Sunday, June 26, 2016

No longer a fantasy: the first real-life Furrowed Middlebrow titles (part 3 of 3)

I admit that I'm still reeling a bit from last Thursday's referendum in the U.K., and I considered delaying this post because I wasn't feeling like putting up a cheerful blog entry after such a momentous event. But as some fellow bloggers have pointed out, perhaps cheerful posts and (particularly) good books are what we'll all need going forward after what the Persephone Post rather shockingly called "the most devastating day for Britain since September 3rd 1939." And indeed that statement, poignantly, perhaps makes today's announcement just a bit more appropriate. I've often taken inspiration, in rough times, from reading about the WWII Home Front and how people bravely soldiered on in the midst of terrible tragedy, so I'm rather glad, for what it's worth, that my last announcement is about one of the very best such books I know.

And so we come to the last of the announcements of the new titles being released as Furrowed Middlebrow Books this October. And I've been excited about all of them, but as I hinted a few days ago, this one in particular is a doozy!

The other two authors I've announced—Rachel Ferguson and Winifred Peck—were both included on my initial "wish list" sent to Dean Street Press. But the third author was not. Why, you ask? Certainly not because I wouldn't have been thrilled at the prospect of publishing her. Rather, it was because I had already been in email contact with the author's son, and knew he was planning to release his her work himself. As far as I was concerned, therefore, she was "off the market," and I was resigned to merely looking forward, as a fan, to the release of her books.

But a few weeks after submitting my wish list to Dean Street, I suddenly thought that it really couldn't hurt to check in with the author's son to see how things were progressing. Purely innocently, of course, and with no ulterior motives… Ahem. I sent him an email, asked how the books were proceeding, and just happened to mention our new publishing venture. And to my amazement and delight, within a few days we had his provisional agreement to let us publish his mother's work!

Now, as I said, I love all the authors we're reprinting (or we wouldn't have pursued them to begin with), but this one is particularly exciting. Because if I had asked you all, a few months ago, "Of all the books I've discussed on this blog, which one do you most wish you could get your hands on?", I'll bet a fair number of you would have replied that you wanted the chance to read this author's breathtaking, gut-wrenching, endlessly entertaining memoir of the Blitz in London.

That's right.

I can hardly believe it.

My first batch of new titles contains my all-time favorite WWII memoir—Frances Faviell's A Chelsea Concerto (1959), a book that absolutely deserves to be appreciated as a classic among WWII writings and among memoirs more generally. I reviewed it (and raved about it at length) here, so I won't reiterate all of my passionate adoration, but suffice it to say the book needs to become a movie ASAP. (I'm torn between Cate Blanchett and Kate Winslet in the lead role...) 

I was never able to find the original cover online,
but thanks to John Parker, the author's son, we're
able to share it now; it's also an original
artwork by Faviell herself!

To some extent, in fact, the book is already a recognized classic among researchers and historians, many of whom have relied on it for books and anthologies about the Blitz. Most prominently, Virginia Nicholson featured Faviell prominently in her book Millions Like Us: Women's Lives During the Second World War. In a letter to the Daily Telegraph in 2010, Nicholson referred to the book as one of the finest examples of "Blitz lit" and bemoaned the fact that Faviell's books remained out of print. Happily, our edition of A Chelsea Concerto will contain a new introduction by Nicholson herself!

I know a couple of you have managed to track this book down and read it, despite its very limited availability, but I can't wait for the rest of you to have a chance to read it. Inexplicably, there was never even an American edition of the book.

But Faviell's work doesn't end with this one title. We'll also be reprinting her acclaimed earlier memoir, The Dancing Bear (1954), about her life in Berlin (where her husband had a diplomatic job) immediately after the end of the war. Although the bombs are no longer falling during these years, the human drama is intense and fascinating. As in Concerto, Faviell's intelligence, attention to detail, and sensitivity bring the ruins of Berlin, the struggles of the German people, and the sometimes idiotic bureaucracy of the city's various sectors vividly to life. I learned about numerous aspects of postwar life in Germany that I've never encountered elsewhere, and much of it is centered around one German family the author befriended soon after her arrival. Had she not written one of the most brilliant of all WWII memoirs, Faviell would deserve to be remembered for The Dancing Bear.

