Saturday, August 17, 2019

Sneak preview, FM38: BARBARA BEAUCHAMP, Wine of Honour (1946)

From Elizabeth Crawford's informative introduction to Wine of Honour:

Barbara Proctor Beauchamp (1909-1974) was born in Surrey, the eldest child of a stockbroker, and brought up and educated in France and Switzerland, where her parents had a chalet at Château d’Oex. Her younger brother and sister, twins, died young; Alice aged 21 in 1934 and Philip killed in Singapore in 1942.

Among other things, the family chateau in Switzerland explains the use of that country as a setting in at least two of Beauchamp's novels, Without Comment (1939) and Ride the Wind (1947). Reviews of Beauchamp's books are difficult to come by—she is one of those authors who seem to have been largely ignored by critics—but she apparently had something of a fan in well-known critic (and novelist) Frank Swinnerton, whose review of the former novel in the Observer notes, along with some nice praise, that it has autobiographical elements:

Now, the truest-seeming book I have read this week is "Without Comment," which not literally but in its type suggests first hand experience … Miss Beauchamp tells in "Without Comment" the brief tale of an English family, resident in Switzerland, which is broken by the divorce of the parents; and she concerns herself chiefly with the doings of two young girls, one of whom married for love and escape, while the other, through whose eyes most of the events are seen, allows herself to be seduced in the modern manner by a handsome flirt and has to wait long for any kind of liberty. The book is full of crisp observation and outspoken natural talk; its impressions of the Swiss scene and the Belgian resort in which the children visit their divorced father are excellent; and while the more poignant inventions lack force the squabbles, the lighter adventures, and the relations of the sisters are all excellent. I do not remember better sketches of neglected, sophisticated girlhood.

If it's true that the novel was autobiographical, there might be some additional clues there about Beauchamp's family situation (would that the novel were available anywhere).

The Daily Sketch felt, by the way, that Without Comment was "brilliantly told". Sadly, I've not come across any contemporary reviews of Wine of Honour at all, though a subsequent novel, Virtue in the Sun (1949), was praised by John Betjeman as a "first-class novel", while Howard Spring (if I'm correctly making out the words of a badly scanned blurb) said it was "one of the finest presentations of a boy's mind in such stressful circumstances that I have come on for a long time."

As you will all know by now from my previous raving about it, Wine of Honour is, among other things, a brilliant documentation of women, many of whom have been in the services, adjusting to the first few months of postwar life. Sadly, Beauchamp doesn't seem to have written about the war itself in her fiction, so it was intriguing to get just one little snapshot of Beauchamp in wartime from a short blurb in the Montana Standard in 1940 (presumably it was syndicated to other newspapers as well):

In protest at the "fantastic position" of women auxiliary firemen in London, two women novelists, Miss Barbara Beauchamp [sic], have resigned from the force, their chief complaint being that they volunteered as drivers, but were asked to scrub floors.

The other woman novelist may well have been Norah C. James, but thanks to a careless typist or typesetter we may never know for sure. Based on the information from the author bio above, from the dustjacket of The Girl in the Fog, she must have gone more or less directly into the ATS after resigning from the fire service.

Returning to Elizabeth Crawford's introduction, we do get a glimpse of Beauchamp's postwar life:

While writing Wine of Honour Barbara Beauchamp was living not in a bucolic English village but at 9 Cumberland Gardens, Islington, a quiet enclave close to King’s Cross, in the house she shared with her partner, Norah James, to whom the novel is dedicated. Norah was also a novelist, notorious as the author of Sleeveless Errand which, when published in 1929, had been censored on the grounds of obscenity. In this post-Second World War period Norah’s publisher was MacDonald & Co, suggesting it was not a coincidence that the same firm published Wine of Honour. The two women wrote at least one short play together, broadcast on the BBC Home Service in 1947, and one book, Greenfingers and the Gourmet, which combined instructions for growing a wide range of vegetables with a 'number of specially good recipes in which these vegetables played an important part'. They had been partners since at least 1939 when Norah dedicated her autobiography, I Lived in a Democracy, to Barbara, but by the early 1960s appear to have separated and for the remainder of her life Barbara shared a home with Dr Millicent Dewar, a renowned psychoanalyst. Barbara continued her journalism career after the war, for a time reviewing novels for provincial newspapers and herself publishing three further novels, the last in 1958.

Wine of Honour is available in both e-book and paperback formats from Dean Street Press, released August 5, 2019.

Thursday, August 15, 2019

Sneak preview, FM37: SUSAN ALICE KERBY, Miss Carter and the Ifrit (1945)

From Elizabeth Crawford's excellent introduction to our reprint edition:

Susan Alice Kerby was the pen name of [Alice] Elizabeth Burton (1908-1990), who had been born in Cairo, the daughter of Richard Burton (c.1879-c.1908). He was probably English, while his wife Alice (1884-1962 née Kerby) was Canadian. The couple had married in Chicago in 1907. It is to be presumed that Richard Burton died around the time of Elizabeth’s birth because after returning from Egypt to her home town, Windsor, Ontario, Alice was described as Burton’s widow when she remarried in October 1909.

