Saturday, June 30, 2018

Buried treasure: DORIS LANGLEY MOORE part 1

Ah, I've been awaiting the opportunity to use that title again. If I remember correctly, I've only used the "buried treasure" title once before, when I first came across the wonderful Elizabeth Fair (now almost three years ago—yikes!), who I later had the delightful experience of publishing as a Furrowed Middlebrow title from Dean Street Press. Since then, I've come across some wonderful books and authors, but no author whose work was quite forgotten enough to be called "buried" and yet consistently excellent enough to be "treasure."

It's extraordinarily odd that Doris Langley Moore should fit both of those categories. She is certainly not forgotten in herself, and is in fact remembered for several impressive reasons, probably most notably as one of the first serious historians of fashion—see her books The Woman in Fashion (1949) and The Child in Fashion (1953), among others—and the person responsible for the establishment of the Fashion Museum located in the Assembly Rooms in Bath (we walked by it on our way to see the restored Assembly Rooms where Jane Austen once danced, and now I could kick myself for not having visited the museum itself). She also occasionally worked as a costume designer for film and theatre, including designing Katharine Hepburn's dresses for The African Queen (1951)—see here for Hepburn's praise of her work.

Doris Langley Moore

But that's only the beginning. Moore was an important Byron scholar, and was the first non-family member to work with a large collection of Byron-related papers owned by Byron's great-granddaughter. The first of her Byron-related books, The Late Lord Byron (1961), focuses unconventionally on the dramas and revelations of the years immediately following his death, and has recently been reprinted by Neversink Press. (It's also available in the U.S. as a free download from Hathi Trust.) Lord Byron, Accounts Rendered (1974) examined the revelations that could be gleaned about Byron's life by closely examining his finances. And Ada, Countess of Lovelace (1977) is a biography of Byron's daughter. As you'll see below, Moore also utilized her knowledge of Byron in her final novel, My Caravaggio Style (1959), which deals with a forgery of Byron's famously destroyed memoirs (and even, amusingly, features Moore herself as a character when a team of Byron experts gather late in the novel to confer on the memoirs).

Then there is the fact that Moore was the first biographer of E. Nesbit (1933, expanded edition 1966), and her book, containing many interviews with family members and other contemporaries, has been heavily relied on by subsequent scholars. There's another acclaimed bio, Marie & the Duke of H: The Daydream Love Affair of Marie Bashkirtseff (1966). And there's several witty self-help and other non-fiction books as well, including The Technique of the Love Affair (1928), The Pleasure of Your Company: A Text-book of Hospitality (1933, written with her sister June Langley Moore), Our Loving Duty, or, The Young Housewife's Compendium (1936, also with June), The Vulgar Heart: An Enquiry into the Sentimental Tendencies of Public Opinion (1945), and Pleasure: A Discursive Guide Book (1953)

Phew! It's exhausting just listing all of her achievements. But my favorite part: her ODNB entry quietly notes that "she had no formal education."

On top of that, however, she published six novels, four of which are now among my favorites of the year (for that matter, perhaps my favorites of several years).

When I first added Moore to my list of authors, I flagged her fifth novel, All Done by Kindness (1951), which was described by a bookseller as "a civilized novel about some fabulous art treasures from an old attic." I didn't know anything more about it than that, but when I started all my recent frenzy of interlibrary loan requests, I saw it staring up at me from my TBR list. And virtually as soon as I had it in my hot little hands, I knew, first, that I had to correct her entry on my list (I had her down as having written five novels instead of six, because her first, A Winter's Passion (1932), has virtually ceased to exist), and, second, that I'd found a new kindred spirit in the literary universe.

