Friday, February 24, 2017

LESLEY STORM, Great Day (1945)

This play, by the author of the earlier hit Blitz drama Heart of a City (1942), was recommended to me by Grant Hurlock when I was working on my World War II Book List quite a while ago, and it has taken me this long to get round to it. (And though I have a copy of Heart of a City, and was planning to wait until I'd read it so I could discuss both together, I still haven't quite managed that, so I'm making do with a short post about this one.) 

I don't read a lot of plays, for some reason, although I often find that I quite enjoy them when I do. In fact, I don't think I've ever written about one here before. But Great Day was certainly worth the effort of tracking it down, and I thank Grant for suggesting it.

The play is set late in World War II, and follows the action as members of a village Women's Institute frantically prepare the village hall for a visit from Eleanor Roosevelt, about which they are told only one day in advance. It has dramatic undercurrents, but there's plenty of humor as well, as when a rather shallow young wife is sharing her anguish over being called up for service—or else getting pregnant in order to dodge it:

VICKY (Staring tragically into space). Geoffrey—which would you do. Have a baby or go into industry?
GEOFFREY. I wouldn't have much choice.
VICKY. You see I've no experience of whether or not I like children . . . . I used to adore kittens but then when they grow into cats I couldn't be bothered with them.
(She thinks this over. GEOFFREY getting on with his work. She is more or less talking to herself.)
Suppose I felt the same about a baby? . . . . . It would be too shattering for the poor little brat.
GEOFFREY (Casually). Why don't you give up introspection and let nature take its course.
VICKY (Startled). Nature? Oh darling! I couldn't have nature sneaking up on me.

There are various other plot strands: a soldier home on leave who discovers his sweetheart engaged to a local farmer; the farmer's sister who worries she won't be wanted anymore once he's married; the local diva who fancies she should greet Mrs. Roosevelt with a rousing rendition of the Star-Spangled Banner, and the other women's attempts to suppress it; a woman whose son has been missing in action for a month; the little girl who is supposed to greet Mrs. Roosevelt but has no decent dress to wear; and the espousal of various political positions and the gentle pointing out of their contradictions. All of which forms the backdrop for the women's frantic preparations for Mrs. Roosevelt.

It's enormously entertaining from beginning to end, and makes a perfect companion to Marghanita Laski's novel The Village—not to mention the television drama Home Fires (based on the book Jambusters: The Story of the Women's Institute in the Second World War, by Julie Summers). 

It's a bit sad that there seems to be little interest in retrieving and reading plays by women (or, in most cases, apart from the very biggest names, even by men), as there are undoubtedly more little treasures like this one to be unearthed. There is undoubtedly some extra effort involved in reading plays, as all the fleshing out and visualizing that would normally take place on the stage must instead take place inside the reader's head. But I wonder if part of the reason more readers (including myself) don't often engage with plays is simply because they're so difficult to track down now.

I'll share one more exchange between two of the women, which is humorous though not hilarious, but one can really clearly see this conversation happening in numerous real life settings all during the war:

Miss FISHER. Where is the eggless cake you made, Mrs. Tracy?
MRS. TRACY. In the kitchen . . . . I put one egg in it to make it look better.
MISS FISHER (Shocked). An egg ? Then you can't call it an eggless cake.
MRS. TRACY (Patiently). It is. It's the eggless cake recipe-with just one egg added for a special
occasion like this.
Miss FISHER. The idea was to demonstrate to Mrs. Roosevelt a good cake entirely devoid of eggs.
MRS. TRACY. The idea was to make an eggless cake-to which I added one egg for appearance sake.
Miss FISHER. Then the cake becomes a deliberate deception.
MRS. TRACY. I beg your pardon.
Miss FISHER. (Ruthlessly logical). A fake.
MRS. TRACY. I beg your pardon, Miss Fisher.
Miss FISHER. (Stolidly). An eggless cake with an egg in it is nothing else than a whited sepulchre, Mrs. Tracy.
MRS. TRACY. Really, Miss Fisher! (Very testy). I've never heard of such an illogical attitude.