And I'm delighted to note that Furrowed Middlebrow Books will also be reprinting Faviell's three critically acclaimed novels—A House on the Rhine (1956), Thalia (1957), and The Fledgeling (1958)—which have likewise been out of print for decades. I haven't yet written here about her fiction, but stay tuned.

Sadly, since Faviell (real name Olivia Parker) died of cancer at the tragically young age of 46, these five titles constitute her entire literary output. I'm delighted, however, to know that we're able to make this underrated author's complete body of work available for the first time in decades.

And that's that! A first rollout of nine titles (plus two related Dean Street Press titles). If your memory needs jogging (and also just as an excuse to see the whole list together, which gives me enormous pleasure), here's the full list of October releases:

Rachel Ferguson, A Harp in Lowndes Square (1936)
Rachel Ferguson, A Footman for the Peacock (1940)
Rachel Ferguson, Evenfield (1942)
Winifred Peck, Bewildering Cares (1940)
Frances Faviell, The Dancing Bear (1954)
Frances Faviell, A House on the Rhine (1956)
Frances Faviell, Thalia (1957)
Frances Faviell, The Fledgeling (1958)
Frances Faviell, A Chelsea Concerto (1959)

Plus, also from Dean Street Press, but not Furrowed Middlebrow titles:
Winifred Peck, The Warrielaw Jewel (1933)
Winifred Peck, Arrest the Bishop? (1947)

After that, our second batch of titles is set for release in early 2017. We have a few titles already confirmed that are among my very favorites (and have been written about here already, though I can't tell you which ones they are just yet) and a couple more authors (also written about) that we're pursuing (wish us luck with rights and heirs!). So, more announcements will follow in due course.

I hope you're even a tenth as excited about these titles as I am.

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

No longer a fantasy: the first real-life Furrowed Middlebrow titles (part 2 of 3)

(If you missed the first Furrowed Middlebrow publishing announcement a few days ago, check it out here, and you can also see the new colophon for the series here.)

In my last post, I revealed the first titles being reprinted by the Furrowed Middlebrow imprint this October—three lovely novels by Rachel Ferguson. Now it's time for revelation number two.

On my list of all-time favorite novels—and certainly of novels that I re-read most often—are E. M. Delafield's delightful Provincial Lady novels. Now, as much as I wish I had somehow unearthed a hitherto lost and unpublished volume in that series, alas, such is not the case. But I do have the next best thing...

Like the Provincial Lady, Camilla Lacely, wife of the vicar of Stampfield, a medium-sized town not far from Manchester, decides, in the early days of World War II, to keep a diary detailing the worries, controversies, necessary diplomacies, and inadvertent offenses she must negotiate in the course of one week—from the offense caused to many by the curate's passionately pacifistic sermon (through much of which, alas, Camilla has snoozed, thus adding to her difficulties in discussing it with outraged parishioners) to anxieties about her son, off training with his regiment, not to mention servant woes, worries about friends, and a potential romance in the town. The resulting diary makes up Winifred Peck's hilarious and sometimes touching Bewildering Cares (1940).

I reviewed Cares here. It remains one of my favorite rediscoveries and one I can re-read almost as often as Delafield. Apart from House-Bound (1942), her later World War II novel about a woman learning to make do without household help, which was reprinted by Persephone, none of Peck's novels have been reprinted in recent years. This is particularly bewildering in the case of such a wonderful book as Bewildering Cares, and I'm very pleased that we can now rectify that situation.

Cares is the only Peck title that we'll be reprinting at this point, but those of you who are keeping track know that it's certainly not the only one of her works that I've raved about here. As it happens, even before my inquiry to Dean Street Press led to our current collaboration, I had already emailed them to suggest that they might be interested in Peck's two wonderful mysteries, The Warrielaw Jewel (1933) and Arrest the Bishop? (1947). I reviewed them here and here, and loved them both, so I am thrilled to be able to announce, with Dean Street's blessing, that both will be added to Dean Street's already-impressive list of Golden Age mystery reprints. Some of you already know that Peck's brother, Ronald Knox, was a successful mystery writer himself, but in my opinion Winifred's novels have every bit as much going for them. Dean Street's plan is to release them in October, along with the FM reprint of Bewildering Cares, so there will, happily, be three hitherto-unavailable titles by Peck released all at once!

