Friday, May 17, 2019

A mystery wrapped in an enigma: "JANE BOYD", Murder in the King's Road (1953)

Yes, I know I'm misquoting Churchill, but the misquote fits the present book quite nicely.

First of all, it is indeed a mystery novel, as you might reasonably guess from its title and its rather garish cover. I happened to stumble across it when I was idly browsing the catalogue of the Boston Athenaeum, no less, and I added Boyd to my database as an author to research. Since I am actually engaged at present in some research with a view to finally posting a new update to my British Women Writers list, it wasn't long before I looked into her a bit more. I found nothing except the fact that the name was a pseudonym.

Which leads to the enigma surrounding the mystery. When I forwarded my list of new authors to the great and powerful John Herrington, whose research skills extend far beyond my own and who is so often a life saver in these situations, he discovered that the book's publisher had apparently said that "Jane Boyd" was a pseudonym concealing "the identity of a crime writer of distinction".

Now, I was not born yesterday, so I realize that publisher lingo might be a bit more hyperbolic than reality would reflect. It should go without saying that I, when wearing my publisher cap, have never engaged in such hyperbole (!!), but some less scrupulous publishers might, so "distinction" could be a relative term here. Even allowing for that, however, I was intrigued enough to want to sample the prose, and an enthusiastic short review I came across sealed the deal. An Abe Books order followed, and—the book arriving in a record-breaking two days from placing of the order (from Texas to California, no less)—I took it as a sign from the literary universe and immediately dived in, bypassing numerous other books awaiting my attention.

It turned out to be a good solid little mystery—not an all time favorite, but quite enjoyable. It opens with Miss Arbutus, the ubiquitous middle-aged spinster, walking her dog, Caramel, early one summer morning, and noticing, as she window shops at a familiar antique shop, a body sprawled on a sofa inside. The body turns out to be that of bestselling novelist Vernon Bran, and the mystery somehow involves a batch of old furniture which the antique shop's owner has just acquired from an estate sale. The suspects include Paul Dedham, said shop owner, who purports never to have seen the victim before, Julie Bran, wife of the victim and a well-known actress herself, who is none too broken up over his death, Mr Blaggart, Bran's publisher, who has been eagerly awaiting a long-promised manuscript from Bran, and Miss Arbutus's godson Michael, who would seem to have no connection to Bran but who is strikingly fixated on the crime. Plus there's Michael's fiancée Claire, Claire's new housekeeper Arlene, and a few others, who behave more or less oddly about it all.

It's an effectively disparate and seemingly unconnected group of characters, whose gradually-revealed interconnections and motivations are satisfyingly intricate (but not impenetrable, so I'm pretty sure it's not a lost Gladys Mitchell!). The "who" of the whodunnit was a bit disappointing for me, but on the other hand I certainly didn't anticipate this person's guilt, and the various plot twists and revelations had me reading quite compulsively.

The writing is solid and enjoyable, but certainly not lavishly literary or sophisticated, so it's not a lost Sayers or Tey, and it lacks the brilliant, focused simplicity of a Christie, the slightly noir edge of an Allingham, and the perkiness of a Heyer. (And although Miss Arbutus has some very clear ideas about proper masculine behavior, she's not nearly homophobic enough to have been created by Christianna Brand!)

There are certainly some standout moments here and there. For example, I loved the passage in which Miss Arbutus is just realizing that what she's looking at is a corpse instead of a window display:

Vaguely at the back of her mind the figure reminded her of something, not of a particular person but of some occasion when she had seen figures which looked similar in their stiff abandon. Then it came back to her; of course, it had been during the raids, once she had come upon a house which had just been bombed, the inhabitants had been killed and were lying about in the rising smoke and dust, they had looked just like stuffed dolls, just like this man.

And there's a touch of humor in her subsequent anxiety about dealing with the police:

Miss Arbutus, for the second time, repeated the story of her morning walk and of her sinister discovery. By now it sounded improbable, even to her. If they asked her maid if she were in the habit of parading the streets at five-thirty a.m. because she couldn't sleep and Mary said, 'Yes, Madam often does that,' it would sound strange. If she replied, 'Madam has never done such a thing before,' it would seem stranger still.

But the greatest strength of the novel are Boyd's two detectives, Inspector Pobham and Detective Richards, an intriguing twist on the traditional Holmes and Watson:

Richards' chief, Geoffrey Pobham, was an improbable person to find in the precincts of Scotland Yard. Those who knew him felt that an Oxford college would have provided a more suitable background to his jovial, cynical wit and his academic qualifications. Richards had been appalled when he first met him. He had felt that such an apparent lack of zeal and such a sympathy with the criminal classes could only provide a demoralising element in the Force, but by now he had learned better. To Pobham, on the other hand, Richards with his sense of duty, lack of humour and strict sense of justice was a constant delight. When he had taken up his work at Scotland Yard he had been rather disappointed to find that his colleagues were far from the stereotyped detectives of fiction, in Richards alone he seemed to see the model of an inspector. Pobham always claimed that it was purely on these grounds that he had chosen Richards as his assistant, but whether this were true or not he had by now developed an irritable paternal affection for him.

It's really rather a shame that this was the only appearance of Pobham and Richards—had Boyd written 20 or 30 books about them, they might now form the basis of a highly entertaining television series.

At any rate, it's entirely appropriate that the novel's plot revolves around questions about whether the murdered Bran really wrote the novels he published, since the book's own author is also shrouded in mystery.