Set just after the end of World War II in the town of Charlton Wells, Kindness begins with Dr George Sandilands visiting his elderly patient Mrs Hovenden, quietly decaying in her venerable old house. Money is tight for this last of her line, and she has been attempting to sell various pieces of old-fashioned furnishings, artworks, and jewelry, none of them fashionable or valued by a postwar market obsessed by the new and clean and modern. She's finding it impossible to keep a housekeeper and has been left unattended again, barely managing to care for herself. Out of compassion and generosity (the kindness of the title), Dr Sandilands offers to provide her with funds which will allow her to find a live-in married couple to help her. She agrees, but only on condition that he must take something from her possessions in return. She mentions a few remaining trunks full of belongings handed down for generations:

"We had such large trousseaux in those days, more than we needed of everything. Then, there's all kinds of needlework and lace, and a few clothes it might be worth while to make over. The old materials were not like the rubbish you get today." She paused again and fished up, as it were, more of these long-submerged treasures. "There are one or two very pretty counterpanes, and my mother's best parasol with an ivory handle-a beauty. And you'll find some of my husband's things—though I don't suppose they'll be much use, the cassocks and surplices. The cloth is good, of course. And there are some embroidered waistcoats that must have belonged to his father. They are very old. A museum might be glad of them."

Dr Sandilands tries to beg off, imagining the useless piles of outdated clothing, and the horror of his stern housekeeping daughter Beatrix. Then:

"There are some pictures too," Mrs. Hovenden brought out with a fresh effort, "oil paintings that were in the rector's family."

And thus begins an elegant comedy of errors that will rock the art world. The story twists and turns like a middlebrow Da Vinci Code, but with far more subtlety, wit, and insight into characters both noble and corrupt, and far less violence (scheming and deceiving and maneuvering are so much more interesting than gunfire and explosions). It's a masterpiece of tight plotting and unexpected machinations.

We meet Dr Sandilands' daughters, the rather imperious Beatrix, who has no patience with old beat-up artworks, and young Linda, who works at the Public Library and is fully prepared to get swept up in the romance of a stash of old treasures. Then there's Stephanie du Plessis, Linda's superior at the Public Library, an amateur art connoisseur recently returned from living in Rhodesia, who develops a theory about the artworks and clings to it like a dog with a bone; Sir Harry Maximer, esteemed author of books on Italian art (though perhaps not quite the expert he is made out to be), who isn't above a bit of shady dealing to build his own jealously-guarded collection; Sir Harry's patient and competent secretary Mrs Rose, whose personal feelings about him complicate matters considerably; young Arnold Bayley, director of the small local Elderfield Art Gallery, who throws his hat into the ring by helping Mrs du Plessis; E. Quiller, a sleazy London junk shop dealer; and Morris, the owner of the local antique shop (or junk shop, depending on who you ask).

This is one of those wonderful books where you don't want to put it down for multiple reasons—first, because you can't begin to predict what will happen and can't wait to find out, and second, because the characters are either so likeable or so delectably unlikeable that you can't wait to see them get their just deserts. It was absolutely marvelous fun, and I knew I was hooked. I put in an interlibrary loan request for My Caravaggio Style (the only other easily obtainable Moore novel) before I was a quarter of the way through.

At the beginning of Caravaggio, Moore's sixth and final novel, a young bookseller and author, Quentin Williams, finds himself perversely trying to impress an American dealer interested in manuscripts, and ends by hinting that he just might have a copy of Lord Byron's long-destroyed memoirs. This is partly because the American is irritatingly smug (aren't we though?!), and perhaps also partly because Williams has just received the biannual royalties from the two biographies he's published, equalling a grand total of just over 4 pounds. He puts the American off temporarily by inventing an elaborate tale about the manuscript's location in a relative's attic in Wales, and then begins to formulate his plans.

Oh, yes, and his motives for this deception are also undoubtedly linked to his need to impress his girlfriend, a smart, beautiful model whose decision to pair up with Quentin is something neither the reader nor Quentin himself are able to quite comprehend. And her intelligence, as Quentin manages to accidentally pique her interest in Byron, becomes only one of Quentin's problems.

The title, by the way (a slightly confusing one for a book about Byron forgeries), comes from Byron's own description of the style of her later memoirs. Apparently, the earlier portions of his memoirs were rather tame, and shied away from the more scandalous elements of his life. But later on he returned to writing his memoirs and turned up the heat, and Quentin quite sensibly decides that his part of the lost memoirs will come from these later sections:

"My finest, ferocious Caravaggio style"—that was his own phrase for his later manner; and that was the style I was aiming at, an interplay of light and shadow that would rivet the attention and, ultimately, draw the eye to darkness.

