I mentioned last week that it's been a hectic few weeks, and now, on the cusp of a new beginning of sorts, I'll tell you what I've been busy with. I'll be starting a new job tomorrow, and it's a job I was hoping for for quite some time. I will still be a legal secretary, but in a new environment and one that's rather more stable and will allow me to learn a lot of new things, so I am excited (and, of course, nervous as well).
It was a bit of a wrench leaving my old job. I had been there for nearly four years, felt like part of a family, and felt like I knew just about everything there was to know about the job, which was a nice feeling all round. But I had also watched the firm decrease in size by about 60% in the last couple of years, and was wondering just how much further it was going to decrease and what the future might hold, so it seemed like not a bad idea to move on when the chance presented itself.
During the round of applications and interviews (which always paralyze me with anxiety, despite the fact that I know I'm quite good at what I do, but I do hate talking about how great I am to perfect strangers—talking about how great books are is quite a different thing!), and during the phase when I had to make my decisions and come to terms with leaving my old job and telling my boss and co-workers, I found myself engaging with a lot of comfort reading—and also getting a bit behind on doing reviews of some of the books I read. It's reached a point now where there are a few books I'm just never going to get around to writing about properly. To be honest, there are a couple that I don't even recall all that well—a sad testament to my overburdened (or else prematurely senile) mind. So, I thought I'd do the best I can in summing up a few of these, sharing some thoughts or favorite passages, and then moving on with lightened heart.
Interestingly, I found two girls' school novels and one non-school girls' story to be particularly fitting of my mood, in some strange way. It made me wonder if one of the reasons so many readers seem to love and enjoy school stories might be because many of them, at least, are about transitional times in their characters' lives—whether it's adapting to a new school, making new friends, whipping oneself or one's team or form into shape, or actually leaving school and facing an uncertain future. (Then of course there's the occasional catching of spies or thieves, which perhaps has less grounding in day-to-day reality, but is still entertaining.) And the fact that, in these tales, the obstacles and adaptations are generally faced—either from the beginning or after important lessons are learned—with cheerful energy, optimism, and self-awareness seems to make them the perfect brain candy even for adults who are facing nerve-wracking transitions. No doubt that's not exactly an original thought, but it came to me as MARY K. HARRIS, ELSIE J. OXENHAM, and MABEL ESTHER ALLAN were providing me with soothing energy, optimism, and self-awareness!
For some reason, I was obsessed with reading Harris's Gretel at St. Bride's (1941) from the first mention I found of it. The book deals with the arrival at a traditional boarding school of an Austrian refugee from the Nazis, and the disruptions she causes due to her personal worries (about a father left behind in Germany, an aunt who has escaped to Switzerland but is impoverished and seriously ill, and about her inability to pay the school's fees and her unwillingness to accept charity) and her willingness to break rules to accomplish her goals. Her daring disregard for the usual proprieties inspires the meek Jane and conquers the vicious (or perhaps not so vicious) Bianca. It's all predictable enough, though Gretel's background and anxieties might be a bit unusual for the genre, but the book was a perfect escape from my own stresses and strains—and the fact that my worries paled in comparison to Gretel's was a good tonic as well. I'm glad I pursued it and nabbed a copy (even if the cheap copy I found reeked of cigarette smoke and will have to be quarantined from the other books in my library).
Not long after, I had my first introduction to an Elsie Oxenham novel with The Abbey Girls Go Back to School (1922), one of the acquisitions from my Girls Gone B[u]y-ing spree (sorry, can't resist repeating that bad pun just one more time) a while back, which turned out to be distracting and enjoyable in a totally different way. Here, the main worries concerned learning folk dance routines and impressing the dance mistresses, but that made good ice cream for my brain as well. If at times I felt that the novel was perhaps a bit too heavily absorbed with the dancing, I did enjoy learning about the dances and I found the characters irresistible. The pages turned themselves. I was, though, just a bit taken aback by some of the girls' romantic passions for teachers and one another. By now I'm familiar enough with the concept of a "pash" and understand how innocent and widespread they usually were (though presumably not always?), but Oxenham spelled it all out a bit more than I was accustomed to, as the girls speculate about how a teacher's body will look in a jumper—and how enjoyable it will be to see more of it—or as two of the girls casually and frequently refer to one another as husband and wife. Schoolgirl crushes indeed!
And from there I moved on to another Girls Gone By book, Mabel Esther Allan's Margaret Finds a Future. This one was perhaps the most fitting of all for my own transitions, as the story begins with 17-year-old Margaret learning that her well-to-do aunt has died and there is no money for her to continue at school. She must instead go to live with another aunt in wintry cold Norfolk. As in many cases, the "difficult new life" Margaret must face turns out to be not so difficult after all (and hopefully my new job will turn out the same), for the aunt is the custodian of the gorgeous old Melveney Hall, a National Trust estate, and there are lovely new people for Margaret to meet—and several for her to cheerfully assist with problems.
