Monday, August 3, 2020

Dodging the doldrums: MARGERY SHARP, Fanfare for Tin Trumpets (1932) & Harlequin House (1939)

Oh I do let myself be distracted from my good intentions. Months ago I was starting to renew my humble adoration for Margery Sharp, and posted reviews of her lovely debut, Rhododendron Pie (1930), here, and her postwar delight, The Foolish Gentlewoman (1948), here. Then, as far too often happens in my life, I got distracted. But surely there are darned few authors who are more perfect for escaping from these strange times than dear Margery, and I've been fortunate to be able to make enthusiastic escapes recently into two more of her glittering, witty little worlds.

Fanfare for Tin Trumpets (1932) was the follow-up to Rhododendron Pie, which Sharp was rumored to have written in one month while living in a Paddington flat with two other girls. Presumably, she spent a bit longer on Fanfare, but its plot perhaps reflects a bit of her own experience of starting out, as it deals with a young store clerk, Alistair French, who upon the death of his somewhat distant, unaffectionate father takes his small inheritance and escapes from the humdrum to a flat in London with his friend Henry, in order to Write (Sharp doesn't capitalize the word, but one feels that Alistair would have, at least at this stage).

The two friends take cheap lodgings in Paddington (just imagine!) in a boarding-house, whose other inhabitants include the spunky, starstruck Winnie Parker, often accompanied by her army of admirers, and Winnie's mother, who shares Winnie's passion for films if not her admiration for Garbo ("'Olds 'erself like a sack of potatoes," she elaborated. "You'd think she'd be able to buy a pair of stays out of all them 'undreds a week."), and whose vocal cords can make themselves heard anywhere in the house.

I've only just come across this very early author
photo of Sharp, from the Illustrated London News
when they reviewed Rhododendron Pie

Unsurprisingly, Alistair has considerably difficulty getting any actual writing down, what with the many distractions of London. Among other things, Alistair makes the acquaintance of Miss Tibbald, who invites him to join the unfortunately-named Embryo Club, which exists for the purpose of encouraging young writers, but which, on close examination, seems far more discouraging. And then there's the biggest distraction of all—a lovely young actress named Cressida who is determined to marry only in such a way as to further her career.

One thing that jumped out at me, having recently read Francesca Wade's delightful Square Haunting (I'm sure some of you have read it as well?), was a nicely evocative description of Bloomsbury in the very early 1930s:

Henry meanwhile was becoming more and more wrapped up in the life of the Training College, where he had made many interesting friends. They were all rather prominent people, genuine Bloomsburyites as opposed to the brown-baggers who went home every day on the five-twenty-three. Most of them seemed to live round Torrington Square, in which congenial atmosphere they had built up a queer, acutely self-conscious student life of their own, neatly grafted on to a sound middle-class upbringing and centering round one or two cheap Italian restaurants.



[Alistair] envied them because, however they might appear to the detached observer, they did really and truly feel that they were leading a genuine vie de boheme, and therefore enjoyed themselves as much as any one out of Murger. To defend the League of Nations over sixpennyworth of spaghetti left both body and soul in a state of grand complacency, while the reading of Villon in a gallery queue exalted the spirits like new wine. They also had the sort of love affairs in which each party continued to pay for his or her own meals, and often became engaged in their third term. In short, they were for the most part extremely happy, and Alistair had just received his first disillusionment.

Fanfare for Tin Trumpets is surely as rollicking a good time as anything Margery Sharp wrote. One knows everything will work itself out in the end, but one doesn't always know exactly how Sharp will pull it off. It's delightful good fun all round.

And so, in my own humble opinion, is the slightly later Harlequin House (1939). Some readers have claimed that this novel, written just as political tensions were making clear that war was irrevocably on its way, reflects that anxiety (though there's little or no explicit indication) in a slightly darker-than-usual sensibility. I can't say I noticed any such thing, though undoubtedly Sharp was evolving as an author and some of the works which would soon follow Harlequin House, such as Cluny Brown, Brittania Mews, and The Foolish Gentlewoman, would indeed wrestle a bit more with the fact that real life doesn't always provide cheerful happy endings. Some of that evolution might be reflected here, as opposed to the whole-hearted frivolity of Rhododendron Pie and Fanfare, but to me Harlequin House seems as fundamentally joyful and daft as most of Sharp's other early work.

Here, we first meet Arthur Alfred Partridge, a middle-aged widower with a drab job in a twopenny library at Dortmouth Bay, a seaside resort, and a frustrated sense of romance and adventure. On this day, Mr Partridge has spontaneously decided to play hookie, leaving the library closed and going for an idyllic stroll instead. As a result of this seemingly benign but ultimately fateful rebellion against dullness, Mr Partridge meets first the charming Milly Pickering, and then her irresistible niece Lisbeth Campion, who is, when we first see her, "engaged, as usual, in resisting advances".

Lisbeth is, of course, our heroine, in classic Sharp style—kind and generous to a fault, but not one to always take the moral high ground—and it emerges that Lisbeth has greater worries than her numerous suitors. First and foremost she is gravely worried about her wastrel brother Ronny, who has recently been released from prison after six months, charged with peddling cocaine (he thought it was baking powder, really he did!), and has promptly disappeared. Lisbeth determines to find him and help him, but this is complicated by the fact that her rather stern, upright Army fiancé, Captain Hugh Brocard, expected back from India soon, has forbidden her further contact with the disgraced Ronny.

