Saturday, December 21, 2013

URSULA ORANGE, To Sea in a Sieve (1937)

In the past few weeks, I've been doing a lot of enthusiastic babbling about Ursula Orange—a writer I had never even heard of until recently and about which little information has been available.  I first read and reviewed her third novel, Tom Tiddler's Ground (published in the U.S. as Ask Me No Questions), which instantly became one of my favorite discoveries of 2013 and is high on my list of books to re-read as soon as time allows.  It's the high point of my Orange reading so far.  Then I tracked down her debut novel, Begin Again, which is perhaps a bit rough around the edges, as debuts have a tendency to be, but which I also found quite smart, funny, compulsively readable, and even a bit edgy in its way.

Now I've gotten my hands on the novel that came in between.  To Sea in a Sieve appeared a year after Begin Again and four years before Tom Tiddler's Ground.  This was actually the first book of Orange's that I heard about, when I came across a contemporary review that discussed it alongside another now-obscure novel, Ethel Boileau's Ballade in G Minor.  Although the reviewer for Saturday Review preferred Orange's novel to Boileau's, he remained underwhelmed.  But he did squeeze in a comparison to E. M. Delafield, which—happily—made me bound and determined to give Orange a try:

Miss Orange now and again comes very close to being as acidly funny as E. M. Delafield, but most of the time she spoils her effects by not being willing to let well enough alone, and explaining her best jokes. Her Mummy is a great deal more human than Lady Boileau's Mummy, and apt to get really annoyed from time to time. Sandra, with whose marriage the book is concerned, is a really engaging person, and many of the minor characters are genuinely well done. "To Sea in a Sieve" was, to me, a great deal more entertaining than "Ballade." But I have no doubt that Lady Boileau's book will be discussed more earnestly at the bridge clubs.

Alas that I have no bridge club at which to discuss either novel, so I shall make do by discussing Sieve here.  But it does sadden me a little to say that I was also a bit underwhelmed…

As the reviewer noted, Sieve follows the vicissitudes of Sandra Blakiston's marriage, but indeed it also preliminarily follows her expulsion from Oxford and her indecision about who to marry in the first place—Charles, her upper class fiancé, with whom she has an easy, bantering relationship of jokes and affectionate mutual insults, or Stephen, the earnest, left-leaning intellectual for whom all joking only points out the cruel injustices of the world.  The following long-ish passage, which takes place after Sandra has had a fight with Charles and gone off camping on Sark with Stephen and their friend Mavis, displays Orange's usual playfulness as well as the stark difference between Sandra's two love interests:

Mavis was burrowing briskly among the piles of clothes. Most of Sandra's and Mavis's possessions lived permanently on the ground. There were some hooks fastened with string to the tent-pole, but if anyone hung more than two things on one hook it slid passively to the ground. Sandra had amused the others by addressing the hooks in a manner supposed to resemble that of her late headmistress, beginning:

'Now that you are all here together, hooks,' and going on to accuse them collectively of a lack of team-spirit and separately of any sense of responsibility towards the duties and burdens that all must in this life be prepared loyally to support. 'The lessons that you learn in this small world of tent-life,' she wound up, 'will help to carry you through the wider outside world of wardrobe, door-peg and even of crane-life. Yes, hooks, why are you smiling among yourselves? There is nothing impossible in the idea that one of my hooks will one day rise to the supreme responsibility of being a crane-hook—'

Stephen laughed but quickly grew solemn again and asked: 'Are girls' schools really like that?'

'Oh yes,' said Sandra unashamedly.

'Good Lord,' said Stephen and he looked so disgusted that the fooling was quickly at an end, sliding into a serious discussion about co-education. Fooling with Stephen usually ended in a serious talk, whereas fooling with Charles had gathered momentum and rolled along to the point where giggling idiocy ended in kisses.

By contrast, this brief exchange between Sandra and Charles while horseback riding gives a sample of their "giggling idiocy":

'In my experience,' said Charles, who was watching her struggles with amusement from the other side of the ditch, 'he's exactly like other horses. What he's waiting for now is a good crack behind the saddle just before he sticks his toes in for the tenth time to refuse.'

'Oh. But you didn't hit yours.'

'No. I didn't get him all fussed up first,' said Charles pleasantly. 'However, if you disapprove of corporal punishment I should try getting off and reasoning with him.'

