Wednesday, December 11, 2019

Recent reading: MYFANWY PRYCE, HILDA HEWETT, ANGELA JEANS


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!

Friday, December 6, 2019

Re-reading a favorite: RUBY FERGUSON, Apricot Sky (1952)



I'm always a bit conflicted about re-reading old favorites. On one hand, what could be more lovely than going back to revisit old friends in a book one knows won't disappoint? It's like having a favorite restaurant where you know and love the food and feel completely comfortable. On the other hand, I have around 3,000 books on my TBR list, some of which may become old favorites if I only find the time to read them. And what's more, some of those could become old favorites for other people too once they've been unearthed. Oh, the weight of responsibility!

But sometimes a strategic re-read just becomes absolutely necessary. I had been yearning for another holiday under an apricot sky for awhile, and when a couple of people suggested it as "possibly FM" in my recent posts, I had the perfect exc—er, reason. So I seized the day.

Like a whole slew of other favorites, I read Ruby Ferguson's Apricot Sky before I started blogging, so the only writing I've done about it was a lone paragraph on this deeply-buried post from back in 2013, about 20 books I felt should have been in print but weren't. (At that point, I was only fantasizing about publishing, but I'm delighted to say that Dean Street Press has done a few of these now, a few others have been reprinted by other publishers, and it's just possible that two or three future FM titles will be plucked from the list as well.)

Apricot Sky is a treasure. Although Ruby Ferguson is better known as the author Lady Rose and Mrs Memmary, reprinted by Persephone and a really lovely book itself, I actually prefer this joyful, charming, funny holiday story. It's 1948 in the Highlands of Scotland, in a village not too far from Edinburgh. There are all the usual postwar difficulties with food and clothing and rationing, but Mr and Mrs MacAlvey and their family and friends are too irrepressibly cheerful to let it get them down. There's daughter Cleo, just back from three years in the U.S.; Raine, her younger sister, newly engaged to the younger brother of a local farmer and landowner; and their brother James, married to neurotic, overprotective Trina, with two sheltered, meek children, Armitage and Angela. The MacAlveys, we learn, have lost two other sons in World War II and are raising three orphaned grandchildren—Gavin, 16, Primrose, 15, and Archie, 10—who are very often the funniest part of the novel. There's Vannah, a sort of housekeeper who—as in all the best stories—has become a member of the family. And, partway into the summer holidays, two prissy cousins, Cecil and Elinore, arrive for a visit, to the immense displeasure of the wild and woolly grandkids.

Ruby Ferguson

We also meet Ian Garvine, Raine's intended, and his brother Neil, who makes Cleo's heart go pit-a-pat but seems barely to know she exists. He does, however, take an interest in a neighbor widow, Inga Duthie, who is thoroughly silly and superficial but adept at flirting and difficult (for anyone but Cleo, at least) to dislike. We also meet some of the neighbors, which apparently include a number of Mackenzies ("It was just that practically everybody in Strogue was called Mackenzie.")

What's the plot, you might ask? Well, there are preparations for Raine's wedding, and the children's sailing adventures (wonderfully realistic for the most part—no death-defying stunts, though there is one very funny discovery of buried treasure), a memorable visit by the Leighs, family friends from London, and an adventurous hike. But really, the plot is, simply, life, as lived by a group of irresistible people who know how to live it with energy, humor, optimism, and affection. Which is honestly my favorite plot of all, and even on a re-reading I found it terribly hard to put down, and at the same time I kept trying to slow myself down because I never wanted it to end. What more could one ask?

It's also very, very funny, sometimes in very off-hand ways that I may not have appreciated fully the first time I read it. Some brief, unrelated samples (no spoilers):

On the station at Inverbyne where the single-track line came to an end, Mrs. MacAlvey was engaged in an interesting conversation with two tourists, the station-master, and a calf in a sack, when the train came in.


"I remember you as looking much younger," said Trina, leading the way down the narrow hall which had a little pathway of white drugget to save the carpet. Practically everything in Trina's house was covered up with something to save something that was underneath.


"I don't know why we're all standing," said Mrs. MacAlvey, on whom her daughter-in-law always had the effect of a crocodile on a weak swimmer. "Won't s-s-some of you sit down?"


"I'm haunted by an awful dread," said Raine. "It was a wedding Mysie once went to. The bridegroom never turned up and the bride swooned at the altar."

"Have you practised swooning?"


"Your old father was always the worst shot in Ross, Inverness, and Argyll," said Lady Keith calmly. "If he ever did shoot any stags, which I doubt, they were led up to him blindfold."

I giggled more at this book than I have in a long, long time (Andy's eye-rolling at my guffaws and snorts notwithstanding). And one of my favorite set pieces in the entire novel is when Cleo accompanies Raine to her soon-to-be home to offer her expertise about décor. Here's a snippet of a much longer scene:

"Would there be a bathroom down below?" asked Cleo. "I quite forgot to notice."

