Thursday, August 29, 2013

Update: 28 more...

Happy Labor Day weekend to those in the U.S. 

Andy and I will be in sunny San Diego (as opposed to foggy San Francisco) for the long weekend, but my next post, on the second Celia Buckmaster novel (I know you're all holding your breath!), should go up by next Wednesday. Or Tuesday if I'm really inspired. Ciao until then!


I've added 28 more writers to the main list.  These are quite a mixed bag.  Several are mainly known as mystery writers—I was trolling some mystery websites and came up with several new names.  In particular, Margot Bennett, who received acclaim from Julian Symons and then turned her attention to sci-fi; Katherine Farrer, whose Cretan Counterfeit reportedly makes effective use of the British Library and Bloomsbury; and Joan Fleming, whose The Man From Nowhere was acclaimed for its portrayal of suspicion in an English village, all seem to be of interest.  I'm also yearning now for Nancy Spain's The Kat Strikes (1955), a well-received thriller set in the immediate postwar period in London, availability of which in the U.S. seems sadly limited.  Another for the Hopeless Wish List? Perhaps, though I haven't given up yet!

In addition, I finally fleshed out my information on some writers I had on my World War II reading list—memoirists like Christabel Bielenberg and Anita Leslie and another important diarist, Clara Milburn, who lived through the terrible bombing of Coventry.

I also added Antonia White's daughter, Susan Chitty, who turns out to have written three novels herself, and a few World War I period writers about whom information is sparse.  And the work of Gertrude Bell and Ethel Tweedie, though not technically fiction or memoir, both were trailblazing and intriguing enough for their travel writing to be of interest here.  Travel writing is sort of memoir, right?  Right?

And Edna O'Brien?  It's hard to believe at this late date that I'm still finding oversights this significant.  My excuse is that I thought she didn't start writing until the mid-1960s.  In fact, her first novel appeared in 1960, qualifying her (just barely) for inclusion here.

The new total: 429 writers.  With more to come!

MARJORIE ALAN (1905-????)
(pseudonym of Doris Marjorie Bumpus)

More research needed; mystery novelist about whom little information is available; titles include Masked Murder (1945), Murder in November (1946), Murder at Puck's Cottage (1951), and Murder in a Maze (1956).

ALICE MAUD ALLEN (dates unknown)

More research needed; author of at least four novels, including the World War I themed Silhouette (1923) and The Trap (1931), the latter published by the Woolves; other titles include Baxters o' the Moor (1922), One Tree (1926), and a biography of Sophy Sanger (1958).

ALICE ASKEW (1874-1917)

Novelist who co-authored with her husband Claude an astonishing number of popular novels, including Helen of the Moor (1911) and Nurse (1916); in WWI, they worked together in a British field hospital in Serbia, and were killed when their ship was torpedoed by a German submarine.

(pseudonym of Muriel Vere Mant Barling, aka Charles Barling)

Author of more than two dozen mystery novels, including White Pierrot (1936), Saga of a Scoundrel (1947), The Rest Is Silence (1951), Motive for Murder (1963), and Cage Without Bars (1966).

GERTRUDE BELL (1868-1926)

Archaeologist, travel writer, anti-suffragist, and a key political figure involved in establishing the modern nation of Iraq, Bell was a trailblazing but controversial figure whose complexities are revealed in her Letters (published 1927-1928); her diaries of 1913-14 appeared in 2000.

MARGOT BENNETT (1912-1980)

Author of mystery novels such as The Widow of Bath (1952), praised by Julian Symons, and The Man Who Didn't Fly (1955), and of two science fiction novels—The Long Way Back (1954), about an England colonized by Africa, and The Furious Masters (1968).


Memoirist known for The Past Is Myself (1968), about her marriage to a German Nazi-resister and their harrowing life in Nazi Germany, which inspired the TV drama Christabel (1988); after the TV version, demand from fans led Bielenberg to write a sequel, The Road Ahead (1992).


Daughter of Prime Minister Herbert Asquith (and grandmother of actress Helena Bonham-Carter), best known for her biography, Winston Churchill as I Knew Him (1965), but her diaries, published in three volumes (1996-2000), are also important for her insider's view of tumultuous times.

(aka Jennie Melville)

Acclaimed author of both contemporary and historical mysteries and, under her pseudonym, of gothic romances and a mystery series featuring policewoman Charmian Daniels; titles include Receipt for Murder (1956), Murderers' Houses (1966), and A Nameless Coffin (1966).

SUSAN CHITTY (1929-     )

Daughter of Antonia White; biographer and author of three novels—The Diary of a Fashion Model (1958), White Huntress (1963), and My Life & Horses (1966); her biographies include The Woman Who Wrote Black Beauty (1971) and a biography of Edward Lear (1989).

HELEN EDMISTON (1913-????)
(aka Helen Robertson)

Mystery writer about whom little is known; author of four mystery novels—The Winged Witnesses (1955), Venice of the Black Sea (1956), The Crystal-Gazers (1957), and the most acclaimed, The Chinese Goose (1960, aka Swan Song), and one additional novel, The Shake-Up (1962).

(pseudonym of Margaret Wetherby Williams)

Born in Canada but raised in England, Erskine was a crime novelist whose works include And Being Dead (1938), The Disappearing Bridegroom (1950), Old Mrs. Ommanney Is Dead (1955), and The Ewe Lamb (1968).


Wife of an Oxford don, Farrer wrote three mysteries—The Missing Link (1952), set at Oxford, Gownsman's Gallows (1954), and The Cretan Counterfeit (1957), set in and around the British Museum—and one mainstream novel, At Odds with Morning (1960).

JOAN FLEMING (1908-1980)

Mystery writer and children's author, known for the variety of her approaches to mystery writing; her best known works include Maiden's Prayer (1957), The Man from Nowhere (1960), a vivid portrayal of suspicion in an English village, and Midnight Hag (1966).