I was convinced, in my naïve way, that my handy database of authors would provide a handful of tantalizing possibilities for the true identity of Jane Boyd. Assuming that to have been called a "crime writer of distinction" by even the most unscrupulous publisher, she (I do think it's a woman, though of course we don't know for sure) must have published at least a few novels before 1953, I sorted the approximately 45,000 titles in my database by year of publication, and then browsed all of 1950-1952 for authors of multiple mysteries who were active in those years.

The result, as I should probably have predicted, was a bit more than a handful. Apart from the big names mentioned above, who were surely unlikely as possibilities anyway (under the assumption that a pseudonymous publication by any well-documented and closely-researched author—with savvy heirs interested in maintaining a steady income—could not have remained hidden for so long), I came up with no fewer than 30 possibilities. Ahem. Some are more likely than others, and many are authors I haven't read, so I can't judge just how unlikely those are, but the ones I have read I couldn't quite eliminate from contention (Josephine Bell? hmmmm). Here, for your consideration, is what I came up with (most of these are on my Mystery List, if you want to see what I know about them):

Marjorie Alan
Margaret Archer
Pamela Barrington
Josephine Bell
Margot Bennett
Emery Bonnett (pseudonym of Felicity Winifred Carter and husband)
Caryl Brahms (known for humorous mysteries, so probably not a match)
Pamela Branch (ditto)
Zenith Jones Brown (American, but she had written many British mysteries as David Frome)
Joanna Cannan
Joan Cockin
Alexandra Dick
Doris Disney
Mary Durham
Margaret Erskine
Katharine Farrer
Elizabeth Ferrars
Joan Fleming
Kathleen Freeman (better known as Mary Fitt)
Mary Violet Heberden
Anne Hocking
Ianthe Jerrold
Lucy Beatrice Malleson (better known as Anthony Gilbert)
Jean Marsh
Edith Pargeter (had already written mysteries as John Redfern and Jolyon Carr, though she hadn't yet created her most famous incarnation, Ellis Peters—this would have been her only feminine pseudonym, but who knows?)
Sheila Pim (Boyd isn't funny enough to have been Pim)
Mona Radford (better known as M. A. Radford)
Shelley Smith (more a thriller writer than a whodunnit author?)
Nancy Spain (known for wordplay and camp, so probably not a match)
Patricia Wentworth

What do you think? Any "Eureka!" moments? Alas, not for me, though I will say that there were moments as I was reading when I thought the prose seemed familiar somehow. Probably just my imagination? Or not?

Well, you can test your own abilities below, as I'll post a two-page sample from very early in the novel (so as not to spoil anything). If anyone has a revelation and cries out, "That could only be Mary Violet Heberden!", do let me know…

Friday, May 10, 2019

A chorus of women: JEAN ROSS, Women in Exile (1942)

Dustjacket scans courtesy of F.G.
(my fairy godmother)

"You must remember that in this war it is not only those who are doing the spectacular and dangerous work, those in uniforms of one sort or another who are alone in helping the war effort, but also what I like to call the great forgotten army of women in exile, women like yourself, my dear, who for one reason or another are banished from their homes, their husbands, the work and the friends they love, sometimes their children, and who find themselves in a strange place among strangers. Theirs is the hardest lot of any to bear, for they have not even the reward of feeling that they are contributing to their country's effort, they are idle and lonely and desperately unhappy, quite a number of them, in all circumstances of life."

It's the Reverend Mother at the hospital where Kathy Murdoch is learning nursing who thus passionately sums up the theme of this wartime novel by Jean Ross, an author I'd not read before who published just under two dozen novels from the 1930s to 1960s.

Women in Exile is certainly an odd novel, and to some extent it's a frustrating one. Ross excels at women’s voices, and loves providing her women characters with entirely believable, entertaining monologues, something she does with an array of varied women. There's Kathy and her mother, the widowed Mair, who with the rest of their family are bombed out of their home and seek shelter in a rather humdrum English village. They stay at a house belonging to Jack and Nell Heron, with the Herons' housekeeper Mrs Liddard, who resents the interlopers. Then Mrs Firth arrives from heavily-bombed West Ham with her two children. And what would an English village novel be without a vicar's wife, and the gossipy but kind-hearted Mrs Marchant fulfills her role admirably.

Lovely that Graham
Greene provided his
praise, but too bad
they misspelled
his name. Oops!

Most of these women are given effective speeches at one time or another, and these are usually compelling to read. Mrs Firth's aggressively demanding attitude toward Mrs Liddard when she first arrives at the house, for example, is prickly enough, but also rather poignant when one realizes what she must have gone through to reach this point:

"I am sure that there should be no difficulty in our working well together," [Mrs Liddard] said finally in the tone of one who reproves the upper housemaid for having ideas above her station." As for a gas ring and a cupboard, I don't know I'm sure, I shall have to ask Mrs. Murdoch.''

"Well, if you're nervous of speaking to 'er, I will. You see, I've been through all this before. They all say the sime at first: oh, it'll be all right, you kin 'ave the stove w'en I ain't using it, we'll find a time. But it ain't all right. Nor ain't it if they does yer cooking for yer. Always complaining the kiddies et too much, and that they stole!"

