Tuesday, July 18, 2017

HILDA HEWETT, A Week at the Seaside (1955)




Mrs. Grose stood there, savouring to the full the exciting situation and her own part in it as purveyor of the news.

My, here was something to liven-up Seaview Terrace. Not five minutes' walk away, neither. Be able to stand at yer own front gate and watch 'em going to the show. See who went, and who didn't, and who went along with who! Almost as good as being on the route of the Carnival procession, she shouldn't wonder. A free show, almost. And talking of free shows, be able to sit in yer winder and hear the music.

The arrival of "The Seaside Frolics" for a week of performances at the run-down, largely abandoned pavilion is big news for Southsands, and will provide several local residents with more than mere entertainment…

I recently wrote about how I came to start reading Hilda Hewett, and reviewed her wonderful eighth novel, So Early One Morning. (I was so excited, too, to get to be a part of the new issue of The Scribbler on the very topic of Hilda Hewett!) After that positive experience, I immediately requested two of her earlier novels via interlibrary loan, and I snagged an affordable copy of this, her thirteenth, from Abe Books, rather bedraggled in itself but bearing an intact and very seductive dustjacket. (And no wonder the book itself is a bit bedraggled, as it bears a label from a W. H. Smith lending library—see pic below.)



If I can't rave quite as much about A Week at the Seaside as about the earlier novel, I can nevertheless report that it was very entertaining—a nice bit of light, effortless holiday-oriented reading, a little reminiscent, both in its show business themes and in tone, of Noel Streatfeild in her Susan Scarlett mode.

Most of the cast members of the Frolics find drama of one sort or another in Southsands, and each of the novel's plot strands involves at least one of them. At center stage, though only minor characters themselves, are the Frost sisters, Milly, Nelly, and Molly, who run the Collegiate School for girls, a rather deteriorating concern. Much is made of their flair in pronouncing "y" endings—happay, Mollay, busay, rainay, and so forth—which is frequently amusing but perhaps just a bit overdone. Their nephew is Hugh, a married man who's stepping out with Wendy, the Frolics' gold-digging soprano. This week, his estranged wife Helen has dropped their daughter Becky off with the Frost sisters at Hugh's request, to spend some time with her father. It's only later that she (and Becky) realizes that he's really in Southsands only because Wendy is there. The expected drama and discord follows.


Then there are various neighbors—gossipy Mrs Grose, officious Mrs Cole and her harrassed husband and son Robert, the latter of whom falls hard for Paddy, the Frolics' "soubrette" (or light flirty vocalist, as I discovered from Googling the term), the widowed Mr Belling, proprietor of the local hotel, who is ruthless in exploiting the labor of his daughter Pam, and the demanding Miss Coombs and her rather beleagured companion Miss Croucher, who develops her own crush on Cecil, the Frolics' manager and operatic singer, perhaps as an escape from her sometimes stifling home life:

It was characteristic of the regime at Sea Breeze that Miss Croucher's really prostrating headaches were dismissed scornfully as "her silly heads," whilst Miss Coombs's billious-attacks, brought on by over eating, were alluded to reverently as "her bad turns."

But it's really Becky who shines here, and I'm getting a clear feeling that Hewett's best strength is in portraying young girls. Becky has—as is usually the case—figured out far more of her parents' situation than they imagine she has, and is miserable at the thought that they might divorce. She is broody, and feels (understandably) betrayed by her parents, a feeling that's heightened when she's unfairly accused of losing the new trinket given to her by Hugh, when it was in fact stolen by another child with whom she spends an enforced and unpleasant visit. In her loneliness, she finds comfort in a friendship with Gerald, one of the Frolics' comedians, whose mother was a friend of the Frosts. He gives her a bit of her dignity and self-respect again by treating her as an equal, not condescending to her or scolding her, and he is himself an intriguing character because Hewett makes matter-of-factly clear that he's a gay man:

Gerald began to talk. He was not of the school of thought which thinks that conversation with a child must be initiated by a species of catechism. He did not ask her how old she was, whether she liked school, or the name of her favourite subject. He simply talked; and before they had walked very far Becky had acquired quite a lot of information about his flat in Dean Street, his friend Rupert, who lived with him, and his Siamese cat, Prudence.

If all the characters sound a bit dizzying presented in a couple of paragraphs, they're far more smoothly presented by Hewett (though there's a handy cast of characters at the front of the book if you do get confused). Wendy's charms start to wear thin with Hugh when he sees how self-absorbed she is, Robert and Paddy suffer the turmoils of young love, and Pam finds a shot at freedom from her father's tyranny after kindly offering to sew up a costume for the Frolics. Then there's a major London impresario whose car breaks down and decides to attend the show, a huge break for the performers that's threatened when Dorothy, the pianist, is struck by a car.

