Friday, April 27, 2018

The first Americans: the beginning of a new list

Okay, I admit that it's not much, but it's a start. In between reading more obsessively than I have for some time (my literary explorer blood seems to be pumping again, with the result that I have more to write about, so it's a vicious cycle), I have continued to chip away at my new "American Women Writers of Fiction, 1910-1960" list. I've finally posted the A's—a whopping 22 of them so far. (I did say it wasn't much—good heavens, I can't believe I started talking about this back in October—I do move at a glacial pace, don't I?!?! But more will be coming before long. I have nearly finished working on the B's as well).

First and foremost, a big thanks to all the readers who made suggestions of authors to add to the list. I think I've captured all the suggestions that fit the list's parameters, but if I've missed anything please don't hesitate to let me know. If I've learned anything from my British list (and by the way, I'm finding new authors for that list as well—sigh), it's that many, many more authors will be coming down the pipeline in many future updates of the list. I thank everyone who has checked their shelves and their reading lists and brainstormed with me.

Mildred Aldrich passport photo

I'm splitting the A's into two posts, so I can tell a bit of what I've found about each. First is an author whose underrated first book I can definitely recommend. MILDRED ALDRICH was a journalist who became a close friend of Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas while living in Paris as a foreign correspondent. She retired in June of 1914 and moved to a house overlooking the Marne river valley. Yes, that's right. Moved to the Marne. In the summer of 1914. And she stayed there. A few months later, World War I began and the First Battle of the Marne took place practically on her doorstep. Her letters to friends about her experiences were adapted into her first book, A Hilltop on the Marne (1915). I remember it as a quite interesting book—the sort of cozy theme of a woman setting up her ideal home and her encounters with soldiers and officers, mixed with the much more serious themes of a terrible battle more or less visible from her living room windows—and Aldrich was a charming personality to spend time with.

Hilltop was following by three more collections of her letters—On the Edge of the War Zone (1917), The Peak of the Load (1918), and When Johnny Comes Marching Home (1919), which detailed the rest of the war and the months following its end. Her one novel (and the book that qualifies her for my list), Told in a French Garden, August 1914 (1916), uses the technique of Boccaccio and Chaucer, with multiple characters each telling stories. She apparently wrote a memoir called Confessions of a Breadwinner, which has never been published. I for one would love to read it.

Among the A's are also three mystery writers, one far more famous than the others. CHARLOTTE ARMSTRONG published nearly 30 acclaimed crime novels, most of them tales of suspense rather than whodunnits. According to Contemporary Authors, when her early novel The Unsuspected (1946) was serialized in the Saturday Evening Post, readers were so intrigued that they began contacting Armstrong to guess the plot or suggest twists. Other particularly acclaimed novels include Mischief (1950), about a deranged babysitter, A Dram of Poison (1956), in which a varied cast of characters search for a lost batch of poisoned olive oil before it can kill, The Witch's House, about an adolescent girl living in a fantasy world, and The Turret Room (1965), about a man newly released from a mental hospital who is framed by his ex-wife and her family. The Unsuspected was filmed with Claude Rains in 1947, and Mischief became the early Marilyn Monroe film Don't Bother to Knock (1952). Armstrong was also a screenwriter for the TV series Alfred Hitchcock Presents. Other novels include Lay On, MacDuff! (1942), The Case of the Weird Sisters (1943), The Trouble in Thor (1953, written under her pseudonym Jo Valentine), The Seventeen Widows of Sans Souci (1959), Something Blue (1962), The Gift Shop (1967), and The Balloon Man (1968).

Less well known is DOROTHY ALDIS—and in all fairness she's probably at least as well known for her children's fiction as for her one mystery, Murder in a Haystack (1930), but that's the book that caught my eye (and its cover is very striking indeed!). Her children's fiction includes Jane's Father (1928), Cindy (1942), Poor Susan… (1942), Miss Quinn's Secret (1949), Lucky Year (1951), Ride the Wild Waves (1957), and The Secret Place (1962). Other fiction for adults includes Their Own Apartment (1935) and Time at Her Heels (1937), both somewhat intriguingly set in Depression-era Chicago, as well as All the Year Round (1938) and Dark Summer (1947). According to an Abe Books listing, she published at least one romantic novel in tabloid format, 1943's Pattern in Dust. She also published a biography of Beatrix Potter for young readers.