"I'm sure that—"

"Believe me, you don't know. You've never 'ad evacuees before. You'd be the same as the rest of them in a week. It ain't much to ask, but I got to 'ave it, and otherwise I take 'em back to be bombed and you 'ave it on your conscience. Believe me. You're safe 'ere. You donnow wot a blitz is. I do. But I'd rather 'ave a blitz, I'd rather live dahn the shelter than go through wot I 'ave in the country. It's only for me 'ubby's sake I come 'ere nah, and cos ahr 'ome's gone. Nothing but a bleeding shell."

Unfortunately, though, these powerful moments with their insights into women's wartime lives are strung together with a melodramatic and sometimes downright silly plot, which includes ghosts and second sight in a way presumably meant to comfort those of Ross’s readers who had lost loved ones in the war. Mair, it emerges, is a "medium" who occasionally sees apparitions or visions of the future. She's determined to prevent Kathy from disgracing herself with the married Jack, with whom she has had an immediate (and implausible) "love at first sight" scenario. There's also plenty of the expected melodrama between Kathy, Jack, and Jack's wife Nell, and late in the novel one of Mair's apparitions will play an important role in the illicit romance.

Such a lot of bright moments, but rather like a string of lovely pearls threaded onto a string too weak for their weight. It's a shame, but I can still share a couple of other rather wonderful high points.

Right at the beginning of the novel, Mair vividly recalls the bombs that have landed them in the countryside:

She remembered suddenly how at the first bang the curtains flared out into the room at right angles, and stayed there for an aeon of time while she watched them paralysed. The siren not gone nor anything, then up and trying to find one of her bedroom slippers in the dark.

All this must have passed in a flash when the second explosion was upon them and the world came to an end. If only things would stop falling and she could come to her senses; she was deafened and blinded, she was on her hands and knees, the house, that solid Victorian Kensington piece, had taken a sickening lurch forwards and then backwards as though about to perform a pas de seul, parting with all glass, plaster and movables in the process, and yet, miraculously, standing at the end of it. Two more explosions, more distant. A stick of bombs. That was it, then.

And I do love, in a rather sad way, descriptions of wartime London that allow one to situate them more or less precisely on a map. Here's a great example, describing what Kathy has seen during her visit to the beaten and bruised city:

She had spent the day in London, walking about the streets. During the previous week there had been a further bad raid, the pavements were still thick with debris, more houses were gutless and forlorn, the back streets of Mayfair and the rectangle made by Edgware Road, Marylebone Road, Oxford and Orchard Streets enclosed areas of houses shuttered and deserted. Some had notices "this desirable residence to be let at moderate rental." Nearly all windows were covered with black felting, the terraces were gap-jawed where a bomb had knocked out two or three houses and destroyed the symmetry. Down in white tiled basements open to the air, men burnt small fires of rubbish where white-capped chefs had once prepared seven-course dinners. People were still living in the smaller and meaner streets behind boarded windows. Sometimes amongst the wreckage an armchair perched on a ledge or a wardrobe hung at a dizzy angle, door aswing. London was shabby; whole districts were dead, they had shrunk as a corpse does when the life goes out of it. The main swing of the life of London went on, the people were as cheerful, but the place was emptier. The life was not the same, its quality had altered. There was no time for the non-essentials. She was glad to be out of it and away.

There's also a rather gut-wrenching description of air raid casualties, which, though it's a valuable slice of the realities of war, might be best left to your imagination—it still makes me shiver a bit.

Jean Ross followed Women in Exile with a novel called Strangers Under Our Roof, which sounds as though it could also deal with evacuees. If it is, it could also contain some fascinating insights into home front life. Even allowing for my disappointment in this book, it might be worth checking out…

And by the way, if you'd like a second opinion of Women in Exile, Reading 1900-1950 reviewed it a while back here.

Saturday, May 4, 2019

The vicissitudes of postwar housekeeping: GWENLLIAN MEYRICK, The Morning-Room (1950)

I've written about Gwenllian Meyrick a couple of times before (see here), and I seem to be working my way through all six of her novels (and wishing there were more). The Morning-Room, her first novel, was the most difficult to get hold of, and ended up winging its way to me from just about the farthest possible spot within the U.S.—the public library of Bangor, Maine. But it was well worth the effort, as this tale of the postwar housing crisis is Meyrick's lightest and most entertaining tale.

It's a bit difficult to situate Meyrick among the other middlebrow authors of the period. The Morning-Room might be described as something of a cross between Dorothy Whipple's Someone at a Distance and Doris Langley Moore's Not at Home, though it is neither so emotionally complex as the former nor so humorous as the latter. The situation of boarders who turn out to be undesirable is also tied up a bit too neatly at the end (and, in the age of #MeToo, not unproblematically). But despite these weaknesses, Meyrick is so lushly domestic in her quiet little novels of nice people having mild difficulties that I, once again, couldn't put it down.

The novel opens in 1946 as 36-year-old Laura Armitage is searching for a new home for her husband Marcus, soon to be demobilized from the war, and their two children, Caroline and Jamie. It begins quite amusingly with a scene which must have echoed in houses all across the UK during these years:

"Seven bedrooms is too many," said Laura Armitage. "Haven't you got anything with four bedrooms on your books?"

Mr. Evans, the house-agent's clerk, was affronted. He looked so pained that Laura went over her words in her mind, in case she had said something indiscreet.

"Four bedrooms?" he repeated.

"Well, I thought about four," she said humbly.