By the way, in addition to being a stage success, Great Day was immediately turned into a film, also from 1945, starring Flora Robson (who also had roles in Wuthering Heights, Black Narcissus, and an Ingrid Bergman film called Saratoga Trunk, for which she received an Oscar nomination) and Sheila Sim (best known for A Canterbury Tale and as the wife of Richard Attenborough), alongside many others whose names don't ring any bells, though I'm sure I would recognize some of the faces, at least, from other films. 

There was, however, one cast member, both in the play and the film, whose name appears on my Overwhelming List. Irene Handl, who later published two novels of her own, played the role of Mrs. Beale in the stage production, though her character in the film is credited (according to IMDB) only as "Lady serving tea in tea stall." Perhaps some of her part ended up on the cutting room floor! Sadly, the film doesn't appear to be much easier to track down than the play itself.

Friday, February 17, 2017

RUMER GODDEN, China Court (1960) & A Fugue in Time (1945)

Well, it's only February, but I definitely know one book that belongs on this year's Furrowed Middlebrow Dozen. I've been planning for a while to get back to reading Rumer Godden. She has long been one of my favorite authors, but somehow, quite stupidly, I had complacently assumed that I had already read all of her best work—The Greengage Summer, Kingfishers Catch Fire, An Episode of Sparrows, The River, Black Narcissus—amazing and magical books all, and that's not to mention her two riveting memoirs, which I highly recommend.

Somehow I had it in mind that China Court was one of her lesser novels and might prove a disappointment after all of those brilliant books. It wasn't until the seductive new Virago editions became irresistibly cheap at Book Depository (every cloud has a silver lining—buying books from the UK has been cheaper than ever since Brexit weakened the pound…) that I finally gave it a chance. And was completely sucked in and unable to put it down for all of last weekend, then immediately moved on to A Fugue in Time.

Among other things, these two novels reinforced for me just how experimental Rumer Godden manages to be, even while remaining accessible, character-rich, and utterly compelling as a storyteller. Her books might be called Modernist Lite. And the two books do have more in common than the fact that I've read them both in the past week. In many ways, they utilize the same technique—Godden telling the stories of several generations of one family, not chronologically but rather weaving them together, all in the present tense, into one elegant, lovely tapestry. But Fugue seems like an initial attempt to achieve what China Court accomplishes brilliantly, and although Fugue seems to have been popular and well-received when it appeared, I wonder if perhaps Godden was unsatisfied with her initial experiment. Or if she merely felt, fifteen years later, that she knew how to do it more smoothly and successfully. And indeed she did!

The technique is crucial here. When I say that she tells the stories of multiple characters from different generations, all in the present tense and all interspersed together, it sounds like it could be rather chaotic. And indeed, initially there are some startling moments, such as this line from page 5:

The Eagle has flues that Bella cannot wrestle with but Cecily understands it: 'I ought to, I have known it for nearly fifty years,' ever since, at fourteen years old, she comes - 'as kitchen maid then,' says Cecily - from Wales.

Fifty years ago, but "she comes," not "she came." Or this one just one page later:

Though books nowadays are sold with their pages cut, she still keeps a paper knife in the shape of a sword on the table, the hilt damascened in black and gold; John Henry, her husband, gives it to her, long ago in Toledo.

But it's a testament to Godden's skill as a storyteller that these moments serve as cues, and one gets the hang of her technique so quickly that by a few pages later it became—for me at least—second nature, as if I'd been reading novels written this way all my life, with characters who lived at different times both acting in the present tense within the same paragraph, or even in the same sentence. And the effect it all creates—the events in one character's life reflecting off of those in her grandfather's, or the fate of another character lending deeper meaning to a moment in her descendant's childhood—is so intricate and lovely that it practically shimmers.

