Thursday, August 31, 2017

IDA GANDY, Staying with the Aunts (1963)

This one was a library book sale acquisition a year or two back, and it has the unique (for this blog) characteristic of being readily available in inexpensive second-hand copies, having been reprinted, along with at least two more of Gandy's books, by Sutton Publishing in 1989.

I think I picked up this book because it reminded me of Gwen Raverat's marvelous Period Piece, which I wrote about here. And while I can't say that Gandy's book is as good as Raverat's (which let's face it is in a class by itself), it is nevertheless quite entertaining and provides similarly revealing glimpses of Victorian life.

Gandy's memoir is focused on recalling the times she and her siblings spent visiting her five spinster aunts near the New Forest. There are a number of humorous moments, but Gandy really isn't trying to be as hilarious as Raverat. Indeed, some of what Gandy the adult is able to understand about what she witnessed as a child is quite poignant. For example, there is Aunt Margaret, the artistic sister, who frequently retires to her room to work on her masterpiece. Over time, it becomes clear that this painting will never be completed:

On the days when inspiration failed she might be seen wandering about the rose-garden in a floppy hat with a deep black veil fluttering down behind, while she snipped off dead roses and looked unusually bent and forlorn. What would have happened had she ever truly finished 'The Wings of the Morning' it is impossible to guess. But the sad truth must be told. What started, I think, as a genuine inspiration, with a certain ethereal quality in the upward-sweeping clouds, became at last a heavy, lifeless picture that could never be finished because the initial impetus had run out long ago. And so it was with Aunt Margaret herself.

Elsewhere Gandy has noted Aunt Margaret's surreptitious gluttony at the tea table, all the while maintaining that she has little appetite. But now we get a glimpse of the frustration for which she is compensating:

Twice in talking of Aunt Margaret I have used the words 'if only'—if only this, if only that. But the biggest 'if only' may perhaps have been her rejection—or her parents' rejection—of her single proposal of marriage. When she was still young an expert arrived to clean the Gainsborough. Encouraged by her interest in his work and by her artistic talent he asked her to marry him. What her personal feeling for him may have been is unknown, but at all events she acquiesced in the decision that a girl in her position could not ally herself with a picture-cleaner.

Had she accepted his proposal the horrid metamorphosis that overtook her might have been averted. As it was, malice and a natural tendency to greed increased. Each week, in the solitude of her bedroom, she devoured a pound of clotted cream sent from Cornwall. Dante, Milton, Ruskin, stood untouched on her shelves. Venus rose unnoticed behind the tulip tree. 'The Wings of the Morning' grew dusty on its easel. Yet still she tried to keep alive an illusion that she moved in an ethereal world that few could enter.

Most of the chapters of the book focus on Gandy's personal recollections of her aunts, and they are interesting and charming. But the final chapter tells of what she learned after inheriting a large number of letters from the sisters' home after the last aunt's death. The letters provide her with some of the missing pieces in her aunts' lives, and this passage, about the stern Aunt Selina, is for me the most poignant of all:

We had often puzzled over why she buried herself so much in her little den, why we heard her laugh so rarely, why she always seemed to be wrestling with God when she prayed. These early letters provided an unhappy clue. For in them I found a saddening picture of a small helpless child washed and beaten by the fierce wave of evangelism that had engulfed her mother and her aunts at this time.

Her mother, just recovered from severe illness, describes herself as 'a brand snatched from the burning', begs her sister to pray that she has not been chastised in vain … .

She was at this time a happy, busy young woman of twenty-eight. Not content with her own conversion she turns her anxious attention on 'little Lin', barely four years old, and talks to her of the 'heinousness of sin'. In this she is backed up by her eldest sister-in-law, then staying at Baverstock. This aunt records in her confession-book her joy at seeing 'the dear child so softened by grace for the sin of disobedience that she was overcome by tears that checked her utterance of "Forgive me, Lord, for Thy dear Son, The ills that I this day have done" ... May she be an example to her dear little sisters, and, cherished by the dews of the Spirit, become a Tree of Righteousness.'