"Everyone wants a house with four bedrooms, Mrs. Armitage. They usually stipulate for modern conveniences: coke boiler; immersion heater; indoor coal-shed; gas and electric points; garden (but not too large); garage. They also demand a house in not too isolated a position, otherwise the daily help will stop coming as soon as the winter starts."

"How very odd!" remarked Laura. "All that is exactly what I was going to tell you I wanted."

Mr. Evans shut his file with a bang. Most of the papers were loose, and fluttered to the floor, and had to be picked up, which was something of an anti-climax to Mr. Evans' indignant gesture. He was a Welshman with a strong sense of the dramatic.

The house in question is known as South Grove, and Mr Evans ultimately plays a fateful role in her decision to take the house after all, seven bedrooms and all. It just happens that he knows of an absolutely ideal housekeeper, Mrs Mason, who is seeking a place with room enough for her daughter Freda, soon to return from her service with the A.T.S., and the house is conveniently divided between the old servant areas (back of the house) and the old front rooms. Mrs Mason indeed seems to be too good to be true, and of course we know what that means… The original jacket blurb, happily glued inside the Bangor Library copy of the book, sums it all up as follows:

[S]lowly and imperceptibly the morning-room, where Mrs. Mason lived, came to dominate Laura's house, Laura's children and even Laura herself. Then Marcus came home to find that he had known Freda when she was in the A.T.S. And the question is: who is going to take possession of the demobbed warrior? The tension mounts as these convincingly ordinary people drift nearer and nearer to the rocks.

Laura becomes casual friends with Mr Evans, despite their contentious first meeting, and he, along with his new wife who knew the Masons from years earlier, not only plays a role in landing Laura with the Masons, but will finally help rid her of them as well. Along the way, we also meet Laura's widowed sister Helen, who has just met a promising new man, and Marcus's sister and mother.

It's all predictable enough—it doesn't hold a candle to Moore's Not at Home in terms of twists and surprises and unexpected results—but it's still thoroughly readable and enjoyable, and here, unlike in most of Meyrick's novels, there are some very funny moments indeed.

Mr Evans is a bit of a closet socialist, and when he takes Laura to meet the two elderly sisters who are the current owners of South Grove and who are ludicrously class-biased even in the midst of their current poverty, sparks nearly fly:

She lowered herself with an obvious effort into her chair. Laura felt that if she offered to help her, she would only be rebuffed. Mr. Evans, not having had an invitation to sit down, was not quite sure if he ought to do so, and remained standing, planning class extinction for the day when he got into power.

And one of my favorite passages from the entire novel is this subtly morbid description of the impractical kitchen of the new house:

The kitchen was the other side of the passage, opposite the scullery and pantry. It was a huge, depressing room with only one window, which looked on to the yard and a high, dense hedge. The cupboards and woodwork were painted chocolate-brown. There was a deep recess in one wall where the range had once stood. In the middle of this recess, like some malevolent black creature, squatted the boiler. There were hooks in the ceiling big enough to hold a rope and a man at the end of it. The top of the table which stood in the middle of the room was spotted and stained.

There are still two Meyrick novels I haven't yet written about here—The Disastrous Visit (1956), which I have now read, and Shed No Tear (1961), which is resting on my bedside table at this very moment, complete with a lovely dustjacket and an additional delightful bonus, which you'll see at some hopefully not too distant time. 

It's a bit of an odd situation for me, because Meyrick is clearly not as strong an author overall as some of my other favorites. She has a tendency (more in other novels than in The Morning-Room) to sink into melodrama, and there's little that's strikingly original or unique about her writing. And yet, somehow, she has become a favorite of mine in her own right. A big part of it must be her rather ordinary and yet totally relatable heroines—flawed but interesting, and even somewhat feminist (for their time). A strange balance, but one that works surprisingly well.

Friday, April 26, 2019

Schoolgirls and Nazis (but not quite what you might think): JOSEPHINE KAMM, Nettles to My Head (1939)

Publicity photo printed with review of
Kamm's previous novel, Disorderly Caravan

"One must have a few compensations," said Enid, "for being beyond the pale.''

"I don't see why," said Molly amiably. "After all, you did kill Christ."

"Molly, how can you say things like that! And anyhow it's not strictly true." Phyllis was flushed with embarrassment. "What must Enid think of you?"

"Enid doesn't mind." Molly handed her a biscuit. "You don't mind, do you, Enid?"

"Not a bit," said Enid, who knew that Molly's comments were never animated by malice. "It was rather a good remark when you come to think of it."

Nettles to My Head is a part school, part widening world story, but with a difference made fairly obvious from this quote early on. Enid Abel, who is sixteen when the novel opens, is the only Jewish student in her school, and is never allowed to forget the fact for long. Her classmates are mostly indifferent, even if constantly aware, as seen above. She has to sit out prayers, and can't even attend occasional talks about missionary opportunities (in which sense she is surely rather luckier than the other girls, really):

"I have to stay away from missionary talks, but I'm not exactly out of them because some of the girls are always praying for me. Phyllis Johnson has a prayer list at the end of her Bible which starts off with cannibals and ends up with me. I don't mind, you know; but I believe I'd be a tougher customer than a savage when it came to converting."

And the rather pathetic headmistress of the school never hesitates to remind Enid that she doesn't quite fit in:

"Poor Miss Farrow, she just can't help being anti-Semitic. We hardly ever have any Jews here, but in the scholarship exam last year Enid's papers were so undeniably better than anyone else's that she had to accept her. She takes it out of her in small ways, though."

