Thursday, June 25, 2015

Buried treasure: ELIZABETH FAIR (1908-1997)

U.S. edition of Bramton Wick

Undoubtedly a big part of my obsession with obscure writers is the same kind of treasure hunt mentality that keeps people traipsing up and down beaches and backyards with metal detectors, or going to touristy diamond and gold mines, or, for that matter, playing the lottery against enormous odds. You never know when you're going to get lucky.

Probably the search for worthwhile forgotten authors is a more satisfying—if not necessarily more lucrative—pursuit than the above. I've got lucky more than once—with Ursula Orange's charming World War II village comedy Tom Tiddler's Ground (aka Ask Me No Questions), for example, or with both of Celia Buckmaster's clever novels of village life, Village Story (1951) and Family Ties (1952). And those are just to take examples of authors who have never been reprinted at all—there are also all those wonderful unreprinted novels by writers like Winifred Peck or Norah Hoult, of whose bodies of work only one or two samples have been resuscitated.

Elizabeth Fair

But I think none of my literary archaeology has produced more enticing and enjoyable results than the unearthing of Elizabeth Fair. And the fact that I came across her after two solid years of digging for little-known writers makes it all the more astonishing that she has turned out to be so worthwhile. It's rather inexplicable, but her books, though originally published in both the U.K. and U.S., appear never to have been reprinted in paperback or even in large print editions. So she is really, truly, genuinely quite "lost," and completely undeservedly so.

Bramton Wick jacket flaps

Now, first things first: All the credit for this discovery goes to Jane, one of the readers of this blog, who came across some references to Fair and her novels and forwarded a few links to me back in March. In return (though I really owe her more than this for her suggestion), I promised Jane that I would report on whether I thought her novels were worth checking into. I'm here to tell you now that they certainly are.

U.K. edition of Bramton Wick

Since there is virtually no information about Fair or her novels online (except for, thankfully, those links that Jane came across), I'm going to be fairly meticulous in dumping all the knowledge (and all the scans of covers and blurbs and photos) that I've acquired so far into this one giant post. Bear with me—I think many of you might enjoy her books quite a lot (if only you can manage to nab one or two of them). Oh, and by the way, Fair is such a new discovery that she's not even on my Overwhelming List list yet, but she will be with the next update, which I'm currently working on.

All One Summer jacket flaps

Elizabeth Fair published six novels in all:

Bramton Wick (1952)
Landscape in Sunlight (1953, published in the U.S. as All One Summer)
The Native Heath (1954, published in the U.S. as Julia Comes Home)
Seaview House (1955, published in the U.S. as A View of the Sea)
A Winter Away (1957)
The Mingham Air (1960)

Author bio from Bramton Wick

As with so many of my favorite little-known authors, it's torture to think that she lived for another 37 years and never published another book. Did she lose interest in writing? Face personal tragedy that derailed her? Did she become disheartened that her books weren't more successful? Or did she simply have better things to do?

U.K. edition of The Native Heath, with a cover
by Shirley Hughes. This appears to be one of
Hughes' earliest works as an illustrator.

Reviews and jacket blurbs offer one or two comparisons to the likes of Trollope and Austen, but more frequently she is mentioned alongside Margery Sharp or Angela Thirkell. The American publisher of her two final novels, Rinehart, also advertises a novel by D. E. Stevenson, a fellow Rinehart publishee, on the back of one of Fair's novels, thus implying that Stevenson's readers would, they hoped, enjoy Fair as well.

Jacket flaps from
The Native Heath

I've now read five of Fair's six novels over the course of five lovely, cozy weekends. I bought four of them at rather reasonable prices (well, honestly, the demand couldn't have been high) and I managed to get the other two via Interlibrary Loan. Now, many of you know of my usual tendency to flitter from one author to another. I rarely read an author's entire body of work in anything close to a methodical way. (I wrote more than a year ago about how much I loved my first Georgette Heyer novel, but in the subsequent twelve-plus months I've read exactly three more of her books, at which rate I should finish her entire body of work in about 2045.) So it's a testament to how much I've been enjoying Fair's novels that I've come so far so fast. But of course, I also have a tendency to resist "running out" of a favorite author's works, so perhaps it will be some time before I can bring myself to read the sixth and final Fair. We'll see.

Jacket blurbs from The Native Heath

Having read the first five, however, I can say that all the comparisons and associations are easy enough to understand. Angela Thirkell is mentioned several times in relation to Fair, and this is undoubtedly because Fair's novels, too, feature relatively large casts of characters humorously going about their lives in small English villages where postwar hardships, shifting class relations, and crumbling manor houses play their roles but where comedy, sharp characterization, and romance take center stage. Margery Sharp, too, is an obvious comparison—I particularly thought of my favorite Sharp novel, The Stone of Chastity, which offers some of the same cheerful daftness to be found in Fair. And there's certainly a touch of the D. E. Stevenson of Miss Buncle's Book and the Mrs. Tim novels here too.

Jacket flaps from A View of the Sea

But Elizabeth Fair seems to me nevertheless to be very much her own author. She managed to evoke all of these authors without giving the sense of imitating them. And, rather oddly, the author who kept coming to mind for me when reading Fair's was none other than Barbara Pym.

