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!


  1. Sign. Once more, Scott, you lure me in with the promise of a good read, and then I find the novel is unable to be located. (It was tough not to use "find" and "found" in the same sentence!) Perhaps one day, Miss Orange and I will cross paths. Seriously, this sounds like a good read! Tom

    1. Well, Tom, maybe someday Orange will be rediscovered and reprinted, as she should be!


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