One of my not-quite-resolutions this year was that I wanted to really get back into exploring and documenting some properly obscure authors. Now, I know you might be thinking that's like a lizard in Death Valley saying he's resolved to move somewhere warmer. I'm always a bit on the obscure side, but I mean that I'm ready to put some wear on the library card with dusty old loans from off-site storage units at libraries in places like Memphis and Saskatchewan. Retirement and relocation from San Francisco to some place cheaper are both still years and years away (sadly), but who knows how long it will be until even San Francisco's well-funded library system cuts back on its Interlibrary Loan resources, or until libraries in places like Memphis and Saskatchewan decide to close down their off-site storage facilities. (For that matter, there's a fairly good chance that our maniacal comic book villain of a president will soon be triggering a nuclear armageddon or other catastrophic world events.) So, in short, I want to max out my resources to obtain the most obscure books that seem potentially of interest while I still can…
The flip side of this literary archaeology, of course, is that not all buried treasure is worth digging up.
Regular readers of this blog know that I am not one of those bloggers who relishes disliking books as much as they do enjoying them. In fact, for better or worse I tend to feel it almost as a personal failure when I can't engage with a book on some level. But it does happen occasionally nevertheless, and when a book is at a certain level of obscurity, I feel I should document it here for the sake of other readers, on the off chance that someone else will come across the book someday and wonder. So, with that glowing recommendation of this scintillating post, here come two confessions about recent failures from among the most deeply-buried obscurities.
MARIGOLD WATNEY, Amberley Close (1950)
I ask you. How many of you would have been able to resist a dustjacket and cover blurb like the ones shown here?
I acquired this book a couple of years ago, actually, though it's taken me forever to get around to it. I think it was part of a World of Rare Books order I did after some small windfall or other, and if I'm remembering it correctly, it was part of the same order that brought me Josephine Kamm's Peace, Perfect Peace and Maude Forsey's Mollie Hazeldene's Schooldays, so overall the order was a successful one, even if this title sadly failed to live up to its charming cover art.
Amberley Close is a bit like the love child of a D. E. Stevenson novel and Peyton Place—a bit too much melodrama for my taste, thank you very much. And yet somehow I found myself continuing to turn the pages, so Watney certainly does have some storytelling ability. It's just an odd mix of rather cheerful, humorous characters with darker, more sordid melodrama.
The story centers around the residents of a London close, the remnants of an old, much larger estate, still ruled over by The Old House, owned by the last survivor of its old family, the rather sad Lady Ambleworth. The grounds surrounding the old house having been sold by Lady Ambleworth's father, the houses of the close were built with a large shared private garden behind (i.e. private from the outside world, shared by the residents of the close).
These residents include Lady Ambleworth's overly-sheltered adopted daughter Jenny; Dr. Steve Mayne, his wife Louise and daughter Charlotte; the close gardener and his wife, who does housework and takes in lodgers; said lodgers, the new rector of the parish and a young solicitor; Justin McAlister, a Scotsman recovering from an accident and awaiting word about a spot on his lung; and the terrible Miss Pendenny, acidly judgmental and in hot pursuit of the parish to be her long-awaited husband. And then there's No. 13, which has been turned into a hostel for unwed mothers.
All of which sounds promising enough, and indeed at her best Watney is quite charming and even, in a couple of places, very funny. Her assessment of Miss Pendenny ("Like most people who live utterly aimless and empty lives, Miss Pendenny kept a diary.") made me laugh out loud, as did this exchange between Justin and Bruce Horton, the dull, hapless new rector:
"It's quite an art keeping friendships at the right tempo. Congenial companionship is delightful, but it is a good thing not to give too much of oneself. Keep something back. Badly put, I'm afraid, but you know what I mean."
"I do, I do," lied Bruce, who had nothing to give anyone except a catalogue of woes or a schedule of his day's activities. With him it was never a question of keeping back but how much he could give out before his listener walked away.
Sadly, however, these moments are few and far between, and Watney allows the novel to be bogged down in a sordid melodrama involving the Maynes. Steve is a quintessential lovable philanderer (Watney's perspective, not mine—Louise's justifications of Steve's behavior as something he can't help is one of the book's most cringeworthy elements), but has become mixed up with the wrong woman, an actress who, when he attempts to leave her, threatens to destroy him, which leads to much wringing of hands, threats, and tragedy. All of which I found rather slow going.
It's not a terrible book by any means, but unlike all those posts where I've raved about how I can't believe a book is out of print, here I'm quite willing to say I understand perfectly why this novel of Watney's, at any rate, has not been rediscovered. Are there better books by her out there? She wrote more than a dozen novels in all, most of them vanishingly rare these days. Laugh When You Can (1945) was described by a bookseller as a murder mystery set in an English village, and I confess I'm tempted to give that one a go as well. The cover of that book and some of her others are quite enticing. On the other hand, so was this one…
ROMILLY CAVAN, Characters in Order of Appearance (1938)
I first approached Romilly Cavan's work via Beneath the Visiting Moon (1940), set just on the cusp of World War II, and it promptly became one of my favorite books of 2016, garnering inclusion on my year-end Furrowed Middlebrow Dozen. I really can't recommend it enough, especially for fans of Diana Tutton's Guard Your Daughters. But then, high on my triumph with Cavan's final novel, I got hold of a copy of Characters in Order of Appearance (1938), and oh, the difference a couple of years make!
American artist James McNeill Whistler apparently once quipped, in reference to novelist Henry James, that "he chews more than he bites off." (And if you've read much James, you'll probably have to admit that you understand what he means even if you don't agree with it). That's much how I felt about this novel as well. But what makes it so frustrating, instead of just a purely bad book that can be easily dismissed, is that the book's opening section—in which young playwright Mark Brown pays a visit to an English village and encounters the eccentric Verity family, including their youngest daughter Moira, destined to be his wife—seemed to have almost as much potential as Visiting Moon. The characters were charming and likable, the writing was witty and fun, there was a sophisticated cynicism about the world.
Even when the book's second section, taking place several years later, began, I was keeping an open mind. Clearly, each section of the book would jump a few years into the future and trace the development of the various characters. And Cavan seems to have had some serious intentions—exploring the ways people and love change over time, professional women and the difficulties they face, the challenges of the creative life. But sadly, instead of having anything profound to say about these things, Cavan lets things just blandly and repetitively go on until one hates the characters and wishes they could all board the Titanic at their earliest convenience.
On the brighter side, Cavan is at her best when describing the behaviors and feelings of young girls on the brink of adulthood—first Angel and then Moira come through vividly, entertainingly, and poignantly early in the novel. But in later sections, as she traces a happy romance and a marriage only gradually strained by the Moira’s greater professional success, the tone—though it’s obvious Cavan is going for something quite serious in her careful dissection of the couple’s emotional life—rarely rises above the level of a basic romance (and becomes repetitive and cloying even at that).
But perhaps Cavan realized where her greatest strengths lay, at least belatedly, since by the time she gets round to Beneath the Visiting Moon, she keeps the focus firmly on a young girl just coming of age, and successfully manages all the brilliant, touching, entertaining things she must have been striving for with Characters.