Friday, October 19, 2018

Two novels of childhood: GERALDINE SYMONS, The Suckling (1969) & ORIEL MALET, My Bird Sings (1945)

Here are two interesting novels for adults, distinctly odd and yet completely distinct from one another, about the joys and traumas of childhood. Regular readers of this blog will know that this is a subgenre I very much enjoy—books along the lines of Rumer Godden’s The Greengage Summer or Pamela Frankau’s A Wreath for the Enemy or, my favorite discovery of 2017, Marjorie Dixon’s The Red Centaur (see here). Neither of these quite live up to those books, but I enjoyed them both. However, I didn’t get round to making notes on either of them until a while after I read them, by which time my memory of details might have got a bit hazy around the edges, so I’m including brief(-ish) discussions of both in one post.

The Suckling is a quirky little novel about an overly imaginative little girl, Hattie Suckling, living in France with her parents and struggling to comprehend the bewildering conflicts of culture, religion, class, and morality that she is forever encountering. Her father Sebastian is an author who is always musing to Hattie about the darker side of life, which she largely misunderstands and incorporates into her vivid inner world—sometimes unable to tell the difference between reality and fantasy. Her mother Rose, by contrast, is traditional and conservative and wishes they were back in England leading a civilized life rather than in a coastal village in France because Sebastian needs a quiet place to write. (It’s a bit difficult to see how Rose and Sebastian would have come to be married in the first place, but opposites do attract sometimes, and we are seeing them in the novel after the bloom is off the rose a bit.)

Symons is best known for her children’s books, and at times The Suckling reads very much like a novel by an author more comfortable writing for children. By and large, though, this seems an advantage for a story concerned with childish perceptions and misperceptions. Here’s a favorite passage combining Symons’ sense of humor and an example of Hattie’s incomprehension of adult attitudes and metaphors:

'Is it wrong to make candles?'

'Of course not, but people who do shouldn't have yachts, so your mother thinks. Everyone should stay in their own pigeon-hole and not try to escape.'

'Are we in our hole?'

'She says not, that I'm dragging us out of the damn' thing.'

There was silence for a moment as Hattie chewed over the extraordinary picture that Father's words had produced. Thrusting her fingers through her fringe, she asked 'Where to?'

'Down into a proletarian quagmire of Bohemian debauchery.'

'What's a quagmire?'

'A quaking bog.' Dropping the melon on Hattie's wound, Father went downstairs to dejeuner, which Mother called 'dinner'.

Messing about with the rest of her mince which she didn't want, Hattie saw Father dragging her and Mother down into a quaking bog which shook and bubbled like boiling chocolate.

(I’m also always interested by examples of the uses of varying terms for our daily meals. Reams could surely be—and probably have—been written about all the distinctions of class and culture concealed by these terms, and it’s entirely appropriate that Rose, fiercely English, would refuse to let “dejeuner” pass her lips—so to speak.)

The central trauma of the novel for Hattie is her belief, stemming from a series of misunderstandings and vivid fantasies, that she has murdered a fisherman, whom her father told her jokingly to push from the sea wall into the water. Her tendency to immediately imagine the bewildering things her father says, and the bizarre chance by which the fisherman soon after dies of a heart attack, create a certainty in Hattie that she is responsible for his death.

This was an interesting, sometimes touching, sometimes funny evocation of a child's mind and her efforts to figure out the hopelessly enigmatic world around her. Probably not a “must read” but great fun for fans of the genre.

The Suckling was the last of only three adult novels by Symons, who is best known for her series of children's titles about Pansy and Atalanta, which include Miss Rivers and Miss Bridges (1972) and Mademoiselle (1973). I think I really need to get round to one of those books. And I'm also a fan of Crocuses Were Over, Hitler Was Dead (1977) (the original British title, Now and Then, is just too boring to use), a time slip story in which a young contemporary girl (i.e. 1970s) staying on a country estate slips repeatedly back to the estate's WWII days. She seems to have published only one other children's title, Second Cousins, Once Removed (1978), after Crocuses, though she didn't die until 1997. Her other two adult novels were All Souls (1950), which appears to be a family saga, and French Windows (1952), about which I have no details. Her memoir, Children in the Close (1959), about her childhood in the Close of Salisbury Cathedral, might also be of interest (would she have known Edith Olivier, I wonder? I don’t recall exactly when Olivier lived in Salisbury, but surely around the same time).

The other of these two odd little books became an absolute obsession for me during the two or three days I was reading it, but having not made notes on it at the time I find that I can remember very little about it. Which is certainly a testament to my ditziness as a reader, but it’s also rather appropriate to a story permeated by a dreamy ethereality. I lived in it as vividly as in a dream, and then promptly forgot it on awakening.

This was the second novel by Oriel Malet, an author some of you must already know for her third, the Persephone-reprinted Marjory Fleming (1946). And I also see that I previously wrote briefly about her one children’s title, Beginner’s Luck (1952) (see here), way back in the early days of this blog. Malet specialized in writing about young girls—all the reviews I can find of her eight novels suggest that she never varied much in her protagonists. Which, since she seems to have handled her subject matter effectively, makes her a potentially rich source of future reading material.

My Bird Sings is set in a sort of fairy tale 19th century. There's a castle on the Loire, an eerie puppetmaster who seems along the lines of Fate itself (perhaps just a bit too much of him and his puppets, in fact, for my taste), and three little girls in a magical countryside. And it’s just possible that all of this is the dream or daydream of a young girl about to be married, who appears in a prologue and epilogue. But the three girls are quite dreamy enough in their own right:

She turned abruptly away and came close, close to the mirror, so that her light breath seemed to cloud it. Running her finger gently across the cracked flowers, she spoke softly, dreamily, as if to herself. "There's someone in the mirror coming towards us. And then perhaps we shall be free. Someone all in white, like a princess, or like mother that day she put on her wedding dress for us. I can see her now, coming between the trees with her arms full of Bowers, and singing. I think she has the key of the castle in her hand."

