I'm completely embarrassed by how long it has taken me to get back around to the five "no longer hopeless" WWII novels generously made available to me by Grant Hurlock. I reported on the first of them—Ruth Adam's highly entertaining mystery novel Murder in the Home Guard—way back in November, and I promised to keep reporting on them "soon."
Um, yeah. Well, who's to say that I didn't intend for "soon" to mean "nearly two months from now"? But as it turns out, I was darn near too late to refer to this one as any kind of hopeless, as Greyladies happily announced a few weeks ago that they will be reprinting it in February. For now, though, it still counts, as I defy you to find a copy of it anywhere until the Greyladies version is released. (Here's hoping that I'll have to race against time to post on the other three before they get reprinted as well—but somehow I doubt if that will happen.)
Mrs. Frensham Describes a Circle is a distinctly odd novel—as odd as its name, in fact, which is meant to imply that the title character comes full circle in the course of Crompton's story (though details of how it applies would give away a bit too much of the plot). In some ways, it's very much a cozy read, with an array of entertaining, quirky, likeable (or pleasantly unlikeable) characters, amusing and interesting situations, and—for the most part—ultimate happy endings. And with a wartime home front setting, no less.
On the other hand, there is some very real darkness lurking around the edges, which perhaps qualifies it as the first "uncozy" I've talked about in a while. I've used that concept a few times before to describe novels that have unexpected depths within what at first appears to be pure ice cream for the brain. In fact, although Crompton's style is quite different from that of Elizabeth Goudge, on a couple of occasions Mrs. Frensham reminded me of Goudge's The Castle on the Hill, one of my favorite World War II novels and one which also has considerable unexpected depth.
This was particularly true in Crompton's descriptions of Mrs. Frensham's relationship with her husband. As the novel opens, Mrs. Frensham is more or less completely isolated from friends and even from her daughter Anice, due to her husband Philip's severe mental illness following a breakdown several years before. He is unable to bear the anxiety caused by visitors, even his own daughter, but Mrs. Frensham refuses to allow him to be hospitalized, which would cause him still more trauma. So they live isolated together, and Mrs. Frensham can only make occasional forays into the life of the village.
Clearly, something will happen to change this situation, and there is an air of inevitability, only a short while later, to the random bomb which falls on their cottage, injuring Mrs. Frensham and killing Philip outright. And Mrs. Frensham's reaction to this loss, when she awakes in hospital, is perhaps a bit surprising:
Mrs. Frensham relaxed against the pillow, and a wave of exultant triumph swept through her. Philip was safe. Life couldn't hurt him any more. Life couldn't hurt her any more, either, for it had only been able to hurt her through him. … Her mind was becoming clearer every moment, so clear that she could face the fears that had preyed on her for so long, the fear that she might die before Philip, that they might take him from her again.
The feeling of freedom that uplifted her was strange and unexpected. It was as if she had been carrying a heavy burden and were suddenly relieved of it. Her very soul felt lightened. It didn't even seem to matter who won the war, now that Philip wasn't here to be hurt or frightened. Cruelty and evil and suffering could fill the whole world, for all she cared, now that they couldn't touch Philip. …
I was taken aback at first by such a reaction, but having given it some thought I find it an entirely plausible reaction to the intense stress she has dealt with in trying to protect Philip from reality. Possibly even more surprising, though, is that it's not long until she begins to feel Philip as a sort of phantasmatic presence inside her head, one which even occasionally guides her behavior—even encouraging her to intervene in the lives of other characters, or offer advice she wouldn't have thought of giving herself. A rather interesting twist which, of course, has the result of bringing her out of her isolation.
And the other characters are certainly able to use her and her phantom husband's help. After Philip's death, she stays for a time with her daughter, Anice, whose husband is away in the military, and re-acquaints herself with her grandchildren—Peter, who's yearning to join the R.A.F.; Ellen, who is jealous of her younger sister and bitter because she thinks the boy the likes loves someone else; and Pam, who is happy enough apart from Ellen's constant sniping. And then there are the in-laws, led off by Mrs. Tylney, a domestic dominatrix par excellence (a character type I haven't had a chance to mention lately, though it appears to have been quite common in middlebrow women's fiction), and her poor, beaten-down, manipulated husband, Edmund, and two daughters—Paula, who is devastated and even suicidal following a romance with a married man, and Beryl, neurotically phobic about confrontation but engaged to a man Mrs. Tylney feels is unworthy of the family, a combination that obviously spells trouble. Oh, and let's not forget Miss Fraser, Anice's live-in "mother's help," obsessed with an array of petty grievances against all and sundry, who finds an outlet in her war work at the local A.R.P. headquarters.
When I wrote a while back about Crompton's earlier novel, Leadon Hill, I expressed some frustration with how few of the characters were likeable and how (it seemed to me) self-righteous the main character often seemed toward them. By the time she wrote Mrs. Frensham Describes a Circle, however, Crompton had obviously improved her technique considerably, and here a good many of the characters are amusing and likeable even in their imperfections, and those who aren't are, for the most part, presented as having reasons for being what they are. We learn that even Mrs. Tylney, the darkest character of all, is haunted by the death of her youngest son, and may be dominating everyone else around her as a result of her feeling of helplessness at his loss. As a result, this seems like a far more mature novel to me, almost as satisfying as Family Roundabout, the novel Persephone chose to reprint, or Crompton's even later novel, Matty and the Dearingroydes, which was also a Greyladies reprint and which I enthusiastically reviewed a while back.
As with most wartime novels, some of my favorite parts of Mrs. Frensham are the glimpses it offers of home front life. I love the notion (mentioned in other books of the time as well) that folks would brag about their brushes with danger:
Anice, going into Medleigh every day to do her shopping, brought back a report of the gossip and doings of the little town. Everyone seemed to take a pride in being exposed, as they thought, to special danger.
"It's the railway they're after. It runs right at the bottom of our garden."
"They're trying to get that gun encampment on the common. We're practically next door to it."
"They're aiming at the gas-works, you know. It's only a stone's-throw from our house."
While a W.A.A.F. girl, travelling in the same bus as Anice, told her with gloomy satisfaction that whenever she and her friend moved to a fresh billet a bomb seemed to fall in the immediate neighbourhood. " Well, it looks as if someone was giving us away," she said. " I mean, a thing like that can't always be chance."
Later on, there's a mention of "bomb snobs" that I found amusing:
"There were two in the Tube when I was going home last night." … "They were each going all-out and it was a case of Greek meets Greek, because one had been through the Coventry raids and the other through the Plymouth raids. The atmosphere became more and more strained and by the end they were barely on speaking terms."
And I always enjoy references to the clever responses of business-owners whose businesses have been damaged:
A bomb had exploded recently in the middle of High Street and most of the shop windows had been broken. Some shopkeepers had had fresh glass put in, others, less optimistic, had had them boarded up, leaving small holes in the middle through which the contents could be seen. There was a certain fascination about these little peepholes, and more passers-by seemed to look into them than at the fuller displays. A hairdresser's window, not yet mended, bore a notice "We are blasted well open"; and a dyer's and cleaner's, "We are still alive and ready to dye for you''.
That last one might even replace "More open than usual" as my favorite sign on a bomb-damaged retail shop.