Author bio from All One Summer

Now, I have to confess something rather shocking, and I hope that most of you won't be too traumatized by this. My confession is that I've been feeling rather ambivalent about the beloved Ms. Pym of late. I know some of you may greet that news with horror, and if I add that the ambivalence started when I tried to read her diaries a year or two ago and really did NOT feel an affinity for the person I seemed to meet in them, some of you will perhaps be tempted to smash your computer monitors (I hope you don't, though—they are expensive and the resulting shards might be highly toxic).

More on that ambivalence later, perhaps, but in the meantime, it might seem odd for me to be comparing a new favorite author to a former favorite from whom I have become a bit estranged. It's mainly just that occasional, unexpected, but completely hilarious turn of phrase that Pym is so good at (and which I wrote about here—before our estrangement) that is brought to mind by Fair's novels. Overall, Fair's worldview is much less cynical than Pym's and her humor less acidic, but she is similarly a master of lacerating humor slipped casually into an otherwise benign sentence. One of my favorite examples comes from Landscape in Sunlight and really requires no setup—it's just one villager's lack of affinity for another's:

At the end of the war the Government department returned to its own home, but Mrs. Midge stayed on. While the war lasted Mrs. Custance had accepted her as part of the war-effort and had hardly troubled about her; it was only in the past year or two that Mrs. Midge had been transferred to the category which Mrs. Custance described as "people we could manage without."

I'm afraid that this expression is now a permanent part of my vocabulary, but surely, for better or worse, most of us can bring to mind one or two of our acquaintances who could be categorized as "people we could manage without"—even if, of course, we would never put the thought into words.

Back cover of The Mingham Air

Later in the same novel, several villagers (many of them, indeed, "excellent women," a term that Fair even uses at one point) are discussing possible locations for the village Fête. Now, we've learned much earlier in the novel that the village church is not exactly a thing of beauty, but Fair reminds us of that here with humorous subtlety in Miss Temper's suggestion:

The committee was at first a little critical. Traditions die hard in country places, and Mrs. Custance, like many reformers, had to contend with an audience stubbornly opposed to new ideas.

"It's always been at the vicarage," said Miss Templer. "And there's such a pretty view of the church from your lawn at the back. I mean, it's pretty because you can't really see the church, only that it's there."

It's hard to choose a favorite of the five Fair novels I've read so far, but I am inclined to say it would be A Winter Away (or perhaps that's just because it's the last one I finished and therefore its pleasures are freshest in my mind). In that novel, young Maud makes an escape from an overbearing stepmother (not a wicked one, which might be easier to resist, but merely one who takes too much interest in Maud's life and is always imagining that she might be "interested" in any young man who comes along) and comes to stay with her cousin Alice and Alice's companion Miss Conway (aka Con) in a small village, where they have arranged a job for her as secretary to one of their neighbors, the upper-crust but apparently impoverished and rather intimidating Mr. Feniston.

U.S. edition of The Mingham Air

If I had to point out a weakness in Fair's charming writing, it would be that, in the earlier novels, the cast of characters can initially be a bit overwhelming, and she has a tendency to jump from one set to another in such a way that a readerly cheat sheet might be a wise strategy. Once one has met them all and is able to keep them straight in one's head, then the pure enjoyment begins, and this shouldn't discourage anyone from reading any of these fun novels—there certainly worth a wee bit of thumbing through earlier pages to figure out who a character is. But I can say that by the time she wrote A Winter Away, Fair had acquired a bit more polish, and instead of overwhelming her readers with characters all at once, she allows the reader to meet them one by one, as Maud herself meets them.

A part of Maud's work for Mr. Feniston is to organize his vast library of books, some inherited from his grandfather but most a long-awaited inherited from three aunts:

"Three of them," he explained triumphantly. "One old maid and two barren widows, and all as fond of  reading as a nest of owls. Very like owls, they were—tawny hair and blinking eyes, you know, and no necks—and they all lived to a good old age. But it was worth waiting for."

"You mean they left you all their books?"

"The last one did. That's what I'm telling you. She knew there was room for them at Glaine, you see. As I said, I had to wait a long time. They all lived together in the end, and the youngest one—the spinster—outlasted the others by twenty years. I thought she'd see her century, but she didn't quite make it. She died three years ago."

Now, this is certainly apropos of nothing, but I have to pause here to acknowledge how passionately I would love to have three elderly aunts who love to read and who plan to make me the beneficiary of their libraries—after living nice long, healthy, happy lives, of course! In lieu of that, however, being paid to catalogue a library acquired in such a way would surely be the next best thing.

The Mingham Air jacket flaps

I can't begin to go into detail about all the plot strands and twists in A Winter Away, but I can share just a couple more prime quotes with you. Unsurprisingly, Fair's novels contain more than their fair share of engagements and weddings, but none are funnier than that between a neighbor girl, Annabel Curtis, and the young clergyman she has set her sights on. Maud sees this engagement coming a mile off:

The anecdotes flowed on. Maud remembered how Oliver had talked about his landlady, and thought how fussy men were about lodgings, and wondered how Oliver (or Don) would endure living at Combe Cottage. But if Don found a lodger's life so uncomfortable it might encourage him to think of getting married; a dear little wife to look after him, to cook hot suppers and iron his surplices without scorching them, would be an investment, not a handicap. And how lucky that Ensie had not fallen in love with the lantern-jawed type of clergyman who believes in celibacy even if it condemns him to a lifetime of dismal lodgings.