"There would. Just the one, and practically inaccessible. I mean, it is tucked away at the end of a little passage all by Itself, and you go up a step to go in and then fall head-first down another step as you enter the door. The arrangements must be seen to be believed, and there is a cistern in the corner which makes gulping noises all the time like somebody being strangled. Surely you remember it, Cleo, when you were here in the old days?"

"Yes, I remember now. It was dark and I opened the door and fell flat on my face, and while I lay there waiting for the end I heard the cistern gurgling in the darkness and thought it actually was somebody being murdered. You'll have to do something about the bathroom."

And on top of everything, it all culminates with one of the funniest romantic misunderstanding finales outside of Sense and Sensibility (I'm actually thinking of it as written by Emma Thompson for the film, though I do realize that Jane Austen had some part in it as well).

I wish Ferguson had written an entire series dedicated to the MacAlveys—I miss them all already—or at the very least written this sort of "cheerful village comedy" more often. I confess that the other of Ferguson's novels that I've dipped into have not lived up to the standard of Apricot Sky and Lady Rose and Mrs Memmary. Our Dreaming Done (1946) was a rather dreary melodrama about a war widow, and her late sort-of mystery, The Wakeful Guest (1962), was excruciating. But I recently ordered an inexpensive copy of For Every Favour (1956) to give it a try, and the amazing Grant Hurlock has shared his copy of 1957's Doves in My Fig-Tree, which sounds promising indeed and has the added interest of being set on the Channel Islands. There are some others that could be promising but are vanishingly rare. Does anyone have other recommendations?

Sunday, December 1, 2019

Recent reading: Three "new" authors (FRANCES MARTIN, MARGARET CARDEW, & MARY LE BAS)

Among the many things I've intended to do but haven't yet got round to is preparing my usual "update" posts to highlight the 100+ new authors added to my main list back in October. The road to hell, etc. However, this can perhaps count as the first of those, as I've now actually read a novel by each of these three new additions to the list. Sadly, though all of them enticed me, none of the three quite lived up to my hopes, but some did better than others.


Oh dear, FRANCES MARTIN. I first came across her quite a long time back, actually, from a blurb for Summer Meridian (1956) on the back cover of Elaine Howis's All I Want:

Summer term was beginning at Brading Manor School and Mrs Thornley gathered her staff together for briefing before the bedlam of exuberant children descended upon them. Mrs Thornley was a "modern" educationalist; her co-educational school was devoted to the development of individuality and self-expression in the young; her staff was constantly changing.

I should perhaps have been warned by the vagueness of this blurb. "Her staff was constantly changing"? Seriously? But alas I wasn't. And for a long time this was a much-coveted title which seemed to be truly hopeless. Somehow, however, my incomparable hubby, with his library connections, managed to obtain it—all the way from a UK (or vicinity, shall we say?) library. Don't ask me how, but you can clearly see why I keep him around!

Sadly, though, as delighted as I was to have the chance to sample it, it was not a favorite (at all). It was entertaining enough, and it had its moments (none of which I specifically recall, since I neglected to make decent notes on it), but it very strangely veers off in the direction of pure melodrama with (and I should say SPOILER ALERT here, though since virtually no one will ever be likely to have a chance of reading the novel, it might be irrelevant) the murder of one of the schoolmistresses—apparently by mobsters, of all things. It's quite ridiculous, and quite tone-deaf, to set a novel in a boarding-school and then bring in the mafia, for pete's sake!


Surely Martin had experience of a girls' school. That's clear from the details of relations between the mistresses, attitudes toward the headmistress, and the portrayal of some of the students. But oh, would that she had been satisfied to record and lightly mock the real-life goings-on she must have observed, rather than jazzing them up with potboiler material. Alas.


The other two new authors are far superior. I doubt if any of you could have resisted the temptation I felt when I first came across MARGARET CARDEW. A short review of her first novel (of two), A House in Venice (1941), in the Guardian concluded:

"A House in Venice" is a first novel with a delicious sense of comedy, not bubbly but grave and seeking to convey its flavour.

Add to that Mrs Ogilvie's own explanation for her jaunt to Venice:

"My husband was a lecturer and a man of letters. He wrote poetry and articles for reviews and was connected with a publishing firm, and I made a whole new circle of friends. He died two years ago," she added, "and now I am trying to take up the threads again, and to make a new life for myself. It is harder as one grows older and less resilient, but I believe it is still possible."

And I ask you, who could resist?

snippet from the jacket flaps

Alice Ogilvie is a middle-aged widow spending a month in Venice, which she used to visit regularly with her father. Her husband Francis had always claimed to loath Venice and would never take her. Alice soon discovers why when she meets his first wife Grace, a successful decorator, and his abandoned son Barry, with whom Alice immediately forms a bond (in part because of his striking resemblance to the young Francis). Barry has romantic difficulties in the form of a Russian dancer, Donia, whom he has secretly married against his mother's wishes. While attempting to help Barry navigate his problems, Alice befriends Gwenda, an emotional young British woman staying at her pensione, attempts to avoid another, nosy and overbearing fellow guest, visits her old friend Magdalen, an aging social butterfly, and navigates her own romantic challenges when Sir Herbert Rawson, a friend of Francis, first proposes to her via letter, then arrives unexpectedly in Venice to state his case.