It's all quite entertaining, and for the most part everything works itself out just as you would expect it to. It's in no way as subtle or profound as So Early One Morning, but I didn't mind that very much. By this time in her career, Hewett was publishing with Robert Hale, a publisher that seems to have specialized heavily in romance and melodrama, and I couldn't help but wonder if she may have been pressured to tone down her best literary qualities and go for something with more immediate lending library appeal. Even so, however, her insight into young girls and how they think and behave come through here and there. One of my favorite examples is this passage featuring Becky and the terrible daughter of one of her mother's best friends (a different terrible girl from the one who steals her trinket—she apparently has bad luck with girls her own age):

Poppet was what she called Babette, though Becky thought Babette was a silly enough name, without inventing anything else. Having to be on show in the drawing-room, with Auntie Rosemary watching everything she did, and making remarks to Mummy in French was awful. She and Babette were allowed to take it in turns to choose what they wanted to do. Babette never chose something sensible, like Happy Families or Snap. She always wanted to listen to some music on the gramophone, something called " Swan Lake," and another thing with a funny name that was French. There she would sit, listening with her head on her hand, and her blue eyes very wide open. Auntie Rosemary would nod towards her, and whisper to Mummy:

"Miles away, isn't she?"

Becky, who had seen her rehearsing that particular expression in the bathroom looking-glass, along with a number of others to be assumed at suitable times, wondered how grownups could be so silly.

They certainly can be silly. Just look at our president…

Overall, the book is a light bit of "frolic", but one with some definite high points.

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Recent reading (MARGARET YORKE, STELLA GIBBONS, JEAN RHYS)

Here are three books I've read recently and didn't manage to do full-fledged posts about, but which are interesting enough to deserve a mention.




MARGARET YORKE, The Limbo Ladies (1969)

I picked this one up at a library book sale in the past year or two and was intrigued. Yorke is best known for her crime fiction, which I have yet to explore, so this novel about divorced women in the late 1960s seems to have been a bit of a departure. And it did indeed turn out to be somewhat intriguing, though perhaps more for its odd placement in time and literary history than as a novel I would highly recommend.

Yorke would have been in her forties herself when she published Limbo Ladies, so was perhaps writing from her own experience or that of women she knew.

'You're probably a bit over-prickly. Sarah,' Frances said. 'We limbo ladies often are hyper-sensitive.'

'Limbo ladies? What do you mean?'

'Oh, the state in which we live. Manless women of our age exist in a social limbo, don't you agree? It's different when you're younger. But after about, say, thirty-two or so, the pattern is, tidy pairs, and anyone who isn't neatly partnered off is out of the club.

The novel is a strange combination—somewhere between a late example of a cozy melodrama that Dorothy Whipple might have written (Sarah begins a new life after inheriting a cottage from a suffragette aunt!) and a somewhat old-fashioned, conservative entry into the realm of Margaret Atwood and Margaret Drabble—the edgier authors who were already exploring the complexities of women's lives with or without men (or perhaps most commonly recovering from relationships with men), seeking new, more feminist meaning in their lives.



It must have seemed like rather a strange anomaly even when it appeared, and now it doesn't really seem to fit in any category we recognize. I'm afraid my feeling was that it ended up neither fish nor fowl—neither lively and entertaining enough to be truly cozy nor quite interesting or profound enough to really shed light on the situations of the women it portrays. It was pleasant but, alas, rather forgettable.



STELLA GIBBONS, Here Be Dragons (1956)

A while back I raved about the final novel by Stella Gibbons, Pure Juliet, only finally published last year, while acknowledging that by no means everyone felt the same about it. This novel, from right in the middle of Gibbons' career, seems to have garnered more positive responses, though I was interested that several of the positive blog reviews nevertheless noted some reservations about it.


I was particularly struck by something Desperate Reader said, that "when reading Gibbons there is often something that jars in her work." This was in the context of a very positive review of the novel, and it made me think about the other Gibbons novels I've loved and why I've loved them, and I have to wonder ultimately if perhaps this jarring isn't exactly what draws me to her so much. Although there are any number of books I love that are delightfully polished and pristine, where every word and every character seems to fall into place exactly the way it should, I think some part of me feels that a book that jars a bit, that challenges me to understand why the author made the choices she did, or makes me interpret the point of it all in a more complex way in order to come to terms with what seems a discordant character or plot twist, is somehow more vivid and alive, more like real life. Books that jar somehow seem to fulfill a potential of literature that more polished works can't achieve.

