When I last wrote about Carola Oman, raving at some length about her wonderful World War II novels Nothing to Report and Somewhere in England—which are among my all-time favorites and which are also, not at all coincidentally, coming very soon as Furrowed Middlebrow reprints—I mentioned that I had happily discovered that another of her earlier novels, Fair Stood the Wind, also had a contemporary setting, unlike most of her fiction which is historical in subject.
Now, it turns out that I get to revise that statement: There are actually a total of three more Oman novels which were set in the present day of the late 1920s, when they were written. (All, for whatever reason, published under her married name, unlike much of her historical work.) And, following a flurry of obsessive interlibrary loan requests, I can now report that, with one caveat about the last, they are similarly delightful, sweet, fun social comedies, each with at least a bit of Austen-esque romance.
The story of Mrs Newdigate's Window centers around the titular middle-aged Marianne Newdigate, her husband Colonel George Newdigate, and her two young goddaughters Marianne (Mollie) Delahaye and Marianne (Mary) Ripley. We follow various charming vicissitudes as Mrs Newdigate assists and advises both girls in their romantic pursuits, while Colonel Newdigate looks on stoically and supportively. In terms of finding husbands, glamorous, perky Mollie is undoubtedly the sure thing, while smart, quiet Mary is rather more of a long shot. But once they are successfully married off—Mary to a diligent, hard-working, older man (42 to her 28) and Mollie into an aristocratic family with not quite as much money remaining as they might hope—their odds of happiness shift rather more in Mary's favor.
And that's pretty much the plot really. But what gives it tremendous charm is the wonderful dynamic between Mrs Newdigate and her husband. As an example, this scene just a couple of pages into the story will ring a bell with any married couple:
As they entered the drawing-room this evening Colonel Newdigate was for the second time in the midst of the description of a motor accident that he had seen in Oxford Street that afternoon. His eye lighting on the silver-table, he seized the elephant to impersonate "a Rolls-Royce, moving a not a whit less than twenty miles an hour." His wife, with her back to him, was taking a couple of parcels out of her escritoire.
"They met," said he, smacking the elephant against the lady of the loving-cup, "like that! And the next moment that corner was hailing glass. Marianne, you're not looking!"
Mrs. Newdigate came hastily towards him and bent over the table with an expression of concern.
"I am, George, I am. I saw when you showed me with the pepper-pots at dinner that it must have been 'a peculiarly shocking encounter,' as your great-aunt wrote of the Battle of Waterloo. Tell me, what did you do?"
And most readers of this blog will love Mrs Newdigate for no other reason than a letter she writes to Mary, who, determined to take some action in her life rather than merely waiting for a husband, has gone off to do nursing training. She has written to her godmother that no one at the hospital is a reader and there are no books:
It was with great pleasure, my dear child, [wrote Marianne], that I received your letter containing your request for books. I have just returned from searching our shelves on your behalf, and am sending off a first parcel this morning. I blame myself that I did not think of this before your departure, for I remember when I was about your age I once found myself quite unprotected by literature, and I suffered intensely. The occasion was a visit to some distant cousins in the north of England, shortly after our marriage. They had excellent hearts but no conversation. They bore your Uncle George out hunting every day, and when he returned in the evenings I had forgotten what he looked like, and scarcely dared to try and see in case I did not like him after all. I did not break down, I remember, until the fifth evening—they were his cousins—and then I wept in his dressing-room. I could only sob—'No books! no books!' which he could not understand, and he became dreadfully distressed and wanted to send for a doctor, or take me back to my mother (who, by the way, would not have been at all pleased to see me arrive thus unceremoniously). However, in the morning he wired to Mudie's and also rode eight miles to the nearest town whence he solemnly brought me back Good Words, over which we had a touching scene of reconciliation. You need not smile, Mary, The Little Minister was coming out in monthly instalments in Good Words that year.
If you enjoy quiet little domestic tales sprinkled with likable characters and good humor, Mrs Newdigate's Window might be right up your alley. And even better, I thought—in fact my favorite of these three novels—was The Holiday.
Here we begin with a different pairing. Instead of a happily married older couple, we have Georgine Ross-Preston and her widowed father George, a former general (thus referred to as "the General"), who are sometimes mistaken for a married couple. Georgine is in her early 30s, happily living with her father in their flat in London, with occasional excursions to their country cottage. They are both quite contented, and generally they spend their summer holidays together as well. This year, however, the General has made plans to go fishing in Norway with a friend, leaving Georgine at loose ends.
But not for long. Georgine's old friend Claire Woodruff soon visits with a favor to ask: Will Georgine consider going to her family's home in Scotland, Stobblie, for several weeks to care for Claire's two young sons while Claire herself heads off for a Mediterranean cruise? Claire's mother, Lady Dunree, is a classic malingerer whose loyal housekeeper has had to go to care for an ailing sister, so Georgine will be serving, effectively, as nurse, governess, housekeeper, and general dogsbody—not necessarily an irresistible holiday festivity. However, some of the happiest summers of Georgine's youth were spent at Stobblie, and the news that Claire's unmarried brother Frank, with whom Georgine was once infatuated, is returning from many years in India and will be present as well helps tip the balance. Later, Victor Gates, a "St Bernard type" whom Claire is considering making husband number three (the first two having died in World War I—one at the beginning, one at the end), shows up for a visit as well. Then one of the boys has appendicitis, and Georgine's holiday goes downhill from there—or so it seems.