Now admittedly, I would ordinarily find it hard to suppress a guffaw at such a passage, but I can only say that, for me, while I was reading the novel, Malet managed to make her fairy tale world come to magical life, guffaw-free.

The girls' lives are changed by the arrival, foretold by the mirror, of the beautiful Mélanie (who has left behind a brilliant singing career) and her newly-wed husband Charles de Chancerey, and everything works itself out tidily.

Despite the fact that I can recall no very compelling details about My Bird Sings, I’m definitely planning to read more of Malet in the future. In fact, immediately after finishing it, I nabbed a library copy of Marjory Fleming and made a valiant attempt at it. But somehow the magic didn’t take over again, and it seemed stiff and awkward by comparison to this one. I’ll have to attempt it again some day—perhaps it was just too much Malet all at once. I’ve also nabbed a copy of Jam Today (1957), Malet’s memoir of living in Paris in her youth, which just sounded too irresistible to pass up. Has anyone read that one?

Friday, October 12, 2018

War looms over village life: RUTH ADAM, There Needs No Ghost (1939)

I've been meaning to get around to this rather odd and quite obscure novel for ages. I've written about Ruth Adam several times before (see here), and I always find her an interesting—and still under-rated—author. Socially-conscious, sensitive, and observant, but also frequently humorous and completely down-to-earth, she tends to provide a unique perspective on the life and culture of the 1930s-1950s.

Ruth Adam

She particularly found her niche, as you may already know, with her final book, A Woman's Place 1910-1975 (1975), a wonderfully readable social history of the ever-changing positions and expectations for women in the 20th century, which is available from Persephone. And her second novel, I'm Not Complaining (1938), about a schoolteacher's growing political involvement in Depression-era England, was reprinted by Virago in the 1980s but has sadly been out of print ever since.

There Needs No Ghost followed just one year after I'm Not Complaining. It's set immediately before, during, and just after the Munich Crisis of 1938 (see here to refresh your memory—I had to) and features two narrators—a vicar's sister in Caledon, a small village north of London, and a young, unmarried mother from Bloomsbury, a former actress and bohemian, who retreats to Caledon out of a desire to protect her child from the inevitable bombing raids expected any day.

Honestly, it sounds a bit more rollicking and entertaining than it really is. Adam takes her subject matter seriously, as is appropriate for the time of crisis she's describing, but although there's certainly humor here and there, the urgency of Adam's mission—to show the contrast of values between urban and rural England, and how they may be brought to terms so that everyone will ultimately be pulling together—doesn't necessarily make for scintillating reading, and it struck me as largely surprisingly dry and lifeless.

Oh, how I hate to be more or less in agreement with Queenie Leavis, the high-brow literary critic who enjoyed being condescending about most of the authors I love the most. But in this case, Leavis, writing in Scrutiny in 1939, could be echoing my own feelings:

Apart from being less well written and of a piece than I'm Not Complaining, Mrs. (not Miss as previously stated in these pages) Adam is less successful in her choice of her chief mouthpiece—the Vicar's sister, though the last drop of juice is wrung out of her, is a bit too limited to have so much rope and her style of thought a bit loosish to enjoy for long. The other chronicler, the Bloomsbury young woman, is first-rate in the line of the recounter of I'm Not Complaining. With all these reservations, the book is good entertainment literature and something over. There is some good back-chat between the Bohemians, an acute account of the emotions set up in complicated people by the Czech affair, and a more than acute display of the process by which the artificial, i.e., mental, values of Bloomsbury give way, in a village environment and in face of the realities of life, to the real values which tradition has found for a class of people who could never have afforded the luxury of artificial ones. Exposure of false values is always Mrs. Adam's strong suit. She is also masterly here in demonstrating the ineffectiveness of simple goodness in grappling with the political scene as well as the unexpected strength of the anima naturaliter christiana [translated roughly, the "natural Christian soul"—yes, I googled it] in personal relations. I for one consider a novel by Mrs. Adam, who has a point of view, a lively feeling for Character as well as for characters, and a personal sense of values, far more worth having than a sackful of art-novels (for instance, those of Miss Elizabeth Bowen and Miss Kay Boyle). Mrs. Adam remains a novelist not only to read but to watch.

Well! One does wonder what poor Elizabeth Bowen and Kay Boyle ever did to Queenie, but otherwise I concur with all of this (which worries me somewhat).

But even if it doesn't all quite add up to the sum of its parts, many of the parts are quite interesting. Ethel Perry, the poor vicar's wife, is limited as a narrator because of her ignorance of world affairs and a general naiveté, but one can see why Adam might have wanted to tell the story from her perspective, as she represents a large portion of any population, of those who are good-hearted and kind but unsophisticated. Naturally, sometimes this results in some good-natured humor at her expense, such as in these two passages:

So I was all alone that day, since Chris had been obliged to re-write his sermon completely since Hitler had changed his mind, and although one was so deeply thankful that he had, it seemed a pity that it should not have happened till the end of the week when the previous sermon denouncing him was already written.


I was sitting in the dining-room, reading in the paper about how delighted the villagers in Czechoslovakia had been to see Hitler and his soldiers, and feeling quite surprised to think what a terrible mistake we had almost made in trying to defend them from something which, as it turned out, they had been looking forward to so much. I could not help thinking that, although our splendid Government had done everything in their power to study the problem, it seemed a pity that someone, perhaps Lord Runciman, had not  cleared up this little misunderstanding before we all had such an anxious time.