Thus ends my literary philosophizing for the day. But ironically, after that, I have to admit that Here Be Dragons isn't my favorite Gibbons. Not so much because it jarred. Perhaps it didn't jar enough.

It's an odd novel, wonderfully atmospheric about artistic London in the 1950s, and yet distinctly unromantic in presentation. I made a note while reading it that the characters are interesting and sympathetic only to the degree that the reader is able to empathize with the young and stupid. Perhaps that's overstating it a bit (and anyway I generally have a pretty high tolerance for the young and stupid, within reason), but it is true that the characters, particularly the heroine's cousin John, spend a lot of time trying to be themselves, or to be free, to be artists, or to liberate themselves. What a lot of effort they expend with very little apparent result! They—or at least the more artistic of them—certainly romanticize their situation, but Gibbons never really does, with the result that much of the novel seemed rather drab and dreary to me.

This may be a negative in terms of having an entertaining read, but it's a refreshing contrast to some novels of the period (perhaps particularly those by male authors?) which seem to suggest that suffering for art (and making those around you suffer for it as well) and generally agonizing and wallowing and avoiding all civilized responsibility, are the most glamorous and brilliant of occupations. This is John's attitude, it seems, however unwarranted by any actual achievement on his part, but it's rather wonderful that Gibbons refuses to see him as the romantic figure he so wants to be.

And what prevents the novel itself from being merely drab and dreary itself is that the reader gradually sees the main character, Nell, growing, taking on more confidence, becoming more than the rather bewildered waif she was in the beginning. It's a difficult and—again—entirely unglamorous process, but once one realizes what Gibbons is showing us, it's a fascinating one. I have to admit, though, that in the end I wasn't sure it was all worth it. The setting certainly gives it bonus points, but next to the Gibbons novels I love the most, like Westwood or The Matchmaker or, yes, Pure Juliet, Here Be Dragons pales a bit for me.



JEAN RHYS, Sleep It Off Lady (1976)

My copy of this book was my very first charity shop acquisition on our trip to the U.K. last year. It came from the tiny unmanned (and unwomanned, for that matter) shop at Bodiam Castle, complete with a slot through which to place your pound coins or notes, trustingly assumed to be all present and correct for the books one carries away. I paid all of £2 for this pristine first edition with a pristine (and very lovely) dustjacket, and I knew my charity shop pillaging was off to a grand start.


I hadn't read Jean Rhys in ages. Probably around a decade ago I read her bleak Paris novel, Good Morning Midnight (1939), which I quite liked despite its bleakness, and went on to her final novel, Wide Sargasso Sea (1966), her most famous work and, as many of you know, a sort of prequel to Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre, explaining how the madwoman in the attic came to go mad in the first place. I hate to keep using the word "bleak," but Rhys certainly had a difficult life and so her perspectives are unsurprisingly a bit on the dark side. And her writing is, nevertheless, lovely and, for me, worth all the bleakness she can throw at me.



Sleep It Off Lady was Rhys's third and final story collection, mostly written, it seems, after her she was "rediscovered" with Wide Sargasso Sea (she published virtually nothing from 1939 until 1966, and had fallen into poverty and obscurity to the extent that she twice had to be advertised for—by the same actress, no less—for rights to dramatise her work for the BBC—rather incredible for an author now considered among the most important women writers of the century!). Her second collection, Tigers Are Better-Looking (1968), contained mostly work done in the 1960s, though some may have been from her earlier, "lost" years. Which means that Sleep It Off Lady, published when Rhys was in her mid-80s and only three years before her death, contains most of her very late work indeed.

There are a few stories here that I found a bit light, not entirely memorable, but there are others that are absolutely unforgettable. In "Heat", a child is awakened to witness, out the window, the eruption of Mt. Pelée and the destruction of St. Pierre in Martinique. That story wonderfully highlights the difference in perspective between superstitious natives who assume the destruction was to punish its wickedness, and the English on the island for whom the wickedness involved (the theatre and the opera house, for example) were small potatoes.


Similarly powerful is "Pioneers, Oh, Pioneers", set in 1899, when a Mr. Ramage arrives in Dominica seeking peace and quiet, married a native girl, and over time goes (or is driven) mad by tropical life. But while Mr. Ramage goes mad by "going native," another British "pioneer", Mrs. Menzies, is seen pompously riding her horse through town, carrying ice for her tea and wearing the "thick, dark riding habit brought from England ten years before". Unlike Mr. Ramage, Mrs. Menzies rather madly refuses to compromise her standards at all.

