Tuesday, January 6, 2015

UPDATE: Intriguing women

I recently highlighted a few interesting new discoveries from the most recent update of my list when I spotlighted those I had come across on the backs of other books. But there were a few others that I came across in various other ways—several of them again suggestions from readers—that are also particularly intriguing and may have to end up on my TBR list.

I've mentioned here before that, despite being completely non-religious myself, I find myself rather fascinated by and even attracted to the lives of those who make religion the center of their lives in positive and productive ways. So I might just have to check out MONICA BALDWIN's memoir I Leap Over the Wall (1949), about her experiences having left a convent after 28 years. She later wrote a novel also presumably based on her experiences, The Called and the Chosen (1957). For those of you with access to the wonderful Hathi Trust, both books are available for free downloading (at least in the U.S.).

Elizabeth Bibesco

How I had missed ELIZABETH BIBESCO previously is a bit of a mystery. She's the daughter of another writer on my list, Margot Asquith, and appears to have been not only a colorful figure who should have landed on my radar, but also a critically acclaimed author in her day, her short stories garnering comparisons to no lesser figures than Katherine Mansfield and Henry James. Her two earliest story collections are also available on Hathi Trust or from Google Books (again, in the U.S., at least—since copyright laws vary, outside the U.S. you could be frustrated in your pursuit of them). I'm looking forward to sampling them.

Both KATE CHRISTIE and ELIZABETH ELIOT also seem to have garnered acclaim in their prime. Christie's works are the more elusive and apparently the more serious, though all I have been able to learn is that her first novel, Smith (1954), was set in Cumberland and received praise from Julian Symons, her later tale, Goodbye, Jimmy, Goodbye (1961), was about an alcoholic, and by 1968 she was publishing a horror novel called Child's Play.

Eliot, by contrast, was often praised for her humor and high spirits. Her debut, Alice (1950), garnered her comparisons to Nancy Mitford, and subsequent blurbs and reviews suggest that her humor matured and improved but certainly didn't decrease. In the U.S. at least, Alice is available to download for free from the Hathi Trust.

It's hard to tell for sure if LUCILLE IREMONGER was a more serious literary author or a writer of melodrama. Her debut, Creole (1950), is about the decline of a creole family in Jamaica, and the young Oxford graduate forced to marry into the family. Shades of Faulkner there? Or shades of bad Hollywood melodrama? Iremonger's second novel, The Cannibals, is set in Fiji and deals with a young girl who has lost her memory. At any rate, I also seem to have an ongoing fascination with the experiences of Anne Moberly and Eleanor Jourdain during a visit to Versailles in 1901, and Iremonger wrote the definitive book on the subject with The Ghosts of Versailles (1957), which I may well have to track down. (Edith Olivier also discusses the events in her wonderful memoir, Without Knowing Mr. Walkley.)

Pretty much every time I do an update to my list, I end up spontaneously deciding that one book is an absolute must-read. There's something about a newly-discovered book that causes it to leap ahead of the other books on my ridiculously long TBR list. That happened this time with When the Weather's Changing (1945), the one and only adult novel by Jean Howard (later far better known—and included on my list—as JEAN MACGIBBON). It was described as a novel of the final period of World War II, with the events of one summer filtered through the eyes of a farmer's wife. Something about that description made it irresistible to me, so a copy of it is currently making its way to me from a bookseller in Ireland, no less.

MacGibbon's personal story seems intriguing as well. She reportedly had a nervous breakdown not long after publishing this novel, and she never returned to adult fiction, opting instead to become a successful children's author, among whose works is Pam Plays Doubles (1962), a school story listed in the Sims and Clare Encyclopaedia. Later in life, she also wrote a memoir, I Meant to Marry Him (1984), which includes discussion of her life with her husband during the war, at which time both were apparently members of the Communist party (see an excerpt from the memoir here). Interestingly, her husband admitted in the 1990s to passing classified British intelligence to the Russians! You'll doubtless be hearing more about MacGibbon here. Stay tuned.

Fanny Cradock's early alter-ego

FANNY CRADOCK and ELISABETH ANN LORING are perhaps more interesting as "personalities" than for their literary contributions (though the latter could be brilliant lost masterpieces, for all I know at this point). Cradock was a very famous, rather eccentric television chef in Britain for several decades, until IN 1976 she famously derided an amateur chef's efforts during a television cooking special and the backlash more or less ended her career. In her prime, however, she was quite entertaining, as you can see from this snippet of her demonstrating (with gruesome efficiency) the carving of a Christmas bird. Interestingly, before her career as a chef, she had already published an array of novels under the pseudonym Frances Dale—some of which sound like thrillers while others are perhaps more romantic melodrama. Late in her career, she also published the eight-part Castle Loring series of historical novels, which included World War II in its sequence of events.

