Thursday, December 21, 2017

The Furrowed Middlebrow Dozen 2017

No, my "middlebrow vacation" from blogging is not over. In fact, Andy and I will be on our real holiday vacation in Washington DC shortly. But I couldn't resist the temptation for one more Furrowed Middlebrow Dozen list. It was a great year of reading, and my blog vacation in the past few weeks has led me to some exciting new reads, including four contemporary novels that I have to mention even if they're technically "off topic".

Two of these might well be of interest to readers of this blog, even if they (like me) don't often read contemporary fiction. I couldn't put down RACHEL KADISH's The Weight of Ink, vividly set in London just before and during the plague of 1665, as well as in the early 2000s, when two scholars are making an astonishing discovery about a Jewish scribe working in the earlier time. Kadish is brilliant with her descriptions of the London of the time, and I felt I'd had a chance to travel back in time and experience a walk across the old bustling, smelly London Bridge with its ramshackle tumble of shops. Definitely recommended for fans of historical fiction, as well as for fans of A. S. Byatt's Possession.

That discovery led me (via Amazon's "Customers who bought this item also bought" feature) to SARAH PERRY's amazing second novel, The Essex Serpent, which offers a similarly atmospheric and compelling version of 19th century England (and also evoked, for me, an earlier novel—John Fowles's The French Lieutenant's Woman). I loved this one even more, and recommended it to a co-worker who was similarly sold. I think many of you would enjoy it.

But the two biggest standouts of my sparse contemporary reading this year were, surprisingly, books by men, both of which harkened back to my days of reading slightly edgier, more experimental fiction. GEORGE SAUNDERS's Lincoln in the Bardo, which happily won this year's Booker (though at the same time I am still ambivalent about Yanks being allowed to win it at all), reminded me of both Mark Twain and Samuel Beckett, and I don't think there could be many books about which that's true. I've never been teary-eyed on one page and laughing maniacally on the next so many times in the course of one book, so if you're open to unconventional storytelling with a powerful historical bent, give it a try.

And finally, I geared myself up for all the trauma and beauty that is COLSON WHITEHEAD's The Underground Railroad and was fair blown away. Not for the squeamish, to be sure, but ultimately exhilarating and uplifting.

I've also started two other contemporary mystery series as a result of recommendations. People have been telling me to read LOUISE PENNY for ages, and I now have and am hooked. I've finished the first two in the series, Still Life and Dead Cold, and the third, The Cruelest Month, will accompany me on my flight to DC. And I read C. J. SANSOM's Dissolution as a result of an intriguing review in The Scribbler an issue or two back, and I've never learned so much about a period of British history and had so much fun at the same time.

But I'm not including any of these I my dozen. Per tradition, it's limited to books that fit the main focus of this blog, and for those that I've reviewed here, I'm linking to my review. So without further ado:

12) Monica Redlich, Five Farthings (1939)

In many ways an ordinary enough family adventure story, but oh my! As a travelogue of London just before WWII, particularly focused on churches and historic buildings, it was one of the two best wish-fulfillment fantasies I came across this year—see #3 below for the other.

11) Christianna Brand, Suddenly at His Residence (1946)

One of several books here that I never got round to discussing, but I had a great time with it, and surely there can't be many mysteries whose climax is punctuated by a doodlebug bombing.

10) Isabel Cameron, The But and Ben (1948)

My biggest regret of the year is not getting round to discussing Isabel Cameron. Something like an even cozier, Scottish version of Miss Read—cheerful, sentimental, and placidly (and not too intrusively) informed by Cameron's own Christian beliefs—she was one of the happiest discoveries of my bookshopping raids in Edinburgh last year. She is better known as the author of a series of tales about "The Doctor", which apparently sold more than a million copies, but it was her four Glen Craigan novels that proved irresistible to me. The But and Ben and its three sequels—Tattered Tartan (1950), Heather Mixture (1952), and The Kirk of the Corrie (1956)—trace the arrival and gradual settling-in of a young woman doctor in a close-knit Highlands community. They seem ripe for rediscovery, and they're actually not impossible to find at reasonable prices…

9) Verily Anderson, Our Square (1957)

Sadly the last of Verily Anderson's six wonderful memoirs that I hadn't read, but now I can go back and start re-reading them. This one tells of the early days of her hectic married life, in all of her usual incomparable and hilarious style.

8) Winifred Lear, The Causeway (1948)

One of the oddest and yet most satisfying of the novels I read this year. Sadly, Lear wrote only two novels, and her second, Shady Cloister (1950), set in a girls' school, didn't quite live up to its promise for me. But this one, even months after reading it and with my notoriously bad memory for plots, comes vividly back to mind, and the fact that it makes interesting use of wartime realities just adds to the mix.

