Sunday, November 29, 2015

CATHERINE GAYTON, Those Sinning Girls (1940)

My well-worn copy from the Boston Athenaeum

I was intrigued by Catherine Gayton when I first added her to my Overwhelming List. She seemed to hold some real potential, though her books have been so neglected as to have virtually ceased to exist. From what I could find about her, her handful of historical novels, published in the span of a little over a decade during and after World War II, sounded enticingly like cousins of Georgette Heyer's irresistible historical romances. And when a reader, Grace, mentioned that she had actually tracked one of them down and gave it a thumbs-up, describing it as a sort of middle-class Heyer, I knew I had to try to get my grubby hands on one or more of her books (only a figure of speech, of course—I am nothing if not OCD about hand-washing).

Fortunately for me, the Interlibrary Loan folks at the San Francisco Public Library are heroic in their efforts, and when I finally got around to trying to find a copy, they managed to track down a very worn, bedraggled copy of Gayton's debut from the wonderful Boston Athenaeum, a book described in some contemporary reviews as a novel and in others as a story collection. Easy to see the confusion now, as the book is really a little bit of both. 

Basically, the book is based around the unlikely but entertaining premise that a mid-Victorian, middle-class businessman and his rather puritan wife would agree to allow their four restless daughters (the youngest only 17) to head out into the world for a year to explore and discover—what in much later years might have been called "finding themselves." The four sections, or stories, are devoted to the experiences of each in the big, surprisingly-not-so-bad world. 

It must have been an appealing enough concept for the book's 1940 audience, and indeed it's an appealing enough concept for 2015 (at least for a reader like me), but it rather strains credibility to believe that such would have occurred in 1857. The only explanation offered in the novel is the girls' unlikely bloodline passed down from their oh-so-respectable mother:

From Mary Ann Sinning they inherited Blood; and blood, in their station of life, was difficult either to disguise or to account for.

… Mrs. Sinning was herself of blameless character and entirely hidebound by convention. But her father (who had never bothered to acknowledge this one of many offsprings by farmers' daughters) spent his days in a lively manner; dividing his time between unbridled licence at his estate in Wiltshire and alternate periods of extreme asceticism in a French Carthusian monastery. This odd infusion of fire and brimstone into their otherwise inoffensive blood, explains why Mary, Eliza, Amelia and Deborah Sinning were anxious to try their wings in a sphere unbounded by dusty bookshelves and the quiet streets and gardens of a faded country town. The distressing secret of their mother's birth had been carefully guarded from them, but like all family skeletons, it rattled its bones loudly enough for them to hear, and they relished the existence of a romantic family blot more than all the respectability and substance of being the daughters of Mr. Sinning of Bath.

Of course, numerous young women in 1857 must have felt the urge to try their wings, but for most the urge would have been to no avail. In Gayton's fictional world, however, the Sinning girls' wings do indeed get tried, and with rather implausibly happy-making results. 

Mary, the oldest, with literary ambitions, goes to the Thornes in London—supposedly as governess to the five small Thornes, but really more as a companion to the wild young Miss Thorne, on the verge of her coming out but apparently already rather out as it is. While chasing after her charge, Mary manages to encounter some of the literary elites of the day. Eliza chooses an aristocratic house in Wiltshire, where much is made of the discomforts, including frigid cold and a starvation diet, but is lured away to St. Petersburg and Moscow by a Russian prince with ulterior motives.

Amelia, who dreams of running her own school someday (perhaps a rather surprising aspiration for a young girl in 1857 with little enough education herself), heads to Ravenham in Norfolk, a setting directly out of the Brontës or Ann Radcliffe, complete with abandoned priory rumoured to be haunted by the nuns who were forcibly removed centuries before. Add to that a surly widowed father and the children who have been traumatized by his strictness, and you have the perfect mixture upon which Amelia's incorrigible energy, optimism, and newfangled ideas can work their magic:

Amelia controlled a sudden desire to laugh and looked up for another frank and longer survey of the Ogre of Ravenham Priory. To her surprise and a little to her confusion, she met a straight, uncompromising look in return, from a pair of sunken, melancholy blue eyes that were gazing fixedly at her out of a gaunt, deeply-lined face with a tanned and furrowed skin. Amelia's clear grey eyes were caught and held by that look, until she slowly dropped them, with the colour heightened a little in her cheeks.

Jane Eyre eat your heart out!

And finally, Deborah, the baby of the family at 17, runs away to Paris where's she enslaved as a lady's maid by the terrible Lady Trotter, who uses her to sew all her fineries for high society do's, until she meets a down-to-earth American businessman and his ditzy daughter, in Paris for fashion inspiration to take back with them to their thriving clothing business in New York City.

Jacket description, happily pasted into my library copy

The four young women could practically be taken as representing the major plot lines of 19th century romantic novels, but all of the sections are quite charming and entertaining. Mary's encounters with literary greatness are hard to resist, such as this one:

Mrs. Diggins has many friends in town and took me with her for a call at No. 5 Cheyne Row, Chelsea. We found Mrs. Carlyle at tea-drinking and were cordially pressed to join her. Genius was out upon his horse, but I saw his pipes, his books, and his own particular chair, though we dared not penetrate to the garret aloft where he writes, even in his absence. … The wife of Cromwell and Frederick looks frail and sickly, with hollowed cheeks and thin shoulders, but her dark eyes burn with intelligence and her wit, though a trifle caustic, rattles off her tongue with a pretty Lowland burr—

And Gayton's wit and mocking of social elitism is quite effective, particularly in this scene where Deborah talks of her visit to Saratoga Springs, where her fellow visitors believe her to be a Countess:

"Your Mr. Eugene has invited us to stay with him in Louisiana, and that very elderly Mrs. John K. Schuyler asked me to call upon her when we return to New York. So did Mrs. van Binnendyk and the Roosevelts. I told them all I was too busy, as I worked at Gubb's Store."