(aka Mary Fitt, Stuart Mary Wick, and Caroline Cory)

Classical scholar, children's author and novelist whose fiction includes the literary Inspector Mallet mystery series beginning with Expected Death (1938), fiction and nonfiction for children, and elegant mainstream fiction including Quarrelling with Lois (1928) and Gown and Shroud (1947).

DULCIE GRAY (1915-2011)
(pseudonym & stage name of Dulcie Winifred Catherine Savage Denison)

Veteran actress of stage, television, and film (including the movie version of Dorothy Whipple's They Were Sisters), Gray also wrote mystery and adventure novels, including Murder on the Stairs (1957), The Murder of Love (1967), and (a fabulous title) Deadly Lampshade (1971).


More research needed; author of a dozen or more novels from the 1900s to the 1930s, including several mysteries; titles include Mrs. Vannock (1907), Amber and Jade (1928), The Punt Murder (1936), and Sweets and Sinners (1937).

ELAINE HAMILTON (dates unknown)

More research needed; mystery writer of the 1930s whose titles include Some Unknown Hand (1930), Murder in the Fog (1931), The Chelsea Mystery (1932), and Murder Before Tuesday (1937).

VERE HUTCHINSON (dates unknown)

More research needed; forgotten novelist of the 1920s, whose works include Sea Wrack (1922), The Naked Man (1925), Great Waters (1926), The Dark Freight (1928), and a story collection, The Other Gate and Other Stories (1928).

MRS. JOHN LANE (1854-1927)
(pseudonym of Annie Philippine Eichberg Lane, first married name King)

More research needed; wife of publisher John Lane, published several light novels, including According to Maria (1910), Maria Again (1915), and War Phases According to Maria (1917), and several other works for which information is not available.

ANITA LESLIE (1914-1985)

Successful biographer best known for Jennie: The Life of Lady Randolph Churchill (1969), about Winston Churchill's mother, Leslie earned the French Croix de Guerre twice as an ambulance driver in WWII, described in her extraordinary memoir Train to Nowhere (1948).


Director of the Women's Royal Naval Service (WRNS) during World War II, for which she received the DBE, Mathews published a significant memoir of her experiences, called Blue Tapestry (1948).

CLARA MILBURN (1883–1961)

Diarist whose World War II diaries, published as Mrs. Milburn's Diaries (1979), provide an important record of domestic life in Coventry during the war—including her experience of the terrible air raids on Coventry and the news that her son is missing in action after Dunkirk.

PATRICIA MOYES (1923-2000)

Popular mystery writer whose novels usually feature Scotland Yard Chief Inspector Henry Tibbett and his wife, whose close relationship add depth to the series; titles include Dead Men Don't Ski (1959), Murder a la Mode (1963), and The Curious Affair of the Third Dog (1973).

EDNA O'BRIEN (1930-     )

Acclaimed Irish novelist, dramatist, screenwriter, and biographer, best known for her Country Girls trilogy—The Country Girls (1960), The Lonely Girl (1962), and Girls in Their Married Bliss (1964); O'Brien published a memoir, Country Girl, in 2012.

DORIS POCOCK (dates unknown)

More research needed; children's author whose work includes girls' school stories such as The Head Girl's Secret (1927), mystery stories like The Riddle of the Rectory (1931), and World War II stories like Catriona Carries On (1940) and Lorna on the Land (1946), the latter about Land Girls.

NANCY SPAIN (1917-1964)

Pioneering journalist, TV personality, biographer, children's author, and co-founder of the feminist She magazine, Spain wrote three memoirs as well as humorous mysteries such as Death Before Wicket (1946); her novel The Kat Strikes (1955), set in postwar London, received particular acclaim.

(aka Mrs. Alec Tweedie)

Biographer and author of light travel books; best known for early works like A Girl's Ride in Iceland (1889) and A Winter Jaunt to Norway (1894), which pushed the boundaries of acceptable women's behavior, she later explored women's roles in other locales in Women the World Over (1914).

Sunday, August 25, 2013

CELIA BUCKMASTER, Village Story (1951)

In a village a new face is new for a very long time, and a new name remains strange until it is put on a tombstone and so becomes one of the family at last.

As opening lines go, this is a pretty good one, and it was enough to reassure me that there were going to be, at the very least, a few high points in spontaneously deciding to read this totally unknown author's long-forgotten first novel.  But in fact there were more than just a few.

A few days ago, I gave a bit of background on coming across Celia Buckmaster's name in Nicola Beauman's wonderful biography of Elizabeth Taylor, and provided what little information I've unearthed about this intriguing painter and author of two novels.  I also mentioned that this has already become one of my favorite obscure novels—which has rather intimidated me, since now that I come to think of it I'm not at all sure how to sum up what I liked so much in this rather unpresumptuous, down-to-earth, but compulsively readable story about villagers living their lives.  Happily, though, for readers of this blog, the fact that it's an unpresumptuous, down-to-earth, but compulsively readable story about villagers living their lives may be a recommendation in itself!

Interestingly, it was Elizabeth Taylor that I thought of most often in reading Village Story.  Buckmaster has a similar knack for sharp, brilliant character sketches and a similar determination to give dignity and depth to even her minor characters.  Buckmaster's prose, like Taylor's, is smooth and understated, but re-reading parts of the novel to write this review I noticed hints and implications I had completely overlooked on my first reading—an experience that's also familiar from reading Taylor.  They are both deceptively simply writers, and sentences that seem perfectly straightforward contain subtle revelations.

Village Story's main plot revolves around two discontented wives.  Mrs. Noyce is a painter (like Buckmaster herself) who married her husband because he took her art seriously and wouldn't want her to be domestic, but who is now beginning to yearn for motherhood.  Mrs. Ethelburger, on the other hand—introduced by Buckmaster as the heroine of the novel—has four children and is more or less happy with her husband, but has nevertheless been escaping domestic drudgery by rather cold-bloodedly carrying on an affair with a businessman in the village:

Of course, if Mrs Ethelburger had been efficient and house-proud it might have been a bit easier. The house was very badly run. … Mrs. Ethelburger, who sat down when she wanted to think, had been classed as very intelligent when a girl, but seeing her in this ramshackle house, surrounded by her noisy family (as though there were not enough children about, there were photos of them all over the mantelpiece), people had wondered: hadn't she rather thrown herself away?