7) Stella Gibbons, The Swiss Summer (1951)
6) Stella Gibbons, A Pink Front Door (1959)
5) Stella Gibbons, The Snow-Woman (1969)

The biggest chunk of my reading during my blog vacation has involved obsessively tracking down and reading several of the Stella Gibbons novels that weren't reprinted in the past few years by Vintage. It started innocently enough, when I finally picked up The Yellow Houses, the last of Gibbons's novels to finally be published. I didn't absolutely love that one, as I did the other "lost" novel, Pure Juliet, but Houses was enough to send me on a Gibbons bender, and these are the three standouts so far. Gibbons's nephew, Reggie Oliver, in his rather anemic bio of her, dismisses Swiss Summer as dull and little more than a travelogue about attractive characters spending a summer in the Alps, but that description might well make fans (like me) of Enchanted April and similarly quiet novels with wodnerful settings sit up and take notice. A Pink Front Door is also surprisingly cozy for a Gibbons novel, dealing with a young wife who attempts to solve everyone's problems, to the dismay of her father and husband. I enjoyed both a lot, but it was The Snow-Woman, the second to last of Gibbons's novels to be published in her lifetime, that made me feel more than ever that she's a kindred spirit. The story of a bitter—even, initially, rather unlikeable—woman in her seventies, who visits old friends in France, then returns to her quiet life to discover the "snow" of her years of bitterness melting away, it's a lovely, perceptive novel that deserves to be more readily available. Happily, Gibbons wrote quite a number of novels, so I still have several more left to track down…

4) Rumer Godden, China Court (1961)

I also re-read The Greengage Summer this year and was so tempted to add it to this list, but decided to limit myself to new discoveries from this year. I thought I'd already read all the very best of Rumer Godden's books and was only filling in some of her lesser works, but this one gives all my other favorites a run for their money. Which is best: China Court? Greengage Summer? Episode of Sparrows? In This House of Brede? Or her marvelous memoirs? I can't choose, so it's fortunate I read all those others in previous years.

3) Mabel Esther Allan, Changes for the Challoners (1955)

Possibly my favorite of all the MEA books I've read so far (and I must be up to 25 or 30 now), and the perfect wish-fulfillment fantasy for me. Who wouldn't want to move to Allan's fictional version of Chester, make new friends, and search for lost Roman ruins?

2) Hilda Hewett, So Early One Morning (1948)

An author that Shirley at The Scribbler and I both came across for the first time this year. This was my particular favorite of Hewett's work—a funny, charming, and and ahead-of-its-time portrayal of a 13-year-old aspiring actress's first love. Hewett turned out to be a wildly uneven author, though I also tracked down Shirley's discovery, Kaleidoscope (1947), set near the end of WWII, and enjoyed it tremendously as well. But So Early One Morning is the one I'll want to re-read and savor the most.

1) Marjorie Mack (later Marjorie Dixon), The Red Centaur (1939)

There was really no question what my favorite novel of the year would be, though Mack, too, proved to be an uneven writer (see my disappointment in her one other adult novel, Velveteen Jacket, here). Red Centaur focuses on 8-year-old Laurel Maude's observations (and misunderstandings) of the adult dramas around her during one glorious summer in Brittany. It reminded me of the best of Rumer Godden's The Greengage Summer and Pamela Frankau's A Wreath for the Enemy, two of my all-time favorites.

And that was my year of reading. What were your favorites of the year?

Monday, October 30, 2017

A middlebrow vacation...

I've been thinking for a while about taking a bit of a break from blogging, and it seems that at the moment the stars are aligned for me to do it. I've been happily blogging away for nearly five years now (which seems utterly incredible!), and although I have taken small breaks, and had times of posting more and times of posting less, I have never really taken a full-scale break, during which I can blissfully read without making notes and pursue other interests (or perhaps even, sometimes, no interests at all!) without the nagging feeling that I'm neglecting the blog.

Plus, after the library's delightful Big Book Sale a few weeks ago (see here if you missed it), reading material is certainly in no short supply! No doubt, though, my urge to share good books with you will bring me back before long…

I may also have to use some of my time to think about whether to plunge into doing something with the wonderful recommendations you all recently came up with regarding American women writers. Do we need a list of American authors to supplement my British list? Hmmmm...

See you soon!