A gloriously implausible but entirely entertaining sequence of events gets Mr Partridge swept up in Lisbeth's unusual and sometimes misguided efforts to find Ronny and get him safely squared away before her fiancé's return. In the process, the three set up makeshift housekeeping in London and work at odd jobs (some of them very odd indeed) to make ends meet. Along the way, they meet an array of odd and wonderful characters, including Lester Hamilton, a charming young man in the film industry, who finds himself helping the trio (and, in particular, Lisbeth) in their increasingly odd adventures. Of course, when Captain Brocard finally does arrive, things reach a climax…

It's all such good fun that one never minds the implausibility, and Lisbeth is a charmer like so many of Sharp's heroines. The passage mentioned above, in which she's resisting advances as per her norm, continues delightfully, and could surely just as easily be describing Julia from The Nutmeg Tree or Cluny Brown in the novel that bears her name:

She was resisting them without harshness. That was the trouble. The earnest young man at her side meant so little to her that she could not even remember his name; she knew only that for the past two days, ever since he arrived, he had been following at her heel with a gun-dog's perseverance and a gun-dog's good manners; and indeed his whole personality was so amiably canine that Lisbeth could not help feeling it was not his fault: someone had trained him to do it. (In a sense she was right, the trainer being simply the Life Force, or—more classically—Venus Urania, or—more familiarly—Mother Nature. Lisbeth took up a great deal of the Life Force's attention.)

Who could care that Sharp's heroines have much in common when they're as entertaining as that? And both of these novels are packed with Margery Sharp's quintessential joie de vivre, and have proven to be powerful antidotes to the doldrums of a drab and depressing pandemic summer!

Sunday, July 26, 2020

They're (very nearly) here!: New Furrowed Middlebrow titles from Dean Street Press

It's almost time! Back in May, I announced our six new "cheerful village comedies" to help alleviate coronavirus and other stresses (well, originally planned to be happy, page-turning holiday reads for the summer, but now more likely to be used as antidotes to the news and to thoughts of cancelled summer travels). And now they're finally here, as of August 3. To tantalize you just a bit more in these final days of waiting, I'm revealing the full covers (complete with cover blurbs extensively agonized over by yours truly, who always makes very heavy weather of them indeed). I also have to mention our brilliant intro writers, as I neglected to do before.


First up, for the incomparable Miss Mole, we have a lovely new introduction by author and novelist Charlotte Moore, who has introduced other of our books, including Romilly Cavan's Beneath the Visiting Moon and E. Nesbit's The Lark. She has a marvelous way of summing up what makes a novel special, as in this brief excerpt:


Her sense of place is impeccable, her seasonal details exactly right. She knows for certain what her characters wore and ate, how they walked and talked. You won't get anywhere with this novel if you don't respond to Hannah - but who could fail to feel sympathetic interest in "a woman for whom repentance had no practical results"?

Who indeed!


Next is the wonderful Ruth Adam and her humorously autobiographical A House in the Country. Adam always reveals—even when making us laugh—a keen social awareness, as she did in her most famous work, her second novel I'm Not Complaining, which was reprinted in the 80s by Virago. It's only fitting, then, that her intro should be by journalist Yvonne Roberts, who brings her own incisive social consciousness to the intro and gives us some irresistible peaks at the reality behind Adam's novel. If her summing up of the house in question doesn't pull you in, nothing will:


The house is in Kent built in Tudor times by Flemish weavers with the curved gables of their homeland. It has 33 rooms, a resident bat, a temperamental insatiable geriatric boiler and five kitchens. It is home to lilacs and roses and swallows in the stable. Over the years, its powers of seduction ensnare not just the small band of Londoners but also a succession of domestic staff, weekend visitors, foreign paying guests and tenants. The whole is presided over by the magnificent figure of Howard, the head gardener. 


Now we come to Dorothy Lambert's frothy, funny Much Dithering, which is not only the title and a fair description of what goes on in the story, at least among some of the characters, but also, delightfully, the name of the village in which it all happens. Scholar and researcher Elizabeth Crawford is our go-to introducer for our least-known authors, and she never fails to find delicious tidbits (as when she was able to quote from Elizabeth Fair's unpublished diaries, or when she has enriched our readings of previously lost authors like Marjorie Wilenski or Barbara Beauchamp by unearthing hitherto unknown details of their lives and histories). We really put Elizabeth to work this time around, writing intros for all four of our remaining new titles, and she didn't let us down. It's amazing what she has unearthed about Dorothy Lambert, and not only that, she was able to trace the origins of some of Much Dithering's most notable characters in a Christmas play written by Lambert four years earlier! 