Just one more announcement still to come, but it's a doozy. I could never say that I've saved the best for last, since I wholeheartedly love all of these books, and they're all wonderful in their own way. But suffice it to say that I think the final announcement might cause the biggest splash, and I'm still amazed and thrilled that we were able to snag this particular author—and one of her titles in particular, which deserves, in my opinion, to be considered an absolute classic of—er—but that would be giving away too much…

Check back in a few days!

Friday, June 17, 2016

No longer a fantasy: the first real-life Furrowed Middlebrow titles (part 1 of 3)

I promised a couple of days ago, when previewing the new Furrowed Middlebrow imprint colophon, that I would have real announcements very shortly, so here goes. I'm practically giddy with excitement (well, perhaps that's an exaggeration—I don't get giddy very often—but I am quite happy and awfully, awfully relieved to finally stop keeping secrets from you all). (By the way, if you missed the news about my publishing venture, check out the first reveal here and the colophon here.)

I know it's a bit coy to divide the announcement up into three posts—one for each of the three authors—but I can't bring myself to lump them all together because I want each of these three wonderful authors to get their props, their dues, their R-E-S-P-E-C-T, etc.

When I first compiled my "wish list" to send to Dean Street Press, there was, as you might imagine (especially since you know how I am), a fair amount of agonizing, obsessing, and handwringing as I tried to prioritize the authors and books that were absolutely the best and most exciting discoveries from my time as a blogger. But there was really never any doubt what the very first title should be, as it was in fact one of the handful of books that made me want to start blogging to begin with. At the time, I felt I just had to tell others about such a wonderful discovery. Imagine my delight when it turned out that we could fairly easily acquire the rights to it, and I could share it with you in a more practical form.

That title is…

[imagine a drum roll]

…obviously, Rachel Ferguson's glorious WWII novel, A Footman for the Peacock (1940). I've raved about it here repeatedly (see my original review of it here), so it can't come as a huge surprise that we'll be publishing it. Suffice it to say that it's not only one of my favorite blog discoveries, or one of my favorite novels by a British woman. It's one of my favorite novels, period—a brilliant, hilarious, scathing satire of a loathsome upper-crust family with a long history of cruelty and a present characterized by dodging any type of war-related effort or sacrifice. And the occasional walk-ons of a Nazi-sympathizing peacock, who is probably the reincarnation of a footman run to death by the family's ancestors, are just icing on the cake! I hope you all love it as much as I do.

But that's not all. Once the realization set in that I might actually have the chance to publish Footman, I started to poke around among Ferguson's other out-of-print novels. (So now you know the impetus behind my ongoing project of reading and documenting most of Ferguson's body of forgotten work…) In March of this year, I posted about her followup to Footman, 1942's wonderful Evenfield, a charming, funny mockery of chronic nostalgia that is itself brilliantly nostalgic.

Evenfield immediately became my second favorite Ferguson novel, and I'm delighted that it, too, will be a Furrowed Middlebrow title come October.

And we're doing a third Ferguson title as well. Along with Footman and its followup, we'll also be releasing A Harp in Lowndes Square (1936), published the year before Persephone's Alas, Poor Lady. I haven't reviewed Harp here yet, but stay tuned…

I should mention that, as is likely to be the case with many of the Furrowed Middlebrow titles, this is the first ever reprint of these novels. Not only that, but none were ever published in the U.S. in the first place, so copies of the original British editions (all from Jonathan Cape) are now vanishingly rare, even in libraries, and almost never come up for sale (currently Abe Books lists not a single copy of any of them—one can only imagine what the price would be were a bookseller to find they had one on hand!). All of which makes me even more pleased that we're able to make them available again.

I should also mention that all of the Furrowed Middlebrow titles will be released in both e-book and physical (print-on-demand) formats, and they'll be available on both sides of the pond (i.e. no transatlantic shipping costs!).

I'd be thrilled it if in some small way these reprints can expand Ferguson's reputation. Although she certainly has her faults (see my recent post about some of her earliest work), I find her a fascinating offshoot of both experimental modernist literature and the more mainstream entertainment of the "middlebrow." She certainly deserves more attention.

And that's all for now. But stay tuned for announcement #2 in a few days!

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

A colophon of one's own...

I am now tantalizingly close to being able to share with you the list of titles being released in October by the new Furrowed Middlebrow imprint—I'm planning to make three announcements in the coming week or two, one for each of the authors being published—but as a preliminary I have an exciting little tidbit to share with you. (Well, it's exciting for me—hopefully for you as well. At any rate, I have to share it with someone or I'll explode, and who better than you?)

