Wednesday, October 15, 2014

The kindness of strangers (and the shape of things to come)

I have had many (too many) plans in the past couple of months regarding all the things I would get done here before our trip to Italy puts this blog on hiatus for a few weeks.

First and foremost, I had set the goal of finishing a massive new update to my Overwhelming List, which contains well over 300 (!!) new writers and which has threatened to finish me off recently, rather than the other way around. It does have a way of expanding and growing as I work on it. I have persevered, however, and am now relatively certain I will survive it and get it polished off.  But alas, it will not happen until we're back from the trip.

I also had high hopes that I would finish the next of my world famous and highly anticipated (okay, perhaps that's overdoing it) genre lists, following in the footsteps of my Mystery List and my Not-Quite-So-Overwhelming List. I'm particularly excited about this one, but alas, although it too is fairly close to completion, it's not close enough, so it will have to wait for November as well.

(Truth be told, had I focused all of my efforts on one or the other of these projects in the past few weeks, instead of bouncing between them like an ADD-afflicted chimpanzee, I would likely have gotten one of them finished and happily posted. But that would have been much less fun for me, who dearly love bouncing from one project to another.)

But there is one post I've been meaning to do that I absolutely have to do before jetting off to greener pastures (or greener vineyards, perhaps?):

One of my favorite things about blogging has been hearing from all sorts of people out of the blue, who have encountered my blog and have something to share with me. I've already mentioned many of these kind folks in previous posts, but I've recently heard from several more and have benefitted from their generosity, so I have to give some appropriate acknowledgement.

First, a few weeks ago I heard from Carolyn Croll, an artist, illustrator, and author living in Philadelphia (check out her storefront here for some of the lovely jewelry she designs). Carolyn was trying to find information about March Cost and—not too surprisingly—had little luck apart from my brief discussion of one of Cost's novels a while back. But the real reason Carolyn was looking for information was that she had a beautiful signed and framed photograph of Cost, which had been given to Carolyn's good friend, John Francis Marion, a Philadelphia writer and historian (see his obit here and some of his books here), by none other than Cost herself. And as it happened, Carolyn was looking for a good home for the photograph.

Ahem. Needless to say, I proved quite obliging about helping her get the photo adopted...

And as you can see, the photo is the same as that used on the back cover of The Hour Awaits. Thank you again for tracking me down and sharing this treasure with me, Carolyn!

Not long after hearing from Carolyn, I posted (finally) my new and updated Hopeless Wish List, and talked about how, as my skills in tracking down obscure titles have improved, the list of titles I couldn't locate had inevitably grown more and more hopeless. I tried to end the post with an optimism I didn't really feel, by saying I hoped that in another year or so I'd be able to update the list and report that a few of the titles hadn't proved hopeless after all.

Little did I know that within a few days I would get an email from Grant Hurlock, a fellow Californian with an interest in World War II fiction almost as passionate as my own. And that Grant would casually mention that he had copies of not one, not two, not three or four, but five of my most coveted "home front" novels, and that he was willing to share them with me. The joys of blogging, indeed!

Now, I've decided to be a bit coy about which titles exactly they are, because I want you to have the surprise of reading about these books one by one as I review them. I know, it's irritating of me, particularly since I am sometimes so far behind on reviewing books I've read that we could see a couple of Christmases wax and wane before I write about all five, but in return for your irritation and your patience I hope to come up with some really interesting reviews for you, and to share information about some titles that haven't been discussed much elsewhere because, well, the books barely exist anymore outside of the British Library. I've already finished reading one of them, which had seemed perhaps like the most hopeless of all, and am just busting to talk about it, but, alas, it too will have to wait until our return from Italy...

So, an enormous thank you to Grant—and just more proof that things are never as hopeless as one might think.

And finally, I always love when I can flesh out information on an author about whom little is known. Late last year, I posted an update to my Overwhelming List that included Dorothy M. Nevill, author of a single book, Mrs Moore’s Mishaps and Other Humorous Short Stories (1933). I knew next to nothing about her, though I was (and am) intrigued by the book itself.

Just a few days ago, however, I received an email from David Nevill Alcock, Dorothy M. Nevill's son, who not only provided me with valuable information about his mother, but also sent me a press clipping about the book, which includes a charming picture of her at the time the book was published, and an additional photograph of his mother in later years. I'll be revising and expanding Nevill's entry on my Overwhelming List when I finalize the next update (soon! soon!), but in the meantime I can't resist a little mini-bio from what David was kind enough to tell me:

Dorothy Mary Nevill (1912-1990) was born in a small market town called Leek in Staffordshire, England, and she lived there for her entire life. Her married name was Alcock, and she gave David the middle name Nevill to carry on her own family name, since she was an only child. Her one book was published when she was only 21, and was a collection of short pieces which she had originally published in the local Leek Post and Times. She never published another book, but went on to a career in psychiatric nursing.

