Friday, February 22, 2019

Seduced by Victorians: BETTY ASKWITH, A Step out of Time (1966)

"But didn't you find it all dreadfully tiresome, Charlotte? The dressing-up and the hair-brushing and the voluminous skirts?"

"No, you know, I didn't. One learns how to manage one's crinoline and it's rather a nice feeling. One sort of sails along, and when one sits down, with those great skirts billowing around one, one feels important and dignified, so ... so ... " she spoke rather shyly, "so much of a lady."

This largely forgotten novel, which I included on my Furrowed Middlebrow Dozen in December (and am just finally getting round to reviewing now—yikes), is a timeslip tale with lots of interest for today's readers. 22-year-old Charlotte, a young woman in the mid-1960s, has a near-death experience during what her parents believe is an appendectomy (really an abortion), and slips into the body of Lucy, another girl the same age living in the mid-1800s, who has also had a near-death experience—not coincidentally the result of throwing herself down a flight of stairs in an attempt to abort her own unwanted child. The two girls are nursed, a century apart—in the same room (Lucy's family home has now become a clinic). Although Charlotte is only unconscious for a couple of hours in the present, she has (or so she claims to her trusted aunt, who narrates the story with first-person skepticism) spent several months living, quite happily, in a well-to-do mid-Victorian family.

In her account of the experience to her aunt, Charlotte has little trouble adapting to Lucy's life as a young Victorian woman, on the cusp of adulthood (and, of course, the cusp of marriagability), but far more sheltered and protected than in her modern existence. Where she has considerably more difficulty is in readjusting, after her return, to the more mundane, less glamorous world of the present.

The middle portion of the novel is a diary Charlotte keeps during her experience, which she hides in a cubbyhole in the room and then miraculously finds waiting there in the present (definitely a willing suspension of disbelief required there). In this passage, Charlotte and Lucy's half-brother Edward discuss Lucy's sister Grace, who wants to escape the stultifying life planned for her and train for nursing. Edward's questioning inspires Charlotte to analyze just how much she's enjoying Lucy's life:

Edward looked at me quizzically:

'And yet,' he said, 'this life, which you repudiate so eloquently on behalf of Grace, you find good enough for Lucy?'

I was taken aback because, in truth, I do. I am perfectly contented with Charlton and my riding and my singing and my patchwork quilt. I don't mind the restrictions that I ought to find so galling. I like the formality of our ordered days. I am surrounded by affection, I feel safe and happy. It is odder even than Edward imagines, because I have been free. I have been emancipated from all these restraints and it seems I prefer the cage. There is one thing that may, in part, explain it. I do not feel that this is for a lifetime. Somehow I know that it cannot last, that I am living on borrowed time, that some day I shall have to go back and that I must enjoy the present and take every sun-filled moment as it comes.

Charlotte, who as her aunt points out could never be bothered to get out of bed for breakfast, also describes the pleasures of breakfast at Charlton, Lucy's family home:

"[B]reakfast at home or in my flat never seemed worth getting up for. Just a scramble on the dinette table. Someone doing an egg if they wanted one. Daddy eating like a machine and rushing off. Linda in her old wrapper and no make-up. Whereas here it was so different. The fire winking in the cut-steel grate and the silver beautifully polished and the hot rolls and the home-made jam on the Lazy Susan in the middle of the table and the starched white cloth. I used to sit at the head of the table opposite the window and watch the snow floating down or the street lamp shining primrose through the yellow fog, and sip my coffee, and—I know it sounds absurd—but what was the French phrase, something about 'calme, ordre, luxe et volupte?' Well, that was what came into my head."

It's a rather disingenuous comparison, of course, between Lucy's decidedly upper-crust life and Charlotte's more plain jane middle-class existence, with a drab job, a drab flat, and divorced parents. Who wouldn't be tempted to spend a few months at Charlton (at least if one could be certain not to require antibiotics during that time)?

But the front and back covers of the Chatto & Windus UK edition dustjacket (my copy of the book was the happy product of a recent World of Rare Books splurge), designed by Lynton Lamb, also makes simply but effectively explicit another factor that must have played a role in Charlotte's Victorian contentment. On the back cover, Charlotte, in her own body and time, looks a bit slumped and angsty, uncomfortable in her own skin, a bit awkward. While on the front cover, in Lucy's body in the mid-1800s, she is leaner, poised, decidedly posh, and rather elegant.

I didn't think enough about this body switch when I first read the novel, and indeed Charlotte's telling of her story doesn't make a great deal of the more slender, refined body she inhabits as Lucy, but it might go a long way toward explaining just how seductive the earlier time becomes for her. If I could spend a few months as a tall, dashing, lean young man at Charlton, I might be tempted too (though truth be told 1920s Paris might be better suited to me)!