I don't like to play favorites with our books, since all of them are by definition favorites or we wouldn't be reprinting them, but Dorothy Evelyn Smith's Miss Plum and Miss Penny might have to be an exception. One of my earliest "discoveries" as a blogger (though obviously some savvy soul had discovered it before me since it had already been suggested as "possibly Persephone" at one of that publisher's events—happily for me, they didn't pick up on the suggestion!), it will always hold a special place in my heart. And Elizabeth Crawford again uncovers fascinating details about this rather private author, and I can't resist sharing this wonderful summation of the novel's characters via a tidbit about Smith herself:


Dorothy Evelyn Smith does not seem ever to have been interviewed by the press and, 50 years after her death, family memories are fading. But recollections that survive are of a woman who, besides listening to and making music, loved reading poetry, in particular Dylan Thomas’ 1954 publication, Under Milkwood. Knowing this, we can derive added pleasure as we encounter Alison Penny reading it at intervals throughout the novel, ‘faintly worried’ by some of the ‘confusing passages’. ‘It was rather more outspoken than she had bargained for...So very Welsh.’ Sly Miss Plum confesses to have been reading the book in bed, the implication being that no passages would have confused her. 

Finally, we have another author I stumbed across early on, Celia Buckmaster, and her two delightful comedies with a bit of an edge, Village Story and Family Ties. In her research for these intros, Elizabeth was able to track down no lesser source than Buckmaster's daughter, Loulou Brown, who provides wonderful insights into her mother's work and life, but also revealed (bestill my pounding heart) that the family possesses the manuscript of an unpublished third novel! Music to my ears, of course, and if the world ever returns to any semblance of normal, we hope to have a look at the manuscript and see what's what.

And that's all for this slightly smaller batch of new titles, but hopefully enough to keep you happily thinking for some time of eccentric village life with no trace of COVID anywhere!

And I just can't resist noting that we have, just this week, finalized plans for our next batch of titles, coming in January 2021, and oh boy! I can't reveal them yet, but I can say that I'm perhaps more excited than I've ever been before. Eleven titles, two authors, both new to our list—I can say no more, but stay tuned…

Sunday, July 19, 2020

"Simple, uneventful happenings"? Well, sort of…: ELENA SHAYNE, Everyday (1935)

Regular readers will know that, while my taste undoubtedly centers around a very particular type of fiction, I also enthusiastically embrace the oddities that here and there sprinkle my genre of choice. And none have recently (or, perhaps, ever) proven more odd than this seemingly quite ordinary novel, the one and only book by one Elena Shayne, whom I've only just come across and know little about.

I don't recall what I was actually researching when I came across, in a 1935 issue of the Observer, a short review of Everyday. Here, in part, is what that reviewer had to say:

Miss Elena Shayne's "Everyday" is a different sort of book. It is a quiet, gentle record, in the form of a diary, of simple, uneventful happenings. There is a reminiscence in it of Miss Delafield without the coruscation of arrows, and of Mr Beverley Nichols's rural manner without the mawkishness. … Miss Shayne seems to have set out, in this her first novel, deliberately to charm us, rather in the style that Argentinian dancers are reputed to do. Perhaps in her next book, now that she has proved her mastery over sugar-and-water, she may try something a little more emotional.

I don't know what Argentinian dancers have to do with anything, but, leaving aside the undoubtedly masculine condescension of this review, I ask you, could your curiosity have failed to be aroused? There was, it turned out, exactly one copy of the book available on Abe Books, but I had to wait for several months to acquire it as it bore a "Temporary Unavailable" notice which apparently indicated that the bookseller was on vacation or otherwise unavailable. But I kept a close watch on the listing (as if anyone else would have been likely to know of the book's existence, let alone be competing with me to acquire it, but I know many of you are familiar with the kind acquisitorial paranoia I'm referring to), and finally, a month or two back, it was in my hands, complete with a dustjacket I hadn't expected it to have. And not only that, but the book is also signed by the author (on the undoubtedly tense date of 28 Aug 1939, no less!) and inscribed with a somewhat inscrutable drawing of a creature (duck? squirrel?) shouting, appropriately enough on such a day in history, "Pace!!!" What a delightful, odd, and slightly melancholy thing to find on opening the book!

Author signature & drawing of a ?????

(Indeed, delightful, odd, and slightly melancholy might well describe the content of the novel as well, but more on that below.)

At first, I was in total agreement with the Observer reviewer. It was, in the beginning, indeed a vaguely Provincial Lady-ish sort of diary of "simple, uneventful happenings." Elena (the narrator bears the author's name) is a young, unmarried woman, full of zest for life but somewhat restrained by the kind of vague "heart condition" so well-known in fiction of this period. She lives near a rural village called Grebe with the beloved aunt who adopted her after her Socialist mother, disowned by her parents, died when Elena was only three. Unsurprising, perhaps, that Elena's own views are decidedly—and delightfully—unconventional:

Grebe etiquette decrees that new residents appear in church when ready to be 'called on'. Visits are then exchanged, and, after careful consideration by the conduct committee (which body, though unofficial, is one of the strongest forces in Grebe) the newcomers are accepted or rejected. Acceptance entails the going to and giving of bridge parties; attendance at church; membership of Sandon Golf Club; and participation in all social activities acknowledged by the committee as correct. Rejection means freedom, not only from its obligations but from the friendship of its accepted members.

Everyday begins with Elena's announcement to her aunt that she is about to begin her masterpiece:

This morning as I lay on the veranda, with Gentle Alice Brown (my mongrel sheep-dog) seated beside me in a state of the most lively anticipation as to what part, if any, he would get of my breakfast, I called to my Aunt, 'I'm going to write a book'. My Aunt, who was busily thinning seedlings in the rather inadequate borders of our small garden, looked up remarking pleasantly, 'Yes, dear. I wonder what I've done with my small trowel?'