I would love to be able to provide this kind of information (and such wonderful photos) for a whole slew of other writers on my list for whom all traces seem to have been lost. But in the meantime, thanks again to David for allowing me this lovely insight into his mother's life and work.

By the way (yes, this is still one more promise of things to come), I also recently emailed with a descendent of three of the women on my list—three generations of women, no less (hint, hint)—but that will the topic of its own future post. There's that irritating coyness again.

Clearly, I have my work cut out for me when I return.  But for now, I'm afraid the blog will be a bit stagnant for the next few weeks.  I'll expect to get back to work on it in early November.  Until then, I'll be relying on the kindness of strangers in Italy.


San Galgano--a preview of one of the sights we hope to visit in
Tuscany--and check out this site with other marvellous pics and details

Friday, October 10, 2014

Time Travel Book Shopping: 1941

Two of the most addictive novels I've read in recent years (and some of the only "sci-fi" I've read, period) are Connie Willis's compulsively readable tales of historians from a future Oxford travelling back in time to England during the Blitz, Blackout and All Clear.  The historians manage to get themselves into the middle of many of the high points of the war (which undoubtedly were low points for those who had to live through them), including the evacuation of Dunkirk, codebreaking at Bletchley Park, and the fight to save St. Paul's Cathedral from incendiaries.  The novels are completely addictive, thanks in large part to Willis's thorough research on the period and her vivid attention to detail. 

But at some point in my compulsive reading, I found myself imagining an exciting event more uniquely tailored to my own obsessions.  I mean, I would happily bound around the dome of St. Paul's to extinguish incendiaries (though, as clumsy as I am, it's probably more likely that I would extinguish myself in the process), and I'd be more than a little delighted to hang out at Bletchley Park for a few weeks.  But honestly, if I were going to travel back in time to 1941, surely, surely I would also manage to make a bit of time for an excursion to Hatchard's?  And if I were to smuggle a couple of trunks full of books back through the portal to the future, well, who would be the wiser?

Why Hatchard's specifically?  Well, when we were in London a couple of years ago, actually shopping at Hatchard's (I picked up several of the wonderful Stella Gibbons reprints from Vintage UK), I acquired the bookmark shown below. At the time, I really didn't look that closely at it, assuming, I suppose, that the photo on the bookmark had been taken only recently. But when I got home and started looking, I was able to pinpoint the actual date of the photo to a much more interesting period.  The presence of Hemingway's For Whom the Bell Tolls, Ngaio Marsh's Surfeit of Lampreys, and Kate O'Brien's The Land of Spices in the picture (you should be able to enlarge the photo fairly considerably—let me know if you identify other well-known titles) more or less pinpoints the year of the pic to—you guessed it—1941. So it actually provides us with a nice concrete aid for our fantasizing.

Now, I can't make my time travel book shopping an actual physical reality—at least not yet—and perhaps, judging from the very real dangers Willis's characters get themselves into, I wouldn't really want to make the journey anyway…or would I?  But I realized that by harnessing the power of my obsessively maintained database, I could at least torture myself and all of you by imagining what other tantalizing titles those gorgeous book tables might have contained in 1941. 

It's well nigh overwhelming to think about, too.  Can you fathom having the opportunity the stock up on pristine first editions (ah, the smell of the paper and ink fresh from the press!) of STELLA GIBBONS's The Rich House, DAPHNE DU MAURIER's Frenchman's Creek, and D. E. STEVENSON's Mrs. Tim Carries On??!! And that's really just the tip of the iceberg.  (Sure, many of these would be printed according to the War Economy Standard, and would be destined to get yellowed and brittle by about the mid-1950s.  But nevertheless!)

So, here we are.  The shop is a bit dim, perhaps, because of the blackout on its windows, and it might even be a little dusty from the debris and ash not far down the street, but it's still piled high with lovely new books, and if the sirens begin to wail while we're shopping, I for one may find it difficult to tear myself away. 

Though they don't seem to appear in the photo, surely there are fairly prominent displays of two major posthumous publications by recently dead giants—VIRGINIA WOOLF's Between the Acts and F. SCOTT FITZGERALD's The Last Tycoon.  But those are old hat for time travellers like us, and readily available in 2014, so let's bypass the neatly-stacked piles (pausing only to admire the lovely cover of Woolf's book, designed—like most of her others—by sister Vanessa Bell) and go in pursuit of books that, unbeknownst to our fellow shoppers, will only be coveted years from now—and even then only by the most obsessive of obscurity fiends like us.