We first catch a glimpse of Elizabeth Burton in 1926 when, described as a student, she sailed, unaccompanied, from Naples to the USA after spending time in Rome, where she had stayed with an aunt and studied music and history. In 1929, still a student, she again paid a visit to Europe, perhaps visiting English relatives. Back in Canada she launched her career as a journalist and over the next few years worked in radio and in advertising. In 1935 she again spent some time in England, arriving back in Canada in June and then in November, in Windsor, married John Aitken, a fellow journalist. However, the marriage seems to have been short lived; Elizabeth later recorded that in 1936 she decided to move to England. At some point there was a divorce and in 1950 Elizabeth changed her name by deed poll from ‘Aitken’ back to ‘Burton’. However, she maintained her link with Canada, acting as the London correspondent of the Windsor Star from 1945-1965.

Elizabeth Burton’s first novel, Cling to Her, Waiting, written under her own name, was published in the autumn of 1939 and her second, A Fortnight at Frascati, for which she used the ‘Susan Alice Kerby’ pen name, appeared in 1940. There was then a five-year gap until the publication of Miss Carter and the Ifrit in 1945, suggesting that in the interim she was engaged on wartime business with little time to write novels. Miss Carter worked ‘in Censorship’ but there is no evidence to tell us how Elizabeth Burton was employed, although it was possibly in some similar capacity.

Thanks to Elizabeth, as always, for unearthing such wonderful tidbits for her intros.

Some choice snippets from a review of Miss Carter and the Ifrit in the Windsor Star, 22 Sept 1945:

Obviously it's mad. Certainly it's charming, this whole fantastic tale of Miss Carter and Joe, now a good genei, who in Sulayman's day was a bad one, and so was locked in a cedar tree as punishment.

Miss Carter herself is as English as mutton, getting on—47 to be exact—doing her daily stint at her war job in the censorship office, wearing old-but-well-cut tweeds and, in short, living about the loneliest, dullest life imaginable. And then comes Joe. And from then on it's anybody's ball game. Nothing is impossible. … Joe is what every woman would like to have around the house. You'll love him.

Not until you've finished the book do you realize how much you've learned about wartime living in England…

I also recently came across a rather fascinating profile of Burton/Kerby in the Windsor Star, dating from 22 Jun 1945, with lots of interesting details contrasting wartime Canada and wartime England:

For one who has been away from Canada 10 years, the funniest part of returning home lies in finding the cities all still standing up, Miss Betty Burton, who has been in London, England, since 1935, declared this morning…

"When the ship pulled into Montreal," Betty said this morning, "it was the strangest thing to see the houses all standing—a whole city and not a single house or building blown down."

The first thing Betty did, on arriving in Montreal, was to hie herself to a store where she bought a bottle of mild. What a delight it was after the condensed milk of the ship and the powdered milk of Britain!

Real eating began when our ship left Liverpool. From there out folks who had been on short rations for years glorified in fine meals at tables on which there were sugar bowls filled with sugar.

"On the boat," Miss Burton said, "we had meat twice a day. … In the 11 days across the Atlantic, I gained 12 pounds. Everyone on the ship gained from seven to 15 pounds."

In addition to her regular full-time employment and her authoring in her spare time, Betty, like all the women in Britain, did her share of work during the blitz, as a fire-watcher by night—one night in every six. That night, if you were up all night, you just skipped sleeping and went back to work at the usual time in the morning without it.

Betty's job, with the fire-watchers, was as a messenger.

"And so," she said, "if my grandchildren ask, 'Gramma, what did you do in the war?' I'll be able to tell them, 'Children, I ran like the devil.'"

In one raid, Betty was injured. Her job then was to climb out on a high ledge and scoop up the shattered glass, so that chunks of it wouldn't fall on the people in the street below. In the course of doing that, she cut a finger.

Betty was fire-watching the night the doodlebugs first came over London. The doodlebugs and the rockets that came over later were nerve-wracking weapons, which the British felt were not quite fair.

"It was the inhumanness of the V-weapons that got most people, I think," Betty said.

I reviewed the novel here early this year.

Miss Carter and the Ifrit is available in both e-book and paperback formats from Dean Street Press, released August 5, 2019.

Monday, August 12, 2019

Sneak preview, FM36: Barbara Noble, The House Opposite (1943)

From novelist Connie Willis's introduction:

I dislike most novels written about the Blitz.  Most authors get the details, or worse, the attitudes of the time wrong, and the stories they tell are melodramatic and over-the-top, as if they concluded the Blitz wasn’t dramatic enough on its own.

I can only think of two movies and two books which, till now, have gotten the particulars, the tone, and the story of the Blitz right.  The movies are 1987’s Hope and Glory and 2016’s Their Finest, and the books are Rumer Godden’s An Episode of Sparrows and Graham Greene’s The End of the Affair.  And now, The House Opposite.