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

WINIFRED LEAR, The Causeway (1948)

I've actually had this book waiting patiently on my shelves for at least the past year, ever since an anonymous commenter on another post mentioned that Lear's second and final novel, Shady Cloister, was set in a girls' school and therefore belonged on my Grownup School Story List. At that point, copies of Shady Cloister were hard to come by, but there was a tantalizing copy of this one going dirt cheap. I see that I even included it in a book shopping post not long after. I can't imagine why it took me so long to finally read it, but better late than never.

Definitely not sure about the
Betty Smith comparison...

It's a wonderfully odd tale set over the course of about two years—from some time in 1938 until well into the Blitz. The story centers around the rectory in Camberwell in southeast London (thank you, Google), wherein the rector is suffering the unusual aftereffects of a stroke. He seems to have few enough resulting physical limitations, but it has left him hostile, occasionally violent, and—perhaps even worse given his profession—completely averse to his former religious beliefs. (In the novel's opening paragraphs, for example, his daughter Davina notices, "scratched upon the door of the medicine chest, probably with a pair of scissors, the comment: INCENSE IS NONSENSE.") Davina, her Aunt K, and the poor curate Lancaster, who seems most to arouse the rector's ire, all suffer along with him, though the arrival of a new boarder, Rick Watson, whom the rector quite likes, helps to take the heat off of them. Matters are further complicated by 21-year-old Toby, whom the older Davina (in her late thirties) loves passionately but hopelessly, only awaiting the day he will fall for a girl his own age and abandon her, and the officious Aunt Mavis, who arrives for an extended visit a bit later on.

Davina and Rick are the novel's central characters, and one feels they are destined to be together if they can only clear up some sizable misunderstandings and work through their respective issues—Davina her hopeless love for Toby, and Rick his terminal insecurity and class-consciousness, which cause him to lie compulsively in order to hide even the most trivial details of his working-class background:

"I'm supposed to be like my father, except that he's taller. Mother's very petite." In fact, the reverse was true, but it had always seemed to him that there was something faintly disreputable about having a very small father and a tall mother.

A friend of Davina's later sums him up, "He's a cross between the ancient mariner and a spaniel that hasn't been treated nicely." Among other things, he is an aspiring writer, and it is only as time passes and he gains confidence in his creative abilities that his compulsive dishonesty begins to abate.

The rector himself remains largely in the background of the novel, like the rocks that make a river boil and gurgle around them. But he seems to be important to Lear's point here. One might suggest that such a set of side effects as the rector experiences would be unusual in a stroke patient, but that doesn't make the plot line any less entertaining and, at the same time, disturbing and distinctly uncozy.

To put it into psychoanalytic terms, Lear seems to be saying that the stroke has wiped out the rector's regulating superego (his "filter", we might call it these days) and left his primal id in charge. But more importantly for the novel, it seems that he, with his sometimes shocking behavior (right off the bat we learn that he has brutally killed Davina's fox-terrier with a whack from his walking stick), comes to symbolize the darkness that we all must somehow process and place in perspective in order to remain sane and capable of love.

[Davina] began to wonder whether this perhaps was the proper perspective and whether, two hours ago, she had been mistaking farce for tragedy. Perhaps the cumulative effect of living was of more importance than the passion of the moment. … It was only in moments as on the landing this evening when something which overpowered her because it seemed to be the stark truth thrust up its ugly head and she felt like the diver who comes unexpectedly face to face with a monster, unspeakably hideous, and tugs madly at the life-line. In an instant he is hauled up and away and soon there is nothing but the innocent lapping of the surface waters and his own exhaustion to disturb him in retrospect because of what he saw.

In the middle of what is largely a cozy, funny novel with likeable, believable, and interesting characters, such darkness is a bit of a surprise, but I think it might be one of Lear's main points here. If most of the novel is a rollicking romantic comedy and a fairly cheerful portrayal of the leadup to World War II and the early days of the Blitz, we nevertheless here and there get reminders of that sea monster under the surface. There is, for example, a ghoulish story that Rick tells later on, to the rector's evident delight, about two sisters keeping their dead mother in her chair for two years after her death. And there's a very brief but disturbingly vivid description of a child's tragic death in a bombing raid. These instances are short and infrequent, but regular enough that their horror, underlying the cheerful comedy and romance unfolding on the novel's surface, must be intentional and meaningful.

At any rate, I found The Causeway to be great fun and hard to put down. Because the two main characters are such unusual and unlikely lovers, and because they are so well developed and complex, one is by no means sure exactly how (or even if) things will work out for the best. But I never doubted I was in capable hands and that Lear would have a few surprises up her sleeve.