It's all great fun, and although there are happy endings for all (except, I have to note, for one bizarrely sudden tragedy involving a minor character, mentioned in passing near the end of the book, which is odd but doesn't tarnish the overall effect), they don't come about in quite the way the reader might expect, which is always fun. Just a couple of little samples. First, Georgine's first impression of Victor Gates gives us such a clear notion of how he comes across:
Georgine did not yet know whether he was stupid or not. He looked as if he might be, or at any rate as if he would have little to offer in the way of light conversation. She felt sure that he belonged to the type of man who interrupts himself when telling a funny story to settle whether the incident occurred on Monday or Wednesday.
And then, I have to share a passage from near the end of the novel. I won't say a word about why Georgine is at her breaking point, so no spoilers—suffice it to say she has been under considerable stress—but the kind understanding of her prim and proper Aunt Isabel is enough to push her over the edge. Aunt Isabel's polite euphemism for her hysteria is one of my favorite lines in the novel:
Miss Ross-Preston looked up, and saw to her utter confusion a light of understanding spreading over the features of Lady Robinson. At this her misery seemed to become more hopeless and more complete than she had ever realised. Her voice failed, and the storm without was nothing to the storm within, as she indulged at last in the good cry she had denied herself for five days.
Aunt Isabel did not betray alarm. She proved rather a good person to weep upon. After all, as her daughter had declared, blood is thicker than water. "Run away, Millicent," she said presently in quiet but grim tones to her nineteen-year-old daughter. "Your cousin has a headache."
The Holiday reminded me a bit of one of D. E. Stevenson's Mrs Tim novels, which in itself is high praise, and even to the extent that it's quite different from DES's style, it's very much the kind of novel that would be perfect for holiday reading, or else for when you desperately need a holiday but don't have one scheduled. It's a real delight.
And finally, Fair Stood the Wind was actually the first of these three novels that I read (from no lesser source than the Library of Congress!).
An initial casual suggestion of a motoring jaunt in France quickly expands to three cars and a party of nearly a dozen. The ringleaders are Elizabeth Woodhead and her friend Mrs Oliphant (Olly), a middle-aged widow who seems to attract tragedy but always faces it with the proverbial stiff upper lip and makes the best of things. Elizabeth's husband Christopher (Kit), formerly of the R.A.F., is happy to commit, and invites his cousin Denis, and Elizabeth invites her spinsterish friend Margaret and, more or less against her will and with some foreboding, their diva-ish mutual friend Cynthia. Olly invites her niece Pamela, who invites her own friend June and June's brother Jock, and her nephew Patrick, who brings along his friend Cedric. Whew!
It's Jock who issues a warning before their departure:
"Well, what are we going to do that we shall regret? You may as well warn us."
Mr. Somers smiled at the pacific heavens above, stretched his athletic limbs and uttered the single devastating word:
"Quarrel!" echoed Mrs. Oliphant in bewilderment. "But, Jock dear, how vulgar you are! I am sure I never quarrel with anyone."
"Neither do Kit and I," said Mrs. Woodhead through clenched teeth.
"Oh, you won't mean to quarrel," continued the oracle soothingly. "Women never do, but they just can't help it. They get on one another's nerves."
And of course, Jock's predictions come true, at least to an extent: there are certainly quarrels here and there, though it's hard to imagine any group of people together for several weeks and driving considerable distances most days who wouldn't have their quarrels. Plus, it must be said that most of the quarrels here are mild indeed, though no less amusing for that.
Unsurprisingly, there is romance along the way as well, as the riders in the three vehicles shift places from one day to the next and likes and dislikes grow. It's an entertaining cast of characters who offer much cheerful conversation and some pleasant chuckles. It's enjoyable, for example, to dislike Cynthia, who is rather a stereotype of all the irritating, overbearing acquaintances one has ever had. She is perfectly fluent in French (of course she would be), and never fails to correct the pronunciation of her fellow travellers:
Poor Miss Oliphant now had to avoid referring to cul-de-sacs, chauffeurs, garages, matinées, blancmanges, negligées, déshabillées or fiancés. She was even nervous of mentioning her crêpe de Chine pochette in Cynthia's hearing. It was awful how many French words there suddenly seemed to be in the English language.
There's also some enjoyable armchair travel here and there as the entourage makes its way from Havre down to Avignon and the French Riviera, then over into Italy, Lake Como, and back through France by a different route. For some reason, the dialogue here seemed just a bit too much on the flapper-ish side for me, unlike the two earlier novels, and the humor here is a bit broad sometimes, but it's still pleasant enough.
For the most part.
There is, however, one chip in the veneer near the end of the novel. For most of the story, Margaret, the young-ish friend of Elizabeth who is beginning to give up hope of ever marrying, is a quite likable sort of secondary protagonist for the novel—as in this passage about having to sleep alone in her home:
"How foul!" said Elizabeth. "I should be scared to fits. When Kit is in London I go and sleep in the little room next to nurse. Your nerves must be frightfully good."
"If you're thirty-three and what the evening papers politely describe as 'one of our superfluous women,'" said Miss Godby in rather a brave voice, "your nerves have got to be pretty good."
But then, bizarrely, toward the end of the novel, she lets rip with an unfortunate burst of virulent racism, which rather put a damper on things for me. It's utterly ridiculous and ignorant, of course, as all racism is, but I found it hard to root for her ultimate happiness afterward, and it's hard to imagine what Oman was thinking in including such a passage. It's a brief anomaly, though, and otherwise the novel is quite enjoyable—just a bit hard to wholeheartedly recommend.