I wrote here recently about how over-the-moon I was that one of my favorite authors, Connie Willis, author of the breathtaking Blackout and All Clear, had agreed to write the introduction for our reprint of one of my favorite World War II novels (I reviewed it here). So you may imagine how I felt after reading the above passage. Words just can't.

She goes on to explain:

The House Opposite, which is not only set in the Blitz, but is about the Blitz and what it was like to be an ordinary person living through an extraordinary time, working and eating and sleeping, making friends and growing up and experiencing heartbreak, while all the time waiting for the ax to fall.

Noble captured that feeling so perfectly that, as I read The House Opposite, I found my heart pounding during even the quietest of scenes:  Elizabeth eating dinner in a restaurant with her lover, Owen walking through the park late at night, Elizabeth checking on a ward full of sleeping patients.  Knowing that at any moment everyone—and everything—could be blown apart.

Which eventually happens.  But not at all in the way you expect, and so casually that at first you don’t realize it’s happened—or how much damage was sustained.

And to a large extent contemporary critics recognized the value of Barbara Noble's meticulous portrayal. Even the slightly snarky reviewer for the Guardian had to acknowledge the documentary value:

The story of a married business man's liaison with his secretary ... is of no importance, but this novel has positive value as a faithful record of London life during blitz. It is factual, selective, accurate in detail of event and behaviour. It is a notable feat of novelist's reporting.

Others didn't give the sense that their praise was being reluctantly pried from their typewriters, with the Times of India calling it "the most satisfying picture yet of what life in London was like during those hectic months." And Noble's book clearly struck a personal chord with the review from the Sunday Graphic, who said:

Finally, to confound those who imagine that there is only one kind of "woman novelist" turning out standardised products, I draw attention to The House Opposite...


The bombing of London forms an intermittent background to the tale, and I cannot remember any book which so convincingly renders the disordered, keyed-up tragedy and comedy of the blitz period so convincingly.

I read it while my own windows were rattling to gunfire; just enough to awaken old memories. And every word rang true.

Saturday, August 10, 2019

Sneak preview, FM35: MARJORIE WILENSKI, Table Two (1942)

With her usual brilliance as a researcher, Elizabeth Crawford provides, in her introduction to our reprint of Marjorie Wilenski's only novel, an intriguing and poignant glimpse of the author's early life:

Marjorie Isola Harland (1889-1965) was born in Kensington, London, the elder daughter of Wilson Harland, an engineer, and his wife, Marie. Her younger sister, Eileen, was born in 1893. Other details of Marjorie’s life are infuriatingly sketchy. The papers filed by both parents in a long-drawn-out case for judicial separation suggest that in her early years Marjorie witnessed many upsetting scenes in the family home, her mother citing in lurid detail numerous instances of her husband’s drunken violence and swearing. By 1902 the couple had separated, Robert Harland returning to live with his mother in Brixton while Marie retained custody of her daughters.

In 1907 the three were living at 37 Dorset Square, Marylebone when Eileen died, aged only 14. The house is large and it may be that Marie took in lodgers, although the female American singer and three Austrian businessmen staying there on the night of the 1911 census are described as ‘visitors’ rather than boarders. Nothing else is known of Marjorie’s early years other than that she was clearly well-schooled for she graduated from Bedford College in 1911 with a 2nd class degree in history. Three years later, on 5 August 1914, she married Reginald Howard Wilenski (1887-1975) at Kensington Registry Office.

I had previously known that she married Reginald Wilenski, a well-known art historian, but absolutely nothing else, so this glimpse of what was surely at times a difficult childhood is wonderful to have. And although the bitter, unmarried Elsie is clearly front and center in the novel, she is obviously not, as one might have expected in a first novel, a self-portrait.

Elizabeth also sums up the novel, which I reviewed here in 2016, far better than I did:

We first meet Table Two at lunchtime on 2 September 1940 in the Ministry of Foreign Information, which Marjorie Wilenski places on the edge of Lincoln’s Inn Fields, as Elsie and Anne watch an aerial dogfight high in the ‘deep blue sky’. At this time ‘no-one in London was then expecting air-raids’ but five days later everything changed. On 7 September the women have their first experience of the Blitz, night-time bombing that was to dominate life through the autumn. They, like other Londoners, become used to sleeping in shelters and rising the next morning to ‘gape and gaze at the great craters in the streets – [which] by Friday were just a familiar and tiresome obstruction to traffic; there were too many other things to think of...’ But this cataclysm is merely a background to the bickering and jousting for position around Table Two when it is revealed that a new Deputy Language Supervisor will soon be required.

An understated but for once not very snarky notice of the novel in the Guardian put it this way:

They were an awkward squad, the women qualified chiefly by residence abroad to act as translators in the Ministry of Foreign Intelligence, and the professional women, office broken, had their proper scorn of amateurs. Table Two ... does some delicately malicious character-drawing. Contrasted are the comedy of a lost document and a pleasant love-story among air raids. Individuals in this group of women are well differentiated, and it all seems quietly truthful, but had that Ministry no canteen?

