Monday, March 30, 2015

Catching up with Mabel Esther Allan (part 1)

After my rave review quite a while back of what seems to be Mabel Esther Allan's earliest surviving novel, Return to the West, written in the 1930s but not published until 2013, and my enjoyment of Allan's early novel for girls Margaret Finds a Future (1954), which I briefly discussed here, I could hardly resist dipping my toe a little deeper into Allan's enormous (nearly 200 books!) body of work, and I've been quietly reading away on several more of her works.

The trouble is, I've been lazy about taking good notes on these books. So I'm taking this opportunity to discuss a few of them in brief. (But of course not too briefly, because "brief" isn't exactly my middle name, so I will still have to split this into two posts.)

After reading Margaret, I ordered two of the three mysteries that Greyladies has reprinted by Allan. Only the first, Murder at the Flood, was actually published in Allan's lifetime. After that title, the publisher went out of business, and apparently Allan never placed the other two, Death Goes to Italy and Death Goes Dancing, with an alternate publisher.

Honestly, it's not all that hard to see why. As mysteries, I didn't find either Murder at the Flood or Death Goes to Italy to be any great shakes. The latter I found stronger, in terms of the working out of the puzzle (though one factor playing into the character motivations—involving an adopted child—was absolutely bewildering to me), but it was still almost obvious enough for even a dunderhead like myself to sort out. And Murder at the Flood wasn't even that much of a challenge. So if you want clever, entangled plots and heavily-veiled but believable motives from your mysteries, you might just as well give these a miss.

On the other hand, most of you know I'm more interested in the detail, the characters, and the glimpses of ordinary life that mysteries often put front and center than I am in solving a puzzle. I have a sense that many of you approach your reading in similar ways, and if you do there are certainly some selling points for Mabel Esther Allan's mysteries.

For me, Murder at the Flood in particular had these selling points. Set in Marshton on the Norfolk coast during the terrible floods of 1953, it is rich in setting and in believable and entertaining characters, even if it's a little rough around the edges as a mystery. It follows Emily Varney, wife of the parson in Marshton, who, we learn, is secretly a successful mystery author, but she has wanted to keep this a secret from gossipy neighbors (some of whom are fans of her pseudonymous work). She now finds herself (as detective writers seem highly prone to do) in the midst of a murder investigation herself, and must work behind the scenes to stop the suspicions flying in all directions—including some directed at herself and her husband.

The flood waters arrive almost as soon as the novel is under way, and they arrive in appropriately dramatic fashion:

But when the door was opened it was Mrs. Sainty who burst in, clutching a shabby umbrella, a bulging string bag and an equally bulging plastic handbag that had seen much better days.

"Oh! Oh!" she cried, her grey hair wild and her unbecoming hat hanging over one ear, held by the stout hatpin that she always wore. "Oh, how I got up here no one will ever know! Never should have done if this terrible wind hadn't been behind me! I got the earlier bus because there was nothing on at the pictures and of course I went right round to the shop. No churchyards for me once it's dark! And I heard it coming as I passed round the back of the bus. Like an express train-believe me! But we should be safe here and thank the good God for letting me get here safely. There's a many will be dead this very minute.

"I looked back and saw it hit Mr. Abel-Otty's house. Like a bomb, it was, and one wall just seemed to crumble. They'll be up here, all those who can. But they'd be caught in their houses—they'd never even know!"

After the worst has hit, Emily observes the devastation from the vicarage windows:

The daylight was now almost gone, but there was just enough to make them all draw in their breath sharply. For where there had been miles of marshland there was now only a tossing, heaving sea. It broke not more than a hundred yards away at the foot of the hill that held Vicarage and church, and the little houses below looked like arks, half-submerged. Swiftly Emily moved to another window that gave a wide view westwards and inland. The water there was still moving, not perhaps as fast as an express train, but quickly enough to leave damage and death in its wake, giving only those people who had noticed what was happening time to quit their houses and farms and perhaps not even then.

Whatever other weaknesses Allan may have had as a writer, she could certainly describe a dramatic landscape.

The victims in both of these mysteries were those conveniently loathsome creatures, lacking in any redeeming qualities, that mystery writers love to use to avoid causing any upset to their readers when they finally get the axe (figuratively, not literally, in this case). They're convenient, too, because virtually everyone on the scene might legitimately have wanted them dead.

Fortunately, though, some of the other characters are more creative and interesting. In Murder at the Flood, there's the tortured 12-year-old poetry lover Betony Long, whom Emily tries to help with her troubled home life. And there are the requisite eccentric villagers who on one or two occasions provide some highly entertaining comic relief:

"Do we be murdered we may as well 'ave our cocoa first, that's what I say!" croaked the old woman.

"No one else is going to be murdered!" said the Colonel testily.

Mrs. Gotts gave him a knowing look and mumbled something about having heard that before.