Loring, by contrast, was known as a print journalist rather than a television personality. Under the name "Elisabeth Ann," she was the editor of the Sunday Dispatch and Modern Weekly "Woman's Page," the author of several books about knitting and other crafts, and also narrated the 1934 LP release "How to Slenderise." You can read about the last of these endeavors here. In the 1930s, Loring published three novels, and one wonders how they fit in with the other elements of her career.

Most you already know of my fascination with school novels written for adults (as well as, more and more, those written for girls). So I was happy to come across ELIZABETH LAKE, who is probably best known now for her 1952 novel The First Rebellion, which is set in a girls' convent school and deals with the repercussions of a young student who has decided that she is an atheist. It's hard to tell from what little I've read about it whether it is light-hearted or deadly serious, but it's intriguing enough idea for me to check out if I have the chance (right now, copies of it for sale look few, far between, and pricey, but I'll keep trying).

And finally, although she didn't write fiction, it's hard to understand how I'm just now getting around to adding the wonderful GWEN RAVERAT to my list. If I'm including authors who wrote important or particularly worthwhile memoirs, then surely Raverat's vivid and hilarious memoir of late Victorian childhood belongs. I've actually just recently read it, and am working on a short post about it.

Those are a few of the other authors from the most recent update that particularly jumped out at me. Hope some of them caught your eye too.

MONICA BALDWIN (?1896-1975)
Catholic nun who left the convent and wrote about her experiences—first a memoir, I Leap Over the Wall: Contrasts and Impressions After Twenty-eight Years in a Convent (1949), then a novel, The Called and the Chosen (1957), and finally a travel book, Goose in the Jungle (1965).

(née Asquith, aka Princess Bibesco)
Daughter of Margot Asquith; poet, playwright, and novelist; her fiction includes The Fir and the Palm (1924), There is No Return (1927), Portrait of Caroline (1931), and The Romantic (1940), and three story collections; The Nation compared her work to Mansfield and James.

KATE CHRISTIE (dates unknown)
Novelist whose debut, Smith (1954), set in Cumberland, was praised by Julian Symons; other fiction includes Harold in London (1956), Morgan (1957), Goodbye, Jimmy, Goodbye (1961), about an alcoholic, The Waiting Game (1962), and Child's Play (1968), the last apparently a horror tale.

FANNY CRADOCK (1909-1994)
(pseudonym of Phyllis Nan Sortain Pechey, aka Frances Dale)
Theatrical television chef and cookbook author who also wrote numerous novels under her own name and as Frances Dale; titles include Scorpion's Suicide (1942), Women Must Wait (1944), O Daughter of Babylon (1947), and a popular series beginning with The Lormes of Castle Rising (1975).

(full name Germaine Elizabeth Olive Eliot, married names James and Kinnaird)
Novelist and biographer whose debut, Alice (1950), was compared to Nancy Mitford; other fiction includes Henry (1950), Mrs. Martell (1953), Starter's Orders (1955), and Cecil (1962); non-fiction includes Heiresses and Coronets (1959), about prominent European/American marriages, and They All Married Well (1960).

(née Parks)
Novelist, travel writer, and biographer born in Jamaica; fiction includes Creole (1950), The Cannibals (1952), and How Do I Love Thee (1976), about the Brownings; The Ghosts of Versailles (1957) is an examination of Miss Moberly and Miss Jourdain's adventures at Versailles.

ELIZABETH LAKE (c1915-1976)
(pseudonym of Inez Pearn, married name Madge)
Wife of Mass Observation founder Charles Madge and author of five novels, including Spanish Portrait (1945), Marguerite Reilly (1946), The Lovers Disturbed (1949), The First Rebellion (1952), an adult novel set in a girls' convent school, and Siamese Counterpart (1958).

Editor, under the name Elizabeth Ann, of the Sunday Dispatch and Modern Weekly "Woman's Page," (see here for more on that side of her career), Loring also published at least three novels—Ladies' Paradise (1933), Night After Bond Street (1936), and Designs by Jo (1936).