On the way, I find myself drawn inexorably into the mystery section—I already see a spanking new copy of AGATHA CHRISTIE's N or M that I will certainly be unable to resist.  While I'm here, I have to at least glance at GLADYS MITCHELL's When Last I Died and GEORGETTE HEYER's Envious Casca, and pay proper homage to CHRISTIANNA BRAND's Death in High Heels, and MARGERY ALLINGHAM's Traitor's Purse, lying nearby.  And knowing how much I'll wish I could get my hands on them back in the future, I have to add WINIFRED DUKE's Unjust Jury and MARGARET LANE's Walk Into My Parlour to my shopping basket.

The threat of falling bombs outside isn't the only thing that makes the children's section of Hatchard's dangerous. Here in 1941, a whole slew of titles have just appeared, many of which will still be highly regarded more than 70 years on. The precocious PAMELA BROWN has just published her debut, The Swish of the Curtain, and there it is propped against NOEL STREATFEILD's hot-off-the-presses The Children of Primrose Lane.  Fans of girls' school stories will hardly be able to resist stocking up on shiny new copies of ELINOR BRENT-DYER's The Chalet School Goes to It, ELSIE OXENHAM's Jandy Mac Comes Back, and PHYLLIS MATTHEWMAN's rather unfortunately titled The Queerness of Rusty, not to mention Gretel at St. Bride's by MARY K. HARRIS, with its timely and sensitively-portrayed main character, a refugee from the Nazis worried sick about her father left behind in Germany and her aunt who may be seriously ill in Switzerland. 

Indeed, the war is hard to escape even in children's books.  DORITA FAIRLIE BRUCE has carried one of her popular series characters into adulthood and into war in Dimsie Carries On, MARY TREADGOLD focuses on the invasion of a fictional Channel Island in We Couldn't Leave Dinah, RICHMAL CROMPTON brings the incorrigible William into wartime with William Does His Bit, and P. L. TRAVERS is taking some time out from Mary Poppins to publish I Go by Sea, I Go by Land, about evacuee children.   Knowing what a fortune I'll have to pay for the Girls Gone By and Fidra Books reprints, respectively, of GWENDOLINE COURTNEY's Well Done, Denehurst! and OLIVIA FITZROY's Orders to Poach when I get back to the future, I will be a savvy shopper and snatch up snazzy first editions while I'm here.  Perhaps I need ELIZABETH GOUDGE's The Well of the Star as well?  Or what about Auntie Robbo, the much-loved book by ANN SCOTT-MONCRIEFF, who, sadly, will be dead in two more years at the tragically young age of 29?

As much as I'd love to think that Hatchard's in 1941 had a whole lovely section devoted to charming middlebrow fiction by brilliant women writers, the truth is that we'll have to sort through the many prominently-displayed copies of Vladimir Nabokov's The Real Life of Sebastian Knight, Louis-Ferdinand Celine's Guignol's Band, and W. Somerset Maugham's Up at the Villa—and push aside quite a few copies of MARGARET MITCHELL's Gone With the Wind, which is several years old but still selling like hotcakes (the desolation of an earlier war on another continent providing an escape from the desolation of this one)—to get at the likes of E. M. DELAFIELD's No One Now Will Know, ANGELA THIRKELL's Northbridge Rectory, IVY COMPTON-BURNETT's Parents and Children, ROSALIND WADE's Man of Promise, and (as we can see in the photo) KATE O'BRIEN's The Land of Spices.  (I confess I might get distracted along the way by the prominently-displayed first editions of Jorge Luis Borges's The Garden of Forking Paths and Gertrude Stein's Ida, though they have little to do with this blog.)

U.S. edition of The Land of Spices

MARGUERITE STEEN's The Sun Is My Undoing, about the Atlantic slave trade, will be thoroughly forgotten (but readily available, thanks to its enormous print runs) in 70 years, but for now it's a bestseller on both sides of the pond.  And MARCH COST, similarly doomed to future obscurity, is a perennial favorite here in 1941 as well, so her latest, Miss Domore, is surely available too.  But if you're wise, you'll dig around and snatch up freshly-minted copies of RICHMAL CROMPTON's Narcissa, WINIFRED PECK's A Garden Enclosed, and MABEL BARNES-GRUNDY's Paying Pests, because you'll have a hard time tracking them down when you're comfortably back home in 70 years' time.  And PHYLLIS BOTTOME's charming Blitz novel London Pride is underappreciated in 1941 and, sadly, will still be underappreciated in 2014.

I personally am okay with leaving FLORA THOMPSON's Over to Candleford, MOLLY KEANE's Two Days in Aragon, STORM JAMESON's Cousin Honore, and BETTY MILLER's Farewell Leicester Square behind, secure in the knowledge that they'll be rediscovered and reprinted in a few decades.  Your feelings might vary.  It will take a lot longer, however, (until 2014, to be exact), before a savvy publisher will finally reprint EDITH OLIVIER's Country Moods and Tenses, so I'll grab that one while I can.