And MARY MEIGS ATWATER is known far more for her role in reviving the craft of handweaving in the U.S., and for her publications on that subject, than for her one mystery novel. Nevertheless, Crime in Corn Weather (1935), which John at Passing Tramp reviewed here, and which was recently reprinted by Coachwhip Publications, has been added to my ever-more-overwhelming TBR list.

I'm not even very far along on my American list, and already it has become clear that a brand new thematic sub-list, not applicable to British writers, is going to be necessary. Just among the 22 authors whose names begin with A, there are already 6 whose work deals significantly with the colonial immigrant experience and/or subsequent pioneer and Western migration experiences. I have a relatively new interest in these authors, as I have recently done work on my own genealogy. Discovering that most lines of my family extend back to the early American Colonies (and then, with a handful of exceptions, back to England), and that multiple lines of my family followed more or less the same migration paths (from Massachusetts or thereabouts to Virginia to Kentucky to Indiana and finally to Missouri—from which western migration ceased until the year 2000 when I continued it on to San Francisco!), I'm now very intrigued by these earlier American experiences. And perhaps, in light of the current rampantly ignorant hostility about immigration in the U.S., these writers might remind us of how recently the parts of the country some think of as quintessentially American were comprised primarily of immigrants, settling on the Plains where their neighbors might all speak different native languages.

Willa Cather is, of course, the best-known American author to have written about these pioneer settlements. I remember, having grown up in a conservative, racially intolerant small town in Missouri, the shocked epiphany I had reading the divine My Antonia in college, and seeing Swedes and Romanians and Russians and Finns all occupying farmland and rural areas only a hundred miles or so away from where I lived, less than a century earlier, and getting my first realization of just how bogus the idea of "American" as any sort of racial indicator was. I'm proud to say that my only ancestors to have immigrated to the U.S. after 1750 or so, a great-great-grandfather and great-great-grandmother who arrived around 1850, were Danish immigrants who might have stepped right off the pages of a Willa Cather novel, first settling in the wilds of Utah—apparently part of a substantial group of Danes who immigrated in conjunction with the Mormon Church— and then making their way to Missouri. (I'm also a wee bit proud that said 2x great grandfather was kicked out of the Mormon Church just a few years later, but that's a different story.)

Although not quite as central to the canon of American literature as Cather is, two of the six "A" authors who wrote about immigrants and/or pioneers are pretty well-known themselves. BESS STREETER ALDRICH is best known for two bestsellers, A Lantern in Her Hand (1928) and its sequel, A White Bird Flying (1931), which focus on the difficult frontier life of heroine Abbie Deal. I'm a bit ashamed to say that I've never read Aldrich, so more for the TBR list. Among her other works are Mother Mason (1924), variously described as a story collection and a novel, about the adventures of a cheerful middle-aged wife and mother. Miss Bishop (1933), about a Midwestern schoolteacher, was filmed in 1941 as Cheers for Miss Bishop

Her other novels are The Rim of the Prairie (1925), The Cutters (1926), Spring Came on Forever (1935), Song of Years (1939), and The Lieutenant's Lady (1942). She published two story collections in her lifetime, The Man Who Caught the Weather and Other Stories (1936) and Journey Into Christmas and Other Stories (1949), but much of her earlier short fiction, which appeared in periodicals, wasn't available in book form until two more recent collections, Collected Short Works 1907-1919 (1995) and Collected Short Works 1920-1954 (1999).

