Thursday, May 29, 2014

MARGARET HASSETT, Sallypark (1945)

It's been over six months since I last wrote about my fantasy publishing enterprise, Furrowed Middlebrow Books, so it's high time to add another title to my list of (purely imaginary) reprints.

Margaret Hassett is a writer who was only added to my Overwhelming List in its most recent update, and she remains something of an enigma.  Since posting that update, I've learned that she was apparently born circa 1898, and she seems to have published only four novels in all (unless she also published under a pseudonym not yet known to me).  The first, Educating Elizabeth (1937), was apparently successful enough to warrant a sequel, 1949's Beezer's End, which proved to be her final published work, as far as I can tell.  In between came Next to These Ladies (1940) and Sallypark (1945).

Now, that update to my list contained nearly 160 writers, all hitherto unknown to me.  Many of them seem quite intriguing and have been added to my endless "to read" list.  So I can't quite explain what it was about a short description of Sallypark that made me immediately seek out a copy and buy it.  It would be intriguing to assure you that I had a sudden flash of certainty that it would be worthwhile.  More likely, it was just a whim.  But be that as it may, it did turn out to be worthwhile.  In fact, I've just placed an order for another of Hassett's books, which is surely a strong recommendation.

Sallypark tells of Jane Warmbath, a young widow, half Irish, half English, who comes to visit her cousins, the Hartes, in 1922, just in the midst of the Civil War.  She has just come from a year in India and an abortive visit to her husband's relatives:

All this time I had not given a thought to Sallypark, and yet when I look back, it was always there waiting for me, and everything that I did and had been doing for years past was in reality only a link in the chain of events that was finally to lead me there. For if I had not married Mr. Warmbath in the first place, and if Mr. Warmbath had not departed this life when he so regrettably did; and if, in the second place, I had not postponed that nice long visit to his family, and going out to India in the meantime had not, in a manner of speaking, grown up there; if finally, returning in the full glory of that consciousness and betaking myself at last into Cheshire, I had not discovered by my own unaided wits that the only thing to do with some nice long visits is to cut them short at all costs—if all these things had not happened, it is ten to one that I should never have set foot at all in Ireland. Whereas I did, and quite without intending it, in the year 1922.

The Hartes consist of the persnickety old Dr. Harte and his three unmarried daughter, Francesca (Francie), Pansy, and Vervaleen (Verve).  There is also a son, Felix (Feely), who is away at school until halfway through the novel but is set forth as the exemplar of all virtues by his sisters.  Dr. Harte has a strong, apparently almost pathological, aversion to the thought of his daughters' marrying—indeed, he seems to be averse to marriage under almost any circumstances, which makes one wonder about the little-mentioned Mrs. Harte!  If one were to psychoanalyze him (and give him the benefit of the doubt), one might conclude that he is too pained by her loss to tolerate the thought of anyone else experiencing such love (and potentially its loss), especially since his other absolute intolerance is to the thought of widows "brooding" over their losses.

The doctor's terse commiseration with Jane is humorous but typical:

"Dear me, dear me!" He made a clicking sound with his tongue to indicate his sense of the wanton cruelty of fate. "Quite a young man, in the prime of life—indeed, not yet entered into it, you might say … "Dear me, dear me! Forty-five is very young nowadays ... a rising solicitor too. … Martin thought the world of him, I know. … What caused it, Jane?"

"What? Oh, I see. He ... he got a prick from a rose bush."

Whether the doctor regarded this as too poetic a death for a rising solicitor, or whether he had private medical prejudices against rose bushes, I couldn't quite make out, but there was no doubt whatsoever of his being most profoundly shocked.

The doctor's intolerance of romance and matrimony forms the basis for a good deal of the novel's plot.  As a result of it, the daughters must carry on their various romances behind his back and with much subterfuge and duplicity, and Jane finds herself increasingly involved in the intrigue and, just perhaps, in danger of being snagged by romance all over again.  There's a hilarious setpiece about midway through the novel, in which all the characters, including Jane, are tiptoeing around the creaky old house in the middle of the night—variously hiding, investigating sounds, or attempting to prevent the discovery of a man in the kitchen.  It's too brilliant to quote in short soundbites—but if you take my advice and track down this novel, you'll be able to read it all for yourself!

The backdrop of the Irish Civil War is perhaps a savvy one for an author publishing a light, humorous, romantic novel in 1945.  The novel would have been written as World War II was starting to wind down, and would have been published just as the end finally arrived (making Sallypark, incidentally, only the second "War Economy Standard" book to grace my bookcase).  The events of the Civil War would have been far enough removed from the current war to provide a sense of escape, but nevertheless provide the occasional scene of unexpected peril to which readers in 1945 might have related, as when the young women's car is fired upon after a shopping excursion, or when Jane finds herself in the middle of a shootout at the village store.

By and large, though, the Civil War remains a convenient setting and little more, and if it occasionally felt like these historical events were a bit trivialized, it's certainly a practical enough strategy for Hassett to have used, and one which she herself seems to acknowledge and perhaps even make a part of her point:

I had been only a week at Sallypark when the redoubtable Rory O'Connor blew up the Four Courts, and the Civil War began in earnest.

Of that momentous happening I retain at this distance of time merely the vaguest recollection. Can it be true, I wonder, that the events of history have but slight influence on the tenor of our private lives, and that in the long run it is those seemingly impermanent trifles which make up the sum of everyday existence that matter finally and most of all? When I look back on my early days at Sallypark, I am inclined—for my own part at least—to think so. The white skirt I tore on our picnic to Greenane woods; the scent of the sweet brier hedge the evening Mrs. O'Mara told me what a nice mind Gusty had; the doctor, invincibly urbane and utterly out of tune, singing "Oft in the stilly night" right through to the end and remarking, with tears in his eyes, that you couldn't beat it; Vervaleen, the picture of sweetest innocence, pursuing a ball down the slope off Mr. Twomey's tennis court, and an amorous bank-clerk following hard behind—these are the scenes, the incidents that swim triumphantly back into my memory, while so much of serious importance, of real interest to the thoughtful mind, has foundered and sunk out of sight.