I'll also have to pile HELEN ASHTON's Tadpole Hall, BRIDGET CHETWYND's Crown of Stars, and ELEANOR FARJEON's Brave Old Woman into my increasingly weighty basket (those trunks are going to be back-breaking to drag back through that portal—why oh why didn't anyone invent wheeled suitcases in the 1940s?!).  And I'm going to pick up at least 10 copies of URSULA ORANGE's Tom Tiddler's Ground, knowing full well how much I'm going to want to rave about it and give it away to all my friends when I'm back in 2014.

We've already picked up a fair number of war-related titles, but we shouldn't forget all the powerful journalistic works about the war which are already starting to appear.  MARGERY ALLINGHAM's The Oaken Heart, about village life in the early years of the war, will be periodically reprinted in the coming decades, but a first edition would surely have some extra caché.   ELSPETH HUXLEY's Atlantic Ordeal: The Story of Mary Cornish, about the terrible sinking of the City of Benares and the rescue of Cornish and six surviving children who were being evacuated to the U.S., has gotten a lot of attention.  Trailblazer HILDE MARCHANT has detailed the Battle of Britain in Women and Children Last: A Woman Reporter's Account of the Battle of Britain, and American newscaster EDWARD R. MURROW has released This Is London.  It must be gut-wrenching for readers all over England to peruse JAMES POPE-HENNESSY's History Under Fire: 52 Photographs of Air Raid Damage to London Buildings, 1940-41, whose main attraction is the photographs by CECIL BEATON.  And although it's really a novel, INEZ HOLDEN's short but powerful Night Shift is so journalistic in its recording of wartime factory life that it perhaps belongs in this pile.

I can't possibly leave 1941 without stopping into the romance section.  Whether the real Hatchard's would have had a separate section for such fluff is irrelevent—my fantasy version has a plethora of crisp new romances, and the titles and covers alone are enough to seduce me into spending a bit of time here.  Add to that the sheer amazement that begins to accumulate as I ponder the prolificity of some of the authors.  It's well worth pondering! The wonderful MARY BURCHELL (real name IDA COOK—see my Dolphin Square post to be reminded why she's so wonderful) has published four novels this year, while Aussie MAYSIE GREIG has outdone her by producing six.  But they both look like slackers by comparison with the unfathomably productive URSULA BLOOM, who in 1941 alone has seen ten new books into print.  It's amazing she has time to eat and sleep! 

We could peruse for hours among the charming titles and covers of new books by ELIZABETH CARFRAE, WINIFRED CARTER, MAY EDGINTON, ELIZABETH HOY, ANNE MAYBURY, and ANN STAFFORD.  NOEL STREATFEILD has quietly (and, apparently, with some embarrassment) published two more light, entertaining novels under her Susan Scarlett pseudonym this year, and both Babbacombe's and The Man in the Dark will be vanishingly rare for the next 60 years or so until Greyladies reprints them.  (Little does she know how much more in demand they'll be than her rather cold, bleak, "serious" novels!)  I've heard good things about LEONORA STARR, whose Gallant Heart is hot off the presses, and I enjoyed the one FRANCES TURK I've managed to track down, so I'm a bit tempted by her two new titles of the year, Dear Professor and Lovable Clown.

Okay, I'm beginning to feel the need for tea, and I'm getting that neurotic jumpiness that one gets after too long in a book shop with too many exciting finds (you know, where you find your eyes moving furiously, wildly, all around you, searching every nook and cranny—behind doors, under tables, even perhaps, now and then, overhead, as if you expect a thrilling treasure dangling from the light fixture), so it's time to drag our stacks and stacks of spanking new books to the checkout line.  (Happily, the exchange rate from 2014 U.S. dollars to 1941 British pounds is quite favorable.)

A 1947 reprint of Northbridge Rectory; of course,
ours will be the first edition...

We'll have to hurry if we want to get our fill of fresh scones and cucumber sandwiches before hustling along to see the theatre hit of the season, Noel Coward's Blithe Spirit.  Just a little surprise I managed to work up for us (I have contacts).  We've worked hard at our shopping—we deserve some pure frivolity before we head off to the portal!

Here's hoping we haven't disrupted the space-time continuum too much by smuggling our trunks of books a mere 70-odd years into the future.  If I return to a future where anyone at all has heard of Ursula Orange, I'll know we've changed history.  Oops!

Sunday, October 5, 2014

URSULA ORANGE, Company in the Evening (1944)

I'm obviously still doing a bit of catching up on books I've meant to write about but haven't gotten around to.  I read this one ages ago, not long after I reviewed three other Ursula Orange novels.  It was quite a little reading spree, and happily I managed to track down five out of her six novels.  Thankfully, I made notes about this one, because although I don't think it's by any means a perfect novel, it is definitely worth writing about—if only real life didn't keep getting in the way of my blogging! 