I already described, a while back, how I first decided to put out feelers about the possibility of setting up shop as a publisher in my spare time, assuming that it was an outlandish dream that would be hopelessly time-consuming and/or expensive. And how one of the feelers went to a publisher with whom I'd already been in contact regarding the books they were publishing. And how, in the kind of poetically astonishing way usually reserved for Hollywood movies, his response was that he'd be happy to offer advice, but why didn't I just work with him on the project instead of doing it myself? Can you imagine?!

At that point, however, I didn't actually reveal the name of the publisher, and it's high time I did that. Furrowed Middlebrow will in fact be an imprint of Dean Street Press, whom many of you already know from the marvelous Golden Age mysteries they've released over the past couple of years—I've reviewed two of them here and here—as well as select other titles. So they're already blazing a trail for reviving lost British women writers such as Annie Haynes, Ianthe Jerrold, and Harriet Rutland, not to mention, most recently, a whole slew of nearly forgotten novels by Patricia Wentworth, whose work extends far beyond her best-known series, the Miss Silver mysteries.

Fortunately for me, Dean Street had been hoping to extend their scope into other fiction of the same time period, so clearly our virtual meeting was pure kismet. In the time since, we've been looking at the rights situations for the "wish list" of books I sent them, containing the books I most wanted to see back in print. We've had extraordinary success (and, alas, one sad failure with a high-profile title which, it appeared at first, seemed destined for our list). The successes will be apparent in my subsequent posts over the next week or two. (The disappointment I shall keep to myself apart from the occasional veiled, wistful reference.)

And in the meantime, I am thrilled to be able to share with you the new Furrowed Middlebrow colophon! (I never dreamed I would have a colophon of my own, but it's a lovely feeling.) And I have to hasten to note that, because I have all the design sensibility of a rampaging rhino, I owe the creation of the colophon entirely to Dean Street. We discussed various symbolics involving the letters F and M—could the M somehow be an open book? or perhaps we could somehow combine them into eyeglasses and a furrowed brow? (the answers to both of those questions being "no")—and finally they came up with the idea of incorporating a flower—mildly feminine, elegant, domestic, and suggesting the new flowering forth of these books buried for so long. I think it's perfect, and I can't wait to see it on an actual book—a book I've been yearning to see in print for ages, no less.

So, without further ado, I give you the Furrowed Middlebrow colophon! (Note that the added touch, which you won't really notice here, is that the non-black portion is actually clear, meaning that it will vary according to the color of the books it appears on.)

What do you think?

Stay tuned for the first announcement of titles in just a few days!

Thursday, June 9, 2016

Before and after the war, part 2 (JOSEPHINE KAMM, Peace, Perfect Peace)

In my last post, I focused on Noel Streatfeild's really delightful novel of the earliest days of World War II, The Winter Is Past.

And if Streatfeild's novel provides a fairly detailed view of what life was like at the beginning of the war, Josephine Kamm's Peace, Perfect Peace (published in 1947 and acquired recently in yet another little book buying splurge) is almost overwhelming in its level of detail about life in the first months after the war has ended. It's irresistible in its wealth of information about postwar life—Kamm seems to have set out to meticulously record as much of the situation around her as she could, making it a central part of the plot and the drama—rather like a photographer who, sensing they're in the middle of history even while going about mundane day-to-day activities, might pull out a camera and start documenting. Obviously, not everyone realized the fragile, passing nature of that particular moment, as relatively few novelists seem to have taken it as their subject matter, and none that I know of did so to the extent that Kamm does here. I've read quite a bit about the war and the postwar years, both history and fiction, and I learned numerous things from Kamm's book that I'd never known before, as well as having brought home to me the actual day-to-day impacts of some of the issues I already knew about.

The novel (recommended for my WWII Book List by Ann—thank you, Ann!) begins by focusing on Clare, who spent the war working in a bureaucratic government office evacuated to a seaside town, but is now back in London, struggling to produce a follow-up to her one promising novel, published just before war broke out. At the beginning of the novel, Clare (who is also engaged in a hopeless affair with a married man) decides to take a break from the struggle and return to Seaport to visit her friend Joanna Smallwood and the two grandchildren, Giles and June, whom Joanna has had with her while her daughter-in-law Frances worked in the A.T.S. and her son served abroad.

