Sunday, September 14, 2014

The NEW Hopeless Wish List (now even MORE hopeless!)

I created my original Hopeless Wish List only a few weeks after starting this blog, and I started to talk about creating an updated one within a few months thereafter.  But, alas, apart from going back once or twice to add comments to the original post (with the main effect being that it's now quite sloppy and confusing), I've shamefully neglected the whole idea.  But in the year or so since I first started talking about a new list, I've come across a wide array of tantalizing obscurities, and I've finally decided it's time to share them, albeit in a post that will be sadly lacking in great cover art (if the books just barely exist nowadays, it's not surprising that there are few pictures of their dustjackets).  

Now, bear in mind that in that time my definition of "hopeless" has evolved a little.  Interlibrary loan is a wonderful thing, and on occasion Amazon or Abe Books or Bookfinder can net some remarkable finds at prices cheap enough even for my stingy budget.  Since I drafted the first list, I have actually managed to track down a fair number of titles.  True, a few of those turned out to be disappointments, but also true that a couple have become favorites.  So, the books on this list are mostly even more obscure and hard-to-find than those on my original list.

Here's a brief rundown on some of the books and authors I mentioned in my original list.  First, the positive: 

Thanks to Cornell University's library, I was able to read Frances Faviell's A Chelsea Concerto, now easily one of my handful of absolute favorite books about the home front.  Faviell was featured prominently in Virginia Nicholson's wonderful book Millions Like Us: Women's Lives in War and Peace 1939-1949 (2011), but still no one seems to be reprinting it.

Then, there was the very, very generous gift of Edith Olivier's one delightful but impossibly obscure children's book, The Underground River, sent to me by Simon at Stuck-in-a-Book.  Edith Nesbit's The Lark came to me on loan from the University of Saskatchewan, which seems to be the only library in North America that still has a circulating copy.   It was only after that that Mary B. noticed that the novel is also available in e-book format as part of Delphi Classics' Complete Novels of E. Nesbit, so that one's not hopeless at all anymore.  And then there's Molly Clavering, whose novels are still vanishingly rare, but happily a cousin of Clavering's generously shared a copy of Near Neighbours with me, which only made me want to read her other work that much more.

As for the less positive outcomes, I tracked down Elinor Mordaunt's 1915 novel The Family, mentioned positively by Nicola Beauman in her wonderful book A Very Great Profession (1983). I completely agree that it's an important and interesting book, and yet ultimately it just proved too bleak and dry for me, and I gave up about three-quarters of the way through.  Interestingly, only a few months after starting my blog, I was thrilled to receive an e-mail from Nicola Beauman herself, who mentioned among other things that she personally didn't feel I should go out of my way looking for Winifred Watson's early novels.  I'd still love to have a look at them, given the opportunity, but if I can't take her word for it that there's not another Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day hiding anywhere among Watson's other works, then who could I believe?! 

Joan Morgan's Ding Dong Dell is certainly still hopeless unless you happen to be sitting in the British Library reading room, but honestly, perhaps it's not quite such a fond wish now, having sampled Morgan's rather disappointing debut novel, Citizen of Westminster…  Also on the down side, I was thrilled to find that the wonderful Boston Athenaeum had several of Noel Streatfeild's more or less forgotten novels for adults…but then I sampled a couple of them and the thrill was gone.  A sort of psychological portrait of a sociopathic child, Luke is told as if it's a murder mystery, though "whodunit" is never really in doubt.  It's ultimately a rather cold-blooded tale, and felt rather empty when all was said and done, but it was at least a somewhat interesting disappointment.  I Ordered a Table for Six, by contrast, for which I had especially yearned due to its wartime setting, was merely tedious and depressing—and harsh, and cynical, and focused, again, on cold, unrelatable characters.  Such an odd combination from the author of so many entertaining and likeable children's books, not to mention the charming froth of her eleven novels under the pseudonym Susan Scarlett.

Some of the other WWII novels I've been yearning for could prove as disappointing as Streatfeild's did, but I'm still desperate for a chance to read Marjorie Wilenski's Table Two, or Richmal Crompton's Mrs. Frensham Describes a Circle, or Lorna Lewis' Tea and Hot Bombs, or Barbara Noble's The House Opposite.  Will I ever get to?  Will a trip to the British Library ultimately be necessary in order to do so?

But now, on to the new list:

A few of the titles I'm adding for this second iteration of the list are also books about which I have only the merest snippets of information, so they too could very easily go either way.  Are they charming lost joys?  Or anti-climaxes waiting to happen?  But my instinct (such as it is) seems to be drawing me to them).