Orange is possibly the most interesting and entertaining of the absolutely, truly, beyond-the-pale-of-obscurity writers I've run across.  I included two of her early novels in my Possibly Persephone post a while back, about novels that should be in print but aren't (and I really urge you, yet again, to read Orange's wonderfully charming, cozy WWII novel, Tom Tiddler's Ground, published in the U.S. as Ask Me No Questions), and while I was a bit lukewarm on the third, it was still an entertaining read. 

All three of those earlier novels were relatively light and frothy, with just a few serious undertones beneath the frivolity.  But by the time we get to Company in the Evening, published three years after Tom Tiddler's Ground, Orange—like many writers publishing late in the war—has gotten a bit more serious, with the fatigue and deprivations of the war clearly beginning to take their toll.  And in this, her second to last novel, Orange is also experimenting with her methods of storytelling.

Like Tom Tiddler's Ground, Company in the Evening is set during wartime, and although there is certainly humor throughout, the lightness of the opening passage rather belies the more serious tones of what is to come:


I did not want to keep on idly reading and re-reading this notice, and yet, as I sat in my third-class railway carriage, traveling slowly and with frequent stops, not to mention two changes, towards my destination—Winterbury Green in Sussex—my eyes were constantly falling on it. There was, as always, a certain grim humour in the picture it conjured up. ("Excuse me if I lie on top of you, Madam." "Not at all, I believe it's safer underneath.")

The narrator is Vicky, a young woman who is fairly recently divorced and who has gone back to work to support her young daughter, Antonia.  She works for a literary agency which focuses on helping authors market their short fiction and articles to periodicals.  As the novel begins, Vicky has reluctantly offered to allow Rene, her pregnant, widowed sister-in-law (Vicky's brother has been killed in the war), to stay with her indefinitely.  Vicky and Rene have little in common—she later says of her, "Talking to her is like walking through a bog—squash, squash, squash—never, just never do you really crunch on to anything solid."  But Vicki is also worried about her mother's health and doesn't want her to be saddled with Rene instead, and so she resigns herself to losing some of her valued privacy and solitude, and pretends to her mother that "company in the evening" is just what she needs:

I have never tried to make Mother understand that, of all the unhappiness my divorce has brought upon me, loneliness has never been in the least a part. A sense of failure—yes. A rather frightening feeling of being alone against the world—yes. Regret that Antonia should be brought up without a father—yes. Loneliness—no. Lack of company in the evening is to me an absolute luxury.

We soon learn that, although Vicki has rarely come across her ex-husband, Raymond, since their divorce, she seems to retain some conflicted feelings about him:

He wasn't what you'd call the epitome of a Good Husband, with capital letters.  He wasn't a rock of gentle integrity, like Barry.  I could never rely on him to back me up at all costs (and this was not because he was fickler, but because his conception of me was always of a Person, never primarily of a Wife).  But if, at the moment, you don't happen to be wanting a Good Husband and, in all honesty, nine-tenths of the time I don’t—and do happen to be wanting someone to share a joke with, someone utterly companionable, someone restful because he's quick, not because he's slow, someone with whom you drop at once thankfully into a sort of allusive mental shorthand, then, to my mind at least, you want Raymond.

It's hardly surprising, after this passage, that Vicki and Raymond happen to meet one evening, or that they have a nice chat as a result, and one of the strands of the novel's plot has obviously been set in motion (can a strand be set in motion? well, you know what I mean).  There's also her increasingly contentious relationship with Rene, and with her housekeeper and former nurse, Blakey, who dislikes Rene and enjoys stirring up conflict, and there's a fascinating portrait of one of the writers the agency represents, and a glimpse of the inner workings of a literary agency (see below).

All of which is enjoyable enough, even if it doesn't quite hold together as smoothly or enjoyably as Orange's earlier novels.  For better or worse, there's also the presence of one of Orange's pet themes—of snobbishness and the sophisticated desire to avoid it at all costs.  This theme was, for me, one of the weak points in To Sea in a Sieve, though there at least it was played mainly for laughs.  Here, Orange seems more in earnest about Vicky's horror of being snobbish, and it really does come across as a rather snobbish concern in itself (is feeling superior to folks who feel superior really not snobbishness? see Richmal Crompton's Leadon Hill!).  Perhaps that's precisely the point, but it just became heavy-handed at times, with a bit too much anxious self-examination on Vicky's part.

But this self-examination—even if it doesn't always make for engrossing reading—is also part of what made this novel seem rather unique for its time.  If Orange's Begin Again seemed ahead of its time in its sophistication and its portrayal of women who must have belonged to one of the first generations to begin to take an Oxford education for granted, then Company struck me as ahead of its time in its confessional first-person style, which comes across as quite a bit more like Margaret Atwood than Virginia Woolf (with perhaps just a touch of Bridget Jones, believe it or not).  I felt at times as though I might be reading Atwood's The Edible Woman, written nearly 30 years later, and the passage about Raymond quoted above is a case in point.  There have always been first-person narrators, of course, but somehow Vicky's strikes me as a rather modern voice—not one of the self-effacingly funny narrators, like Dodie Smith's Cassandra Mortmain in I Capture the Castle, nor one of the formally elegant ones that Elizabeth Taylor or Elizabeth Bowen might have created.  Vicky seems to speak to us seriously but more or less in our own contemporary language, and that seems like an achievement to single out.