I should have learned my lesson by now about comparing unknown authors to other, more famous writers that lots of folks know and love. But if I foolishly allowed myself to be pressed for comparisons regarding Winifred Lear, I think I'd suggest that she might be the love child of Stella Gibbons and Barbara Pym (with just a twist of Diana Tutton's Guard Your Daughters). Her humor is not riotous by any means, but here are two examples that made me laugh.

I have been working out and doing yoga a bit more again in the hopes of not fitting Rick's grandmother's description as I get older:

Grandma Watson was of immense girth. She had grown like a tree, adding a new ring to her outer man each year, and now, at seventy-nine, had become so cumbersome that on her own admission her legs wouldn't stand it and weren't a bit of use for moving about.

And then, much later when the Blitz is already raging, this little snippet about Aunt Mavis in a crowded shelter made me laugh and definitely evokes Pym's acid sarcasm:

"I would willingly offer you my own bed," said Aunt Mavis, half getting out of it to show what it would look like if she did, "but, as it happens, I seem to have got a nasty bit of cold in my throat."

Clearly, having enjoyed this book so much, I shall now have to move forward with Lear's second (and, sadly, final) novel, the aforementioned Shady Cloister. She also published a much later memoir of her own school days, Down the Rabbit Hole (1975). A big thank you to the anonymous commenter who first put her on my radar!

Thursday, October 19, 2017

HUGO CHARTERIS, Marching with April (1956)

This post in an exception to the norm on this blog in two different ways.

First, it's about a book written by a man. Shocking, right?

And second, it's the result of my accepting a proffered review copy, something I almost never do. (Apart from the fact that my focus on very obscure authors has limited the relevance of most publishers' titles, this reluctance is also because I'm a cantankerous reader—if I feel pressured to read a given book at a given time, it's almost a sure bet that I'll perversely resist, no matter how interested I was in the book in the first place.)

However, when Michael Walmer sent an email about this recent title, it proved too enticing to resist, and what's more, I started reading it as soon as I received it. (Then, of course, the book sale intervened, so the review has been a bit slower coming along.) And I had such fun with it that I have to stretch the boundaries of the blog for it.

Hugo Charteris wrote nine novels before his tragic death from cancer at age 48. He was a contemporary of such better-known authors as Kingsley Amis, John Osborne, and Angus Wilson, and the new introduction to this edition, by American screenwriter and novelist Frederic Raphael (who won an Oscar for writing the screenplay of 1965's Darling), effectively places Charteris in the context of his period in British literature. The edition also includes a contemporary review from no lesser figure than Elizabeth Bowen, who sums up the novel thus:

Mr. Charteris gives grim situations a witty twist; farce has an edge of sombreness, laughter a note of fury. He is not only one of the most brilliant but one of the most incalculable of our postwar novelists—his generation, viewing the postwar scene, have no use for comfortably blinkered humour. I should call him a romantic anti-romantic. Marching with April offers high entertainment: you may also find that this book bites deep.

The gist of the plot is simple. Lionel Spote is a neurotic London publisher who inherits a Scottish estate. Having no intention of becoming the lord of the manor, he plans to sell, but discovers that the terms of his uncle's will make that impossible. During a stay in Scotland, as much as anything as a means of getting away from his domineering mother, he gets swept up in the grand plans of a local MP, difficulties with his hearty neighbor April (whose property "marches" alongside his own), a bewildering battle with the Corporal of the local Cadets, and a possible romance with April's daughter. On top of which, his mother arrives and threatens to dominate everything.

Charteris's unusual and sometimes dense style took a bit of getting used to (there are still a couple of passages whose exact meanings eluded me), but once I had I frequently laughed out loud. From a brief reference to Lionel's attempts to analyze his dreams ("Sometimes he just lay and didn't say anything for days. Often he went to sleep while remembering his dreams which had a snowball effect on the agenda.") to the following wonderful set piece about his mother arriving to care for him when he falls ill, I thoroughly enjoyed the lot:

She began putting things in order—that is, where she wanted them.

"Perhaps you think I'm going to twiddle my fingers in London while you have pneumonia under horse doctors—who only come up here because they like fishing or bird-watching ten times better than their job. That, or drink got them on the run. Oh, no, Lionel, I know."

That crowing cry—Oh, no, I know. It came repeated out of the primeval infinity of childhood like a medieval cor de chasse motif in a modern symphony. His mise à mort.

She knew.

With a savage whipping movement he threw back the bedclothes and stood up, shakily and drably in his silk pyjamas. While he was fumbling with his dressing-gown she gave in.

As often in the past he half hoped he might die while engaged in protest against her. Angina while reaching for his Jaeger dressing-gown in order to by-pass her. At the inquest a pause would come in the coroner's voice while he gravely and significantly murmured the word Misadventure—meaning of course murder.