HARRIETTE SIMPSON ARNOW is part of the American canon mostly on the strength of one novel, but much of her work focused on the migrations of rural Southerners to cities, the difficulties encountered there, and the changes to rural communities that resulted. Her most famous novel, The Dollmaker (1954), about the matriarch of a Kentucky family who follows her husband to Detroit and then struggles to keep her family together, was a major critical and commercial success. Joyce Carol Oates labelled it "our most unpretentious American masterpiece," and actress Jane Fonda produced a TV movie version of the novel in 1984. Arnow considered the book to be the concluding volume of a trilogy begun with her Mountain Path (1936) and Hunter's Horn (1949). 

Arnow also published well-received non-fiction about the early pioneer settlements in Tennessee and Kentucky, in Seedtime on the Cumberland (1960) and Flowering of the Cumberland (1963), while Old Burnside (1978) featured her own recollections of her childhood in Burnside, Kentucky. Her other novels are The Weedkiller's Daughter (1970) and The Kentucky Trace (1974), the latter set during the American Revolution. A previously unpublished early novel, Between the Flowers, appeared in 1999, and her Collected Short Stories were published in 2005.

The next two authors deal more with the opening of the American West than with the earliest immigrant experiences. GERTRUDE ATHERTON was a huge name in her time, and garnered comparisons to the likes of Henry James and Edith Wharton, but she is largely forgotten now. Her earliest novels were melodramas, but thereafter she began exploring themes of early feminism and often set her work in California both during and after Spanish rule. One of her bestselling novels was Black Oxen (1923), about an older women who regains her youth following glandular therapy. It was made into a silent film of the same name that same year. 

The Doomswoman (1892) is set in California during the time of Spanish rule, and Before the Gringo Came (1894) is set in the time of the missions. Other titles include Patience Sparhawk and Her Times (1897), American Wives and English Husbands (1898), The Bell in the Fog and Other Stories (1905), a collection of tales of the supernatural, Ancestors (1907), Julia France and Her Times (1912), The Avalanche (1919), The Jealous Gods (1928), The Foghorn (1934), and The Horn of Life (1942). She wrote a memoir, Adventures of a Novelist (1932), and—intriguingly for me—a book of reminiscences about San Francisco called My San Francisco: A Wayward Biography (1946).

While Atherton often focused on the north of California, MARY HUNTER AUSTIN looked to the desert Southwest for inspiration. Her reputation has grown in recent decades as she has become known as an important early feminist. She reacted against a Midwestern upbringing, following her family's relocation to California, by joining artist communities and becoming acquainted with other feminist thinkers such as Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Emma Goldman, and Margaret Sanger. Her first published work, at age 21, was the essay "One Hundred Miles on Horseback," about her first encounters with California's landscapes. The Land of Little Rain (1903) and Lost Borders (1909) walk the line between short stories and nature writing, and The Basket Woman (1904) was written for children, as was her later The Trail Book (1918). Her novels are Isidro (1905), Santa Lucia (1908), Outland (1910, published in the U.K. under her pseudonym), A Woman of Genius (1912), The Lovely Lady (1913), The Ford (1917), No. 26 Jayne Street (1920), and Starry Adventure (1931). A novella about Christ, The Green Bough, appeared in 1913, and another novella, Cactus Thorn, written in 1927, was only published in book form in 1988. She published various other non-fiction on feminist, political, and religious themes. Her memoir is Earth Horizon (1932).

The remaining two authors don't have the same level of fame as the others, but I'm intrigued by both of them. MARGUERITE ALLIS published more than a dozen historical novels, often with New England or pioneer settings. Her last five novels—Now We Are Free (1952), To Keep Us Free (1953), Brave Pursuit (1954), The Rising Storm (1955), and Free Soil (1958)—trace one family's fortunes from colonial Connecticut to the Ohio frontier, through growing conflicts over slavery, and on to Kansas just before the beginning of the Civil War. Not Without Peril (1941) is based on the life of Jemima Sartwell, one of the earliest settlers of Vermont. All in Good Time (1944) deals with a Connecticut clockmaker just after the American Revolution. The Immediate Jewel (1948) is described as being "about the battle for artistic freedom in a Puritan dominated world," while Law of the Land (1948) deals with early American feminism. Her other novels are The Splendor Stays (1942), Charity Strong (1945), Water Over the Dam (1947), and The Bridge (1949). 