The reasons for the womens' discontentment are not made entirely explicit, but this seems rather appropriate for a novel focused on village life.  The reader, like a neighbor in the village, is given not much more information than one might overhear in passing or in the village pub, and is left to fill in the rest.

At any rate, these plot strands are merely the frame on which the novel rests.  We also meet the Noyces' cook and the elderly nurse who raised Mr. Noyce and lives with them still; the Rector and his wife, who finds life hilarious in a rather scornful way despite the Rector urging her toward compassion; Mr. Browning, the self-made businessman hurt by Mrs. Ethelburger's treatment; his mother, with whom he still lives and who thinks the villagers look down on her for dropping her aitches; and Linda, the resentful, spoiled young girl who helps out at the Noyces' until she begins to fantasize that Mr. Noyce is making advances on her.

It's all quite mundane and ordinary, as real life actually is, and that's what, for me, makes it so compelling.  Buckmaster's particular concern is for the little frustrations and limitations of civilized life.  Most characters are shown facing these, and Buckmaster's exploration of them reveals her real strength as a writer.  The only way to convey the power of it all is to quote, but be warned: Buckmaster doesn't write in short, clever soundbites.  Her depth unfolds in elegant slow motion, so my quotes will be longer than usual.  Hopefully I'm not too egregiously violating copyright.

Here is one of the most breathtaking bits in the novel, about the elderly nurse, in which virtually every line packs a punch:

And nurse, whom you probably think of as a minor character, a subdued joke, as it were, is an important person really. Her kind is dying out, but once people like her formed the infant minds of the country's rulers. Upper-class families, whose sons were destined to pass through the Public Schools and then the appropriate Universities, and thence onward guiding the nation's affairs, all had nurses. These women, once so intimately bound up with affairs, we are inclined to think of now as old-fashioned, Old Testament creatures really. And Old Testament they are. A man of Mr. Noyce's age, if he had a nurse in infancy, most certainly has the voice of conscience somewhere among his inner voices. It speaks with rather a common voice perhaps, muttering the Ten Commandments, gives warning about punishment, and says "Now, now" in awkward situations. That is nurse. Naturally when conscience is outmoded, so is nurse. We laugh at her and tease like Mr. Noyce. But Mr. Noyce will always feel a little guilty. There are still nurses, of course, to this day, for any class that can afford them, admirable nurses, young and college trained, but their function has altered with the times. They are interested in diet-vitamins and so forth, and child psychology has opened up a whole new field of investigation for them; so that it is to science that they look for inspiration at their task, not religion. "Carrots make you see in the dark," the modern nurse might well say to the finicky feeder, but: "Think what you said at Grace, Master Harry, and eat what's put before you"—certainly not.

Old nurse spends her time now mending and sewing in her dusty parlour. She is growing blind, and besides her silver-rimmed spectacles, she must read the Bible in the evenings with the help of a magnifying-glass. The mice trouble her, she can hear them gnawing at the wainscoting, and so she keeps her large neutered cat Marcus constantly at her side. There is always a fire burning in her room and a black kettle singing on the hob. Her hands are twisted with arthritis so that if she points an accusing finger her hand will not obey her and she cannot stretch it out. She wears only boots now, they help her with her ankles, and these are nearly hidden under the skirts of her voluminous grey dresses. She always has a shawl on, but not an apron, and the large black hairpins, which she uses to keep up her masses of white hair) catch at the shawl at the back of her neck so that she feels the shawl slipping and hunches her shoulders. Her voice trembles a little when she speaks, like someone reading who knows the end of the sad story. She still trusts in the Lord.

I've read this passage at least ten times now and think it's genuinely brilliant.  The accusing finger crippled with age manages to be symbolic, funny, and heartbreaking all at once.

And here, just after he has overheard an argument between Mr. and Mrs. Noyce, is Broom, their gardener, whose own wife has recently left him for another man.  Broom mulls over the turmoils and complexities of matrimony:

His own wife was childless, and he had come to the conclusion that barrenness was the root of all evil. A kind man with a sad look in his eyes, he would never, in fact, have laid hands on his wife with intent to harm her, but noticing how she treated animals, giving the dog a kick when she stumbled over him in the dark, shouting abuse at the proud geese when they invaded her garden, he had sometimes longed to beat her with the little whip she kept to train the cats. Besides having no children, Mrs. Broom and Mrs. Noyce had other things in common. Mrs. Broom had belonged to a circus before she married, and so to a certain extent had the feelings of a creative artist. She had been trained to do a small act with the lions; but one day there was an accident and her face was lacerated. Badly shaken and disfigured, she was no good for the circus any more. She then married Mr. Broom, who had always been after her (he had met her in the town near the village when first the circus came there, and then they had exchanged letters, meeting seldom but being faithful to each other), and now, perhaps out of nostalgia for the circus, she trained cats to do little tricks, such as jumping over boxes and leaping at her when she called. This ruined her temper, because cats are so hard to train. She had one friend, the village post-mistress—a large, domineering woman like herself, who lived in almost perfect peace with a frail, domesticated husband and two grown-up boys who went away to work. The post-mistress, Mrs. Blonsom, was on friendly terms with Mrs. Ethelburger. Both women kept bees, and when the time came for honey to be extracted, they helped each other. At Christmas they exchanged presents, and at all times of the year were glad to meet and have a talk. They did not exactly gossip, but were inclined to shake their heads together over the frailties of human nature.

This wealth of interconnected detail evokes the interconnected lives of the villagers as well as Broom's train of thought, and the image of Mrs. Broom training cats out of a frustrated desire for the circus is almost as funny and tragic as the nurse's arthritic finger.