Ultimately, this is a surprisingly enjoyable tale, even if it's a bit uneven here and there. Its themes of the anti-Semitism encountered by a young girl at boarding-school and then, in the second half of the novel, in the "widening world" could have become preachy or obvious, but in Kamm's hands it's explored with humor and some striking depth. Enid is spunky and more or less unbothered by the obvious biases she encounters, and she also encounters good people and those who are simply oblivious. One of the latter being Mary Cross, the school's new matron, who takes Enid under her wing as best she can against Miss Farrow's resistance.

The first half of the novel is really quite as entertaining as any school story, but with an added depth and intelligence not always present. The girls are often funny, and much is made of the foibles of some of the mistresses—particularly Miss Roberts, the history mistress, who fawns over Miss Farrow and dreams of retiring to a shared home with her, but is repeatedly shot down, and Miss Wheeler, the earnest French and music mistress, who lives in a romantic dream world of unrealistic fantasies about her quite run-of-the-mill fiancé, whom she rarely sees in the flesh. The latter is often the butt of the girls' jokes, especially the following passage which for some reason made me giggle more than anything else in the book. The school is on a field trip to Silbury Hill, mostly chattering away and ignoring the illustrious professor discussing its historical significance as they make their way to the top:

"Whew!" breathed Molly. "There ought to be an ice-cream man up here. I could just do with a tub."

"Sssh!" said Enid. "Let's watch Miss Wheeler seeing things."

Helen had taken off her hat and was fidgeting with one of her plaited coils of hair. Her eyes were half-closed and her lips moved silently.

"What do you think she's saying?"

"Something about a centuries-old habitation of a savage people, or earth piled upon earth as a monument to mankind. You know the sort of muck, Molly."

"You'll write a really juicy essay if you put things like that in it."

"I shan't. They make me squirm."

"Miss Wheeler's going to make an intelligent comment to the professor," said Molly. They sidled up behind her to listen.

Oh, that last comment keeps getting me every time I read it.

The second half of the novel, when Enid leaves school, becomes more serious and a bit more uneven, but Enid is always a delightful character to spend time with. She is pressured by her grandfather to only consider dating Jewish men, and is repeatedly thrown together with David, a friend of the family, who is obviously her grandfather's ideal grandson-in-law. But she makes her own way, dating Stephen, a glib young man who, it gradually dawns on Enid, loves her in spite of her Jewishness.

I love old library cards, and both of these were in the copy of Nettles
that I read, but...what's wrong with this picture that tells us that
the card on the right had been mistakenly placed in the wrong book?

There are occasional passages that might jar some readers today. For example, I simply can't hear the word "Jewess"—even spoken by a Jewish character in a novel by a Jewish author and intended, as here, to benignly refer to a Jewish woman without any suggestion of anti-Semitism—without cringing, but it does makes me wonder if other uses of the term in other books of the time might have been more benign than I have assumed?

And I'm not sure that many readers looking back with the benefit of hindsight instead of merely anxious about the Nazi threat would laugh very much at Enid's mother's joking to Mary about her terrible brothers-in-law:

"They were quite odious; as different from my husband as they possibly could be. Enid and I call them Crime and Punishment, and we've decided that if ever we had to choose between a concentration-camp and marriage with one of them—which luckily isn't at all likely—we should choose the concentration-camp."

In part, she's obviously using humor to dispel some of the anxiety of an increasingly disturbing situation, but it's probably safe to say that any joke involving concentration camps hasn't been funny since, well, not long after this novel was published!

The overall effect of Kamm's story, though, is to highlight some of the conflicts and pressures faced by Jewish characters that others might find hard to imagine, however unbiased they might be, and to do it in an entertaining and amusing way. Enid can be blasé about most of the casual racism she encounters, but there's also a sort of darkness in her personality, a tendency to dwell on troubles, especially that rising horror of Nazism unfolding in the novel's background. And those fears can't be reassured away, even by well-meaning Mary blandly assuring Enid that such things could never happen in England. (Undoubtedly they're exacerbated, too, by the dawning realization that Stephen is a jerk.)

This is the third of Josephine Kamm's five novels for adults. I wrote about the fourth, Peace, Perfect Peace (1947), back in 2016 (see here), and I just announced last week that Dean Street Press and I will be reprinting it as a Furrowed Middlebrow book in July! 

Some time after that I read the last, Come, Draw This Curtain, but never got round to reviewing it. After the many high points of Peace, I was a bit disappointed by Curtain, which is probably why I never managed to post about it. But Kamm always seems to be an earnest, socially-involved author, not unlike Ruth Adam, and is therefore always interesting and thoughtful even if the overall results aren't great literature. Based on the blurbs for them in the front of my library copy of Nettles, I may very well have to add Kamm's first two novels, All Quiet at Home (1936) and Disorderly Caravan (1938), to my new Hopeless Wish List. They sound lighter and funnier, perhaps, and would undoubtedly be great reads, but seem to be nonexistent in the U.S. [Cue sad violins.]

Clearly, too, Nettles to My Head belongs on both my Grownup School Story List (half the book qualifies, at least) and in the "approach and early days" section of my World War II Book List. It's a two-for-one deal!