Finally, Elizabeth also points out the most tantalizing mention of the novel:

Table Two was published in the autumn of 1942 by Faber and Faber, the firm that since the 1920s had been Reginald Wilenski’s publisher. It was widely reviewed and in addition we are blessed with a view of it in the hands of a reader. For in May 1943 a copy accompanied Barbara Pym as she waited in the queue for her Women’s Royal Naval Service medical. She later wrote that ‘I read my novel Table Two by Marjorie Wilenski (obviously about the Censorship)’. Alas, she offered no further comment.

Now, I ask you, would it have been too much to ask that Pym might have added an adjective in there somewhere ("I happily read" or "my delightful novel" or "by the wonderful Marjorie Wilenski"). For all the gushing that she did about frustrated love affairs, one might have thought one adjective could be spared!

Wednesday, August 7, 2019

Sneak preview, FM34: ROMILLY CAVAN, Beneath the Visiting Moon (1940)

From author Charlotte Moore's fascinating introduction:

Romilly Cavan was born Isabelle Wilson in July 1914, on the very eve of the First World War. Her mother, Desemea Wilson, produced thirty gloriously-jacketed romantic novels under the pseudonym Diana Patrick, and when Isabelle began to write she also adopted a pseudonym, "Cavan" perhaps in homage to her Irish heritage. Her first novel, Heron, was published when she was only twenty-one. At the launch party she met the literary journalist Eric Hiscock, pronounced Hiscoe. They married six years later, by which time she had written five more novels, of which Beneath The Visiting Moon, Evening Standard Book of the Month, would be the last. Eric Hiscock claimed that the wartime paper shortage was the reason Romilly gave up novels for plays. Encouraged by Noel Coward, she wrote twelve.

She is a shadowy figure. An early dust-jacket photograph shows thin, fine-boned intensity. Eric described her as "dark Irish, very secretive"; she wouldn't let him read anything she'd written until it was finished. She aimed high, and was jealously competitive with other female authors. She couldn't stand to have Edna O'Brien mentioned, said Eric, wouldn't allow her books over the threshold—but after Romilly's death (from cancer, aged 61) he opened a cupboard and found O'Brien's complete works concealed within. Perfectionism, as much as the paper shortage, may have prematurely ended her novel-writing career.

Wonderful details, and I'm sure Charlotte is dead-on, but I might put a more positive spin on things and suggest that, having achieved perfection with this novel, she may have felt a bit "I came, I saw, I conquered" and simply moved on to other challenges.

But if you're afraid I'm overstating (and see here for my original giddy review back in 2016), here's a sampling from the New York Times review of the book:

But, quite apart from wartime implications, what a delightful little world it is Miss Cavan has created and how truly representative of the time and the circumstances! One does not know whether to admire more the skill with which the story is told from the adolescent viewpoint or the sly quietness with which the elders' share in the cosmos is revealed.

It can't be often that Times reviewers resort to exclamation marks...

In the Observer, no lesser figure than novelist L. P. Hartley reviewed the book, slightly condescending perhaps but enthusiastic nevertheless:

The pattern of Miss Romilly Cavan's long story is almost negligible; nothing happens, and Sarah is too romantic and too young for us to take her troubles very seriously [this from the author of The Go-Between?!?!]. But the detail is enchanting. Seldom do we find minds so sensitive to the nuance of an idea, spirits so responsive to fine shades of joy and sorrow. Facetiousness is the author's danger, but it is a danger she runs over and over again to come back with some prize of truth or fancy deliciously expressed.

But the best summing up of all (and the first time, to my knowledge, that one of our reprints has garnered a comparison with Virginia Woolf—not to mention Dodie Smith!) comes from Charlotte's intro:

Beneath the Visiting Moon's surface sparkle illuminates sombre depths. Lonely, unfulfilled adults, traumatised children, and, most convincingly of all, girls on the exhausting treadmill of adolescence are created by Romilly Cavan with something of Dodie Smith's lightness of touch, something of Virginia Woolf's sense of human tragedy. The combination leaves us sharing Elisabeth's feeling that "all, (with the exception of the world) was well with the world". Cavan's achievement is the very essence of bittersweet.

Beneath the Visiting Moon is available in both e-book and paperback formats from Dean Street Press, released August 5, 2019.

Monday, August 5, 2019

Sneak preview, FM33 - Josephine Kamm, Peace, Perfect Peace (1947)

From Eileen Kamm's wonderfully informative introduction to her mother-in-law's novel:

She lived in London all her days, fascinated by the interactions of city life, talking to her friends and to strangers she met at the bus stop, and relishing the sense, during the period before and after the second World War, of living at the hub of crucial events and witnessing social upheavals unimaginable in the rather staid world into which she had been born. Although the 1930s, when she did voluntary work with Jewish refugees and became aware that religious persecution was not consigned to history nor Britain immune from invasion, were an unsettling decade, it was in her nature to get on with things. When war broke out in 1939 she joined the Ministry of Information as a senior officer and pamphlet writer and had her flat bombed, as well as publishing several novels for adults, of which Peace, Perfect Peace was penultimate.