(This is, by the way, another of the passages that brought Barbara Pym to mind.)

When the young lovers do become engaged at last, they try to keep their engagement a secret. Of course, for readers of village comedies it will come as no surprise that this proves impossible:

The engagement could not long have been a secret in Yeomouth, and it must have been Annabel Curtis who heard about it and told her parents. Mrs. Woodfidley told her daily obliger, who was the sister of the farm bailiff's head cowman and a close friend of another obliger who sometimes obliged Ensie by giving the Pixie Cot kitchen an extra good scrubbing. Ensie's obliger ventured to congratulate her; and as a result the news spread back (through the head cowman's sister to Mrs. Woodfidley) that the engagement was a secret because Mr. Martin would be dead against it and might be struck literally dead, by apoplexy or heart failure, if anyone told him. Maud and Ensie supposed that Mrs. Woodfidley passed this interesting news on to Mr. Woodfidley, but of course they could not be certain.

This of course made me wish, among other things, that Andy and I had someone to sometimes oblige us by giving our kitchen an extra good scrubbing, but that's neither here nor there.

In one swoop, I've just added five titles (and probably six, when I finally get around to reading The Mingham Air) to my list of books that should be in print but aren't. How is it, with the popularity of Stevenson, Sharp, Pym, and Thirkell, that Elizabeth Fair has yet to be rediscovered? She certainly deserves to be invited to sit next to these authors in the canon of cheerful, funny, smart middlebrow authors—with the result that I've decided to make the first ever new addition to my Not-Quite-So-Overwhelming List, my sort of long short list of middlebrow authors that might be particular priorities for fans of the period. She will also be added to my World War II book list, because really all of her novels are steeped in the atmosphere of the immediate postwar—recollections of wartime experiences, class shifts as a result of the war, concerns about food and housing, etc.

Fair's neglect is a tragic oversight, and my imaginary publishing house, Furrowed MIddlebrow Books, would certainly be delighted to publish her complete works (and to dig for any lost stories or novel manuscripts from the attic of a niece or nephew somewhere)!

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Offputting reviews

I've been exploring forgotten authors long enough now to know that contemporary reviews are not a particularly reliable indicator of how much I'll enjoy a particular book. Reviewers, poor dears, sometimes seem condemned to miss the point of the most entertaining and enjoyable fiction of their time. This is surely even more true in regard to middlebrow fiction by women, which has so often been judged by comparison to canonical male writers, despite the fact that their priorities and intents were quite different. I'd like to say this was particularly a weakness of male reviewers, but in all fairness women critics often seem to have used the same standards to make their judgments.

At any rate, I've certainly learned to take reviews in general with a grain of salt, and to try to read between the lines of even the negative reviews. Sometimes even the harshest critiques make me perversely determined to track down a book and sample it for myself.

On the other hand…

Occasionally a review succeeds in making a book unappetizing to me. I've been reading through quite a few reviews lately, as I diligently work on the next update to my Overwhelming List and seek out information on the new authors so I can share it with you lovely readers. A few of these have left me pretty convinced that I need not bother with the authors they're critiquing.

ROY DEVEREUX seems to have started her writing career flirting with the concept of the New Woman. She even wrote a fashion guide for aspiring New Women (one would like to think this was somewhat tongue-in-cheek, but I can't be sure). At any rate, by 1930 she seems to have positioned herself solidly in the realm of melodrama, judging from this review in The Mercury of her novel The Incredible Truth:

Incredible indeed! The author has invented a situation in which one of his [sic—apparently in this case one can't blame misogyny for the bad review] characters commits suicide and leaves the object of his passionate love £60,000 in order that she may be free to marry the man whom, loving, she has nursed back to health when he was on the verge of death. It might have been better had he died, for he proves not unnaturally suspicious of the source of this sudden wealth (his wife fears to disclose its almost incredible origin) and finally leaves her. The heroine, who is an artist unable hitherto to secure recognition of her genius, decides, in memory of the unselfish lover, who had made this almost incredible gesture, to devote her life to art. The story is incredible, but it is well written.

I love that, as idiotic as this plot sounds, the critic kindly allows that the book is well written…

Then there's CATHERINE VERSCHOYLE, who seems to have been a serious novelist judging from her themes. She's exactly the kind of writer I would usually want to give the benefit of the doubt, but I have to say that the Saturday Review's mention of her 1929 novel Willow and Cypress, despite its clear sexism, makes it hard for me to get excited about tracking the novel down:

To interest one's self in this book one must be a woman and a patient one. Bridget Wentworth is an ordinarily sensitive young creature whom the author would have us believe unusual; she passes through a dreary childhood and eventually marries a most preposterous young man. Her father and her mother die and the preposterous young man deserts her. In the midst of her grief she walks out into the woods one day, beholds the willow trees and the cypress, hears a thrush singing, and suddenly realizes the smallness of human woes. From then she goes forward—the implication is forever—in peace. This is indeed being snubbed for one's pains. What is best in the story is borrowed from convention. The rest is sheer artificiality.