Saturday, April 20, 2019

THE ANNOUNCEMENT: Nine new, WWII-themed Furrowed Middlebrow/Dean Street Press titles, coming July 2019

It was actually Rupert at Dean Street Press who floated the idea—based on my obvious passion for World War II-themed novels and memoirs—that we might publish an entire batch of nothing but. I was suitably thrilled at the idea, and proceeded to obsess for months about books I had already read, books I knew about from reviews, and a fair number of books published during the war that I knew nothing whatsoever about, just on the off chance that they might be wartime treasures. As you who know me might expect, I even managed to stress myself out a bit, before realizing that it really wasn't possible for me to read every single WWII-oriented book ever written. I covered quite a few of them though!

And finally, I was able to whittle it all down to a list of titles I most wanted to see in print. One got eliminated because a reprint was already in the planning stages from another publisher, and one or two more got eliminated because the list was, predictably, a bit too long to be feasible. But we settled on nine books that I absolutely love and that indubitably deserve to be in print (not that I'm biased or anything).

And I've actually reviewed every last one of them! True, I only rushed in the last couple of reviews in the past month or two, but still. So the titles of each book below link back to my review, in case you missed them before. I'm also including some fun blurbs, photos, covers, etc., some of which I've come across in delving into my new subscription.

But now, without further ado…

I mentioned in my teaser that I had tried to represent all the phases of the war, so we have two titles focused on the approach and/or the earliest days of the war, two of what could definitely be called "blitz lit", two from the later days of the war, two set in the days and months immediately following the end of the war, and one very special memoir.

I try not to play favorites with the titles we publish—obviously I love them all or we wouldn't be publishing them—but ROMILLY CAVAN's gorgeous Beneath the Visiting Moon (1940) is something special no matter how you slice it. My review compared it to Diana Tutton's Guard Your Daughters and Dodie Smith's I Capture the Castle, and I stand by that bold claim. An eccentric family tale and a poignant widening world story, it's a witty novel richly peopled with delightful characters yet also permeated by the ominous approach of war.

You had to know that CAROLA OMAN's Nothing to Report (1940) would be on this list. Tied for the top spot in my Furrowed Middlebrow Dozen last year, this hilarious novel is the story of upper-crust village life beginning to come to terms with the approach of war. I made another bold comparison of this one to E. M. Delafield's Provincial Lady novels, and I stand behind that claim too!

I reviewed MARJORIE WILENSKI's Table Two (1942) almost three years ago, and I always knew I'd love to reprint it given a chance. Obviously, here's the chance. A rare portrayal of women office workers, the novel follows an office of women translators at the fictional Ministry of Foreign Intelligence. It's as biting and funny as Barbara Pym at her crankiest, which is not inappropriate, since Pym herself mentions reading it in her diaries!

Interestingly, although our other blitz novel doesn't feature an office of women, it was written by an author who was later known, in Persephone's words, for "presiding over a very happy all-women office" when she became an editor at Doubleday. What BARBARA NOBLE offers instead in The House Opposite (1943) is a riveting, extraordinarily detailed and vivid drama of life during the Blitz, drawn undoubtedly from her own experiences living and working in London throughout the war. I think it's one of the most important social documents to come out of the war.

Moving on to the later years of the war brings us to our second CAROLA OMAN title, Somewhere in England (1943), an irresistible sequel to Nothing to Report, mentioned above. Here, familiar faces from the earlier novel, as well as new acquaintances, are shown doing war work, engaging in new muddles and romances, and encountering bombs with their own unique flair.

Elizabeth Burton, aka Susan Alice Kerby

Works from late in the war are often a bit darker than the gung-ho stiff-upper-lip stories of its early days. By 1945, the end of the war was in sight, but meanwhile the fatigue, deprivation, and frustration dragged on. Which is why SUSAN ALICE KERBY's Miss Carter and the Ifrit (1945) is such an extraordinary pleasure. We clearly see and feel that the war has become an endurance test for the novel's charming heroine, but then we have the fun of seeing her freed from some of her constraints by the sudden arrival of an energetic, well-meaning, but slightly overenthusiastic Ifrit in her living room.

And then we have that utterly unique, brief time just after the war ended, when people were adapting to the radical changes in daily life that peace brought in its wake. In many cases, their old lives were gone or irrevocably changed, and they themselves had often (perhaps especially women) been changed in the process. It was a fleeting period, and almost immediately authors and publishers began to focus on books that made little or no mention to the war. Only a few novels appeared in this climate that were specifically focused on documenting these adjustments and this way of life. Fortunately, we're reprinting two of the very best!

BARBARA BEAUCHAMP's Wine of Honour (1946) focuses particularly on the experiences of women who have been in the services and are now returning to their more ordinary home lives in a quiet English village. It's an incomparable, fly-on-the-wall vision of a fascinating time and place.

Some of the women in JOSEPHINE KAMM's Peace, Perfect Peace (1947) are also returning from the services, and here at center stage are the difficulties of a young mother whose children have lived with her mother-in-law for the duration and who now finds her relations with them strained. Like Wine of Honour, Peace, Perfect Peace is packed with fascinating details about life in the months just after the war's end—rationing, barbed wire entanglements on the beach, and the omnipresence of dust from bombed out buildings (not to mention the difficulties of buying a dress!).

But that only makes eight books, you say? Well, how about if we throw in one of the most charming memoirs to ever come out of a war? 