But one of my favorite elements of the novel, as I mentioned above, are the passages describing Vicky's troubles with one of the agency's clients.  Vicky first gives a bit of background:

Unless you are an avid reader of women's magazines you would not know her name, but even if you had happened to notice it somewhat, you would be surprised to hear what a large and steady income she makes for herself from her writing. The woman's magazine short story market may be a footling one, from the point of view of literature, but it's an extremely lucrative one for a skillful craftsman. Ten percent of this author's earnings (the agency's share) was well worth bothering about.

This writer—whom Vicky gives the fake name Dorothy Harper—appears to specialize in rather trite, romantic tales (though one of her titles, Mermaids in Bloomsbury, would—were it a real novel—no doubt inspire me to an obsessive search for a copy, and should surely be stolen by someone for a title of something!).  Lately, the author has begun offering her work directly to periodical editors, and then, if they're rejected, offering them to the agency, which—in ignorance of her previous attempts—turns around and offers them back to the editors, creating an embarrassing situation for all.

Geek that I am, I found the agency's quandary, and the insight into dealing with difficult authors, fascinating—though perhaps not all readers would feel the same.  And Dorothy Harper herself is an entertaining character—as snobbish and superficial as Vicky prides herself she's not:

Dorothy Harper had evacuated herself with all speed at the beginning of the blitz to her Cornish cottage. Not that I blame her—there was no reason why she should stay to be bombed. Only I couldn't help smiling a little when she came prancing back into the office in the middle of January with two new short stories,  one about the heroism of an old woman in the blitz, the other about a crotchety spinster in Gloucestershire, whose whole life and outlook was radically changed (for the better of course) by her child evacuee. Miss Dorothy Harper herself  was loud in her complaints against the billeting officer who had tried to push a schoolboy on to her. ('"But my dear man,' I said—I know him well, he used to be dear Lord Portarlington's right hand man and was always about the place when one dropped in there—'My dear man, how can I? Nobody is readier than myself to help, but it would not be fair on the child to billet it in a place where it couId not stay. I am not here permanently myself, alas, only for a very very little time.''') Mrs. Hitchcock caught my eye and gave me a wry grin. Dorothy Harper wafted herself out of the office, all pearls, fur-coat and scent. I am sure that she always pictured herself as bringing just a little colour and romance—a breath of the outside world—into our drab lives. As neither of us ever did anything but listen patiently while she talked her society prattle, perhaps we encouraged her in this conception. I was 'Miss Sylvester' to her, as I was to all our clients. I am sure that had she known that I was (like her) a divorcee, she would. have been deeply shocked. Little typists in offices (she would think) have no business to be also divorced women with private lives of their own.

I wonder how many of the World War II stories and novels I have loved were in fact written by women safely outside of all danger zones, merely fantastizing the harrowing details?!

Apart from Harper's connection to the snob theme, it's not entirely clear to me how these experiences in the agency tie in with the novel's overall themes and plot, but they're an interesting glimpse of a portion of the publishing world I've never encountered before.  It made me wonder, too, could this be an insight into Orange's profession before (or even while) she was writing her novels?  Little is known about Orange's life, after all.  Or is it instead an ironic reversal of her position? Could she have been a writer of the trite magazine fiction Vicky acts as agent for, before (or, again, while) writing her novels?  There certainly seems to be real personal insight, at any rate, which shines through and makes these passages compelling.

I've now read four of Orange's six novels.  Her final work, Portrait of Adrian, published the year after Company in the Evening, has been waiting patiently on my TBR shelf for months now after I got side-tracked from my Ursula Orange obsession.  It has been described as a "psychological portrait," and I'm curious to see where Orange went from the half humorous/half serious tone of Company

But I'm even more curious about Have Your Cake, Orange's fourth novel, published only one year after the brilliant frivolity of Tom Tiddler's Ground.  Alas, that one—published cheaply and in a small print run, no doubt, in the midst of wartime paper rationing—seems to have vanished from libraries and copies rarely seem to come up for sale at all, let alone at remotely affordable prices.  I've had to add it to my new Hopeless Wish List, but somehow, I swear, I will track down a copy.  As God is my witness, etc.