I noted in my review of the novel here how invaluable it is as a detailed record of life in the immediate postwar period, and Eileen expresses that far more eloquently than I did:

The close examination of what mercifully was to prove a temporary world, with its clothing coupons, communal soup kitchens euphemistically rebranded as ‘British Restaurants’, trains crowded with homecoming soldiers and people tired yet optimistic of better times to come, is sometimes poignant, and often wryly comic. It is history to us, but written without the distorted nostalgia of distant memory. What we hear in Peace, Perfect Peace is the voice of a lively young woman with an observant eye, experiencing that world every day.

As with so many of the treasures from this period, there were some slightly condescending reviews. After summing up the plot, the Guardian noted:

A comedy of contrivances ensues, common sense prevails, and after a ladies' battle domestic peace is made. A small, good-humoured novel handles the children with discretion.

The Observer also stressed the supposedly feminine themes, though perhaps a housewife somewhere can explain what he means, as I can't quite decipher it:

Josephine Kamm dwells mercilessly on post-war discomfort, but offsets the gloom with some happy dialogue and character-drawing. She is at her best with the Woman; and every housewife will know whom I mean by that.

Thanks very much, but I'll take Eileen's own summing up of the novel's womanly concerns:

The characters, especially the women, are fully realised in their faults as well as strengths; Peace, Perfect Peace is, in a quiet way, a feminist novel...

Happily there were also more enthusiastic contemporary reviewers, as evidenced by the below, from the back cover of Kamm's subsequent novel, Come, Draw This Curtain.

Peace, Perfect Peace is available in both e-book and paperback formats from Dean Street Press, released August 5, 2019.

Saturday, August 3, 2019

Sneak preview, FM32: VERILY ANDERSON, Spam Tomorrow (1956)

From novelist, children's author, and journalist Rachel Anderson's introduction to her mother's memoir:

In 1954, in an emotionally charged farewell editorial for The Townsend, she wrote, ‘The war took so much from us that we grew to accept deprivations almost without feeling. We lost friends, we lost our homes, we lost whole ways of life..… (yet) we learned that, even in the parting of death, something of the spirit is left behind on earth, something that we had perhaps not known to exist in the living person, something that had lain dormant as the hidden seeds of the willow-herb in the sooty City of London.’

A bit later, Rachel poignantly but inspiringly describes Verily's reaction to her loss of eyesight, which is just the positive, make-the-best-of-things sort of attitude one would expect having read her memoirs:

As Verily’s eye-sight began to fade, her piano was moved next to her bedroom to be more easily reached and she took to dictating her work, leaving her family to correct it. On being registered blind, she insisted, with typical positivity, how delighted she was that at last she qualified to be trained for a guide-dog. She then dictated an article for The Author (Society of Authors journal) discussing how Milton might have adapted to having a canine carer.

When I posted about Spam Tomorrow earlier this year, I also got a lovely comment from another of Verily's daughters, author Janie Hampton (one of the women behind the wonderful History Girls blog). I hope she won't mind if I share it again here so that more readers can enjoy it:

I'm one of Verily Anderson's 4 daughters, I wasn't born until her 3rd book 'Our Square'. We all enjoyed seeing this, and the good news is that Spam Tomorrow is being republished by Dean Street Press on 5 August 2019. Verily was very proud that the Imperial War Museum held a copy of Spam Tomorrow, where it's been used by many WWII researchers. 'Mummy Vincent' was Nicholas's mother Noel, one of Verily's best & oldest friends, a lovely calm woman. Kate was indeed Joyce Grenfell, in 'Scrambled Eggs for Christmas'. None of us were her actual god-children, but she was like a fairy godmother to us, passing on her stage clothes for us to cut up, and secretly buying us a car, house etc. Twenty years after her death, I edited her letters, and wrote her biography for John Murray publisher. I think 'Beware of Children' was called ' No Kidding' in USA - after the film made by the Carry On... film people.

From Verily's Guardian obituary in 2010 (see here):

[H]er breakthrough as a writer came in 1956, at the age of 41, when she published Spam Tomorrow, a deft and frequently uproarious account of her wartime experiences on the home front. Critics hailed it as a new kind of memoir, one of the first to explore the lives of women in wartime.

Before the success of Spam Tomorrow, she led a life that was colourful but frequently impecunious. Born in Edgbaston, Birmingham, the fourth of five children of the Rev Rosslyn Bruce and his wife Rachel (nee Gurney), Verily was always certain that she wanted to be a writer. As children, she and her brothers edited and wrote a nursery magazine which they called the News of the World. Verily's haphazard schooling ranged from a few years at Edgbaston high school for girls to being taught at home by her mother, to a brief and unsuccessful stint at the Royal College of Music in London. She said she worked at "100 different jobs" (including writing advertising copy, illustrating sweet papers and working as a chauffeur) before the outbreak of the second world war, when she enlisted with the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry, on the grounds that if there were going to be a war, it would be "less frightening to be in the middle of things".