And finally, though Buckmaster's intent in the novel is a serious one—she doesn't play the villagers for easy laughs—here is one passage it's hard to read without a smile, though here too are real frustration and well-meaning, if misguided, intent.  The Rector and his wife discuss her newfound political conviction:

"I know what you are driving at, Arthur. But you see, unlike you, I wasn't brought up with all these class prejudices. My family were once rulers, but whatever purpose did these landed gentry serve? Greedy landlords, that's what they are!"

"My dear, as I've said before, I don't think you quite understand what you are talking about. If you really want to be a Communist, you should first of all read Das Kapital. It's somewhere about in the library."

Mrs Spark drummed her fingers on the table, smiling a bit, but not looking at her husband.

"Arthur," she said, "to be a good Comrade doesn't mean that one has to be so awfully clever. You, for instance, are an intellectual. But the really important people, you know, are the Workers."

The Rector sighed.

Still, ever since Mrs Spark had learnt to sing 'The Red Flag' she had been much happier. She caught the bus every Wednesday afternoon (early closing day in the town), and stayed on for the factory workers' meeting. She read Communist tracts, and had ordered the Daily Worker. (But for some reason it had never come.) She carried on with her Women's Institute activities just as usual and arranged the flowers for Sunday services, and, in fact, carried on in every way just the same. Only every now and then there were these little outbursts. It made the Rector careful with what he said. But one cannot always think twice before one speaks, and so there were collisions. There are many surprising things about married life, but the apparent ease with which two people even in their old age can settle down to a new phase in their relationship is surely one of the most extraordinary. Before, it had always been the Rector who was right about everything; he held the magic keys. Now they were obsolete. Not that Mrs Spark had stopped being a Christian-far from it-she often remarked how near she felt to those early Christians (about A.D. 1). It was in her attitude to the little vexations-politics, what sort of books to put down on the library list, what programmes to listen to on the wireless-the sort of things a puzzled wife refers to her husband with confidence in his superior powers, that Mrs Spark had changed. He was quite calm about it all, and except for one thing (barring the arguments, of course, but they were only tiffs), never showed any strong feelings about the change. But instead of presenting her with a bunch of roses on her birthday as usual, he gave her a book on dialectical materialism. It proves, I think, that women are hard to please, because she was very hurt.

This is not a perfect novel.  It does bear some of the weaknesses of a first book.  Juggling so many characters is a challenge for any writer, and focus is occasionally lost.  There are places, too, where interactions—especially those involving the two central women—descend into mere squabbling and resentment and become less interesting.  But for me, the inspired characterizations and powerful writing of passages like those above more than make up for the book's flaws.  I think Village Story can be added to my list of forgotten novels that should be in print.

Now to dive into Family Ties, Buckmaster's only other novel, which I will plan to write about in the next week or two.  It will be a little bittersweet to exhaust such a strong writer's "complete works" so quickly!

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

"…someone called Celia Buckmaster…"

It must be vanishingly rare for anyone—least of all myself—to be able to say they know more about a middlebrow British woman novelist than Nicola Beauman does.  But this may be my one chance…

As most readers of this blog already know, Beauman's book A Very Great Profession: The Woman's Novel 1914-1939 (1983) is one of the seminal texts in the study of middlebrow writers, and the publishing house she began in the late 1990s, Persephone Books, has been an enormous force in the rediscovery of lesser-known women writers.  Suffice it to say she knows what she's talking about.

Beauman's subsequent biography of Elizabeth Taylor in 2009 was also a rich source, for me, of offhand mentions of little-remembered writers—I first came across Elizabeth Montagu, Kathleen Farrell, Kay Dick, and several others there.  But there was also an intriguing reference to "someone called Celia Buckmaster," with whom Beauman seemed to be unfamiliar.  Naturally, my obsessive nature led me to a fruitless Google search and then the discovery that the British Library showed two novels by Buckmaster. 

A bit more poking around revealed a few additional tidbits, which, since Buckmaster seems to have no other web presence whatsoever, I'll share here:

She was born in 1915 (at least her obituary reports that she was 90 at her death in 2005).  Her father's name was Henry Stephen Guy Buckmaster.

I haven't found anything significant about her early life, but by the 1920s she was close friends with acclaimed poet-to-be Lynette Roberts and set up a florist's business with her in the late 1920s or early 1930s.  At some point during these years, biographical information about Roberts mentions that Roberts and Buckmaster took time off from the shop and sailed via a cargo boat to Madeira, where they stayed for a time in a small house high on a hill.  Roberts began seriously writing poetry here.  At the time of her marriage a few years later, Buckmaster would be described as a talented painter, so one presumes that she may also have taken the opportunity to do some painting (and perhaps some early writing?) during this time.

Buckmaster was a bridesmaid at Roberts' wedding in 1939, and Dylan Thomas, a guest at the wedding, reportedly commented that the wedding was particularly notable for the beauty of its bridesmaids.

Buckmaster was married to renowned anthropologist Edmund Leach (later knighted) in 1940.  They lived initially in Burma, where Leach was in the military.  Their daughter Louisa was born in late 1941, and she and Celia apparently had a narrow escape from Burma as the war intensified.  Leach said that Louisa's birth saved Celia's life, as nursing mothers were evacuated from Burma by air in early 1942, while others escaped as best they could and many tragically died.  Celia and Louisa were separated from Leach for the remainder of the war.

In 1946, the couple had a son, Alexander, and Buckmaster turned (briefly) to writing in earnest.  She published two novels with the prestigious Hogarth Press—Village Story in 1951 and Family Ties the following year, after which she published no more books.  Perhaps there were short stories in magazines or journals, but I have not yet located them.  Unjustly, it does not appear that her novels received a great deal of attention and neither has ever been reprinted.

