Thursday, July 25, 2013

British & Irish Women Writers of Fiction 1910-1960 (Introduction)

You can download the entire list in a single PDF. Clicking on the link below will open a Google Docs page displaying the entire list in PDF. To save a copy of the PDF, just click on the little down arrow in the upper left. You can also print the list from the Google Docs page, but be warned that it now weighs in at 544 pages!

This list—the main reason for this blog's creation—was for its first several years of existence known as the "Overwhelming List" to mark the feeling it has often given me as it expands and evolves. In numerous earlier posts on this blog, it is referred to by that name. A while back, though, decided to provide it with a more precise, if more mundane, name.

The list's purpose, for anyone new to my blog, is to provide available information about all British women who published at least one volume of fiction during the years 1910-1960. This includes fiction for older children or young adults, but does not include picture books or story books for very young children. And although the name of this blog specifically references the "middlebrow" as my area of interest, this list has no such parameter. Its goal is to indiscriminately include writers with every variety of brow, writing in any style and on any subject matter, as long as the result can reasonably be described as fiction. For more on why I set this goal, see my main intro (outdated but accurate in terms of my original motives).

As my interest is in portrayals of the life and culture of early 20th century Britain, I have not included writers whose work was solely in the fields of history, philosophy, criticism, poetry, science, or politics—although a good many of the authors included did work in one or more of those areas as well. This means that a forgotten historian who happens to have written a single novel early in her career will be included here, while a much more famous historian who never wrote fiction will not. As the purpose of my blog more generally is to draw attention to writers who have been overlooked or forgotten, this seems appropriate, though it might take some readers aback. And it rather pleases me to note that highbrow book critic Queenie Leavis is nowhere to be found here, while the middlebrow novelists she often scathingly critiqued are well-represented…

Those familiar with previous versions of this list may also note that while the original list included a relatively small number of diarists and memoirists who were of particular interest, those authors have now been removed. Of course, this only applies to authors who only wrote diaries or memoirs; those who wrote fiction as well are still included in the main list.

The list is still growing and evolving, more than a decade after its birth, and as I add and revise, I inevitably make mistakes. Please do let me know of any errors or inaccuracies you find. Please also let me know if you come across an author who fits the list but is not yet included. And, even more importantly, if you are able to fill in any of the many gaps in my knowledge, please contact me. In many cases, I have been able to provide information here that is available nowhere else online, because relatives, descendants, or friends of the authors have generously offered details or because researchers and scholars have shared their findings.

On that note, I have to especially thank researcher John Herrington, whose extraordinary expertise and help over the course of several years has made the list so much more useful and detailed than it would otherwise have been. Many, many, many positive identifications of authors about whom no information is available elsewhere on the internet came directly from John's tireless searching of public records, reference books, and periodicals. I've acknowledged him numerous times within specific entries on the list, but he's helped to flesh out information in hundreds of others.

I'm also making this list available in a downloadable and printable PDF here. Please note, however, that the entire list weighs in at 544 pages, so be careful with that print function unless you have a whole ream of paper queued up!

In addition, I've developed a sort of shorthand for some information on the list. For guidance on the way the list is arranged and formatted, see the Key and Citations here, which also includes full information on some of the sources I cite in multiple entries. (In the PDF version of the list, the Key and Citations appear as appendices at the end.)

With that housekeeping out of the way, I hope you find the list helpful and interesting. Thanks for visiting!

Monday, July 22, 2013

MOLLIE PANTER-DOWNES, Good Evening, Mrs. Craven (1939-1944)

I've realized, with some surprise, that I still haven't written here about one of my favorite sub-genres of writing by British women writers: fiction, stories, and diaries about life during World War II.  It dominated my life for at least a couple of years, and I still return to it regularly.

So I thought I'd rectify that with some thoughts on one of my favorites, even if it will be one of the less obscure titles I discuss (thanks to Persephone).

I’ve never been very interested in most men’s writing about the war, which tends to focus on the heroics and horrors, the physical and emotional traumas of battle, the nobility and patriotism, while the ordinary experience of life fades to black.  Since ordinary life is exactly what I find most interesting to read about, it's not surprising that war stories aren't my cup of tea.  And perhaps that’s actually the key—in war stories there are far too few cups of tea (and too little of the chat that accompanies a nice cuppa)!

But I remember reading Philip Ziegler’s hugely entertaining history, London at War (1995), which relied on the archives of Mass Observation (that organization that literally had eavesdroppers in public places making notes about the morale of Brits throughout the war) to provide a “you are there” glimpse of the ordinary experience of London life during World War II—the Blitz, the gas masks, the air raids, the food shortages, the blackouts, and all the rest.  A short while after that, I came across Persephone’s reprint of Vere Hodgson’s riveting wartime diary, Few Eggs and No Oranges, and I was hooked.

I’m still a bit surprised by the plethora of works by women published during the war, many of them dealing with life on the home front (though there was also a vogue for historical novels for those who wanted to escape from the present).  Several years later, I’ve barely passed beyond the tip of the iceberg of researching and reading them.  Indeed, many of them have been practically (and some perhaps totally) lost to the sands of time, since limited wartime print runs and low quality paper have taken their toll.  But it seems that there must have been novels by women writers published every week during the war.