Here, as in Kindness, the unforeseen complications and complexities form the main portion of the entertaining plot. One of the refreshing things about Moore's work is that, in those novels I've read so far at least, she rarely exerts much energy with humdrum love affairs or traditional plots ending in marriage. Her main characters are far more infatuated with paintings, porcelains, and manuscripts than they are with other humans. There are few enough authors who can make middlebrow pageturners out of highbrow passions, but Moore certainly does it.

That said, of these two novels, Kindness remains my favorite as it has the more complex and deeply satisfying plot. But if Caravaggio is the only Moore you can get your hands on, by all means do so.

Next time, working rather strangely backwards in Moore's ouevre, I'm planning to write about her fourth novel, Not at Home (1948), and her third, A Game of Snakes and Ladders (original published as They Knew Her When: A Game of Snakes and Ladders in 1938, slightly revised and retitled edition 1955). Neither were quite so easy to track down and therefore I didn't have them in hand until I'd finished the last two. (And her first two novels, A Winter's Passion and The Unknown Eros, have proven even more challenging.).

Friday, June 22, 2018

The Americans: B's (4 of 4)

Finishing up the B's this time around, with some mystery or suspense writers (for a forthcoming American mystery list?), a couple of scandalous women, some socially conscious authors, and a few odds and ends.

DOROTHY BENNETT seems to have had a quite popular name, as we identified no fewer than three other Dorothy Bennetts writing around the same time: a Dorothy Agnes Bennett, born Minneapolis, curator at the Hayden Planetarium and editor of Simon & Schuster's "Little Golden Books" for young children, a Dorothy Bennett née Barnes, a British crime novelist (who will be added to my British Women Writers list when I get around to a new update), and yet another Dorothy Bennett, born Indiana, who wrote several plays and then became a Hollywood screenwriter. But the woman in question here is one Dorothy Evelyn Bennett, who wrote one mystery novel in traditional form, Murder Unleashed (1935), set in San Francisco and now available in e-book, and a second that's definitely not in traditional form—How Strange a Thing (1935), in which the story is told entirely in verse. The Passing Tramp discussed the latter here.

EVELYN BERCKMAN was the author of more than two dozen novels, including straightforward mysteries, romantic suspense, historical fiction, and supernatural tales. Her earliest titles, including The Evil of Time (1954), The Beckoning Dream (1955, aka Worse Than Murder), The Strange Bedfellow (1956, aka Jewel of Death), and The Hovering Darkness (1958), were psychological thrillers. She was also a musician and composer. She spent her later years living in London.

Although contemporary reviews seem to have been lackluster, the three mysteries by MARJORIE BONIFACE have an intriguingly unusual setting and cast of characters. Murder as an Ornament (1940), Venom in Eden (1942), and Wings of Death (1946) all seem to feature Mabel Wickley, a Brooklyn widow transplanted to southern Texas, who keeps getting involved with murder and helping local Sheriff Odom solve the cases. One review says specifically that Venom in Eden takes place on the Mexican border, and I can't help but wonder how that border was portrayed during World War II as opposed to today. For whatever reason, Wings of Death (1946) appears to be available for downloading from

Back cover of Dell paperback featuring
map of the "scene of mystery"

KATHARINE NEWLIN BURT was not particularly well-known as a mystery writer, but at least one of her books, Lady in the Tower (1946) appears to be mystery or suspense, based on a paperback reprint. 

Burt was the author of more than two dozen novels in all, many apparently with Western settings and themes. Other titles include Penelope Intrudes (1912), Quest (1925), A Man's Own Country (1931), When Beggars Choose (1937), Fatal Gift (1941), Close Pursuit (1947), and Escape from Paradise (1952). After her final adult novel, Burt published three children's books.