I can relate a bit more to Kay, the unmarried mother, whose intellectual cynicism is rather poignantly in conflict with her love for her child:

I wondered how other women managed, and came to the conclusion that they must pick up more of the elementary information about how to run the women's side of life, from being brought up within sight and sound of it all. But I had been in dramatic school since I was sixteen and with touring companies for six years after that, and then with Philip in our studio. And I knew at least a hundred parts by heart and two languages and quite a lot about European politics and was too independent to keep any of the ordinary rules of society, but I did not know whether you could send for the doctor at three a.m. to look at a coughing baby. I wished I had been brought up quite differently, but then, like Alice in Wonderland, I shouldn't have been myself at all, and the situation would never have existed anyway.

And one gets the feeling that the Bloomsbury perspective on the crisis may be more or less shared by Adam herself. There's some passion in the following passages describing Kay and Philip's feelings:

When I had left a message with him, and arrived at the cottage for breakfast, I glanced at the paper, and found it was in a fine state of indignation because the British and French Cabinets had agreed on something, though no one knew what. Philip said it was plain enough they had agreed to sell up the Czechs and give the world meekly up to Fascism. In six months' time, he added savagely, I should have to be entering the baby for his first labour camp, and start embroidering nationalistic slogans on his bibs. At three he would give him his first dear little gun and start teaching him that his first duty was to hate all naughty little Communist boys and dirty Jewish girls.


First, the papers said the Czechs had accepted the plan. Then the radio said they had not. Then the papers said they had, but that Czechoslovakia was in an uproar and wanted to fight or have a revolution. It was like being tortured, given a drink and then tortured again.

Here and there there are also some lovely details of the period. I liked this glimpse of the practicalities of war preparation:

There was a knock on the door and I went weak with relief, thinking it was Philip at last and the awful waiting was over. But it was a man and a woman delivering gas-masks. They seemed afraid I was going to shut the door in their faces or insult them. They reminded me of young men giving you a free demonstration of their vacuum cleaners. I used to get all my carpets cleaned that way and so I never needed to buy one.

The mind rather boggles at all the varied reactions that poor man and woman must have encountered in delivering those gas masks. Many people must have been bewildered by the delivery, others laughing it off, and still others reacting angrily, our of their denial of the possibility of war, to the renewed fears the masks would have awakened. Not the most pleasant job I could imagine (though undoubtedly better than those who organized billets for evacuees).

There Needs No Ghost is a quite interesting novel, and I'm so thankful to Grant Hurlock for offering to share his copy of this vanishingly rare title with me (after my last Hopeless Wish List ages ago—good heavens, it does take me forever to get round to things). It's not, I think, a book for everyone's taste, but historians of the Munich Crisis or of England's preparations for war would certainly be wise to consult it. And Adam's unique perspective and sensibility is always wonderful to engage with.

Friday, October 5, 2018

"Second-grade" love and inconvenient bombs: BARBARA NOBLE, The House Opposite (1943)

"I suppose people in the future will picture our existence now, in London, as quite abnormal and pretty terrifying, and yet it hasn't been, has it? I mean, in between the sticky moments, we seem to have gone on much the same as usual—being pleased or miserable about the same things, worrying about money and what our neighbours think of us, and getting a devil of a kick out of any sort of promotion or achievement."

To the extent that most readers have heard of Barbara Noble at all, it will be because of the Persephone reprint of her 1946 novel Doreen, in which the title character is a young girl evacuated from her working class home in London to a well-to-do home in the county, and her subsequent alienation from her parents. Though I never blogged about that book, I enthused about it in my notes, particularly the astuteness of Noble's child psychology in portraying Doreen herself and a harrowing scene of London during the Blitz.

As is often the way with me, my appreciation of one of Noble's books only made me yearn that much more for her most unobtainable work. And in the years since, I had very nearly given up hope of ever having a chance to read The House Opposite, which was discussed as a blitz novel in Jenny Hartley's Millions Like Us, but which has virtually ceased to exist in libraries or booksellers. A few weeks ago, however—a full seven years after first reading Doreen—I discovered a copy, complete with (most of its) dustwrapper, at an almost reasonable price from my old standby World of Rare Books. Eureka! I have honestly rarely been more excited by a book find (and the fact that I added several other alluring books to the same order didn't hurt any either—more on those in upcoming posts, of course).

So did it turn out to be worthwhile? Absolutely. Though perhaps not quite so much for it's relatively run-of-the-mill plot as for its fascinating insights into life in London during the Blitz. And while it's marvelously vivid in portraying both the attitudes and emotions of Londoners and the drama of air raids and their human toll, it also insistently and intriguingly downplays the experience, as you can tell from the quotation above, which comes near the end of the book. Noble's theme is that real life goes on much as normal, mundane and ordinary, even with the prospect of death looming over one. Something of a change of pace, I think, from many blitz novels which milk the drama for all it's worth, and all the more interesting for that.

According to Persephone's bio of Noble, she was working at 20th Century Fox's London office before the war, and in 1939 became their London story editor. Between this and the author bio on the back flap of the book, which notes that she also volunteered in a Red Cross Sick Bay during the Blitz, it's apparent that the vividness and detail of her descriptions in The House Opposite stem from her own personal experiences. She knows whereof she speaks, and it shows throughout, as this is one of the best documentations of life in the Blitz that I've encountered.

The story that forms the scaffolding for this wonderful documentation is perhaps a bit run-of-the-mill. It concerns itself mainly with Elizabeth Simpson, a secretary in love with her married boss, Alex Foster (she refers to them as "second-grade people" but believes that love will out), though a number of other characters feature prominently as well. There's her co-worker Joan Walsh, whose tales of her eccentric neighbors in the shelter enliven the office; Elizabeth's father Henry, an air raid warden, and her mother Alice, whose anxiety about the raids leads her to rely a bit too heavily on her secret bottle of rum; Bob Craven, a soldier Elizabeth strings along as cover for her illicit romance with Alex; Owen Cathcart, Elizabeth's neurotic teenage neighbor, who is terrified that his adoration of his cousin Derek means he's gay; and Owen's parents, kindly Daisy and shady Lionel, whose dealings in the black market are about to catch up with him. And all of the characters are (suitably for an author with a flair for both psychology and realism) entirely believable and flawed—if not always entirely likeable—and they grow and evolve in perfectly believable ways as well.