Fortunately, Elena perseveres, and decides to "write it just of the things that happen to me for a year. I've often heard people saying they wish someone would write a book of everyday."

Based on an invitation, early in the book, to lunch with an editor from Poetry magazine ("a dear little man who looks as though he never got what he wanted, yet made the best of things in spite of that"), Shayne may well have been a poet herself, although she doesn't appear to have published any collections of poems. There's certainly a poet's sense of language that brings joy to many of the book's more mundane scenes, as when she attempts to help a farmer with his haymaking, or even just in her description of her attic retreat:

This shell—Chez-Nous—is full of my own treasures. Books, musical instruments, painting materials, and my hammock slung across the room. In the dim winter evenings there I lie, swinging above my rush mats and oak table, seeing my bookshelves come and go again, watching my big arm-chairs invite and fly me, hearing my gramophone until the needle jars at the record's inner rim, and often then, against my uncurtained windows, the trickle and swish of rain.

Elena also records some lovely descriptions of rural village and farm life, with wonderful details—surely of historical and sociological interest—of day-to-day rural life too mundane to have been documented by most authors. And her poetic sense also notes some wonderfully peculiar turns of phrase, or examples of local color, as when she notes, "I felt tempted to ask what had occurred; then thought I had better leave them to dree their own weird." (I can't wait to use that in conversation with some poor bewildered soul.)

Elena's home life is considerably more rustic even than Delafield's Provincial Lady, and although there is, as shown above, some delightful humor, there is also an underlying seriousness in Elena's tale that doesn't always fit the coziness with which the novel begins, as well as one or two jarring elements, such as a strange minor subplot in which several neighbours' dogs are shot and killed by an unknown local terrorist, a mystery that is never solved, at least in the novel. One can imagine such a thing happening, however, so if Shayne took her task of accurately describing a year of her life strictly to heart, then it fits her theme.

The middle section of the book, too, forms quite a contrast with the quietly rustic first and final thirds of her tale. Following a frightening collapse (her generic "heart" again), Elena and her aunt take off, on doctor's orders, for the Continent. (Why my doctor never orders such things is beyond me—today's medical professionals just aren't what they used to be.) They travel in various parts of Spain and France and have various entertaining escapades, as well as, on Elena's part, a romantic interlude with a handsome German doctor (more on her romantic inclinations below). It's hard to see how Elena's rather unrestrained exertions on vacation could have proven more restful for her heart than her usual quiet rural life, but then I'm no doctor.

The most striking of Elena's escapades on the Continent gets into some slightly risqué territory (by middlebrow standards, at least) when Elena accompanies a male acquaintance for a night on the town in Paris, including—at her own insistence—a visit to a brothel. The scene is not sexually explicit in any way, but a young woman who insists on visiting a brothel and then on carrying on, unperturbed, a conversation with two stark naked women about whose lives she is curious, is not, one might safely say, a typical middlebrow heroine. I will say that the scene has a distinct ring of truth, though, and it's certainly great fun to read.

Finally, there's one last unusual element in this novel which I find particularly fascinating. The main underlying sadness in Elena's otherwise cheerful tale is that she is grieving the somewhat mysterious loss of her dear friend Lilian—not in the sense of Lilian being dead but in the sense that something has come between the two of them, presumably Lilian's relationship with a man:

Just at this time Lilian fell in love with an exemplary young man named Phillip. An event which caused me concealed and unspeakable grief, for a friendship like ours could not happen twice, nor in such circumstances continue to be.

Elena's tone when describing her friendship with Lilian, and a suggestion of deeper feelings unspecified, leaves open the possibility that what we're subtly privy to is a lesbian relationship threatened, as so often at a time when same-sex relationships were not accepted as viable options, by Lilian's temptation to marry a man in order to better fit social expectations. For Lilian remains a melancholy presence in Elena's mind throughout, even when, as mentioned above, Elena appears to have a romantic interlude with Karl, a German doctor, and indeed a flirtation or two with other men along the way. What is striking is that, even with Karl for whom she seems to feel a real connection and affection, Elena assiduously assures Karl (and the objects of her other flirtations as well) that she "could never love" them and sends them on their way. One wonders. And then there's the novel's happy ending, in which Lilian, whose near-husband has retreated from the scene, is welcomed with open arms back into cozy Chez-Nous (not, one might note, Chez-Moi).

Although it's certainly not presented with the "shouting from the rooftops" explicitness of a Well of Loneliness, what I think we have in Everyday, just a few years after Well, is a fascinating, quirky, subtle lesbian romance that was able to "pass" as a benign idyll of "simple, uneventful happenings" and therefore avoid both the condemnation of literary moralizers and the unhappy endings that were then seen as de rigueur for such scandalous characters. It also makes the undoubtedly male Observer critic's conclusion that next time Shayne "may try something a little more emotional" amusingly ridiculous!