Buckmaster's later life can only be glimpsed in biographical information about her husband.  In the early 1960s, they spent an academic year in Palo Alto, California and Celia is described as embracing the nature and weather of California and as intensifying her painting during this time.

Back in England, the couple made their home in Barrington, a village near Cambridge, where Leach was Professor of Anthropology until 1978 and then a Provost at King's College.  Leach died in 1989, and Buckmaster remained in the Cambridge area until her death in 2005.  Her brief obituary in the Telegraph notes several grandchildren and great-grandchildren but makes no mention of her writing or painting.

So why have I taken the time to dig for information on a writer that even Nicola Beauman hasn't rescued from the shrouds of obscurity?  And why should anyone reading this blog care about her?

Well, in my first flurry of interest in Buckmaster, I submitted Interlibrary Loan requests for both novels, uncertain of whether the San Francisco Public Library would even be able to locate them.  But I should have more faith in the hard-working folks at SFPL, because last weekend both novels arrived—one from Minnesota and the other from Pennsylvania, no less!

On Saturday afternoon, I dived immediately into Village Story, and the rest of my weekend was spent lost in the hypnotic company of Buckmaster's fascinating villagers.  I was unable to put it down, and already (coming so close on the heels of my rave review of Mary Bell's Summer's Day) have a new favorite obscure novel. 

You're going to start thinking I'm a pushover.  (And perhaps I am.)  But you can judge for yourself when I post a review of the novel in a few days.  (Sorry, this was just a teaser…)

As for Family Ties (which, glancing at the library card inside, may not have been checked out since 1953), well, I am waiting until the weekend arrives to so much as open it.  I was afraid that otherwise I might have to call in sick to stay home and finish it!

Sunday, August 18, 2013

MARY BELL, Summer’s Day (1951)

There are few things so enjoyable to me as sitting down with a book of which I have fairly low expectations, only to find that it is fascinating in all sorts of ways I never would have expected.  That's something that doesn't happen often—call me cynical, but I find that my low expectations are quite often confirmed!—but it certainly happened with Mary Bell's Summer's Day, which has now been added to my top shelf of favorite novels—the ones with which I might well try to stagger out of a burning building, or for which I would scrabble in the rubble if the "big one" ever does hit San Francisco.

I was, in fact, all prepared to write only a rather condescending short post about how, really, I could hardly expect a novel about a girls' school to be exactly my cup of tea, but that it did have some mildly amusing high points.  (I would like to say that that I've learned my lesson about pre-judging books, but alas, I find that I learn slowly…)

The novel does take place in and around a girls' school before, during, and immediately after one summer term fairly soon after the end of World War II.  It features a large cast of entirely believable characters, including teachers, staff, students, and students' families, each with faults and charms, most of them likeable enough (though a few are perhaps likeable only with an effort).  The events are ordinary—the frustrations of youth, the disillusionments of maturity, the drudgery of students and teachers alike, unrequited love, infatuation, and even a seduction. 

But three main things make this, for me, much more than a run-of-the-mill read: the author's vivid attention to detail, which makes reading about a teacher preparing to leave her cottage for a new term as riveting as a major plot development; a brilliantly double-edged sense of humor, which can be riotously funny and darkly melancholy, sometimes at the very same time, and which almost always resonates with the realities and histories of the characters involved; and a depth and underlying seriousness that lends real meaning and significance to even trivial events.

Don't believe me?  Here's some of the aforementioned scene of Miss Meadows, a former classics mistress called out of retirement to fill a staffing need created by the war, preparing to leave her home for the term:

Her kitchen was a small, mouldy-smelling shrine dedicated to the evil spirit of a stove which smoked.  The sitting-room with its pseudo Adam fireplace, willow pattern china and Persian carpet was dustier than she would have liked to know, but at sixty-five she did not see dust very well.  The petals from the wild anemones on the piano made a little white drift on its rosewood surface.

I even found myself compulsively noting the very details I usually glide right over in other novels, not being a particularly visual kind of guy (to such an extent that once, attempting to pick out a throw rug at IKEA, I genuinely couldn't remember the color of the carpeting in an apartment I'd occupied for a year!).  And the reason is that, here, the detail is not just scene-setting or pretty background, but includes careful revelation of characters and their pasts.  Combine the above passage with this one, about Miss Meadows' return to her cottage during a holiday:

Letters, housework, mending, gardening, piled together, loomed like a trackless mountain at the back of her mind but she collected a deck-chair and the Iliad and sat down with her feet in the sun.

Taking just those two passages, you have a pretty clear idea of the life and priorities of one of the novel's most likeable characters—perhaps a stand-in for Bell herself, in the sense that Miss Meadows seems to represent balance and sanity and compassion in the midst of characters in greater turmoil.

As for humor, there are a few out-and-out hilarious scenes, such as this one demonstrating the lack of authority the art master, Mr. Walker, possesses over the girls:

After break the Upper Fifth trooped into the studio with much unnecessary noise.  Told to collect drawing-boards, somebody dropped one, and, as if this disaster were catching, twenty-five more clattered to the ground.  Informed that the grouping from the last class would not do for them, they expressed themselves eager to help and rearranged the room with such vigour that not a piece of furniture was still.  In vain Mr. Walker waved his arms and called upon them to desist while they interpreted his frantic mouthings as further exhortations to toil.  When some ten minutes of the period had been wasted they consented to sit down.

But in most cases, the humor has a deeper purpose.  Imagine the average writer managing to be so funny while packing so much detail and such a vivid sense of character into the following passage, in which Jasmine, a rebellious student yearning for life in the real world, waits outside the house mistress' office to be "corrected" for her latest infringement:

Three ill-mannered little girls went past and grinned at her; Jasmine looked coldly over their heads.  Matron, passing with a glance of quiet satisfaction, received a malevolent glare.  Miss Meadows went by with her lips moving, her eyes on the ground; as she put a pile of translations on her table she distinctly remembered seeing someone close at hand.  She looked into the corridor and asked kindly, “Can I do anything for you, dear?”  Jasmine thanked her and shook her head.  Miss Meadows realised she had been tactless and went away looking as if she thought Jasmine was paying a social call.