How to explain a
small surge of interest
in Cardew in 1995
and 1996, I wonder?

It's all quite enjoyable and entertaining, and there are some glittering moments when Cardew really fulfills the potential of her tale. For example, this exchange (no spoilers) between Gwenda and Alice late in the novel, which wonderfully captures Alice's ambivalence in regard to her own youth:

"You never did anything so silly as this," said poor Gwenda. "I'm sure you didn't." And Alice was silenced, for indeed she never had. She had never been weak or uncertain, and so she had never had to endure life's worse miseries. As she looked back at youth far away, it seemed to her that she had never really been young at all. From the time that she had left Newnham till her marriage at over forty she had spent her time serenely in a contented round, a routine of sober pleasures, of lectures and intellectual luncheon parties, and occasional scholarly dinners, of travels in Italy and Egypt and Greece, until that summer when all those silvery days were transmuted by the coming of Francis.

Alas, however, there are also the times when it all gets a bit swamped by sentimentality, and Cardew doesn't always seem to have a firm grasp on her plot. It's a perfectly pleasant bit of silliness, but not the treasure I was hoping for.

Cardew wrote one more novel, 1943's The Judgment of Paris, about an American inspirational speaker who has rather more difficulty uplifting the women of Paris. The Guardian called it "a delicate morsel of literary confectionery," so it is certainly on my TBR list. After that, Cardew published A French Alphabet (1945) for children, and The History of Mère Michel and her Cat (1953), a retelling of an 18th century French tale. From sampling House, I certainly wish Cardew had written more books and further developed her skills and potential.


And finally, the author for whom I cherished perhaps the fondest hopes. MARY LE BAS, too, published only two novels, but how could I fail to be seduced by an ad for her first novel, Castle Walk (1934), with blurbs from E. M. Delafield ("Very fresh and amusing") and Francis Iles ("Fresh, unsophisticated, pleasant … the struggles of a charming young woman to earn her living in the big city.") And soon after I found a publisher's blurb for her second novel, Second Thoughts (1935): "Miss le Bas's heroine finds it harder to stop writing novels than it had been to begin. Elizabeth, her brother, and her friends are delightful people, and Miss le Bas once more writes with charm and a sense of humour."

I snatched up, for rather too high a price, a distinctly grungy copy of Second Thoughts, with visions of a lost cross between the Provincial Lady and Miss Buncle's Book dancing in my head. High expectations indeed, and so perhaps I was foredoomed to disappointment. Rather than perfectly delightful, Second Thoughts was perfectly … pleasant.

Elizabeth is a successful young novelist with what one might think is a rather perfect life—a flat in London, a perfect housekeeper/friend, a rather rollicking social life, plenty of money, no man to cater to, a fond family in the country, and entertaining literary events galore. But is she happy? Well, of course not, or there wouldn't be much of a novel. Instead, she looks a gift horse in the mouth and begins to wonder if she's not missing out on true love. In large part, this seems not so much an emotional urge as simply a fear of turning into that terrible demon, a spinster, but she nevertheless decides to give up her writing for the sake of love. Only to encounter considerable obstacles to her literary retirement.


It's an enjoyable enough storyline, with some lovely moments, as when she's catching up with an old friend:

"And now you write. H'm. Papa is always exclaiming that he's seen your name in the papers. We have a neighbour who writes." He reflected for a moment. "She has a neck like a hen, and gold pirice-nez, and her hands are always wet."

Or when Elizabeth gets material from her books out of a trip to the British Museum:

To travel by bus was an indulgence that Elizabeth could seldom resist allowing herself. She could have reached the Museum in half the time by tube; but she loved the life of the busy streets, and the shops, and counted the half-hour's journey as one of the pleasantest parts of her day. Up the wide slope to Hyde Park Corner; uphill again through Park Lane, with the Park on her left and the huge hotels on her right; three-quarters of the way round Marble Arch (she could never get used to this one-way traffic), and then into the shouting, surging, intensely living clamour of Oxford Street: she knew it all, intimately and with affection, and she seldom climbed off her bus to walk down Great Russell Street without some vivid memory, some glimpse of a woman's face or snatch of overheard conversation, to be stored in the back of her mind.

And there are some entertaining details about the literary world and Elizabeth's social life in London (which, alas, will make some readers not entirely sympathetic about her desire to give it up), likable characters, and a charming style.

Just not very much pizzazz.