"Were they surprised that you worked at Gubb's?"

"Oh, not a particle. They asked if I had 'gotten' my ginghams there."

"And you said yes?"

"Of course, Mr. Jones. They were my present from dear old Mr. Gubb. And this Leghorn, Miss Sally and Miss Mamie have copied it. Why, this white cotton parasol with the pink roses—it cost fifty cents, Mr. Jones, from the store here, and Mrs. van Binnendyk bought one just like it, though I know she has a beautiful green silk one. I don't understand it at all. A fifty-cent parasol, Mr. Jones! ... and I only bought it here because I hadn't my real lace one with me. That one was three guineas, that Lady Trotter gave me."

My personal favorite was the section dealing with Amelia's adventures in Ravenham, as Gayton pleasantly satirizes the stereotypes of Gothic tales. But there, as elsewhere, I had one main critique. Since each of the four sections is limited to 50-60 pages, there simply isn't enough room for any of the girls' adventures to fully develop. Each has loads of potential, and makes for enjoyable enough reading, but each only really begins to rollick along when Gayton quickly ties it up and moves on to the next. I wanted them to go on, and to see each of them fleshed out more.

Which, as critiques go, is a rather positive one, I suppose. Clearly, Gayton was a talented storyteller, and created charming (if utterly, utterly implausible) characters and situations. So I remain hopeful that when she later turned her attention to a full-fledged novel, she may have created something really special. If Those Sinning Girls isn't quite that, it's certainly a promising enough beginning.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015


E. M. CHANNON, Little G (1936)

"And you really want to banish me to this beastly village, Cardew?" he inquired, with pathos.

"You can make your own choice, my man. Six months in Challingley, leading the sort of  reasonable life that I've suggested, or a real genuine breakdown, with a real genuine rest-cure in a nursing home to follow."

"Good Lord!" said the Mathematician, in blank horror, with a swift vision of himself quite helpless, at the mercy of innumerable designing young hussies in becoming uniforms.

"I can tell you," said the Doctor, "that I'd be glad enough to change places with you. I've spent more than one holiday in Challingley, and always been sorry to come away. Plenty of people would envy you your luck."

I recently had two weekends in a row lost in reading two cheerful, funny, and distinctly cozy novels. This one was the first, and I was particularly eager to read it because I had just sampled my first school story by E. M. Channon—the genre for which Channon is probably still best known. For those of you who are fans, the school story I read was The Honour of the House (1931), and I enjoyed it very much despite the fact that I never got round to discussing it here. It's funny and smart and sweet and just a little bit edgy all at the same time—characteristics it has in common with Channon's final novel, Little G.

The opening pages, from which the above quote is taken, somehow brought to my mind Elizabeth von Arnim's marvelous Enchanted April, in the sense that both books are about characters getting the opportunity to retreat to holidays most readers would (as the doctor points out) be delighted to experience. John Furnival, a Cambridge mathematics don, obviously isn't quite as enthusiastic about his holiday as the women in von Arnim's novel are about theirs, but both holidays sound glorious to me.

Greyladies unearthed this rare photo of
Channon and have it on their redesigned website

Furnival spends some considerable time interrogating his doctor about the residents of Challingley—particularly about the presence of any young unmarried women, the thought of which sends chills down the confirmed-bachelor's spine. There are three orphaned children who live with their stern aunt Miss Augusta Campion—an almost mythical figure of discipline and responsibility of whom we see no more than a glimpse in the novel, though her reputation precedes her. There's the village vicar and the village doctor, single men obsessed with their gardens. And there's Mrs. Parnell, the still-young widow of the previous vicar, but Furnival's doctor reassures him that Mrs. Parnell has bigger fish to fry than bagging a Cambridge don as a husband.

One wonders, though, if the doctor's failure to mention one more resident of the village—who provides one of the meanings of the novel's title—is intentional, or is she, in the doctor's sensibility, merely part of the novel's backdrop…

Upon his arrival in Challingley, Furnival encounters a charming villageful of characters who are far too friendly for his tastes. Now, I can, truth be told, relate just a bit to Furnival's anti-social instincts, as I tend to love to be left alone with my books too, though it must also be admitted that my books do little to increase my fitness levels, so perhaps the tennis parties and strolls the don keeps getting invited to would be an improvement to my overall health. Furnival resists the villagers' sociality fiercely, but is not always successful, as with this invitation from Mrs. Parnell:

"Come and play tennis tomorrow—half-past three. I hope you've no other engagement. I've just had my court marked out for the first time—have you?"

"Thank you!" Furnival called back, non-committally furious that he could think of no excuse, furious with her for inviting him, furious most of all at the manner of the invitation. If it had been formally written, he could certainly have found means to get out of it; but one cannot shout subterfuges across many intervening yards of green turf—and wild horses would not drag him back now to her perilous neighbourhood...He must trust to luck. Perhaps, mercifully, tomorrow would be wet.

Indeed, the first parties to break down the professor's general misanthropy are not the vicar or the doctor or, indeed, any of the women of the village, but the three downtrodden children who live next door with their terrible Aunt Augusta. The children are one day caught spying on the professor as he wrestles with his books in his garden, and his weakness for children leads him, in an off-guard moment, to make up a story for them out of his mathematics books, with the action revolving around the character of Little G (known to the rest of us as gravity, and the other meaning of the novel's title).