And now, as you clever readers will no doubt have already noted from the passages I've quoted, I'll point out that the novel is distinctly and self-consciously Austen-esque in style.  If you're not a fan of dear Jane, then it might not be your cup of tea, as the prose is a bit ornate at times and distinctly formal.  But I have to say that although I like Jane Austen well enough, I am hardly an avid fan, and I haven't read her in a good many years, but I nevertheless found Sallypark's style completely charming and readable, perhaps a bit more subversive in its humour than the good Miss Austen's prose, and featuring a charmingly complex (and perhaps rather unreliable) narrator in the figure of the certainly-uncoincidentally-named Jane.

There are other highly entertaining characters as well: Babe O'Mara, another widow—much more inclined to brooding than Jane—whose lost husband "Gusty" periodically visits her in dreams to give her advice on the management of her house; the obnoxious Miss Ring, who frequently warns the Harte daughters that men only want one thing and brags about her unwillingness to ever give it to them, even while obsessively trying to uncover any hint of romance or scandal in their household; Bridget McCarthy, a family cousin who keeps the shop in the nearby village of Templemary; Aunt Bona, a nun in the local convent and headmistress of the convent school, who periodically offers advice to the lovelorn; and Uncle Pius, the doctor's brother, who comes for a memorable stay with the family and gets swept into the intrigue.

I found it all completely irresistible, a worthy tribute to Jane Austen, and an entertaining romance with more depth than at first appears.  Not to mention that it is humorous throughout—sometimes quietly so, sometimes quite hilarious.  This quite Austen-esque passage, for example, while ringing completely true about those who thrive on gossip, may also reveal that Jane is a bit more subtle and conniving than she will tell us straight out:

Now, there is nothing I love more than being let into things; all the same, I carefully dissembled my delight. Those who perform the letting-in generally enjoy themselves as much as you do, but they prefer you to think that it is a disagreeable duty, and it would be indecent to outrage their susceptibilities. It is risky too; they may take fright and withdraw the spicy morsel altogether. That happened to me once when poor Mr. Warmbath had been on the verge of telling me something scandalous about an actress I passionately admired. Remembering all these things, I gazed at Mrs. O'Mara with a solemnity equal to her own and gave a slow ponderous nod. It apparently satisfied her.

And then, as Mrs. O'Mara proceeds in releasing her gossip, Jane notes in hilarious detail the course of her fellow widow's sighs:

"Have one of these little cakes, Mrs. O'Mara," I suggested softly.

She refused, shaking her head most dolefully and heaving sigh after sigh. It is not often that sighs are really heaved, but Mrs. O'Mara's were. One could see them being levered up from the depths of her interior and stiffly propelled towards the outer air between walls of stays. It was a painful business. She put her cup down presently so that she might place a fomenting hand somewhere in the region of the diaphragm in order to assist the operation. I was in despair.

I have recently begun keeping track of references to novel characters' reading material, and there are some interesting sightings of other authors in Sallypark.  First, the doctor frequently reads aloud for the, er, enjoyment of the family and their guests:

[I]t was a favourite practice of the doctor's—a practice followed by many Irish pères de famille, to the unspeakable boredom of their households—to read aloud in the evenings to his daughters. Not wishing to burden their minds with anything heavy, since, being an eminently reasonable person and a medical man to boot, he took into account the fact that they were females, he usually chose for this purpose some light but edifying work of fiction, such as My New Curate, by Canon Sheehan, or Callista, a Tale of the Third Century, by Cardinal Newman.

But when Francie bursts into Jane's bedroom one night with the news that Michael Collins has become Commander-in-Chief, it is Wilkie Collins' The Moonstone Jane is perusing, and later on it is an even more modern text, the pleasure of which Jane describes in some depth (and which will surely be known already to many readers of this blog):

Feeling quite disinclined for sleep, I got into bed, trimmed the wick of my candle, settled myself comfortably on my pillows and opened The Enchanted April.

How well I remember the very page! Even the crackle of the new binding comes back to me, for the book had just been published. Indeed, it had arrived only the day before from London, and I was already half-way through it—quite a feat, I may add; as life always came before literature at Sallypark, and there existed besides in the doctor's mind a suspicion that solitary reading was only another name for brooding.

And Hassett could hardly have ended such a self-conscious tribute without at least a quick mention of Austen herself, as when Jane notes, near the end of the novel: "How true it is, as Elinor observes in Sense and Sensibility, that the pleasantness of an employment does not always evince its propriety!"

If I can't absolutely attest to the "propriety" of reading Sallypark, I can certainly assert the pleasantness of the employment, and I can't urge you enough to be generous in your imaginary purchases of the Furrowed Middlebrow Books edition of the book.  While you're at it, why not imagine buying copies for all of your friends as well?!


  1. It sounds lovely. If you ever do start FMP, I'll definitely need to set up a Standing Order!

    1. Thanks, Lyn, it's really a lot of fun. Sadly, not even in many libraries either, and a couple of her other novels seem to have nearly vanished from the face of the earth.

  2. I have just ordered a copy - I never could resist books with characters reading good books - but that won't stop me adding a FMB edition to the shelf when the great day comes.

    1. Oh, good, Jane, I do hope you enjoy it as much as I did!


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

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