Barbara Noble

It's an enjoyable enough story, and moves at a tidy pace, but as I mentioned the devil (or in this case the saint) is in the details. There's the fact that people during the Blitz developed phobias about suggesting any changes to another person's plans, for fear it would be their suggestion that resulted in death or dismemberment. Or, there's Owen slipping out at night to watch the fireworks and collecting souvenirs of shrapnel. Because, of COURSE a teenage boy would want to do that! I might have been tempted myself, and in fact I still think it would be rather cool to have a bit of shrapnel from the Blitz—does anyone have such memorabilia hanging about, handed down from relations who were in the thick of it?

There's the desire to see the most dramatic of the ruins. In one scene, "Bob hailed a taxi and began a lengthy conversation with the driver about the best route for bomb damage." And there's the unique set of anxieties the Blitz sets up for Elizabeth and Alex and their secret love affair: "To die together would be simple. It would not be so simple to be dug out still alive from the same collapsed building."

I very much enjoyed Elizabeth's co-worker Joan's descriptions of her evenings in the shelter, particularly the unflappable Miss Dalrymple:

"Elizabeth, you would have screamed last night. There was the most God-awful row going on about half-past nine, before that first All Clear, and we were all sitting in the basement pretending we didn't hear it and Miss Dalrymple was telling an incredibly boring story about a Swiss alp she'd climbed in the 'sixties, when suddenly, whoosh! down came a thousand-pounder, I should say, about a couple of yards away—or that's what it felt like, anyhow. The poor old house just rocked and the sideboard leant forward and bowed in a polite way and then went back again. I fell on my stomach and hit my head against the Major's—he'd had the same idea. Mrs. Henley let out a sort of strangled squeak, and Miss Dalrymple shot forward off her chair and then climbed back again in the most dignified way and said in just the same prim little voice: 'I used to pick a lot of gentian and press it between the covers of a book. Such a lovely blue!' Honestly, I have to hand it to the old girl."

There's a lovely evocation of what office work would have been like just after the worst of the Blitz began:

All through September they had taken the day raids very seriously at the office. The dingy old-fashioned house held three other firms besides their own and when the sirens sounded most of the personnel of all four would walk or run, as their temperaments directed, down to a basement room which had, by the addition of a little timber, been converted into a shelter. Each small group occupied a separate corner and had provided their own chairs or benches. Some attempt was made to carry on work. Carter staggered up and down with Elizabeth's typewriter, but there were too many people in a confined space for much mental concentration to be possible. Joan frankly enjoyed the opportunity to slack and read a novel. Carter had to be perpetually restrained from darting out into the square to report on the dog-fights overhead. Miss Lewis had a habit of "turning faint", which necessitated opening the first-aid satchel to administer sal volatile and caused a lot of enjoyable flap among the rest of the shelterers.

And one of my favorite descriptions in the book is the following. It's well known, if you've read much about life on the home front, that Tube stations became makeshift bomb shelters during the Blitz (though, in typically British fashion, order seems to have been established very quickly). But this passage, in which Elizabeth is a passenger on a late train, really brings it to life:

Up and down the platform, women in a gay uniform of green overall and scarlet bandeau walked with steaming enamel jugs of tea and trays of buns and chocolate. But the passengers could not buy, however thirsty or hungry they might be. From an hour determined by the black-out, the passengers were incidental, must stand waiting for their trains at the extreme edge of the platform, lonely and self-conscious figures on the fringe of other people's home lives. The white-faced children still awake whimpered or strained their eyes to read or darted with shrill cries from one group to the other. Their tired mothers slapped them, without effect. An argument broke out and someone quelled it. A Red Cross nurse was greeted with appreciative smiles. The doors slid open and slid to, and the train moved on.

Like many Londoners who habitually and defiantly slept in their own beds throughout the air raids, Elizabeth had a slight contempt for the Tube shelterers and needed to remind herself that many of them were homeless or had suffered damage to their nerves in proportion to the damage to their backgrounds.

Noble's brilliance at portraying psychology also comes to the fore in this passage about the game Elizabeth makes of survival:

The click of her latchkey in the front door was the last move in a game Elizabeth often played on raid nights. It started at the office. If she stopped to wash her hands before she left, it might make all the difference to whether she were killed or not. If she walked to the Underground by way of Cambridge Circus and Charing Cross Road or by way of Greek Street and Shaftesbury Avenue, it might make all the difference. If she waited for the escalator to carry her or walked down it to the bottom, thus possibly catching an earlier train, it might make all the difference. This game pleased her very much. It added a perceptible spice to the general mixed flavour of life. It also nourished her inherent fatalism.

Can't you just imagine yourself playing such a game? It's that sort of passage that makes it clear that Noble herself lived through the Blitz.

But always throughout, there are reminders like this one of how mundane the whole thing became for some residents of London:

October passed and November passed. A number of Londoners met violent death in the night, a still larger number suffered varying degrees of injury, the largest number of all suffered nothing more than inconvenience and nervous strain.

(Squeamish readers might want to note that there's a rather gruesome—if completely realistic—scene in the hospital where Elizabeth, like Noble herself, spends some evenings and weekends nursing. It's a stark reminder of the horror and tragedy of the Blitz.)