Back cover blurb from Greyladies edition of Little G

Everything proceeds from there much as you can probably imagine. As far as plot developments, there are no very significant surprises to be found here. But Channon handles her tale so charmingly and humorously that readers are unlikely to be looking for a shocking denoument here any more than they would have in reading Enchanted April.

My enjoyment of The Honour of the House and Little G made me want to find out more about Channon's other titles. A biographical essay about Channon by Hilary Clare, co-author of The Encyclopaedia of Girls' School Stories, can be read here (with a disclaimer that it may be used without permission), and the essay also appears as an introduction to the Greyladies edition of Channon's mystery novel Twice Dead (now out-of-print, though Channon's other mystery, The Chimney Murder, is still available). From that informative essay, which effectively answered every question I had in mind about Channon, I am particularly intrigued by two of her other titles, which both remain challenging to find. Her early novel, Miss King's Profession (1913), deals with women writing, which is always a topic of interest to me. Clare also says of that novel that it "has the underlying teasing irony which is one of E. M. Channon's hallmarks. (It has the other one too: vivid domestic detail.)" I'm sold.

And then, I am also particularly intrigued by Clare's description of Channon's 1926 holiday story, The Surprising Holidays, "where the theme is the lack of domestic capability of an English middle-class family. For a variety of reasons all the servants leave, and coincidentally the father's business is in difficulties so there is no money either. Cooking, cleaning and the baby (a rumbustious toddler) have to be dealt with, and only the presence of a competent cousin from New Zealand saves the day." Sold again.

As I mentioned, neither of these titles are currently very readily available. But there may (??) be hope for the latter, at least. Books to Treasure, an independent publisher, has been doing heroic work reviving girls' school stories by Evelyn Smith, Ethel Talbot, Dorothea Moore, Bessie Marchant, and (you guessed it) E. M. Channon, and has been releasing them not only in physical format but as very reasonably priced e-books. So far, they've released Expelled from St. Madern's (1928) and its sequel, Her Second Chance (1930), as well as another intriguing title, A Fifth-Form Martyr (1935), which Clare describes as Channon's funniest school story. Here's hoping that they may decide to proceed with The Surprising Holidays.

By the way, there is one Channon title currently available in the U.S. from Hathi Trust and Google Books—1912's The Real Mrs. Holyer. Presumably, Miss King's Profession would likewise be out of copyright in the U.S., so hopefully they'll get around to posting that one as well.

At any rate, I doubt if any of these could be more entertaining or charming than Little G, and that one, at least, is readily available from Greyladies.

MARGERY SHARP, The Nutmeg Tree (1937)

This was the other of my recent weekend reads, and I have to preface this by noting that it remains one of the great mysteries of life (right up there with what makes socks vanish in the dryer and why people are interested in the Kardashians) why Margery Sharp's adult novels are still so completely and utterly out of print. As far as I can tell, not one of them is in print in the U.S., and only one, The Eye of Love, appears to be available from Virago in the U.K. Even her children's books—most famously her Rescuers series—are mostly out of print. And publishers are certainly missing out, as Sharp is a popular rediscovery just waiting to happen. Several publishers have led the renaissance of D. E. Stevenson's novels, and the rise of e-books is ushering in the revival of various other authors, so it's high time publishers do the same for Margery Sharp.

It had been a while since I'd read Sharp, and I had almost forgotten just how delightful she is. Somehow I've never managed to write a proper review of one of her books, though I did write a little about The Stone of Chastity, which has always been one of my favorites, here. I've enjoyed several of her other books as well. But now I'm thinking that The Nutmeg Tree, a fortuitous book sale find a couple of months back, may be my new favorite. It proved to be the perfect weekend read—funny, charming, spunky, and mildly transgressive—and I found it impossible to put down (just ask Andy).

This is the tale of Julia, a lovable middle-aged sexpot who has ridden the waves of masculine love and support, but who as the novel opens is distinctly between waves, with furniture repossessors at her door and no certainty from where will come her next meal. In the midst of this turmoil, which Julia characteristically takes cheerfully and with bohemian flair, she receives a letter from her daughter Susan, the product of a short-lived wartime fling with a lieutenant from the Gunners (who then promptly got himself killed), whom Julia has allowed to be left to the tender, upper-crust mercies of her rather posh in-laws. Susan has barely had contact with her mother for most of her life, but now her letters arrives from the blue, inviting Julia to help her sort out her relationship woes, and Julia is thrilled to be bustling off to France to help her daughter with what is surely her primary area of expertise.

Marked-up press photo of Margery Sharp
from the Baltimore Sun archive

For who better to help with romantic issues than Julia, who at one point mulls over her unique qualifications while conversing with a married man:

"I don't say I'm easy," pursued Mr. Rickaby fairly. "I dare say I'm a bit more complicated than most men. I like all sorts of things—good music, you know, and scenery. I've got—well, I suppose I've got ideals. But it takes a woman like you to understand."

Julia nodded. She had often pondered this question of why wives didn't understand when women like herself did; and the only conclusion she had reached was that to understand men—to realize the full value of their good streaks, while pardoning the bad—you had to know so many of them. Then when you came across one fellow who was a soak, for instance, you could nearly always remember another who soaked worse; and he in turn might have qualities of generosity or cleverness which raised him above a third man who was a teetotaller. But to know all that you had to have experience, and wives as a rule hadn't. They knew only one man, where women like Julia knew dozens; but then women like Julia rarely became wives. It was a rotten system, when you came to look at it…

Passages like this one made me realize that, although The Nutmeg Tree certainly has all of the characteristics of a cozy read, it also has a bit of edginess. In fact, it occurred to me that Julia is a rather surprising heroine across the board.