This pious hope reminded me of how I used to liken my Aunt to a closely-clipped evergreen that bore no flowers.

Selina's mother couldn't have become more of a walking, talking Victorian stereotype if she had tried!

Staying with the Aunts is a quick and enjoyable read, and if you have an interest in Victorian family life and in the way children understand and misunderstand the generations that go before them, you may well want to check it out. Gandy's other books include a memoir of her own childhood, A Wiltshire Childhood (1929), Round About the Little Steeple: The Story of a Downland Village and Its Parson in the Seventeenth Century (1960), and The Heart of a Village: An Intimate History of Aldbourne (1975), all of which were also reprinted by Sutton. When the memoir or history urge next hits me, I may have to check out some of those. Gandy also published a couple of earlier children's books, which was enough to qualify her for inclusion on my list. 

One little tidbit that I enjoyed in reading this book. Gandy's father was the vicar of Bishop's Cannings, and somewhere along the way he finds himself preaching part of the time in Salisbury Cathedral. I don't pretend to know the ins and outs of church structure or responsibility, or exactly why he would have temporarily been giving services in Salisbury, but regardless, it gives Gandy a vague connection to Edith Olivier, who lived in Salisbury with her canon father. Gandy doesn't specify the dates, so it's hard to know if they would have known one another or even known of one another, but loving Salisbury Cathedral as I do, it's always fun to read about people getting to hang out there.

I should also mention that the illustrations, by Lynton Lamb, are quite charming and sometimes very amusing. I particularly liked this portrayal of one of the children viewing Aunt Margaret's masterpiece—look closely at the expression on her face.

I also like this one of the aunts tucking up their dresses on a walk to keep them from getting mud-spattered.

And finally, just one more quotation that shows the changing mores between Gandy's elderly aunts and her own generation:

Sunday at home was one thing; at Eling quite another. To begin with, apart from a ban on tennis and croquet, we could play such games and read such books as we pleased in our Wiltshire vicarage. But there was quite a storm when we took Ludo from the Blue Room cupboard and were caught in the very act of throwing the dice. At home we read what we pleased, but the Aunts only allowed stories with a high moral purpose. The Fairchild Family was a particular favourite of theirs and this posed us with an awkward problem. For my mother always treated it as a humorous work and read it aloud with the sole object of extracting as much amusement as possible from its more ludicrous passages. But the Aunts took it in perfect seriousness.

Has anyone read The Fairchild Family? I recall attempting it at one point, having come across another mention of it somewhere, and very quickly throwing in the towel…

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Missing that special "je ne sais quoi" (BARBARA WORSLEY-GOUGH, EILIS DILLON)

Here are two books—one quite obscure, the other not nearly so hard to find—that are really perfectly fine, but didn't inspire me to rave about them in my usual style.

BARBARA WORSLEY-GOUGH, A Feather in Her Cap (1936)

This is another book that's been on my TBR list for ages, ever since I came across some reviews of Worsley-Gough's work when I was researching her for my list. She published nine novels in all, including two mysteries—Alibi Innings (1954), which has the relatively unique characteristic of being set in the world of cricket, and Lantern Hill (1957), which seems to take place in the pop music industry. The other novels all appear to be cheerful romantic comedies. A Feather in Her Cap, Worsley-Gough's fourth novel, was the low-hanging fruit, as our local library could easily acquire it.

As you can see from the jacket flaps, which were, happily, glued inside my library copy of the book, the plot revolves around a group of perky, well-to-do young Brits travelling to Salzburg, Austria for a music festival. There's the glamorous Delia Temple-Cheyne and her somewhat elusive husband Rupert. There's David Herald, who is allowed to worship Delia and frequently serve as her companion at parties without ever getting too close, and Helen Garland, whose mother is a passionate defender of women's rights but who is herself perhaps a bit more traditional than she'd like to think. And there's Joanna Nichols, a flighty but fun-loving girl, and Michael Park, a slightly surly young man trying to disentangle himself from Helen's mistaken belief that he has fallen for her. 