Yikes. It's hard for me to imagine that I would find anything satisfying about this novel. But do you think I'm mistaken?

I confess I have little patience in general with novels whose characters either lead lives of unrelenting despair or of an utterly humorous and superficial sense of joy and love and kindness toward all. (Perhaps I could simplify this statement by saying that I have little patience with humorless novels, period.) And here's another one that surely falls into that category (unless the review is totally, delusionally off-base):

GWENDA HOLLANDER published only three novels, and information about them is sparse, so perhaps judging her on the basis on one review is unfair. But goodness gracious, that review—of her second novel, The Stubborn Field (1952)—is a doozy! Here's how The Tablet put it:

The Stubborn Field is first-person autobiographical about another blighted spirit, a young man who persists in messing about with clay and wishing to be a sculptor. The experienced novel-reader will readily guess that he is thwarted and mocked by his practical associates, save for one understanding teacher; that he seals his doom by marrying a calculating slut who pins him down to an uncongenial job: and that finally the hands which should have called living forms out of the clay are employed to throttle the life out of the slut. Another warning against having anything to do with Art in the Midlands.

I do love that final line though.

And finally, I think I'm more of a fan of the Kirkus reviewer of HANNAH CLOSS's 1940 historical melodrama Tristan than I am ever likely to be of Closs herself. Writing about a 1967 reprint of the novel (hey, it actually got reprinted!], the reviewer says:

The late Hannah Closs wrote a middle-register medieval trilogy dealing with the Albigensian Crusade. This is a retelling of the Tristan story, which certainly needs no retelling here since it is the conventional one reconstructed (in her words) with "imaginative emotion." The former may be questioned; the latter is largely of an exclamatory nature. As for the characters, none are ever processed beyond the unidimensional heroic stance of legend. Probably the appeal of any variant version is the way in which it is written: Miss Closs indulges in a very poetic prose and dangles jewel-toned images and adjectives (fulgent, pellucid, et al). "Even the sea slept, lulled in caves and crannies washed black and oozy with the waves beating, or, lifting a drowsy curl of foam, encircled some fretted pinnacle with dreaming blue." Or purple?

An odd little footnote to this review: the same publication (though presumably a different reviewer) discussed Closs's 1945 novel High Are the Mountains, the first volume of her Tarn Trilogy, in the following terms:

This is an exceptional historical novel. Set in southern France in the 13th century, this evocation of the Middle Ages is rich in scene and mood, impressive in command of language, highly complex in characterization, delicate in refinement of motivation.

Either Closs had dramatically improved her style in the intervening five years, or literary ability is entirely in the eye of the reader!

So what do you think? Are any of you feeling inspired to frantically search the internet for these authors, convinced that reading their work will greatly enhance your lives?

Monday, June 15, 2015

RACHEL FERGUSON, A Stroll Before Sunset (1946)

I've said it before and I'll say it again: There are few things I love more than a distinctly odd writer.  I think of Barbara Comyns' quietly and hilariously morbid portrayals of childhood, or Ivy Compton-Burnett's bizarrely formal, dialogue-ridden novels of Victorian family life, Sylvia Townsend Warner's gleefully subversive early works, or even the often nonsensical but endlessly fascinating mysteries written by Gladys Mitchell about her witchy, snake-like, and sometimes pterodactyl-like psychiatrist detective, Beatrice Lestrange Bradley.  All of which are among my favorites.

Without a doubt, Rachel Ferguson can match these writers oddness for oddness, and I love her for that.  In her memoir, Ferguson reports that a critic said of her debut novel, False Goddesses (1923), that it was ‘one of the two oddest books he had ever come across’ (how I wish I knew what the other was!), and goes on to add that when working on her second, The Brontës Went to Woolworth's (1931, formerly a Virago reprint, now available from Bloomsbury), which blurs reality and fantasy in an entertaining tale of three daughters of an eccentric artistic family, Ferguson herself felt the book was ‘getting so odd that I'm rather frightened of it.’ 

By 1937's Alas, Poor Lady (a Persephone reprint), the oddness was perhaps more muted or located mainly in the novel's structure—relating how the ruins of World War I and economic and social shifts resulted in the impoverished gentlewoman who is the novel's main character.  But when we come to A Footman for the Peacock (1940), my own favorite of all of Ferguson's novels (and one I already wrote about here a while back), which tells of the hilariously disreputable reactions of an aristocratic rural family to the onset of World War II, the oddness is back in full force—including the peacock of the title, who appears to be the Nazi-sympathizing reincarnation of a footman who died of exhaustion at the hands of the family’s ancestors.

Understandably, then, I hardly knew what to expect when jumping a few years later in Ferguson's career to A Stroll Before Sunset.  Except that it would be odd, of course, and in that area, at least, it certainly did not disappoint.