I wonder what readers accustomed to other women writers of the 1930s would have made of Julia. She has not seen her daughter for sixteen years, choosing to leave her to her in-laws because she found herself too stifled in their high class lifestyle (an abandonment from which Dorothy Whipple or E. M. Delafield might well have made a tragic melodrama). She has chosen instead to enjoy her bohemian lifestyle of enjoyable flings and financial ups and downs without wasting more than an occasional casual thought on her offspring:

[O]ne of the worst elements in her boredom was the lack of someone to love. She had her child, indeed, and was very fond of it; but "someone,'' to Julia, meant a man.

Can one imagine such a character appearing at all in a D. E. Stevenson novel, much less as a heroine? And had Agatha Christie included such a woman in one of her novels, she would surely have made her the murder victim. Elizabeth Taylor or Sylvia Townsend Warner might have explored the complexities of her situation, but would likely have felt obliged to make the story a sad one. And Stella Gibbons might have made her likeable but undoubtedly comically self-absorbed and victimized.

What, then, can readers of such authors have made of a novel in which such a character is the thoroughly lovable protagonist, while the abandoned daughter is seen as rather stuffy and prim and drab? Sharp was certainly making the most of the middlebrow reader's interest in bohemian freedom!

What's more, although most readers of Sharp's novels probably wouldn't have been specifically seeking a message of feminine sexual liberation, this novel is one of the only places I can recall in middlebrow fiction where a heroine is allowed to be truly sexual, a woman with desires that are explicitly beyond the romantic, beyond a desire for love and stability and protection, but also—perhaps most importantly—independent of male fantasies of "sexy" women. Julia's attitude toward Fred Genocchio, the best-looking of a family of trapeze and high-wire artists she meets on the boat to France, is about the most blatant sexual objectification of a man I know of anywhere in the fiction of the time. Fred is not a particularly good catch, and there is little to appeal to Julia beyond his profile and the fact that he looks extraordinarily good in tights. 

Of course, there are certainly other novels in which women become involved with undesirable men, and in some of those cases the involvement may stem in some way from her physical desires, but it is almost always veiled beneath a layer of romance—she at least deludes herself that she is falling in love with him, however much it may be lust that causes the delusion. But Julia is refreshingly no-nonsense about her attraction to men. Fred is indubitably not husband material, but he might be quite nice to share a few giddy weeks with.

Mind you, no one reading this novel need feel any obligation to ponder these elements. The Nutmeg Tree a thoroughly enjoyable, rollicking, funny, and—perhaps a bit surprisingly—not entirely predictable romantic jaunt, not a feminist diatribe. But if you're inclined to think about such things, it's also a rather radical and liberating novel for its time. And whichever way you read it, it should damn well be in print and appreciated by a larger audience!

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Another sad tale: MOLLY SPENCER SIMPSON (1915-1936)

Back in July, I did a post about the tragic Dorothy Wynne Willson, who published a single, quite successful and critically acclaimed novel at the ripe old age of 21 and then tragically died of influenza just a few months later. Not long after that, researcher John Herrington, who tracks authors who have fallen into obscurity, sent me information about another author whose story is just as tragic. As it happens, I haven't even had a chance to add her to my Overwhelming List yet, but she'll definitely be part of my next update.

It seems that Molly Spencer Simpson, who was born in Gravesend in 1915, was only 17 years old and working in a shop when she decided to try her hand at writing fiction. Two years later, her first thriller, called Crooks in Cabaret (1935), was accepted and published by Nicholson & Watson under the name Spencer Simpson (presumably to give the impression that it was written by a man). That book was apparently successful enough for her to leave the shop behind and begin writing full-time, producing a second novel, entitled The Four Dead Men, the following year.

Now, you know how intriguing obscure writers in general are to me, but an obscure author of thrillers particularly piqued my interest, and I know there are a lot of mystery/thriller fans out there who may be intrigued by these titles. Information about Simpson's first novel is sparse, but the publisher's blurb for The Four Dead Men reads as follows:

The Four Dead Men were dead only legally. In reality they were vitally alive. They were four men who had been betrayed and disgraced—an American, a Frenchman, a German, and an Englishman, Keith Stratton. They banded together and swore an oath of vengeance against all enemies of society. Having been broken by the law, they now broke the law to destroy those who abused and degraded it.

Keith was the last to join, fascinated and comforted by their informal methods of justice. The Four Dead Men come to England to avenge his disgrace, find more than one mystery to solve, gamble with death and the shadows of death. Only men sworn to revenge, with courage born of madness, could carry out this terrific resolve.

I was happy to find that a library copy of this novel could be got at, and I was holding a copy in my hot little hands within about a week of John's original email. As it turned out, although I thought Simpson's writing was excellent (especially considering her age), it just wasn't quite my cup of tea—a bit too noir-ish or Jimmy Cagney-esque for me—and I decided to move on to other things without finishing the book. But I'm still very happy that I tracked it down, because now I can share a taste of it with you lovely readers, some of whom may well find it a tantalizing must-read.

Here's a snippet from the early pages, which gives an idea of the tone:

Things began to look nasty. The infuriated men were all round him. But there was little science in their attack, and profiting by that, he managed to knock the two foremost men's heads together, though stopping a hefty blow with his own chin during the process.

The tumult increased. A swinging left hander sent another man down. Keith laughed aloud,

"Come on, my lads," he invited, then recoiled from the flash of steel as his foremost attacker snatched out a murderous-looking clasp knife.