Her earliest works were non-fiction, including Connecticut Trilogy (1934) and Connecticut River (1939), though English Prelude (1936) sounds a bit harder to classify: "The English ancestors of America seen against the social, economic and spiritual background which was theirs before emigration, together with an account of a pilgrimage to the home towns as they appear to-day. Not a history. Not a biography. Not a genealogy. Not a travel book. Yet something of all four." Hmmmm.

And finally, DORA AYDELOTTE wrote seven novels with settings mostly drawn from Oklahoma's pioneer history. Titles are Long Furrows (1935), Green Gravel (1937), Trumpets Calling (1938), Full Harvest (1939), Run of the Stars (1940), Across the Prairie (1941), and Measure of a Man (1942). In her time, she garnered comparisons to none other than Willa Cather, and the University of Oklahoma Libraries have noted: "Because of Dora Aydelotte and many, many more women writers of her era, early Oklahoma women's history has been preserved in a natural and unvarnished setting that truly represents Oklahoma history from a woman's point of view."

If the A's are any indication, I have a feeling that those "many, many more women writers of her era" are going to form a substantial subset in my posts about the American list.

I hope that even those of you who are, like me, primarily Anglophiles will find some interesting tidbits about these American authors. Although my reading these days still centers mostly around British authors, I have been quite intrigued and surprised by the array of American authors I've come across, and I'm having a wonderful time doing (however slowly) my research for the new list.

Next time, 12 more of the A's, including one who was quite famous in her time but will likely be unfamiliar to most readers now, as well as an array of girls' story authors, an early lesbian-themed novel, and a significant Steinbeck connection…

Saturday, April 21, 2018

BARBARA COMYNS, Out of the Red, Into the Blue (1960)

After reminding myself of the joys of reading Barbara Comyns with my recent foray into A Touch of Mistletoe, I determined to track down all the other books of hers that I hadn't yet read. Like her sixth novel, Birds in Tiny Cages (1964), which I'm planning to read soon, this book, a memoir of her family's time living on a Spanish island, has sadly never been reprinted and is becoming rather hard to find.

It's perhaps not impossible to see why this one, at least, was passed over by Virago when they were rediscovering Comyns' work in the 1980s. It's paced a bit slower than her novels, and it's a bit more muted in tone. Writing about things that really happened—even allowing for a writer's inevitable latitude with the truth—seems to have restrained Comyns' wilder impulses much of the time. Add to that that the circumstances in which the family moves to Ciriaco (presumably a fictional name, as Google finds no trace, and I don't know enough about Spanish islands—alas!—to recognize it), and the conditions in which they live there, aren't terribly festive, and you have a more mundane book than you might expect from Comyns. But odd events undoubtedly followed Comyns and her family wherever they went, and there are enough of those here, coupled with Comyns' quirky perspectives on life, to make it an interesting read.

Near the beginning of the book, Comyns sums up her home life:

We are a small family: my husband Raymond, myself, and two grown-up children—Nicholas and Caroline. Raymond had been working in a government office as a temporary Civil Servant for the last fifteen years, which suited him very well because his salary was slightly higher than it would have been if he had been permanent. I wrote a bit, and had had some novels published, although only one had been successful. Still, the little money I earned was most useful because, whatever economies we made, we were always living beyond our income. Our children lived at home, and at last there were no more school fees, although this did not seem to make much difference, with the cost of living going up all the time.

Presumably, the one successful novel would have been her first, Sisters by a River, which came to fame because the publisher chose, somewhat embarrassingly, to leave her work unedited, spelling and grammar errors intact. Though another of her most famous works, The Vet's Daughter, appeared only a year before Out of the Red, and seems to have earned significant acclaim as well, so perhaps Comyns was merely be modest about her success.

Oddly, in this passage she changes the names of her second husband (Richard) and son (Julian), but not her daughter, whose name really was Caroline. She also glosses over her husband's job a bit—Richard Comyns Carr was an official in the Foreign Office, working under no lesser figure than Kim Philby, whose exposure as a Russian spy was actually the reason for the family's move to Spain. There is considerable discussion of "Raymond's" search for other jobs once his Civil Service position comes to an end, but needless to say no details about the nature of his jobs.