On more than one occasion, A Step Out of Time reminded me of one of Mabel Esther Allan's best widening world stories, though I suspect MEA would have been less ambivalent in showing the Victorian past as undesirable for women. Askwith allows for a bit more uncertainty, showing the undeniable attractions of well-to-do Victorian life for a young woman, even while reminding us of all the terrible disadvantages. (Askwith is best known today for her biographical works about Victorian figures, so she may well have been using Charlotte to explore her own attraction to the period.)

But what I found most striking about the novel was its marked focus on unwanted pregancy, both within and outside of marriage, and the ways women in both times found of coping with it. And indeed, as Askwith must have realized, this might be the most pressing difference, for women, between a comfortable Victorian existence and modern middle-class drudgery. The deal-breaker that tilts the balance against all other factors might well be the thought of life before effective birth control, when so many women either spent their lives in pregnancy and childbirth or else died young from same. In many ways, all the other elements of women's social equality were dependent on this development, so it's interesting that Askwith, in a novel that is by no means vehemently feminist in any outward way (see below!), makes the issue so clear. It's unwanted pregnancies and the efforts of the two women to rid themselves of them that links Charlotte and Lucy in the first place. Askwith's matter-of-fact portrayal of Charlotte's abortion might have been surprising for some of her readers even in the Swinging Sixties, but Lucy's married cousin Emily's strategy (learned from her mother-in-law, no less) of leaping repeatedly from a wall on her husband's estate to end as many of her all-too-frequent pregnancies as possible is even more notable. And for those keeping score, there's also Lucy's lady's maid Rose, who is seduced and impregnated by Lucy's stepfather—not to mention Rose's predecessor, who may well have had the same fate.

Which leads me to note that, although this novel is highly readable and very entertaining, and might almost as easily be enjoyed by readers today as it was in 1966, Charlotte's attitudes toward the various seducers in the novel would likely give folks pause. Here she is speaking of the man who seduced Lucy:

"He must have been rather a cad.''

"Yes, he must. But it was rather in the way of things. The eighteenth-century idea still lingered I suppose. Girls were so shielded and guarded that gentlemen were entitled to take what they could. It was the girl's business, or her parents', to draw the line and keep the distance. I think his lordship may have thought poor Lucy asked for it.''


Then, there's Charlotte's complacency about Lucy's stepfather's seduction of Rose (which of course precipitates Rose's immediate dismissal from her job and makes her terrified of returning home to her fisherman father):

I [her aunt] interrupted: "Didn't you go on feeling horrified about Papa?"

Charlotte hesitated. "Just at first," she said. "More shy than horrified, if you know what I mean. I felt I wanted to keep away from him, not to touch him. And then—I don't know—he was always so kind, so fond of George and somehow there was a sort of fundamental innocence about him. I couldn't keep it up. It seemed to melt into the general happiness.

Well, of course, when you see a rapist being kind to his little boy, how could you possibly not feel affectionate toward him?! Um…

But apart from those cringeworthy moments for readers in the age of "#MeToo" (but would readers in the 60s really not have wondered about those attitudes too?), A Step Out of Time was a completely enjoyable and rather addictive read. And even the cringeworthy moments are valuable, I think, in showing how people once processed and rationalized the same problems we deal with today. What do you think?

Friday, February 15, 2019

Guilty pleasures?: GWENLLIAN MEYRICK, The Second Wife (1957) & Change of Air (1952)

As a general rule, I'm opposed to the very concept of guilty pleasures when it comes to choice of reading materials. It always seems to me like a way of being a bit pompous and judgmental about an author or genre, even in the guise of making a down-to-earth confession. If you say that murder mysteries or girl's school stories are your "guilty pleasures", it's really a way of assuring your listeners, in a rather Lady Boxe style (see below for why Lady Boxe has leapt to mind), that of course those books are quite beneath one, but one does enjoy slumming it among the philistines every now and then, doesn't one?

Pshaw, I say. Pshaw!

This is particularly on my mind because Gwenllian Meyrick's novels are precisely the type of books people might call guilty pleasures (though I assure you I feel not a qualm about devouring them like candy). If I had to compare Meyrick to a better-known author, it would have to be Dorothy Whipple, who has undoubtedly been called a guilty pleasure now and then as well, and who similarly focuses on domestic drama and soap-opera-ish plots (in the best possible sense of the word). Whipple's characters are probably more thoroughly developed, and her emotional depth is perhaps greater. And yet Meyrick seems to me just as readable. Perhaps she's Whipple Lite, if one could imagine such a thing. Or perhaps she's the sort of author Whipple herself would have read during a seaside holiday (and felt guilty about it?).

More importantly, though, Meyrick's characters and plots seem to tend to be just a bit skewed, a bit surprising, compared to most cozy middlebrow fiction. Both The Second Wife and Change of Air have what might be described as unhappy endings for their most important female characters (not really a spoiler, as these outcomes are foreshadowed from early in each novel), and yet Meyrick manages to shed a different light on them and presents those endings as more or less happy after all. In the first, a delightfully independent, unconventional woman discovers there's more to life than romance, and in the other, a young girl is heartbroken but undoubtedly the wiser and more mature for the experience.