She was engaged in trying to stare the Giaconda out of countenance when Miss Cottingham, who had not, as Jasmine supposed, been keeping her waiting because she had taken a tip from a dictator but because she had been hastily putting three detective stories and nine undarned stockings behind the cushions, opened the door and beckoned her in.

I still laugh every time I see the "malevolent glare,"  and all of this would have been quite enough to make Summer's Day a highly enjoyable novel—perhaps even one of my favorites.  But in fact, Bell's purpose here is more profound than one would expect. 

When I wrote about Dorothy Evelyn Smith's Miss Plum and Miss Penny, I said one of the things I liked most was how Smith sort of subverted the whole concept of a "cozy" novel—injecting a fascinating depth and darkness into what at first appears to be a simple lark about life in an eccentric village.  Although Summer's Day is not as dark in its humor as Smith's book, it does perhaps belong in the same genre—the "uncozy," you might call it.

For ultimately, it seems to me that Bell's novel is a meditation on the largest themes of all: freedom and its limits, love and loss, ambition and frustration, hope vs. compromise—even mortality itself (for it is surely not coincidental that one of the only literary quotes in this highly literary work is of Shakespeare's "Fear no more the heat of the sun" passage).  Perhaps even the title, which seems quite innocuous, may be meant to suggest that a glorious summer day still must end in night.

Take a look at this passage from the opening of the novel, in which the elderly housemaid, Alice, recalls when the current Matron, Miss Bishop, arrived at the school as a student.  Right away, we know that this is more than a simple school comedy or romance:

The father was dead, the old headmistress in her dotage; Alice was quite certain that Miss Bishop herself did not remember it.  The child, in her opinion, had done well to cry, might reasonably have increased her vehemence had she foreseen herself growing into the detached, successful woman who considered it her duty to be calm and cheerful.  Alice wasted no pity on the past self who had witnessed those tears; she had changed from a young pretty parlour-maid to an old and stout one, with little difference in her state beyond an increase in her salary and her blood pressure.

Later on, we meet May Tern, Jasmine's aunt who adopted her when her parents were killed and who is stuck in a loveless marriage with a dull, demanding churchman:

When her doubts as to the wisdom of the union had become a certainty, and she could see the rest of her life stretching in front of her as a desert of dreary acquiescence, the two-year-old girl had been deposited upon her nearest relatives.  Unlike Mrs. Tern, Jasmine appeared to fear no one; from the first she had bawled with a sturdy indifference to her uncle’s comfort which had immediately endeared her to her aunt.  At sixteen she had formed a bond of mutual resistance with that lady, which, if it could not defeat the Reverend Arthur Tern, could usually circumvent him.  Together they preserved a façade of decorous obedience and enjoyed themselves immensely in his absence.

And later in the book, this brief thought from May on her surname (Tern) made me laugh out loud but is also undoubtedly a bit melancholy:

A ridiculous name, she thought, reaching for one of Arthur’s stamped envelopes.  As if I were a worm.  Only of course I never do.

Get it?

The larger themes of the novel are never heavy-handed.  Bell isn't trying to make any kind of big point or pontificate about anything.  Rather, practically every line just resonates naturally with undercurrents of meaning, and that, it seems to me, is what makes a novel great.

But in addition to the grand themes I already mentioned, there may be one more that's rather surprising.

Scholar Edward Said famously wrote a few years back about the colonial subtexts of Jane Austen's novels, pointing out how many of her characters are in some ways identified with or have made their money from imperialist pursuits.  A lot of Austen fans were annoyed by this or thought it was beside the point, but for me it made Austen's novels that much richer and more complex. 

Surprisingly, some of that same kind of content is present here.  Two of the novels' male characters are stationed or working in Africa, and the gardener, Albert, spent time in Algiers during the war and remembers it vividly.  Jasmine and her friend Sophie romanticize the men's work in naïve and idealized ways, as when Tom asks Jasmine to write to him:

“It’s a long way,” she said, imagining her letter embarking at—would it be Southampton?—and cruising off over the Atlantic, a touch of Mediterranean at Gibraltar, the Atlantic again…

“Will you?” asked Tom, hoping she saw him as a rather heroic figure in a topee, scanning the horizon for the mail.

“Oh, yes!” said Jasmine.  Her letter had arrived, it was being taken from the mail bag by—would it be black hands or white?—black, she was certain.  “I should love to,” she said.  Tom received the smile that was intended for the enormous negro who went bounding up the hill with her letter in his hand.

Rather interesting, too, that she winds up placing herself in Tom's position, receiving the very letter she has sent! 

Even Jasmine's mother gets in on the fantasizing in a humorous way, as when she interrupts Tom's talk about the wilds:

“No, dear, don’t,” May interrupted, for it worried her to think of poor Tom surrounded by cannibals and mosquitoes and striding—she was sure he strode—through endless tracts of heat and dust.

Ultimately, I wondered if the elegiac tone of the novel may perhaps apply to the decline of the British Empire as well, since by the time this novel was written most readers would probably have read Jasmine's fantasies of exotic locales with some irony.  They do seem to hark back to a time when the world really was Britain's oyster.

Before concluding this overlong (and gushing) post, I should point out one of the recurring themes of a lot of the books I've mentioned here: the "maleficent malingerer."  In this case, it's Mr. Walker's terrible mother, who pretends to be weak and helpless in order to control every part of her son's life—even stashing money away in an effort to keep him too poor to marry.  But as Mr. Walker begins to experience a romantic interest (no, don't worry, no spoilers here!), she has difficulty maintaining control, as in the following, hilarious passage that perfectly sums up the passive-aggressive's strategies.  Here, she awaits his return home, unaware that he has lost track of time in feminine company:

In the house his mother removed invisible specks of dust from the carpet and reminded herself to tell her son to wipe his feet.  Suddenly she decided to move the piano and having turned it half-round and rucked up the carpet she waited to be found, martyred and helpless, left to struggle with such odds alone.