ANITA BOUTELL was the author of four well-received crime novels. According to The Passing Tramp, the first, Death Brings a Storke (1938), is a traditional whodunnit set in an English village, while the three later novels—Tell Death to Wait (1938), Death Has a Past (1939), and Cradled in Fear (1943), are more psychological suspense. Boutell had relocated to England with her third husband, and apparently wrote most of her books there, before returning to the U.S. just before World War II. The Passing Tramp discussed her books, her sometimes dramatic life, and her extraordinarily bad luck with husbands here.

But the biggest name among the mystery writer B's, at least in her own time, is clearly ZENITH JONES BROWN, who published more than 60 mystery novels, most under her Leslie Ford and David Frome pseudonyms. Like Boutell, she began writing while living with her husband in England, and for the most part her Frome titles are set in the U.K., while her Ford titles are mainly set in the U.S., particularly in the Washington DC area or in Maryland where Brown lived for many years. Many of the Frome titles, beginning with The Hammersmith Murders (1930), feature series characters Mr Pinkerton and his friend, Inspector Bull of Scotland Yard. Other titles in the series include Two Against Scotland Yard (1931), The Eel Pie Murders (1933, aka Eel Pie Mystery), Mr Pinkerton Grows a Beard (1935, aka The Body in Bedford Square), Mr Pinkerton at the Old Angel (1939), and Homicide House (1950). 

Judging from this cover, it appears this one is about
the murder of an alien with a block of kryptonite?

Many of Brown's Ford titles feature series characters Colonel Primrose and Sergeant Buck, as well as widow Grace Latham. That series includes The Strangled Witness (1934), Ill Met By Moonlight (1937), Old Lover's Ghost (1940), The Murder of a Fifth Columnist (1941, aka A Capital Crime), All for the Love of a Lady (1944, aka Crack of Dawn), The Philadelphia Murder Story (1945), The Woman In Black (1947), and Washington Whispers Murder (1953, aka The Lying Jade). Under a third pseudonym, Brenda Conrad, Brown published a handful of romantic novels during WWII. Some of Brown's mysteries have been reprinted and/or released as e-books in recent years, though the Frome e-books available in the U.S. have an "editor" and contain notes to the effect that they have been "adapted to the American reader"—a rather odd thing when the author herself was American. Some concerns have been expressed in recent years about Brown's portrayals of African-American characters; perhaps these edits are an attempt to adapt or censor such content? I have to give special thanks to Linda Lyons for sharing her wealth of knowledge and research about Brown.

Of the two scandalous women included in this post, one of them gains an entry on my Grownup School Story list (or will when I get round to updating it). CARMAN BARNES was most famous for her debut novel, the scandalous international bestseller Schoolgirl (1929), which was set in a girls' boarding school and included themes of lesbianism and sexual experimentation. Barnes, who was only sixteen and in boarding school herself when the book appeared, was summarily expelled. She revisited that book's main character in her later novel Young Woman (1934). Her others are Beau Lover (1930), Mother, Be Careful! (1932), and Time Lay Asleep (1946). There's an interesting article about her life and work here.

Natalie Barney

More famous than Barnes (though not necessarily for her writing) was NATALIE CLIFFORD BARNEY. Although born in Ohio, Barney spent her adult life in Paris. Apart from one novel, The One Who Is Legion (1930), most of her work was published in French, and much of it has only been translated late in the 20th century, most notably in A Perilous Advantage: The Best of Natalie Clifford Barney (1992). In her own lifetime, she was far more influential as a hostess, maintaining a famous salon in her Paris home for more than half a century. Guests over the years included the likes of André Gide, Jean Cocteau, T.S. Eliot, Thornton Wilder, Sherwood Anderson, Sinclair Lewis, Ernest Hemingway, Edith Sitwell, Rainer Maria Rilke, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Isadora Duncan, Peggy Guggenheim, Ezra Pound, James Joyce and Truman Capote. Her final salon was reportedly held in the midst of the student riots of May 1968. She was the companion of painter Romaine Brooks for nearly half a century, although she also had other lovers (including Dolly Wilde, Oscar's flamboyant and tormented niece). Barney and her well-known lesbian circle were portrayed humorously but affectionately in Ladies Almanack, a short, anonymously published satire by Djuna Barnes, whom I mentioned in an earlier B's post.