It is particularly when discussing the conditions of the island more generally, or the personalities of its natives, that Comyns is able to really let herself go. For example, the deadly effects of her first winter on Ciriaco might have been lifted from Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead:

It had been the coldest winter Europe had perhaps ever known. On the whole the island had fared better than most places; but the houses were built to keep out the heat, and mostly had no form of artificial heating, and the old and ailing had died off like flies. Every day the black-plumed horses drew the bodies through the streets to the lonely cemetery among the cypress trees. The worst of the winter was over when I arrived because the sun had become stronger, but, as soon as it set, the damp and cold would come creeping back. I thought of it as some malignant enemy, and the lack of proper lighting made it harder to bear. But when the morning came, the horrors of the night were forgotten, and I faced my floppy bun and cool weak coffee with calm happiness.

And then there are the harrowing stories told by the family's first housekeeper on the island, which could surely have made a novel unto themselves:

The idea of having a regular job seems not to have occurred to her until she had Paul, and then she had sometimes worked on farms as a dairy maid. At one time she had been cruelly treated in a home for  girls and separated from Paul; and another time she had lost her memory and wandered round the country in a red cloak with straw in her hair, and  eventually found herself in a nursing home. Soon after she recovered, she obtained a job on a farm; but the farmer died with his face in a plate of tomato soup soon after she arrived, so she had to leave. She had lived in a place in Chelsea called Squalor Court, where no one was expected to pay any rent, and, if the house was full, you could always sleep in an abandoned bath in the yard. Once a policeman who had the key of a house let her sleep the night there, and she slept in a golden bed with golden hangings, in a room with golden walls, and the policeman brought her a cup of tea in the morning. Every day there was a new story stranger than the last. It was rather like the Arabian Nights, but it did hold up the cleaning quite a lot.

This book is perhaps a bit like having tea with a sorceress, rather than watching her perform. She might, over a warm scone, demonstrate an amazing spell or two, but for the most part she is merely chatting about the oddities of life, with the odd perspective you would expect from someone with her powers. It might not be as dramatic as the tempests in Comyns' best novels, but it's still quite fascinating.

There's not a lot of indication of the passage of time in the book, and I confess to being bewildered by trying to make the book and Comyns' ODNB entry line up. Out of the Red was published in 1960, and ends with Raymond being offered a new job back in England, and the breaking up of the home the family has made on the island. That relatively little time has passed is suggested by the fact that she mentions that only one of her sisters has made time to visit them in Spain, so they have a lot to talk about when they're all reunited. But according to ODNB, Comyns and her husband in fact spent eighteen years in Spain—no small span of time—and seem to have only returned to England in the early 1980s. Now, mathematics has never been my strong suit, but I do know the early 1980s are more than 18 years after 1960, at which time their time in Spain was, according to this book, already ending, so either they moved to Spain more than once or something is a bit wonky in the state of ODNB.

At any rate, it seems that Birds in Tiny Cages may also make use of this period of Comyns' life (she several times mentions that women in Spain liked to keep pet birds in cages, so I assume she drew inspiration from this), and I'm looking forward to seeing what other events and concerns overlap there.

Finally, I just have to quote a single line from a scene in which Comyns is helping a fellow resident set up his things in a new house. It's a self-explanatory line, and one which all readers will understand perfectly:

I helped him arrange books and clothes, which resulted in our taking the books on to the balcony and reading.