In The Second Wife, the main character is Louise Merton, the middle-aged neighbor who over several years has become a dear friend to the Howard family next door. She's had a rich and varied life, but her cheerful spinsterhood is called into question when Mary Howard is killed in a car accident. In the aftermath, Louise accompanies the family on a planned trip to Austria in Mary's place, to fill the gap for the Howard children—Nicholas, just finishing his National Service, Kay, just out of school, and Robin, who's still at boarding school—only to find herself falling in love with the widowed Inglis. She's heartbroken when he instead proposes to Christina, a much younger woman (of course) they meet while traveling. But if that plot development sounds a bit like a chapter from a romance novel (and it does occasionally read a bit like that—"But why, Louise wanted to cry, must you talk to me about Christina? Haven't you guessed that I love you? What about your old boast that you always knew what I was thinking?"), where Meyrick takes it is distinctly not, for ultimately Louise, no longer under the influence of love's madness, realizes again how content she is on her own. (And the reader, confronted with Inglis's obliviousness and his foolish attempts to regain his youth, is likely to feel that Louise has dodged a bullet.)

It's really the story of a mature, smart, capable woman whose solitary contentment is threatened by love—and how often do we get a story like that? Even more impressively, although Christina is certainly not likeable at first, and Inglis in mid-life crisis mode is merely ridiculous, Meyrick makes them both completely believable, and Christina grows and evolves in interesting ways, so that one can almost believe, by the end, that she and Inglis will have their own happy ending after all—aided, even, by Louise.

The Louise we get at the end of The Second Wife would, by the way, be more or less my first choice for a next door neighbor/friend. It's hard to resist her annoyance with clothes shopping, for example:

In the meantime, she did some shopping for the holiday. She could not bear buying new clothes. She was always suspicious of the young women who would put the dresses over her head, or leave her alone in the cubicle, feeling defenceless and humiliated in her petticoat, while they fetched more. When they assured her something suited her, she distrusted them: when they were indifferent and expressed no opinion, they gave her an inferiority complex. She knew she was difficult to please: flat-chested and flat-hipped, all the pretty modern dresses hung on her as if they were slung over a kitchen airer. Buying clothes was indeed a depressing business.

But happily, once all that love business begins to run its course, we get a glimpse of her back in her element, happily indifferent to the latest fashions:

When she came back, it was March. The dark skies had lifted, spring winds were blowing, and everything had started to grow. Some women hurry to buy a new hat when spring comes: Louise ordered a load of manure for her roses, and awaited its arrival with exactly the same pleasure. It was a little early to prune and manure her roses, but she decided to do it one blowy, bright week-end.

While The Second Wife revels unapologetically in its soap opera qualities, Change of Air, an earlier novel and only the second Meyrick published, is slightly more uneven at times. It perhaps can't quite make up its mind if it wants to be a cheerful holiday comedy or a romantic melodrama. And yet I found it just as compulsively readable because here too Meyrick excels at creating entirely believable, intelligent characters and placing them in realistic but intriguing situations.

Here, the focus is on Joanna Maitland, the sheltered and complacent daughter of a rich businessman:

She was a tall, handsome girl with that look of unimaginative wholesomeness that English boarding-schools often give to girls. She had a bright colour and an expression of health and unbounded self-confidence.

This was hardly surprising, for Joanna was the only child of a rich father, who had conferred upon her not only the benefits of material comforts but also a pleasing belief in herself as a person of some importance.

In the course of a summer spent by the sea on the South Coast, however, with her parents, family friends Elizabeth and James Conway, their children, James's charming writer brother Edmund, and, unexpectedly, her much-admired former English mistress, Sylvia Fanshawe, Joanna's immature complacency is brought crashing down. Love has a way of doing that in Meyrick's novels—even hopeless loves like Joanna's for Edmund, who very soon only has eyes for Sylvia.

There is certainly more comedy in Change of Air than in The Second Wife. Despite her apparent devotion to Joanna's impossible father Herbert, her mother Emma is difficult not to like, particular in this marvelous scene in which she and Elizabeth reminisce about their girlhood:

Emma put down her knitting and suddenly started to laugh.

''Elizabeth, do you remember when you took an egg to the Robinsons' dance and brought it back unbroken? It was in your coat pocket all the time. In those days we never had evening cloaks or fur coats, did we, and always went off to dances with our outdoor coats over our evening dresses."

She paused to take off her sun-glasses, and Elizabeth went on:

"I'd been feeding the hens for mother that afternoon, and as there was an egg in the nest, I popped it into my coat pocket and forgot all about it. After the dance, some young man drove us home in his car—he was rather solemn and inclined to be sentimental about me—"

"I was sitting behind," said Emma, "and I saw him lean lovingly towards you and you put your hand in your pocket, exclaimed, 'Look what I've done!' and produced the egg!"

"And you piped up from the back seat, 'Now we can have scrambled eggs when we get home!'"

"Did we?"