Several of my B's were concerned in various ways with social and political issues, and used their fiction as a platform from which to discuss them. MARGARET CULKIN BANNING's 30+ novels were "problem" stories exploring themes like women's rights, religious conflict, parenting, birth control, and domestic economy (her 1955 novel The Dowry deals with a wife making more money than her husband). Despite usually featuring a central social issue, critics noted that her novels were highly readable—of her debut, This Marrying, a reviewer said: "The success of the story lies not in an original plot, nor even in an unusual manner of telling the story, but rather in a certain freshness and joy in the experience of it all." Other titles include Country Club People (1923), Money of Her Own (1928), The Iron Will (1935), The Clever Sister (1947), Echo Answers (1960), and Such Interesting People (1979). She also published a wartime memoir, Letters from England, Summer 1942 (1942).

BETSEY A. BARTON channeled her own personal obstacles into her fiction. Badly disabled in an auto accident at age 16, she first published a memoir of her long and painful rehabilitation, And Now to Live Again (1944), in part to inspire those injured in WWII. She then wrote a novel, The Long Walk (1948), detailing one day in a the life of a Veterans' Hospital for soldiers with spinal injuries. Her second and final novel, Shadow of the Bridge (1950), is set in a girls' boarding-school and focuses on a senior with deep resentments about her childhood. Saturday Review called it "a long, tortured groping through a psychological labyrinth," but also noted that Barton "succeeds to a remarkable degree in capturing the bewilderment and anger of the girl who is a victim of her own bitterness." Barton returned to the memoir form for her final book, As Love Is Deep (1957), about the death of her mother from cancer.

Gwendolyn B. Bennett

GWENDOLYN B. BENNETT was a significant figure in the Harlem Renaissance, publishing a regular column in the African-American periodical Opportunity and beginning a support group for African-American writers that became a veritable who's who of major authors of the period. Sadly, however, her work was never collected in her lifetime and some of it has likely been lost. Her poems have sometimes appeared in anthologies, and she published at least two short stories in the 1920s, which allow her to just squeak onto this list. She was also an artist and illustrator.

And CATHARINE BRODY was a journalist and author of four novels—Babe Evanson (1928), West of Fifth (1930), Nobody Starves (1932), and Cash Item (1933). In the early 1930s, she wrote a series of articles based on her experiences working at various jobs in 20 different American cities, and Nobody Starves, a tragic story of Depression-era Detroit, grew out of her experiences at a Detroit automobile factory. According to her passport application, Brody was apparently born (as Borodovko) in Russia, though her family relocated to New York soon after. She was a friend of Rose Wilder Lane (daughter of Laura Ingalls Wilder), and was definitely still alive in 1960 when her mother's death notice appeared in the New York Times, but we have so far been unable to find a record of her death except for an Ancestry tree which gives 1962 with no supporting record.

And finally, two random Browns to finish out the B's, one of them rather prolific, the other distinctly not. ALICE BROWN was a playwright, poet, and author of more than 40 volumes of fiction, much of it set in rural or small town New England. She was particularly acclaimed for her short stories, of which she published nine collections beginning with Meadow-grass: Tales of New England Life (1895). Other titles include Stratford-by-the-Sea (1884), Mercy Warren (1896), The Story of Thyrza (1909), John Winterbourne's Family (1910), The Prisoner (1916), Old Crow (1922), The Mysteries of Ann (1925), The Diary of a Dryad (1932), and The Willoughbys (1935).

KAREN BROWN, by contrast, is the untraced author of only two novels—Shanghai Lady (1929), a novelization of a film of the same name, and The Girl from Woolworth's (1930), which apparently became one of the first movie musicals.

Among this batch of authors, Zenith Jones Brown and Carman Barnes seem to intrigue me the most. Are any striking your fancy?

I've actually just finished drafting the blurbs for the authors whose names begin with C, so those will be coming along soon. Now the search is on to find good cover art to show you…
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