The elusive Sybil Lethbridge

I feel like I'm already addicted to Sybil Lethbridge, though I've never managed to read any of her work at all.  Of her 1933 novel, The Wild Feather, the Bookman said: "From Mrs. Campbell Lethbridge we anticipate the more detailed, leisurely methods which is in the worthy tradition of the professional novelist who builds up a theme or plot by refusing to skip the background. Nor are we disappointed. Here is a villain of a builder who seeks to destroy the beauty of an unspoilt seaside place in Cornwall; here is the heroine, fifty-five years of age but still beautiful and admired—a Lady Bountiful, who has in the past outwitted him."  And her intriguingly titled earlier novel Gnats and Camels (1924), reportedly about "a young woman rebelling against her stuffy family," is drawing me to it as well.  But apparently it will have to draw me all the way to the British Library if I want to read it.

The intriguing cover of another Bridget Lowry novel

The Bookman also reviewed BRIDGET LOWRY's To-Morrow's Giants in 1933, and I imagine some of you readers will be as attracted to its description as I am: "The optimism of the book is no flowery sentimental emotion, but the optimism of courage. Katharine Harvey-Adams has lost her only child, her husband is imprisoned for fraud, and she goes into a Suffolk village to start life afresh and to have a home ready for him to come to on his release. The story ends on the eve of his return, and in the interval we have penetrated the lives of the people of the village, rich and poor, and know each one with an intimacy that renders all their small joys and sorrows matters of infinite importance."  But good luck tracking down a copy!

Marjorie Appleton's Anything Can Happen (1942) reportedly deals with a domestic servant conscripted to work in a munitions factory.  Although the Spectator was distinctly luke-warm on it, they added that Appleton "gives vivid and detailed descriptions of what happens in a machine shop and the various rules and regulations governing the production of war material. … The book has many convincing scenes of war-time trials and triumphs."  Add that one to my British Library reading list as well. Perhaps they'll allow me to pitch a tent in the reading room?

A close friend—and roommate for a number of years—of mystery writer Gladys Mitchell, WINIFRED BLAZEY also wrote crime or mystery novels.  Only four of them, apparently, and the early ones sound a bit bleak, from the snippets of information I've found.  But it's the last that I happily would go on a modest quest to acquire.  Grace Before Meat (1942) was described as "a cheerful period piece with a murder thrown in for good measure. … The story is of a young woman who, in the spacious days before the wars, took as her first job the entire charge of a village school. She insisted on living alone, and the various complications which follow have a reasonable inevitability and convincingness."

I know so little about MARGARET DALE's Maze (1934) that nothing at all but blind instinct has led me to list it here, but blind instinct has (sometimes) steered me well in the past, so perhaps it's doing so again?

For a few other books on this list, I have a bit more information to buttress my interest, but of course, they could still fail to live up to their potential.  I can't imagine, however, that ELEANOR SCOTT's War Among Ladies (1928) will be much of a disappointment, particularly after Margin Notes reviewed it a few months ago.  I've become an addict of school stories for adults, and this one sounds particularly intriguing.  Scott's later novel Puss in the Corner (1934), also attracts me, but it seems to be even more steeped in shadow than War is.  There is just a glimmer of hope that Interlibrary Loan could still come through for War.  Fingers crossed!

A terrible picture of one of the novels Kay Carroll
went on to write after Compass Course

Also quite hopeless outside of a national library (for a change of pace, I think I'll read this one at the National Library of Scotland) is KAY CARROLL's Compass Course: The Log of an Air Force Officer's Wife (1941).  An excerpt from the dust jacket tempts me to drop everything and fly to Edinburgh (well, of course, that temptation doesn't require a lot of buttressing): "This is the true story of an Air Force family with its ups and downs and general posts, the period covered being from 1933 to 1941. It is a vastly entertaining story by an Air Officer's wife with a quick and witty mind and a Service heart. The author has the rare knack of turning every incident into an adventure whether it be of the simplest or most exciting nature. It is a moving story which she has to tell, one of high loyalties and magnificent self-sacrifice, and she gives us enthralling glimpses not only of life at air bases in Britain but also of adventures from Cyprus to Baghdad."