These six young people also encounter Miss Talbot, a prudish friend of Helen's mother's, Mr. Wiggins, a schoolmaster, the cynical American Baroness Birkendorf-Speed and her gigolos, and the fabulously wealthy Venetia, a glamorous friend of Delia's, whose carelessly casual mothering of "the Heir" seems to content him more than his nurses's fussing. Not to mention the controlling Frau Hofer, who runs their hotel and has definite ideas of how illicit romances should be conducted (even if, as in this case, the parties in question aren't actually romantically involved).

The plot is silly and romantic, full of misunderstandings and youthful exuberance. It's entertaining and sometimes hilarious. In fact, it's a bit like Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises crossed with a screwball comedy. One could see Carole Lombard and Cary Grant in it. And yet, although that sounds like the perfect sort of novel to make me giggle away a Saturday afternoon, there was something missing here. It was a little like watching a well-done school production of Shakespeare, with all the edgier scenes removed and the students charming and smart but somehow lacking charisma. When I started reading it, I expected to find it impossible to put down, but in fact I found it perfectly easy to put down for almost any other distraction.

Considering the time in which this novel was published, and the fact that the festive travellers must pass through Nazi Germany on their way to Salzburg, it's perhaps a little surprising how little any of them are concerned. They mock Hitler a bit, and joke about how any kind of fun is "verboten" in Germany, but ultimately they take the political situation as casually as fun-loving youngsters generally do. One of the Baroness's gigolos does exclaim, "That frightful National Socialism—all that barbarity! It makes me quite ill to think of it," but then cheerfully goes on about his business. And Helen's mother, paying a visit late in their trip, bemoans the fact that Hitler hasn't made the trains runs perfectly on time.

Perhaps the library copy I read was once read by an
as-yet-undiscovered Hollywood starlet or two?

I'll try to give you one giggle from this novel, however. I admit to rather enjoying Venetia's off-hand approach to child-rearing, though today it would certainly lead to the involvement of Child Protective Services. Here's her description of her drive, infant in tow, across Europe:

Venetia, feeling that Michael had not been included sufficiently in the conversation, turned to him and added confidentially "You'd hardly believe how inconvenient a baby is when you're trying to make a good day's run over indifferent roads. The Bentley has bucket seats in front, and at anything over sixty I thought the Heir would bounce out. Finally I put him on the back seat by himself, and put the tonneau-cover on, and bored some holes in it so that he could breathe, and that plan worked far better. The only difficulty was that I forgot to declare him at the frontier, and the German Customs people made a hellish fuss when they found him, and insinuated he was a German baby and that I was smuggling him out of the country. I don't know which of us was the more furious. But I won."

Michael was so much astonished by Venetia's view of her maternal responsibilities that he could find nothing to say except: "Wasn't he suffocated?"

"Of course he wasn't," Venetia replied indignantly. "Do you suppose that I should be sitting here calmly telling this story against the Heir if I had happened to suffocate him? He could breathe perfectly well. The holes in the tonneau-cover were quite large. I made them with a pair of pliers."

I did have such high hopes of Worsley-Gough as perhaps another Elizabeth Fair-esque discovery. But alas, I don't think she is. Back to the drawing-board, or rather, back to the TBR list!

EILÍS DILLON, Sent to His Account (1954)

This was one of the books I picked up on our trip to the U.K. last year. If I remember correctly, it was one of two books I picked up at the charity shop by Winchester Cathedral (which, in all fairness, I might have missed completely, had Ruth, aka Abbeybufo, not been very kindly showing us around that day and guided us right by the bookshop). It was reasonably priced, and how could I have resisted it with its intact dustjacket.

Sent to His Account, as some of you will know, is the second of Dillon's three mysteries, after Death at Crane's Court (1953) and before Death in the Quadrangle (1956), after which she focused on writing non-mystery novels and continuing to write children's fiction. A few years ago, Rue Morgue reprinted all three of her mysteries, and it appears that they are now all available in e-book format as well. I also happened across Dillon's novel The Head of the Family (1960) at one of the Oxfams I visited in the U.K., so you might hear about that one in the future.