And then there's this late exchange between Lionel and his mother which perhaps gives the reader a better idea of her fundamental personality than anything else in the book.

"Was that April, dear? Why didn't you let me talk to her?"

"No, Mother—it wasn't."

"I've a good mind to go round to her. I'd sort her."

"You'd sort each other."

"She's going to apologise—if it's the last thing I make anyone do."

That last turn of phrase keeps making me laugh, no matter how many times I read it. Perhaps this is because it's one my own mother might have uttered on any number of occasions…

Marching with April has certainly made me think I should check out some of Charteris's other fiction. He published nine novels in all before his sad early death from cancer at age 48. I think some of you would quite enjoy this one.

It has also made me think I need to look more closely at some of Michael's other books. He has reprinted several books by authors from my list, including Winifred Holtby, Mary Webb, and Ada Leverson, as well as other women of interest, such as New Zealander Katherine Mansfield, Victorian author Ouida, and Aussie Kylie Tennant (who I am now rather intrigued by). He's also published the likes of Max Beerbohm, Ronald Firbank, M. R. James, and Theophile Gautier, among others. And I should mention that, although his books (like the Furrowed Middlebrow titles) are print on demand, the quality is quite high. Marching with April felt nice in my hands, the print size was comfortable, and the design was attractive. If you're not already familiar with Michael's work, this might be a good time to check it out here.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

An American middlebrow?

A while back, Marcina, a reader of this blog, sent me an email asking if I thought that there was an equivalent "middlebrow" phenomenon in the United States. It's a good question, and one that I'm not really equipped to answer since, apart from sporadic reading here and there, I haven't delved into American women writers in anything like the same depth as my reading of British authors. So I thought I might open it up to you marvelous readers for comments.

Of course, that doesn't mean I didn't come up with anything to answer—I always have some sort of answer! I said that I assumed that although subject matter and themes and tone would undoubtedly vary in the American fiction of the same period (pioneers don't figure prominently in British lit, for example), there were probably ultimately just about as many "lost" women writer from the U.S. as there were from Britain. Then I turned, as I so often do, to my database, and came up with some totally random examples of American books and authors that sound intriguing.

As I've researched authors over the last few years, I've often come across women who turned out in the end to be American (or Canadian, or South African, etc.), but once I've found information about them, I can't resist holding on to what I've found. I label these authors as "peripheral", since they don't fit my main list, but I hold onto them like the obsessive little packrat archivist that I am. So I had a glance through the peripheral American authors in my database to see what books I had found intriguing despite the handicap of being written by Americans. Many of these I hadn't thought of in ages, and two or three of them have even bounded well up my TBR list.

In addition to asking for your thoughts on Marcina's question, I figured that I might as well share what I came across, so I'm putting my original notes, as well as some subsequent discoveries, at the bottom of this post.

These are mostly relatively obscure books and authors, as I assume folks already know about major American women writers like Edith Wharton and Willa Cather. I'm also not mentioning again some authors that I have written about here, such as Rose Franken and Mary Lasswell, or authors already rediscovered by Persephone, such as Susan Glaspell and Helen Hull

At any rate, my notes are below. Have any of you read any of these? Or do you have better American middlebrow titles to recommend?

Abbott, Jane D., Happy House (1920)
"There is something of Louisa May Alcott in the way Mrs. Abbott unfolds her narrative and develops her ideals of womanhood; something refreshing and heartening for readers surfeited with novels that are mainly devoted to uncovering cesspools." --Boston Herald.

Ashmun, Margaret, Pa (1927)
Bookman, 1927: Excellent dialogue and characterization in this sordid but genuine tragedy of an old maid's thwarted romance.

Baker, Margaret, The Key of Rose Cottage (1965?)
recommended as a favorite housekeeping novel

Barnes, Margaret Ayer, Years of Grace (1930)
winner of the Pulitzer Prize & reviewed alongside Helen Ashton’s Dr Serocold

Bassett, Sara Ware, The Green Dolphin (1926)
Bookman: Yankee wit and Cape Cod cooking make a lover's paradise of this tea room and its marvelous gardens.

Boden, Clara Nickerson, The Cut of Her Jib (1953)
As a girl, Clara Nickerson Boden (born 1883, in Cotuit) discovered her grandmother’s journal hidden away in an attic, and her book, The Cut of Her Jib, is historical fiction based on the diary entries and on stories passed down from Boden’s grandparents. It was originally published in 1953, and an exact facsimile has recently been republished by Boden’s family.