Some may find the outcome of the mystery in Murder at the Flood surprisingly gruesome for what is basically a "cozy" mystery. But the book is otherwise a pleasant and highly atmospheric read. If you've never read Allan before, you might be better off starting with Return to the West or with one of the many books she wrote for children—her specialty far more than mysteries ever were. But if you're already a fan, you'll likely find these two titles an enjoyable few hours.

More recently, I've read the two new acquisitions I mentioned in my recent post on my compulsive shopping over the holidays. I started with Catrin in Wales (1961), which was a quite enjoyable read but perhaps, somehow, a bit of a disappointment. Its strengths are Allan's usual strengths: she's stellar at describing landscapes and historic sites and making one feel that one is right there looking at them too. In this case, the setting is a village outside of the town of Llangollen, and a historic priory dating back quite a few hundreds of years. (Sadly, there's no mention of the famous "ladies of Llangollen" or their house, which remains to be seen on the outskirts of town. Perhaps a lesbian couple from the 1700s was deemed a bit too edgy for a children's story?)

Catrin in Wales has much in common with Margaret Finds a Future—a young woman on the cusp of adulthood, somewhat at loose ends, who finds her future by helping out at a National Trust house and encountering the locals, some hostile, some friendly, and one, perhaps, a bit more than friendly. So perhaps I felt a bit too much like I had read the story before (since I more or less had).

That said, however, the novel passed the time for me quite cheerfully, and the virtual sightseeing it offers is completely enjoyable :

I came presently to what seemed to be the first of the Priory buildings—a building that might once have been a gatehouse, though now it seemed to be used as a barn. Beside it a footpath struck across a field, and it seemed a quicker way than the curve of the road. The grass was soaking wet, but I was wearing heavy walking shoes and did not mind.

Soon I could see the Priory much better, and it looked very impressive against the sharp pale cliff that ended the valley. I seemed to be looking at the whole length of the ruined church. There was a row of pointed arches and part of the central tower. At the western end of the nave were two more towers, one roofless and the other, apparently, whole. I knew almost nothing then about monastic ruins, but I was awed by the grandeur of the pillars and soaring arches.

After all, the footpath did not save me much walking, for it wound around to the eastern end of the ruins and brought me back to the road again, close to a great gateway in a high wall.

A cuckoo was calling nearby, but there were few other sounds and I felt that I had the place entirely to myself. Very slowly I walked under the gateway arch and found myself on a green lawn—the cloister garth, as I learned later. I drew in my breath sharply, for the dark young farmer had told me correctly. On the west side of the grass, and somehow absolutely part of the ruins, was an incredibly ancient-looking house. It was built of gray stone, and the roof was so thickly covered with bright green moss that the slates or tiles were almost invisible. The windows were mullioned and creepers hung down over the thick old door, which had an old-fashioned bell rope.

I was eating up this sort of detail, even if the story which followed was a bit less inspired (or original) than other of Allan's work.

Fortunately, however, I'll be able to be much more enthusiastic about the last of the Allan novels I've read recently. But more on that soon!

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

JOANNA CANNAN, Death at the Dog (1940)

I had been meaning to read this mystery for quite awhile, taking place as it does in the opening days of World War II and making use of the atmosphere of war and blackout. My wish for the book was finally granted at Paperback Swap, so I took it with me on a weekend trip a while back and couldn't put it down. It has taken me forever to get around to writing about it, and I don't have a lot to scintillating things to say, but it's charming enough to deserve a mention, especially as I know many of you enjoy mysteries and/or novels set during the war.

Whether an avid mystery fan would find the solution to this one plausible or not is an open question, but the long opening scene of Death at the Dog, which takes place at the pub of the title and culminates in the bewildering murder, was for me a fascinating and realistic portrait—replete with well-placed clues—of an array of villagers going about their lives.  Such details of mundane day-to-day life made this one well worth the price of admission (had it, in fact, cost me anything at all).

The main character, apart from Inspector Guy Northeast—who also appeared in Cannan's first mystery, They Rang Up the Police (1939)—is Crescy Hardwick, a divorced "lady novelist" rather like Cannan herself. To what extent Cannan used autobiographical details in the character of Crescy I can't say, but there were a couple of amusing references to Crescy's writing, as when Eve, the co-owner of The Dog, says of Crescy, "She writes beautifully. It's their work that is themselves. What you meet is the bits that are left over."  Or when a Nurse comments of Crescy, "It isn't as though she was a poor person either, though I daresay she doesn't get much for her tales. They're not very exciting. I read one once. It was supposed to be a love story, but I found it very dry."  It must have given Cannan some satisfaction to include this "Everyone's a critic" kind of tidbit.