Sunday, April 15, 2018

A slew of Stella Gibbons novels

I already mentioned, back in December in my Furrowed Middlebrow Dozen, that I'd been obsessively tracking down, by hook or by crook, the Stella Gibbons novels that haven't yet been reprinted by Vintage. I'm not the most patient of people, and it's beginning to look like Vintage is going to leave her other books "on the shelf", as it were—meaning, not on our shelves, at least for any remotely affordable price. Which I basically take as a personal challenge…

At that time, I reported briefly on having read The Yellow Houses (meh) as well as three novels that were among my favorites of the year—The Swiss Summer (1951), A Pink Front Door (1959), and The Snow-Woman (1969). It seems that Vintage has taken the approach of reprinting only what might be viewed as the most serious or "literary" of Gibbons' works, which sadly led them to miss some of her coziest and most light-heartedly readable novels. I suspect a lot of readers of this blog would enjoy a rainy day spent curled up with any of the three above, particularly if you've enjoyed titles like The Rich House and The Matchmaker.

In the months since I mentioned those three, I've read four more Gibbons novels—somewhat astonishingly, really, considering how I generally flit from one author to another like a fruit fly.

White Sand and Grey Sand (1958) was actually among the Vintage reprints, and was merely plucked from my TBR shelves while waiting for a new interlibrary loan request to arrive. This one had an intriguing setting in postwar Bruges, and some intriguingly complex characters, but somehow it felt a bit too bleak to me—missing Gibbons' usual wit and charm. It features a classic Gibbons waif, in the form of a girl found wandering during the Nazi invasion of Belgium, who is raised by the owners of a small grocery store. But somehow, Ydette didn't awaken my interest as much as other Gibbons heroines. Fans of earlier Gibbons novels that are loose retellings of fairy tales may find it of interest, however, as it's clearly Gibbons' twist on "Beauty and the Beast." Have any of you read it?

From there, I proceeded to The Woods in Winter (1970), the last of Gibbons' novels, apparently, to have been written for publication. (The Yellow Houses and Pure Juliet were written later, but she seems to have had no intention of publishing them, which freed her up to explore their more difficult themes without fear of commercial failure.) Woods rather intriguingly deals with Ivy Gover, a curmudgeonly charwoman who inherits a rural cottage and has surprising effects on her new neighbors. There's even a slight hint of witchiness about her, which you know appealed to me. It's certainly a rather cozy scenario, but Ivy has enough of a dark edginess about her to give it a typically Gibbons-esque depth.

The Weather at Tregulla (1962), meanwhile, set evocatively in Cornwall, is a bit like a lighter, more romantic version of Gibbons' earlier Here Be Dragons—young girl falls in love with hopelessly inappropriate "artist", surrounded by other entertaining characters, and grows and matures as a result. I have to admit, it may not be as literary as Dragons, but I found it more entertaining. Though that could have come from my enjoyment of the tantalizing armchair travel to Cornwall that the novel offered...

And finally, I've just finished reading what is surely Gibbons' most extraordinarily odd novel, 1953's Fort of the Bear, primarily set—of all places—in the Northwest Canadian wilderness (to which Gibbons had never been) in the 1920s. The novel is subtitled "A Romance" and presumably Gibbons meant to evoke the earlier literary meaning the term, à la Nathaniel Hawthorne's fantasies of colonial America. The plot—a rather daft one about the eccentric and anti-social Earl of Vernay, who takes his wife, young daughter, and several of his tenant farmers from rural England to the wilds of Canada to escape the degeneration of urban life—is more than a little hard to swallow. In places I even found it downright tedious. But having persevered, due to my faith that any work by Gibbons is going to have redeeming qualities, I have to say it was ultimately hard to put down, if for no other reason because I was curious where on earth she was going with it all. And indeed, the bleakness of the terrain, the growing madness of the Earl, the wife, child, and servants held prisoner by his refusal to return them to civilization, succeeded in making me think more than once of Hawthorne, though that may or may not be a comparison individual readers would find appealing.

Gibbons' biographer and nephew, Reggie Oliver, believed that some germ of Fort may have originated in the early days of World War II, and he quoted from a piece she wrote in the St Martin's Review: "One of the deepest reliefs for the mind in these days is to think of those lovely places in Canada, New Zealand, Tasmania, where people are safe and happy and our friends. I try to send myself off to sleep at night by imagining a lake in Canada; clear and blue and lonely, echoing only to the cry of water birds, reflecting the snows of mighty mountains, silent with the heavenly sounds of nature."