Ferguson's prose, for example—always on the ornate and elliptical side—is at its most opaque here, even—for better or worse—to the extent of becoming at times nearly impenetrable.  Take this rather nebulous (or perhaps brilliant?) passage about the various reactions to a goodbye performance by a beloved risque stage performer, which I had to read at least three times to unpack:

Of the dispersed audience from the Carry Blare matinee, some were enduring a similar deflation and stirring-up, others, tipsily stimulated, had reached the optimistic stage, at least one had made up her mind, and a horrified decision to Put It Up To Father and Mother had been arrived at by several more.  The art of one robust personality had, furthermore, given an artist the necessary courage to scrap his latest canvas, sufficient of vision to cause the girl who thought she could write a book to realize how mistaken was that notion: worked upon a wife to the point of condonement and reconciliation with her husband—a scene to which she looked forward with self-contempt and pleasurable anticipation, and brought a bride to the conviction that a smashing row with her groom would be a nice change.  It had revealed to the little grey-eyed dowd in the pit in one, final, agonizing flash, the fact, fought off for thirty-five years, that she was plain, and that the eye of man would never look upon her except, at best, in the way of kindness: stimulated a sub-editor to ask for what he called a raise, and caused a titled dowager, nodding plumed toque to the measure of ‘I’ve had a Tiddly’, to resolve to bow to local feeling at last and permit a pageant in the grounds of her country seat, and even, later, to consider with lenience the ceding of that right of way through the coppice, which was an undeniable short cut to the Bath Road.

Whew!  Perhaps Google Translate would be useful here?  It's actually a rather lovely passage, but certainly a bit dense. And there were several other passages to which, I confess, even repeated rereads failed to bring clarity.

Giving a clear idea of the plot is similarly challenging.  Centered around the theatrical world of the early Edwardian years, the novel focuses by turn on two main sets of characters: first, two aging actresses—the sharp-tongued, Bette Davis-like Grania Summet, who has alienated most of her colleagues and critics with her viciously hilarious insults and who is gradually descending into unemployed poverty, and Georgina Dempster, who, as Grania puts it, "would make a brothel into a Cranford parlour in ten minutes, while in her presence orchids and red roses would turn into buttercups and daisies, so basically nice was she"; and second, Reginald Nash, who has written a play which, with the help of sister Mary, he is trying to have produced (focused on a much desired but staunchly resisted adultery, and sounding impossibly turgid and dull), and their friend Lionel Dalton, a very unusual character who appears to be actually a somewhat effeminate heterosexual, stereotypically fitting society's notions of a gay men (at least in the years immediately after the Oscar Wilde trial) without actually being one. 

These main characters are supported by a whole troupe of supporting players, many of them brilliantly drawn.  Too long to quote here is a passage in which Flyte, an armchair psychoanalyst whose country house Grania wants to purchase, stops her sexual advances by describing in minute and clinical detail her neurotic need to assert herself sexually, leaving Grania hilariously speechless and deflated (and forever resentful of Flyte).  There's also the charmingly ditzy Mrs. Nash, who isn't sure she sees that questions of Lionel's sexuality have any relevance to whether Mary should marry him or not; Georgina's unfaithful stockbroker husband; and Grania's housekeeper, who rambles in a dizzyingly irrelevant way about her personal life. 

And what to make of Grania's occasional mention of her dear friend Dorian Gray?  Is she imagining that Wilde's character is "real" or has Ferguson actually made him so in the world of the novel?  As Grania descends into poverty, for example, she says of her need for a new guest mattress: “The present one is rather a case of blossom by blossom the spring appears.  Dorian Gray said that when he’d slept on it."  Get it?  Mattress?  Spring?  It took me longer than I would like to admit to understand the joke…

In the same kind of way, it isn't easy to understand how the various charming and vivid bits and pieces of this novel come together.  Apart from a brief period when Lionel finds happiness and a lack of prejudice in designing dresses for Grania, the main characters never really interact, and their separate plots never intertwine.  The novel meanders through fascinating set pieces on Edwardian theatre, the logistics of playwriting, Georgina’s acting school and Grania's resentment at not being asked to teach, Grania's hilarious confrontation with a debt collector, and Lionel's parents' befuddlement at his attention to flowers and women's attire (and—though he can apparently box with the best of them—his concern for not staining the carpets in the process).

But what actually comes of it all?

It's a difficult question for me—not least because I don't usually put much of a premium on plot or the overarching "deeper meaning" of a novel.  Generally, that a novel is entertaining and offers fascinating detail on life in a particular place and time—both certainly true here—is quite sufficient for me. 

Here, though, it seems apparent that Ferguson was striving for a bit more of a "statement."  In her other works mentioned above—particularly Alas Poor Lady and A Footman for the Peacock—she was, in the midst of all the humor, quite seriously concerned with tracing the impacts of historical economic and cultural shifts on real people’s lives.

Something of that nature is certainly going on here as well.  The "stroll before sunset" of Ferguson's title may have multiple meanings, but one is certainly the idyllic years before the shattering cultural impacts of World War I.  This theme might even be summed up in the following passage:

In those years which wound up triumph for its Dempsters and Highland Summets and security for the families of England, its children could not be expected to know that in the next quarter-century their epoch would come to seem as remote as that of the Tudors, and that to possess an aunt who had habitually rung a bell for a servant to mend the fire was to have kinship with a museum piece.