Sent to His Account is a perfectly enjoyable mystery. Impoverished Miles de Cogan suddenly finds himself the only heir to a sizable Irish estate, a considerable improvement over the room he's currently renting, complete with cranky landlady. I liked his reaction to hearing some of the details of the inheritance:

"How much?"

"I beg your pardon? Oh, yes, yes." He fumbled among his papers again. "Ah, yes, here we are. First, there is Dangan House-a fine place. I've stayed there from time to time. Not much land—less than two hundred acres." Miles had once tried to have a window-box, but Mrs. Doran had put a stop to it.

Miles happily gives up his old life and takes up the life of a squire, envisioning improvements for the workers on his estate, for the village encompassed by it, and for the village mill that's not being run to its full potential. The complication is a local import from Dublin, a businessman whose plan to open a roadhouse has met with violent disapproval, and when he is found dead of cyanide poisoning in Miles's sitting room, the idyllic new life Miles has planned is considerably disrupted.

There are some interesting portrayals of class tensions here, some entertaining characters, and some very enjoyable humor. It's also interesting to see Miles begin to put his positive changes to work in the village. Sent to His Account was, for me, a considerably better read that A Feather in Her Cap. Yet somehow there just wasn't any real spark here for me either. Is it just that I like my mysteries a little more off-beat, à la Gladys Mitchell? Or perhaps I just prefer mysteries with female protagonists. True on both counts, of course, so others without such biases may want to check this one out. At any rate, I'll be interested to sample The Head of the Family and see how Dillon handles her non-mystery fiction.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

RUMER GODDEN, A Candle for St Jude (1948) & Cromartie vs. the God Shiva (1997)

I only finally wrote about Rumer Godden here back in February (wow, time flies), when I finally got round to reading the wonderful China Court. I've read a good many of her other books before I ever started blogging, so she had never turned up here, despite being one of my favorite authors. But recently, I finally turned to two of her books that I had never felt compelled to sample before. The first of these was also the first of Godden's dance-themed books that I've experienced.

I love my vintage paperback edition
of this book, so can't help sharing it with you

I think I always imagined that, not being particularly interested in ballet, I would find her dance books less interesting or enjoyable than her other novels, but in fact I found Candle just as difficult to put down as any of her other books. If it's perhaps not, for me, absolutely in the top tier of Godden's novels, it's still very, very good. The aging Madame Holbein, once a great dancer herself, now a great teacher, can be added to the many inspiring women characters Godden created (I picture a film version, with a marvelous opportunity for an older actress—hmmmm, who should it be?), and the dynamic between her and the young dancers—her favorite, who is letting her ego get the best of her, and the brilliant student Madame resents, perhaps, for being too good—is fascinating.

Of course, as much as anything, it's Godden's unique and compelling style that makes the book succeed. I love her description of the poor theatre dressmaker:

Miss Porteus wore a little hard black velvet pincushion pinned to the left breast of her dress in the shape of a heart. To her niece, Lollie, it seemed that it was Miss Porteus' heart, withered and worn, stuck with sharp pins. Madame would have added, "Filled with sawdust instead of good red blood," but that was too old a thought for Lollie, who worried about her aunt.

And then there's this passage, which evokes the passage of time that Godden explored so eloquently in A Fugue in Time and would again in China Court:

Tomorrow Archie would dart, every nerve alive in a tumultuous effort to please, his eyes hot and dry, his cheeks burning, his heart beating like a clapper with excitement. It happened again, in every season, with every performance, with each entrance of each dance. Time passes, that is what they say, but that is what it doesn't do, said Madame. In each one, with each one, Madame lived through it again. It left her exhausted, but that was why she lived.

After Candle, I went on and read a couple of other books, but Godden's siren song soon proved too strong.

After enjoying Fugue and China Court so much, I had immediately placed an order for a couple more of the new-ish Virago editions of her work, so there was Cromartie vs. the God Shiva waiting patiently on my TBR shelf, seducing me into picking it up.