In fact, that plethora is rather interesting in itself in what it says about the realities of publishing and reading during wartime.  People have always tended to read more during wars (at least until the domination of television and films), in order to escape from or to process the traumatic world around them.  But readership of literature during the world wars—at least in Europe—tended to consist more of women than men, since mobilization was unprecedented.  “Women’s literature” must have became particularly crucial in providing strength and inspiration—or outlets for anger and frustration—for the women who were “keeping the home fires burning.”

Somehow, I think World War II writing also provides strength and inspiration to me, which is part of the appeal.  It's hard to feel like your boring morning commute on a crowded train, or a stressful day at work, or a long line at the grocery store, are truly tragic when you're reading about people dodging bombs, getting buried alive, losing homes and loved ones, and still making it to work the following day…

Mollie Panter-Downes had, perhaps, an “easier” war than many, since she had the comparative luxury of a steady, well-paying job with The New Yorker throughout and beyond the war.  Her husband was in the Gunners, which was understandably a source of anxiety, but Panter-Downes herself resided outside the main areas of bombing, in the Surrey countryside near the town of Haslemere—though she did make frequent trips to London to find material for her weekly New Yorker “Letter From London.”  She had an exclusive contract with the magazine, with the result that the twenty-one stories collected in Good Evening, Mrs. Craven all originally appeared there during the years 1939-1944. 

The stories are light, quick reads—Austen-esque tales of (mostly) women without men, dealing with problem servants, sewing clubs, and irritating refugee house guests, relocating to avoid bombs, trying to find enough food, or yearning for the return of normality.  The earlier stories, from the beginning of the war, are often hilarious.  From “In Clover”:

It was overpoweringly evident that Mrs. Clark was again—expectant, Miss Vereker delicately phrased it to herself, without noticing that the word didn’t fit in very well with Mrs. Clark’s air of dully awaiting a blow over the head with a blunt instrument.

In “The Battle of the Greeks,” a women’s sewing club is making clothes for soldiers and listening to Mrs. Peters gossip about her husband’s cold extremities in bed at night (“one might as well put one’s feet up against a frog”).  When a member suggests they send a batch of clothes to the Greeks, who have just joined the war, Mrs. Peters “held up the pair of trousers she was making and regarded them with a frown, as though meditating what it would be like to put one’s feet up against a Greek.”

Later stories have a more somber edge, permeated with a tired endurance.  In “Goodbye My Love,” a wife endures the first hours of her husband’s departure for war:  “The next two days were bad.  Ruth felt that the major operation had come off but that she still had not come round from the anesthetic.”

But what makes the stories so richly worthwhile is Panter-Downes’ sharp concision, her ability—perhaps learned from the journalistic need to keep a word count always hovering in the back of her mind—to sketch out her characters and their sometimes petty conflicts in a way that not only makes the characters leap off the page but shows even their pettiness in a striking light, suggesting the deeper anxieties and stresses that lie beneath.

In “As the Fruitful Vine,” two newlyweds spend only a few days on honeymoon before the husband goes back to war, after which the wife discovers she is already pregnant (“It seemed less like a marital than a botanical incident, the result of a chance brush between a bee and a flower”).  Lucy meditates with dark humor on pregnancy in wartime:

In her mother’s day a pregnant woman spent a good deal of time on a sofa, thinking beautiful thoughts and resolutely avoiding unpleasant ones; people took care not to speak of anything shocking or violent in front of her.  Nowadays shocking things turned up on the doorstep with the morning paper; violence was likely to crash out of a summer sky on a woman who could move only slowly and who was not as spry as usual at throwing herself on her face in the gutter.

It’s also striking how savvy Panter-Downes was in observing the permanent changes the war would bring to British society and the upper classes.  In “Cut Down the Trees,” the narrator observes with irony that Mrs. Walsingham’s elderly maid Dossie “sincerely believed that the big house, quietly chipping and mouldering above its meadows, would be instantly repopulated [after the war], as though by a genie’s wand, with faceless figures in housemaid’s print dresses, in dark-blue livery and gardener’s baize aprons.”

As Gregory Lestage notes in his introduction, more British civilians were killed in World War II than British soldiers.  Mollie Panter-Downes, among many other chroniclers of Life During Wartime, makes a strong argument that the domestic front has just as much to teach us (and just as much to entertain us with) as any military front.

Panter-Downes was also the author of a novel set in the immediate postwar period.  One Fine Day (1947) is still in print from Virago and is much loved by many readers, though I have to confess I’ve tried twice and never managed to finish it.  My notes on my last attempt begin with, “Life is just too short.”  But it bothers me when others love a book that should be so right up my alley (it’s a sort of tribute to Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, one of my favorite novels, in addition to its insight into postwar—and, in flashbacks, wartime—conditions), so I will probably have to give it another whirl one of these days.

I’d also like to check out one or more of Panter-Downes’s four earlier novels, The Shoreless Sea (1923), The Chase (1925), Storm Bird (1929), and My Husband Simon (1931).  Panter-Downes herself was such a perfectionist that she disowned all of them, but they were successful in their time—indeed, The Shoreless Sea, published when she was only seventeen years old, was a highly-publicized bestseller—and would be interesting as predecessors of Panter-Downes’s best work, if nothing else.

Her postwar stories, fewer in number, are also available from Persephone in the collection, Minnie’s Room, and her New Yorker columns from World War II were collected in London War Notes (1971).