Devitt, Tiah, The Aspirin Age (1932)
Bookman, 1932: A first novel that mixes finishing-school girls and gunmen. A little too symmetrical in its balancing of the two kinds of lives, but worth reading.

Forbes, Esther, Mirror for Witches (1928)
Edith Olivier review, Saturday Review of Literature, 2 Jun 1928, Vol. 4: "The atmosphere of the book is entirely true to the seventeenth century. And the characters which move in this atmosphere are clearly and delicately drawn. They come very near, in spite of their remote setting. The tiny, stunted figure of Doll is full of pathos and beauty, and Jared, with all the characteristics of the conventional sea captain, yet succeeds in being individual and charming."

Gallagher, Rory, Lady in Waiting (1943)
see here

Gordon, Caroline, Aleck Maury, Sportsman (1930)
Blurb from reprint edition: “It is, in a sense, a prose Aeneid, written with so much economy and constraint that the reader is only aware at the end that he has been following the wanderings of a hero.” Thus did Andrew Nelson Lytle, in a 1934 New Republic review, capture the essence of Car­oline Gordon’s novel inspired by the life of her father, a supreme hunter and fisherman.

Green, Anne, The Selbys (1930)
Forum 1930: This is a novel of the American residents in Paris; not the night club habitues of the pseudo-bohemians, but a family of rather charming Southerners who accept France as home.  The Selbys take it upon themselves to bring out their orphaned niece, Barbara, in Paris society.  She is not overburdened with intelligence or dowery; but, having changed her provincial polish for a finer lustre and savoir faire, finds herself a husband.  The Selbys and their acquaintances are all most delightfully drawn, be they American or French.

Gregory, Alyse, King Log and Lady Lea (1929)
Sundial Press: In her second novel, Alyse Gregory recounts the story of Richard and Mary Holland, a married couple whose seemingly conventional relationship is threatened by the arrival on the scene of Celia Linton, once the object of Richard’s attentions several years earlier and now an alluring young woman. Richard is eager to incorporate her into his life, but hasn’t bargained for the intangible mutual attraction that develops between the two females. Underlying this sober tale of love and death is the theme of war between the sexes, with its unheeded misconceptions and fevered imaginings, but more profoundly the fear of loneliness and the poignancy of human isolation.

Janeway, Elizabeth—I’ve been generally intrigued by her, but haven’t yet read anything

Mayhall, Jane, Cousin to Human (1960)
See here

Neilson, Isabel, Madonna and the Student (1925)
Spectator: Music, winter sports, and the Munich University are the theme of this novel. It is chiefly interesting for its picture of post-War Germany. The excitement and misery caused by the fluctuations of the mark, the gay night life, and the scarcity of food are all vividly drawn and make a real effect on the mind of the reader.

Norris, Kathleen, The Callahans and the Murphys (1924)
Bookman 1924: The life struggles, amusements, and tragedies of two Irish families shown with admirable power and understanding.

Parmenter, Christine Whiting, Miss Aladdin (1932)
Wisconsin Library Bulletin: A simple, pleasant, and not too sentimental, novel, about an eastern brother and sister who accept the invitation of an eccentric, but likable, cousin to spend a year on her Colorado ranch. For women and older girls.

Paterson, Isabel, Never Ask the End (1933)
Forum 1933: To their own candid surprise, the three highly civilized Americans — two women and a man — who figure in this story discover that emotional turbulence and adventure do not end with the forties. Their relationship stretches back over a long period of years, and when they meet again abroad, and travel together, it blossoms into a new and unexpected flowering. Mrs. Paterson uses a curious, elliptical, yet wholly satisfactory method to tell the story of these three. Gradually, bit by bit, as they brood, remember, and trace back the sources of their present actions, their past is revealed in all its complexity, and they themselves emerge clear and complete. This is a mellow, witty, and very charming novel — conspicuously shrewd in its analysis of character.

Robins, Elizabeth, The Convert (1907)
Relatively well-known suffrage novel. I’ve actually read this one and enjoyed it for it’s “you are there” perspective on the period.

Shor, Jean Bowie, After You, Marco Polo (1955)
A fine novel about a couple, Franc and Jean Schor who travel through China after WWII on their honeymoon. They decide to follow the route of Marco Polo.

Suckow, Ruth, The Folks (1934)
Just acquired at the book sale last month. Apparently quite acclaimed in her lifetime.

