Thursday, July 12, 2018

KITTY BARNE, Family Footlights (1939) & Visitors from London (1940)

It's hard to believe that it's been three years since I first wrote about Kitty Barne. I reviewed her 1947 family tale Musical Honours here, and I enjoyed it, but was just a wee bit lukewarm in my review. I always meant to get back to her (and readers particularly recommended She Shall Have Music, which is still on my TBR list, and then there's the sequel, While the Music Lasted, which has been reprinted by Greyladies and sounds absolutely irresistible), but who knows when I would have done it if a recent public library "steps sale" hadn't produced, mixed in with all sorts of mangy old textbooks, boring contemporary romance, and beat-up old (but not old enough) Penguins, a perfectly serviceable copy of Family Footlights, another Barne book I recall someone recommended to me. For $1? How could I possibly resist?

One of the things that I was lukewarm on in Musical Honours is that there wasn't a lot of depth in the characters, nor any real meat to the plot. The same could certainly be said about Family Footlights, but it's otherwise so lively and entertaining and fun that here I didn't mind it at all. (Perhaps I'm just fickle and this time I was in the mood for something rather frivolous?)

And I have to say that, even among children's stories not grounded in reality, the opening of this one is remarkable. The four Farrar children arrive in a town called Poleham, where their Aunt Myra (whom, inexplicably, the children have never met before) has taken a house for the Christmas holidays. The children's parents are disposed of in the very first paragraph—their mother is "abroad" (where their father presumably lives? or perhaps he's an astronaut on a interplanetary expedition? oh, well, who cares?) and has come down with measles, so they arrive to stay with the lively, cheerful, practical, young Aunt Myra.

Although this might be just a bit implausible, I rather admire the way Barne makes no bones about it. She might as well just say, in a very practical way, "We all know that children adapting to new situations with fun hitherto-unknown relatives is the ideal setup for adventures, so let's cut the crap and not waste time with boring questions."

But that's not the end of the pleasing implausibilities!

Oh, there's the usual array of charming characters: the cheerful Mrs Epping, who comes in to keep house; Ruby, Mrs Epping's joyless drudge of a daughter; Axel, Mrs Epping's 9-year-old nephew, whose parents are dead and who is miserable because the valuable fiddles left him by his father have been seized by Customs (mind you, he doesn't seem particularly upset by his parents' deaths, only by the lack of his fiddles, a pleasantly soluble problem). And then there's Aunt Myra's dear friend Roland (Roly) Martindale, a successful author and playwright, who just happens to have written a play for children already, but the children who were supposed to have performed it have been conveniently dispatched. I can't remember how precisely—outbreak of ebola, perhaps—but anyway, some irresistible factor that makes the play available for the Farrars.

The rest is predictable enough, but it's rollicking good fun nonetheless, a funny, frivolous bit of frolic and nothing much more. My favorite character is 10-year-old Jimmy, whose logical approach to managing people and making things go smoothly makes him almost a rival for Flora Poste. Most notably, perhaps, he helps the whole cast over a bumpy first encounter with the fretful Miss Pirrie, from whom Aunt Myra has sublet the house. Miss Pirrie doesn't at all like the idea of children in her house with all her fragile and stuffy chachkas, but Jimmy takes her aside and talks to her about clocks, their shared passion. With the knowledge that Jimmy has determined to synchronize all of Miss Pirrie's diverse collection of 18 clocks, she gives up the fight and resigns herself to rowdy children in her house.

Jimmy working his magic with Miss Pirrie

I enjoyed Footlights so much that I poked around a bit and discovered that Barne's next book, Visitors from London, was a sequel, taking the Farrars into the beginning of World War II. More importantly, I discovered that I could actually get Visitors from a nearby library, so it wasn't long before I continued with the Farrars' unrealistic exploits.

And how are their parents explained away this time? Not at all, in fact. Here's the sum total of explanation for why the children are back with Aunt Myra, who this time is staying at a farm for the summer holidays:

"Here we are, here we are, here we are again!" sang the Farrar family, as once more they drove in Jenkins's taxi through the Streets of Poleham.

Gerda, the eldest of them, felt a warm glow that ran through her from her heels to her head—the holiday feeling and the family feeling combined. When they met like this, the four of them, back from their different boarding schools, term with all its thrills and joys and rages was wiped out. For nearly a couple of months school simply did not count.

And apparently parents or a stable home don't count either, as the Farrars neither reference nor appear to miss either.