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

RICHMAL CROMPTON, Matty and the Dearingroydes (1956)

I recently discussed Richmal Crompton’s Leadon Hill (1927) here, and although I was a bit lukewarm on it, there were plenty of examples of good writing and genuinely interesting themes to make it clear I had to read this one—the only other of Crompton’s novels that seems to be fairly readily available in the U.S.  Leadon Hill and Matty and the Dearingroydes are the two Crompton books that have been reprinted by Greyladies.  But I happened to look on Amazon and found a really lovely little hardcover edition with an intact dustcover for a reasonable price.  I had to grab it up—sorry, Greyladies, I promise to order something else soon, and if you reprint more Cromptons, I’m guaranteed to order those too, since all her other titles are at least $100 in the U.S.!

At first, I thought I might have the same problem with Matty that I had with Leadon Hill.  Crompton seems to like plots about more or less bohemian characters loosening up strait-laced folks, or at least mocking and condemning their hypocrisies.  Always a popular plotline, and that's fine with me (it works well in reverse too, as Miss Pettigrew has shown).  But in Leadon Hill, I felt Crompton was a bit heavy-handed about it, with a full cast of truly loathsome characters observed by a rather annoyingly self-righteous main character (but I still liked it, even if it doesn’t sound like I did!). 

In Matty and the Dearingroydes, however, written nearly three decades after Leadon Hill (and about a decade after Family Roundabout, an excellent Crompton novel reprinted by Persephone), it’s clear that a more subtle and thoughtful writer is at work.

The story begins with Matty Dearingroyde, the sixty-ish owner of a shop dedicated to used clothing, books, and other odds and ends, approaching a chi-chi suburban London house in search of used clothing to buy.  In a nutshell, the house turns out to belong to the rather loathsome Matthew & Marion Dearingroyde, who discover that Matty is actually their cousin—daughter of Matthew’s disowned artist/bohemian/ne’er-do-well brother.  No doubt they would quickly forget this fact if it weren't that Matthew is planning to run for Parliament and doesn’t want it known that he has an eccentric poor relation running a seedy little shop.  So he suggests that she give up the shop and become properly one of the family, spending a month each in his home and the homes of two of his other siblings.

That pretty much sets the stage for a "Boudu Saved from Drowning" type plot that rollicks along in a compulsively readable way.  I stayed up way too late two nights in a row because I couldn't break away.

Obviously, the compulsiveness of the novel is not due to its startling originality of plot.  Rather, it's in strong, clever writing.  Although plotwise it would be hard not to know what's coming, you never know how cleverly Crompton is going to present it, and in some ways that's almost better, to me, than a surprising or original plot.

There are plenty of humorous passages.  For example, when Matty is first considering Matthew's offer to come and live with them, she finds herself talking it over with the dresses in her shop, including the “crushed-looking garment, resigned and innocent, that did not, Matty felt, know much about life” and the one with “an air of worldly wisdom” that “had seen things, been places, known people, wasn’t to be bamboozled.”

And later, when Matty spends her month with Matthew's sister Flora, who runs a (wannabe) high-class boarding house, we meet the two "lady" tenants who are Flora's pride and joy (as well as her albatross).  When the two women—Lady Purlock and Mrs. Borrowdale—return from a society wedding, we see them in their full pretentious glory:

For a few days they were inclined to be more critical than usual of the domestic arrangements of Shottery Place and blossomed out into more elaborate evening toilettes—Lady Purlock even appearing one evening with an ornament in her hair that closely resembled a tiara—then gradually they resigned themselves once more to an atmosphere that Lady Purlock described in her more gloomy moments as “incurably middle class.”

This reminded me a great deal of the Painton sisters in Leadon Hill, who hilariously "never could quite conquer the idea that there was something vulgar about deck chairs."

The other boarding-house guests are also funny and worth getting to know—Miss Hastings, a busybody involved with every local organization; Miss Winterton, a gruff, manly dominator who can't get enough of hiking all over England (and whom possibly we are to see as lesbian) and Miss Tenby, her passive but increasing bored and exhausted companion; the Redbrooks, whose young daughter died five years ago and who are still engaged in full-time mourning more out of habit than real sentiment; Mr. Appleby, an attorney who spends his time obsessively researching a book he will likely never write; and Colonel & Mrs. Knighton, whose hobby is shopping for houses they have no intention of buying.

Unsurprisingly, Matty is able to help many of them with her no-nonsense, no-pretense, tell-it-as-it-is approach.  But meanwhile Matty herself is interestingly conflicted.  She is trying to be a lady, because her mother wanted her to be, but she has always been "bilingual":

And Matty, who had inherited Jasper’s buoyancy and lightness of heart, adapted herself easily to the situation.  Within doors, under her mother’s anxious eye, she played her part as Matilda Dearingroyde of gentle speech and irreproachable manners.  Out of doors, with the children who went to school with her and used the street as their playground, she was wild and reckless as the best of them, with a shrill cockney voice and the manners of her comrades.  She assimilated both parts with a sort of monkey-like quickness and with no conscious deception.  She was bilingual and came to have a sort of dual personality, accommodating herself to her company automatically and instinctively.

And now that she's trying to acknowledge only the Matilda side of her personality, she keeps having little "break-outs":

Matty was demure and precise-looking in her plain black dress, her hair brushed straight back from her forehead, her feet encased in neat, low-heeled shoes.  She had had a slight “break-out” yesterday and had bought a vulgar scarf depicting the efforts of a fat man to swat a bluebottle, but her courage had failed her at the last minute and she had not put it on.