From there, although Clare reappears occasionally, trying to convince herself to break it off with the married man and trying to continue her novel, the main focus of the novel shifts to the tense relations between Joanna and Frances, who is now returned from the A.T.S. and is planning to take her children back to London. But Joanna has become very attached to Giles and he to her, and Frances believes that Joanna is undermining Giles' feelings toward his mother in order to keep his affections for herself.

It's a somewhat unusual structure for a novel, and I felt that it left Clare a bit high and dry at the end with an only partially resolved storyline. But Kamm's plotting is effective, and the novel was a compelling read even when it felt a little disjointed. I also liked that, just as in Streatfeild's novel, Kamm's characters are all flawed in convincing ways—no idealization here—and the unusual structure allows for each of the characters to be viewed from at least two angles and with varying perspectives. I suspect that not all readers will find the psychology between Joanna and Frances entirely satisfying, though the reader is privy to Joanna's thoughts and so it's clear that Frances is right in her assessment. But from Clare's different perspective on her friend, we get to see the kind, caring, loving side of Joanna as well, which is refreshing. Kamm's characters are three-dimensional, however awkward the structure required to show them to be.

At any rate, I didn't find that these minor flaws weakened the novel very much overall, because it's really the plethora of insight into postwar life that is the selling point here. Sometimes it's just a passing detail that's striking, as when Clare notes that "the sound of Mr. Turner's typewriter told her that yet another never-to-be-read pamphlet was on the stocks," and we recall, having read the author bio on the book's jacket, that Kamm herself spent much of the war writing pamphlets for a government office. Or there's this brief passage as Frances comes outside one distracted evening:

Instinctively Frances fumbled in her handbag for a torch before she faced the lights and the certainty of the lifted black-out. For some time now she had taken streetlighting for granted, but in her present sense of withdrawal she had forgotten.

Sometimes it's a description of something we've seen before in wartime novels, now with a changed significance in the postwar days:

Seaport bay was sheltered on either side by red Devonshire cliffs and formed a pleasant retiring place for ex-Army officers, members of the I.C.S. and elderly women. A number of them were to be seen now sitting in covered seats reading The Times or enjoying the first sleep of the day. They never sat on the beach, for to reach it they would have to pass through a rusty barbed-wire entanglement which had been pierced in a number of places by determined summer visitors, some of whom now lay face downward on the stones exposing their pink or brown backs to a damp breeze.

The residue of the Blitz also hangs about (literally) in the dust in Frances' flat:

The only flat which Frances Smallwood had been able to find was on two floors of an inconvenient house in a Bayswater street. The rooms were lofty but narrow and awkward to arrange, for they were matchboarded off from one another, having once been two large rooms instead of four small ones, as they now were. Although the house had escaped bombing, the blast had brought about cracks in the walls and draughty subsidences of floorboards and window-frames. Through the windows, whether open or closed, the dust and dirt of the street drifted to settle thickly and stickily on the furniture. There was a garden at the back, or rather a strip of humpy lawn and a few laurel bushes, but this was the property of the ground-floor tenants, and Frances had been told that the children would not be allowed to play in it. The view in front was of a row of houses similar to their own, although there were gaps where one or two had been bombed out of existence. Some of the windows were shrouded in net, and many still kept their black-out curtains as a sign that their owners lacked the coupons, even if they had the money, to buy new material.

And those of you interested in the clothing situation during rationing and material shortages might be interested in Clare's attempt to spruce herself up with a simply wool dress:

She went by Underground to Piccadilly Circus, intending to work her way up Regent Street and, if necessary, along Oxford Street. By the end of the morning she had visited at least half a dozen shops. In one or two she had been treated with friendly kindness but in the others she met with chilly indifference or disdain. She was shown a number of unsuitable dresses made of unsuitably thin materials. "Wool," one saleswoman told her, "is a thing of the past, or the sort of wool you're looking for is. It must be quite some time since you tried to buy a wool dress, isn't it?" Clare admitted that it was and also turned her back on a soft, blue-grey frock which seemed much warmer than the others but cost twenty guineas. In the end she bought a bottle-green which she would have to alter herself before it would fit and which cost her a good deal more than she had intended to spend.

There are numerous other passages I could share, but the last passage I'll quote is lest I've given the impression that Kamm isn't a perfectly charming and interesting writer as well as a grade-A documentarian. Here's Frances' young daughter discovering the unconsidered—and entertaining—implications of bombs:

"Can't we have a wood fire? I hate that smelly gas.''