As much as I love the technique, though, and as astonishing as it is that Godden was able to pull it off so compellingly and even suspensefully, giving us bits and pieces that gradually build until I was practically gasping to see what she could do next, it's really the characters that make the novel so special. Here as elsewhere, Godden's women absolutely step off the page, living and breathing—you can practically feel the draft as they pass you by.

I loved all the characters here, even the ones who were deeply flawed (Godden excels at making one forgive her character's flaws and love them anyway). But one in particular, and indeed one of the most flawed, stood out for me. Eliza, the great-great-aunt of the modern day Tracy, who returns to the house following her grandmother's death, is surely one of the most poignant spinsters anywhere in literature. For her frustrations and anger, which make her undoubtedly difficult to live with (and which lead her eventually to become fabulously dishonest in a way few readers will condemn her for) stem from the stifling limitations she faces as an intelligent woman in a society that has no place for her:

Eliza will not get up because she does not want to get up. 'What is there to get up for?' asks Eliza.

Anne is up early to practise before breakfast. Her piano playing - 'never very good,' says Eliza - is the solitary accomplishment left of all that Eliza and Anne bring back from school where, at Eliza's continual 'worritting' as Polly calls it, they are sent for a year, to be 'finished'. 'Finished, we haven't started yet!' says Eliza.

'We learned some French, which we shall never speak, the use of the globes, for places we shall never see, and we brought it all home in a portmanteau of pride,' says Eliza.

Indeed, her eventual descent into dishonesty (which I won't give away here, as it's so much fun to read about) is a central and far-reaching plot development which will reverberate in the novel's present, with modern day Tracy, seeking her own unlikely happiness at China Court.

In fact, a good many of the women who have lived at China Court have had tragic lives, though this doesn't make the novel ultimately any less uplifting. Somehow, Godden was able to remind me at times both of the Brontës and of William Faulkner (of all things), and yet there's a fundamentally hopeful, compassionate perspective in the novel that's quite diffferent from those darker works.

At any rate, enough said. I loved it. I'm planning to read it again soon. If you haven't read it (or, heaven forbid, if you haven't read anything by Godden yet), then for Pete's sake get a copy and read it.

As I mentioned, from China Court I immediately went on to read the earlier A Fugue in Time, and I also quite enjoyed it. It felt familiar to me after China Court, and the technique and characters are similarly seductive. But for me, there's just no comparison. Fugue has many of the same elements, but the technique seemed to me not nearly so polished. For example, one of the strategies Godden uses here to evoke all the different periods in the house's past is to make lists—lists of sounds the house has heard over the years, of all the types of notes that have been written, of people passing by outside the house, of the various possessions of the house, of holidays celebrated, of births and deaths in the house. Some of these are quite interesting, mind you, but they do rather slow the pace and force you out of the novel's narrative.

There are also vividly portrayed women here, and Selina, neglected daughter and frustrated woman, is a sort of rough draft of Eliza in the later book, and Griselda, who, adapting to managing a house, ordering meals, supervising servants, worries that the house will consume all her life and energy, is a striking character herself.

There is much to like in Fugue, and I suspect that if I had read it first I would have enjoyed it even more. But for me, there's no doubt that China Court is the richer, more lively, and more brilliantly executed novel. As such, I can't recommend it highly enough.

(On the other hand, author Jo Walton wrote in more detail about Fugue here, and it was interesting to read someone's take who clearly loves the earlier book more than the latter.)

Saturday, February 11, 2017

More Sylvia

Well, so far my not-quite-resolution to finally read more of Sylvia Townsend Warner seems to be coming to some fruition—unlike most other resolutions I've ever made. I already reported in January on her wartime stories, and now I've read Claire Harman's excellent biography of Warner and finally read her second novel, Mr Fortune's Maggot, which I had a previous false start with.