I'm always a little torn when reviewing novels like this. On one hand, it's not great literature by any means, with its enjoyable but fairly run-of-the-mill plot. On the other hand, what a wonderful social document of a fascinating time! I could bury myself for days and days in books like this. The same could be said of Barbara Beauchamp's similarly hyper-obscure Wine of Honour, which I reviewed recently (here), and indeed of Josephine Kamm's Peace, Perfect Peace, which I reviewed a couple of years ago here—both of those being amazing records of the immediate postwar days.

How do you, dear readers, feel about books like these? Is the story itself all in all for you, the background merely a backdrop, and without a brilliant plot and loveable characters there's just no point? Or is a vivid and unique background enough to make it all worth your while? I don't ask for entirely frivolous reasons, since I always sort of bear in mind whether books like these could possibly make viable future Furrowed Middlebrow titles…

At any rate, if you ever happen to come across a copy of this book, do grab it by all means!

Friday, September 28, 2018

PREVIEW: Covers and introduction authors for the new Furrowed Middlebrow titles, coming in January 2019

I posted last month about the long-awaited new batch of Furrowed Middlebrow books from Dean Street Press, set to be released in January. I was busting to tell you more at that point, and now I finally can. Yay!

First, the new books will, like their predecessors, contain newly-commissioned introductions, and I'm excited to announce who will be writing them. 

For the Elizabeth Eliot books, I'm very happy to say that scholar and researcher Elizabeth Crawford will once more be taking the reins. Elizabeth previously wrote wonderful intros for our editions of Rachel Ferguson, Winifred Peck, and Elizabeth Fair, and I can't wait to see what new information she is able to unearth about the elusive Eliot, about whom very few details are available. She's a somewhat mysterious figure at this point, but if anyone can shed light on her, Elizabeth will! Thank you to Elizabeth for her willingness to do the honors again.

And for the D. E. Stevenson titles, most of you will immediately recognize our illustrious intro writer. I still can't quite believe it, but worldwide bestselling author (more than 40 million books sold in 46 languages according to his Wikipedia page!) Alexander McCall Smith will be doing the honors for DES. For those who have been living under a rock, McCall Smith is the author oThe No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency series, as well as numerous other titles for both adults and children. Check out his website here. I'm very much looking forward to reading his intro!

But now, on to the covers!

First off, as an aficionado of classic dustjacket covers, which you know I am, I'm particularly excited that all three of our Mrs Tim titles, by the inimitable D. E. Stevenson, will make use of cover art from earlier editions of the books. (Thus, you actually had a sort of preview of our new covers in my previous post without knowing it!)

I think Dean Street Press did a beautiful job with all three of these, don't you? And a renewed thanks to Jerri Chase, whose scans of covers of her copies of these books provided us with the images in the first place!

Then we have the two additional D. E. Stevenson titles, with wonderfully evocative images that feel like they should have been used on previous editions:

Those are both from vintage travel posters of Scotland, and I'd happily walk right into either image if I could.

For our Elizabeth Eliot titles, we drew from more disparate sources.

When I was searching for cover images for some of the titles from our last batch of books, I came across several breathtaking portraits by Rex Whistler of Lady Caroline Paget. They didn't work for any of the titles I was working on at the time, but I remembered them when I was looking for something appropriate for Eliot's novels. And thus we got our rather gorgeous cover of Alice—elegant, melancholy, and yet somehow playful (look at that dog!).

I love our other Eliot covers too, which include a striking interior by Francis Cadell and two lovely period illustrations that Rupert at Dean Street Press discovered:

The ambivalence between the two women in that last image simply oozes off the page—as it should for the cover of a novel focused largely on the fascinatingly ambivalent relationship between two women.

So what do you think? Did we do these books justice? I hope you like the covers as much as I do!

Friday, September 21, 2018

Miss Pettigrew it ain't: WINIFRED WATSON, Odd Shoes (1936)

Here's a book I had come to believe I'd never have the chance to read. It appeared, along with four of Watson's five other novels, on my first Hopeless Wish List back in 2013 (the fifth being, of course, the wonderful Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, reprinted by Persephone). None of Watson's other books are available much of anywhere outside of national libraries, and copies come up for sale only rarely and at extravagant prices (a copy of Watson's debut, Fell Top, recently came up at just over $100—somewhat tempting, even at that price, I confess, especially with its intact dustjacket, but I resisted).

So thrilled doesn't half describe my feelings (not to mention astonished) when Kelsey, a very kind and generous reader of this blog, emailed me a few weeks ago and asked if I'd like to borrow her copy of Watson's second novel, Odd Shoes (1936). Wouldn't I just! Although my TBR list as it stands will take about 20 years to read through, I had to bump this right to the top, and Kelsey's book had a nice little jaunt to San Francisco out of the deal. (By the way, you can read Kelsey's own Goodreads review of the book here.)

I wasn't sure what to expect when I started reading. Watson's Guardian obit, one of the only sources of information about her work, called Fell-Top "a steamy, rustic novel in the Precious Bane mould" and referred to Odd Shoes as "similarly racy." And racy it must indeed have seemed in the mid-1930s. In its way, Odd Shoes makes Lady Chatterley's Lover look tame (except that Watson avoids the four-letter words Lawrence enjoyed so much). But in fact it's far more subtle, intelligent, and compassionate than any ordinary potboiler, and it's one of only a handful of novels I know of from the period that focus in any explicit and honest way on female sexuality. For the most part, women in Watson's story are the desirers, not merely the objects of desire as they are in so many other authors' work.

A beautiful photo of Watson from
the Persephone Post a few weeks back

Set in the mid 19th century, Odd Shoes focuses centrally on Ann MacDonald, whose illegitimate birth, as well as the preachings of a fanatical Scotch minister in her youth, have constrained what is otherwise a passionate nature. In the course of Ann's story, more or less from birth until old age, we come to know Ann as a challenging, conflicted, often difficult, but ultimately lovable character. But we also get vivid portraits of an array of other women. There is, for instance, a brief glimpse, just at the beginning of the novel, of Ann's unrepentent mother, who thoroughly enjoyed the lovemaking that made her an unmarried mother. And there's Mrs Lorton, the gruff but soft-hearted woman whose companion Ann becomes in Newcastle, and whose eventual legacy helps Ann—along with her tame but loving husband Edward—set up their business.