Tompkins, Juliet Wilbor, Joanna Builds a Nest (1920)
See here

Walker (Schemm), Mildred, Winter Wheat (1944)
Describes a young woman’s emotional and spiritual awakening as she confronts the disappointments and marvels of love....Walker’s heroine recognizes that love, like winter wheat, requires faith and deep roots to survive the many hardships that threaten its endurance. — Belles Lettres

Weingarten, Violet, Mrs. Beneker (1967)
see here

Winslow, Thyra Samter, Picture Frames (1923)

see here

Wednesday, October 4, 2017


A while before the book sale brought a whole slew of new books into my life, something had inspired me to get back to a few school stories. Since I know some of you are fans of the genre, I thought I'd mention them here in brief (or as brief as I ever get). The first is by one of the lesser-known (and non-prolific) practitioners of the genre, while the others form a late trilogy from one of its best-known authors. I bet some of you are familiar with both.

DOROTHY SMITH, Those Greylands Girls (1944)

Everyone is undoubtedly sick of hearing about my Oxfam shopping on our U.K. trip last October, but despite that I have to note that this was one of my acquisitions there. Along with several other school stories and one or two family adventures, this one was added to my overloaded suitcase at the lovely Oxfam in York with its luscious bookcase full of (mostly dustjacketed) children's titles at bargain prices. And I have to also give credit where credit is due: I would almost certainly have left this one on the shelf if it hadn't been for a morsel of praise given it by Sue Sims and Hilary Clare in their Encyclopaedia of Girls' School Stories. Somehow, that fact stuck in my brain enough for the title to ring a bell when I came across it, and it has turned out to be one of the most entertaining school stories I've come across.

Someone at Nelson
wasn't doing their
job--Greylands is
missing its "s"

The story takes place at Greylands Orphanage, though it's a bit unclear to me what exactly "orphanage" means in the context of a school where only one girl, main character Millicent Lane, has no home to go to during the holidays. Did the word have a different meaning in those days? And if so, what meaning could it have had to differentiate it from a standard boarding-school?

The illustrations by Newton Whitaker are striking

At any rate, Greylands has a rather depressing atmosphere—the girls consider it a matter of principle to dislike the staff (i.e. the "Frightful Foursome") and to obstruct any attempt to improve morale, and therefore remain discontented and unstimulated by their studies. The stage is therefore perfectly set for a transformation tale, but this one is handled in a relatively realistic way, involving a new girl, Pamela Bellamy, who transfers from a more traditional school complete with prefects and games and house cups, and a cheerful new mistress, Miss Fraser, who determines that the surly girls will not get her down. Pamela's welcome is not a warm one, due to a false rumour that she is a relative of the Head, and Miss Fraser's is not warm because, well, because she's staff. But of course things warm up in due course.

The somewhat less realistic part of the school's transformation stems from the school's neighbor, nick-named Mrs Bluebeard, who has often complained of the girls' behavior, but who is suddenly charmed by Millicent when she comes to the rescue of some kittens in her garden. It emerges that not only does Millicent remind Mrs Bluebeard of her long-estranged son, but that Mrs Bluebeard is actually well-known to the girls for her day job. She ends up becoming quite a Lady Bountiful for the school.

If the plotlines are all predictable enough, they only occasionally enter the realm of ridiculousness, and even when they do it's all quite entertaining. What stood out for me was Smith's occasional rather biting humor. We glimpse it during this exchange between two of the staff just before the Christmas holidays:

"They're making an unholy row out there," Miss Sinclair said, after a visit to the playroom," but somehow one doesn't seem inclined to do anything about it. For one thing, I suppose it's a treat to see them looking and behaving naturally for once."

"Or else," said Miss Mercer, "their impending departure makes us view them more benignly. The fact that I shan't see or hear them for fifteen whole days makes me almost like them. What on earth should we do without holidays to look forward to, I wonder?"

And we see it again later on, when Mrs Bluebeard, already conquered by Millicent, offers a bit of "acid" sarcasm when rescuing the school play from drab costumes made from "winceyette nightgowns" (what on earth, pray tell, is winceyette?):

"This," she said, shaking out the silken folds, "was my great-grandmother's wedding dress. It's a crinoline actually, and belongs to a later period than your Quality Street. How will that do for one of your ball dresses?"

She held it out for inspection, and wide-eyed, Millicent gazed at it—a lovely blue taffeta, shot with rose, with great true-lovers' knots embroidered on the skirt.

"You're offering to lend us this gorgeous thing?" Millicent said in awestruck tones.

"No, of course not," was the acid reply. "I'm just showing it to you to reconcile you to the winceyette nightdresses."

