when she opens the play with a present day tour group being escorted through the Brontës old home in Haworth (a preview, for me, of my own pilgrimage to Brontë country in October!), and a family of Americans comes in for the broadest mockery, of course (perhaps also a preview of my visit, though I shall try to restrain my most uncouth American instincts). After that, we flash back to the Brontës themselves, and it's all pleasant enough, if mostly rather melodramatic and predictable. It's only later on, after Charlotte's success, when we see a glimmer of Ferguson's satire in a party scene, in which the authoress is uncomfortable toasted by famous authors and fawners alike. The hostess toys with one superficial hanger-on and flirts with another:

MRS. C.: I always think one meets all the most interesting people at Mr. Thackeray's.
DUCHESS: There are occasional exceptions.
MRS. C.: Yes. How true. That young man over there, for instance.
DUCHESS: My grandson. (MRS. CHUTE gasps, and edges away. The DUCHESS chuckles, and pokes MR. EVERARD to her.) I know I'm a liar, Mr. Everard, but I couldn't resist it. You are my grandson, to-night.
MR. EV.: Only that? How lamentably respectable!
DUCHESS: It needn't be. Think o' the Borgias.

But alas, there's little of such lightness here, and most of the play is more focused on the tragic elements of the Brontës' lives. Early on, for instance, Ferguson presents Emily as having something like second sight, or a personal connection with the spirit world, and thus melodramatically previews the sisters' sad futures:

CHAR.: You must not touch her! I don't understand why. I only know you mustn't.
EM. (gazing fixedly straight ahead): Yes, I can hear You clearly. I have been listening for You. Is it to come, so soon? You must be merciful, for they are only children in understanding, my Charlotte and my Anne, my sisters … they are not like me, who have always known You ... Your wild, compelling voice. Remember that. I command You, remember that.
ANNE: Emmy ...
EM.: And must You have them all? What, every one! Oh, You will get Your way, but I must go before them, lest they fear and cower. I must be there to welcome them and warm them (relaxing and looking about her). What's the matter? Why do you both look at me so? Have—have I said anything?
CHAR.: No, my bonny. (A bell tinkles, and ANNE rises hastily.)

At times, I admit, the drama was surprisingly effective, but most of it could have been written by virtually any author of the day. Perhaps Ferguson realized that her best gifts couldn't easily be presented in such a mainstream form as popular drama, and this is why she never made another attempt. Charlotte Brontë is a pleasant enough curiosity in her career, but not particularly a standout for me.


But if Ferguson stifled her most eccentric impulses in writing for the theatre, she certainly let all the eccentricity out when it came, a decade later, to her tenth novel, The Late Widow Twankey (1943). I've quoted here before Ferguson's own statement about the peculiarities of The Brontës Went to Woolworth's. She reportedly said, while in the midst of writing it, "It's getting so odd that I'm rather frightened of it." But for my money she hit hitherto unfathomed heights of oddness with Widow. (Perhaps, by that late stage in her career, she was so accustomed to the strangeness of her work that she was no longer even a little frightened by it.)

It's not even an easy novel to summarize. Unlike Evenfield, published one year before, The Late Widow Twankey is set firmly in wartime and in a country village called Daisydown, but those are just about the only things absolutely firm about it. The uncertainty here, however, is certainly a key part of the plot.

The local vicar's wife, who has lived in the village for three years as the story opens, has been uneasy for some time about the residents of the village, who seem, somehow, to be intruders from another realm:

Stated quite baldly, without introspective trimmings or metaphysic stews, it amounted to a hidden conviction that the villagers were people leading double lives, one to your face and the other behind your back.

One begins to wonder when one encounters such characters as Dick Whittington and the titular Widow Twankey, not to mention a bit later when families like the Bopeeps and the Ridinghoods make their appearance. There's a Cinderella, with her stepsisters Clorinda and Thisbe, a Prince Charming who becomes, ironically, the vicar's wife's chief confidant, and two rather creepy Babes (i.e. in the Wood) who are far too old for their roles. I know next to nothing about traditional British pantomime, but it's clear that the oddities the vicar's wife notes stem from the characters of the novel being, well, characters from pantomime, attempting to adapt to wartime life in a small English village.

A very faded inscription in my copy of
Late Widow Twankey. The name appears
to be Nina Thurston (?), and the date is
Feb 12 '44.  I wonder if the date format
suggests it was owned by an American?

It's a clever concept, and Ferguson carries it off with her usual entertaining weirdness, though it never became quite clear to me to what extent the characters were compelled in some way to play their roles and to what extent they were merely pretending to play them for the sake of appearances. But perhaps that's the point—I think there's a real point beneath all the lunacy—that we all are in part driven to fulfill the roles we're born to, and in part resist them or merely pretend to play them while going about our own business when out of the public eye. And I suspect that a greater knowledge of pantomime would have aided me, too, in recognizing when the characters were behaving as they were supposed to and when they were going their own way.

The Late Widow Twankey is also of particular interest for me because it's the only other Ferguson novel (alongside A Footman for the Peacock) written and set during World War II, and so it reflects somewhat on the themes and tone of that earlier novel. I love her description of the outbreak of war:

When war broke out, which it did on the very Sunday following the sale of the Durden's cow for a sack of beans, the village, thought Mrs. Beech, became a shade more ridiculous than usual, unless all villages were being rather unbalanced, for one couldn't entirely believe that Daisydown possessed the monopoly of eccentricity.

One circumstance perversely reassured her, and that was the singular amount of political and social graft that there seemed to be going about. For without one ascertainable qualification that anybody discoverable had ever heard of, the Hon. Thisbe became a Captain of W.R.A.F.'s in full uniform, and the Baron hurried about in staff officer's kit and a (presumably hired) car which developed deafening complaints whenever anybody so much as looked at it, as Alison once remarked to Mr. Prince Charming, and on one occasion had actually telescoped in the middle of the road, which apparently caused the Baron no regrets or apprehensions of any description. 'But then,' put in the grocer, Mr. Prune, 'he's such a very good-natured gentleman.'

And a bit later, there is a classic example of the stereotypically unflappable Brit making the best of bad situations:

But in common with so many of the rural communities of England, the Daisydowners continued to be profoundly unaware of the war, and when anything did happen which forced their attention to the fact that it was no longer peace-time, they turned it into stuff for jest; and as though providence itself were conscious that Daisydown needed special treatment, it sent to that village, or so it seemed to Mrs. Beech, but one sample of everything, of which they made their joke and passed on to the usual business of living. There was, for instance, one air-raid only which sent down one H.E. bomb that hit the Durden's kitchen garden squarely, a circumstance which delighted the widow who said that it made a natural pond (or au reservoir) at no cost, of which at the moment she stood sorely in need, and when it was followed by two incendiaries she lit the fire with one and toasted a kipper upon the other, and when they burnt themselves out exclaimed, 'These rotten German goods ain't made to last!' as she ran, gibbering, her sidecurls flapping, from one to the other.

It's ludicrous and bizarre, but great fun, and if this isn't quite Ferguson's most accessible novel, it should prove irresistible to anyone who (like me, clearly) has caught the Ferguson bug. Naturally, it's almost impossible to locate, and this isn't one of the novels we're releasing in October, but stay tuned. If the first three Ferguson titles are well received, we might be able to get round to more of her work. And in the meantime, I still have a few more of her novels to write about here…
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