And finally, at another point in her introduction, Rachel drops in this little tidbit:

From the age of nine, she kept a daily diary, of which there remain 142 volumes, all marked “Strictly Private”. These were never intended for public reading, let alone publication.

Oh dear.  What one wouldn't give to get hold of one or two of those volumes!

Spam Tomorrow is available in both e-book and paperback formats from Dean Street Press, released August 5, 2019.

Thursday, August 1, 2019

Sneak preview, FM30 & FM31 - CAROLA OMAN, Nothing to Report (1940) & Somewhere in England (1943)

“Lady Lenanton, last Friday I eloped and married your niece.” With that telephone conversation Carola Oman (1897-1978) entered my life more forcefully than before as the aunt of my wife, the designer Julia Trevelyan Oman.

Thus begins art historian, museum director, and diarist Sir Roy Strong's introduction to our new editions of Oman's wartime comedies, which I reviewed early this year here and here. Sir Roy goes on:

Much of her childhood was spent in Frewin Hall, Oxford in a household which still had maids and morning family prayers down to the death of her father in 1946. She was educated at Miss Battys and then Wychwood School, Oxford, although denied knowledge of Latin by her father.


She wrote during a period when, for women of that class, servants were a given and ‘work’ in the sense of what happened after 1945 was totally foreign to them. Right until the very end Bride Hall depended on a cook and a butler-chauffeur. The world of Bloomsbury would have been also totally alien to her as indeed what we now categorise as that of the ‘bright young things’ and the smart set of the twenties and thirties.

And yet, in some of her early novels from the 1920s (which I posted about here just last week), some of Oman's most incisive and realistic portrayals are of young people who are, at the least, close approximations of "bright young things," a sign that she was a conscientious observer even of those whose experiences so widely differed from hers.

I also have a post coming soon with wonderful photos and recollections by Carola Oman's grandniece Elisabeth Stuart, but I can't resist including a snippet here:

I knew her well from the 1950's to 1970's when she lived in considerable style with a cook and a butler unlike anyone else we knew! We were very much on our best behaviour when we were with her. She had a lovely panelled study in her Jacobean manorhouse where she would write. She had a keen sense of her responsibilities and was a governor of several local schools besides being a trustee of a handful of national museums and galleries, particularly those relating to subjects where she had written a major biography (for example, the National Maritime Museum because of her biography about Nelson: her most important work).

Finally, I've always loved how Nicola Beauman and Persephone highlight how male-centric critics looked down their noses at many of the books today's readers love the most, so I thought I'd share my own examples.

A short review of Nothing to Report from the Observer, though entirely back-handed in the praise it offers, would have perversely sold me on the book even if I'd never heard of it:

the tale of a spinster lady's round of interests, friendships, and endurances just before and early in the present war. Story not much; characters recognisably genteel and county; but delicious fun for the wise and gentle everywhere.

And a review of Somewhere in England from the Sydney Morning Herald, similarly dismissive of the book's focus on everyday trivialities, makes me feel sure I wouldn't care for this critic's idea of a "soundly-constructed novel":

This is a group of contemporary English portraits rather than a soundly constructed novel. It bears the formal outline of a novel in that there are two or three continuous, lightly-sketched love interests and the tenuous thread of Pippa Johnston's venture into war-time nursing. The man interest of the book lies, however, in the author's ability to look at people objectively and often with amusement. The background is a typical English village, and the usual characters are on the stage: the Lady of the Manor, the Vicar, the Matron and staff of the local military hospital, and the natives. All of them are very capably handled.

"Somewhere in England" will appeal to women with a love and knowledge of rural village life.

Well, indeed.

Nothing to Report and Somewhere in England are available in both e-book and paperback formats from Dean Street Press, released August 5, 2019.

Friday, July 26, 2019

Three early Carola Oman comedies: Mrs Newdigate's Window (1927), The Holiday (1928), and Fair Stood the Wind (1930)

When I last wrote about Carola Oman, raving at some length about her wonderful World War II novels Nothing to Report and Somewhere in England—which are among my all-time favorites and which are also, not at all coincidentally, coming very soon as Furrowed Middlebrow reprints—I mentioned that I had happily discovered that another of her earlier novels, Fair Stood the Wind, also had a contemporary setting, unlike most of her fiction which is historical in subject.

Now, it turns out that I get to revise that statement: There are actually a total of three more Oman novels which were set in the present day of the late 1920s, when they were written. (All, for whatever reason, published under her married name, unlike much of her historical work.) And, following a flurry of obsessive interlibrary loan requests, I can now report that, with one caveat about the last, they are similarly delightful, sweet, fun social comedies, each with at least a bit of Austen-esque romance.