"Oh, yes, with the help of another couple of eggs. But the young man wouldn't stay: he dropped us at our front door, gave us a frightened look, and was off."

This scene is both amusing and a bit poignant, as it makes one feel how much Emma's natural cheerfulness and humour has likely been stifled by her marriage to Herbert. (On the other hand, she seems to genuinely love her selfish, touchy spouse, so clearly there's no accounting for tastes.)

And indeed, all of the women in this novel are quite vivid. Even Mrs Sharp, the landlady of the family's holiday home is entertaining in her sharp dislike for the Y chromosome:

"Don't you like men, Mrs. Sharp?"

"Well, Miss, the only time I can really do with them is when they're miserable or ill. When I see a man grieving or in pain, well, I feel he's just like a child that wants comfort, and I'll do anything for him. If we could only keep all the men miserable or ill, Miss, needing us to look after them, we'd get along quite nicely. But they don't stay ill or sad, they get uppish, Miss, and upset everything with their noisy, silly ways."

With that attitude, it's inevitable that Mrs Sharp is a comfort to Joanna in her hour of heartbreak.

By comparison, Meyrick's men tend to play supporting roles. Though James is rather funny, it's not entirely apparent why Edmund should have captured Joanna's devotion, and Herbert, well, Herbert could be a psychoanalytic case history in himself:

As a boy, he had made up his mind that the way to have power over people was to be rich; with single-minded determination, he had worked to get rich, and he had succeeded; he had become the richest member of his family—it pleased him to be able to send a cheque from time to time to a needy brother or sister who had mocked him in nursery days. In middle age, when he had become prosperous, he had married a docile and admiring schoolgirl, and their daughter gave him the utmost pride and pleasure. But, even so, he was always finding people who could be quite poor and unimportant, yet have fun in front of his very nose without any help from him. It was very irritating.

And before I forget:

"Let's sit in my car," said Mrs. Fanshawe. "We can see Meg just as well from there."

"Oh, grand," said James, "but our shoes are a bit dirty."

"'Get in, get in, never mind muddy boots,'" answered Mrs. Fanshawe, showing that she very properly knew her 'Diary of a Provincial Lady'.

Mrs. Fanshawe, James and Edmund were unanimous in their opinion of the horribleness of Lady Boxe, while Joanna remained grandly aloof.

How could I not be quite enamored of an author who assumes her readers will have read E. M. Delafield?!

It was fun to see, and I'm sharing them in several of the images in this post, a number of critical blurbs about Meyrick's other books, showing how they were received by some critics (admittedly, the higher brow critics seem to be missing, and perhaps never reviewed these books at all). I'm not completely certain of the comparison to Oscar Wilde, but who knows? I haven't read Meyrick's first novel yet, the one referred to in that blurb, so perhaps I have a pleasant surprise ahead of me! 

Meyrick is certainly not a profound literary author. Indeed, she's not even the most polished of cozy middlebrow writers. But I have found her to be great fun in all three of the novels I've read so far. Alas, there are only six in all, but I've already taken appropriate steps to acquire, by hook or by crook, the other three, so you'll certainly hear more about her.

I plan to save my next Meyrick novel for a quiet, lazy weekend, when I can lose myself for hours in her quiet, intelligent domestic world—without the slightest shiver of guilt.

Friday, February 8, 2019

Objectifying FM books

I know some of you have recently acquired some of the new Furrowed Middlebrow titles from Dean Street Press. I've just received mine as well, and it felt a bit like Christmas opening the big box with nine new titles. I was showing them off to Andy, and then of course I had to get all the earlier books off the shelf as well, and see how they all looked together.

Now that there are 29 titles in all, however, I had some challenges trying to take pictures of them all.

I tried using them as carpeting, but it was a grey day in San Francisco and the result didn't really do them justice:

Covering the top of our small dining room table with them was attractive, but quite challenging to photograph effectively (my days of standing precariously on a chair and hovering over a table should probably soon be over). Not to mention the difficulty of focusing or properly framing the shot while teetering:

Where is Annie Leibovitz when you need her?

Of course, they do look tidy and appealing in pillar form:

But in the end, the best shot I got was (perhaps not surprisingly) when I put them all back on the shelf, together with some of my older copies of a few of the books and/or authors we've published:

Then I took some more manageable photos of a few small, bedside-table-sized selections—wouldn't these look nice next to your bed?:

At any rate, it's fun seeing them all together, and I hope you're all as pleased with them as I've been! We're currently working on clearing rights for a new batch of titles to be released this summer, so the FM shelf on my bookcase will expand a bit more before too long—stay tuned...

Friday, February 1, 2019

The not-so-provincial lady in wartime: CAROLA OMAN, Nothing to Report (1940)

"I have told Rose that there will be a chauffeur for dinner," she ended, frowning slightly at the cannibalistic sound of her sentence.