I don't know if Oliver is correct, but I rather like the idea that Gibbons' fatigued wartime fantasy of an escape to the wilds led to Fort, because it shows Gibbons always challenging herself. Even what began as an understandable dream of getting away from the stresses of war had to be carefully worked through, and came to reflect, in the novel, the dark and destructive extremes to which such anti-social impulses could extend. She couldn't even imagine herself peacefully relaxing next to a lake without exploring the social and ethical issues involved!

I wonder, too, if Gibbons was doing some theological soul searching during the writing of Fort, as its Christian content is stronger here than in most of her other work. Her daughter noted that Gibbons was raised an atheist, but converted to Christianity when she married. In any case, there are here some intriguing explorations of mythology in general, including Greek and American Indian beliefs as well as Christianity, not to mention the personal mythologies we build around us.

I also noted a certain similarity between the Earl and Gibbons' final heroine in Pure Juliet. Both are, in their own way, damaged or limited characters who cause pain to those around them and yet for whom Gibbons has a touching compassion and concern. I prefer the latter novel, but in Fort too the Earl, despite his self-absorption and the pain it causes those around them, is ultimately a poignant character.

I was very curious what other readers have made of this oddity, but Goodreads has no reviews (though two users say they've read it at least) and I didn't see any blog reviews, only a photo of a strikingly inappropriate cover image that made it look like a Louis L'Amour novel. If you've come across it and have thoughts to share, please do!

Now, what's next in my Gibbons orgy? By my count I've now read 18 of her 26 novels, which isn't bad for a reader who tends to be unfocused in his reading. Three of those remaining are novels that have never been reprinted—Miss Linsey and Pa (1935), The Shadow of a Sorcerer (1955), and The Wolves Were in the Sledge (1964). (The last of those is, according to her biographer, an experiment, written when Gibbons was in her 60s, in first person narration from the point of view of an 18-year-old heroine, which I have to admit is quite intriguing me.) Then there are two of her more popular books, Nightingale Wood (1938) and My American (1939), which I have thus far shunted aside in favor of less well-known works, and the distinctly unpopular Ticky (1943), reportedly Gibbons' own personal favorite of all her works (which therefore also intrigues me), as well as the autobiographical Enbury Heath (1935) and finally Conference at Cold Comfort Farm (1949), the one I seem to have the most resistance to, owing to my lukewarm feelings about CCF in the first place.

(And of course, then there's her one, vanishingly rare children's book, The Untidy Gnome, from 1935, which may well be altogether unprocurable…)

Which do you think should come next?

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

JOYCE DENNYS, Mrs Dose the Doctor's Wife (1930)

I know some of you are already fans of Joyce Dennys' humorous, fictionalized Home Front letters, first published in Sketch and collected in the 1980s into two delightful volumes, Henrietta’s War (1985) and Henrietta Sees It Through (1986). If you don't already know about them, I highly recommend them, and happily they are both in print, in paperback and e-book, from Bloomsbury. I've long been a fan, and they can be recommended almost as much for Dennys' wonderful illustrations as for their humorous insight into wartime life.

And for as long as I've been a fan of those books, I have yearned to get hold of her earlier works of humor, which include three volumes—Mrs Dose the Doctor's Wife (1930), Repeated Doses (1931), and The Over-Dose (1933)—dedicated to the vicissitudes of life as a doctor's wife, as well as one other title, Economy Must Be Our Watchword (1932), which certainly seems to be a novel, or at least what might loosely be called one.

Simon at Stuck in a Book briefly mentioned Economy Must Be Our Watchword in a post, which in turn inspired a full review by Danielle here. As it turns out, Simon had already written about the Dose books as well (see here), though I had somehow missed it until now. (Fortunately, I am well accustomed to being a few steps behind Simon most of the time!)

For some reason, although I've been yearning for the books, I believed that they were all hopelessly inaccessible to me. I don't know what made me double-check this recently, but when I did I found that the three Dose books, at least, were each available in exactly one American library (and medical libraries at that). I requested the first one, and a few days later it arrived.