And this passage a few pages later might have come straight from Ruth Adam's history of women's changing roles, A Woman's Place:

The irony of all wars is that, spectacularly, they are not a woman’s concern, while remaining in most essentials her responsibility in their results, affecting her long after official hostilities are over and her menfolk have once more assumed civilian life.

But somehow, this theme of the passing of a kind of golden age, of a cultural innocence, and perhaps of a dawning realization of mortality by two aging actresses, doesn't quite cover everything that's happening here. 

In particular, for me, what on earth is one to make of Lionel, who ends up—as if to fully live up to the stereotype of a gay man of his time period (and, in too many cases, in our time as well)—committing suicide, apparently because his love for women's fashion and embroidery sets him forever beyond the pale?  (Lucky for me I'm not Edwardian, I guess, since with my love of books with lush details of women's domestic ablutions—I might have faced considerable social pressures as well.)

To give an idea of the peculiarities of Lionel's character as Ferguson describes him, here are a few short quotes.  On Lionel's relationship with his older brothers:

They had never spoken the same, or indeed any, language he recognized, and it wasn’t only seniority which separated them. It seemed to be something about which Lionel himself could do nothing … and as he grew older and older-brotherly snubbings fell into disuse, for by that time young Lionel could punch a nose or jaw with the best, subjects for differences of outlook multiplied rather than disappeared.

Reginald wrestling with what he sees as conflicting aspects of Lionel's character:

They’d partially stripped together upstairs, he and Dalton, and the chap’s muscles were like bantam’s eggs.  Yet he’d finicked about mice and sinks, and—good God!—pins and ruffles on a woman’s dress…

Mrs. Nash's talk to Mary about possibly marrying Lionel:

‘Well, then…’ Mrs Nash returned to her vase.  ‘You see, the only thing against it that I can see is that Reggie isn’t very keen on him.  That may be a queer sort of jealousy, of course…but you wouldn’t let that stand in the way?'

By the way, I know that, in gay circles, the word "queer" already had a sexual meaning as far back as the 1920s, though it doesn't seem to have been used much in more mainstream literature until the Fifties.  Was Ferguson savvy enough in her contacts with the theatrical world and, presumably, a fair number of gay men, to know the "new" meaning?  Who can say?  But either way, it's interesting that in this passage the "queerness" seems to be on Reggie's side—it's his jealousy that is queer (in whichever sense of the word), not Lionel's behavior?

Then there's Lionel telling Mary about his difficulties relating to people, and her own rather odd—if startlingly and absurdly funny—thought process as a result:

‘I tried to tell you from the start that people, most people, don’t like me.  It’s as though I don’t fit into some pattern they take for granted.’

‘You might as well know that all those gros point cushions in our drawing-room that you admire, I did myself.  We don’t allude to them, and my father doesn’t know.’

From memory’s ragbag a disastrous item retailed by facetious mistress detached itself for Mary’s inspection.  George the Third had embroidered too.  Also at Kew.  And when he was insane.

That’s quite a connection to make, and surely Ferguson is to some extent mocking such paranoia.

Then, the amateur psychoanalyst, Flyte, gives his rather handy diagnosis that Lionel's parents wanted a daughter so badly that his personality was forever affected by their desires.  Which, like many amateurish diagnoses, might open up more questions than it would answer.

And, in a rather disturbing flashback to Lionel’s childhood, we learn that, at school (nicknamed, appropriately enough, "Nellie" by his classmates), he makes friends with another homesick boy, only to lose him to an apparent fling with the football captain.  Lionel spots the boy, Charles, with the football jock's arm across his shoulder, and the boy's face reflects "the look, did Lionel know it, sometimes seen upon the faces of new-made brides: bliss combined with helpless revulsion, top-dressed with the grin which convention imposed." 

I confess I don't quite know how to interpret Ferguson's rather strange portrayal of Lionel's mix of masculine and feminine characteristics, but she spends quite a lot of time exploring it and it's undoubtedly edgy for its day. Meanwhile, how he fits into this rather rambling, highly digressive tale of the Edwardian theatre world remains as much a mystery as his gender uncertainties.  So I guess I've been digressing about him as well, and perhaps with equal pointlessness!

A Stroll Before Sunset is certainly not—at least on a first reading—my favorite Ferguson novel.  It is, in fact, probably my least favorite of those I’ve read.  But (and you know there’s always a “but” with me!), it is also true that it is more thought-provoking and enigmatic than any of her other works.  I will likely revisit it, and wrestle some more with its idiosyncrasies.  Indeed, perhaps I like enigmas almost as much as I like oddities! 

And just remembering this and mulling it over a day or two ago led me to do an Abe Books search, "just to see what they have" (yeah, right), which led to the exciting discovery of an affordable copy of one of Ferguson's most obscure titles, The Late Widow Twankey, written during World War II but so obscure that I've never been able to find anything about its themes. (I'd be willing to place a bet that it will be odd, however.)