I've had Nothing to Report flagged as a potentially interesting World War II-themed novel ever since Jenny Hartley mentioned it in passing in her book Millions Like Us about women writers in wartime. "In passing" is almost an exaggeration, actually, as the sum total of Hartley's attention to the novel was as follows:

the chapter titles are all dates, following the characters on their domestic rounds through the months of 1939 up to 'Midsummer 1940.'

But it was only in my recent renewed obsession with World War II fiction (surely you've noticed this, based on my recent reviews) that I finally got round to tracking it down via interlibrary loan—from no less prestigious source than Yale University. And of course Hartley's mention doesn't begin to reflect just how delightful the book really is.

Carola Oman is best-known for her historical novels and her biographies, and also for being a close friend of the far more famous Georgette Heyer. But as war loomed, she must have felt the urge to write a humorous fictionalized version of village life, to lift the spirits of her readers and, perhaps, to lift her own as well. And she pulls it off wonderfully well, along the lines of the Provincial Lady or the Henrietta books, if perhaps just a bit rougher around the edges.

Quite different from the Provincial Lady, however, is the fact that we are very much among the upper crust here—hardly a non-U to be found, though our protagonist, 43-year-old Mary Morrison, unmarried and nicknamed "Button" by her friends, is what might be referred to as a (very mildly) distressed gentlewoman. She no longer resides in her family home, which has been placed in the hands of a girls' school and then, in the course of the novel, placed on the market. But she assures her friends she is perfectly happy at Willows, her current home, which is comprised of two converted 17th century cottages and which, numerous impracticalities and inconveniences aside, sounds like every American's naïve fantasy of what a home in the English countryside should be like:

"Everyone's sorry for me, living in a hovel almost in the shadow of my ancestral hall," said Mary Morrison. "They can't think how I can bear to do it. Actually I chose it, but I wallow in their sympathy. Even if I could keep five gardeners nowadays, I shouldn't want to go on living at home, like the last sardine in the tin."

And indeed Mary seems to be so centrally involved with the social life of the village (the apparently fictional Westbury-on-the-Green, described as near a cathedral town called Went, not far from London, and the cathedral has a particularly lovely spire—which made me think of Salisbury, but I don't think the other pieces fit?), as well as with the first-aid training she's taken up in preparation for the war, that one imagines she could hardly find time to regret her old home. We meet a dizzying array of Mary's friends and relations, with Ladies and Sirs galore and even a few non-U residents—I actually made a few notes to keep track of them all—and it seems that no one can move without consulting this practical, logical, sympathetic woman.

Most importantly, there's her oldest and dearest friend Catha, Lady Rollo, who is just back from India with her husband Tim (Sir Daubeny) and sets up lavish housekeeping at Crossgrove nearby. There's Catha's three children—son Tony at Oxford, with clear socialist inclinations, son Crispin, definitively presentable, and daughter Elizabeth, who is just preparing for her coming out and being presented at Court. There's Marcelle, Mary's widowed sister-in-law, with whom she has an ambivalent relationship, and Rosemary, Marcelle's challenging daughter, both of whom may soon be planting themselves on her to escape the threat of London bombs. And the list could go on.

The title of the novel is probably meant to evoke the uncertainties of the months before war begins, with people waiting anxiously for developments (as Hartley noted, we move from February of 1939 to the declaration of war, followed by an epilogue set in the summer of 1940). It's also true that, in some ways, there is little enough to report about the novel's plot. But, just as in real life—and in many of my favorite novels—both nothing and everything happens. It's a humorous, sometimes daft portrayal of an English village cheerfully progressing from being more or less oblivious to the approach of war to pulling together (again, more or less) for the war effort. And the point is really the wonderfully silly humor.

Of course I shall give a few examples to convince you. How's this for starters?:

Mary had Mrs. Bates to tea to meet Catha, and Mrs. Bates discovered that Elizabeth was going into a nursing home to have an impacted wisdom-tooth removed, which reminded her of the case of another debutante, also an only daughter, who had perished under the ancesthetic. Catha, however, thought Mrs. Bates a nice cheerful woman, and did not seem at all moved by the information that no housemaids would stay at Crossgrove because of the bus service, and that the little room which she had chosen as her sitting-room was the one in which a previous owner had qualified for delirium tremens.

And despite the distinctly posh status of most of this novel's characters, Mary is always comfortably down-to-earth and likable. For example, I love the way Mary spends a portion of her time among the elites at Ascot:

"Now I'm going to spend ten minutes more in here before strolling slowly in front of your railings while policemen say, 'Keep moving, please.' You see, Mrs. Bates, in our village, reads all the Ascot fashion notes, and gets terribly distressed when one paper tells her that a Royal Duchess was wearing the new cornflower and another says palest turquoise. She was so sorry for me coming on a year when there's no Royal Procession, and I promised her to notice the hats particularly, as she is waiting to order her new one. Considering that she is practically immobile from rheumatism and never moves five miles from the Green anyway, it sounds rather odd, but this is the sort of thing that makes life so interesting."