There's too much back and forth and melodrama involving Elizabeth's brother and her former casual romantic interest, which becomes rather tedious, not to mention that things get a bit cheesy and Mills & Boon-ish in the romance department. It just didn't quite add up to the gold I was hoping for, though it's enough—as with Cardew and a number of other authors who published little—to wish that Le Bas had kept at it and written more.  I felt she might have been getting a feel for how to tell a really good story. As we have not yet been able to identify Le Bas, we have no clues as to why she stopped writing when she did. Perhaps she, like her heroine, ended up happily married and otherwise engaged?

But I have to wonder then, is her first novel, Castle Walk, the one which Delafield praised, better perhaps? Well, whenever time allows, I'll know, as I happened across a copy of that one as well, purchased in the hopeful giddiness of my reading of the first few chapters of this one (and you saw it in my ridiculous stack of new purchases and library loans last week).

Alas then, none of these three "new" authors quite lived up to their potential. But that still leaves around a hundred more newly-added authors to explore. Are there treasures there?

Tuesday, November 26, 2019

Carried away?

Ahem.

Perhaps just a bit carried away in the past couple of weeks with interlibrary loans, book purchases, and even a very generous loan of an impossibly rare title (thank you Kathy!). On the other hand, you can see that I was paying attention to the "possibly FM" suggestions (among other things)...


Hopefully, you'll be hearing more about many of these soon. Meanwhile, to those in the U.S., have a lovely Thanksgiving! You can guess what I'll be doing in between holiday festivities...

Thursday, November 21, 2019

OLIVE HESELTINE (as JANE DASHWOOD), Three Daughters (1929) & The Month of May (1931)


Okay, it's certainly time to get cracking on writing about some of the considerable number of blog-worthy (or –unworthy) books I've read in the 20 years or so since I last regularly posted reviews. (Okay, maybe not quite 20 years, but it does seem like a long time.)

I don't know a lot about Olive Heseltine. Her first published book was Conversation (1927), which seems to be both a kind of history of the art of conversation and a guide, setting out rules for social interactions and examples from great conversationalists. In the U.S. it's available for perusal or downloading from Hathi Trust. She then published two novels using her pseudonym, the Austen-inspired Jane Dashwood, which seem to have been well-received, then fell silent until a self-published memoir in 1948 called Lost Content and, posthumously, a collection of essays. John Herrington found that she was divorced in 1920, thereafter single though keeping and writing under her married name. In later years, she lived in Abinger Common in Surrey. At any rate, having read these two novels, I can't help wishing she could have written more.


I've had these titles on my TBR list for ages, but only recently got round to them. Three Daughters, as might very well be guessed, traces the lives of three sisters from just verging on adulthood to middle age, each growing into very different lives as a result of their particular personalities and outlooks. We experience in the course of the novel the giddy (and often very funny) joys of youth, the ups and downs of romance, and the realities of marriage and heartbreak.

The girls' interactions are often pure delight:

The three girls boarded a bus that carried a red umbrella over the driver's head and went all the way from Baker Street to Piccadilly for a penny. They sat on the front seats and amused themselves by pointing out the people whom they thought they would resemble when they were middle-aged.

"That's me!" said Miranda, indicating a stout and red-faced woman pushing a perambulator, three children following behind; "a mother of four, and another loved-one at home as like as not."

"That's me!" said Judy, as a hook-nosed, double-chinned dowager sailed by in a barouche; "you bet I've got a title, a tiara and a Place!"

"And that's me!" cried Lydia, looking over the side of the bus where an agitated elderly figure, with her hat on one side, was scuttling across the road; "I expect I shall only have a small comic part—a sort of aunt."

"You're a Cassandra all right!" laughed Miranda; "it's Aunt Minnie!"

The aforesaid Aunt Minnie comes in for this description early in the novel:

Their Aunt Minnie's presence affected the inmates of Conyngham Place with that faint uneasiness which is roused by the humming of a mosquito. With none but benevolent intentions towards the whole human race, she nevertheless contrived to vex and depress every member of the family to whose interests she was unselfishly devoted.

And who could resist the girls' discussion of an early suitor:

"Do you really think him a snob?"

"Well, he's both a snob and an idealist," returned Miranda; "it just depends which way he goes. If it isn't a Duchess, it will be some kind of moral swell—some dreary but splendid person who has done something fearfully heroic—"

"You mean the kind of thing one sees in the papers—'Plucky woman rescues horse from burning stables'—'Girl's heroic plunge into Atlantic to save baby'—"

"Yes; or someone who has devoted her life to curing lepers—something dank but sublime."