There are quite a few such passages throughout, many of them really funny, so that To Sea in a Sieve is at times quite enjoyable.  At its best, it even reminded me of a Hollywood screwball comedy of the kind being produced in numbers at the time Sieve was written.  In The Awful Truth (one of my all-time favorite movies), for example, Cary Grant and Irene Dunne play a happily married couple who have a daft squabble, get divorced, marry entirely unsuitable people, hilariously sabotage each other's marriages, and wind up reuniting in the end. 

Something similar happens here, as Sandra's rather shallow determination to be free-spirited and open-minded, and to resist all the beliefs and assumptions of her class, leads her to choose Stephen over Charles, and to live in poverty (well, by her standards, which still allow for the occasional presence of a charwoman) as Stephen works ineptly but with great political idealism at a failing bookstore.  And these situations do produce some genuine humor, as when Sandra muses on her improvement as a housewife while making a sly reference (like the kind given more air time in Begin Again) to the relative usefulness of a university education in the day-to-day life of a married women:

Nevertheless, household management no longer represented for her a maze of bewildering uncertainties, nor cooking a series of agitated guesses culminating in a peak of agonising uncertainty at the moment when the food was placed on the table but the first mouthful had yet to be taken. She was now competent to the point that when she undertook to produce a meal she always achieved something quite eatable not more than a quarter of an hour after the intended time; and that, for a girl with seven years of school and two of college behind her, was not bad after all.

Or when Stephen's political correctness—as we might call it now—starts to grate on Sandra's nerves, as in this discussion about the bookstore owner's wife, with whom Sandra has discussed the shop's disgruntled shopgirl, Daisy:

Stephen exclaimed disgustedly: 'Imagine the mind of a woman who goes prying into things that have nothing to do with her just for the sadistic satisfaction of getting up on a pedestal and denouncing someone as a bad lot.'

'Imagine the mind of a woman who comes into the kitchen and finds her maid locked in the embraces of a milkman—a married milkman,' retorted Sandra. 'I suppose she ought to say, "That's right, my dear. Carry on and don't mind about the dinner. I'm very glad to think you're not being repressed in any way."'

The trouble for me was that the proportion of entertaining moments to the amount of agonizing and argument is just not quite high enough.  Clearly Orange was trying to show the evolution of Sandra's thinking, from its naïve post-Oxford idealism to its more nuanced grappling with real world challenges.  But perhaps Orange could have done a bit of expeditious excising of some of Sandra's angst along the way.

I do have to mention one section of To Sea in a Sieve that was quite entertaining for me.  At one point, Stephen falls ill and Sandra agrees to fill in for him in managing the bookstore for a couple of weeks.  This gives her the opportunity of discovering that she is really quite good at handling customers and organizing the business—and is even good at managing the disgruntled shopgirl—at least until she storms out in a huff…  This section therefore has real relevance to Sandra's development, but more importantly, for a lover of bookstores like me, it was great fun to vicariously run a bookstore for 50 pages or so!

Sieve's cute little library
card, with evidence of
its, um, popularity...

And, just for those who fetishize library books
as much as I do...I suspect the fines are now a bit
more than two cents a day, don't you?

Ultimately, though, To Sea in a Sieve felt like a transitional work, between the passion and exuberance of Begin Again and the mature, controlled, and endlessly charming Tom Tiddler's Ground.  The ending, too—unlike that of The Awful Truth—didn't quite ring true, at least for me, and I left the novel feeling a bit discontented.

But mind you, not so discontented that I haven't managed to get hold of two more of Orange's novels—1944's Company in the Evening and 1945's Portrait of Adrian—which is little short of amazing since I believe the copies I have in my hot little hands are the only copies in any U.S. library.  (Thank you, University of Pennsylvania!)  I'm especially excited since these are Orange's final two novels, and will be my first experience of where she went, as a writer, after Tom Tiddler's Ground.  I am a bit sad that the novel she wrote immediately after Tom Tiddler's Ground, 1942's Have Your Cake, is apparently nonexistent in the U.S. and prohibitively expensive to purchase.  It's looking like a candidate for my new Hopeless Wish List (which I'm planning to post in the next few weeks).  But, I'm frankly amazed that I've been able to track down five out of six novels by this utterly and undeservedly forgotten author (refer to the library card from Sieve above if you don't believe the "forgotten" part), so I will be thankful and not expect to, um, "have my cake" and eat it too…

An array of delicious Oranges?

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