JEAN MACGIBBON (1913-2002)
(née Howard, aka Jean Howard)
Intriguing author of one highly-acclaimed novel for adults, When the Weather's Changing (1945), about the events of a farmer's wife's summer; she then suffered a nervous breakdown and thereafter turned mainly to children's fiction, including the school story Pam Plays Doubles (1962).

(née Darwin)
Granddaughter of Charles Darwin, and noted artist and illustrator whose humorous memoir of her childhood, Period Piece: A Cambridge Childhood (1952), has become a classic of the genre.


  1. I had heard of Monica Baldwin through the Angela Thirkell Society, as there was a Thirkell/Baldwin connection through her mother and one of her aunts - who went on to marry Stanley Baldwin. I knew of her memoir, but thank you for calling our attention to her novel. I always learn something from your columns! Tom

    1. And now you've taught me something too, Tom. I had no idea there was a Thirkell connection!

  2. Monica Baldwin's memoir is about to be reprinted but the cover is awful (a nun drinking tea through a straw!). I preferred my old Pan paperback but I loaned it to a friend of my sister's & never saw it again. I didn't know she'd written a novel though, must investigate...

    1. Of course I had to have a look at the new cover, Lyn. Oh dear. I have to say even the reprint cover I used above is more enticing to me than the nun with a straw (if she's left the convent why on earth is she in a habit?!).

  3. I too am fascinated with the events of that hot summer afternoon in the gardens of Versailles, did worlds overlap or was it just Montesquiou and his crew up to some hijinks? I would love to read that Olivier book, it will go on the list. Back in the 90s I found a book about the incident that contains independent accounts by both the participants, so many interesting possibilities! It was called Ghosts of the Trianon ISBN 978-0850307740.

    1. Happily, Olivier's book is back in print now from Bello Books, and the Kindle edition is quite cheap. It's a lovely memoir, even apart from the mention of the Versailles incident, and Olivier has her own tale of possibly supernatural happenings at Stonehenge as well. One of my favorites.

  4. As Tom says above, Monica B was the niece of British Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin and as Elizabeth Bibesco was the daughter of the earlier Prime Minister Herbert Asquith, both writers have connections with 10 Downing Street. I read I Leap over the Wall years ago and don't remember it sparkling, but like you, Scott, have a fascination with convent life (in my case, because of gojng to a convent school). Thanks for the Hathi Trust tip.

    1. You're right, Grace. I could have made a thematic post on literary connections to the corridors of power! So interesting to see that the Baldwin book was rather widely read.

      I hope your convent school didn't have those stereotypical mean nuns with a flare for corporal punishment! :-)

  5. The Called and the Chosen was a favourite book of mine when young. And I leap over the Wall is still on my shelves .....

    But what a surprise about Fanny Cradock - I remember her TV programmes very well but had no idea she had another career as an author. I can't say I am moved to read her books though. Not a pleasant lady from all one hears....

    I am now in competition with you for The First Rebellion, Scott!

    1. In all honesty, Gil, I have sometimes been tempted to hold off on mentioning a particularly interesting book until I've found a copy. But alas, I just have too much integrity, so the competition is on! :-)

  6. Scot, you really need to read I Leap Over the Wall, since she leaves the convent in 1941, just as WWII is in full bloom. Since she had left "the world" in 1914, there were a LOT of changes for her to experience. And the "home front" WWII. And as I recall, she reads at least one Thirkell novel. I own what I believe is a US first edition, published in 1950 by Rinehart & Co, who at that time were publishing DEStevenson's novels. Much more subdued cover.


    1. Thanks, Jerri. You've definitely sold me now. I had no idea there was a WWII connection to be made here!

  7. I'm glad to see another "book geek" who has discovered Elizabeth Bibesco. I've written a short biography of her which you can read online (Pilgrimage: The Life of Elizabeth Bibesco by Paul Darby). It includes contemporary comment on all her books. The stores in Balloons and The Whole Story are her best.

    1. Thanks, Paul. I know Balloons is one of the ones available from the Hathi Trust, so I'm looking forward to reading it. How interesting that you wrote her biography, and I already learned from a blurb about your book that Bibesco spent most of WWII in Romania, which I hadn't known before.

  8. The "legions of the lost" include many fascinating personal stories of artistic struggle. I'm glad you are resuscitating those of the female persuasion. They had an approach to life which teaches us a lot about the changing nature of emotion (joy and suffering) through the years (especially after WWI). They also often suffered the slings and arrows of the critics, an issue you have touched upon in your blog.

    On another topic, Gwen Raverat was also a leading wood engraver, another mainly male endeavor.


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