By turns hilarious, poignant, and harrowing (and occasionally all three at once), VERILY ANDERSON's Spam Tomorrow is—alongside Frances Faviell's A Chelsea Concerto, which I was also thrilled to be able to reprint—one of my absolute favorite World War II memoirs. Verily married her husband Donald in the days just before the war, and the book takes her through an impromptu wedding, a bout with German measles in a hospital evoking a medieval torture chamber, and the birth of her first child in the midst of a bombing raid, all the way to V-E Day. It's the cherry on the top of this new batch of Furrowed Middlebrow books.

And that's that. I hope you're half as excited about this selection of books as I am!

In the next few weeks, I should be able to share the cover art for these books. I've already caught a glimpse of a couple of them and I can tell you I'm pleased as punch with how they're turning out. Rupert and the other folks at Dean Street Press are outdoing themselves! Stay tuned!

Wednesday, April 17, 2019

A Furrowed Middlebrow teaser

Well, if Taylor Swift can have a mysterious countdown clock on her social media, I don't see why I can't do a teaser of my own. Hers might be in reference to a new album, which is all very well and good, but surely nothing to compare to a new batch of Furrowed Middlebrow titles, right?

So this teaser is to say that an announcement is coming, hopefully this weekend. We've been working hard on putting everything together, and I just got word that all the permissions and contracts are in place, which means I've got the "all clear" (so to speak) to tell you about this very special batch of books, coming in July.

What makes it so special, you ask? Well, I'll tell you that part right now: This is our first themed batch of books, and if you've been reading the blog in the past few months, you probably won't have great difficulty guessing what the theme might be…

Yes, there is, it turns out, a reason that I've been so focused on reading and reviewing World War II novels. And although we might well have done it even if the timing wasn't so right, the fact that 2019 is the 80th anniversary of the beginning of the war (yes, my fellow Americans, those of us who were taught that WWII was 1941-1945 were merely the products of a faulty, U.S.-centric education system—I can't tell you how many people have looked confused when I've made reference to World War II beginning in 1939!) made it completely irresistible. And one of my goals was to represent all the major subdivisions I described in my WWII Book List here. (The list needs updating, but most of the books we're publishing are already included there.)

A final tidbit—the new batch includes a total of nine books by eight different authors. Our previous batches have included 2-3 authors and thus 2-3 sets of heirs and permissions, so we've had our work cut out for us!

The big reveal is coming soon!

[Imagine a countdown clock here—perhaps with Big Ben alongside a barrage balloon in the background.]

Friday, April 12, 2019

'They **** you up, your mum and dad': MONICA REDLICH, No Love Lost (1937)

(To give credit where due, I was drawing a blank on a name for this post until I recalled Philip Larkin's rather wonderful if slightly profane "This Be the Verse," which fits this novel like a glove...)

I owe acknowledgements and enthusiastic thanks to no fewer than three other kind souls who contacted me regarding my recent Hopeless Wish List and each made it possible for me to read one or more of the books I didn't have a snowball's chance of getting hold of on my own. You'll certainly hear about them all in due course, but this one, like the Mabel Esther Allan titles and dustjackets I wrote about recently here, comes to me courtesy of my Fairy Godmother, and there are still other odes to her generosity to come...

I've been a casual fan of Monica Redlich since happily stumbling across her first children's title Jam Tomorrow a few years ago (before I started blogging, so I didn't write about it here). After that, I was hot on the trail of her second and final book for children, Five Farthings, which turned out to be a delight when I finally tracked it down and reviewed it here. By that time, I knew that she had also published The Young Girl's Guide to Good Behaviour (1935), which was reprinted in 2010, as well as a handful of travel books, including Danish Delight (1939), The Pattern of England: Some Informal and Everyday Aspects (1947), and Summer Landscape: Denmark, England, U.S.A. (1952). But I was extraordinarily dense about coming across her adult fiction, which includes no fewer than four novels, now mostly buried beneath the sands of time.

The first two, Consenting Party and Cheap Return, both appeared in 1934. No idea, therefore, which of these was properly her first novel, but of Consenting Party I've been able to find only an intriguing but not terribly informative advertisement from Hamish Hamilton, which appeared in the Observer late in 1934. 

Perhaps it's time to add this one to my Hopeless Wish List as well (particularly if E. M. Delafield seems to have enjoyed it)?

And perhaps Cheap Return too, based on a promising review I came across: The Age, Melbourne called it "clever and amusing, though it is impossible to approve of the lax moral standards of the central figure." That heroine attends a girls' college at London University, and the novel seems to concern the tribulations of her love life, but The Age does go on to say "the book is entertaining because of its gentle satire and its lively presentation of life in a girls' college."

By fourteen years later, when Redlich published her final novel, The Various Light (1948), she had progressed to what sounds a very odd plot indeed. I previously knew nothing about it except that Carl Jung, of all people, had recommended it to a colleague, but when I mentioned it in my wish list Grant Hurlock (who has apparently read everything) explained that Jung's interest was likely because "its adultery-minded ensemble of characters exist simultaneously in two different realms, one earthly and the other astral/heavenly that resembles a collective unconscious." Hmmmm.

1937's No Love Lost, then, falls between those two early works and the much later, more experimental one, and all I knew about it before was a blurb calling it "a simply-told story of the reactions of a schoolgirl to the unhappy marriage of her parents." More or less accurate, but perhaps just a bit reductive. As the novel begins, Hilary Leighton is leaving school for the last time (so she's only a "schoolgirl" for the first few pages—which also means this title doesn't belong after all on my Grownup School Story List, alas, though it could fit on a "widening world" list, if I ever got around to that), and finds that her parents are moving to the country.