"Good Lord," Keith muttered, then flung up his arm defensively as there came a loud report. The knife crashed to the floor, and its startled owner leapt back with an oath, wringing his fingers.

Keith stared incredulously. On the threshold stood a tall man, holding a smoking automatic. He surveyed the scared group with a smile, then looked at Keith. "If you have finished, monsieur, perhaps you will come out," he suggested.

Keith took a deep breath.

"Willingly," he said.

He collected his peaked navy cap, bowed to the white-faced Marie-Heloise, and joined the stranger in the doorway.

"Precede me, monsieur," said the latter, and, as Keith complied, he backed after him along the alley, the revolver still levelled.

Once out in the street he gripped Keith's arm.

"Quickly!" he cried, and began to run.

I have to admit, reading that passage over now, I am sort of regretting that I didn't keep reading…  If anyone does track down the book and read it, please do let me know what you think of the entire thing.

At any rate, the books were apparently quite well-received and successful, and there would have been every reason to expect that in a few more years Simpson would have been, if not a household name, at least a lending library favorite. Who knows how much her style and plotting abilities might have improved with experience and maturity?

However, according to the obituary that John found, she apparently fell ill while working on her third novel: "It is thought, however, that the strain of writing gradually undermined her health." The obituary doesn't provide any details of her illness, so we are left to speculate. It seems to imply that her illness went on for a while, so perhaps influenza isn't the culprit this time around, but that still leaves tuberculosis, pneumonia, and any number of other possibilities. Whatever the case, she died in September of 1936 at the age of 21. And although the obituary doesn't mention this tidbit, John's research led him to the additional tragic fact that she was an only child and that her mother had been widowed only a few years before.

I'm including in this post both Simpson's complete obituary (as well as, at the bottom of this post, my own transcription of it, in case it's too difficult to read from the photo), which appeared in the Sevenoaks Chronicle on October 2, 1936, and also a blown-up version of the author photo, which shows the young author looking intriguingly masculine. The photo, combined with what struck me as a quite masculine style of writing, makes me wish it were possible to retrieve additional details about Simpson's life. Had she survived and had a successful writing career, would she have emerged as a fascinating "eccentric" (practically always a coded word in those days) along the lines of Radclyffe Hall or Nancy Spain? But unless a family member remains who knew Simpson as a child, or unless a written record by Simpson or someone who knew her exists, we will probably never know much more than what her obituary tells us: She was a promising, obviously ambitious and driven, young author whose life and career ended before it had really begun.

*     *     *

Here is the complete text of Simpson's obituary, from the October 2, 1936 issue of the Sevenoaks Chronicle:




The sad story of a book left uncompleted by a young, clever and vivacious writer is revealed by the death of Miss Molly Spencer Simpson, the only daughter of Mrs. Spencer Simpson, of the Lodge, Mereworth-road, Tumbridge Wells, at the early age of 21. Her passing will be mourned by a large circle of friends and a host of admirers who became intensely interested in her charming personality and the delectable way in which she sprung a big surprise by writing a thriller when she was only 19 years of age.

It was at the age of 17 that Miss Spencer Simpson attempted to write a book, and two years later she succeeded in getting the manuscript of "Crooks in Cabaret" accepted by the well-known firm of publishers, Messrs. Ivor Nicholson and Watson, and the book was published in January of last year. Not only was the story a distinctive and thrilling one, but the achievement was all the more meritorious by reason of the fact that she was engaged in business each day, and it was only in the evening and early morning that she had the opportunity of weaving her story and writing it in copy books. She had a marvellous sense of construction and characterisation, and, as the publishers mentioned at the time, weaved a story like a seasoned writer. Her style and ability amazed everyone as also did her capacity for output. Notwithstanding the fact that she was in business all day long she wrote 2,500 a day to complete her novel of about 80,000 words in the short time of three months.

Giving up business some time afterwards, she applied her mind to another book, which was published in the summer this year under the title "Four Dead Men." In this also the story was built up on adventurous lines with a freshness which was striking. It is thought, however, that the strain of writing gradually undermined her health. She became unwell at the time she was writing a third novel. She has completed three parts of the manuscript when her illness took a serious turn, and after laying her pen aside she gradually became worse and passed away at the early age of 21. Much sympathy will go out to her widowed mother in losing not only her only child, but one who had shown considerable journalistic ability and promise. Miss Spencer Simpson started writing because she was bored, and wanted something to do which was really worth while. At the time of her death she was also contemplating writing a sequel to "Four Dead Men."

The cremation will take place at Golders Green to-day.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

HARRIET RUTLAND, Knock, Murderer, Knock! (1938)

I've always been a big fan of opening paragraphs or opening pages that show the author really means business—that grab you by the throat, tell you what you can expect from their novel, and, effectively, tell you to be off if you don't like it. There are a lot of great openings in literature, from The Great Gatsby to Pride and Prejudice. My favorite among those authors who qualify for my list is undoubtedly the distinctly odd opening line of Rose Macaulay's final novel The Towers of Trebizond:

"Take my camel, dear", said my Aunt Dot, as she climbed down from this animal on her return from High Mass.

Makes me smile every time, and it also perfectly encapsulates the eccentricity and the major concerns of the novel.

Now, Harriet Rutland's opening for Knock, Murderer, Knock! (one of only three novels she published, all of which have just been released in ebook and physical book by Dean Street Press) might not be quite as brilliant as Macaulay's, but it certainly sets the tone and introduces the snarkiness and judgmental attitude of many of its (mostly elderly) cast of characters. And it also made me laugh right off the bat. When Andy starts rolling his eyes about my giggling, I know that a book is really genuinely funny. Here's Rutland's mise-en-scène:

Mrs Napier walked slowly to the middle of the terrace, noted the oncoming car, looked round to make sure that she was fully observed, crossed her legs deliberately, and fell heavily on to the red gravel drive.