But Crescy is likeable enough for other reasons.  She amusingly tells Guy of the breakup of her marriage: "There was an argument. It was about an artist. Hugo, backed up by Miss Worthington, took his usual sane, smug view. Of course, it had been blowing up for a long time. I felt murderous about him anyway, and his remarks about Marie Laurencin were the last straw."

That the last straw in the breakup of their marriage was Hugo's presumably disrespectful attitude toward a painter might not be totally realistic, but it's certainly entertaining (and as an utterly trivial aside, I did recently tell a co-worker that I was so relieved that Andy was a mayo-not-Miracle-Whip kind of guy, as I didn't think I could bear to have Miracle Whip in my home—little things do take on great significance!). 

There's also a reference to what must have been one of Churchill's earliest, rabel-rousing speeches:

Presently the bells rang out; the one o'clock and four o'clock news bulletins were repeated and then Winston Churchill spoke. Afterwards, getting down to beer, they discussed him, only Valentine and David disapproving: a little cheap, said David; too bloodthirsty, said Valentine. That discussion petered out.

Here, the critiques are clearly a clever way of revealing the shallowness or lack of discernment of David and Valentine, as might be noted from the fact that the discussion "peters out" immediately after their comments.

Joanna Cannan
Oh, and one more quotation.  Crescy comments, too, on the subject of characters who cherish their martyrdom, which has been a favorite theme for me in the past:

"You can't always be thinking of other people," said Crescy. "Unselfishness is a most dangerous virtue. The martyr. I've worked my hands to the bone for you. While you've been enjoying yourself, I've been slaving on my hands and knees. If one does anything unselfish one ought instantly and automatically to forget it."

I couldn't have said it better myself!

Friday, March 20, 2015

ELIZABETH LAKE, The First Rebellion (1952)

When I was an unhappy, dysfunctional high school senior, I was inspired to initiate my first (and probably only, until a normal life in the big city had thoroughly overhauled my outlook on life) rebellion against official injustice—or what I felt at the time was injustice. I had a truly terrible geometry class with a truly terrible teacher (I probably would have hated geometry whatever the circumstance, but honestly this teacher would have made Euclid himself look for greener pastures). It wasn't a difficult class, mind you. On the contrary, had it been remotely challenging, I might approached each session with less dread.

According to the class syllabus, the grade was determined by several factors. I can't recall the exact percentages, except that the homework assignments made up 20% of the grade. As the grading scale was a flat 90% or above = A, 80-89% = B, 70-79% = C, etc., I decided that I was perfectly happy with a C from the class, and since I scored 100% or close to it on all the exams, I could easily have earned that without benefit of the homework. Shocking, right? Some kids were smoking marijuana or having sex behind the bleachers—I was rebelling against geometry.

But after a couple of weeks of this, Mrs. Terrible sent me for a visit to the principal (who is quite possibly in the Guiness Book of World Records for his impeccable and effortless imitation of one of Madame Tussaud's waxworks, of which he never seemed to tire). Mr. Waxwork promptly threatened to have me expelled and prevent me from graduating. Perhaps a wee bit of an overreaction, all things considered, and perhaps a missed opportunity for something more constructive in face of a smart teenager who was bored out of his mind? 

But I caved, of course, because there was certainly nothing I wanted less than to remain in that school for a second longer than I must. I felt it as a profound injustice, however, a kind of tyranny, that the teacher was effectively changing the standards set out in the syllabus. I suppose, reflecting on it now, that she was merely attempting, in her rather ineffectual way, to enforce discipline where she had failed to ignite interest, but at the time I felt that she was simply angry that I found her chosen subject not only so easy as to require no effort at all, but also so without value that I didn't want to waste on it even the few minutes the homework required.

I hadn't given any thought to this shameful remnant of my disgruntled past in quite a few years, but reading Elizabeth Lake's The First Rebellion brought it vividly back. And you may be able to tell from the above that I find myself still unable to be objective about my silly protest against geometry, because however wrong I may have been, the protest and the cold injustice of the reaction somehow seem to have tapped into many other factors in my life at the time, causing them to take on a far more urgent significance than was warranted.

Which is all quite appropriate for discussing Lake's novel, so I'm rather glad my flighty memory finally yielded up something useful. Because The First Rebellion, set in a strict convent school for girls, is itself very much concerned with injustice and tyranny and the ways in which they connect up with other elements in the girls' lives and invest their rebellions—both against the nuns directly and against Christianity as a whole—with deeper meanings than they might otherwise hold.

The main focus of the novel is Peggy, a sensitive, insecure girl in her mid-teens who feels constantly self-conscious about the fact that her working mother pays only reduced fees for her education. She is convinced that the nuns, particularly the cruel Sister Gabriel, look down on her and single her out for punishment. As the novel opens, she is returning to the convent after the summer holidays, and the sense of dread she feels is palpable—a dread that is only heightened by discovering that the old headmistress has left and Sister Gabriel has been moved up into her place. Of course, in this development we can see the echo of similar plot twists in numerous school stories for girls, but Lake approaches it with tremendous attention to detail and to the personalities of her characters and transforms it into something surprisingly subtle and powerful.