Then there's this delightfully zany tale of the vicissitudes of war preparations, as told by the (distinctly non-U) Sheilah Hill:

Lord Merle's letting us practise driving vans in gas-masks with no lights, after dark, in his park. Rather decent of him."

"How are you managing?" asked Mary.

"Better than you might expect," said Sheilah. "Puggy Blent got into a corner of the garden, by mistake, the other night, and drove over Lady Merle's 'Friendship's Border,' including a lead Cupid. The really funny thing was that she mistook it for a human child, and being slightly flurried, put the van into reverse and went back over it again. Lady Merle was a bit unpatriotic on the telephone, and said it was late eighteenth century, and had been given her by a dear Italian nobleman. I really joined my corps because I had heard that in the event of an air raid, our duties included tethering loose horses to lamp-posts."

There are dozens of other passages I could quote, all of which inspired chuckles or outright guffaws, but you get the idea. It's delightful, it's hilarious, and it's even rather poignant on occasion, with just a touch of possible romance?

Although nearly everything here is played for laughs, and nothing ever gets too serious, one thing that works well is that Oman shows Mary's evolving attitude toward the rather feckless Catha, whose dedication to war work decidedly takes a back seat to her own convenience and comfort. When Mary tells her of her plans to organize a "gas chamber" to allow volunteers to experience the effects of gas, Catha responds, "I'm so glad that you're not asking me … because going into a penthouse full of gas is one of the things I could never do. I can't stand heights and the smell of rubber makes me ill." One gets the sense that Mary will continue to love her old friend, but has faced up to her limitations.

This book ended up tied for top spot on my 2018 Furrowed Middlebrow Dozen, and hopefully you can see why...

Friday, January 25, 2019

Her wish is his command: SUSAN ALICE KERBY (aka ELIZABETH BURTON), Miss Carter and the Ifrit (1945)

To look at Miss Georgina Carter you would never have suspected that a woman of her age and character would have allowed herself to be so wholeheartedly mixed up with an Ifrit. For Georgina Carter was nearing fifty (she was forty-seven to be exact) and there was something about her long, plain face, her long upper lip, her long, thin hands and feet that marked her very nearly irrevocably as a spinster. That she wore her undistinguished clothes well, had a warm, human smile, was fond of the theatre and had never occasioned anyone a moment's trouble or worry, were minor virtues which had never got her very far.

I had a feeling, from this opening paragraph, that Miss Carter and the Ifrit might be just my cup of tea. A smart, kind, middle-aged spinster whose humdrum existence needs a bit of shaking up, a wartime setting (late in the war, complete with war fatigue and food yearnings), and a bit of a fantasy element to complicate matters—what could be better? And although Susan Alice Kerby's style of writing is quite different from Sylvia Townsend Warner's, it couldn't help but bring back happy memories of my first reading of Lolly Willowes.

In fact, I'd been meaning to read this novel for several years, precisely because it did seem a suitable supplement to my favorite novel. But with my recent resurgence of interest in World War II fiction, I finally tracked it down and read it and it was well worth the effort. It doesn't have all of Lolly Willowes deeper meanings or witty commentary on the position of women, but it's a delightful little wartime frolic.

That Miss Carter is feeling a bit dispirited and resigned to her bland life is made clear as the opening passage continues:

Georgina herself now accepted her state and age without apparent hatred or remorse; in fact she assured herself she was rather glad to be approaching fifty. It was, she felt, a comfortable age, an age past expectation, hope or surprise. Nothing very shattering, nothing very devastating could happen to one after that age. It was a placid, safe harbour. One could indeed then spend the rest of one's life fairly comfortably with a job in the Censorship for the duration, a smallish private income (which, unfortunately, tended to get smaller) and a flat in an old-fashioned block in St. John's Wood, untroubled and untormented by any violent emotion or gross physical change.

But then she buys some wood blocks from a blitzed roadway to burn in her fireplace, one of which contains an imprisoned Ifrit (quite similar, it seems to me, to a genie, but don't tell him I said so). The Ifrit—whose real name is Abu Shiháb but whom Georgina nicknames Joe—is released from the wood by the fire, and appears in a dramatic explosion (she at first thinks her apartment has been bombed), offering to fulfill her every wish. And although it takes some convincing for Joe to make her believe he's not a parachutist or housebreaker, we begin to see that there's still an adventurous spirit under Miss Carter's ordinary façade:

Well, perhaps this was all a dream. Perhaps she was insane. Perhaps even she was dead and wandering in that strange limbo of those half-forgotten things that one had always desired and never achieved. But—and she made up her mind suddenly and firmly—but this present situation she would accept … and enjoy it, as far as possible. That was perhaps not sensible, but sense be hanged, it was at least interesting!

She continues to worry about the reality of her situation, though back at work she concludes that she couldn't possibly be dead "for even Hell itself couldn't be as dismal as the Censorship."

