Wednesday, December 11, 2019


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 d├ęcor. 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?
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