Mind you, I'm not claiming that Everyday is a great novel per se. As already noted, Shayne's assiduous detailing of exactly what happens makes the overall work a bit misshapen, and it does drag a bit here and there. There's also some racist language, particularly during that same night out in Paris with Colonel Ellis, when they visit a jazz club (referred to using the n word), but the usage seems intended as innocently descriptive, judging from the a few lines later when Colonel Ellis has to forbid her from happily joining in a dance with a handsome black man (Colonel Ellis might therefore be a racist, but Elena doesn't seem to be). She also refers, in the same scene, to "a superbly handsome Jewess" apparently with entirely complimentary intent. And, one more slight weakness for me, there's a somewhat dizzying array of local characters that I found it hard to keep straight (so to speak).

But even if Everyday is not a perfect novel, it's definitely one of the most fascinating oddities I've ever come across. What it is, too, is completely extraordinary in its perspective. Whether or not Elena is in fact a lesbian, she is certainly an unusual, intriguing, and irresistible heroine.

Thursday, July 9, 2020

Girls and ghouls: MABEL L. TYRRELL, Chestnut Court (1929) & MARY LUCY PENDERED, The Uncanny House (1929)

I just happened to lump these two recent reads together in a single post, not noticing initially that they were published in the same year. But they both have that cheerful, chipper, Roaring Twenties sort of middlebrow appeal, despite telling very different stories, so perhaps it was meant to be.

Chestnut Court was a very pleasant surprise recently. I had thought, from misreading a snippet of a review, that it was an adult novel, but in fact it's a "girl's" story, a widening world tale set in and around a sort of magical Paris courtyard, wherein a giant chestnut tree sheds blessings as well as blossoms on the hand-selected residents. I could have done without the tree's apparent mystical powers, and some of the sentimentality that went along with that, but otherwise this is a perfectly charming, humorous, engaging story with some unique elements.

The story focuses mainly on fifteen-year-old Serena Southcott, an English girl who lives with her widowed father, and on her French best friend, Jeanne Dubois, only sixteen but already a dressmaker taking care of little brother Pierre and her elderly grandmother. Among the other inhabitants of the court are Monsieur de Villerose, a violinist and composer, Papa Delplace, a wigmaker, and Madame Girard, known as the "Duchess of Chestnut Court", an impoverished gentlewoman with extravagant attire, a sassy parrot ('"Long live the king!" shouted Coco. "Down with the reds! Sapristi! Taxi-taxi-taxi!"'), and a giant diamond (presumed to be fake) on her hand. Serena occasionally begs the Countess to take their "extra" food, as she is too proud to accept charity.

The drama begins when a mysterious stranger is found lurking outside Madame Girard's flat, and soon after that her fabulous ring disappears. The intrigue is predictable enough, and the chestnut tree sees that everything works out for the best, but it's the tone of the book that is charming, such as this snippet:

Serena was feeling quite depressed. A most unusual symptom for Serena to experience but quite common and natural to anyone who has just taken her first lesson in shorthand.

The most striking scene in the book for me is the one in which Jeanne, struggling to make ends meet, fills in for a friend who tests parachutes for a living. Let that sink in for a moment. But as someone for whom skydiving has sometimes seemed tempting but who can't imagine actually stepping out of an airplane into thin air (I'm up for ziplining, or perhaps even a bungee jump, but I'm afraid they'd have to shove me from the plane scratching and clawing in a most undignified fashion), the scene was great fun:

"Then step off," he snapped out. "Let yourself go without fear. There's nothing to be afraid of."

And Jeanne did as she was told; she had the courage to obey. She felt something pulling hard at her whole being, she saw an immense space of greyness beneath her, she was swinging hither and thither, but still she obeyed some shouting voice which told her not to struggle. Ah, the parachute had opened! Jeanne did not see it, but she knew it. It was a long way to the ground, but there was no bumping like that horrid scenic railway. Should she shut her eyes? Blue skygreyness. Tree tops in the distance. The Chestnut Tree was in bud. Pierre must have a bicycle—oh, dear!

Jeanne stumbled; it was really so funny to have one's feet on the grass. She could not stand upright because the grass was not at all firm! It wabbled about much more than the air, and was not solid. She clutched at somebody's shoulder; oh, it belonged to one of
those girls in brown overalls who made aeroplane wings. There were quite a number of them round her, laughing, and making a great noise; she had come down near their shed.

"A very beautiful descent! Bravo, Mademoiselle!"

Such a scene is surely not completely unique in girl's stories—some of the many tales of girl pilots, for example, must have similar happenings—but it's the first such I've come across it in a non-wartime story, and it's great fun.

Chestnut Court isn't an all-time favorite, but it was a very charming read, and I'm rather excited that, thanks to Grant Hurlock, I now have another Mabel Tyrrell book, Patchwork Palace, a boarding-house novel for grownups, that I have to make time for soon. She also wrote a number of other books for children and adults, as well as a school story, Miss Pike and Her Pupils, published the year before Chestnut Court, which could be great fun as well.

And next up is a book I added to my wish list ages ago, which just happens to have turned up in a very reasonably-priced copy during a recent idle splurge on E-Bay. I can't recall now whether it was specifically recommended to me or if I flagged it just because of a general interest in Pendered. I also have Pendered's earlier novel At Lavender Cottage (1912) flagged, which seems to be a very different kind of tale.

