Progressing a bit further through my backlog of books read over the past few months but not yet blogged about, here are three novels that I very much enjoyed, even if I don't feel a need to shout about them from the rooftops.
MYFANWY PRYCE is yet another of the authors I've had flagged as "possibly of interest" ever since I added her to my author list. I don't have a lot of information about her, apart from assuming that there must surely be a connection to Wales somewhere, judging from her name. She published nine novels, of which A Life of My Own (1946) is the last, though she lived on until 1976. I was really most intrigued by her 1928 novel, Blind Lead, from which a bookseller gave the following quote (presumably the opening sentences?): "'Mr and Mrs Whitehorn strolled slowly up and down, a dignified couple in the dress of the early nineties. They had brought their four children to Nannies home in the Welsh mountains for a change of air after measles." Not a lot to go on, but enough to intrigue me. Blind Lead proved impossible to track down, however, but the Boston Athenaeum, bless their hearts, provided me with this one instead.
A Life of My Own traces the young womanhood of Celia Tardy, who as the story begins is bemoaning her situation. She feels stuck, living at home with her fretful but likable widowed mother Jasmine, though in truth we soon see that she doesn't really know what else she would want to do. The titles of the book's seven sections make clear that Celia's development will be the focus of the novel: first, "Daughter at Home," then, when Jasmine remarries a widower with three children of his own, "One of the Family," followed by "Seeing the World" (Celia travels with two of her stepsisters and their friends to Haute Savoie in the Alps), "Having a Job," "Falling in Love," "Falling Out of Love," and "A Life of My Own."
The job Celia finds is as secretary to a married couple, both writers—Blossom, who writes serials and stories for women's papers, and Edgar, who writes dry, rather dull novels. Poor Blossom is the very epitome of a middlebrow "women's writer"—or at least of the popular image of them:
"I didn't publish my first book till I was well over thirty, and in it I put quite a lot of references to the seamy side of life, though without dwelling on it, of course. And then the reviewers all referred to my fresh wholesome outlook. Well, it was a blow, of course, but I came to see that perhaps that was my mission. I suppose I have the heart of a child still." She gazed at the mountains before her over the roofs of the village street and quoted poetry softly and the others were suitably embarrassed.
The novel is ultimately a bit too sentimental about love and happiness for my taste, but it's quite charming and perceptive too, as well as lightly humourous in a low key kind of way. The characters are all allowed to be flawed and even at times irritating, but I came to like almost all of them and felt perhaps more affection for them because of their faults, and found them more like real people who might walk off the page. Celia seemed to me like a slightly bland heroine, and I might have had more fun if the focus had been on Jasmine instead. I could have used more of the self-effacing, hesitant Jasmine, as when she sums up the psychological effects of aging:
"In the twenties," she went on, "you feel, can I do it? In the thirties, I can, I can. In the forties, I've done it. In the fifties, but other people do it better. In the sixties, I don't do it as well as I used to."
"But, Mummy darling, you're still in the forties."
"Oh, I know. Just feeling a little melancholy looking forward, that's all. And perhaps in the seventies it's worse still and you wonder, was it worth doing anyhow?"
Even Jasmine's skills as a hostess become a wee bit melancholy:
Jasmine was on the steps to welcome them, with her look of polite delight. She had set flowers in all their rooms, ordered their favourite dishes, chosen the library books she mistakenly thought they would like. Jasmine always remembered to do little things like this for people, much more than they did for her, so that indeed she often felt ashamed, thinking what much more important things they had to think about than she had.
But it's all quite enjoyable. I'll definitely try to track down other of Pryce's novels.
Up next is an author I have sought out to the extent possible, but whose work is, shall we say, variable? I raved about HILDA HEWETT's 1948 novel So Early One Morning here, very much enjoyed Kaleidoscope (1947), was lukewarm on A Week at the Seaside (1955, reviewed here), and found her debut, Farewell Solitude (1942) quite disappointing (see here). So it's nice to be able to say that Dancing Starlight (1945) is a strong entry in Hewett's oeuvre—perhaps not quite at the level of the first two, but streets ahead of the latter two.
The heroine of Dancing Starlight (or one of them, at least) is Louise Heron, one of the many young girls in fiction of this period who yearns to be a ballerina. She is bold, determined, smart, and sensitive, just like all the best such heroines:
Suddenly, devastatingly, she awoke to a realisation of her own presumption. It was unthinkable that a callow, ignorant little English girl should attempt to follow, however distantly, in the wake of the beautiful, exotic Russians. Karsavina, Pavlova, Baronova; the lovely, romantic names came crowding into her mind; great artistes, sprung from a long tradition of beauty and culture.
It was perhaps fortunate that Louise's restricted view permitted her to see the situation only in part. It is possible that if she had fully understood the differences which lie between the tradition inherited by most of the great ballerinas and her own childhood and early adolescence spent in a conventional English boarding school, her despair might have been yet blacker.
It's a bit like a Noel Streatfeild story, or Rumer Godden's A Candle for St Jude, but combined with a grownup romance between Louise's uncle and the head of her ballet school and theatre, Lindsay Lestrange (perhaps a cousin of Dame Beatrice?). Lindsay is haunted by a secret and throws herself obsessively into her work to avoid thinking about it, and the secret threatens to destroy her chance at happiness at last. The balance of adult romance and Louise's growth of a dancer is perhaps a slightly uneasy one at times, but Hewett is clever and skilled enough that I was mostly engrossed in both plotlines. Hewett spends a bit too much time chewing over the emotional aspect of the romance, and the ending is definitely a bit off, tying up only some of the plot strands and leaving Louise's future rather in limbo, but it was a thoroughly entertaining tale, so I can't quibble much.
By the way, I should mention that despite the novel's publication date, it actually takes place in that well-known alternate literary universe in which no war has happened or is even approaching.
And finally (and probably least) is just a brief mention of Lath and Plaster (1952), a more or less autobiographical novel by ANGELA JEANS about the trials and tribulations that she and her husband had in restoring an old home in order to resell it at a profit—effectively, in today's terminology, flipping. It's a brief mention mainly because I didn't take good notes at the time and my memory's a bit flaky, but I recall having fun with it. There are the usual renovation-related misadventures, eccentric neighbors, unpleasant visits from prospective buyers, and the like. I do remember thinking that some readers would be a bit wide-eyed at some of the joking exchanges between husband and wife, which were sometimes just a bit acerbic even for me (and Andy and I often call one another "ee-jut"). The narrator frequently imagines murdering her husband over some impractical behavior or other. But fortunately there is also plenty of love in their relationship, so the volatility just sets the book apart a bit from most such similar "cozy" stories.
Jeans published five other novels in the 1930s–1950s, as well as a handful of children's books. According to a bookseller blurb, her followup to this one, For Worse (1954), may also have to do with home renovation: "Making over houses was nothing new to Beppo, wife of an intermittent playwright. Now she had to move from a lovely country home to a house that shook by passing trains." Interestingly, during research for my last list update, we discovered that she is indeed the same Angela Jeans who, in the 1970s, published three lesbian-themed novels that were rather ahead of their time—Image of Joy (1970), To Cherish a Dream (1976), and A Kind of Death (1976).
So that's that for now, but stay tuned as I still have well over a dozen bits of recent reading to be catching up on!