I found the relations of the sisters with one another and with their challenging and manipulative mother quite believable, both in happy and unhappy moments. We also see the passage of time in England from the Boer War to the 1920s, and the changing fads and fashions of the times. I have to share this slightly long but rather wonderful description of life in the earlier years of the story:

Lady Pomfret belonged bone and marrow to that great period of England's prosperity which was subsequently so much derided. With the nineteenth century just drawn to its close, the age still clung to the Victorian traditions of decency, refinement and idealism. In tranquillity the lady graced the drawing-room; in security the horse ruled the road. Victorias, landaus and high-swung barouches, with liveried coachmen, and footmen sitting cross-armed on the box beside them, bore their wealthy occupants along the Ladies' Mile; high dog-carts spun along the country lanes; horse-buses ambled through the London streets. The trailing-skirted, tight-waisted ladies of the comfortable classes, who would have been horrified to have been labelled "women," controlled large staffs of low-paid servants; and while a very few advanced parents believed in the Higher Education and sent their daughters to College, the vast majority educated them on lines of feminine accomplishment and kept them at home, there to wait gracefully for the advent of the husband. Self-sacrifice, good manners and ignorance of the facts of life were the attributes most generally approved in young ladies. Over the conscience of the bulk of England Puritanism still retained its iron clutch; in society the presence of the chaperone was considered as indispensable as her offices were, in fact, superfluous. Between the sexes formality reigned; natural friendships between unmarried men and women were rare, impropriety of conduct unthinkable. Only a very small section of the advanced and intellectual attempted to put into practice the theory of the equality of the sexes; the vast majority agreed with Lady Pomfret, who, never having found any difficulty in getting her own way with men, strongly opposed the extension of the suffrage to women.

A friend of Heseltine's, in her Guardian obituary (which doesn't seem to be completely accurate in relation to some of her works), said of her, "There was something elegiac, a homesickness for the nineteenth century," but it's not quite clear from the above passage and from the last passage I'm quoting below, that "homesickness" is quite the word—certainly an interest in the period, and a flair for vividly evoking it, but one doesn't exactly get the sense that she wanted to live in such times.


At times the story in Three Daughters may be just a bit weighed down by the philosophizing of the characters, especially the poignant and well-read Lydia and her difficult loves. ("Suddenly the door opened and William said rapidly: 'Ladyship says will you kindly come into the drawing-room, as there's one or two people there?' 'Blow!' thought Lydia, putting down the Critique of Pure Reason.") But overall I found this novel hard to resist, and we reach some particularly touching moments when we meet, in the final scenes, some of the new generation now at the age the sisters were at the beginning, and see the girls all grown up and changed by life.

Obviously, I enjoyed the book, as I immediately put in an interlibrary loan request for Heseltine's second novel, The Month of May, a slightly more melancholy book, but still quite lovely. The tale of Mary, one of (again) three daughters, though in this case there's also a brother. Mary has been left behind at home while her siblings go off to make their own lives—Eleanor, a clever but somewhat chaotic, new-age-y novelist, Vivien, sensitive and spoiled and damaged by the loss of her first love in World War I, and Charles, a professional now entirely managed by his wife Eileen and becoming rather stuffy and conservative under her influence. Mary's destiny, however, seems to be to stay at home and care for their malingering, self-pitying mother and their kind, failing father, who have come to rely on her presence. (Sure, one might wonder why they're so dependent, since the family also has servants, but of course at this time period one could never have too many menials at one's beck and call!)

Someone at the Minneapolis
Public Library in 1931 had
elegant handwriting!

Part of the explanation for the position Mary occupies, too, is that she has been rather hopelessly in love, against her own best instincts, with a sort of charming ne'er-do-well, whose good friend has likewise developed an unrequited love for Mary. It all seems quite hopeless, and indeed The Month of May is perhaps a bit like F. M Mayor's The Rector's Daughter with a brighter wit and a pluckier sensibility. When I read it, I felt that it was probably a weaker novel overall than Three Daughters, but looking back a few weeks later I wonder if it might not end up being the more haunting one. At any rate, it's sad that Heseltine didn't continue writing—I would have quite liked to see where she got to in later novels.

In closing for now, I'll share one passage from Month which is entertaining. Mary's whiny mother is bemoaning the state of womanhood in the present day, and detailing the proper expectations for a "lady" in her own day:

"Ah yes!" exclaimed Mrs. Willoughby, with animation, "would that young women nowadays could have their rules by heart! To begin with"—ticking off each point on her fingers: "A lady must always be bien chaussée, bien gantée, bien coiffée. A lady should take an hour to get up and an hour to go to bed. A lady removes her stay-laces at night and puts them in again next morning. A lady does not perspire. A lady does not blow her nose in public. ('Five minutes before breakfast,' my Aunt Amelia used to say, 'should be enough for any Christian gentlewoman.') A lady keeps her eyes on the ground when she goes out walking. A lady never climbs a style before a gentleman. A lady does not eat cheese. A lady should know how to carve."

Which, despite the woeful state of humanity in late 2019, should at least make us grateful that we're not Victorian ladies!

Friday, November 15, 2019

GILLIAN TINDALL, The Pulse Glass (2019)



I have a whole slew of recent reading I need to catch up on here—something like two dozen books altogether, and some of them quite interesting (though some will have to be mentioned only briefly as my notes haven't always been all they might have been). But before I do that, I can't delay in writing about a wonderful book I just finished, and a brand new one to boot. Me reading a book hot off the presses? Unheard of!