In fact, the bio may well have helped me in engaging a bit more with Mr Fortune, though I was, as always, a bit conflicted in reading it. Bios are, after all, the one form of storytelling that always ends in the death of the main character. It's true that Hemingway once famously noted, to a woman who criticized his work for being too bleak, that all stories, continued far enough, end in death, but somehow bios are particularly depressing for me. I always feel that I've become close friends with the subject of the bio (if I like them, at least), and then, just when we've got well acquainted, I have to watch them grow old and die.

If anything, this biography was more gruelling than most in that respect, since although Warner lived into her eighties, she lost her wife of nearly 40 years, Valentine Ackland, nine years before she herself died and was haunted (almost literally) by Ackland and thoughts of their life together for much of that time. What's more, Warner was brilliant at analyzing her grief and her own gradual decline in her diaries, as in this darkly funny passage from a letter to David Garnett:

Do you ever feel the childishness of old age? I don't mean second-childhood, but the particular childish excitement at being able to do things dexterously?—to pour out milk without spilling it, to put things back in their proper places, to be capable and responsible? It is a pure pride, as it was then. I only get it occasionally, and it lasts like morning dew.

And so, while I certainly found some inspiration in how bravely and self-deprecatingly she carried on, having it so often in Sylvia's own words was even a bit more like watching a friend go through it all first hand.

But really that's true of almost any biography, which may be why I tend to shy away from them. But Claire Harman, who has also published bios of Robert Louis Stevenson, Fanny Burney, and, most recently, Charlotte Brontë, does an excellent job here of bringing out both the mundane domestic lives of Sylvia and Valentine and the larger trajectories of their lives, political engagement, friendships, families, and marriage. 

There was much to enjoy here, including the fascinating dynamic between Sylvia and Valentine, who, I think, might have been a difficult person for me to like, but on the other hand what I saw as her more neurotic and perhaps selfish approach to life may well have complemented Sylvia's instincts to love and give and be flexible.

The excerpts from Sylvia's diaries provide some of Sylvia's wonderful turns of phrase, as when she writes of a home they lived in for a time, "The east wind sobs and whimpers like a Brontë in the kitchen." And I was tantalized to learn of at least three novels begun at various times and abandoned—do manuscripts survive, I immediately wonder? Two of these fell by the wayside while she was at work on The Corner That Held Them, the medieval nunnery novel that I love but have never quite managed to finish. And a long story Harman describes from the same period clearly does survive and sounds fascinating:

In 1948 Sylvia began another story, set in contemporary England, about a Swedish au-pair girl arriving at the country home of her new employer to find that the lady is dying. The first, completed, part of 'Song Without Words' is among the best things that Sylvia wrote, psychologically compelling and remarkably evocative of an English winter landscape, but the second part of the story ran dry, and was shelved.

Of course, since I still have so much of Warner's published work to read, I need hardly be bemoaning the lost and unfinished work, but you know how I am—the less available something is, the more enticing I seem to find it.

I was interested to see what a dramatic effect the arrival into Sylvia's life of The New Yorker had. Despite her early bestsellerdom with Lolly Willowes, by a few years later her and Valentine's finances had become a bit hand-to-mouth, until someone suggested that some story of village life Sylvia was telling in conversation would make a perfect story for The New Yorker, and the rest (along with any and all financial difficulties) was history. She died a rather well-off woman, if not actually wealthy, despite the fact that most of her work was out of print, and the reason was all those hefty paychecks from the Big Apple.

And in following up on my recent post about her wartime stories, there were two diary entries related to the war that I found particularly interesting. The first, a classic eccentric mother-in-law story, is Sylvia describing the rather overeager war work taken on by Valentine's mother:

In her ardour for service she has undertaken the charge of so many things that as far as I can reckon she will be essential in five different places at once; and as she attains terrific velocity, fells whatever stands in her path, and is permanently fitted with a screaming device like a German bomb, she will create incalculable havoc amid both defenders and attackers, besides spraining her ankle and getting very much out of breath. I often think that Mrs Ackland is the real reason why Hitler has not yet tried a landing on the East Coast. She thinks so, too. It is very odd to look at all these poor consequential idiots and remember that war might at any moment make real mincemeat of them. Even under the shadow of death man walketh in a vain shadow.