At any rate, not only did I spontaneously buy The Uncanny House for under 10 dollars, but I also spontaneously read it as soon as it arrived. It's a light-hearted ghost story with lots of meanderings about life in the country, housekeeping, and child-rearing. Peggy and Percy (Perks) Dacre, a young couple with four young children, have finally settled on a delightful (and delightfully affordable) house, which, as Peggy writes to her friend Joan in the opening chapter, has in recent years gained the unfortunate moniker Hell Cottage, though it was previously known as The Beeches. They move in, only to find that the house may still be occupied by its eccentric, anti-social former resident, an elderly man who kept neighbors away with vicious dogs and whose dedicated, long-suffering housekeeper has been left impoverished by his sudden death without, apparently, having left a will with her long-promised legacy.

Well, from there the story practically writes itself, doesn't it? Peggy and Perks find the neighborhood congenial and are soon in a social swirl. Peggy befriends the former housekeeper, who is utterly convinced that her employer did indeed make a will, and further that his ghost will remain in the house until it is found. Peggy begins hearing noises and seeing a figure, suspiciously similar to descriptions of theire predecessor. The children casually mention the old man who sometimes watches them playing. Furniture seems to be moved around. Peggy is terrified, but Perks, staunchly rationalist, refuses to allow for any possibility of a haunt, and swears her to secrecy about her beliefs for fear of scaring off the domestics.

Naturally, everything works out for the best. There's a bit too much argument about the possible science behind hauntings, which causes the novel to drag a bit in the middle, and all told it seems a bit like a clever short story stretched to novel length, but it's fun nevertheless, with charming enough characters and situations. Despite Peggy's terror, the story remains light-hearted, so that none but the most easily alarmed readers are likely to experience any real suspense. On the contrary, many readers are likely to think Peggy a bit hysterical in light of the fact that the ghost turns out to be perfectly benevolent and rather like a pleasant apparition to have around—and is obviously only trying to help them locate his will. We don't get his perspective, but he must have occasionally felt exasperated that they wouldn't stop being so irrationally nervous and just pay attention to what he's trying to say.

I should mention, though, sadly, that the fate of those vicious dogs is likely to be far more distressing to modern readers than a friendly ghost…

Monday, June 29, 2020

Dustjackets vs. coronavirus: Mabel Esther Allan edition

In keeping with my firm (if, technically, unproven) belief that luscious cover art strengthens our immune systems against coronavirus, here's an enormous and breathtaking batch of covers (courtesy, as usual, of my Fairy Godmother) of Mabel Esther Allan titles.

Now, if you're looking for an author who can help you forget all about sheltering in place, or if you need to lift your chin off the floor from thoughts of canceled outings and vacations (as ours this fall, to Spain and Portugal no less, is likely to be), then you could do much worse than turning to Mabel Esther Allan. With her fascination for travel and her ability to evoke a sense of place, not to mention making the history of a locale come alive, I'm finding her a perfect companion for these strange times.

And her dustjackets alone are a veritable European tour. I shared some others here, and intended to proceed to share these too, but alas I got distracted... Enjoy them now! (Click to open them full size.)

This one is coming soon from Girls Gone By
(complete with wraparound cover!)

Thursday, June 18, 2020

A cry of joy would go through this house like a sword: ROSALIND BRACKENBURY, A Day to Remember to Forget (1971)

Electricity in all the corners, the walls thin as rice paper. Nobody could ever be so intrepid as to make love in this house, with its thin, listening walls, its lights flashing on at the top of the stairs, its unhappy people lying awake. A cry of joy would go through this house like a sword.

Regular readers will already know that I almost never accept review copies from publishers. I just do not seem to be capable of reading according to a schedule, and when I try to I almost always fail. This is why I don't participate in blog events related to a specific author, even one I love like Margery Sharp, for example, because knowing that I'm supposed to read a Margery Sharp book and write about it for a certain day (even if that day is six months in the future) will almost certainly render me completely uninterested in reading Margery Sharp for the duration of the six months. Some sort of peculiar perversity, no doubt, and likewise a review copy on my TBR shelves begins to glare accusingly at me from the moment of its arrival until I feel so hostile towards it that I'd like to throw it out the window.

However (thank heavens there's a however, right?), when Michael Walmer emailed a while back about this title, by a British woman writer I had never heard of—though she has been quite prolific and released her latest novel, Without Her, just last year—and noted that the introduction was by none other than Margaret Drabble, who is just about my favorite living author, my resistance was breached. Happily, too, Michael is understanding about the fact that I always get round to reviewing his books two or three months after they're first released!

And indeed, I'm very glad I did accept this book, because although A Day to Remember to Forget is rather different from many of the books I write about here, it proved absolutely extraordinary and lovely, and it should not have been the case that I had never heard of Brackenbury!

The novel begins with Lucy and Philip, a rather free-spirited, slightly hippy-ish young couple who have just decided to buy a house in Norfolk. Their hopes and tensions around this decision are beautifully delineated. (It's funny how some authors can make their characters' inner thoughts and feelings so clear to the reader without any feeling of having to work to interpret or understand—we're simply there inside their heads.) They are supposed to proceed directly to Philip's parents' home, where his family is celebrating his mother's birthday this weekend, but instead they hitchhike to a nearby hotel to spend the night, giving us a clear inkling of their ambivalence.