Ann's daughter Elizabeth figures prominently, married off at age seventeen to a wealthy man more than twice her age, whom she initially adores (and has wonderful times with in the boudoir, we gather) but whose jealousy and dominance wear thin over time. Despite having been raised for strict moral standards by Ann, Elizabeth has a mind of her own and, like the grandmother she's never known, sees no shame in her sexual enjoyments.

There's Emmeline, Elizabeth's sister-in-law, who, frustrated to be denied the freedoms her brother has, retreats into a loveless marriage of prestige and prudery. And there's Lil, Ann's daughter-in-law, a vividly sexual former prostitute who falls in love with Ann's son Ned, but whose love is based at least as much on Ned's physical beauty as on his personality, a kind of physical passion often portrayed in men but rarely in women. Intriguingly, Lil embraces the opportunity to seize on the peaceful respectability Ned offers and maintains a stubborn affection for Ann even in the face of Ann's disapproval.

The style of Odd Shoes is surely intended to evoke the novels of the 19th century in which it's set. George Eliot, radical as she was for her day, might have been shocked by Watson's oversexed heroines, but she would have been perfectly at home with the novel's style and scope. But although the novel is set in the mid 19th century (presumably to allow Watson to show her extraordinarily liberated women rebelling against the oppression of their time—there's a fabulous and unintentionally [or perhaps not?] double-entendre reference to one of the women being "damned by her period"), there is remarkably little historical detail to anchor the story. Apart from some references to the American Civil War late in the book, one knows nothing of what's going on in the outside world, except that society is moralizing and prudish.

Along the same lines, it's not entirely realistic that all of these lusty, independent-minded, self-aware feminists were grouped in a single family in the middle of 19th century England. But Watson certainly seems to be having fun with her fantasizing, projecting the sensibilities of a 1930s author (fairly radical even for the 30s, really) onto women of an earlier period and imagining how they would have disrupted and disturbed everyone around them. And although her prose is a bit dry at times, especially in the early chapters, with lots of summarizing of events that keeps the reader at a distance rather than part of the action, something kept pulling me compulsively forward. There are some glimpses of surprising wit (even just a touch of Miss Pettigrew's wit and energy in a couple of spots) and a general sense of the joys of life, even when the characters are experiencing sorrow or pain.

There's also a really satisfying, if slightly melancholy, ending that involves significant growth for Ann, who has tended throughout the novel to set herself rather narcissistically at the center of everything—first as the self-righteous guardian of everyone else's morality, and then, following a pivotal event, as the martyr who sees other people's failures as entirely due to her own influence. It's delightful to meet, at the end of the book, a rather more subdued and cheerful Ann who doesn't have to be the arbiter of the world.

When I was first bemoaning the lack of availability of Watson's novels, Nicola Beauman assured me in an email that I wasn't missing much, and I can quite see why. Odd Shoes is not a novel many people would find a "must read," and it's nothing like the effervescent joy of Miss Pettigrew. But it's nevertheless a striking novel and perhaps a significant one in the history of feminist fiction, and it's one I'm terribly glad to have had a chance to read. Consider these snippets:

Ann first discovering the sensual pleasures of married life:

Inarticulate in her exaltation and bitterly ashamed and fearful in the aftermath, she uttered no word to Edward, nor ever tried to. She may not always be strong enough to conquer the urgings of sin when the flesh was weak, but never could she shame herself by admitting by word that such sinfulness could be condoned by being acknowledged to its partner. Furthermore, though her normal workaday self retained its maternal affection and solicitous respect for Edward, this secret, terrifying self of hers harboured increasingly a vague hostility to its bedmate, a resentment verging in her blacker moments of reaction almost on hatred and compounded of a shrinking from a contact which, even when it roused her to response, could seldom sweep her onward to satisfaction, commingled with a morbid horror of the tempter who could lure her wanton body into the paths of sin.

And Elizabeth's similar discovery, accompanied by a shockingly immodest discontent that Ann hadn't prepared her for it:

Richard's delicacy had been rewarded. Sex had come to her as a miraculous discovery, and she had thrilled to the attainment of heights of emotional intensity and nervous ecstasy unsuspected hitherto. Her outlook was free of the taint of prudery and unsullied by the sniggers of pubescent ignorance, and in her tranquil daydreams she had been aware of a feeling of puzzled protest against what seemed to have been a conspiracy of silence. She had come to the opinion that it would have been better had she known a little about it. She dimly realized Richard's forbearance and knew that had she known only a little of what her own body was capable, she might have been a less difficult bride. Ann's surprising recoil of shock was the first suggestion she received that people might consider wicked what she had discovered was an enchanting, experience. She did not mean to be condemnatory. She merely sought an explanation for the failure to enlighten her beforehand. She thought about so important an experience she should have been warned.

Here's the status quo of the Wainwright family, into which Elizabeth marries:

The women opened bazaars, visited surrounding country houses, held afternoon 'At homes' and were pillars of the church. The men had their professions and Richard had his business. The men had also, be it added, their hours of privacy, never questioned by their womenfolk, when they moved in spheres remote from the ken of well-bred ladies and when they indulged in the more refined vices of the town. But always in a gentlemanly fashion; and only in sufficient degree to gratify the robust desires of manhood and never, of course, in such a manner that the ears of their women could catch any distasteful echoes. The Wainwright women of the thirties and forties were hardly supposed to be able to understand the words which described the various shades and meanings of immorality, and the men knew what circumspection befitted the dignity and respect of their family status.