To leave you, as I like to do, on a high note, here is one of many amusing, appropriately ornate, and unquestionably odd passages.  This is the formidable Grania pondering her acquisition of a country estate (primarily as a status symbol) and the prospect of life outside of London:

It was dull. Quiet watch and not a mouse stirring. And there was nothing to look at except views; the pull of sex was represented by an ancient with whiskers, and manure on his boots; champagne was unprocurable at whim, and cider, said Grania, gave her wind, and she would smile and quote (ough, Western wind why wilt thou blow…). And then, while you were already angry, it rained with stupid, bovine persistence, and lashed the fury higher, and you were cut off from the world, the flesh and the railway station. In the post office they read your telegrams, a ruse that Grania countered with wires so uncomplimentary in their Shakespearean forthrightness that several villages had become too hot to hold her, since no legal action for libel could in such circumstances be taken. And the W.C. was terribly apt to be in the back garden, raked by the Bar Parlour.

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

STELLA GIBBONS, The Charmers (1965)

A few years ago, when I was in the first throes of my obsession with World War II "home front" reading, I came across Stella Gibbons' lovely novel Westwood (1946), set during the later years of the war and making haunting use of London's bombed out ruins and a general mood of exhaustion in its tale of a young woman's infatuation with the lightly bohemian world of a famous painter and his family.

I've since learned that practically everyone else in the universe seems to love Stella Gibbons mainly because of her debut novel Cold Comfort Farm (1932), and many readers are more lukewarm about her other work. But at the time I was ambivalent about Westwood for the opposite reason.  I had been lukewarm on Cold Comfort Farm when I read it several years earlier (is this more or less shocking than my passionate dislike of Rebecca, I wonder???), and I was afraid Westwood might be too much like it. As it turned out, I could almost have believed Westwood was by a completely different author. The humor is understated, the character development stronger, and its themes of change and growth and disillusionment are handled with far more subtlety and depth. (BTW, I finally re-read CCF last year and enjoyed it much more than my first go-round, though it's still far from my favorite Gibbons.)

After Westwood, I moved on to The Bachelor (1943), the only other of Gibbons' wartime novels I could track down. Mind you, I read both of these in beat-up, grungy, highly allergy-inducing wartime editions that hailed from dusty library storage vaults.

Happily, in the last few years, Vintage Classics UK has reprinted a dozen or more of Gibbons' best novels, including the afore-mentioned and both of her other wartime novels, The Rich House (1941) and The Matchmaker (1949), which I also really love. Some of these were made available from the likes of Awesome Books and Book Depository, but not all of them are, so when Andy and I were in London a couple of years ago, I scurried into Hatchard's (surely what heaven would look like for me) and stocked up. Amazingly, it was my only real book splurge in London—apart from a quick and costly trip to the lovely Persephone Books shop, of course—but that (like most of this post so far) is beside the point. At any rate, though, it's embarrassing to admit that it has taken me this long to get around to reading one of the books acquired in that splurge.

The Charmers centers around Christine Smith, a single woman in her fifties or perhaps sixties, who has recently been let go from the office job she held for decades and, as the novel opens, is interviewing for a new position as housekeeper for a group of artistic types who are moving to a large house in Hampstead.  They include a famous actor whose jobs and finances are dwindling, an illustrator for a magazine featuring romantic fiction, and a dress designer—all entertaining and well-developed characters, if not always likeable ones.

Original cover, Hodder & Stoughton edition

We learn early on that, until the fairly recent death of her parents, Christine has lived at home in the role—like that of so many other unmarried daughters—of unpaid servant.  We also learn that she is attempting to break free from the restrictiveness and superficiality of "Mortimer Road" (which she repeatedly describes as being obsessed with the latest electrical gadgets, as if toasters and blenders are their religious idols), but remains haunted by its conservative, bourgeois voice:

Alone under the benevolent glow of the lamps, the rather sturdy figure opened her bad and took out a new-looking cigarette-case and a mildly expensive lighter.  The smoke went down into her lungs with the sensation of mingled discomfort and satisfaction that was becoming familiar.  She coughed.

Christine doesn't smoke.  It's such a relief to us, when all the girls do nowadays.

The inward voice was old and contented.  It had made that remark for more than a quarter of a century, following it with remarks about expense and, as time went on, about horrors which might result from the pernicious habit.

And behind the voice of Mortimer Road seems to lurk a more primal figure, represented for Christine by Mrs. Benson, who was her working class landlady at the boarding house she moved to after her parents death.  Gibbons is often concerned with class relations, and the mutual loathing of Christine and Mrs. Benson comes to mean more than just a humorous interlude:

Hadn't every action of the Smiths, ever since she could remember, been taken with the object of leaving Mrs. Benson as far behind as possible?  Hadn't they scrambled up and away from her as fast and as far as they could scram, taking her position down there for granted, never mentioning her but with contempt and hatred and fear?

Christine gets the job as housekeeper, and is indeed "charmed" by her employers' laid-back, lightly bohemian lifestyle—though it's made clear that they are in fact only somewhat less bourgeois than Christine herself.  ("Real artists don’t get themselves up in special clothes," one of them tells another who fancies herself a potter and has purchased special, colorful and highly fashionable smocks for the purpose.)  Still, their attitudes are liberating to her, and she can think gratefully of her escape from Mrs. Benson when looking out over a garden-party the group is throwing:

Lovely, thought Christine, leaning against the frame of the open window, really lovely.  Oh, I am glad she can't see it; she'd say something about being glad she hadn't to wash all that lot up.  I can never be thankful enough for living with nice people.