In the house, Mrs. Walker, despairing of an audience, squeezed two tears on to an antimacassar and pushed the piano back against the wall.

Obviously, I could quote from this novel all day long, because there is hardly a line that isn't worth noting.  But this makes the mystery of Mary Bell's identity even more irritating. 

Original dust jacket (from the Greyladies edition)

When Greyladies reprinted Summer's Day a few years ago, they searched for traces of Bell and were unable to find her or her heirs.

It's unusual, if not unheard of, for a writer to appear out of nowhere, write a really accomplished and fascinating novel, and then vanish again.  It's reminds me of Virginia Woolf's famous speculations about Judith Shakespeare, the equally brilliant (fictional, at least as far as we know) sister of the Bard, who, because of the limitations of women's lives, lack of time and privacy, lack of education and opportunity and independence, never fulfilled her promise. 

The only other trace of Mary Bell in the British Library catalogue is a book called Broken Bonds (1946).  This appears to have been a romance (or at least marketed as such), since it appeared in the "New Moon Series" published by William Stevens, an imprint that appears to have been dedicated to very short romance stories (featuring advertisements geared toward women throughout).  It's not certain that this is the same Mary Bell, but it does seem plausible.

Could Bell have written other works as well?  Could she have published under a pseudonym (or could "Mary Bell" have been a pseudonym itself)?  Perhaps we even know of works written by her under a different name?  Or is it that she wrote other books that never found a publisher?  Could there be unpublished manuscripts somewhere, in the attic of a nephew who doesn't even know that Aunt Mary used to always be scribbling on a notepad?  Or did Mary Bell, like so many other women, devote herself to marriage and motherhood, or to a more stable and lucrative career than writing, and never give her creative urges another thought?

Moreover, I wonder, could Bell have had a husband or brother stationed in Africa or the Middle East, or could she herself have lived there?  Her descriptions of being on a ship in harbor in Africa, and of Albert’s forays into the seedier parts of Algiers, are strikingly vivid (and form a sharp and effective contrast with Jasmine's naïve fantasies of these locales).

Is there any chance that we'll ever find answers to such questions?  Alas, perhaps not.  It's rather maddening to the obsessive-compulsive data-gatherer in me, I can tell you!

But at any rate, I am thankful to Greyladies for retrieving this novel from total obscurity and putting some copies into circulation so that I was able to stumble across it recently. It is now out-of-print again, but it's definitely worthy of being retrieved permanently.  Perhaps Persephone or Capuchin or Bloomsbury or some other savvy publisher should jump on it.  It's certainly better than many of the novels that are reprinted time and again.

Can you tell I liked it?  :-)

[If you haven't already, be sure to check out my subsequent post on Mary Bell's identity. The mystery, or part of it at least, has been solved.]

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Update: 21 more writers!

This list is obviously going to keep me busy for awhile! 

I did finally figure out how to include only the blurbs for the new additions here without jumping through too many Blogger hoops, so if you only want to see what's new, check below.  These have all also been added in to the main list.

One of these writers, Susan Pleydell, was mainly an oversight.  Thanks to Julia for reminding me of her, and also for suggesting Leonora Starr and V. H. Friedlander, the latter of which is mentioned in Nicola Beauman's A Very Great Profession but apparently almost nowhere else.  It's hard to believe that, in this day of finding everything you can imagine (and some things that you can't or wouldn't want to imagine) online, there are still so many writers who are virtually invisible to Google, except for occasional listings of their books at online booksellers.  But perhaps I should be thankful, as the thrill of the chase is obviously part of what I enjoy!

Two more of the new additions, Julia Birley and Elizabeth Sewell, come from Beauman's bio of Elizabeth Taylor.  Sewell is mentioned along with Elizabeth Montagu (whose The Small Corner I plan to write about here in the next couple of weeks) as the two most thoroughly forgotten of formerly acclaimed postwar novelists.  Could anything be more up my alley?!  I don't know how I missed her when I first read the book.  Birley, by the way, is the daughter of Margaret Kennedy, who is already on the list.

Several of the new additions came from browsing contemporary reviews, especially in The Bookman, some issues of which are now available online at  March Cost and Violet Quirk both seemed to have received acclaim for one novel in particular and then drifted into oblivion—in Quirk's case after only one additional publication.  And Ena Limebeer's two satires of provincial life sound like they could be fun, and the fact that her only other published work was a poetry collection from Leonard and Virginia Woolf at Hogarth Press makes her more of a dark horse.

Maisie Grieg sounds a bit like Ursula Bloom or an earlier Elizabeth Cadell, and her Love and Let Me Go earned a pleasant notice in the Sydney Morning Herald.  Meanwhile, apparently Dorita Fairlie Bruce will be known to fans of girls' stories, but she reportedly followed some of her characters into adulthood, and her wartime novels Dimsie Carries On (1941) and Nancy Calls the Tune (1944) have been added to my ever-growing "to read" list.  Could they have some of the same charm of D. E. Stevenson's The Two Mrs. Abbotts?

By the same token, I downloaded J. E. Buckrose's Gay Morning from Google Books and, from a quick glance at the opening, I'm wondering if she could have some of Stevenson's "cozy" charm as well?  Or what about Flora Klickmann's "Flower-Patch" series of humorous memoirs with a gardening component—has anyone read one of those?  And Elizabeth Croly remains shrouded in mystery, but her The Street that Ran Away is described as a fantasy enjoyable to children and adults alike, and seems to have garnered contemporary praise, so I couldn't resist adding her even if I know almost nothing about her.

Finally, Bea Howe came from reading Stuck-in-a-Book's review of her one novel.  I have a feeling I need to spend a day reading his blog "cover to cover" and I might find several other writers I've never heard of.