While Peggy's dread of her arch-nemesis may be the most intense, it's made clear, in Lake's observant, quietly humorous prose, that the other girls are miserable too (and I can vividly recall feeling more or less the same whenever a new school year began, even though mine was a nunless experience):

It took time for you to realize completely that you were shut away from the world once more and nothing, nothing could be done about it. They were realizing it now, no longer in words but in the bottoms of their throats and the pits of their stomachs. Madeleine, probably the nicest girl in the Sixth, had a look of despair so faint as to be almost expressionless, so delicate in its blankness that Peggy, when she looked at her, felt chilled and alone. Even Cynthia was gloomily apathetic. Patsy wore a stagey look of stoicism like an early Christian as the lions approached.

Peggy has made particular friends with Elinor, an apparently more confident girl (but perhaps not really?) who enjoys stirring things up. Together, the two have attempted to resist the many smothering, petty restrictions of the convent, and their "Doubts," which they have thoroughly analyzed and discussed during their few hours of freedom, might, Lake seems to suggest, be a further attempt at resistance, though one of Lake's great strengths as an author is that she is subtle enough to make clear that the doubts are no less deeply felt for having perhaps been spawned by the cruelty and manipulation of some of the nuns:

Elinor had made those days happy. Meetings with Elinor had been delightful with sacrilegious talk. Lapsing from Mother Church had exhilarated them with a sense of their daring and wickedness and reason and uniqueness. They had voiced, interrupting each other, with a rush all the new theories and arguments which had occurred to them during the day. The half-lapsed or lapsing state had had a richness which the fully lapsed state lacked. They had been indignant at the injustice and barbarity of Hell. 'Well if it's true, it's absolutely beastly.' They had laughed at the population of Heaven, deciding that you were as old there as when you died, so that it would be filled with rather elderly and not many young people, all Catholics except for a few Jews from the Old Testament who were remarkable for being 'gathered up' and one or two primitive Heathens, black-skinned and from jungle places who had, by some miracle, made the perfect baptism of desire, plus of course the Apostles and Disciples and the known people. 'But mostly Irish, very old Irish!' they had decided.

Once Sister Gabriel settles into her new position, and once the girls begin to rebel against her harshness, there are no holds barred, and Sister Gabriel could easily have turned into a caricature of all the bad headmistresses in the school story genre (though she is, playing very much against type, both young and beautiful). I was afraid this was going to happen, it even seemed to be happening, but then I realized that Lake was, in her subtle way, dropping hints that force not only the reader, but Peggy herself, to feel a bit of sympathy for Sister Gabriel—if only because she has made such a miserable failure of what must have been, or seemed at some point to be, her calling. In the following quote, the girls are staging a rebellion against extra choir practices, and the end of the quote displays how wonderfully Lake can occasionally relieve the tension of her rather dark tale with a burst of hilarity:

'Very well', she said at last, and even then she was still trying to gain time, 'very well'. She made them turn towards her so that she could frown at them darkly and give them to understand that she had a hundred possible solutions in her head. But when she spoke again it seemed that they were back at the beginning. 'Do you mean to say you refuse to sing when a Sister tells you?'

Gabriel stood still and straight. She believed she had a commanding presence. Her brow was at its most covered to-day, her eyebrows forced down by the stiff white stuff above and therefore bristly looking and thick. By contrast her chin was not so covered and her jaw looked square and heavy. Her white skin was marred by faint blotches on the cheeks and spots on the chin. She looked plainer and more soldier-like than usual. And her brilliant, expressive eyes had been too expressive for too long and over such little things, so that unless they had started right out of their sockets or rolled round and round there was no way of making them relatively adequate to the situation.

The First Rebellion is a serious novel, and one that presents some rather dark and unsympathetic—as well as, at times, ridiculous—nuns (and other religious figures). But I think that Lake's focus here is something much more subtle than a condemnation of the convent or the Catholic Church—although she may certainly be mocking cruel and ineffectual teachers. For just as the girls' pitched battles with Sister Gabriel are looking bleak and hopeless, the situation in the convent changes again. I won't spoil the effect by revealing too much (on the off chance that anyone is able to track down a copy for themselves), but the ongoing evolution of Peggy's beliefs, both about the Church and about her position in the world and her future, is, I thought, beautifully delineated and not at all predictable. In fact, it's not so much a novel about religion as it is about how our core beliefs and view of the world are impacted by the people and situations around us at crucial times in our lives.

It might also be of interest to note that Lake dedicates her novel "WITH LOVE AND RESPECT to the memory of SISTER M.X."