And yet, the novel is also about how difficult it is to break away from one's past, from the worldview and sensibility from which one has come, and that's what made the novel particularly interesting for me—perhaps especially since I can relate somewhat to Christine's situation.  Gibbons refuses to oversimplify the process, or to imply that one can ever escape completely, and the result is complex and powerful.  But this might also render Christine a less sympathetic or likeable character for some readers.  For example, she innocently hires a young Anglo-African cleaner and then, when the others react to his presence by trotting out both degrading and idealizing stereotypes, she rather too readily seems to accept their views (even while, it is suggested, she may be physically attracted to him).  She is a flawed, conflicted character, trying to free herself but not always successful.

And Gibbons also shows us another reason total escape may be difficult:

[S]he sometimes had a sensation as if every tradition she had ever held was being swept away in a great flood of novelty, that, though it usually carried her along willingly and even pleasurably, must sometimes be resisted if she were not to feel entirely without roots.

Now, while I found Christine's efforts to escape her stultifying past to be the most thought-provoking part of the novel, I don't want to imply that The Charmers is not, first and foremost, a very sharp, funny novel.  Nearly every page is loaded with Gibbons' sly wit, such as this description, from early in the novel, of a contractor doing renovations on the house:

Mr. Ryan, who was comely and carried no transistor set, began a rigmarole in an unintelligible Irish accent which gradually, for lack of hearers who could understand what he was saying, died away.  He walked off, looking sarcastically at a slide-rule.

While I'm not sure exactly how one looks sarcastically at a slide-rule, I couldn't help but laugh at the thought.  (I have been attempting to gaze snidely at the television and peer mordantly at the dishwasher ever since.)  

And here is Gibbons' description of the mood in the house after the dress designer, Miss Marriott, arrives home with the psychosomatic cold she always gets after each new collection is released:

There now settled over the kitchen an atmosphere suggesting that someone desperately ill had arrived at a log-cabin in the middle of a blizzard.

Even some of the book's most serious topics are handled with frequent humor.  For instance, there is an ongoing theme in the novel about the conflict between those who take an interest in world events and those who are indifferent.  The pseudo-intellectual "charmers" pride themselves on their concern for "The Problems," even when it is clearly completely superficial, as in the following conversation about Christine:

"Do you see any signs of her mind getting wider?"

"From time to time.  But only a very little.  She is quite shockingly indifferent to what's going on in the rest of the world.  The whole of India could starve to death this week-end, for all she cares."

"I don't care much myself."

"I know you don't but at least you do feel guilty…"

Surely a very "middlebrow" perspective, that guilt somehow makes one a superior person!  And there's also this passage about trendy critics who demand social concern in popular culture—which Gibbons seems to feel is every bit as superficial as the lip service the charmers pay to it:

And even Agatha Christie, Mr. Meredith said, had come in for a slating from them over the past few years; presumably because she had made a fortune out of not writing plays about The Problems.  The sight of a tennis-racquet on the stage, said James with an unaccustomed flight of fancy, threw those chaps into the sort of state other chaps got into about blood sports or hanging.

All of these themes and concerns work together in surprisingly complex ways, and I feel—as I always do when I really am challenged and intrigued by a book—that a re-reading would bring to light new depths and discords.  For example, I haven't even mentioned Christine's (sort of) love interest, who plays a crucial role, or the ghost of a singer who was part of the charmers' circle of friends but was killed in the war, or "That Day," a crucial experience Christine has had a few months before the novel begins:

And then she had mislaid, rather than lost, her way for perhaps five or seven minutes, and during that time she had come upon a church, an old church, shadowed by the sweeping branches of a cedar burdened in dazzling snow.  The sight of it, and the long curve of a snow-covered wall bordering the graveyard in which it stood, filled her with an unfamiliar, exquisite emotion.

Perhaps it is impossible for people who have often experienced this feeling to conceive the effect it had upon a mind stunned and dimmed for more than half a century by ugly sounds and commonplace sights, and it is true that Christine's visitor had to find its way, and afterwards, for more than a year now, she had thought of the moment as "That Day", and had wanted to have the feeling again.

This spiritual experience seems to inform Christine's growth away from "Mortimer Road," and when the sensation does return, it may signal Christine's outgrowing of the charmers themselves, so that we are left with a sense that her efforts to push against her own biases and limitations will continue.

Gibbons only published three more novels after The Charmers—though she wrote two more after that which she never attempted to publish (and which were the subject of a rather bogus news release last year which treated them as if they were newly discovered—presumably an effort by her heirs to stir up interest in finally publishing them—here's hoping the effort paid off!).  Written 33 years after Cold Comfort Farm, this is the work of a far more mature writer, who portrays the irony and sadness of life with subtlety and depth, and also with the growing spiritual concerns that were characteristic of her late work.  If you only know the earlier novel, I can't urge you enough to try out some of her later work.  While I might recommend starting with The Rich House or Westwood, The Charmers has become a favorite of mine as well, and provides a good sampling of Gibbons', er, charms.
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