The others are mostly writers better known for other things but who dabbled at novel-writing.  None are on my short list to read, though Maude Annesley's "flagrant outrages against good taste" in The Wine of Life could be interesting!

Now I've been spending some time researching lesser-known mystery writers, so some of those will likely show up on the next update.

Oh, by the way, I did also reluctantly delete one writer.  It turns out that Mary Borden is actually American, though she lived in England as an adult.  There are worse crimes than being American (said the American blogger), and she sounds quite interesting, but I'm having enough trouble keeping up with the list when it's limited to British writers.  I'm not ready to start including Americans (or even Commonwealth—or do I mean Dominion?—writers, of which there are many really wonderful ones!).  Someday?

MAUDE ANNESLEY (dates unknown)

More research needed; novelist whose works include The Wine of Life (1907), about a divorced woman, which a critic accused of "flagrant outrages against good taste," and Wind Along the Waste (1910), both of which became early silent films.

JULIA BIRLEY (1928-     )

More research needed; daughter of Margaret Kennedy; author of four novels—The Children on the Shore (1958), The Time of the Cuckoo (1960), When You Were There (1963), and A Serpent's Egg (1966).


Author of several series of stories for girls, best known for her nine "Dimsie" books; her series sometimes followed characters into their adult lives, such as in Dimsie Carries on (1941) and Nancy Calls the Tune (1944), both set during World War II.

J. E. BUCKROSE (1868-1931)
(pseudonym of Annie Edith Jameson)

More research needed; intriguing popular novelist whose works include Down Our Street (1911), Gay Morning (1914), War-Time in Our Street (1917), Payment in Kind (1928), and a novel about George Eliot, Silhouette of Mary Ann (1931).

MARCH COST (1897–1973)
(pseudonym of Margaret Mackie Morrison)

More research needed; novelist apparently best known for A Man Called Luke (1933), which received critical acclaim at the time; other works include The Dark Star (1939), Rachel: An Interpretation (1947), and The Hour Awaits (1952).

ELIZABETH CROLY (dates unknown)

More research needed; novelist and children's author, whose works include The Street that Ran Away (1921), A Sailing We Will Go (1922), and Forbidden Revels (1925).


More research needed; suffragette (who served four months in prison for breaking windows), poet and author of at least one novel, Mainspring (1922), mentioned in Nicola Beauman's A Very Great Profession.

BRENDA GIRVIN (1884-1970)

More research needed; playwright and children's author whose works include Cackling Geese (1909), Munition Mary (1918), The Tapestry Adventure (1925), and Five Cousins (1930).

MAISIE GRIEG (dates unknown)
(aka Jennifer Ames)

More research needed; prolific romantic novelist whose works included Pandora Lifts the Lid (1933), Love and Let Me Go (1936), Heartbreak for Two (1941), and Take Your Choice (1946).

MARTIN HARE (dates unknown)
(pseudonym of Zoe Girling)

More research needed; novelist who published several intriguing novels in the 1930s, but apparently nothing thereafter; titles include Butler's Gift (1932), Describe a Circle (1933), The Diary of a Pensionnaire (1935), and A Mirror for Skylarks (1936).

BEA HOWE (dates unknown)

A fringe member of the Bloomsbury Group, Howe published one novel, A Fairy Leapt Upon My Knee (1927), as well as biographies of Jane Loudon and Mary Eliza Hawels, and a memoir, A Child in Chile (1957).


Children’s author, editor of Girl's Own Paper, and author of the humorous “Flower-Patch” series of memoirs about gardening and daily life, starting with The Flower-Patch Among the Hills (1916); reportedly also wrote novels, but information is sparse.

ENA LIMEBEER (dates unknown)

More research needed; author of two novels of village life, Market Town (1931) and The Dove and the Roebuck (1932), apparently satires of provincialism; also intriguingly published one poetry collection with the Woolves’ Hogarth Press in 1923.

ELIZABETH LOMOND (dates unknown)
(pseudonym of Leonora Eyles?)

Author of only one novel, I Have Been Young (1932); critics speculated Lomond was an established novelist’s pseudonym; only one writer on my list fits the novel’s autobiographical elements—see Leonora Eyles.


Critic, historian, and novelist; best known as a major author of Scottish history and criticism, Mackenzie also wrote seven historical novels including Without Conditions (1923), The Quiet Lady (1926), and Cypress in Moonlight (1931).

SUSAN PLEYDELL (1907-1986)
(pseudonym of Isabel Janet Couper Syme Senior)

Author of ten novels, including Summer Term (1959) and A Young Man’s Fancy (1962), both set at a boys’ school and both reprinted by Greyladies; other titles include The Glenvarroch Gathering (1960) and Good Red Herring (1962).

VIOLET QUIRK (dates unknown)

More research needed; novelist who received acclaim for her debut novel Different Gods (1923), but who thereafter published only one additional novel, The Skirts of the Forest (1931), before disappearing from the public eye.


Critic, poet, and novelist, called by Nicola Beauman one of the most neglected of formerly-acclaimed postwar writers; her novels are The Dividing of Time (1951), The Field of Nonsense (1952), The Singular Hope (1955), and Now Bless Thyself (1963).

FREYA STARK (1893?-1993)

Best known for travel books like The Valleys of the Assassins (1932) and A Winter in Arabia (1940), Stark also wrote several significant memoirs, including Traveller's Prelude (1950) and Dust in the Lion’s Paw (1961).

LEONORA STARR (dates unknown)
(pseudonym of Leonora Dorothy Rivers Mackesy)

More research needed; author of romantic novels such as Gallant Heart (1941), Fantails (1948), and Family Story (1949), as well as a popular memoir of her time in India, Colonel's Lady (1937).

E[THEL]. S[TEPHANA]. STEVENS (1879-1972)
(aka Ethel Stefana Drower)

Noted anthropologist, travel writer, and novelist best known now for her works on Mandaean history and culture; novels include The Mountain of God (1910), The Long Engagement (1912), and The Losing Game (1926).

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