There are no surprises in Margaret Finds a Future, but it was still a remarkable read for me because, just as I found with Allan's Return to the West, which I reviewed only a couple of weeks ago, Allan's attention to detail and sense of place and atmosphere is very compelling. As Margaret explores Norfolk and the estate, the reader gets to tag along on a vivid and entertaining tour of the area. Apparently Allan used this structure fairly regularly. The Girls Gone By edition includes an informative biographical essay by Sheila Ray which highlights several other Allan titles with similar storylines, and I'm pretty sure I'll be tracking down a few of them for the next time I want some virtual tourism. I was surprised to learn from that essay, too, that in all Allan published nearly 200 books (Ray includes a complete bibliography as well), and between the publication of her first novel in 1948 and Margaret in 1954, she had actually published 25 additional titles. So if the latter feels a bit less literary than Return to the West, a bit more to the point and focused on good storytelling rather than literary technique, it's easy to see why!
Alas, MARCH COST's The Hour Awaits (1952) is one of the books I can barely recall, which perhaps doesn't sound like the ravest of recommendations, but on the other hand I do remember finding it quite entertaining and enjoyable. It's the story of a princess from an impoverished fictional land next to Italy, who comes incognito to London for a single day in an attempt to reclaim and destroy a family secret—and in the process relive some of the pleasures of her first trip to London 10 years before. The story unwinds (24-style) in chapters named for each hour of her stay, and it's all quite silly and glamorous and enjoyable. And (apparently) rather forgettable.
Cost was a very successful author in her day—The Hour Awaits, at least, received the coveted and profitable honor of being chosen as a selection of the Book-of-the-Month Club—and so I regret not getting around to a review of this book when it was fresh in my mind. I do recall having some difficulty coming to terms with Cost's rather lush, ornate style, but once I got into the flow, it became rather haunting and addictive. Here's a passage I had marked as an example:
Behind her chair, the waiter started slightly.
He had been given to understand that this was a visitor of the first importance, incog. But these hands resting on the damask cloth were not the hands of a lady. They were not even the hands of a servant . . . they were those of a manual worker—ingrained, horrible! His wife would not have owned them.
Pursing his lips, he withdrew to sound the chambermaid and spread his news.
Victoria, stretching out one of the repellent extremities, picked up her newspaper with a little sigh of contentment. Roll, croissant, toast Melba-butter shredded in pale, spiral shells, China tea dusted with jasmine flowers . . . delectable! She had not sat down to breakfast for years. At the Chateau Maria Sophia that was the meal she prepared for the others. Charlotte, now crippled with rheumatism, managed the midday meal and supper. Victoria was entrusted with breakfast, and the housework of the Chateau. On the days that Charlotte coped with the laundry Victoria was also responsible for the washing-up. These were the admitted tasks. But there were others that they dealt with, never acknowledged by either.
It's almost enough to make me want to re-read the novel and write a proper review. Perhaps someday.
I also found time recently for ELIZABETH CADELL's Royal Summons (1972), one of several late Cadells I picked up at the last library book sale. It deals with a wealthy young American girl who comes to England, with her curmudgeonly cousin Corinne, to visit a manor house which—she has only just learned—is part of her mother's legacy to her. A classic Cadell matriarch, Lady Laura, a relative of her mother's, has occupied the house and managed the estate for years despite having no claim to it, and suffice it to say that she has no intent of giving it up now. There is glamorous travel, romance, and a smidgen of intrigue, and it's all completely readable and fun. It even includes some surprisingly thoughtful meditation on the nature of authenticity and truth, which must have seeped its way into this light romantic novel from the halls of academe, where such concepts were getting careful attention from scholars and theorists in the late 1960s.
Okay, enough for now. I can't say that I'm completely caught up now—perhaps I'll need to make "catching up" posts a regular feature—but I do feel a bit better.
Oh, and by the way, for the past week I've been enjoying a bit of a vacay between jobs, and in addition to neglected household duties, some shopping, and other odds and ends, I've been able to spend a fair amount of time putting together some spare reviews and other posts to share with you in the next couple of weeks. That way, if the new job is keeping me very occupied and leaving me drained at the end of the day, you won't have to be deprived of my sparkling wit! And if I do say so myself, I think a couple of the posts are rather interesting, but you'll have to see for yourself in due time…
Wish me luck tomorrow!