And here's the rather wonderful Lil—how often have you seen, in this time period, a woman taking this sort of pleasure in a man's body, as opposed to the other way around?:

She rested her hands on his hips and stood a moment looking at him. His body was so beautiful it was pure delight only to gaze at him. Necessity had forced her into contact with so many that were the reverse of enchanting that it was sheer joy to her that her lover should be perfect.

'You are so beautiful. See! Your hips, your thighs, your chest, your arms. I love every bit of you.'

She touched, with a slow, caressing movement, each part of him as she spoke, then ran her hands slowly up his body and over his breasts till they linked round his throat, when she reached and gave him a last kiss.

Here are complex, conflicted, passionate women who could walk right off the page, as opposed to the male fantasies of women usually portrayed in "racy" fiction.

So, am I still ready to seek out Watson's other four novels? I think I can leave Fell Top alone for the time being, and as I've never been able to find out anything about her third novel, Upyonder, I'm not actively pursuing it either. But I think, when I finally get round to a new Hopeless Wish List (I'm working on it—really I am) I'll have to leave the other two in place. The Guardian called Hop Step and Jump, published in 1939, the same year as Miss Pettigrew:

another variant on the Cinderella theme, in which a young, working-class woman abandons her husband, becomes a kept woman to better herself, and finally marries a lower-middle-class man, the upper-middle-class ex-lover having, meanwhile, arranged her divorce and taken on the ex-husband as a chauffeur.

Hmmm. I think I'm game. And although it could be a delight or a trainwreck, I'm definitely game for Watson's final novel, Leave and Bequeath (1943) which, the Guardian said, "marked another change of direction, being part murder-mystery and part psychological study." If it's set at the time it was published, it's practically worth a trip to the British Library...

Persephone's bio of Watson mentions that she "stopped writing not long after the birth of her son in 1941." Her Guardian obit provides additional detail:

But then disaster stuck. By now happily married, and with a small son, Keith, Winifred was bombed out of her home, and had to move into cramped conditions in her mother-in-law's house, where she found it impossible to write. "One cannot write," she said to me, "if one is never alone."

What other treasures might we have had if child-rearing and war hadn't got in Watson's way?

Thanks so much to Kelsey for sharing this fascinating book with me!

Friday, September 14, 2018

A touch of wartime melodrama: HELEN ASHTON, Joanna at Littlefold (1942)

The U.S. edition of Joanna at Littlefold,
published in 1944, was called simply Joanna

I seem to have rather an ambivalent relationship with Helen Ashton. I've now read or attempted to read four of her novels. I wrote fairly enthusiastically in 2015 (see here) about her 1956 novel The Half-Crown House, and I recall enjoying her late-WWII novel Yeoman's Hospital (1944) even earlier than that, before I started blogging—in my War List I called it "a melodrama set at a village hospital, but I found it entertaining and its portrayals of the war effective." Ali at Heavenali reviewed that one several years ago (see here).

But I seem to be having less luck with her earlier wartime titles. I'm going to come back to that below, but first some details about this book.

We're in the thick of the war here. As the novel begins, Joanna Shearwater, a rather bitter and unhappy woman in her early forties, living in France with her philandering novelist husband Adrian, receives the news that the French government has fallen to the Nazis. She and Adrian, along with Adrian's secretary, Miss Partlet, and his latest mistress, the Brazilian Madame da Cotorra, rush to make their way south to catch a boat, staying just a few steps ahead of the German forces. They arrive first in Spain (having abandoned Miss Partlet to her own devices on a ship back to England), then in Portugal, at which point Adrian decides to accompany Madame de Cotorra to the U.S., while Joanna determines to return to England to see her son Tim, stationed with the RAF in the provincial village of Littlefold.

Helen Ashton in the 1930s

As luck would have it, just a short distance from Littlefold is the home of Joanna's former fiancé, Mark Raven. Many years before, Mark abandoned her just a week before their wedding, leaving her for a nurse at the hospital where he and Joanna's father practiced. As the nurse was already pregnant with his child, Mark had to leave his promising career at the hospital in disgrace and settle into a none-too-successful country practice, where he has remained to this day. We can see immediately that, despite the considerable number of years that have passed, Joanna has it in mind to visit Mark and revisit the heartbreak she's never been able to leave behind. Indeed, she blames Mark for driving her into the arms of Adrian, whom she is now convinced she has never really loved.

Thus, the first part of the novel is a bit darker and more jaded than some of Ashton's other work. Understandable enough in a novel written in 1942, probably one of the darkest periods of the war. But rather oddly, we then get a fairly cozy section once Joanna arrives in Littlefold. Realizing the hopelessness of finding a house of her own in the area, what with the wartime housing crunch exacerbated by the military base nearby and a flood of refugees from London, Joanna settles in as a boarder at The Old Rectory, a large and impractical house run by young Kate Merlin, whose husband is serving overseas. Kate is in some ways a classic stuff-upper-lip-ish character, forever toiling to maintain the house, but staying pleasant and humorous throughout.

From there, Joanna meets various neighbors (including, briefly, one Colonel Heron, who was the lead in Ashton's previous novel Tadpole Hall—see below), has her ill-fated reunion with Mark, meets Mark's surly daughter Clarissa, to whom she takes an instant loathing, observes her son's flirtation with the daughter of the local gentry, and has pleasant conversations of her own with a French RAF pilot whose wife has been killed by the Nazis.

It's all quite pleasantly readable, and Ashton is undoubtedly a good storyteller. Her description of Madame da Cotorra during the frazzled escape from Paris is unforgettable—"In all the distracted confusion about her she preserved her usual air of having just been unwrapped from cellophane"—and Miss Partlet is so efficient in the moment that she "might have escaped a dozen times before from an advancing army."