There is just a bit more grounding in reality in Visitors than there was in Footlights, necessitated by the fact that the war is just beginning and Aunt Myra must accept evacuees in the forms of several mothers and their children. One of the best things here is that there is a genuine array of types among the evacuees, both the mothers and the children. There's helpful Mrs Jacobsen, who's an excellent cook, neurotic Mrs Thompson, so terrified of bombs she keeps herself and her children prisoner in their bedroom, and pessimistic Mrs Fell. Among their children, there's Fred, who despite hailing from London feels an immediate passion for sheep and for becoming a shepherd; his brother Steve, a little villain if there ever was one; there's fierce, strong Lily, who though only a teenager, is acting as mother to her two young siblings; and there's Fred and Steve's older sister Queenie, who makes herself up and wears heels to the beach, complaining all the while.

And once again, it is Jimmy who comes to the rescue in helping poor Mrs Thompson and her children, though I won't give it away.

It's quite entertaining and good fun, if not quite as good overall, for me, as Footlights. For one thing, there a lot of focus on Fred's love of sheep. Now, I have nothing at all against sheep (though Andy feels differently—just ask him about our trip to Avebury and see how quickly he starts bemoaning the combo of ancient stones and sheep poop!), but these parts did drag just a bit for me. On the other hand, one tidbit did prove interesting—the fact that many sheep, should they fall and end up on their back, will be unable to right themselves. I have to admit I doubted this, but a quick Google search put me right—see here for an example and video. It does not apply to all sheep however; they're more likely to get stuck if they have thick fleece that is damp and therefore heavy, or if they're pregnant or fat. (This reminds me of my own curiosity years ago about how penguins can get up when they fall, and a diabolical plan I hatched to sneak into a zoo one night and push a few down—gently, of course. As it turns out, unlike sheep, penguins right themselves with no difficulty at all using flippers and/or beak to fling themselves back to vertical, so I was clearly concerned about the wrong species!)

I was also taken aback by the description the local billeting officer gives of the evacuation process, which is a bit more fast and loose than it seems in other sources:

'What aged children?' inquired Myra, very businesslike. You could see, thought Gerda, that though she had shied at the job like a horse at a steam-roller, she was now getting down to it well. 'What age and what sex?'

But that, it seemed, was more than Miss Williams or any one else could tell  her. The idea was that the children came to the London Stations, and if a train was there, drawn up at a platform, they got in and it went. Any children, any platform, any train, to any place.

Surely such a system could never have been in place, except perhaps in certain chaotic spots on rare occasions? How would any of these children ever have found their ways back home if no one was aware of where they were going in the first place?!

I should mention that both of these books are illustrated by Ruth Gervis, who happens to have been Noel Streatfeild's oldest sister and the illustrator of Ballet Shoes as well as other books, including several by Enid Blyton. Barne was herself a cousin by marriage of Noel Streatfeild, who encouraged Barne to start writing for children, so they were keeping it all in the family.

At any rate, these books are great fun overall for anyone who enjoys family stories. They're not on a par with Gwendoline Courtney, in my opinion, but they have their own place on my shelves.

Friday, July 6, 2018

Buried treasure: DORIS LANGLEY MOORE part 2

If you missed my first post about the marvelous Doris Langley Moore, you may want to go back to it, as in that post I gave a bit of background about her many other accomplishments aside from being the author of six novels (and aside from being my favorite new author in quite some time).

In that post, I wrote about Moore's final two novels, All Done by Kindness (1951) and My Caravaggio Style (1959). Those were the two of her books that were most readily available to me, so I started at the end of her career. Shortly after finishing those, I was finally able, thanks to Andy, to obtain a copy of her fourth novel, Not at Home (1948), all the way from the University of Alberta (apparently the only library in North America with a copy in circulation, and the same heroic library, if I recall correctly, that provided me with the only copy of E. Nesbit's The Lark then in circulation, so it might just be my favorite library!). Not long after that, a reasonably-priced copy of her third novel, A Game of Snakes and Ladders (1938, reprinted and revised 1955), came up on Abe Books and I grabbed it like a snakebite victim grabbing antivenom.

Every time I read another of Moore's novels, I seem to have found my favorite. That happened again with Not at Home, set immediately after World War II (August of 1945), which follows the swirling low-level dramas that result when Elinor MacFarren, a middle-aged spinster, respected writer about botanicals, and collector of botanical prints and other objets d'art, decides to rent part of her house to Antonia Bankes, an American recommended by her friend Harriet (who, unfortunately, knows Mrs Bankes only as a customer at her antique shop).