By the way, as it happens, an anonymous commenter on another post only recently gave me the information—I can't imagine how I hadn't put two and two together and figured it out for myself—that Ursula Orange's daughter is actually author Gillian Tindall, and that Tindall writes about her mother (and her suicide) in her 2009 book Footprints in Paris: A Few Streets, A Few Lives.  Of course, I have now ordered a copy of that book, and will no doubt find myself unable to share what I learn.  And not only that, but I've discovered that Tindall herself has written at least a couple of novels, and that the first was published in 1959, which means she will be added to my Overwhelming List as well with my next update.  I do love having multi-generational sets of authors on my list.  So, stay tuned!

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

WINIFRED PECK, Bewildering Cares: A Week in the Life of a Clergyman's Wife (1940)

"And as I am trying to do without a library subscription in Lent," I said, "and there are no evening meetings owing to this blessed black-out, I shall just write down for her what the life of a parson's wife is like. Just one week to show her how everything happens and nothing happens!"

If the title weren't enough to give us a pretty clear idea of the subject matter of this novel, set in the early, limbo days of World War II before the Blitz began, this statement, made by the adorable Camilla Lacely to her husband Arthur, the vicar of Stampfield a medium-sized town in the midlands not too far from Manchester, spells it out for us.

Those of you who read my enthusiastic review of Winifred Peck's early mystery novel The Warrielaw Jewel not long ago will hardly be surprised (knowing also as you do my obsessive nature) that I immediately set about acquiring another of her smart, funny, beautifully observed novels.  Commenting on that review, Lyn suggested that, judging from my enthusiasm, perhaps it would be a new title for my imaginary publishing venture, Furrowed Middlebrow Books, and indeed I am now worried that I may be about to embark on publishing a shiny new imaginary edition of The Complete (and Feloniously Underappreciated) Works of Winifred Peck.

I also mentioned in my earlier post a few of Peck's other novels, including two that seemed surely to be related—They Come, They Go: The Story of an English Rectory (1937) and Bewildering Cares: A Week in the Life of a Clergyman's Wife (1940)—and I immediately placed interlibrary loan requests for both.  That way, I thought, if the latter really was a sequel of sorts to the former, I would have a double-header review all lined up.  Sadly, while my online library account kept assuring me that the status of my request for They Come, They Go was "Awaiting Arrival" (I pictured a welcome party eagerly anticipating, checking their watches, wondering what on earth could have become of it, etc.), the status hadn't changed in more than a week when my self control gave out and I had to dive into Bewildering Cares.  So, no double-header review, alas and alack.  (But I will still report on the other book eventually, assuming that it's much-heralded arrival comes to fruition.)

In some ways, my excitement about these two of Peck's books in particular might seem rather odd.  I am not at all a religious person, but somehow I am completely enamored with the world of vicarages and rectories (though I have to admit I'm not completely sure of the difference), and the generally kind-hearted, dedicated people who live in them and often have a rather thankless calling in providing aid, assistance, and moral support for their communities.  Of course, I'm a little afraid that this enamoration (it should be a word!) may result as much from my viewing of The Vicar of Dibley and Clatterford and my reading of Agatha Christie, Angela Thirkell, and Barbara Pym as from any concrete experience of how vicars and curates and rectors (oh, my!) live in their natural habitats.  But the prevalence of such characters and settings in British fiction and television surely suggests some basis in reality, right?

Oh, for a different photo of Peck, but this seems
to be the only one that's readily available

The novel goes very much (but perhaps not entirely) as you might expect from Camilla's own description.  The main event of the week in question is the controversy swirling around a passionately pacifist sermon delivered by the curate, Mr. Strang.  The outrage and debate gradually runs its course during the week—"It will be a storm in a tea-cup, of course, but then we happen to live in a tea-cup!"—but demands much time and energy (particularly because Camilla inadvertently napped through much of the sermon in question and so rather awkwardly has to avoid all in-depth discussion of it).  There's also anxiety about her son Dick, off training with his regiment, the ill health of one of the residents of the local almshouse, who has become a friend, some slight servant woes (interesting precursors to Peck's House-Bound, published two years later), much concern about the sacrifices and rituals of Lent, and a potential middle-aged romance between the church organist and a woman who runs a local shop—all of which require Camilla's involvement and patience, despite her frequent yearnings for silence and solitude.  I so thoroughly relate to her theory of talkers vs. non-talkers:

Anyhow, the telephone bell rang, and I found Mrs. Pratt asking, in her rich full contralto, if she might come in to tea this afternoon. As Kate will be overjoyed to find that there is a reason for using her best room this afternoon, and as I really like Mrs. Pratt, I was very glad to consent, though I must confess I should have enjoyed a peaceful solitary tea over a new library book better still. Sometimes I feel that Trappist monasteries weren't really founded in any excess of asceticism, but just to fulfil a felt need, a place where the naturally silent might escape from the born talkers. The Church of England is no home for the former class. Scattered through the length and breadth of our unhappy country are those who are quite convinced that the world can be saved by lectures and meetings, discussions and re-unions. To satisfy their lust for speech there must always be an army of patient, silent listeners, seated perpetually in hard rows of chairs enduring the incessant hose-pipe of earnest addresses and talks and sermons.