Cromartie was Godden's last book, published in 1997 (I hadn't quite registered that she published anything that late). It's set mostly in India where a young London attorney is investigating the background behind the theft of a valuable Hindu sculpture from a once-grand hotel, and is loosely based on a real case in which a similar sculpture was siezed by police as stolen as it was being examined in a museum. His resulting romance, and the details of his investigations, however, are pure fiction.

The book is enjoyable—it's hard for me to imagine anything by Godden not being that—and satisfying enough. It's just on a smaller, less complex scale than much of her earlier work, and therefore I suspect it won't linger in my memory for quite so long. But if you've exhausted most of Godden's work, and just can't bear not to have her humane, thoughtful authorial voice in your head yet again, Cromartie vs. the God Shiva may be just what the doctor ordered.

Monday, August 7, 2017

LORNA REA, Six Mrs Greenes (1929)

Many of my reviews this year have been of books I've been meaning to read for ages, which have just gradually, patiently made their way to the top of my TBR list. But this one was a more spontaneous addition to my recent reading. I got an email from Nicola Slade, whose blog is here and whose mystery novels set in Winchester are now calling my name as well. Apart from letting me know she'd been enjoying the new Elizabeth Fair titles from Dean Street Press, Nicola was also kind enough to recommend two of her favorite, quiet, obscure titles from my period, which she thought I'd enjoy. The other title she mentioned was Catherine Cotton's Experience (1920), and it's been added to the TBR list as well, but something utterly superficial about Lorna Rea's name and the intriguing title Six Mrs Greenes made that the immediate choice.

The premise lives up to the intriguing title. The officious and imminently dislikable Mrs Rodney Greene has summoned the other five Mrs Greenes to her home for a dinner party that, in addition to bringing three generations of Mrs Greenes together, will also serve to celebrate newlywed Jessica's arrival into the family (though it will mainly, like most other things in Mrs Rodney's life, allow her to bully and stage manage everyone else). The novel is divided into six sections, each around 50 pages and each dedicated to one of the Mrs Greenes, whom we come to know and (sometimes) like.

A family tree at the beginning of the book helps keep them all sorted. First and foremost, there's elderly Mrs Greene, matriarch of the family, the Mrs Greene, slightly cantankerous (one doesn't envy her companion, Miss Dorset, who has a tragic past of her own) but somehow likable, still mourning the loss of her husband years before and sometimes a bit shaky on the distinction between past and present:

When she was tired she talked to herself, and her talk was a jumble of names. Her sons, her grandsons, her granddaughter, her granddaughter's husband, jigged about in her brain. They formed groups, advanced towards her in a solid phalanx, broke up and receded again. The pattern of their comings and goings was shot with pleasure at some remembered incident, or again with intense irritation that found vent in mumbled phrases. "She's always been a stupid woman."

We catch some glimpses of her feelings toward the other Mrs Greenes, particularly her two daughters-in-law, about whom she minces no words, but more poignantly we feel her sense of lingering loss:

"When a woman has lived with her husband and loved her husband for over fifty years, she shouldn't live on after him. She's only a cripple. There's no place left for her, and no power. I saw one of my sons marry a girl I didn't like, and the other a girl I despised. I lost Edwin in the war, and Edwin's son soon after. Geoffrey and I were old; we were on the shelf, but we still had our place in life. Now Geoffrey's dead, and I'm lost. I'm Grannie and Great-grannie; I'm an old woman, to be humored and treated kindly and encouraged, and taken here and there for her own good, but I'm not Mrs. Geoffrey Greene. She's dead."

She also thinks the idea of a dinner with all the Mrs Greenes is misguided:

"There'll we be, three widows and three wives, each of us supposed to stand for something, and the whole idea quite false. I'm not an old Greene grandmother any more than Edith is a Greene mother and Jessica a young Greene wife; I'm Margaret Hill, and Jessica is Jessica Deane, and we married men of the same name and the same blood, but nobody but Edith would ever expect that to link us up in a chain."