The story of Mrs Newdigate's Window centers around the titular middle-aged Marianne Newdigate, her husband Colonel George Newdigate, and her two young goddaughters Marianne (Mollie) Delahaye and Marianne (Mary) Ripley. We follow various charming vicissitudes as Mrs Newdigate assists and advises both girls in their romantic pursuits, while Colonel Newdigate looks on stoically and supportively. In terms of finding husbands, glamorous, perky Mollie is undoubtedly the sure thing, while smart, quiet Mary is rather more of a long shot. But once they are successfully married off—Mary to a diligent, hard-working, older man (42 to her 28) and Mollie into an aristocratic family with not quite as much money remaining as they might hope—their odds of happiness shift rather more in Mary's favor.

And that's pretty much the plot really. But what gives it tremendous charm is the wonderful dynamic between Mrs Newdigate and her husband. As an example, this scene just a couple of pages into the story will ring a bell with any married couple:

As they entered the drawing-room this evening Colonel Newdigate was for the second time in the midst of the description of a motor accident that he had seen in Oxford Street that afternoon. His eye lighting on the silver-table, he seized the elephant to impersonate "a Rolls-Royce, moving a not a whit less than twenty miles an hour." His wife, with her back to him, was taking a couple of parcels out of her escritoire.

"They met," said he, smacking the elephant against the lady of the loving-cup, "like that! And the next moment that corner was hailing glass. Marianne, you're not looking!"

Mrs. Newdigate came hastily towards him and bent over the table with an expression of concern.

"I am, George, I am. I saw when you showed me with the pepper-pots at dinner that it must have been 'a peculiarly shocking encounter,' as your great-aunt wrote of the Battle of Waterloo. Tell me, what did you do?"

And most readers of this blog will love Mrs Newdigate for no other reason than a letter she writes to Mary, who, determined to take some action in her life rather than merely waiting for a husband, has gone off to do nursing training. She has written to her godmother that no one at the hospital is a reader and there are no books:

It was with great pleasure, my dear child, [wrote Marianne], that I received your letter containing your request for books. I have just returned from searching our shelves on your behalf, and am sending off a first parcel this morning. I blame myself that I did not think of this before your departure, for I remember when I was about your age I once found myself quite unprotected by literature, and I suffered intensely. The occasion was a visit to some distant cousins in the north of England, shortly after our marriage. They had excellent hearts but no conversation. They bore your Uncle George out hunting every day, and when he returned in the evenings I had forgotten what he looked like, and scarcely dared to try and see in case I did not like him after all. I did not break down, I remember, until the fifth evening—they were his cousins—and then I wept in his dressing-room. I could only sob—'No books! no books!' which he could not understand, and he became dreadfully distressed and wanted to send for a doctor, or take me back to my mother (who, by the way, would not have been at all pleased to see me arrive thus unceremoniously). However, in the morning he wired to Mudie's and also rode eight miles to the nearest town whence he solemnly brought me back Good Words, over which we had a touching scene of reconciliation. You need not smile, Mary, The Little Minister was coming out in monthly instalments in Good Words that year.

If you enjoy quiet little domestic tales sprinkled with likable characters and good humor, Mrs Newdigate's Window might be right up your alley. And even better, I thought—in fact my favorite of these three novels—was The Holiday.

Here we begin with a different pairing. Instead of a happily married older couple, we have Georgine Ross-Preston and her widowed father George, a former general (thus referred to as "the General"), who are sometimes mistaken for a married couple. Georgine is in her early 30s, happily living with her father in their flat in London, with occasional excursions to their country cottage. They are both quite contented, and generally they spend their summer holidays together as well. This year, however, the General has made plans to go fishing in Norway with a friend, leaving Georgine at loose ends.

But not for long. Georgine's old friend Claire Woodruff soon visits with a favor to ask: Will Georgine consider going to her family's home in Scotland, Stobblie, for several weeks to care for Claire's two young sons while Claire herself heads off for a Mediterranean cruise? Claire's mother, Lady Dunree, is a classic malingerer whose loyal housekeeper has had to go to care for an ailing sister, so Georgine will be serving, effectively, as nurse, governess, housekeeper, and general dogsbody—not necessarily an irresistible holiday festivity. However, some of the happiest summers of Georgine's youth were spent at Stobblie, and the news that Claire's unmarried brother Frank, with whom Georgine was once infatuated, is returning from many years in India and will be present as well helps tip the balance. Later, Victor Gates, a "St Bernard type" whom Claire is considering making husband number three (the first two having died in World War I—one at the beginning, one at the end), shows up for a visit as well. Then one of the boys has appendicitis, and Georgine's holiday goes downhill from there—or so it seems.

It's all great fun, and although there are happy endings for all (except, I have to note, for one bizarrely sudden tragedy involving a minor character, mentioned in passing near the end of the book, which is odd but doesn't tarnish the overall effect), they don't come about in quite the way the reader might expect, which is always fun. Just a couple of little samples. First, Georgine's first impression of Victor Gates gives us such a clear notion of how he comes across:

Georgine did not yet know whether he was stupid or not. He looked as if he might be, or at any rate as if he would have little to offer in the way of light conversation. She felt sure that he belonged to the type of man who interrupts himself when telling a funny story to settle whether the incident occurred on Monday or Wednesday.