It's been a while since I've mentioned my purely self-indulgent fantasy publishing venture, Furrowed Middlebrow Books, but I think I can safely say that a new imaginary title has been added to the FMB catalog. If you are interested in grownup novels set in schools, or in convent novels specifically (First Rebellion might be a worthy companion-piece to Kate O'Brien's The Land of Spices and Antonia White's Frost in May, for example), it's well worth initiating a search for Lake's novel. Mine came courtesy of the SF Public Library Interlibrary Loan department and the University of Pennsylvania, which proved willing to loan their rare copy.

And to show that the novel is not all injustice and tyranny, I have to leave you with a passage, describing a retreat the girls are more or less forced to attend, which not only shows Lake's sharp sense of humor, but also her extraordinary ability to extract meaning from the simplest details:

A tall Dominican preached the Retreat.

On the first day striding vigorously up the aisle, he banged his poor bald head against the twisted brass ring which hung below the holy oil lamp and by which the lamp could be lowered. Forgetting himself for a moment, he stopped abruptly and put his hand over his head. Dazed, he made his way to the altar steps, and there he flung himself down on his knees as though hurled there by his own holiness, and he prayed aloud, saying several Hail Marys and impromptu prayers in which he mentioned the Retreat and dedicated it, all so wildly and in his own way that the girls couldn't tell if responses were expected of them in some of the pauses or not. But even after all that time, when he rose from his knees the lamp was still swaying and creaking. Sitting in his chair, his eyes cast down, he waited in patience until the lamp was silent. He looked strained but not exactly embarrassed; he displayed from the very first a complete indifference to how he might appear to others, and resignation to small continual trials.

They also followed all his movements with great interest and excitement. When he walked down the aisle he kept carefully to one side of the lamp—which had now been placed as high as it would go. He also moved away the table placed near his elbow; with his foot he pushed away the footstool which the nuns had provided for his comfort. Inanimate objects seemed forever in his way, banging into him or dropping out of his long restless fingers with a clatter, trying in vain to bring him back to the things of this world. And when, because it had to be done, he picked them up or edged them back into position they seemed to shrink in size and have no business to be there.

If it's true that we are molded by those who impact us for better or worse at turning points in our lives, perhaps I should actually thank Mrs. Terrible and Mr. Waxwork for their part in making me who I am today?

But, I don't think I will.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

UPDATE: Other children's authors

Illustration from Hilda T. Skae's Adventue League

Well, if I haven't burnt you out on children's books yet with my series of six posts on girls' school authors recently added to the Overwhelming List, then here are a few more authors of children's fiction added at the same time who, as far as I know, did not ever write school stories.

Sadly, in many cases I have very little information about these authors and their books, so I can't promise that there are great lost treasures here (but there might be!).

I already mentioned CAROL FORREST in my recent post about my embarrassingly compulsive book shopping, and she has also already gone onto my updated War List. She was once incorrectly identified as a pseudonym of Catherine Christian, which you can read about here, and that same article provides a lot of other information about her books as well. Several of her books focus on Guiding, such as The Marigolds Make Good (1937) and Two Rebels and a Pilgrim (1941), the latter of which, about Guides who are fed up with Guiding, sounds like fun. But the one that broke down my resistance was The House of Simon (1942), an intriguing wartime tale of abandoned children making their own home. I have a copy of it on my shelf now, so it's just a matter of finding time for it!

JENNIE CHAPPELL, CATHERINE MARY MACSORLEY, and AMY WHIPPLE all came from Tina's wonderful bookstore pics, which I posted about last year—it just took me forever to finish the update which includes them. They all wrote children's fiction largely with religious themes, though I can't shed light on whether they were among the moralizing authors who tried to teach girls "proper" behavior or whether they were more lightly religious or spiritual in tone, like Elfrida Vipont, whose books I've been enjoying of late. I have to say they sound a bit more like the former than the latter… I also can't help wondering if there is any relationship between Amy and Dorothy Whipple? Just how common a name could Whipple have been? Dorothy's autobiography might shed light, but so far I've not got around to that.

BARBARA WILCOX could be as interesting for her books about farming and rural life as for her children's books, but little information is available about either. She also published cookbooks, so some of you might (?) have come across her.

Potentially of interest for its portrayal of class relations is HILDA T. SKAE's children's mystery, The Adventure League (1907), which is described as the tale of upper-class Scottish kids trying to prove that their working class friend didn't commit the crime. Happily, this one is available for free at Project Gutenberg. (And I just realized that Skae was from Tina's pics as well!)

So far ELSIE KATHLEEN SETH-SMITH is mainly of interest to me for the incredible length of her publishing career—more than 60 years between her first book and her last! But I wonder if some of her historical works might be worth following up on as well. Has anyone come across her?

It seems that PRISCILLA MARY WARNER was quite a successful children's author, though the title that kept coming up was If It Hadn't Been for Frances (1957), which I assume was her most reprinted work (judging from its relative availability). I wonder if any of you far-ranging readers have that one on your shelves?