Sometimes, the return of the repressed Matty is fairly subdued, as when she befriends Matthew & Marion's poor victimized daughter by commenting on the strict running of the Dearingroyde home:

“It’s been running itself on the same lines for so long.  It does rather make one want to clean the brass on Wednesday instead of Tuesday just to give it a shock.”

And sometimes, as it emerges later, the break-outs can be a bit more extreme (but I'll leave that for the reader to discover)…

The final month of Matty's family tour is spent with the truly loathsome Olivia, her doormat of a son, and her daughter-in-law.  Olivia is a prime example of the maleficent malingerer I've started really noticing in a lot of the novels I read.  I think it was a character type I just took for granted for a long time, but it seems to have been a real theme for a lot of writers, and one that they felt strongly about and were eager to explore.

In this case, as with some of the other characters I've commented on, the maleficent Olivia is not actually ill in any apparent way, but merely uses threats of heart attack or total despair to manipulate her son.

After one of Olivia's melodramatic scenes, Matty observes her closely:

Matty’s eyes followed her as she bustled about the room, getting out the cards and card table.  The scene had left no traces.  Her face was not ravaged by her tears.  There was, on the other hand, a sort of bloom and sleekness about her, as if she had derived some sensual satisfaction from it.

Although Olivia is the kind of completely unsympathetic character whose prevalence in Leadon Hill grated on me, in this novel Matty's response is more practical and less about feeling superior than Marcia's in the earlier novel, which makes the scenes more entertaining.  That approach, too, along with the presence of a fair number of likeable characters (and a few realistically believable annoying ones), meant that, for me, the seriousness of the Olivia scenes actually added to the depth of the novel.

The final outcome of the novel, to the extent that it's not fairly obvious from the beginning, I'll leave to you to enjoy for yourself!

Having read two of Crompton's novels in the past couple of weeks, I might not add her to the top tier of my very favorite writers.  But I do have to say that I always seem to find interesting and sometimes surprising depth in her work.  For example, midway through the book Matthew and Marion throw a party, supposedly for their daughter Christine (whom they use as a pawn in their ongoing power struggle), but really to promote Matthew's run for Parliament.  Matty observes Christine actually enjoying herself, forgetting about her parents manipulations of her.  Matty comments:

“Forgetting only puts off remembering, but it gives one a sort of respite.  And it’s all so new to her.  It helps her to grow up.  Unhappy children take a long time to grow up because they build an imaginary world for themselves that’s more real to them than the real world and they can’t find their way out.”

I thought a lot about this quote, and I think it's a strikingly perceptive observation.  I've certainly known people to whom it would seem to apply. 

So if Crompton is not always the most polished of writers, or her characters are not always perfectly rounded or believable, I find myself forgiving those faults, because her sense of humor, her originality in rounding out her plots (if not the plots themselves are not so original), and her sharp understanding of human nature help—for me—to sand off her rough edges.

One last note: On the D. E. Stevenson discussion list, there was a recent discussion about the habit, in the early to mid 20th century, of mothers allowing small babies to sleep outside in their prams.  We noted that it was obviously a safer time, with fewer threats to the child's safety and perhaps a stronger sense of community keeping them safer, but we also realized that there must have been practical considerations, as for example the prevalence of cigarette smoking and coal-burning, that might have given fresh air an extra advantage. There was an example in Stevenson's The Young Mrs. Savage, and, for those keeping track, there is another example here!

Friday, July 12, 2013

DOROTHY WHIPPLE, Someone at a Distance (1953) (and a wee bit on The Priory [1939])

A few years ago, in my early giddy delight at having discovered Persephone Books, I got around to dipping my toe into the waters of Dorothy Whipple's work.  Sadly, the book I started with (I was also in the grip of a major obsession with World War II novels) was They Were Sisters (1943), a bleak little novel about sisters coping with the domestic violence suffered by one of them.  I read about half of it, decided it was just a little TOO soap-opera-ish for me, and quietly returned it to the library.  It wasn't until we were in London late last year and I came across Someone at a Distance in an Oxfam shop for the equivalent of about $4 that I decided to give Whipple another whirl.  (And even at that, you can see it's taken me some months to get around to it.)

In this case, I'm thankful that I always torment myself when I dislike a writer so many kindred spirits are reading and enjoying (Elizabeth Jenkins, for example, on whom I've now, after much self-flagellation, given up...).  I always assume there must be something wrong with ME if I don't like them.

True, this novel, too, might almost be seen as a bleak, soap opera-ish little novel.  It follows the breakup of a happy marriage--a happy family, in fact--as a result of the husband/father's infidelity with a loathsome young French girl who has been his elderly mother's companion, and on his wife's efforts to rebuild her life in the aftermath.  It could easily have been a soap opera, but for the astonishing perceptiveness of Whipple's insights into the characters and their motivations, which are so startling and so true-to-life that I started feeling like I must never have really read about infidelity and heartbreak before.  Ridiculous, of course, and yet that's how fresh the entire novel seemed to me.

Looking at some of the passages I marked in the book, it's hard to find a short quote that really sums up Whipple's subtlety.  Her prose is simple and forthright.  It's not as though she flies off into eloquent reveries. Her power is in the mundane details, the revealing observations tossed out as if they are nothing, such as this one early on, when Ellen is driving:

‘Why will they ride four abreast?’ she asked, avoiding the bare legs of a girl-cyclist, who wobbled, then bit her lip with such smiling apology that Ellen’s irritation vanished and, with perfect good humour, she smiled back.
We get a genuine glimpse of Ellen's character in just a couple of lines--she is perhaps easily annoyed, at least when under stress, but is also easily forgiving.  And a short while later we get a similar sketch of the loathsome young French girl (sorry, but I do enjoy calling her that!), whose name is Louise:
The sight of other people’s happiness irritated her.  Happy people were so boring.  It was unintelligent to be happy, Louise considered.
Although even with the loathsome French girl, we are given a way to understand her behavior.  She has had her heart broken by a wealthier boy who flirted with her and perhaps seduced her, before sauntering off to marry a woman of his own class. Loathsome she may be, but Whipple doesn't neglect to show us why and how she came to be that.