There's the obvious comparison here—made more obvious by her being mentioned several times in the book as one of Camilla's favorite authors—to E. M. Delafield's Provincial Lady books, but Peck is not so biting in her humor, and she has her serious as well as zany side.  She's not as cynical as Barbara Pym nor as daftly hilarious as Angela Thirkell, who is also mentioned as a favorite, when Camilla yearns for time to dive into Wild Strawberries yet again (she also mentions Winifred Holtby and Dorothy Whipple, so she is clearly a kindred spirit).  I would almost go out on a limb and say that Peck seems to me the more "mature" writer, more polished and also more subtle in the points she gets across.  Hers is a quietly logical, sane, thoughtful, and genuine voice that I could hear in my head all day long without tiring of it.  In fact, I have had to remind myself how many other books I need to be reading, or I might well have slipped back to the beginning of Bewildering Cares and started the whole wonderful experience anew.  (It could still happen...)

Jacket flap description

Even when Peck occasionally explores the real conflicts and dilemmas of religious life in wartime—a retreat leader who asserts that they should not be praying for victory because they cannot know that it's God's will, or how to make appropriate sacrifices for Lent at a time when rationing is already forcing sacrifices enough—she does so in such a charming and interesting way that I ate it all up.  If I had worried at first that it might veer toward preachiness or sentimentality, I needn't have.  In addition to Clarissa's alarming tendency to snooze during sermons or let her mind wander to plans for tomorrow's lunch when she's supposed to be engaged in spiritual reflection, her recollections of her son Dick's skewerings of false piety and prissiness also come into play, as when she reflects on tensions with a village woman:

Perhaps what is really at the root of the trouble is that she hasn't approved of Dick, and Dick has described her as an Anglican pussyface, ever since we left the house together, after a croquet party with two of her gay yet serious Anglican nieces, and Dick declared outside the open windows, with an emphasis which must have been overheard, that he believed even the balls and hoops had been baptized by an Archbishop.

There are two marvellous scenes late in the novel that are among the funniest and most enjoyable I've read in ages.  The first details a day-long Lent observance, in which Clarissa and a group of other women alternate between periods of silent reflection and periods of discussion of religious and moral themes.  I made the mistake of starting this scene while sitting at my desk during a lunch break, and nearly humiliated myself with giggles and guffaws and a few out-and-out snorts.  During one of the periods of silence, the women are supposed to make notes on any enlightening thoughts:

By this time I had acquired a pencil and paper from Mrs. Stead, but all I found on the paper afterwards, I regret to say, was:

(1) A drawing of snowdrops under a cedar tree—quite good;

(2) The Problem of Pain. Incomplete: cf. Saint Paul and parable of sheep and goats—Vic; Redempt.;

(3) A sketch of Mrs. Gage's gown—she always calls them gowns and says her maid makes them for her. This I can well believe, as whatever their material they are of a design which always suggests the fashions of 1910 modified by a study of last year's Vogue and a subtle hint of ecclesiastical vestments.

Then there's a cake and candy sale to aid the church, and Clarissa's reflections on church sales generally and the items therein:

At one of these [tables] Miss Boness severely guarded the collection of woollies, night-dresses and work-bags which go the round of all our Sales, and probably date back in origin to the beginning of the century. These hardy perennials owe their existence to the fact that all Church workers have a Bazaar Drawer in which they thrust the unsaleable goods which they buy, out of sheer pity, from other stall-holders, and out of which they extract articles when they are called upon to send offerings to yet another effort. Dick says that at the bottom of my receptacle he once found a pair of what he calls "frillies", with a portrait of Gladstone stamped on one leg and of Lord Salisbury on the other; but this is sheer libel. As none of the articles here can conceivably be described as cakes or candy, I can only imagine that their owners felt a sort of nostalgia to see them on show once again.


At this I had, of course, to add a rather poisonous-looking mauve sugar cake, wrapped up with almost undue anxiety for economy in paper, to my parcel of handkerchiefs, a bag of eggs, and a greyish-white woolly "boudoir-wrap" which by this time could almost find its own way to my bazaar-drawer, I imagine, so often has it returned there to emerge again in the last three years.

If you're not completely charmed by such passages, then I just don't know what to say to you, I'm afraid.  And I'm also deeply sorry, because that means you'll probably also be bored by the inevitable reviews of more Peck novels undoubtedly to come.  But if you are charmed, then you may well be able to track this book down with just a bit of determination.  Happily, it has not completely ceased to exist either in U.S. or U.K. libraries, and copies for sale do not seem to be completely beyond the budgetary pale. 

Or, of course, you could wait for the Furrowed Middlebrow Books edition...
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