As one might expect, Georgina also has some initial difficulty in accepting Joe's generosity, feeling guilty about the lavish food and travel he offers her because "during the war, being in sole possession of an Ifrit was a little too much like having a private black market at one's fingertips." But nevertheless the excitement enlivens her and makes her begin to question the life she has settled for. Her friend and co-worker Margaret Mackenzie suspects that the pressures of wartime life have led her to become a secret boozer with a live-in foreign refugee lover. A dizzying hurtle through the atmosphere takes her to visit her beloved (and quite astonished) nephew in Canada.

And then an old flame visits and Joe senses possibilities…

It's all perfectly silly but great fun—a bit like Margery Sharp writing with a mild fantastical bent. It's also very much a "late war" novel, with an emphasis on the drab bleakness, dirt, hunger, and surliness of characters who have already been at war for several years. And it's fun getting a glimpse or two of Georgina's job censoring correspondence:

Georgina found it very difficult to keep her mind on her work next day. As a matter of fact, the censoring of letters which had always before seemed interesting and vaguely romantic (for one might really be the means of uncovering a spy ring), now appeared extraordinarily flat and devoid of all meaning. In fact she found herself wishing that a law would be enforced to compel people to use either a typewriter or block capitals. No longer did the sight of a tortured and indecipherable calligraphy fill her with the peculiar zest and delight commonly known to crossword puzzle fiends. And how could so many people write so much about so little!

There's not a huge amount of information out there about Kerby, whose real name was Alice Elizabeth Burton, married name Aitken, changed back to Burton after her divorce. One online source had her dying in 1952, but the redoubtable researcher John Herrington found she was born in Cairo in 1908, lived for a number of years in Canada (in fact, it's possible she really belongs on a Canadian iteration of my Overwhelming List!), where she married and divorced, then lived in later life in Witney, Oxfordshire, until her death in 1990.

She published six novels, of which Miss Carter is the third. The sixth, Mr Kronion (1949), is apparently about "a Greek god defending English village life," by which I now find myself quite intrigued. Regarding her other novels—Cling to Her, Waiting (1939), Fortnight in Frascati (1940), Many Strange Birds (1947, aka Fortune's Gift), and Gone to Grass (1948, aka The Roaring Dove), I know nothing but titles. After Mr Kronion, she seems to have abandoned fiction, but in the 1950s-1970s she published several works of popular history, including The Elizabethans at Home (1958), The Jacobeans at Home (1962), The Early Victorians at Home (1972), and The Early Tudors at Home (1976). The histories seem to have been published as Elizabeth Burton, but it's difficult to determine for certain which of her novels appeared under which name, as libraries seem to classify her in multiple ways.

Certainly an author to earmark for further investigation, and it happens, rather strangely, that Miss Carter and the Ifrit was reprinted in the 1970s as part of a "lost race and adult fantasy" series (many of its readers must have been disappointed, if they were seeking anything like a traditional sci-fi/fantasy story), so it's not impossible to track down, should you be so inclined! But what about her other fiction? Hmmm…

Friday, January 18, 2019

Back to reality (such as it is)

Well, my holiday blog break has now, unintentionally, extended well beyond the holidays and well beyond the limits of our fabulous trip, from which we returned more than two weeks ago. My excuse for my absence includes the brutal interaction of the worst jet lag I've ever had (a 15 hour time difference will turn your sleep inside out) and the insidious cold with which we both returned. The cold made us tired, which meant we didn't, for the first several days, sufficiently resist the urge to fall into blissful slumber at noon, thus perpetuating the evil jetlag, etc etc. Ugh.

Two weeks on, I am now more or less back in the land of the living, though my head still bobs a bit at my desk every afternoon, and I still have a disorienting tendency (for one who has never been an early riser) to find myself ready and rarin' to go at 4 AM each morning.

At any rate, it was all more than worthwhile, as we had a wonderful time and got to have a holiday completely different from anything we had done before.

Our first week or so was the sightseeing-heavy portion of our trip. We spent the first three days in Manila. We explored Intramuros, the old part of the city, including Fort Santiago (left in ruins after the terrible bombing raids on Manila during World War II), did a fascinating tour of several major churches, and went to Malacanang Palace, the Filipino equivalent of the White House or No. 10 Downing Street:

Fort Santiago

Fort Santiago

Binondo Church, Manila

San Agustin, Manila

Exhibition at Fort Santiago about Filipino
patriot and author Jose Rizal

Andy giving a press briefing at Malacanang Palace

The breakfast room at our hotel had quite the view

Almost as fascinating as the churches was riding around the crowded, chaotic city itself. The traffic is unlike anything I'd ever experienced before, with automobiles, jeepneys (the long, modified Jeeps which function as city buses), "tricycles" (motorbikes of various kinds with appendages—some rather precarious-looking—to allow them to carry passengers), and hordes of people dodging one another at every turn. And yet somehow accidents are generally avoided, people are alert and mostly good-humored, and the megacity continues to operate.