In fact, another thing that fascinated me with Whipple in this novel is her ability to bring so many characters to life.  My favorite example of a brilliantly overinclusive and overly generous novel has always been Elizabeth Taylor's A Game of Hide-and-Seek, in which, at one point, even a young couple waiting for a few minutes on a park bench near the heroine are sketched out in vivid detail, as if Taylor can't bear to neglect even the extras in her scenes, but must carefully give them all their dignity and their moment to shine.

Something similar happens in Someone at a Distance, in which we meet and seem to get to know Avery and Ellen; their children Hugh and Anne; Avery's mother and her devoted housekeeper Miss Daley, who is intentionally humiliated by Louise; Miss Beasley and Miss Pretty, Ellen's own "help," who really aren't terribly helpful; Louise's parents Monsieur and Madame Lanier, attempting to love their daughter but obviously happier when she leaves them; Louise's former lover who broke her heart and his charming and likeable wife, who knows nothing of the affair; and Avery's partner in his publishing business, whose wife left him but whom he never divorced--not to mention a full cast of elderly women at Somerton House, a sort of hotel/retirement home where Ellen stayed sometimes during the war, and the gruffly dominating Miss Beard, who runs it ("Mrs. Beard was a middle-aged Gibson girl, built-up hair, large busy, curved hips and that thrown-forward look which may have been due to her stays or to the fact that she wore high-heeled court shoes which tired her and made her cross, but which she thought necessary to her appearance"), plus one or two of Anne's teachers at school thrown in for good measure.

It's almost dizzying at times, and yet it's totally appropriate and fitting, because this is the story of a family's world, of all the people who come into it and influence it, and all the repercussions that their tragedy has on those around them--even a neighbor we only glimpse once, who is annoyed when Ellen, her world crumbling, refuses an invitation to coffee!

The breakup of Avery and Ellen's happy marriage--and Whipple shows us enough, in her subtle way, for us to know just how enduringly happy it has been--is almost unbearable at times.  I'm not a particularly weepy reader, I'll tell you, but there were times...  By focusing on the mundane effects, the daily details and habits, the impacts the turmoil has on the most basic day-to-day activities, Whipple creates so much more power and depth, and the sense of aching loss her characters feel, than if she had focused on screaming matches or sobbing fits.

Occasionally, Whipple manages to work in some bittersweet humor.  Here, Miss Beasley has confessed to being an abandoned wife herself:
‘Look at me,’ said Miss Beasley, throwing out both hands, potato in one, knife in the other, and standing proudly for inspection with her stringy neck and sparse hair.  ‘Look at me.  I’ve not done so bad, have I?’
It's not easy to create this kind of humor, I don't think, which at the same time makes a bit of fun of Miss Beasley's appearance and makes clear to the reader the pain she has experienced and perhaps a bit of self-deceiving triumph that she needs to maintain.

Ellen's healing and rebuilding of her life forms much of the second half of the novel, and I was honestly riveted by it, though I won't go into it here for fear of spoiling it.  So, just one more quote of a beautiful passage.  This is just before Avery's infidelity occurs, when Ellen, sensing Louise's fundamental loathsomeness, ponders how to ship her off (she has already attempted and failed to seduce Hugh, their son).  Ellen's uncertainties seem to me to contain striking observations about marriage:
A happily married woman acquires the habit of referring everything to, discussing everything with, her husband.  Even the smallest things.  Like bad coal, for instance.
For twenty years, Ellen had been so used to acting with Avery, never without him, that she had waited for him to agree that something must be done about Louise.  Suddenly, she knew that if it was to be done, she must do it herself and without telling him.
It was a momentous decision for her to come to.  She didn’t like making it at all.  She felt she was breaking one of the countless Lilliputian bonds that bound her.
Rather poetically, here, just pages before Hugh's betrayal, it is Ellen who is beginning to learn to break away.

Addendum--The Priory:

After falling in love with Someone at a Distance, I had to go ahead and nab a library copy of the other Whipple novel I always meant to read, The Priory (1939).  I've had in my notes for ages that the Provincial Lady recommends it to a friend as the perfect wartime comfort reading.

I have to admit that I found The Priory to be completely compulsive reading too.  It was perhaps not quite, for me, up to a comparison with Someone at a Distance, but then it drives me crazy when other people compare one of an author's books to another, since whichever one you read first, and with which you have your first "wow I love this writer" kind of epiphany, will probably always stand as a "best" for you.  So that may be all it was in this case too.  I just recall thinking on a couple of occasions, in Whipple's portrayal of another happy marriage (apparently a favorite theme for her), "Okay, enough with the handwringing melodrama."

