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!
NOTE: The comment function on Blogger is notoriously cranky. If you're having problems, try selecting "Name/URL" or "Anonymous" from the "Comment as" drop-down (be sure to "sign" your comment, though, so I know who dropped by). Some people also find it easier using a browser like Firefox or Chrome instead of Internet Explorer.

But it can still be a pain, and if you can't get any of that to work, please email me at furrowed.middlebrow@gmail.com. I do want to hear from you!