Well, here goes—my first attempt at a reading catch-all post that (hopefully) won't be the length of a Dostoevsky novel—though there are quite a few books to mention…
I did a bit of reading before the holidays that I think I can actually sum up briefly. For example, I read RC SHERRIFF's Greengates (1936), newly reprinted by Persephone, which I had been looking forward to for months before it arrived. I have to report that I was just a bit underwhelmed, but this is probably because The Fortnight in September, his earlier novel about an ordinary family's quiet holiday by the seaside, is one of my all-time favorites. I may therefore have had unrealistically high hopes that Greengates, about a middle-aged couple coming to terms with the extra time they have together after the husband retires, would provide similar delights. If I had read Greengates first, I might have loved it—and how unfair for me to be disappointed that it's not another Fortnight. I wonder just how often one book or another is ruined simply because one has read another book first? Or, for that matter, because one hasn't read another book first. Has this happened to you?
On a similarly disappointing note, I was so excited to have tracked down a copy of WINIFRED DUKE's Death and His Sweetheart (1938), which was apparently a bestseller in its time and one of Duke's most successful and well-known novels (and I won't resist sharing the cover with you, as I think it's a rather nice one). But my original assumption that this was one of her mysteries turned out to be quite incorrect. It is, in fact, a ghost tale, set—as per Duke's norm—in a rather ominous Scottish village. There is a framing story set more or less in the present time, with the arrival of a new minister in the village, then a flashback to around the turn of the 19th century, when a previous minister and his wife seem to have scandalized the village and met their doom.
|Book club advert from back of Duke's
Death and His Sweetheart
My problem with the novel—which, sadly, I chose not to finish reading—may have been a slight variant on my problem with the Sherriff. I had already read Duke's later novel, Dirge for a Dead Witch, which uses a very similar structure and setting, and that might well be the source of my slight "been there, done that" feeling when trying to get engrossed in Sweetheart. I'm certainly not giving up on Duke, however. There are some other titles which should be available via Interlibrary Loan, and I'm determined to find more of her mysteries, since The Dancing of the Fox was such an odd little pleasure. Let's hope that that one, her final work, wasn't the only really high point in her long and prolific career.
Then there was COMPTON MACKENZIE's Extraordinary Women (1928), which I had long meant to read because of its links to gay and lesbian literature and to modernism, but it took finding a lovely (and cheap) copy of the Hogarth Press edition to make me finally commit. It doesn't entirely fit the main topic of this blog, but I'm mentioning this rather over-the-top portrayal of a whole slew of eccentric lesbians staying on the Isle of Capri around the time of World War I because some of you (especially fans of an E. F. Benson type of comedy) might happen to enjoy it. It was also published the same year as Radclyffe Hall's scandalous The Well of Loneliness, and, interestingly, aroused no particular controversy with its subject matter, while Hall's book was famously the target of censorship and outrage. Was this because Mackenzie was straight while Hall was—definitively—not? Or was it because Hall's portrayal of lesbianism (or, more accurately in the language and understanding of today, a transgendered man) was deadly serious, while the romantic trials and tribulations of Mackenzie's lesbians are unquestionably played for laughs?
Whatever the reason, I approached the novel a bit ambivalently, expecting perhaps a condescending or mocking attitude (straight modernist men were rarely known for their tolerance), but I was surprised how even-handed the comedy actually was. The women portrayed certainly behave in ridiculous ways, but no more ridiculous than characters in numerous novels by gay and lesbian authors (see Carl Van Vechten's Parties or Angus Wilson's Hemlock and After, for example), and indeed it seems clear that Mackenzie's attitude is that love makes fools of everyone, straight and gay alike—perhaps particularly when they are too wealthy and spoiled for their own good. For that matter, many of the characters Mackenzie portrays are thinly veiled versions of real women, such as Romaine Brooks, Mimi Franchetti, and Radclyffe Hall herself, and from what biographers tell us of them, Mackenzie's portrayals might actually be rather restrained! At any rate, I found it all to be great fun.
Then, just before the wonderful holiday break, I finally, finally got round to reading two more JOSEPHINE TEY novels, The Singing Sands (1952), the final Alan Grant novel, and The Franchise Affair (1948), in which Grant also appears, though only in a supporting role. I enjoyed both, and was (as I have been the other two or three times I've read something of Tey's) bewildered at why I hadn't read them before. Tey has easily become one of my handful of absolute favorite mystery authors, and yet there are still a few of her books I have yet to read. Too many books, yada yada yada…
Of these two, Franchise was my favorite, and I'm also adding it to my World War II book list in the Postwar section, as it makes frequent references to the war and evokes a strong atmosphere of the immediate postwar period. But that's not the only reason I liked it. It's also interesting because the main character is a small town barrister trying to defend two women charged with a far-fetched kidnapping, and our beloved Alan Grant is actually on the other side of the fence (more or less—he does have his doubts). As much as I missed Grant's more frequent presence, and being privy to his ponderings, Tey's experiment worked for me. Neither of these books has unseated Daughter of Time or Miss Pym Disposes as my favorite Teys, but that standard is reached by very few books by any author, and these were still fascinating and unputdownable. Now what should I read next by Tey?