But anyway, it's a great read, handwringing melodrama or not, and I have just one particularly wonderful quote to share (probably this passage jumps out at everyone who reads it--particularly anyone who's read Ruth Adam's A Woman's Place, with its discussions of the shifting roles and conflicts facing women in the shift from peacetime to wartime):
People say: “Oh, it’s not like that for girls now.”  But it is, and it’s going to be more like it than ever, it seems to me.  According to these papers it is.  Women are being pushed back into homes and told to have more babies.  They’re being told to make themselves helpless.  Men are arming like mad, but women are expected to disarm, and make themselves move vulnerable than they already are by nature.  No women is going to choose a time like this to have a baby in.  You can’t run very fast for a bomb-proof shelter if you have a baby inside you, and a bomb-proof shelter is not the place you would choose to deliver it in.  No protection against gas is provided for children under three, this paper says, so presumably the baby you have laboured to bring into the world must die if there is a gas attack.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Uh-oh, ANOTHER shipment from Awesome Books!

I know anyone reading this must think I work for Awesome Books, or get kickbacks from them, but I really don't. It's just that their great deals on relatively hard-to-find (at least in the U.S.) books are my form of heroin.

Heaven help me, a new shipment has arrived today. Don't ask when I'll have time to read them, or where I will store them on already bulging bookshelves, but I still gleefully tore into the package like it was Christmas in July. Let's see, what do we have?

EDITH PARGETER, By Firelight (1948)

This one is not REALLY that hard to find, but it's always sounded interesting to me--a kind of ghost story, about a widowed writer who moves to an old schoolhouse in a quiet village, only to be haunted by visions of a witchhunt. If I can't have Pargeter's inexplicably-never-reprinted Ordinary People (aka People of My Own), set during the Blitz, I will make due with an eerie novel set in the immediate postwar.

IRENE HANDL, The Sioux (1965)

No doubt those of you in the U.K. are more likely to have heard of Irene Handl than those of us in the U.S., as she was a popular stage and television actress there before turning her hand to writing two acclaimed novels. With rave blurbs by everyone from Daphne du Maurier and Noel Coward to Doris Lessing and Margaret Drabble, The Sioux is about an eccentric French family living in New Orleans, is reportedly tragic and funny and tragically funny by turns, and is told almost entirely in dialogue.  Technically, Handl's fiction was published too late to be covered by this blog, but I decided, willy-nilly, to make an exception for her--she is, after all, very much of the same generation as many of the writers covered here--she was just a literary late bloomer!

ELIZABETH BERRIDGE, Across the Common (1964)

I've meant to check out some of Berridge's other work ever since reading her wonderful story collection Tell It to a Stranger, published by Persephone. For an average of less than $3 per book (with AB's "awesome" 4-for-3 sale recently), who could resist? This one is supposed to be one of her best, the story of a woman who leaves her husband and moves in with her three aunts, where all is not as it seems...

URSULA BLOOM, The Fugitive Romantic (1960)

And finally, yes, I am back to reading a "romance" writer.  I came across Bloom's name in a reference book, discovered that Simon from Stuck-in-a-Book had written fondly about a couple of her novels written under one of her pseudonyms, Mary Essex, looked for those novels, failed to find them, but found this one instead. It's "a romantic adventure which ranges from Chelsea to its dramatic climax in a haunted Welsh castle." Oh, my! (And no, I'm not sure what that yellow spot in the U of Bloom's name on the cover could be--it is resistant to rubbing alcohol, but at least I must have killed any lingering bacteria with the attempt!  Perhaps someone was enjoying some curry with their romance?)

It's all I can do to keep from diving into one (or more) of these right now, but I will restrain myself, since I'm already reading about four books as it is.

And all for $11.34 including shipping! I almost feel guilty...

Sunday, July 7, 2013

RICHMAL CROMPTON, Leadon Hill (1927)

I was excited a few weeks ago to score a used copy of this book (and for cheap, no less!) from Awesome Books, as I read Crompton's Family Roundabout (1948) a year or two ago and enjoyed it a lot.  Leadon Hill is back in print now thanks to Greyladies in the U.K., whom I love on principle for making hard-to-find books like this available again (they’ve also reprinted several newly-discovered D. E. Stevenson books and many of the novels Noel Streatfeild wrote as “Susan Scarlett,” among others).  Since most of Crompton's many novels for grownups (as opposed to her numerous William books, for which she is far better known) are out-of-print and difficult to find in libraries, I'm happy that this book—along with one of Crompton's late novels, Matty and the Dearingroydes (1956)—has been reprinted by Greyladies.

I was so excited, in fact, that when Leadon Hill arrived I bypassed my “to read” stack (more like a “to read” bookcase these days) and jumped right in. 

From the Greyladies description of Leadon Hill, I was expecting a sort of D. E. Stevenson-ish village social comedy, having to do with a wife and mother left alone for four months while her husband goes on a fishing trip.  And at first, this seemed to be the case. 

Marcia’s husband is a bit needy and helpless (Marcia refers at one point to his “fussiness”), and Marcia is looking forward to some alone time—though they do apparently have a good relationship.  Perhaps they just get on each other's nerves now and again.

A large cast of eccentric villagers are also introduced: the judgmental Miss Mitcham, who lives (symbolically?) on a dead-end road (“Miss Mitcham from her drawing-room window used to watch the return of the baffled motorists and cyclists with a malicious little smile"); the vicar, who plans his sermons to “bring out the deep thrilling notes of his voice,”; his wife, who used to be a kitchenmaid and lives in terror of this being revealed; the elderly Painton sisters, slowly starving to death but too proud to admit their poverty; stern Miss Martyn and her ditzy sister Miss Dulcie, plus their self-righteous niece Olive; superficial Mrs. Croombs, her superficial daughter Freda, and her only slightly less superficial son, Gerald, who bonds with Olive over their mutual feelings of superiority over everyone else; and playboy and sadist Sir Geoffrey, son of the local gentry, who is trying to seduce Freda.  Plus, there’s a local writer (of novels disapproved of in the village) and his wife, Mr. and Mrs. Elliott, who appear sporadically to share Marcia’s dislike of the villagers’ attitudes.