And there's even something here for fans of girls' school stories, of all things, since "Overture and Beginners Please" is a surprisingly humorous story perhaps reflecting on Rhys's own school days and her progression from school to her unsuccessful career in the theatre.

Three of the stories in particular—"Rapunzel, Rapunzel", "Who Knows What's Up in the Attic", and the title story—deal explicitly with getting old. They're all quite bleak (there's that word again), certainly not for the easily distressed reader, or the reader looking for a bit of good cheer! On the other hand, they are also powerful and dreadfully real in their perspective on the fears, comforts, and vulnerabilities of aging. One of the things one can love about Jean Rhys, if one is not too easily distressed, is her absolutely unflinching honesty and lack of sentimentality about the harsher realities of life.

These stories reminded me how much I love Rhys's voice—so much so that I've now picked up her other short stories, so I can keep it in my head for a while longer.

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Newbies (4 of 4)


The final batch of new additions to my main British Women Writers list is not filled with exciting discoveries, but there are a few interesting tidbits. Among them, it contains one of my favorite discoveries of the past year (I can't believe it's taken me so long to get her added to the list), and two more authors I came across as a result of my thrift store shopping in the U.K. last year. (I know, I know, this is the last time I'll mention it, I promise—at least for awhile.)


If you're a regular reader of this blog, you've already heard a lot about MONICA TINDALL, whose fascinating only novel, The Late Mrs Prioleau (1946), was reprinted by Dean Street Press as a Furrowed Middlebrow book a couple of months ago. 


I even ranked it #1 on my 2016 Furrowed Middlebrow Dozen last December. Tindall was the sister-in-law of Ursula Orange, three of whose novels were also reprinted by Dean Street, and she was the aunt of acclaimed author Gillian Tindall, who wrote the informative introduction to Dean Street's edition of The Late Mrs Prioleau. It's an underrated gem.


Of the two authors unearthed in Oxfam shops last year, I actually acquired a book by DOROTHY VERNON WHITE. I have Frank Burnet (1909) patiently waiting on the top shelf of my TBR bookcase, but I seem to keep checking other books out from the library, so I still haven't managed to read it. However, White is an intriguing figure. She published two other novels—Miss Mona (1907) and Isabel (1911)—so she just squeaks into my list's time frame. Her Times obit describes Frank Burnet as "a moral fable about weakness and strength of character, written with great intelligence and gusto." At age 30, she married William Hale White (who wrote fiction as "Mark Rutherford"), 45 years her senior. He died only two years later, after which she stopped publishing fiction. However, her Times obit also singles out The Groombridge Diary (1924), an account of their life together, as a particularly interesting work. For many years, too, White took Bible classes for impoverished youths, and she wrote about those experiences in Twelve Years with My Boys (1912).


On the other hand, I didn't pick up the book I came across by ELSPETH PROCTER, which might be just as well seeing as how the majority of her books turn out to have been Bible-related tales for younger children. The Mystery Plane (1935) looked somewhat entertaining, and it might well be, but I decided I could live without it. Her other books for older children include Shipwreck Bay (1938), The Pony Trackers (1952), and The Treasure Riders (1955). Has anyone come across any of these?

In one of the earlier posts in this series, I had the mysterious D. Katherine Brereton, whose one book, The Savages on Gale Island, doesn't appear to exist in any of the major library catalogues. Sue Sims helped shed some light on the mystery, by noting that that book's publisher, Spring Books, doesn't seem to have bothered to send their books to the major libraries. I have a similar mystery author in this post, and what do you know? She's also published by Spring Books. JOYCE BEVINS WEBB also published only one book, the school-themed The Clue in the Castle. That book is also in neither the British Library catalogue or Worldcat, but Barbara at Call Me Madam tracked down a copy and discussed it here. She described it as "a mad web of intrigue and coincidences," which apparently include a 29-year-old woman masquerading as a schoolgirl.

One of Jean Ure's pseudonymous romances

And speaking of Sue, I somehow missed adding JEAN URE to my list until now, despite the fact that she was clearly listed in Sims and Clare's Encyclopaedia of Girls' School Stories. Her first book, Dance for Two (1960), a ballet story, just barely qualifies her for this list, so perhaps that's how I missed her. Sims & Clare note the tremendous range of Ure's children's fiction, which includes a number of later examples of school stories. The Girl in the Blue Tunic (1997), for example, contains "one of the very few real ghosts to be found in school stories." For adults, Ure also published nearly two dozen romantic novels, including a series of Georgian romances under the pseudonym Sarah Mcculloch.