Many of you will recall that Tindall is—as well as one of the foremost history writers in the world today (and, earlier in her career, a successful novelist as well and therefore included in my author list)—also the daughter of Ursula Orange, author of three novels reprinted as Furrowed Middlebrow titles, and the niece of Monica Tindall, author of another FM title. She also surely has the most seductive approach to historical writing I could imagine—such that even if you think you're not really "into" history, you really owe it to yourself to give her work a try. I couldn't put The Pulse Glass down and finished it in two days (it would certainly have been one if not for that dratted dying computer).


I first read and became a fan of Gillian's when she emailed me after I'd written about her mother's books, but as soon as I picked up Three Houses, Many Lives (2012) and, a bit later, Footprints in Paris (2009), I was hooked. Her focus, as she herself described it, is on the study of place and urban history, but that hardly does justice to the scope and elegance of her work. The Pulse Glass, for example, has four epigraphs—one from the periodical History Today, one from a poem by Polish Nobel Prize winner Wislawa Szymborska, one from children’s author Philippa Pearce, and one from Proust—which might just begin to suggest the varied sensibility and array of learning Tindall brings to her work.


The book begins on a somber note, as Tindall scatters her brother’s ashes along a disused railway line. This leads to meditations on the perishability of both people and objects, and on the randomness with which some objects manage, often by pure happenstance, to survive their inevitable contemporary irrelevance before taking on new, richer meanings for later generations. It's difficult to find a snippet from the book that can really give a sense of the power of the connections Tindall makes between personal events, objects, and history, but this passage gives a hint of the random survivals which particularly fascinate her and in turn make the book so riveting:

Let enough time pass and any written missive from the world that has vanished becomes precious. How glad a museum would now be to receive a medieval shopping or laundry list! And glad they are when some unexpected windfall comes their way. About a dozen years after the beginning of the present century, someone doing repairs to a wall in Corpus Christi College, Oxford, noticed that a tightly folded paper had at some point been stuffed into a crack between stones, presumably to keep out a draft, and had subsequently been plastered and painted over. When the paper was retrieved and deciphered, it turned out to be a fragment of a musical score by Thomas Tallis, complete with words, from a special service held in St. Paul's for Henry VIII in 1544, two years before his death. It is known that the service was arranged by Catherine Parr, the final wife who survived the much-married kind, and it is thought that the words may be by her. With similar serendipity, two much-folded sheets of paper were found lining the spine of a seventeenth-century book in the printing and publishing archive of Reading University. The sheets had apparently been used to reinforce the binding, and turned out to be from one of the first books printed in England by Caxton's press—a priest's handbook, dating frtom 1476-7. An interesting example of a printed page being, for once, more significant than a handwritten one.

Papers so unvalued that they are reused for bindings are clearly a fruitful source for lost writings, for in 2018 the Vice-Chancellor of Northumbria University, while rummaging in Cambridge University Library, made a similar find. As part of the backing of another manuscript, and divided into several different scraps, he discovered the score of a lost Christmas carol that had been sung in his own district in the early fifteenth century—'Parit virgo filium'. So, after five hundred and fifty years, the mute carol proclaiming a virgin bearing a son was given voice again in Newcastle Cathedral.

From its melancholy opening pages, The Pulse Glass proceeds with interlinking discussions of the blooming and wilting of railway lines, and the surprising afterlife of some disused stations; the enormously unlikely survival of a medieval Latin gospel; the centuries-old letters of several prominent families; rediscovered treasure from the attics of Westminster Abbey, which connect up with the intriguing vicissitudes of a small ivory figure of Christ that sits on Tindall’s bookcase; and the sometimes misguided urban "renewal" of London. That's just to name a few. And her tale touches on such disparate topics as the English Civil War, Richard III and the Princes in the Tower, Rudyard Kipling, and Florence Nightingale, as well as compelling details of Tindall's own family, earlier books, and the house in London in which she's lived for half a century.

And what wonderful connections she is able to make along the way, and what wonderings she inspires!


The book ends, too, on a personal note. The second-to-last chapter sheds charming light on Gillian's aunt, Monica Tindall, author of The Late Mrs Prioleau, one of my favorites of the Furrowed Middlebrow reprints. And in the final chapter, she offers her most thorough and heartbreaking discussion of her mother, Ursula Orange, and of Ursula’s suicide. I read this chapter with tears in my eyes and that little quiver that comes from real life poured elegantly, measuredly into great writing.


On our recent vacation, I largely took a vacation from blog reading as well. One of the utterly non-blog-related books I read was Flights, by Olga Tokarczuk, who was awarded the 2018 Nobel Prize just a few days before we set out (I had bought the book at least a couple of weeks before the announcement, so I was in the unusual position of being right on point). I loved Flights, with its unusual and lovely weaving together of disparate stories into what must be called a novel, even if it resembles few novels before it. Tokarczuk also reminded me of another contemporary author I love, W. G. Sebald, whose haunting, melancholy novels are among my favorites.