Miss MacFarren is accustomed to being alone ("I don't mind being alone at all. I was often here alone in the blitz, and I was so frightened of the bombs that I quite stopped being frightened of burglars."), but needs must and Mrs Bankes seems too good to be true. She avers a passionate admiration for Miss MacFarren's beautiful and fragile possessions ("Oh, but it's the prettiest room I've ever seen in my life!"), promises quiet and care ("'You'll find me madly careful."), and seems an ideal homemaker ("I like housework. I've got quite a 'thing' about it.").

But of course, when something seems too good to be true…  In fact, she turns out to be exasperating and helpless, skilled only in charm, manipulation, and blithely promising anything in order to get her way. That part is, of course, predictable enough—there would be no novel if she were the perfect tenant—but what is not predictable at all are all the intricate twists and turns of the plot as Miss MacFarren tries to cope, tries to cajole, and finally tries to rid herself of her meddlesome tenant, all with unpredictable and delightful results. And all while taking up drinking whiskey…

Also figuring in the plot are Mr Bankes, a war correspondent traveling with the Occupation Forces in Germany, who charms Miss MacFarren with his flattery and his knowledge of her books; Dr Wilmot, her arch-rival in collecting botanical prints; Mrs Manders, the daily help, who is charmed (at first) into unprecedented dedication to her job by Mrs Bankes; Miss MacFarren's nephew Mory, a rising film director entangled with a married woman; and Mory's friend Maxine Albert, a rising starlet whose down-to-earth, practical approach to life initially alienates Miss MacFarren and later becomes essential to her plans to defeat Mrs Bankes.

Doris Langley Moore

Not at Home is little less than a saga composed of the most trivial social interactions and conflicts, but it's absolutely riveting for all that. And who is to say that it's not these trivial conflicts that form the basis of the larger conflicts on the evening news? As in All Done by Kindness, Moore is meticulous in her plotting. The most minor actions lead to unforeseen complications, and attempts to resolve trivial problems result in webs of deceit and intrigue. It's such good fun I'd like to pick it up again now and start reading again.

But by the time I finished Not at Home, my lovely copy of A Game of Snakes and Ladders, complete with a delightful dustjacket, had arrived. This novel seems to have had a slightly odd history.

In 1938, Moore published They Knew Her When: A Game of Snakes and Ladders, the third of her six novels and possibly the first in what might be termed her "mature style" (her ODNB entry asserts that she "wrote six romantic novels between 1932 and 1959," but in fact the term "romantic" doesn't apply in any significant way to any of the four novels I've read so far). A search for "doris langley moore they knew her when" brings up this blog as its top result, which, though flattering, is not terribly helpful to me and suggests that not a lot of information about the original version of the novel is available.

With her non-fiction book The Vulgar Heart in 1945, Moore switched publishers, and her new publisher, Cassell, seems to have more actively promoted her fiction than previous publishers had. After Cassell had published Not at Home and All Done by Kindness, which presumably found some success, they published A Game of Snakes and Ladders in 1955, which seems to be a reprint of They Knew Her When. However, at least a few revisions must have been made in the new edition, as the opening paragraph makes reference to World War I and World War II, which could hardly have been the case in the 1938 edition. I'd love to have a look at the earlier book to see what other changes may have been made, but alas, copies of They Knew Her When have virtually ceased to exist. (If anyone has a copy, I'd love to compare notes between the two editions.)

Publishing history aside, the story begins with two young women, Lucy and Daisy, performing with a theatre company in Egypt shortly after the end of World War II. They are young and attractive; Lucy is sturdy and unflappable, Daisy is charming but primarily self-interested. They are friends, but of the most casual kind:

Daisy always found it easy to feel affectionate towards people who were being actively useful to her, and Lucy could not help liking one for whom she had done so much: and the fact of their having been chorus girls in London together was glorified in recollection until it assumed the importance of a bond.

Having fallen in love with a well-to-do businessman (or as close to love as such a practical, in-it-for-herself kind of girl can get), Daisy decides to stay on in Alexandria after the show closes. Lucy, on the other hand, is eager to return to England as soon as possible. But her plans are shot when, shortly before the end of the show's run, she suddenly falls seriously ill. Daisy shortsightedly has her placed in a private nursing home rather than a (free) public hospital, with the result that by the end of many weeks of care, Lucy is heavily in debt. Daisy's businessman pays her bills, and is generously prepared to write off the money, but Daisy, forever worried about her position with him, makes a muddle of things by assuring him Lucy will repay it, and promises that she'll stay in Egypt working for him until it's paid off. This plan is presented to Lucy as a fait accompli, so that despite her homesickness she is effectively trapped in Egypt.