"So do I, but the landlord won't let us. He says that fires make the flat dirty.''

June shouted with laughter. "But it's dirty already. I know you do your best, but there must have been very dirty people in it before we came.''

"It's partly due to the bombing. Bits of walls and ceilings and things fell down even in houses which weren't actually bombed. There's a house," said Frances, pointing at a gap in the street, "or, rather, there isn't a house, which the bombs knocked down altogether."

"Goodness gracious! I didn't know bombs actually did any damage. If anybody had been in that house they might have got hurt, mightn't they?"

"They might," replied Frances, pleased to think how well she and Joanna had succeeded in keeping the horrors of war from June.

"I wish I could have seen it happen. There might have been some blood and bones."

This is not the easiest novel to get one's hands on, unfortunately, but if you have an opportunity, I'd urge you to seize it. I'm hoping to check out one or two of Kamm's other adult novels as well, and of course, if you're not aware already, I should also mention that Kamm went on to become something of a trailblazer for her early "young adult" fiction, almost before there was such a genre—most famously with Young Mother (1965), which tackled teenage pregnancy in a sensitive and nonjudgmental way.

Thanks again to Ann for putting this book on my radar!

The recent book buying splurge that brought Peace,
Perfect Peace
 onto my shelves; no doubt you'll hear
more about the other three titles as well..,

Saturday, June 4, 2016

Before and after the war, part 1 (NOEL STREATFEILD, The Winter Is Past)

When I posted my World War II Book List a while back, and included my own choices of my five favorite books in each subdivision of the list, I hadn't yet taken Noel Streatfeild's The Winter Is Past (1940) off of my TBR shelf and actually read it. It was reprinted by Greyladies at least a year ago, but for some reason I got sidetracked onto other things and took forever to read it. Had I already read Streatfeild's lovely, funny, but surprisingly gritty tale of a country house, its family and servants, and the evacuees (literal) and other refugees (figurative) who find shelter there during the drab, anticlimactic days of the "phony war", then I can guarantee that it would have made my top five for the "Approach and Early Days" section.

For me, what sets The Winter Is Past apart from other portrayals of the earliest days of the war, is that while it has all the hallmarks of a cozy, comforting bit of escapism (and indeed it is very, very entertaining and addictive, so it could really be read as such), Streatfeild's characters are undoubtedly real living breathing human beings, not idealized figures with only minor problems easily resolved at the end. Their flaws are shown and wrestled with, and reading about how they come to terms with them and with one another, one must come to terms with their failings too, and then forgive them and like them anyway.

This edginess in Streatfeild was to be taken to a bit of a bleak extreme a couple of years later in her Blitz novel I Ordered a Table for Six (1942)—the Blitz was bound to make one a bit cranky, I suppose. And although Saplings (1945), which follows one family through the entire war, is another favorite of mine (available from Persephone), it's certainly a bit darker than Winter as well. Perhaps Winter was simply as optimistic and energetic as Streatfeild could bring herself to be outside of her children's books or her Susan Scarlett romances. But it's the perfect balance for me.

Among the residents of and visitors to the country house are young Sara Laurence, a former actress, and her husband Bill (off doing war service during much of the novel), from whom she has become alienated following a miscarriage and its succeeding depression; her mother-in-law Lydia, who has left her London apartment as a result of the war, and who is posh and unflappably domineering in her polite and efficient way; the family servants Cook, Sims, Martin, elderly Nannie (who cared for Lydia as a child), and poor Irene, whose airheadedness is much commented on throughout; evacuee Mrs. Vidler and her children Tommy, Rosie, and Herbert; Sara's sister-in-law Saffron and husband Jim; G.N., an older playwright friend; Broom the gardener; and probably more I'm forgetting about.

Lots of things happen—the villagers gossip about Sara and G.N., Sara tries to find a purpose in life following her miscarriage, Mrs. Vidler frequently expresses her exaspertion with the ways of the upper classes—but the main plot consists of these disparate characters coming to terms with one another, facing tragedy, illness, hardship, and uncertainty about the future together, and even learning from each other.