Hamish Hamilton blurb in the Observer, 1937, with praise
for No Love Lost just above a blurb for Ursula Orange
(featuring more praise from E. M. Delafield, no less!)

The first part of the novel reads a bit like a less clever Guard Your Daughters, as here when Hilary is coming home from school for the last time, full of youthful enthusiasm:

Even a bus-ride, to-day, was different from any she had ever taken before. She was not a schoolgirl, checked off on a list and anxiously waited for until, at some stated time, she should reappear. She was a grown-up, a young woman, going where she chose to go in her own good time. The swayings and rockings of the big red bus filled her with delight; it might have been a ship, plunging into uncharted oceans.

It's not long, however, before the darker undercurrents of tension between her parents, Edmund and Francis, come in, along with what certainly appears to be some form of mental health condition in Francis—touchiness and paranoia, self-destructive behavior, much time spent in bed, and, of all things, compulsive gardening. And this part, describing what it's like for a young person to deal with a parent's mental illness, is one of the strongest bits of the novel. Redlich seems to know very vividly of which she speaks:

Hilary nowadays divided all remarks into three categories: those which were certain to start things off, those which looked risky, and those which, as far as she could see, might be perfectly safe.

As far as she possibly could she censored every remark before allowing herself to make it, and permitted none that had about them the slightest suggestion of danger. Not that one could ever be certain, of course.

Early in the novel, Hilary introduces her parents to Cynthia, a former schoolmate who is now a successful actress in London, and this too has important repercussions later on.

It's hard to discuss this book much without spoilers, so consider this my SPOILER ALERT.

Monica Redlich (second from right) and family

In short, Hilary's mother dies fairly suddenly (following a particularly excessive bout of gardening—no kidding), and the handling of her illness is odd indeed and takes away slightly from the power the scenes could have had. The doctor mentions both "hysteria" and some form of kidney ailment, but it's rather confusing where one stops and the other begins, particularly as we are also given to believe that she has simply stopped wanting to live. Subsequently, Hilary's mild romance with a school friend's brother ends because he fears her mother's instability could be hereditary, and thus begins the obsessive analysis of her parents' relationship and of her own personality that occupies much of the rest of the novel.

Later on, there's another effective passage about the haunting that Hilary can still sometimes feel even long after her mother's death:

She opened the front door and walked into the hall, her mind busy with some detail of housekeeping: and, in the instant while she pushed the door shut behind her, she was shaken violently from her preoccupation back into the present. Or was it the present—or was it perhaps the past?

She did not know. All she knew was that, as she stood there, the hall was full of foreboding, and fear, and unhappiness—not her fear, and not her unhappiness. The house was very still, but it was not the stillness of a winter morning. From upstairs, faint but utterly unmistakable, came the one sound that she would never, never forget. Francis was sobbing.

No Love Lost is ultimately a wild and woolly, intriguing mess of a novel. It undoubtedly fails on all kinds of levels as a novel, and yet somehow manages to be entertaining, readable, and even moving at times. In a way it's a rather traditional kind of novel, a bildungsroman even (how's that for a bit of lit-crit memorabilia?!), tracing a young girl's development from careless youth to maturity, via her mother's tragic death, failed romance, eventual marriage, and her subsequent coming to terms with her fears of her own emotional weaknesses. That the novel's tone varies with each stage of the plot—from the perkiness of a school story to melodramatic family angst to gushy romance to soul-searching and philosophizing—is only one of the odd elements here. At 320 pages, it's too long for the story it tells, and the last 30 pages are rather ridiculous and a bit tedious, as Hilary chews (and chews, and chews, and chews—like that bit of stubborn gristle you struggle to make swallowable at a public dinner because you don't know what else to do with it) over her parents' relationship and compares it with her own.

Most of it isn't very elegantly done, either, so by rights none of it should work…

And yet strangely it kind of does. Most of the time I found it surprisingly hard to put the novel down, and I think this has to come down to the charm and sincerity of Redlich's writing. I don't know enough about Redlich to be able to say for sure that No Love Lost is autobiographical, but it's hard to believe it's not. There's an author's note at the beginning:

Of the characters of this book two have been drawn in part from real people, both now dead. The others are imagined. - M.R.

Now, a bit of searching on Ancestry reveals that Redlich's mother Matilda died in 1927 at age 52, when Monica was only 18. That could match the details of the book, and Matilda might be one of the two real people mentioned. But Monica's father in fact lived until 1960, only five years before Monica's own death, so he can't be the other. Redlich's husband, Danish diplomat Sigurd Christensen, whom I thought could have influenced her portrayal of Hilary's husband, outlived Monica, so he can't be the other one either. Perhaps Cynthia is based on a real friend of Monica's? But her father's second wife, according to an Ancestry tree, though indeed 40 years his junior, as Cynthia is far younger than Edmund, lived until 1980. The trail goes cold.

At any rate, it's clear that at least some of the novel's events come from Redlich's own life. Much of No Love Lost has the immediacy and urgency of a letter from a close friend, and as such it's a rather special novel despite its many flaws. Thanks again to F.G. for the opportunity to read it!

By the way, it's odd to think that this novel was published the same year as Redlich's first children's book—perhaps that partly explains the varying tone of this book? But one mention in No Love Lost that caught my eye was of the "lovely church that deserves to be by Wren, only it isn't," pointing the way directly to her second children's book, Five Farthings, which, as some of you will know, is much concerned with Wren churches…
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