And then, I have to share a passage from near the end of the novel. I won't say a word about why Georgine is at her breaking point, so no spoilers—suffice it to say she has been under considerable stress—but the kind understanding of her prim and proper Aunt Isabel is enough to push her over the edge. Aunt Isabel's polite euphemism for her hysteria is one of my favorite lines in the novel:

Miss Ross-Preston looked up, and saw to her utter confusion a light of understanding spreading over the features of Lady Robinson. At this her misery seemed to become more hopeless and more complete than she had ever realised. Her voice failed, and the storm without was nothing to the storm within, as she indulged at last in the good cry she had denied herself for five days.

Aunt Isabel did not betray alarm. She proved rather a good person to weep upon. After all, as her daughter had declared, blood is thicker than water. "Run away, Millicent," she said presently in quiet but grim tones to her nineteen-year-old daughter. "Your cousin has a headache."

The Holiday reminded me a bit of one of D. E. Stevenson's Mrs Tim novels, which in itself is high praise, and even to the extent that it's quite different from DES's style, it's very much the kind of novel that would be perfect for holiday reading, or else for when you desperately need a holiday but don't have one scheduled. It's a real delight.

And finally, Fair Stood the Wind was actually the first of these three novels that I read (from no lesser source than the Library of Congress!).

An initial casual suggestion of a motoring jaunt in France quickly expands to three cars and a party of nearly a dozen. The ringleaders are Elizabeth Woodhead and her friend Mrs Oliphant (Olly), a middle-aged widow who seems to attract tragedy but always faces it with the proverbial stiff upper lip and makes the best of things. Elizabeth's husband Christopher (Kit), formerly of the R.A.F., is happy to commit, and invites his cousin Denis, and Elizabeth invites her spinsterish friend Margaret and, more or less against her will and with some foreboding, their diva-ish mutual friend Cynthia. Olly invites her niece Pamela, who invites her own friend June and June's brother Jock, and her nephew Patrick, who brings along his friend Cedric. Whew!

It's Jock who issues a warning before their departure:

"Well, what are we going to do that we shall regret? You may as well warn us."

Mr. Somers smiled at the pacific heavens above, stretched his athletic limbs and uttered the single devastating word:


"Quarrel!" echoed Mrs. Oliphant in bewilderment. "But, Jock dear, how vulgar you are! I am sure I never quarrel with anyone."

"Neither do Kit and I," said Mrs. Woodhead through clenched teeth.

"Oh, you won't mean to quarrel," continued the oracle soothingly. "Women never do, but they just can't help it. They get on one another's nerves."

And of course, Jock's predictions come true, at least to an extent: there are certainly quarrels here and there, though it's hard to imagine any group of people together for several weeks and driving considerable distances most days who wouldn't have their quarrels. Plus, it must be said that most of the quarrels here are mild indeed, though no less amusing for that.

Unsurprisingly, there is romance along the way as well, as the riders in the three vehicles shift places from one day to the next and likes and dislikes grow. It's an entertaining cast of characters who offer much cheerful conversation and some pleasant chuckles. It's enjoyable, for example, to dislike Cynthia, who is rather a stereotype of all the irritating, overbearing acquaintances one has ever had. She is perfectly fluent in French (of course she would be), and never fails to correct the pronunciation of her fellow travellers:

Poor Miss Oliphant now had to avoid referring to cul-de-sacs, chauffeurs, garages, matinées, blancmanges, negligées, déshabillées or fiancés. She was even nervous of mentioning her crêpe de Chine pochette in Cynthia's hearing. It was awful how many French words there suddenly seemed to be in the English language.

There's also some enjoyable armchair travel here and there as the entourage makes its way from Havre down to Avignon and the French Riviera, then over into Italy, Lake Como, and back through France by a different route. For some reason, the dialogue here seemed just a bit too much on the flapper-ish side for me, unlike the two earlier novels, and the humor here is a bit broad sometimes, but it's still pleasant enough.

For the most part.

There is, however, one chip in the veneer near the end of the novel. For most of the story, Margaret, the young-ish friend of Elizabeth who is beginning to give up hope of ever marrying, is a quite likable sort of secondary protagonist for the novel—as in this passage about having to sleep alone in her home:

"How foul!" said Elizabeth. "I should be scared to fits. When Kit is in London I go and sleep in the little room next to nurse. Your nerves must be frightfully good."

"If you're thirty-three and what the evening papers politely describe as 'one of our superfluous women,'" said Miss Godby in rather a brave voice, "your nerves have got to be pretty good."

But then, bizarrely, toward the end of the novel, she lets rip with an unfortunate burst of virulent racism, which rather put a damper on things for me. It's utterly ridiculous and ignorant, of course, as all racism is, but I found it hard to root for her ultimate happiness afterward, and it's hard to imagine what Oman was thinking in including such a passage. It's a brief anomaly, though, and otherwise the novel is quite enjoyable—just a bit hard to wholeheartedly recommend.

That caveat aside, however, I'm so glad I kept poking around among Carola Oman's less well-known books and came across these three!
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