Greyladies back cover blurb

One thing that struck me here was that Streatfeild consistently dodges the stereotypes about evacuees in her portrayals of Mrs. Vidler and her children. They are clean and well-behaved, Mrs. Vidler acknowledges how difficult it must be for the family to have strangers in their home, Tommy takes a surprising interest in gardening, and Mrs. Vidler is determined to make herself useful around the house. On the other hand, Lydia bemoans that Mrs. Vidler "never seemed to understand that she was an inferior," and she is hilariously allowed to vent her bewilderment about upper crust behavior:

Why people give themselves all that space to brush and scrub when they needn't, beats me. Not that, as she reminded herself, young Mrs. Laurence did anything in the way of brushing or scrubbing, but how that Annie Martin and that Minnie Sims had to get about! Annie Martin put her in mind of a cat with a tin tied to its tail. Minnie Sims was slower, but she never seemed to have a minute to call her own. Always saying she had to do her passages or turn down her beds or something. Lying back studying the windows, Mrs. Vidler puzzled at the queer ways of the rich, at the ideas they had of making work and wasting time. Turn down the beds indeed! The bed would turn itself down as soon as any one got into it and if that wasn't time enough, she didn't know what was. She looked up at the window behind which she knew Bill was lying and sighed. How dull life was for people like him and that young Mrs. Laurence. No wonder the poor little thing looked all of a jump.

And later, when her husband visits, she tells him about the trouble between Sara and Bill:

"Why does 'e put up with it?"

Mrs. Vidler puffed out an immense breath as if blowing from her soul the repressions of the house.

"Why? Always act genteel. My Gawd, must be awful to be a lady or gentleman. Never speak your mind; never act natural; never 'ave a good laugh, nor a good cry, nor a good row. Just on and on, all the days the same, all they get out of it is enough to eat. When this rationing gets goin' they won't 'ave even that, they won't 'ave anythin'."

Streatfeild obviously poured some of her own anxieties about the looming war—and what it would bring with it—into the novel. Lydia formulates her ideas of the role in women in wartime, while G.N. roundly condemns those writers and artists who chose to go abroad (mostly to the U.S.) when the war approached. And then there's Cook's memorable anxieties about the future of domestic work:

I remember the last war, I was in the W.A.A.C.'s then, that's the same as the A.T.S. now, and I didn't see anything much of what was going on. We always had plenty of everything in the W.A.A.C.'s, and were kept and paid, so I never saw how things were shaping. But I knew all right when I came out. Why, in my first place, there were twenty-three of us in the servants' hall, and I was third kitchen-maid. What food we had! The entertaining there was, you wouldn't believe. But after the war you couldn't get that kind of place, or at least I couldn't. I went where there were four in the kitchen, very nice it was, titled people and all that, but they had to squeeze to make ends meet, and they were no strangers to the tradesman standing on the doorstep asking when he was going to be paid. And things haven't been getting any better. Now this war, you read what it's costing. You read the taxes, and they'll be worse yet. Well, what's going to happen to people like this," she jerked her thumb at the roof, to represent all in the dining-room, "and if anything happens to them and their sort, what's going to happen to us?"

All of which is interesting and entertaining, but above all, what makes The Winter Is Past a favorite for me is its heart. Even Lydia, as conservative and domineering as she can be, is given her moments to shine, as in this touching scene with old Nannie:

Lydia smiled, for years she had been an exquisite needlewoman, but it was governesses who had taught her to be so, and Nannie had never forgotten a sticky fingered small girl attempting to embroider "God is Love" on a pin-cushion, and how she had lost patience and tried to cover the big letters more quickly and how each time she had done this the work had been taken from her and the "bogglers" unpicked. Now Nannie's stitches were becoming bogglers, all her life she had been neat with her needle and her failing eyesight hid from her work that she would never have passed a few years ago. Sara would have been startled if she could have seen the expression on Lydia's face as she examined the hem, and heard the warmth and love in her voice as she said:

"You mustn't expect us all to sew like you do. All the same I would rather you let me have these small things, I know it won't be as well done as if you did it, but you must take care of your eyes. I'll bring you up some of my knitting for Mr. Edward's men. I shall be glad to be rid of it for a time. Navy is a tiring colour."

If you're a fan of home front novels, or character-based comedy-dramas, or Noel Streatfeild, or just wonderfully entertaining reads, be sure to grab this one from Greyladies while you can! And next time, we move about six years into the future for a similarly amazing (if not quite so flawlessly characterized) look at the days immediately after the war's end.
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