"Just look at that old hag!" exclaimed Admiral Urwin, chuckling.

"A bloomin’ acrobat, that’s what she is," muttered Matthews, the chauffeur, who had just managed to bring the car to a standstill in front of her.

Amy Ford, the chambermaid of the front corridor, leaned from an upper-window to shake a duster, and retired, convulsed with laughter, to call, "Molly, come here, do; she’s fallen down again. If that isn’t the fifth time this morning!"

And it goes on from there. With it's setting at the Presteignton Hydro, a rather outdated health spa in Devon, the book is populated mostly by cranky old folks whose primary concerns are the quirks of their health and making the most of the merest breath of scandal, and by medical and other staff who are peculiarly indifferent to whatever of their sufferings are not purely imaginary. There is hardly a kind word between any them—even between those with familial or matrimonial relations:

"Poor soul," remarked Mrs. Marston. "I am so sorry for her. I wish we could take her for a drive, but there’s no room."

"I suppose you’d like me to give up my seat to her and stay at home. Is that what you’re hinting?" demanded her husband.

"Certainly not, Charles. You know that I meant nothing of the kind. But she looks so lonely, and that husband of hers comes to see her so rarely. Of course, I know that he lives over two hundred miles away, but still...I hope that if I ever get like that you will have more consideration for me."

Mr. Marston made no reply, but his expression seemed to indicate that if such a calamity should ever befall her, he would cheerfully murder her.

And the handful of young people at the hydro are viewed with varying degrees of interest and hostility, such that when one of them is murdered—in a particularly gruesome and utterly far-fetched (but quite creative) way—they take it in their stride, though one character does commiserate by commenting:

"A dastardly crime, sir, a dastardly crime, and I hope you get the one who did it. Miss Blake was a lovely girl. Can’t understand why anyone should want to murder her. Now, if it had been one of those old hags in the Hydro, I could understand it well enough. I’ve often wanted to murder some of 'em myself."

Apart from the unusually acerbic tone of Harriet Rutland's characters, and the rather extraordinary and precise method of murder used by the killer, Knock, Murderer, Knock! also stands out from most detective novels because of its nondescript "detective." Not an amateur, per se, but not officially a detective either (and certainly not an imposing or authoritative figure), Mr. Winkley arrives at the hydro as a guest, and attracts attention but no suspicion from the gossipy residents:

At any other time Mr. Winkley would have passed unnoticed among the visitors to the Hydro, so unassuming and insignificant was his appearance, and so gentle and unobtrusive his manner. His skin was pink, his hair and moustache fair, the latter stained brown at the straight-clipped edge with nicotine, and matched by the skin between the first and second fingers of his left hand. His eyes were of a mild blue, and he blinked frequently as if he ought to have worn glasses. One felt that he should have been short and stout, and it was rather surprising to discover that he was well above the average height, and that his carriage was upright and soldierly.

Mr. Winkley describes himself as "a nonentity at the Yard" and his rather unofficial job (one pictures a dank basement office with poor lighting and a potent smell of mildew) seems to be to review cases that the bigshot inspectors have deemed hopeless or too vague or peculiar to get a handle on, to see if anything jumps out at him. It's never made very clear why he has been called into the crimes at the hydro, but the novel is all the more entertaining because of his rather nebulous position and his ability to keep a low profile.

He also compares himself entertainingly to some of the better-known detectives of the genre. As he prepares to explicate the crimes in classic Golden Age Mystery style, he warns his audience to keep their expectations low:

“I’m quite willing to tell you all that I know,” he said, “but I warn you that you mustn’t expect an exposition of brilliant deduction or sparkling humour. I’m not an Ellery Queen, nor a Peter Wimsey, nor do I possess the Gallic wit of Poirot.

In fact, Rutland has a great deal of fun at the expense of herself and other mystery writers, in the character of Mrs. Dawson, an apparently rather low-end thriller writer who is discovered, shortly after the death of Miss Blake, to have written in her notebook all the core details of the murder—before it happened.

The notes turn out to be for her third novel, on which she is hard at work despite the fact that neither of the first two have found a publisher. Although she's worried about the fact that her notes cast suspicion on her, Mrs. Dawson is also thrilled that her presence among the suspects in a gruesome murder case may lend her all the free publicity she needs to finally find success in her field.

Mrs. Dawson's chosen profession gives Rutland the opportunity for some humorous parody of herself and other mystery writers, as when Mrs. Dawson bemoans the public's craving for blood:

The trouble is that if I really based a book on Miss Blake’s murder and put all the Hydro people in it, nobody would believe that such a collection of oddities could ever exist. And in any case, one murder isn’t enough for the reading public nowadays; it would be better to have at least two...

You all know that I'm terrible at solving mysteries—or rather, that I'm so passive as a mystery reader that I never make any significant attempt at finding the solution. But bearing that in mind, I found the solution here surprising (if almost as implausible as the method of murder). So I imagine that any puzzlers among you will find it a highly satisfying read—as long as you don't require a lot of lovable, cuddly characters...

Sadly, Knock, Murderer, Knock! is one of only three mysteries Rutland published. That's the bad news. But the good news is that, after decades of being almost impossible to track down, all three of Rutland's novels are now readily available again, since Dean Street Press has added Rutland to their list of resurrected Golden Age women writers, following on the heels of Ianthe Jerrold and Annie Haynes. I'm looking forward to proceeding with her other two mysteries, Bleeding Hooks (1940, aka The Poison Fly Murder) and Blue Murder (1942). The former was enthuasiastically reviewed here, and the latter is particularly intriguing to me because of its wartime setting. Curtis Evans, who has again unearthed previously-unknown biographical information and written the introductions to these books, also wrote about them here, and his research will allow me to flesh out my entry of Rutland in my Overwhelming List and my Mystery List.