And finally, less amusingly but revealingly for an American whose list of top historic moments to travel in space and time to visit, given the opportunity, has always included, pretty high up the list, Trafalgar Square on V-E night, here's Valentine's own assessment of the moment:

'I was sure we would all collapse, perhaps die of joy,' Valentine wrote. 'Instead it feels as if we had all died of fatigue and impacted rage before the joy came ... Probably there'll be photographs of drunken crowds in Piccadilly and reverent crowds in village churches—They won't be true—they won't be representative!'

When peace was finally declared, Valentine wrote, 'we both felt peculiarly tired and perhaps we were rather particularly polite to each other. I had to work, which was ordinary, but I felt odd and unreal [ ... ] And most profoundly, indistinctly gloomy.

After finishing the bio, I dived right into reading Mr Fortune's Maggot, Warner's follow-up to my favorite novel of all time, Lolly Willowes. I had indeed attempted to read it once before and was unsuccessful. This time, I enjoyed the book a lot, though it certainly doesn't rank, for me, with dear, dear Lolly. To complete the segue, I loved this note in the biography about Warner deep in the throes of composing Mr Fortune:

In the middle of writing the storm on the island, she took William the chow out for his midnight walk and had got half-way down Inverness Terrace under a raincoat and umbrella before she noticed that in Bayswater it was a mild autumn night.

Mr Fortune is a well-meaning but rather feckless missionary, who asks to be allowed to venture to the impossibly remote island of Fanua, somewhere in the neighborhood of New Guinea, in order to gain converts. In short, he only manages a single convert, and that one, a boy named Lueli, perhaps a tentative one at best. The two live rather idyllically together in a hut in the shadow of a volcano, and Mr Fortune's eagerness to make other converts among the tribe gradually withers amidst the islanders cheerful indifference and happy lifestyle.

Undoubtedly Mr Fortune's watch, which he forgets to wind one night long after his arrival on the island, is an important symbol in the novel—perhaps not only for his abilities as a missionary but also for his faith itself, which seems to become displaced, "fraudulent," by his isolation with the cheerful natives:

But what time was it? The sky was overcast, he could not guess by the sun and he could not guess by his own time-feeling either, for his body had lost touch with ordinary life. He sat debating between nine-seventeen, five past ten, ten-forty-three, eleven-twenty—indecisive times which all seemed reasonably probable—and noon exactly, which was bracing and decisive, a good moment to begin a new era—but too good to be true. At last he settled on ten-twenty-five; but even so he still delayed, for he felt a superstitious reluctance to move the hands and so to destroy the last authentic witness his watch could bear him. Five minutes, he judged, had been spent in this weak-minded dallying: so resolutely he set the hands to ten-thirty and wound the poor machine up. It began to tick, innocently, obediently. It had set out on its fraudulent career.

I was also struck by Warner again using in Mr Fortune's Maggot the idea of names and the power of naming, as she did so prominently in Lolly Willowes. And here too the power of naming seems to be humorously undercut. The idea of a missionary arriving on an island and assigning his convert a new name is one that grates on my nerves, but I'm not sure, in this passage, that the object of the name is taking it any too seriously:

For a long while he stood lost in thankfulness. At last he bade the kneeling boy get up.

'What is your name?' he said.

'Lueli,' answered the boy.

'I have given you a new name, Lueli. I have called you Theodore, which means "the gift of God."'

Lueli smiled politely.

'Theodore,' repeated Mr. Fortune impressively.

I love that polite smile in the face of Mr Fortune's "impressive" pomposity. And just as Warner played in the early novel with the use of "Lolly" vs. "Laura," here the fact that the name Theodore never appears except when spoken by Mr Fortune—in the text, Lueli is always Lueli—makes clear how much of an impact Lueli's Christian name has had on him.