There are two more authors in this batch who are best known for children's fiction. JULIA RHYS published only two books—Crab Village (1954) and The Tinsel November (1962). The latter is described as: "A fantasy tale of a gloomy All Hallow's Eve, an old English house, some mysterious antique marionettes and a magical time of dark November days which will usher in the candle-glow of Christmas." 


ISABEL WYATT, meanwhile, is known mainly as a popular reteller of legends and folklore for children, including The Book of Fairy Princes (1949), Seven-Year-Old Wonder Book (1958), The Dream of King Alfdan (1961), King Beetle-Tamer and Other Lighthearted Wonder Tales (1963), and The Witch and the Woodpecker (1970). She also published non-fiction analyses of Shakespeare and the legends of King Arthur. Two early titles—Maid's Malady (1930) and Cheese Carnival (1934)—appear to be novels, but little information is available beyond the fact that the former may be a dialect novel set on "the moors."


Of the remaining authors, I find myself most intrigued by D. Y. RALFS, who published four novels—Alex and Me (1952), The Reluctant Lovers (1954), Babes in the Bois (1956), and Find Me a Daughter (1958). The Reluctant Lovers deals with the romance of a widow with her boarder, a widowed military man, and the complications their respective families cause, while Babes in the Bois, which has an irresistible cover illustrated by Virginia Smith, is about a middle-aged couple's first trip to Paris. Future ILL requests, I suspect.


VALENTINE TRAIL was the author of four novels, of which little seems to remain except largely negative reviews. Titles are David Armstrong's Curse (1904), John Paxton: Gentleman (1907), Was He a Coward? (1909), and The Mock Brahman (1931). Of the first, The Publisher's Circular said, "The story is badly written and as amateurish a performance as we have read for many a long day." Ouch.

Eileen Tremayne

What I know so far about EILEEN TREMAYNE doesn't inspire much more interest. Reading 1900-1950 reviewed Those Who Remain (1942) here. In The Flyer: British Culture & the Royal Air Force, 1939-1945, Martin Francis described Four Who Came Back (1941) as "a socially conservative novel, in which the heroes are officers from affluent families and the villain a pregnant working-class ATS typist, who wrongly accuses an army lieutenant of being the father of her child, in the hope of gaining his family's money." Hmmm. Perhaps not my cup of tea. She published eight other novels as well.


ELMA M. WILLIAMS was recommended for my list by David Redd (thanks, David!). She is one of numerous authors on my list who might be more interesting for their non-literary work than for their writing. Her 16 volumes of fiction appear to be mainly romantic thrillers, along with one children's title, Paul's Secret Courage (1967). But once she started earning money from her books, she acquired a hill farm in Wales and created an animal sanctuary, Pant Glas, which overlooked Dovey Estuary. She began publishing memoirs about her life among the various animals, and became even better known than for her novels. Those titles include Pig in Paradise (1964), Animals Under My Feet (1965), Heaven on my Doorstep (1970), and Ride a Cock Horse (1971).


I have some doubts about whether LOUISE ROURKE belongs on my list, but I decided to include her until I know for sure. She may have been born in South Africa, and she certainly seems to have wound up in Canada, as The Land of the Frozen Tide (1928) is a memoir of her life in Fort Chipewyan in Northern Canada. Her only novel is The Tree's Shadow (1930), which was included in a list I came across of works dealing with the Canadian prairies, but other details are lacking.

There's little to say about the final three authors in this post. AUGUSTA A. SMITH wrote three novels in all—The Fawcetts and Garods (1886, under her pseudonym), Matthew Tindale (1891), and the much later She Was His Wife (1936). The last was reviewed here. LILLIAS WASSERMANN was apparently a journalist and wrote nearly a dozen works of fiction, including several co-written with one Isabella Weddle (all too early for Weddle to get her own entry on my list). Wassermann's final novel, The Rest Cottage (1923), earns her an entry here.

And finally, E. KANE WEBB, real name Eileen Mary Webb, publishing four novels. Quinton's Rock (1927) and The Golden Chance (1931) are listed in Hubin as having a crime element, but no details are available. The others are The Shining Path (1924) and Temple, K.C. (1928).

Thus this post runs the gamut from some very interesting authors to several about whom too little is known to muster up much excitement. It's still always fun for me to come across them all, though, even if I don't feel compelled to rush right out and read their books.
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