Reading The Pulse Glass, in turn, brought both Tokarczuk and Sebald to mind. Which is why I can't yet bring myself to put the book on my "have read" shelves and am keeping it right by the side of the bed. A re-read is surely imminent.

It's possibly my favorite book of the year, and (here's a sentence I never thought I'd write) the fact that I'm briefly mentioned in the final chapter has nothing at all to do with it!

Friday, November 8, 2019

Possibly Furrowed Middlebrow: the results


Well, this has taken far longer than it should have as it's been a busy couple of weeks since our return from vacation (among other things, a dying computer has many repercussions, not all of them expected, and adapting to a new one has a few as well). But at long last, here are the results of my first ever Possibly FM query. Thanks so much to those who replied for the lovely suggestions and a lot of food for thought. Obviously, we can't publish everything, even everything that I love and would like to publish, but it's helpful to know what you would like to see.

Here, in no particular order (except that authors suggested more than once are being mentioned first) are the compiled responses, with in most cases at least a brief comment.


D. E. STEVENSON

There were several mentions of DES, but I have some good/bad news about this. The bad news side is that we were actually hoping to publish more of DES's work in addition to the three we're releasing in January, but unfortunately, between the release of our first set of DES titles early this year and our queries about doing more, the rights to all the remaining titles were apparently granted to Endeavour, who have released a number of her books already. I wish we had had a chance to make our case for doing some of the others—I did particularly have my eye on The English Air and a few other favorites—but alas these things happen. The good news, at least for readers of e-books, is that presumably most or all of DES's remaining titles will be coming along the pipeline before too long.


DENIS MACKAIL

Several mentions here too, and very interesting to me because I've only ever read Greenery Street. It looks like Another Part of the Wood is already available in e-book in the UK, and a few of his earliest titles are public domain in the US and therefore available for free online, but there are a number of others that look intriguing. Recommendations of favorite titles would be welcome. I have some reading to do!


E. M. DELAFIELD

Love love love her, but many of her books are available electronically, and in the UK there's even a Delphi Classics edition of her more or less complete works, as well as Bloomsbury Reader editions of some of the most famous titles.


E. H. YOUNG

Several mentions of Young. Definitely under consideration…


CAROLA OMAN

I wrote about her other three "contemporary" novels here. I have a bit of a dilemma about the last, Fair Stood the Wind, because of one passage of disturbing racism (why, Carola, why?!), and it's a bit weaker overall than the other two anyway, but the others are certainly on the "possible" list.


URSULA ORANGE

Orange did write six novels in all, and we did only publish three of them. Which I would find completely maddening as a reader. But we chose those three because both I and the author's daughter, author Gillian Tindall, felt they were her best work. I'll have another look at the other three and see if my own feelings have changed at all.


RUTH ADAM

A couple of suggestions for Adam, and she is certainly under consideration.


HELEN ASHTON (especially The Half-Crown House)

I'm not a huge Ashton fan, especially after reading Joanna at Littfold (see here), but I did quite like Half-Crown House


ALIDA BAXTER

This from a commenter using the marvelous name "raddledoldtart". I confess I had never heard of Baxter, but she looks interesting, and there's a slightly harrowing bio of her here. Two of her memoirs have already been released in e-book (with extraordinarily inappropriate covers), but she appears to have written a few novels as well, so I'll have a look.


GRACE S. RICHMOND, Cherry Square

An American author, but the book's description and original cover are certainly enticing. Food for thought.


E. NESBIT – the other novels for adults

Since Nesbit is public domain in both the UK and US, e-book editions of these abound. That doesn't help those who don't read e-books, but alas it does mean it wouldn't be practical for us to do them.


MONICA DICKENS

Many of her novels are already available from Bloomsbury on both sides of the Atlantic. If there are any particular favorites of hers that aren't available, let me know and I'll check them out!


MAGDALEN KING-HALL (as Cleone Knox), Diary of a Young Lady of Fashion in the Year 1764-65

You know, this has been on my TBR for way too long. Time to rectify that.


RACHEL FERGUSON (especially A Child in the Theatre)

I'm embarrassed to say that my grand project of reading all of Ferguson fell apart a while back with only two novels left unread—her first, False Goddesses, and A Child in the Theatre. (I also have a review of Sea Front, her final novel, that deserves to finally be posted!) After an enthusiastic recommendation from a scholar writing her dissertation on Ferguson, however, this must be bumped up the TBR too.


MARGERY SHARP (especially Rhododendron Pie and Four Gardens)

I had removed Sharp from my list after Open Road released a bunch of her novels on e-book. The assumption being that surely they would do the rest down the road. But for whatever reason, they don't seem to have done so. Which makes me wonder…


ORIEL MALET, Jam Today

Maybe I was just being a cranky old fart when I tried to read this, but it really didn't grab me. I know it has some firm advocates though, so I may have another look.