So far so good.  Although there are more dark motivations and unsympathetic characters than D. E. Stevenson would likely have incorporated, a satirical perspective and dark sense of humor could have make much of such a prudish, hypocritical, and/or just plain nasty cast.  Especially when an attractive young woman, Miss West, raised in an artistic household in Itay, moves to the village and stirs everything up with her carefree wholesomeness.  (Wholesomeness in spades, I might add—she’s like a very slightly bohemian Doris Day.)

And indeed, Crompton’s turns of phrase are often brilliant, summing up her characters in clever and original nutshells.  I laughed out loud at the Painton sisters declining to be seated in Marcia’s garden because “[t]hey never could quite conquer the idea that there was something vulgar about deck chairs."  Sweet but confused Miss Dulcie knits unusable garments “which she called 'vests,' and imagined as clothing a large class of unfortunates known vaguely and generally as 'the poor.'  She felt a thrill of joy on a cold morning when she thought of the 'poor' warmly clothed in her 'vests.'"  And the vicar’s wife obsesses over hiding the secret of her past: “The day arranged for the garden party was fine.  Minnie felt that even the weather had forgotten that she had ever been a housemaid.”

Richmal Crompton

But although there are these wonderful bits of humor and sharp characterization, Crompton unfortunately made the decision to focus relentlessly on the villagers, who ultimately come to seem like mere straw figures—inhuman, utterly unsympathetic, and deserving of all the condemnation they get from Marcia and the Elliotts, who, along with the pristine Miss West, are the only characters allowed any glimmer of humanity.  Mrs. Coombs pushes Freda into the arms of the reprehensible Geoffrey (who prides himself on killing chickens with his car as much as on seducing young girls) because she yearns for the wealth and prestige he offers; Gerald loves first the ice princess Olive ("It was as if she were always conscious of some invisible audience to whom she feared to betray any emotion") and then Miss West, whom he finds not icy enough; Olive subtly terrorizes her ditzy aunt; the vicar’s wife protects him from all responsibility (including visiting the deathbeds of his flock) and feels that her lack of charity reveals that she has become a true lady; and all the while Miss Mitcham keeps everyone in strict check.  There is literally no point at which it is possible to like (or even sympathize with) any of them.  They are just one big B-movie villain.

And for me, this made the novel rather disappointing.  It ultimately seemed more pontification than satire.  Satire requires some emotional distance in a writer, some coolness and reflection on the characteristics being satirized, but for whatever reason Crompton here seems genuinely, well, pissed off.  About two-thirds of the way through, when Mr. Elliott visits Marcia to tell her of yet another scandal Miss West has caused, analyzing the villagers’ behavior from the lofty viewpoint of intellectual superiority, I started to feel a bit annoyed by the judge and jury as well as the criminals.  Mr. Elliott's holier-than-thou enlightenment and Marcia's gleeful approval of his critiques started to grate on me.  After all, surely unquestioning self-righteousness is an unattractive characteristic regardless of which side you're on?

That said, though, I actually did enjoy this novel—even if (and yes, maybe even to some extent because) I sometimes wanted to throw it across the room.  I think that’s a testament both to Crompton’s writing, which even in its early, raw form already shows signs of how much better she will become, and to her insight into character.  Although for me she ultimately struck out here due to flat characters and a mean-spirited tone, Leadon Hill just makes me want to track down more of her work.  Her World War II novel, Mrs. Frensham Describes a Circle, has been on my Hopeless Wish List for a while now, but I’ll have to see what other titles I can find.

As a brief addendum (and a SLIGHT SPOILER):

I found the very end of the novel intriguing.  It's not a big dramatic climactic finale with highkicking showgirls or anything, and there's nothing surprising about it, but if you really don't want to know, stop reading now.

Marcia’s husband arrives back home when the major events of the novel are over—after the smoke has cleared, as it were—and Marcia finds it impossible to convince him that the villagers were in the wrong.  He immediately believes that Miss West really was an undesirable type, an “adventuress,” and that Marcia’s sympathy for her stemmed from her foolish good-heartedness and lack of judgment.  She attempts to argue with him, but realizes it is hopeless, and anyway he is more interested in the state of his garden, in which the asters have bloomed unexpectedly:

"I believe you think that that's the most important thing that's happened in Leadon Hill since you went away?"

He laughed.

"Well, isn't it?" he said.

So, I did wonder: Does this ending suggest that Marcia’s husband, who instantly and irrevocably accepts the verdict of the villagers, is really “one of them” and therefore perhaps not well-suited to Marcia herself?  Or does his ultimate indifference to all the drama—his fundamental lack of concern with all the self-righteousness and hairpulling—indicate just the opposite? 

Either way, though, a blithe indifference to self-righteousness would certainly be a handy characteristic for anyone married to Marcia!