When they do arrive, all sorts of familial tensions begin to work their way explosively to the surface, sucking in Philip's parents, brother and sister-in-law as well as a lonely elderly neighbor. Tensions between the parents, tensions with the brother (who has always been the responsible one but not the favorite), tensions regarding the neighbor and the tragic death of her husband many years before—it's a bit like Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? crossed with, well, Virginia Woolf herself!

It's often rather harrowing, and if it strikes home for you, as it did me, then it's a somewhat difficult read at times, but it's also terribly striking and perceptive, with these glimpses into the minds of various characters that so precisely sum up how grievances and insecurities and slights do take root and grow in all sorts of unexpected and unpredictable ways.  I kept having to stop to mull them over and say, "Yes, that's exactly how that happens. I had never thought of that before." And the writing is beautiful and often reminiscent of Margaret Drabble herself, so those of you who love Drabble as I do should take note. Like Drabble, too, Brackenbury understands all of her characters, so while we think in one passage, "Oh, what an impossible woman!", a few pages on we find ourselves touched by the pain that very impossible woman has been through.

Apart from the quotation at the beginning of this post, which really sums up this dysfunctional home, here are two more to demonstrate. First, Philip's rather impossible mother herself, in the midst of an argument with her husband:

She spoke the words just as they occurred to her, not knowing whether or not they were true. What did it matter what one's weapons were, as long as one defended oneself? When he picked his way so pedantically, like a judge, like a prosecutor, forcing her to give evidence, remember dates, produce an alibi and recognise Exhibit A. He terrified her, and she ran backwards, lashing out. The only way was to hurt him, until he stopped. It was like not knowing if there was enough for dinner in the fridge, like people arriving, like being asked a question in class and not knowing the answer. When the masked men came to the door and banged upon it, they would want an answer, or they would push past her and invade the house.

How often do we argue in just such a way? Saying what will work as a weapon in the moment, regardless of its truth. It seems obvious having read the passage, but not every author realizes such things.

And then, just a striking way of thinking captured in this scene with young Lucy:

She stood still on the edge of the orchard, poised for a moment, staring at the house next door which now gave back no sign of life nor habitation, and wondered what it was like to live there, to peer round a curtain and watch a girl in pink shirt and blue jeans cross a garden alone, and disappear into a small shed among nettles. This was such a familiar sensation, this knowledge, sensuously, of what it was to be the other person. As a child, she had felt it overwhelm her, when she held an animal, a cat perhaps, clutched to her and felt that she, Lucy, was the cat feeling herself held by herself, Lucy, who was the girl.

I'm looking forward to exploring more of Brackenbury's work, and I'm so grateful to Michael Walmer both for sending me a copy and for making this wonderful rediscovery of her work.

Friday, June 5, 2020

Charming and delightful, but … : DOROTHY EVELYN SMITH, Brief Flower (1966)

I've had to think a bit about how to write about this book. I acquired it in one of my recent binges on e-Bay, after having meant to get back to reading more of Dorothy Evelyn Smith, particularly after Simon at Stuck in a Book recently wrote in glowing terms about her early novel O the Brave Music.

For myself, her 1959 novel Miss Plum and Miss Penny is an absolute treasure, which I raved about here not long after starting this blog back in 2013, and which I recently announced (yay!) that we would be reprinting in August. As I mentioned in that announcement, I re-read MPAMP just last year and was delighted to find that I loved it every bit as much as before. But my second Smith novel, 1952's Lost Hill, inspired considerably less enthusiasm here, and I unfortunately let her lapse after that. But I always wondered if there were more treasures to be found among her work. O the Brave Music will be queued up next, and Simon has now let us know that it will be reprinted by the British Library's new women's writers imprint, but first I couldn't resist picking up Brief Flower in this well-preserved copy complete with dustjacket (though I'm not entirely sure of the cover image, which makes our heroine look just a bit demonic…)

And now my dilemma. First, the positive, of which there is much. Brief Flower is a coming of age story, a genre I often don't particularly like, but here I was grabbed from the first page, in which two little girls fearfully but spunkily await the end of the world, having been told by a surly servant that the approaching storm signifies some kind of armageddon. It's a brilliant scene, and one which gives a perfect introduction to Bunny, the novel's narrator (narrating the story from the distant future when she is already an elderly woman), a spitfire wild child with enormous self-possession and a delightfully philosophical outlook on her life. A life that is not without its problems, to be sure. She lives with Laurie and Madge, who have raised her from infancy but who are, she already knows, not her parents. She is in fact a bastard, though she has only the vaguest notion of what that means or why anyone would care about it. The other girl is Frankie, a neighbour girl and Bunny's devoted friend, plagued by migraines but with a charming pluck of her own.

Bunny lives at Blackberry Farm, rundown and impoverished, which Laurie halfheartedly farms in between trying to write a novel and periodic drinking binges, the latter of which occasionally lead to him beating Bunny with his belt. Despite this, Bunny remains devoted to Laurie, and is typically philosophical about his violence:

Better go hungry than take a beating. Not that I held it against Laurie when he beat me. I kicked and scratched and swore, and once I bit his hand so deeply that it had to be bandaged up. But when it was over it was over, and neither of us referred to it again. I knew that Laurie was ashamed but I knew, too, that I had usually deserved what I'd got, and we observed a sort of gentlemen's agreement about the whole thing.