In one way, for certain, the book was no disappointment. Dennys' illustrations here are as wonderful as ever, and I started wondering why there isn't a catalogue or a website devoted to her wonderful art. I'm sharing a few of these illustrations here in the interests of adding to her artistic reputation. (Bear in mind that the book I got hold of was a re-bound library copy that was very tightly bound, so some of the scans have ominous dark shadows on one side of the other. I promise I didn't damage the book in any way—I'm not sure a sledgehammer could have damaged that spine.)

The book itself is quite short—130 or so pages of gargantuan print, with the illustrations and their blank backs counting toward that page count. It's comprised of a series a short vignettes about the difficulties of being married to a doctor (as Dennys herself, and her fictional alter-ego Henrietta, were). It's subtitled "A Book on False Nosery" due to the fact that a doctor's wife must resign herself to forever wearing a false nose, in order to protect the doctor's reputation and standing in the community. The difficulties that ensue when wives are reluctant to wear the nose, or when they inadvertently lose it, are dire indeed, as in the example of Emily Bragge, who attempted (perhaps with particular relevance to Dennys herself) to remain an artist even after marrying a doctor:

Her crowning infamy was to turn the Waiting-Room into a studio, because, she said, it had a good light. There she established herself amid the ghastly confusion of her trade. She said she didn't mind the Patients waiting there too, as long as they did not disturb her, but she made a man who was groaning with pain sit in the hall, also a little girl with hiccoughs.

That's one of a handful of passages that gave me real chuckles. The book is certainly pleasant and enjoyable, but much of the time the humor was a bit too exaggerated for me, or, on the other hand, a bit too tepid. The vignette form also prevented me from feeling the kind of involvement with characters that one got so wonderfully from the Henrietta books. What might be silly good fun regarding a character one has gotten to know and love doesn't work so well with a character we're only glimpsing for six pages.

Here's a slightly longer passage that might give more of an idea—though it does end in a chuckle-worthy line (but oh! all those Capital Letters!):

There was once a young Doctor called Edward Cardiac who so far forgot himself as to marry a girl called Cynthia Larke who had once been On The Stage.

She had been a student at the Academy of Dramatic Art for two years, where they had told her that the best thing she could do would be to Marry some Good Man.

Edward Cardiac met her at a dance given by her uncle, Sir Joshua Tonsil, one of the biggest Ear, Nose, and Throat men in Harley Street, and you can hardly blame Edward for thinking she was the right sort of girl for a Doctor's Wife, because when he first caught sight of her she was answering the telephone in the hall.

I do admit to laughing at the telephone bit, though. But what about this joke about malpractice?:

If he puts poison in a patient's medicine, by mistake, and kills him, it is, of course, pretty serious for him, but there are many ways of wriggling out of Awkward Situations of this kind; in fact, the last year of a medical student's training is devoted entirely to this most engrossing subject.

Hmmm, not so much. 

I was so hoping that I would find that these books were true buried treasure, but apart from the wonderful drawings, I didn't quite. I do remain curious about Economy Must Be Our Watchword, which might be more in the form of a novel. But alas, that one seems to be completely inaccessible. Barring an opportunity to read it, my most fervent recommendation is to pick up the Henrietta books and enjoy them yet again. (Or perhaps Dennys' memoir, And Then There Was One, published not long after the Henrietta books? Has anyone read that one?)

But I cannot end on a bummer of a note. So here, without further ado, I give you what I thought was the single funniest passage in the book, in which poor Mrs Septum, convinced that she has appendicitis, gets a bit more frank conversation from her nurse than she might have if she'd not been a doctor's wife:

Then she undressed and got into bed, and Nurse Barker stayed and talked to her for a long time, and told her that they hadn't had a Death in the Home for six months, but she supposed they'd have to have one before long. And then she said what pretty hair Mrs. Septum had, and she had only once before nursed anybody with hair that colour and she was an appendicitis case too, only she hadn't done well; in fact, she had died, and nobody knew why.

Now that passage is worthy of Henrietta.
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