But the dinner's misguidedness doesn't make getting to know these women less intriguing. Apart from the Mrs Greene, there's her sister-in-law Sarah, Mrs Hugh Greene, likewise at a loss since her husband's death and childless as well, who finds comfort in her beloved nephew and his wife (on her side of the family, not Greenes). Presumably, it's Edith, Mrs Rodney Greene, imperious, shrewish, and emotionally needy, whom Mrs Greene merely doesn't like, and Dora, Mrs Edwin Greene, already a whiny martyr even before the loss of her husband in World War I and her son to a tragic accident, whom she despises. Then there's the current, modern generation, Edith's two daughters-in-law, Helen, Mrs Geoffrey Greene, an artist who furiously resists the traditional limitations of marriage but falls in love with Geoffrey anyway, and Jessica, Mrs Hugh Beckett Greene, the energetic newlywed. There's also Edith's daughter Lavinia, who is not a Mrs Greene but who seems to be Mrs Greene's favorite among her descendents and who seems to play an important role in the novel, possibly a symbolic one.

Following the six main sections, there's a short closing section of the novel. It was a bit anticlimactic to find that this section didn't actually include the women's dinner together, but perhaps that would have been asking too much. Rather, it features Edith's final preparations, a visit from Lavinia, and a slightly bewildering comment by Lavinia which ends the novel. I won't give it away, as it's the last line of the book, but it was intriguing enough that I'm going to have to go back and do some re-reading to figure out what on earth Lavinia means by it.

Perhaps it's best that the dinner itself be left to the reader's imagination. Indeed, it's hard to imagine the dinner living up to all the drama that has led into it. Apart from that, however, the novel made for some wonderfully entertaining reading. If the women occasionally seem a bit like types—the tough, resilient older women, the shrew, the martyr, the bohemian, and the perky young flapper—rather than fully developed, unique characters, I can't say that I gave it more than a passing thought. I picked the book up and didn't put it down again until I my eyes were too sleepy to focus or my lunch break was over, which is a pretty good recommendation in itself.

My thanks to Nicola for bringing Lorna Rea more centrally to my attention. She has been included on my Overwhelming List for some time now, but I had no details about her work. It turns out that Six Mrs Greenes was her first novel, followed quickly by three more—The Happy Prisoner (1931), Rachel Moon (1932), and First Night (1932)—and one story collection, Six and Seven (1935), after which she appears to have fallen silent, though she lived for another forty years.

I had already come across a Bookman review of First Night, which I believe is a textbook example of "damning with faint praise," but I have to admit that it rather makes me want to read the book and see where Rea got to with her writing…

As amusement "First Night" is excellent if ephemeral. It scintillates where it should, in the foyer, broadens into humour in the pit, touches sentiment in the gallery, and generally varies in mood and in tempo as the elf of Miss Rea's imagination insinuates himself into the breasts and brains of author, actor, critic, first-nighter and all the other cleverly drawn theatre-goers to whom she introduces us. It has almost as many good points as it has pages—brilliance, wit, humour, atmosphere, emotional skill, verve, gaiety. But there it ends, in brief amusement—the only end it could possibly serve. One looks in vain for anything more than an almost photographic record with its inevitable shallowness. Yet cleverness rarely or never keeps company with profundity and, superficial though it may be, one is grateful for such lively diversion and vivid portraiture as are here.

I could disagree with all sorts of assumptions in the review, but overall it sounds pretty irresistible, doesn't it?

Then, while poking around a bit for this review, I came across this capsule review of The Happy Prisoner in, of all places, the Wisconsin Library Bulletin:

Lorna Rea, the author of Six Mrs. Greenes, writes a delicate little novel of a girl who, because she was deaf, had been shown only the beautiful side of life. When she is suddenly cured of deafness she is so hurt by the world as it really is that she gladly retreats into her own again. The technique is that of the short story, full of idealistic pathos. Attractively illustrated with wood engravings.

And I discovered that the Spectator (after, I should note, an utterly condescending dismissal of Elizabeth Cambridge's Susan and Joanna, along the usual masculine party lines) dismissed Rea's story collection as "tepid and banal," and added that "while Miss Rea will tell you all about the interior decoration of her heroines' flats, she tells you nothing about their characters." Well, I'm sure some of you will agree that this too sounds intriguing!
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