“Lady Lenanton, last Friday I eloped and married your niece.” With that telephone conversation Carola
(1897-1978) entered my life more forcefully than before as the aunt of my wife,
the designer Julia Trevelyan . Oman
Thus begins art historian, museum director, and diarist Sir Roy Strong's introduction to our new editions of Oman's wartime comedies, which I reviewed early this year here and here. Sir Roy goes on:
Much of her childhood was spent in Frewin Hall,
in a household
which still had maids and morning family prayers down to the death of her
father in 1946. She was educated at Miss Battys and then Oxford Wychwood
School, , although denied knowledge of Latin by
her father. Oxford
She wrote during a period when, for women of that class, servants were a given and ‘work’ in the sense of what happened after 1945 was totally foreign to them. Right until the very end Bride Hall depended on a cook and a butler-chauffeur. The world of
would have been also totally alien to her as indeed what we now categorise as
that of the ‘bright young things’ and the smart set of the twenties and
And yet, in some of her early novels from the 1920s (which I posted about here just last week), some of Oman's most incisive and realistic portrayals are of young people who are, at the least, close approximations of "bright young things," a sign that she was a conscientious observer even of those whose experiences so widely differed from hers.
I also have a post coming soon with wonderful photos and recollections by Carola Oman's grandniece Elisabeth Stuart, but I can't resist including a snippet here:
I knew her well from the 1950's to 1970's when she lived in considerable style with a cook and a butler unlike anyone else we knew! We were very much on our best behaviour when we were with her. She had a lovely panelled study in her Jacobean manorhouse where she would write. She had a keen sense of her responsibilities and was a governor of several local schools besides being a trustee of a handful of national museums and galleries, particularly those relating to subjects where she had written a major biography (for example, the National Maritime Museum because of her biography about Nelson: her most important work).
Finally, I've always loved how Nicola Beauman and Persephone highlight how male-centric critics looked down their noses at many of the books today's readers love the most, so I thought I'd share my own examples.
A short review of Nothing to Report from the Observer, though entirely back-handed in the praise it offers, would have perversely sold me on the book even if I'd never heard of it:
the tale of a spinster lady's round of interests, friendships, and endurances just before and early in the present war. Story not much; characters recognisably genteel and county; but delicious fun for the wise and gentle everywhere.
And a review of Somewhere in England from the Sydney Morning Herald, similarly dismissive of the book's focus on everyday trivialities, makes me feel sure I wouldn't care for this critic's idea of a "soundly-constructed novel":
This is a group of contemporary English portraits rather than a soundly constructed novel. It bears the formal outline of a novel in that there are two or three continuous, lightly-sketched love interests and the tenuous thread of Pippa Johnston's venture into war-time nursing. The man interest of the book lies, however, in the author's ability to look at people objectively and often with amusement. The background is a typical English village, and the usual characters are on the stage: the Lady of the Manor, the Vicar, the Matron and staff of the local military hospital, and the natives. All of them are very capably handled.
"Somewhere in England" will appeal to women with a love and knowledge of rural village life.
Nothing to Report and Somewhere in England are available in both e-book and paperback formats from Dean Street Press, released August 5, 2019.