Then, a few days before Christmas, we made the flight from Manila to Siem Reap in Cambodia (undoubtedly the most exotic airline boarding pass I'll ever see my name on):

For three days, we got up around dawn (late by Siem Reap standards) to make our way to the magificent temples of Angkor, driven hither and yon by our friendly and informative tuk-tuk driver, Charlie (ours for a mere $20 per day—expensive Cambodia is not!). It was hot in Cambodia, and the sun occasionally made me feel like a gecko roasting on the sand in Death Valley, so after lunch we would return to our lovely air-conditioned hotel room, freshen up, and then snooze or read through the hottest time of day.

It was all well worth the prolific perspiration. Such an amazing place, whether you're interested in the spiritual side of the temples, the stupendous architecture, or the tremendous historical significance of the area.

Ta Prohm temple, famous from the
Angelina Jolie Tomb Raider film

Bayon at Angkor Thom, which has dozen of faces like
this one carved into the stone

My surprise favorite temple, the lesser known Pre Rup
(or maybe it's not a surprise I'd love a "lesser known" temple???)

Next, we flew back from Siem Reap to Manila and were driven to Olongopo City about three hours away to spend the rest of our trip with Andy's family. They had planned a fairly large scale family reunion to coincide with our visit, and I got to meet dozens of long-time Facebook friends never before seen in person, as well as reuniting with some I had met before. Oh, and posing for hundreds of pictures (occasionally with people whose exact relationship to Andy was a mystery). We received the warmest hospitality I've ever encountered, and I feel very lucky to have married into such a kind, caring family and into so much love and laughter.

So what, a few of you might be asking, did I read on holiday? There were, after all, all those times spent recovering from the heat in our hotel room. Well, not too surprisingly, there were no new book acquisitions during this trip, so no need to purchase an extra suitcase to schlep all my new books home, as we did on our England trip. (There are reportedly some small stalls of English language books scattered among the streets of Intramuros—I did check online before arrival, of course—but they were elusive and the heat and humidity made me a bit too impatient to search for them.)

On the flight over, I started the 10th Inspector Gamache novel by Louise Penny, The Long Way Home. Due to the miracle which somehow allowed me, with only slight chemical assistance, to sleep for about 10 of the 14 hours we were in the air (a first for me on any flight, ever!), I didn't have as much reading time as I might have, but I managed to become, as usual, completely immersed in Penny's world, and finished the book in our first couple of days in Manila. I also read and very much enjoyed the fourth Dorothy Martin mystery by Jeanne M. Dams, whom I mentioned in my Furrowed Middlebrow Dozen post.

In one of those strange coincidences that occur (or that perhaps result from large companies keeping us under surveillance so much that they know what we want before we do?), a Filipino thriller (alleged to be the first) set in Manila, called Smaller and Smaller Circles, by F. H. Batacan, was a Kindle Daily Deal while we were actually in Manila, and I couldn't resist. It was quite atmospheric and interesting, but definitely not for the squeamish! Yikes!

After that foray into darkness, I was ready for some good humor and pleasantness, so I turned to an old favorite I haven't read in ages, Elizabeth Cadell, and got through two of her charming novels, The Corner Shop and Fishy Said the Admiral. I'm sure most of you are aware that Cadell's works have in the past couple of years been released in e-book and paperback, so are wonderfully available at last. Both books were great frolics and perfect vacation reading.

I also read the first half or so of Oriel Malet's Paris memoir, Jam Today, and then somehow got sidetracked and haven't finished it. But I will. It's not likely to be an absolute favorite, but I was enjoying it.

And for the flight back home?  Well, after the excitement of seeing the brand new Miss Universe, crowned just a few days before (Andy was excited, of course, that Miss Philippines won), while waiting at the airport...

That's Miss Universe, towering over everyone else
in deadly looking heels. She had passed right by us
a few seconds before, but no one had their camera ready.

I "only" managed eight hours of somewhat fitful sleep on the return flight—still way better than my average—so I had some time for the 11th Inspector Gamache, The Nature of the Beast, which was far-fetched but impossible to put down. What more could you ask of in-flight reading? As number 14 of the series was just published before Christmas, I'm getting closer to being up-to-date—but now I wonder if I should save the remaining books for our next trip!

Oh, and before I forget, the new Furrowed Middlebrow titles are out (if you don't already know about them, see here and here) and I'm so thrilled to be getting such a positive response from readers. A big thanks to anyone who has reviewed the books, bought the books, told others about the books, or in any other way helped to spread the word! We're already hard at work on our next batch of books, hopefully released this summer, and I'm busting my buttons to tell you about it, but I can't just yet...

And that's that! This is clearly not one of my most inspired posts, but I hope to be back to my usual scintillating self soon. I still have several of those books from my Furrowed Middlebrow Dozen to get reviewed, so I'll get on that. Meanwhile, hope you all had lovely holidays and that 2019 is treating you well (though, now that I'm more or less back to reality, I'm rather thinking that, whether you're in the U.K. or the U.S., avoiding reality—especially the news—may be the healthiest choice—ugh indeed).
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