New edition of The Good Comrade,
available from Amazon UK

And last but not least of the authors I know a little about (but not much): Scholar Kate Macdonald, author of The Masculine Middlebrow, 1880-1950 (2011), emailed me a while back and provided me with wonderful information about several novels by UNA SILBERRAD.  She's edited Silberrad's early novel The Good Comrade (1907), and she does a podcast series called Why I Really Like This Book, which is irresistible, and which includes a podcast on Silberrad's The Honest Man (1922).  But the novel which intrigued me most from Kate's description was The Letters of Jean Armiter (1923), an epistolary novel about a "useful" middle-aged spinster who writes letters about the trials and travails of family life.  Amazon US doesn't appear to have heard of it, Amazon UK has no copies, and it looks like the British Library or Cambridge for this one. 

Even a year and a half into doing this blog, it's hard for me to believe that there are so many fascinating authors and books that have practically ceased to exist.  

But wait!  There's more!

Perhaps most tantalizing of all the books on this list are those stray, semi-lost books by authors I have read and loved.  For example, I've written several times about URSULA ORANGE, whose handful of novels appeared in the 1930s and 1940s.  She focused often on young, educated, sophisticated women, and the best of the Orange novels I've read is without a doubt Tom Tiddler's Ground (1945, published in the U.S. as Ask Me No Questions).  Her earlier novels are charming and entertaining, and her later novels are a bit darker and distinctly modern in tone.  So it's sheer torture not to be able to read Have Your Cake (1942), published one year after Tom Tiddler's Ground, in the thick of World War II.  Is it another masterpiece of frolic?  Or the beginning of her darker, more psychological explorations?  Or something entirely unique?  Eventually, I will have to find out!

Ruth Adam

I've also read three of RUTH ADAM's books—A Woman's Place, I'm Not Complaining, and A House in the Country—and have enjoyed all of them, as well as being astonished by her range, from very serious, politically-minded fiction, to lighter satire that still has political depth, to wonderful social history (yep, politically-aware as well).  So, I am very curious about There Needs No Ghost (1939), which falls after the seriousness of I'm Not Complaining, but, according to contemporary reviews, is also somewhat humorous in its portrayal of the Bloomsbury elite gearing up for World War II.  The redoubtable Queenie Leavis thought it weaker than Adam's earlier works, but nevertheless concluded her review with praise at the slightly catty expense of a couple of better-known authors: "I for one consider a novel by Mrs. Adam, who has a point of view, a lively feeling for Character as well as for characters, and a personal sense of values, far more worth having than a sackful of art-novels (for instance, those of Miss Elizabeth Bowen and Miss Kay Boyle)."  Oh, dear.  I had a moment of joy when searching Worldcat for it, because it's owned by UCLA's library, to which Andy (bless his heart) has access.  But then I realized that they wisely have it restricted to non-circulating Special Collections, and it's not in a single other U.S. library.  Perhaps a trip to Los Angeles is also in my future?  Of course, I'm also still dreaming of Adam's one mystery novel, Murder in the Home Guard (1942), but the hopelessness surrounding that book remains unabated.

Although I don't hold out particularly high hopes that MARY BELL's Broken Bonds (1946) will be the wonderful stroke of genius that her later novel Summer's Day turned out to be, it would be completely fascinating to read this short romance that appears to be Bell's only other published work.  Are there hints in this early work of the charm, humor, and depth that she would develop so brilliantly a few years later?  Are there any clues in it about the author's still relatively obscure life?  I'd love to know, but the kind of cheaply-published (and perhaps advertiser-supported) romantic fiction that Bonds appears to be was generally viewed as disposable, so finding a copy will likely prove a real challenge.

Among the wonderful information provided to me by MOLLY CLAVERING's cousin Michael Stewart was an amazing list of novels Clavering serialized in the People's Friend magazine from the 1950s to the mid-1970s.  This list totally changed what I thought I knew about Clavering's output and relative prolificity.  But tracking down this work, especially from this side of the pond, is a challenge.  Of course, it's certainly possible that the work Clavering did for serialization would have been of lower quality than her book publications—often the case, due to deadlines and the constraints of periodical publishing.  On the other hand, what if there are lost treasures among those novels???

The redoubtable F. M. MAYOR's two early and now more or less lost writings are surely worthwhile reprints just waiting to happen.  Mrs. Hammond's Children (1901), published under the pseudonym "Mary Strafford" when Mayor was only 29, is described by Janet Morgan in the introduction to the Virago edition of The Squire's Daughter as a collection of stories “based on the relations among children and the kindnesses and cruelties they practise on one another.”  Morgan goes on to mention another work I had never run across: Miss Browne's Friend: A Story of Two Women (1914) is described as "an exploration of a friendship between a suburban lady and a prostitute, published serially in the Free Church Suffrage Times.” Even if the quality of these two early works isn't up to the standards of her later work—such as her masterpiece The Rector's Daughter—they deserve to be in print.  Mayor's literary reputation has been on the rise in later years (Rector's Daughter appeared under the Penguin Modern Classics imprint a few years back), and readers and scholars should have access to her full body of work.  Both of these works would be out of copyright in the U.S. (and presumably in the U.K. as well, since Mayor died in 1932), so hopefully Project Gutenberg or will get around to them eventually, but copies are not exactly easy to come by, and both works sound so intriguing that some savvy publisher should get in gear and reprint them.