On this second reading, I found the novel entertaining throughout, but my favorite passage by far is when Mr Fortune attempts to instruct Lueli in greater depth about Christian scripture:

Since the teaching had to be entirely conversational, Lueli learnt much that was various and seemingly irrelevant. Strange alleys branched off from the subject in hand, references and similes that strayed into the teacher's discourse as the most natural things in the world had to be explained and enlarged upon. In the middle of an account of Christ's entry into Jerusalem Mr. Fortune would find himself obliged to break off and describe a donkey. This would lead naturally to the sands of Weston-super-Mare, and a short account of bathing-machines; and that afternoon he would take his pupil down to the beach and show him how English children turned sand out of buckets, and built castles with a moat round them. Moats might lead to the Feudal System and the Wars of the Barons. Fighting Lueli understood very well, but other aspects of civilisation needed a great deal of explaining; and Mr. Fortune nearly gave himself heat apoplexy by demonstrating in the course of one morning the technique of urging a golf ball out of a bunker and how English housewives crawl about on their hands and knees scrubbing the linoleum.

Perhaps a problematic sort of teacher to have if one wants to get anywhere in particular.

Mr Fortune's Maggot is actually in print these days, wonder of wonders, from Virago in the U.K. and from New York Review Books Classics in the U.S. Oddly, though, there is one important difference between the editions that folks might want to know about. The NYRB edition, now retitled simply Mr Fortune (perhaps the "maggot" was judged a bit offputting for bookstore shelves?), also contains "The Salutation," the novella sequel Warner wrote in 1932. My edition being an old green Virago from the 1980s, I had to track down the original story collection for which "The Salutation" was the title story, and I've now had a jolly time reading the entire collection as well. This makes about five Warner titles that I've read in rapid succession, which reflects far more focus on my part the last month or so than I am generally capable of.

If you do have a non-NYRB edition of the book, you may want to try to track down "The Salutation," which I found generally lighter, more cheerful, and more entertaining than the novel itself, though perhaps less powerful overall. In short, Mr Fortune, having left his idyllic island, has made his way exhaustingly to somewhere in South America, where he faints in the backyard of a lonely widow's house.

There are lots of entertaining passages in the novella (as well as, I have to admit, a slightly bewildering ending, but that didn't take too much away from my overall enjoyment), but I was particularly struck by the following passage, which says a lot about violence and intolerance and may be of particular relevance in the current post-Brexit Trumpian catastrophe. It follows a scene in which Timothy has been happily observing a rhea (related to the ostrich and emu) when it is suddenly shot dead by his hostess' dreadful nephew:

There was no need to look for the motive. Opposite slays opposite, as fire and water writhe in their combat, as lion and lamb wage their implacable enmity. Slender, fiercely erect, racked with youth and pride, the boy with the fun stood in a trance of hatred, defying a world of rheas, a world of harmlessness, dowdiness, ungainliness. There could be no mistaking his intent. Apollo could not have bent his bow with a more divine single-mindedness to destroy; and seeing him, the impulse of blame was quenched in the man's heart. One might as well have blamed a flash of lightning.

There is a second novella in the collection, "Elinor Barley," which I have to confess I found a bit dull. In general, the stories are not as strong as in Warner's later collections, but there is certainly a quirky charm with occasional echoes of Lolly Willowes. "The Son," about an anti-social woman who has served as caretaker of a large family home for more than 20 years, disconcerted by the return of the family's son, who seems to have been driven mad by his hatred for his mother, is a small masterpiece of atmosphere and oddity. Ditto "The Maze," in which a man moves to a small village, discovers that a 17th century memorial ignored by villagers has a forgotten maze of ditches around it, and becomes obsessed with mapping the maze, to the villagers' consternation. And "The Holy War," about a piously autocratic man who sets out to write a book annotating all the places where the atheistic Edward Gibbon went wrong in his Decline and Fall, only to become seduced by Gibbon and have his entire personality changed, is a humorous testimony to the power of books to disrupt and sometimes undercut our beliefs and our lives.