This kind of humor only pops up occasionally, but it makes me wonder even more at Smith's real identity. Those Greylands Girls is the only book published under the name Dorothy Smith, and we've never been able to trace her real identity. Could it have been the pseudonym of an author who wrote other books? There is a bit of a polish about it that makes this not entirely implausible, but of course there are plenty of talented authors who only produce a single book. Or perhaps it's a real name, as turned out to be the case with Dorothy Evelyn Smith (who was, in keeping with her predilection for common names, née Jones, no less!). With a name so common, it is sadly likely that we'll never know her real identity, unless a child or grandchild or great-niece happens to recall hearing that her relative once wrote a girls' school story…

JOSEPHINE ELDER, Exile for Annis (1938), Cherry Tree Perch (1939), and Strangers at the Farm School (1940)

I'll bet a few of you who are fans of school stories will have read this trilogy set at the idyllic Farm School. These three books, written just on the cusp of World War II, were nearly the last children's titles written by Josephine Elder, best known for her acclaimed 1929 school story Evelyn Finds Herself (1929), widely considered a classic of the genre. In 1946, she published one final school story, Barbara at School, but then turned to writing four adult novels to supplement the two she had written in the early 1930s. I've written about her two or three times before—see here.

I've had Evelyn on my TBR shelf for ages, but something made me pick these up recently instead. I have a feeling, from what I've heard of the earlier book, that it has a bit more realism about it than the Farm School trilogy, but for the most part I found these to be great fun anyway.

The books focus mainly on Annis Best, who in the first book is transferred to the Farm School against her will following a bout of whooping cough. She is horrified to leave the games and structure of her London school for the laid-back, rule-free environment of the small school run by the large Forester family from their working farm. Annis becomes fast friends with Kitty Forester, whom she helps to draw out of her shell, and comes to enjoy the farmwork and learning the practical skills such work teaches. She learns to ride, works with Kitty to create a canoe from a giant log, and uncovers the Foresters' family secret which has threatened to keep her friendship with Kitty from developing. Of course, by the end of it all Annis decides that the Farm School is the perfect place for her after all, setting up the two sequels, in which Annis learns, with considerable difficulty, to drive a car, is made jealous of a slovenly neighbor woman who captures Kitty's affections, and, in the final volume, helps two Jewish refugees from Germany—the strangers of the title—adapt to their new lives in England.

For the most part, it's all great fun and enjoyable reading. The first book in particular is a fun school story with an enjoyable cast of characters. The other two were also quite pleasant to read, though I have to admit that at times the idealized operations of the Farm School, and the sometimes extended explanations of why everything is so perfect there, did begin to grate on my nerves. The last book, in particular, seemed to focus as much on describing the wonderful school and its policies as on the characters.

Moreover, I can't remember now who of you it was (or perhaps it was a fellow blogger) who mentioned their dislike of Elder's work, but in these books I got a glimpse of one possible reason that might be. When we first meet Annis, we learn that "[s]he disliked on sight all people who were not just like the majority of other people." Presumably, we are to believe that the Farm School has taught her that variety is indeed the spice of life, in people as well as in activities, but there remains a certain intolerance for people with less ambition or self-discipline than she has. In the first book, she and Kitty set about to reform spoiled, fat, gluttonous Peter, helping him get better at sports and become more popular, as well as slimming down and controlling his appetite. All very well, and undoubtedly we see him much happier by the book's end, but some part of me (probably the part that was a fat kid hopelessly bad at—and utterly uninterested in—sports) did cringe a bit at Annis's certainty that she knew best for him.

I also marked this passage from Cherry Tree Perch, which shows Annis's sharp edges:

Annis put Kitty and her doings right out of her head and did her weighing all over again. It came right this time. It wasn't any good letting people and the muddles they made get mixed up with your work.

In many ways, I think I quite agree with Annis here. I've always found that some folks do rather enjoy their muddles, even as they bemoan them, and ensure that the muddles go on and become ever more complicated. (Perhaps that's how some people pass the time we spend on reading?!) However, in this case, the muddled person Annis is thinking of is her best friend, and not at all the sort of person who regularly creates muddles and drags others into them, so Annis's attitude, self-protective as it is in the circumstance, didn't particularly endear her to me.

On the other hand, Elder's work remains one of the only places in early and mid-20th century fiction where one can consistently find smart, motivated, career-minded girls and women who value their education and work and professional goals as highly as men routinely do. In her adult novels, her women professionals mostly end by compromising their careers for romance and motherhood. But in her school stories—even in these idealized late books—her girls are able to eschew romance and retain their ambitions. Even if the girls are occasionally a bit prickly, I can't help loving Elder's works for that reason. If the Farm School trilogy isn't necessarily her best work, it still made for some very pleasant bedtime reading.
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