I can't wait to see what authors Dean Street Press unearths next...

Saturday, November 7, 2015


EDITH MILES, The Girl Chums of Norland Road (1930)

Barbara at Call Me Madam noted in a comment on one of my earlier posts on girls' school story authors that this book was well worth reading, and I have to thank her for that. When I finally had a chance to grab an inexpensive copy, I remembered her recommendation and indeed it turned out to be great fun, even while it's possibly the least eventful school story I've read. If you like fires and near-drownings and spies and smugglers and mudslides by the dozen in your school stories, then I'd think twice about this one, but if you enjoy quiet, uneventful tales that present a relatively realistic, only somewhat idealized view of what school life must have been like for many girls, then Girl Chums might be for you.

Sims and Clare note that Miles has a tendency to go "over the top" with her madcap characters, but that doesn't seem to be the case in this book. The story opens with Doris Endell (who is certainly not a madcap) arriving in London to stay with her aunt and uncle and to attend a girls' day school. Her parents—unlike those of so many school story main characters—are not in fact dead, or even in India or Burma or Africa, but have merely sent her to this school to give her the opportunity of experiencing London and of preparing for her scholarship exam at the end of the year.

Doris is placed initially in a class with other girls the headmistress is considering shifting to other forms, including some of the most difficult or lazy, and Doris alienates these girls with her shyness and intelligence. The rest of the story follows Doris's eventual move to another class, her success in making two good friends (no idea why the book's cover shows only two girls, when they are firmly a trio throughout), and such major events as preparation for the scholarship exam and Doris's efforts to learn to swim. Her uncle provides comic relief with his kidding of the girls and his tales of his own exploits.

And that's it really. That's the novel's plot. But I have a high tolerance, as you all must know by now, for novels that are light on plot, and this one is so charmingly written that I didn't mind at all the focus on mundane day-to-day events. In addition, as Barbara had mentioned in her comment, The Girls of Norland Road is relatively unique in its urban setting and the fact that the girls attend a state-run school and are clearly middle-class. There is no excess of wealth here—no princesses in disguise or daughters of aristocratic families whose homes are now tragically owned by the National Trust—and the story is all the more interesting for that.

It is true enough, by the way, that one of Doris's friends, Ethel, might be seen as something of a madcap, but only in a fairly muted way, and if anything in Miles's tale is over the top, it is merely that problems are solved more neatly and conveniently than in real life, but then this is hardly an unusual characteristic of school stories or even of other fiction more generally. Presumably, Miles went a bit more berserk in some of her other books, but this one struck me as a charming, quiet little story with likeable girls and interesting, ordinary activities. Has anyone read any of Miles's other work?

MABEL ESTHER ALLAN, Here We Go Round (1954)

I've written before about my fondness for Allan's books, and I knew I had to pick this one up right away when Girls Gone By reprinted it. It's a girls' career story, about being a nursery school teacher, which in itself appealed to my interest in school stories written from the perspective of teachers and other adults as well as the students.

But what made the novel completely irresistible is that it is also based on Allan's own wartime experiences as a nursery helper. Clarissa Cridland's introduction to the Girls Gone By edition includes a fairly lengthy quotation from Allan's late self-published memoir To Be an Author (1982) about the book's genesis. Here's a snippet:

I was at [Bromborough Preparatory School] for over a year then the war caught up with me again, and I wasn't allowed to stay there. I was directed to become a Nursery Warden and was sent to Bolton in Lancashire for training. I was billetted in Ivy Road and had to share a bedroom with three strangers.

I finished my training in Liverpool and was then sent to be in charge of the nursery at Gwladys Street School in Walton, close to Anfield Cemetery and Stanley Park. It was a dreadful journey in the early morning, the last part in a rocking, overcrowded, highly smelling tram. It went along Scotland Road, of blessed memory to some. The long thoroughfare, very badly bombed, had a raw and brave life, but its inhabitants were hard to stomach early on a winter's morning.

The quotation goes on to describe in more detail her real life experiences, but I don't want to spoil the novel itself by sharing too much. It is surely the semi-autobiographical nature of the novel, however, that lends it its diary-like quality and makes it seem so vividly real. In this sense, it seems quite distinct from the other Allan novels I've read, as good as those have been.

In short, the story (recast into the postwar years, sadly—one wonders just how many other novels of the late 1940s and 1950s, some of which we may know and love, were rewritten to excise the wartime content they originally contained?) follows Mary McBride as she spends a year in a nursery (presumably in or around Liverpool?—I was a bit vague on the exact spot, if indeed Allan ever mentioned it) before going for additional training to become a nursery school teacher. The neighborhood of the nursery, wherever it may be, is certainly urban and poor, and one of the great strengths of Allan's tale is that she is completely realistic about the problems of neglected and poorly-cared-for children, and her story doesn't offer any idealized solutions to those problems. The nursery helpers and the teachers of the attached school try to do their best for the children's health and education, but are sadly aware that they can only do so much to combat the conditions of their daily lives.

Allan always excels at descriptions and at making her readers feel that they are experiencing the action of her novels, but this novel is rather different. Here, it's not so much a sense of a storyteller—even an excellent one—weaving a tale, but rather a friend telling one of her experiences, in fascinating detail but without all of the bells and whistles of trying to make a dramatic tale of it. It's possible that, for readers expecting a tidy tale with a comfortable happy ending, this characteristic could prove slightly disappointing, but for me it was a huge plus.