Madge, who was formerly on the stage, is less demonstrative with Bunny, but clearly bears her a slightly grudging devotion. And Bunny, due to reasons which we eventually learn, has been allowed to run absolutely wild, a fact she appreciates. She clearly sees the positives in her life rather than focusing on the negative:

Most of the children I knew had fathers and mothers, grandparents, aunts and uncles and any number of brothers and sisters. I had never envied them particularly. They always seemed to be running errands, minding pram-loads of babies, being called in to meals in the middle of games or packed off to bed while the sun still shone. They had little of the freedom I enjoyed, living with Laurie and Madge. If I chose to stay out late and thus missed supper it was my own silly fault  and I went to bed hungry. If I "answered back" I was either ignored or I had my ears boxed. When Laurie had taken too much to drink on market days he might take off his belt to me but never without real provocation, which I was honest enough to admit. Madge grumbled and whined, but she also made me laugh a lot. Laurie teased me, ignored me, sometimes treated me like a baby and at others made almost impossible demands on my strength and patience; but he allowed me to read any book in his possession, and of ten spent hours alone with me, walking along the beach or climbing the cliff paths, telling me strange stories out of the past; stories of Greece and Rome that came tumultuously alive in the keen air of the Yorkshire coast and filled my heart and mind with a richness that has never faded, after all these years.

It's only when an older boy, Guy, camping with his friends nearby, appears on the scene, that Bunny begins to question some of her savagery…

Before long, however, Bunny's ruggedly idyllic life is disrupted by the reappearance of her wealthy grandfather, who, having ignored her existence thus far, has decided he wants to make amends and take her to live with him at Tarn House, his lavish home, complete with servants, regular, plentiful meals, and elaborate, spacious gardens. We learn the story of Bunny's mother, which I won't spoil here, and how Laurie and Madge came into the picture, and it is agreed, against Bunny's vigorous objections, that she will go to Tarn House for a year and then be allowed to choose where she wishes to live.

Of course, Tarn House is the polar opposite of her life at Blackberry Farm (though her grandfather still allows her considerably leeway), but it presents challenges and puzzles of its own, some predictable, some definitely not.

For the most part, it's all really charming and joyful and funny, with a heroine who is absolutely irresistible (if perhaps slightly unrealistic in her total independence of thought and self-awareness, though perhaps this is explained by the fact that it's all an elderly woman's recollections of herself). There were moments that made me laugh out loud not from hilarity but from sheer delight (particularly a final scene in which Bunny comes into her own with her grandfather's stern housekeeper—unforgettable). For most of the time I was reading it, I was thinking that here, though totally different in just about every way from Miss Plum and Miss Penny, was another Dorothy Evelyn Smith that should be brought back into print post haste. Another treasure.


As I noted, Bunny is eleven years old when the book begins. She turns twelve midway through, and then perhaps ages a bit more right near the end. The trouble starts with her romantic interests. First, there was Guy, age sixteen, to whom Bunny is almost immediately devoted, and who is perhaps a bit unusual in returning the devotion of a girl so much his junior. But it is all innocent enough. Guy is amused and charmed by her, but there's nothing hot and heavy.

Then she arrives at Tarn House, where one of the gardeners is a Gypsy (of course, and as earthy and potent as any stereotype) in his twenties who begins making advances. In contrast with Guy, Lee is openly sexual in his approach, groping and all. What's more, while Bunny doesn't like the Gypsy man, she certainly desires him and is responsive to his efforts. At eleven. Or possibly twelve, by this point. Shortly after, she gets her first period, acknowledged to be a bit early in arriving, so perhaps we are meant to believe that she is just extraordinarily precocious in all areas, but her reaction to it was a wee bit offputting for me:

I had hated Lee. I had hated myself. I had hated whatever it was that made me not hate Lee enough to keep away from him.

Now I knew without any shadow of doubt why I hadn't wanted to keep away from Lee, and the knowledge shattered me.

I might be a woman, but I was an animal, too. I was no better than Moll, who had to be tied up twice a year .... Oh, beastly thought—I was no better than a bitch on heat! ...

Now, I'm all for a liberating acknowledgement that girls and women have sexual desires. Of course they do, and more power to them. But the plotline of a 20-something man groping an 11-year-old girl who clearly desires him in return might give some readers pause, particularly in the age of #MeToo.

But even that's not quite all. As the novel ends (a sort of spoiler alert here, though it doesn't give away everything), we see an only slightly older Bunny vowing not to marry unless she can marry Laurie—the man who, though not a blood relative, has effectively served as her father and raised her from infancy (Madge, her foster mother of sorts, has conveniently been removed from the picture)—and it seems we are meant to believe that this is quite likely to happen.

It's hard not to be just a wee bit distressed by all of that, and I don't think I'm overly sensitive to such issues.

In short, Brief Flower is skillfully written, often quite beautiful, funny, smart in its observations of children, and frequently touching. It's a lovely, lovely novel on almost every level.

NOTE: The comment function on Blogger is notoriously cranky. If you're having problems, try selecting "Name/URL" or "Anonymous" from the "Comment as" drop-down (be sure to "sign" your comment, though, so I know who dropped by). Some people also find it easier using a browser like Firefox or Chrome instead of Internet Explorer.

But it can still be a pain, and if you can't get any of that to work, please email me at I do want to hear from you!