It's a mixed bag, for sure, but let me know if you particularly recommend any of these authors for my TBR list (or, for that matter, if you specifically do not recommend any of them).

Prolific author of children's (and perhaps adult?) fiction from the 1870s to 1930s; titles include Oughts And Crosses (1886), Those Barrington Boys (1894), The Mystery of Marnie (1906), Holidays at Waverlea (1914), The Lost Doll (1920), and The Changeling (1926).

CAROL FORREST (dates unknown)
(pseudonym of Margaret Tennyson)
Once incorrectly identified as a pseudonym of Catherine Christian; author of several girls' stories focused on Guiding, such as The Marigolds Make Good (1937) and Two Rebels and a Pilgrim (1941); The House of Simon (1942) is an intriguing wartime tale of abandoned children making their own home.

(née Murray, aka Ann Carmichael)
More research needed; author of at least three works of children's fiction—The Hand in the Bag (1959), The Black Gull of Corrie Lochan (1964), and Anra the Storm Child (1965)—about which I've found little information.

Irish author of Christian-themed fiction for girls; titles include A Steep Road (1894), The Rectory Family (1910), The Road Through the Bog (1923), and The Children's Plan and What Came of it (1934).

(married name Murrell)
Biographer and author of historical novels from the 1900s to the late 1960s; historical novels include Friedhelm: A Story of the Fourth Crusade (1905) and Don Raimon (1919); children's titles include The Black Tower (1956), The Coal-Scuttle Bonnet (1958), and Jonah and the Cat (1967).

HILDA T. SKAE (dates unknown)
More research needed; author of at least three children's tales, including The Adventure League (1907), a mystery about Scottish children trying to clear a working class friend of a crime, The Campbells of Argyll (1913), and The Haunted House (1930).

(née Browne)
Historian, biographer, poet, and novelist; works include early surveys such as The Boy Through the Ages (1926) and bios of Christina Rossetti and George VI, as well as later children's titles, including The Young Clavengers (1947), The Five Wishes (1950), and The Mysterious Mamma (1951).

Children's author from the 1940s to 1960s; her best known title was If It Hadn't Been for Frances (1957); others include Embroidery Mary (1948), Tessie Growing Up (1952), Mr. and Mrs. Cherry (1953), A Friend for Frances (1956), and The Paradise Summer (1963).

AMY WHIPPLE (dates unknown)
More research needed; children's author of the early 1900's to 1930's, much of it with religious themes; titles include The Children of the Crag (1913), Winning the Prize (1917), Two Pairs and an Old (1923), Dr. Appleby's Daughters (1925), and Purple-Splendour Island (1933).

GRACE I. WHITHAM (dates unknown)
More research needed; author of historical fiction for children and perhaps fiction for adults as well; titles include Sir Sleep-Awake and His Brother (1908), The Nameless Prince (1912), The Guarded Room (1921), Stinging Nettles (1927), and When I Was a King (1937).

HILDA M. WICKSTEED (dates unknown)
More research needed; author of three children's books—Titch: The Story of a Dog (1920), Titch & Jock (1922), and Jerry & Grandpa (1930)—as well as a biography of the Unitarian minister Charles Wicksteed (1933), presumably an ancestor.

BARBARA WILCOX (dates unknown)
(married name Smith?)
More research needed; author of four children's books of the 1940s—Bunty Brown: Probationer (1940), Bunty Brown's Bargain (1942), Bunty of the Flying Squad (1943), and Susan at Herron's Farm (1946)—as well as cookbooks and books about rural life with her future husband.

Friday, March 13, 2015

CECILY MACKWORTH, I Came Out of France (1941)

My World War II kick seems to be continuing. I've already raved endlessly about my favorite WWII memoir, Frances Faviell's A Chelsea Concerto (including just a few days ago in my birthday post, which so many of you so nicely commented on). So it's really high time that I rave about another memoir, which hasn't supplanted Faviell's book as my favorite but was a similarly riveting read about a very different experience of the early days of the war. And by the way, this one was much easier to track down.

I first came across Cecily Mackworth's I Came Out of France in Jenny Hartley's anthology Hearts Undefeated: Women's Writing of the Second World War (1994), in which an excerpt appeared. I must have read something about the book when I researched Mackworth—who also wrote two novels—Spring's Green Shadow (1952) and Lucy's Nose (1992)—to add her to my Overwhelming List, but for some reason it never really made it onto my radar as something that I had to read. But recently I found myself restlessly dissatisfied with all the many, many, MANY books on my TBR shelves (books that one doesn't own have a way of seeming so much more tantalizing than those already on one's shelf, don't they?) and happened to notice that I Came Out of France was, quite unusually for books I take an interest in, just sitting on the shelf at the San Francisco library two blocks from where I work, waiting patiently for me.