The GGB intro also made me hunger for another of Allan's early titles, of which I had already tried to track down an affordable copy (and failed). The quoted passage from Allan's memoir begins with what is obviously the end of her discussion of another book:

I had a brilliant idea ... I still had the manuscript of the Land Army book, Room for the Cuckoo. Why not turn part of it into a book for girls? Cut out the war, of course, and just make the heroine be doing a year of practical farming before going to an Agricultural College. I was wildly excited and soon set to work.

I did make a story of it, but it was basically some sections of the same book. Whole cobs of my farming experience were almost unaltered, but I had to shape a plot and introduce a hero. I used for the most part my life on a mid-Cheshire farm, disguised somewhat by moving the great salt flash I had actually known months later at a farm near Sandbach.

Although I might vehemently wish that Allan's original manuscript for her wartime Land Army book—minus the hero and the shaped plot—still existed and might be published, I'll still happily take a copy of the revamped version, and I hope that this little teaser for it means that Room for the Cuckoo might also be on Girls Gone By's reprint radar.

MABEL ESTHER ALLAN, Swiss Holiday (1956, aka The Vine-Clad Hill)

I keep swearing that I'm going to stop writing so much about Allan here, because I figure that some of you might be getting pretty bored with hearing about her now. Plus, I've been on a bit of an Allan kick lately, and considering that she published nearly 200 books in all, I'm in some danger of turning this blog into The Mabel Esther Allan Show if I keep mentioning everything of hers that I read. I had no intention of discussing this one, which I picked up during a little gift card buying spree at Amazon, but as it has now become one of my favorites of Allan's novels, I can't resist just mentioning why.

Allan seems to have run the gamut from writing for relatively young children to writing for teenagers and on to writing for girls who are just on the cusp of adulthood. She wrote several school stories, which aren't always thought of in relation to the school story genre as a whole (they are somewhat atypical, with highly progressive schools and a focus on individual development and realistic action over sports and school life as a whole), but she also wrote various family stories and holiday tales. Swiss Holiday, the American edition of her novel The Vine-Clad Hill (I came this close to buying copies under each title before I read that they were one and the same book), is one of her holiday stories, but, like Margaret Finds a Future, which I briefly discussed here, it's also really a coming-of-age story, and (as I also mentioned in relation to her excellent early novel The Return to the West, which Greyladies reprinted) Allan handles that sense of being partly still a child and partly a young woman extraordinarily well.

Front flap of my copy of Swiss Holiday

In this case, the young woman in question is Philippa (who prefers to go by Philip, though her aunt irritatingly calls her Pippa), who is spending one final summer before beginning school work at Cambridge in the fall. Her family is distinctly middle-class, and she has planned to work as a waitress for the summer to make money for new school clothes. However, her rather wealthier and more pretentious Aunt Millicent offers her the opportunity of traveling to Switzerland with her and her family, in order to take care of her two spoiled rotten younger children, Gay and Gordon, and serve as a kind of companion to her older daughter, Tilda, an awkward, dreamy girl who has always suffered by comparison to her grown sister Clemency.

Of course, Philip will ultimately prove herself invaluable, and happy endings will be found for all, but it's told so skillfully and in such a low-key way that somehow it feels completely realistic, and as always Allan's descriptive abilities, which make the reader feel they are right there with the characters in the towns and sites described, are in full flower here. But what really makes this a stand-out among books about young women is Allan's subtlety in presenting Philip's increasing maturity and her dawning awareness of both her competence and abilities and her attractiveness to men. I'll just share one passage which helps to demonstrate the latter:

I stood there dreamily, clutching the flowers, knowing that I was going to love Bellinzona, and sure, even before I had seen Lugano, that I would not for worlds have found myself in any crowded vacation spot.

But time was passing, and perhaps Aunt Millicent was lying on her bed, longing for the solace of aspirin and cologne, though I told myself that she had probably fallen asleep long ago.

I turned and passed the big, silent building again, and I was suddenly much disconcerted to see that someone was standing halfway down the staircase, leaning on the balustrade and staring at me. I stopped for a second and stared back, perhaps hypnotized by that handsome face. For it was a young man in a white silk shirt. His brown arms lay along the stone, and his sun-tanned face was startlingly good-looking.

He smiled, and something in his expression made me feel shy and awkward. As he said something in Italian and began to descend the stairs, I made hurriedly for the door by which I had entered. For some reason, though, I couldn't help looking back as I reached it, and he was standing on the bottom stair, staring after me, and there was no mistaking the fact that his eyes held-well, appreciation, admiration.

Then I was out in the street again and hurrying back toward the druggist in the Viale Stazione.

"I don't think you were trespassing, but you've been out long enough, my girl," I told myself. "And as for that young man-he probably looks at every girl like that." But all the same, it was the first time that anyone had shown such interest in me, and the experience was oddly heartening.

From reviews and mentions online, it seems that I'm not the only one who sees this as one of Allan's best novels. If you're interested in travel-oriented novels with strong characters and a hint of romance, it's really worth tracking down, and indeed I hope that Girls Gone By or another publisher will consider reprinting it. GGB has just in the past week or two reprinted another Allan title with a similar setting, Three Go to Switzerland, written two or three years before this one, so perhaps this would make a good companion-piece?

Back flap of my copy of Swiss
, with author bio

I have about six more Mabel Esther Allan titles on my TBR shelves. Which one will I choose next (and will I be able to resist telling you about it)?
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