And finally, with my recent growing obsession with girls' school stories, I might as well mention here how difficult many of those are to come by—at least without indulging in frequent flights to the U.K. or splurging on school stories instead of groceries (always a temptation).  Alas, these are the kinds of books that have almost unanimously been discarded by—or, perhaps more likely, stolen from?—libraries.  In the few cases where libraries still hold these books, they have naturally been placed in non-circulating special collections.  Since few genres seem to attract so many avid collectors, prices for those copies which do get listed for sale are often budget-busting.  And even the existence of the wonderful Girls Gone By Press, furiously reprinting many of the best books of the genre, doesn't always make them accessible for long, since their small print runs ensure that their editions lapse out of print quickly and become almost as collectible (and expensive) as the original versions.

So much hopelessness in one post.  Could anyone possibly have greater woes? 

Obviously, the answer to that question is yes—lots of people, many with much greater woes.  But still, it would be nice to write an update to this post a year from now and report that I've successfully tracked down six or seven of those titles.  Hope does, after all, spring eternal!


  1. I am just stunned by all your hard work and amazing efforts. Truly, you might almost turn your talents to a career as a private investigator!
    HOW do you ever find the time to pursue more mundane activities such as - oh, say - sleeping, going to work, etc. Tom

  2. Tom, my thoughts exactly as I was reading through Scott's latest posting. Someone far more obsessed with lovely old novels than I am, and who actually does something about it.

    Read long and prosper, Scott.

    1. If I were any more obsessive than I am, Susan, I could probably be locked up. But happily, Andy keeps distracting me from getting too obsessed.

  3. Honed right in on mention of Ruth Adams! I'm Not Complaining is one of my favourite surprise reads - bought on a whim, sat on the shelf for ages and then one day I decided to give it a go. It's wonderful! Would definitely love to have more of her writings of the WWII era but what's this about Elizabeth Bowen?! Queenie Leavis...shame on you!

    1. I loved I'm Not Complaining too, Darlene. Ooh, I'm just busting to tell you a Ruth Adam-related secret! But it will have to wait for a more in-depth explanation. Stay tuned... :-)

  4. I'm liking that "hopeless" can evolve - I think there might be hope for my own reading/collecting desires in that case! ;-)

    1. Definitely, Vicki, it's never completely hopeless if you're persistent enough!

  5. Fascinating as always, Scott! BTW, Have you read about this author?
    There are too many mysteries about mysteries and their authors.....

    1. You know, Kristi, I think I had a note about her somewhere, but I don't think I ever followed up on it, so thank you for reminding me. I have a large update I'm working on that just never seems to end, and now you've added still another author!

  6. "Faviell was featured prominently in Virginia Nicholson's wonderful book Millions Like Us" Thanks to your recommendation, I racaed through the Nicholson book and totally want to read Chelsea Concerto, and her Berlin book too. Do you think emailing Persephone with our request would help this wonderful book into print? Emails have been known to produce results... thanks so much for your blog!

    1. Sure, the more people who email, the more they'll know there's a genuine interest. And Faviell's book seems like such a perfect match for them. Plus, the whole Persephone team are so nice and gracious, I'm sure they'd be happy to hear from you. It's worth a shot!

  7. What a wonderful blog post - although so many temptations that cannot be sated!

    Having said that, I do have Mrs Frensham Describes a Circle and have read it - it's fun, but probably not one of RC's best. She's very variable, although at her best she is a dream.

    1. Thanks, Simon! As it turns out, there may be some hope for a handful of these titles after all, but I can't tell yet!

  8. I am Bridget Lowry's granddaughter. I think three of her novels are worth a read and one, The Losers, deserves a reprint (though Nicola Beauman disagrees!). One critic said "..a little Cranford about a bungalow town..." KW

    1. How interesting, KW. I'll be on the lookout for The Losers, too--that sounds irresistible. Please do feel free to email me (see note below the comments section for address) if you have any information to share about Lowry. I'm quite intrigued by her.


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!