From what I understand from the book and from the biographical information I've found on her, Mackworth was born in Wales, married a Belgian who had died in 1939, and was living in Paris at the time of the fall of France. The harrowing tale of her multi-stage escape from France may be of particular interest to fans of Irene Nemirovsky's Suite Francaise, which also vividly portrays the horrors of millions of refugees trying to keep one step ahead of the Nazis.

I was hooked from the first page, which dives right into the drama, so much so that I can't resist sharing several excerpts right off. These are all from the first three pages, including the scene-setting opening paragraph:

When I look back on the last week before Paris fell, I see an endless vista of burning golden days and warm nights, heavy with the smell of lime-tree flowers, when we walked till dawn by the quays of the Seine, listening for the distant sound of guns. I see the refugees from Belgium and the north fighting around the water-barrels at the Austerlitz Station, ready to play any dirty trick to get an extra drop of tepid water flavoured with cola powder. I can feel the glare of sun on concrete and smell the railway carriages which had become like red-hot cages when the people had been locked in them for fourteen hours without food or drink, waiting to escape to the south.

At first the refugees had come in a thin trickle of cars, rich people who had escaped from Belgium with money and a few possessions and who stopped us in the streets asking rather pathetically for a hotel which would not be too expensive. Their money had got them to Paris, but there were sometimes machine-gun bullets through the windscreen and sometimes blood on the smart upholstery. Then the stream of cars grew thicker, until there were long traffic blocks all down the central streets, then came convoys of bicyclists, then lorries and ambulances, until Paris seemed to be full of dejected, listless people who sat about all day on benches and doorsteps and called to each other in thick foreign accents, asking for news of the martyred Flanders towns.

On that day, when I arrived to start my shift at the station, I found the streets blocked for half a mile around by thousands of people jammed into a compact mass, pushing and struggling under the burning sun. A few policemen were trying to keep order and one of them, when he saw my uniform, explained that the lines had been blown up outside Paris so that the station was closed, but that all these people were waiting in the hope of getting a last train and refused to go away. He tried to force a way through for me, but the crowd was too dangerous. A wave of panic began to sweep through it at that moment, for someone had spread the news that the Germans were entering the city and massacring the population. The mob seethed forward, determined to break down the station gates. Women screamed and fainted and I could see that children were being trampled under foot. Some men started wrenching at the iron railings. The policeman shrugged his shoulders and said, "They'll calm down in a minute. They've been like this all night, waiting quietly one minute and going crazy the next. They won't believe there isn't going to be a train. There are a lot of people inside and most of them seem to be sick. I'll try to get you in."

It's not long before Mackworth herself, along with some friends and acquaintances, joins the refugees on the roads—first heading for Chartres and then changing course as her situation changes and the Nazi soldiers and bombers move ever closer. Initially, she is determined not to leave France altogether, and she bypasses opportunities which might have allowed her to get back to England right away.

The book is excellent at showing the only gradually dawning realization of Mackworth and the French men and women around her of the hopelessness of the situation in France. The initial capitulation is greeted with disbelief, and people try to convince themselves that it can't be as it seems, that it must be part of some elaborate resistance to Hitler that they aren't yet in a position to understand. Real news is almost nonexistant, and the friends, friends of friends, and, eventually, complete strangers that Mackworth finds herself among try desperately—usually without success—to tune in British news through the wall of radio interference with which the Germans try to block it.

Cecily Mackworth in 1961

In lieu of real news, rumor and fear take charge, and Mackworth describes her belief that much of the misinformation is evidence of an efficient German "fifth column," though certainly with the benefit of hindsight one wonders if it wasn't primarily just the natural chaos of a vast human tragedy, combined with some very legitimate fears based in truth. For example, Mackworth herself notes that:

I was beginning to notice that the towns of western France were being bombed in rotation, from north to south, and once each. It was not difficult to conclude that the Germans were using this method of ensuring that the refugees were in constant motion and constantly multiplying. It was the best possible means of exercising pressure on the government and forcing them to accept whatever terms the victors chose to dictate.

One hardly needs a fifth column to explain the sort of panicked misinformation that could result from a situation like that. And if you add to that Mackworth's gutwrenching description, a short while later, of a German bomber's attack on a crowd of refugees, it's hard not to think that much of the fearful gossip being passed around was simply based in real horror and perhaps multiplied or exaggerated through simple human nature:

The playground was full of refugees staring up into the sky. Presently a big black 'plane swooped out of the clouds and immediately the crowd scattered, running in all directions to crouch in the shelter of the walls or racing back to the house. Some big boys had been digging a trench shelter and stopped their work to run into the yard to fetch any stray children they could see.