There's also an excellently evocative scene in which Joanna pours out her heartbreak to Kate during an air raid:

She stopped there, because she could hear the sound of danger coming through the sky. The whining roar of aerial combat echoed in the clouds, and she heard the fighters snarling to one another and the laden bomber droning over. Hammer and tongs was the word for it, a clang and rattle, right overhead, then a crash of machine-gun fire that shook the windows. The screaming noise went over the house, while the two women stared at one another with white faces. Joanna's heart was in her mouth, Kate bit her lip and clenched her hands. "I wish they'd go and do that somewhere else," she complained in an absurd small voice, like a child. The bump of an explosion seemed to make the walls move. Then the noise of the fight roared away into the distance, as quickly as it had come. It went down the valley like an express train, going over the river and chasing south towards the downs.

In many ways, then, this novel should be right up my alley—wartime women in a village, a rather dark, jaded sensibility, and so on. From this point in the novel, we descend firmly into melodrama, never my absolutely favorite type of fiction, but the wartime setting might compensate for that. And the ambivalent "happy" ending is certainly appropriate to such a bleak and uncertain time—in fact, it might well be the kind of ending readers needed at the time. But somehow none of this makes the novel work for me, and this brings me back to my ambivalence about Ashton.

The immediate problem here is simple: I don't like Joanna. At all. I could comprehend and sympathize with her unhappiness (she certainly moans about it enough, so I could hardly not comprehend it)—the philandering husband, anxiety that she has lost her appeal to men, the fact that her son is now grown up and doesn't need her—if it weren't for the feeling that she really has created all the drama herself. She has allowed a youthful heartbreak to drive the rest of her life, and blames anyone and everyone except herself for her continuing unhappiness. Stiff upper lip indeed!

Perhaps an additional clue lies in my attempt last year to read Ashton's earlier Tadpole Hall (1941). There's a positive review of that book at Reading 1900-1950 here which will give a different perspective than mine here. I never wrote a review of it, because I couldn't make it beyond the first 80 pages or so. Here are my notes from that attempt, which make clear my frustration:

Just too obvious, too propaganda-ish, and too focused on an unlikely romance between the novel's main character, Colonel Heron, and his Austrian refugee housekeeper, who, it is painstakingly asserted, is not in fact Jewish, but merely married to an unappetizing, unsympathetically portrayed Jew who also works in the house in his disgruntled, resentful way, while his wife cheerfully (and unrealistically) slaves and is endlessly grateful for what she's been given. Not realistic and not interesting. There are a few scenes of description and characterization that showed Ashton's strengths, but not enough to keep me reading.

Yikes. I also happened to notice just now that the book is mentioned in a scholarly work, Journeys from the Abyss: The Holocaust and Forced Migration from the 1880s to the Present (2017), by one Tony Kushner (not the author of Angels in America—I checked), which also critiques this caricaturish portrayal of a Jewish refugee.

As a result, I've always sort of inwardly cringed at the mere thought of Tadpole Hall, so I wasn't as delighted as Ashton presumably intended me to be to hear Kate telling Joanna how Colonel Heron and his housekeeper are now happily married following the death of her "queer sort of husband".

There's nothing quite so jolting in Joanna at Littlefold, but when I looked back at my noted passages I was surprised to find that even Kate, who is clearly meant to be a likeable, cozy sort of character, sometimes jarred a bit. For example, in what I first took as a humorous litany of her problems with "the help", Kate tells Joanna:

"I can't tell you the troubles I've had here. There'll always be servants for rich people, I suppose, at a price—if you keep five or six and pay them enormous wages. In a big house they keep one another company, but out here the girls get moped. I tried a married couple, but the man drank and beat his wife, because he said she was carrying on with Blackcap the postman—Well, I daresay she might have been; she was a pretty woman, a good deal younger than the husband,—and Blackcap always did have a way with him. Anyhow they quarrelled so frightfully that Henry said he couldn't stand it any longer, so in the end I got rid of them. Then I had a Hungarian refugee with a small son who was fearfully destructive; he ran all over the garden and tore up the vegetables, and when I found him dancing on the asparagus bed just as the tips were coming through it was more than I could bear. After that we had an evacuee girl who'd been bombed out of Shoreditch. She went about in a pair of green corduroy trousers, with peroxide hair and red fingernails, and she couldn't cook and wouldn't be shown anything. And after her," said Mrs. Merlin, barely pausing to draw breath, "we had a madwoman who drank three bottles of Henry's whisky and was taken off to the County Asylum, raving. It was such a pity, because she really could cook. She made the most delicious game pate out of rabbits. Strasbourg wasn't in it. I've tried it myself several times since, but it never comes out quite the same as hers."

Clearly, this is a recognizable and oft-repeated complaint in novels of this period, and I assume we're meant to laugh at Kate's difficulties. But when I re-read the passage, what jumped out at me was the fact that these workers were, respectively, a victim of domestic violence, a refugee who has faced who knows what traumas and displacements (not to mention what the son who destroyed her asparagus has gone through), a bombed out girl probably likewise traumatized, and an alcoholic with mental health issues. Perhaps this humor just doesn't work so well in wartime circumstances? Or am I merely being overly sensitive about it all? At any rate, Kate's attitude seems a bit too blasé and self-absorbed about it all, feeling terribly inconvenienced by the tragedies of other people's lives.

So, although I obviously don't enthusiastically recommend this novel, there are some high points, as I mentioned above, and if you don't mind a navel-gazing heroine, a fair amount of melodrama, and a callous attitude toward the victims of war, it all reads smoothly enough. As for me, though, I'm thinking I might be able to cross Ashton off of my TBR list as just not my cup of tea. Unless there are other of her titles which are absolutely "can't miss"?

Regardless, there are about 600 other authors I'd still like to read more of, so one fewer is no tragedy!
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