MARCH COST (especially The Bespoken Mile)

After a positive experience with The Hour Awaits, unearthed at a book sale, and a negative experience with its sequel, Invitation from Minerva, I seem to have sworn off March Cost. But I have to say, after looking back at the review of this title here, it does sound tempting.


RICHMAL CROMPTON

Not sure. A number of her books were reprinted a few years ago by Macmillan, and although I quite liked Family Roundabout (available from Persephone) and Mattie and the Dearingroydes and Mrs Frensham Describes a Circle (both reprinted by Greyladies), I haven't been equally impressed with the Macmillan titles. So it would be the challenge of separating the wheat from the chaff of the out-of-print titles. Any suggestions?


ELIZABETH VON ARNIM

Love her. Most of her books are readily available now as they are public domain, but it's true that a few later works are not. Of those, Expiation is now happily available from Persephone, and I read and enjoyed Mrs Skeffington ages ago. Perhaps I should take a look at the others.


BARBARA NOBLE

Definitely planning to have a look at the two other Noble novels I am able to get hold of. Two others—The Wave Breaks (1932) and Down by the Salley Gardens (1935)—seem to be beyond my powers to track down, but if anyone has them and would consider sharing do let me know!


G. B. STERN, Ten Days of Christmas

At the moment, I can't seem to find who suggested this one, but good news for them, this is actually in print from Corazon Books in both the US and the UK, but I'm happy to have the suggestion anyway because it reminds me that a) the book belongs on my war list under postwar, and b) I really need to read it.


PAMELA FRANKAU, Clothes of a King's Son trilogy

Another to bump up my TBR list. I've been intrigued by it ever since Ali reviewed it, so it's time to pull the trigger.


MARY ROBERTS RINEHART, Bab: A Sub-Deb

Looks like great fun for the TBR list, but it's readily available in e-book already.


GRAEME & SARAH LORIMER, Men Are Like Street Cars

An American husband and wife writing team. The book sounds like fun and it's an irresistible title.


JANE SHAW, Highland Holiday

Happily, this one's coming soon from Girls Gone By, as are several more hard-to-find Shaws!


SHEILA STUART, Alison's Yacht Adventure

I haven't read any Sheila Stuart, but clearly I should.


RUBY FERGUSON, Apricot Sky

Definitely on the consider list.


WINIFRED PECK, Winding Ways

I read this one a while back, but have to admit I can barely recall it. Time for a review.


SHEILA PIM, the non-mysteries

Hmmmm, this suggestion is certainly calculated to intrigue me. In addition to her four mysteries, reprinted years ago by Rue Morgue, Pim wrote three non-mystery novels that are now vanishingly rare. I have one of them, which I'm ashamed to admit I haven't read. I wonder if I can get hold of the others?


DOROTHEA TOWNSHEND, A Lion, A Mouse and a Motor Car

Described as a "humorous romance/adventure novel" and with a title that manages to evoke both C. S. Lewis and Beverly Cleary, I am hooked. Sadly though, it will need to be added to the Hopeless Wish List as there seems to be no way to get hold of it.


And, last but certainly not least, there's the astonishing list from Grant, who has already given me access to so many wonderful titles from his vast collection. The titles below, from which I removed a few already mentioned above, are mostly deeply buried indeed, and (apart from Tea and Hot Bombs, which is certainly on our consider list if we do a batch of children's/young adult novels in the future) I don't know enough to comment on them, but I am certainly game to sample them.

1943 Ding dong dell by Joan Morgan
1944 The seed was kind by Dorothy Macardle
1940 The gentlewoman by Norah James
1930 Jam today by Marjorie Firminger
1931 Children, be happy! by Rosalind Wade
1943 Long division by Hester Chapman
1941 Blitz kids by Elinor Mordaunt
1938 Half o'clock in Mayfair by Marie Troubetzkoy
1944 Enter - a land girl by Constance M Evans
1944 City without sentinel by Shirley Darbyshire
1943 Home Fires Burning by Barbara Kaye
1941 Spies at Candover by Norah Mylrea
1943 Tea and hot bombs by Lorna Lewis
1943 Birds on the wing by Dorothy Lambert
1951 Death has ten thousand doors by Bridget Chetwynd
1941 Jade earrings by Berta Ruck
1944 Judy Ashbane, police decoy by Constance M Evans
1944 Enduring adventure by Norah C James
1952 Rubies, emeralds and diamonds by Bridget Chetwynd
1931 Gin and bitters by Elinor Mordaunt
1945 Four steps upwards by Constance M Evans (Judy Ashbane redux)

(by male authors)
1940 These, our strangers by Adrian Alington
1943 The squad goes out by Robert Greenwood


If you have any other suggestions not listed here (or if I missed anything already suggested), do let me know. 

I have my reading cut out for me!

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