The 'plane dived and a bomb fell with a terrific crash about a hundred yards behind the building. I caught up two shrieking children in my arms and ran to the ditch, dropping them on to its muddy depths. Most of the refugees had dropped face-downwards on the ground and were lying with their hands pressed over their ears, sobbing nervously. A few distracted women ran backward and forward, calling to their children.

Another bomb fell, then another. Then the 'plane wheeled and mounted leisurely into the sky, disappearing behind the clouds.

Like Frances Faviell, Mackworth is serving as a sort of unofficial or volunteer nurse when the war breaks out. Her early disclaimer about this ("I don't quite remember how I found myself in a nurse's uniform at the Austerlitz Station, for I am not a nurse and had never nursed anyone in my life") seems disingenuous, and I wonder if she wasn't perhaps just shying away from acknowledging that the Red Cross—with which she was obviously affiliated in some way—had allowed an untrained nurse to work under its auspices. But regardless, her nursing, official or unofficial, leads her to situations as harrowing as Faviell's, as when she hesitates, with completely inadequate supplies, to treat a soldier with a bullet wound in his foot, and he ends by taking the knife away from her and prying the bullet out himself. At the other end of the spectrum, however, and a rare bit of comic relief in her narrative, is her consternation when a real nurse arrives at one point and discovers that Mackworth has been "putting eye-drops into the children's ears and ear-drops into their eyes. My own horror at the discovery was mitigated by the knowledge that they were all making excellent recoveries under this treatment."

Mackworth is perhaps less vivid in describing the people she encounters than Faviell, and because she is among strangers for much of the book she has less chance of creating interesting "characters" than Faviell had in describing her Chelsea neighbors. But I Came Out of France offers its own strengths. I found Mackworth's writing style—which is calm and matter of fact even in describing horrifying events, and which uses short, simple, Hemingway-esque sentences to move the story irresistibly along—to be highly effective. And, because I know much less about the war in France than elsewhere, I was fascinated by Mackworth's insider's view of both refugees and citizens.

One striking detail that she makes note of is the shady behavior of some of the officers of the French army, such as this encounter on the road reveals:

At the terminus we were in sight of the Loire. Soldiers were stationed all along the road, directing the cars and trying to prevent traffic blocks. I was surprised to see several officers in uniform driving away, and by the resentment of the soldiers I could see that they must have been leaving their men. Most of them looked straight ahead, trying to ignore the jeers and angry calls of the troops. Once a young soldier stooped and seized a handful of mud from the roadside and flung it into the face of an officer who was driving by with a smartly dressed woman at his side. The officer's lips tightened, but he brushed the mud from his cheek and drove on looking straight ahead.

And finally, one of the book's best strengths is the way it portrays the kinds of paranoia and distrust that was part and parcel of the displacement of so many people in such a frightening and violent upheaval. At one point, Mackworth is taken in by a friendly young woman, but is nearly forced to leave by the distrust of the woman's father, whose suspicions are only finally alleviated by the discovery that he has visited the Welsh town in which Mackworth was born and the realization that they have mutual acquaintances.

Refugees in a Paris train station, 1940

But my favorite passage, dealing with these same themes, is one in which Mackworth occupies the threatening outsider role in a situation readers of British home front literature will find completely recognizable and familiar—a working party organized by local women of the upper classes, which is as much a social gathering as it is war work and which could have come straight from the pages of a Mollie Panter-Downes story:

As the day's work was not quite finished I stayed to help, in spite of the surprised glances of the other patronesses, and spent an hour tying up parcels among the wives of the high functionaries of Limoges. It was difficult to judge from the attitude of these Iadies what was their attitude to the capitulation, for the war seemed to be a forbidden subject. They worked without haste, gossiping about the affairs of the the town and the food situation. The atmosphere was almost exactly that of the many similar organizations in Paris during the first months of the war. All of them cast glances of deep suspicion at me and I felt that at any moment someone might ask who had let such a disreputable refugee into the building. This sort of thing is one of the novel and probably salutary experiences one is apt to have when divorced from a change of clothing. A small thing like a ragged dress or a hole in the shoe, and one automatically becomes one of a herd, and an undesirable herd at that, at the mercy of snobbish servants with ideas about back-door entrances, and a natural subject for charitable experiments.

We know from the beginning, of course, that Mackworth does succeed in reaching England, though she describes several events (not to mention gradual starvation and exposure to the elements) that certainly could have led to a very different outcome. Upon her return to France, she worked with the Free French in London, where she remained throughout the Blitz (would that she had written a memoir of those times as well!). But even knowing the ending in advance, her experiences en route were, for me, endlessly fascinating. If I Came Out of France isn't quite my favorite memoir of the more harrowing events of the war, it's nevertheless a completely compelling and entertaining read, and the pages turned themselves.

Perhaps I'll need to start a new series in my fantasy publishing concern, of the best non-fiction that deserves to be in print but isn't...
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