So what next in my reading of the divine Sylvia? More of her stories for sure, but perhaps I'll also move on to her third novel, The True Heart (1929). Hmmm…

Monday, February 6, 2017


One of my not-quite-resolutions this year was that I wanted to really get back into exploring and documenting some properly obscure authors. Now, I know you might be thinking that's like a lizard in Death Valley saying he's resolved to move somewhere warmer. I'm always a bit on the obscure side, but I mean that I'm ready to put some wear on the library card with dusty old loans from off-site storage units at libraries in places like Memphis and Saskatchewan. Retirement and relocation from San Francisco to some place cheaper are both still years and years away (sadly), but who knows how long it will be until even San Francisco's well-funded library system cuts back on its Interlibrary Loan resources, or until libraries in places like Memphis and Saskatchewan decide to close down their off-site storage facilities. (For that matter, there's a fairly good chance that our maniacal comic book villain of a president will soon be triggering a nuclear armageddon or other catastrophic world events.) So, in short, I want to max out my resources to obtain the most obscure books that seem potentially of interest while I still can…

The flip side of this literary archaeology, of course, is that not all buried treasure is worth digging up.

Regular readers of this blog know that I am not one of those bloggers who relishes disliking books as much as they do enjoying them. In fact, for better or worse I tend to feel it almost as a personal failure when I can't engage with a book on some level. But it does happen occasionally nevertheless, and when a book is at a certain level of obscurity, I feel I should document it here for the sake of other readers, on the off chance that someone else will come across the book someday and wonder. So, with that glowing recommendation of this scintillating post, here come two confessions about recent failures from among the most deeply-buried obscurities.

MARIGOLD WATNEY, Amberley Close (1950)

I ask you. How many of you would have been able to resist a dustjacket and cover blurb like the ones shown here?

I acquired this book a couple of years ago, actually, though it's taken me forever to get around to it. I think it was part of a World of Rare Books order I did after some small windfall or other, and if I'm remembering it correctly, it was part of the same order that brought me Josephine Kamm's Peace, Perfect Peace and Maude Forsey's Mollie Hazeldene's Schooldays, so overall the order was a successful one, even if this title sadly failed to live up to its charming cover art.

Amberley Close is a bit like the love child of a D. E. Stevenson novel and Peyton Place—a bit too much melodrama for my taste, thank you very much. And yet somehow I found myself continuing to turn the pages, so Watney certainly does have some storytelling ability. It's just an odd mix of rather cheerful, humorous characters with darker, more sordid melodrama.

The story centers around the residents of a London close, the remnants of an old, much larger estate, still ruled over by The Old House, owned by the last survivor of its old family, the rather sad Lady Ambleworth. The grounds surrounding the old house having been sold by Lady Ambleworth's father, the houses of the close were built with a large shared private garden behind (i.e. private from the outside world, shared by the residents of the close).

These residents include Lady Ambleworth's overly-sheltered adopted daughter Jenny; Dr. Steve Mayne, his wife Louise and daughter Charlotte; the close gardener and his wife, who does housework and takes in lodgers; said lodgers, the new rector of the parish and a young solicitor; Justin McAlister, a Scotsman recovering from an accident and awaiting word about a spot on his lung; and the terrible Miss Pendenny, acidly judgmental and in hot pursuit of the parish to be her long-awaited husband. And then there's No. 13, which has been turned into a hostel for unwed mothers.

All of which sounds promising enough, and indeed at her best Watney is quite charming and even, in a couple of places, very funny. Her assessment of Miss Pendenny ("Like most people who live utterly aimless and empty lives, Miss Pendenny kept a diary.") made me laugh out loud, as did this exchange between Justin and Bruce Horton, the dull, hapless new rector:

"It's quite an art keeping friendships at the right tempo. Congenial companionship is delightful, but it is a good thing not to give too much of oneself. Keep something back. Badly put, I'm afraid, but you know what I mean."