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

EILUNED LEWIS, The Captain's Wife (1943)

I think I first came across this novel a couple of years ago when I was obsessively tracking down every bit of British literature I could find from World War II.  When I realized that it was actually set in the late nineteenth  
century in Wales, I think I sort of pushed it aside as of peripheral interest, and it was only recently that I came across Eiluned Lewis's name again and decided to delve deeper.  

I'm glad I did, as it is really a beautiful, eloquent novel, reminiscent for me of another writer from across the Atlantic who was for a long time dismissed or underrated, like Lewis, because she was a "regional" writer.  Willa Cather's novels of American pioneer life--particularly O Pioneers (1913) and My Antonia (1918)--are among my favorites, and are similarly vivid evocations of time and place.  Like The Captain's Wife, they are perhaps a bit nostalgic, even idealized, with their hard-working, pious characters bravely facing the difficulties of life.  And yet, they are at the same time unflinching in their portrayal of those hardships, of tragedy, suffering, and death, and even of distinctly un-noble characters as well.  Although Lewis's novel is, in many ways, a rather "inspirational" kind of novel, with its emphasis on moral characters and religion as a source of strength in facing life's struggle, it also doesn't really shy away from the rough stuff.  It has it's feet on the ground, and the ground, as it so often does, gets muddy sometimes.

The plot--to the extent the novel has one (another reason I like it perhaps--it's a quiet, "slice of life" kind of novel, rather than a plot-driven "what will happen next" kind of book, and as such you can sink into it, live it vicariously)--surrounds Lettice Peters, the captain's wife of the title, her children (especially Mattie, from whose perspective some of the story is told), John, her husband who is often away on his voyages, and their various neighbors and family.  

I don't have any profound thoughts or brilliant analysis about the book, only a few things that struck me.

One thing that Lewis does so well and with great subtlety is portraying the emotional ups and downs of Lettice's life.  When John has just returned from a voyage, Lettice "wakened each morning with a little start of joy."  But only a short while later, as they arrive for a visit to her unmarried sister at the home where they grew up, Lettice reflects on her childhood: "A feeling of lightness and airiness came to her as she thought of these things.  How free from cares she had been in those days!"  And what has changed, we soon realize, is that she is already thinking of John's next voyage, when she will lose her joy again.  

It's not easy (at least if we believe Tolstoy) to make a happy family interesting, and yet Lewis does it in a completely convincing way.  Lettice's joy and sorrow are always just a breath apart.  Even when happy, she knows another departure will be coming.  This is stressed by her recollections of--and her daughter Matty's reflections on--the beginnings and endings of school holidays.  The beginning is always the beginning of the end.  Life is cyclical, and these smaller comings and goings also inform the novel's larger concerns with life and death--which might have been influenced too by the time in which the novel was written.

There were quite a number of writers who turned to historical fiction during the war, since for many readers (and the writers themselves) it must have been a relief to focus on the problems of other times rather than on the bombs dropping or the long queues for limited food.  Lewis, however, only published two novels--the first was Dew on the Grass (1934), an autobiographical portrayal of her own childhood, which is now on my to-read list as well--so the fact that she set this one in the even more distant past (basing it on the life of her grandmother, Martha Griffiths--see this fascinating bit of background about Martha on Honno Press's website) was perhaps not out of character.  But one can certainly imagine that the meditations on death--particularly on the risk of sudden loss of loved ones--may have had added relevance for Lewis and for her readers.

The real captain's house in St. Davids

The community Lewis describes, called St. Idris in the novel (actually St. Davids), lives and breaths the sea.  When Lettice visits her husband's aunt late in the novel, we get a picture of why the villagers felt ambivalent about their relationship with the sea:

The MacAlisters had fared to the ends of the earth, and of Alexander’s three sons Thomas became a commander in the East India Company’s service and died in Calcutta, Henry was lost with his ship and all hands in the Australian Bight, and Alexander the second was shot through the head off Sevastopol in the Crimean War.  Rachel, the one surviving sister, married a merchant captain and send her only child to sea.  Father and son died on the same voyage of yellow fever in Rio, and Rachel, widowed, childless and brotherless, lived on in the tall house where she had been born.

Lettice, too, is forever aware of the dangers facing John on his voyages.  In one particularly poignant passage (which I won't quote here because you should really experience it first in its context in the novel), she wrestles with the knowledge that, unless she could go down on his ship with him, one of them will inevitably die before the other.

But the novel is not really depressing, though I may have made it sound so.  Well, at least not TOO depressing.  Like Cather's, it's merely a realistic one, in which death and sorrow have their place but are not allowed to dominate.  For example, Lettice's children frequently play in the ruins of the Bishop's Palace near their home, and they can sense its rich, dark past, but this actually adds to the fun and excitement of their games:

When in the course of their games the children chased each other with flying feet down broken stairways, hid themselves behind a spiral bend to watch, through an arrow slit in the wall, their pursuer’s stealthy approach, or leapt into the dark mouth of a vault, then it was well to lay a firm hold on the present; to listen for the friendly sound of a cart crossing the Deanery bridge, or remember that Marged had been baking and that there would be fresh bread for tea.  Anything at all to keep at bay the thought of men being hunted for their lives, of places slippery with blood, and dripping prison walls from which there was no return to sun and air and cheerfulness again.

In fact, perhaps this is a central passage of the novel, now that I think about it, in the way it reflects young life joyfully making games out of the sorrows of the past?  What do you think?  

Happily, Honno Press in the U.K. seems to be keeping both of Lewis's novels in print, as well as numerous other interesting works of Welsh literature.

The ruins of the Bishop's Palace today

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