And there, over the course of nearly 20 years, she and Daisy both remain, while Moore's intricate, lovely plot unfolds, building tension and frustration as frivolous Daisy, the cause of Lucy's problems, ascends the ladder of wealth first as her businessman's mistress and finally as his wife (though she has a more difficult time on the social ladder), while Lucy, depressed and downtrodden but diligent and philosophical about her fate, slaves and toils. Misunderstandings, deceptions, and self-deceptions abound. Lucy befriends a silly teenage girl whose father neglects her, and rescues her from her own naïvete in a fling with a young Italian, a course of action (like many in this novel) that will have repercussions in Lucy's future.

If this description sounds a bit like it could apply to Moll Flanders or Clarissa, this turns out not to be coincidental. On the front flap of the Cassell edition of the novel is a letter from Moore herself to the publisher, in which she explains the themes of the novel and sums up her inspiration:

Fanny Burney would not approve of some of my chapters, but it was my affection for the novels of her school, in which the heroine goes through all kinds of distresses but emerges in a sweeping triumph at the end, that made me long to try my hand at the same theme—treating it, however, in our down-to-earth twentieth-century way.

It's been a long time since I've read Evelina or indeed Moll Flanders, though I enjoyed both at the time (Clarissa I'm sorry to say intimidated me too much to even attempt), but as soon as I read this explanation I felt I better understand not only this novel, but Moore's later work. It helped to bring into focus something that I now see is a central focus of all of her fiction—the complications and vicissitudes inspired by social niceties, repressed impulses, the avoidance of unpleasantness, things that are simply "not done," and—by no means least of all—trivial events and decisions that lead to completely unexpected results.

Moore actually highlights her classic influences here and there throughout Snake. How often in fiction of this period do you find ominous foreshadowings like this one?:

The whole affair had occupied so short a time that one could not imagine anything serious had been happening. Nor would she have guessed, even if Daisy had confided in her, that the foolish little drama was destined to affect the lives of everyone involved in it, herself not less than the others.

And here's my favorite bit of philosophizing, pertaining to Daisy's attempts at social climbing, which might have been lifted right out of Jane Austen or Elizabeth Gaskell:

If we compare the fashionable world to a skating rink where only advanced performers are encouraged to disport themselves, we may say that money will purchase a spectator's seat but will not give you the ability to skate. Supposing you have thoroughly mastered the accomplishment in some other arena, you are welcome to step out of your seat and take the floor, and the skaters already there will accept you as one of themselves and even clear a space for you to cut figures; but unless you are proficient—or can at any rate flounder very amusingly—you had better keep your place, or you will suffer peculiar humiliations. Mosenthal never tried to skate. He preferred to sit in a good ringside position making fun of the people on the ice. Daisy, on the other hand, was constantly impelled to try her skill, but she was so afraid of falling that she had a stilted, mincing style which soon gave her uncertainty away.

With all four of Moore's novels so far, I have started off not entirely certain, a little doubtful of whether the magic would happen this time. But I see this now as one of her great strengths. She seems never to have done the same thing twice, and when you start one of her books you can never imagine quite where she's going to take you.

But Lucy's "sweeping triumph" in A Game of Snakes and Ladders, and the ecstatic high I received from the novel's final 40 pages (not to mention the occasional maniacal laughter Andy heard from the next room), were absolutely on a par with anything I've encountered in the classics mentioned above. Fanny Burney might have been shocked, but she would surely also have been proud.

Happily, I've now managed to track down the two most obscure of Moore's novels, her first two, A Winter's Passion (1932) and The Unknown Eros (1935), though I haven't yet got round to reading them. Are they really only "romantic novels"? Or do they have that inimitable Doris Langley Moore touch? 

AND, having fallen so much in love with the later novels, I decided a slight splurge was in order (it's my birthday next week, after all), and I gave in to the temptation of an inscribed copy of Not at Home, complete with dustjacket. (It's not the most lovely of dustjacket images, I confess, though it is appropriate, as ceramic cats play a surprisingly large role in the novel.) The images of the front and back of the book that I shared above are thus from my very own copy of the book, and here's an image of the book's inscription.

The name Margaret Canning sounds tantalizingly familiar, but she's not one of my authors and Google is playing dumb about her as well. But I'm delighted to have Moore's signature and to have a physical copy of the book to go next to Snakes and Ladders on the very top shelf of my bookcase!
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