"I do, I do," lied Bruce, who had nothing to give anyone except a catalogue of woes or a schedule of his day's activities. With him it was never a question of keeping back but how much he could give out before his listener walked away.

Sadly, however, these moments are few and far between, and Watney allows the novel to be bogged down in a sordid melodrama involving the Maynes. Steve is a quintessential lovable philanderer (Watney's perspective, not mine—Louise's justifications of Steve's behavior as something he can't help is one of the book's most cringeworthy elements), but has become mixed up with the wrong woman, an actress who, when he attempts to leave her, threatens to destroy him, which leads to much wringing of hands, threats, and tragedy. All of which I found rather slow going.

It's not a terrible book by any means, but unlike all those posts where I've raved about how I can't believe a book is out of print, here I'm quite willing to say I understand perfectly why this novel of Watney's, at any rate, has not been rediscovered. Are there better books by her out there? She wrote more than a dozen novels in all, most of them vanishingly rare these days. Laugh When You Can (1945) was described by a bookseller as a murder mystery set in an English village, and I confess I'm tempted to give that one a go as well. The cover of that book and some of her others are quite enticing. On the other hand, so was this one…

ROMILLY CAVAN, Characters in Order of Appearance (1938)

I first approached Romilly Cavan's work via Beneath the Visiting Moon (1940), set just on the cusp of World War II, and it promptly became one of my favorite books of 2016, garnering inclusion on my year-end Furrowed Middlebrow Dozen. I really can't recommend it enough, especially for fans of Diana Tutton's Guard Your Daughters. But then, high on my triumph with Cavan's final novel, I got hold of a copy of Characters in Order of Appearance (1938), and oh, the difference a couple of years make!

American artist James McNeill Whistler apparently once quipped, in reference to novelist Henry James, that "he chews more than he bites off." (And if you've read much James, you'll probably have to admit that you understand what he means even if you don't agree with it). That's much how I felt about this novel as well. But what makes it so frustrating, instead of just a purely bad book that can be easily dismissed, is that the book's opening section—in which young playwright Mark Brown pays a visit to an English village and encounters the eccentric Verity family, including their youngest daughter Moira, destined to be his wife—seemed to have almost as much potential as Visiting Moon. The characters were charming and likable, the writing was witty and fun, there was a sophisticated cynicism about the world.

Even when the book's second section, taking place several years later, began, I was keeping an open mind. Clearly, each section of the book would jump a few years into the future and trace the development of the various characters. And Cavan seems to have had some serious intentions—exploring the ways people and love change over time, professional women and the difficulties they face, the challenges of the creative life. But sadly, instead of having anything profound to say about these things, Cavan lets things just blandly and repetitively go on until one hates the characters and wishes they could all board the Titanic at their earliest convenience.


On the brighter side, Cavan is at her best when describing the behaviors and feelings of young girls on the brink of adulthood—first Angel and then Moira come through vividly, entertainingly, and poignantly early in the novel. But in later sections, as she traces a happy romance and a marriage only gradually strained by the Moira’s greater professional success, the tone—though it’s obvious Cavan is going for something quite serious in her careful dissection of the couple’s emotional life—rarely rises above the level of a basic romance (and becomes repetitive and cloying even at that).

But perhaps Cavan realized where her greatest strengths lay, at least belatedly, since by the time she gets round to Beneath the Visiting Moon, she keeps the focus firmly on a young girl just coming of age, and successfully manages all the brilliant, touching, entertaining things she must have been striving for with Characters.

I can imagine most of you shrugging your shoulders and thinking, "Okay, well, no one has even heard of Romilly Cavan anyway, so who cares if she wrote a bad book." Touché. 
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