Friday, July 6, 2018

Buried treasure: DORIS LANGLEY MOORE part 2

If you missed my first post about the marvelous Doris Langley Moore, you may want to go back to it, as in that post I gave a bit of background about her many other accomplishments aside from being the author of six novels (and aside from being my favorite new author in quite some time).

In that post, I wrote about Moore's final two novels, All Done by Kindness (1951) and My Caravaggio Style (1959). Those were the two of her books that were most readily available to me, so I started at the end of her career. Shortly after finishing those, I was finally able, thanks to Andy, to obtain a copy of her fourth novel, Not at Home (1948), all the way from the University of Alberta (apparently the only library in North America with a copy in circulation, and the same heroic library, if I recall correctly, that provided me with the only copy of E. Nesbit's The Lark then in circulation, so it might just be my favorite library!). Not long after that, a reasonably-priced copy of her third novel, A Game of Snakes and Ladders (1938, reprinted and revised 1955), came up on Abe Books and I grabbed it like a snakebite victim grabbing antivenom.

Every time I read another of Moore's novels, I seem to have found my favorite. That happened again with Not at Home, set immediately after World War II (August of 1945), which follows the swirling low-level dramas that result when Elinor MacFarren, a middle-aged spinster, respected writer about botanicals, and collector of botanical prints and other objets d'art, decides to rent part of her house to Antonia Bankes, an American recommended by her friend Harriet (who, unfortunately, knows Mrs Bankes only as a customer at her antique shop).

Miss MacFarren is accustomed to being alone ("I don't mind being alone at all. I was often here alone in the blitz, and I was so frightened of the bombs that I quite stopped being frightened of burglars."), but needs must and Mrs Bankes seems too good to be true. She avers a passionate admiration for Miss MacFarren's beautiful and fragile possessions ("Oh, but it's the prettiest room I've ever seen in my life!"), promises quiet and care ("'You'll find me madly careful."), and seems an ideal homemaker ("I like housework. I've got quite a 'thing' about it.").

But of course, when something seems too good to be true…  In fact, she turns out to be exasperating and helpless, skilled only in charm, manipulation, and blithely promising anything in order to get her way. That part is, of course, predictable enough—there would be no novel if she were the perfect tenant—but what is not predictable at all are all the intricate twists and turns of the plot as Miss MacFarren tries to cope, tries to cajole, and finally tries to rid herself of her meddlesome tenant, all with unpredictable and delightful results. And all while taking up drinking whiskey…

Also figuring in the plot are Mr Bankes, a war correspondent traveling with the Occupation Forces in Germany, who charms Miss MacFarren with his flattery and his knowledge of her books; Dr Wilmot, her arch-rival in collecting botanical prints; Mrs Manders, the daily help, who is charmed (at first) into unprecedented dedication to her job by Mrs Bankes; Miss MacFarren's nephew Mory, a rising film director entangled with a married woman; and Mory's friend Maxine Albert, a rising starlet whose down-to-earth, practical approach to life initially alienates Miss MacFarren and later becomes essential to her plans to defeat Mrs Bankes.

Doris Langley Moore

Not at Home is little less than a saga composed of the most trivial social interactions and conflicts, but it's absolutely riveting for all that. And who is to say that it's not these trivial conflicts that form the basis of the larger conflicts on the evening news? As in All Done by Kindness, Moore is meticulous in her plotting. The most minor actions lead to unforeseen complications, and attempts to resolve trivial problems result in webs of deceit and intrigue. It's such good fun I'd like to pick it up again now and start reading again.

But by the time I finished Not at Home, my lovely copy of A Game of Snakes and Ladders, complete with a delightful dustjacket, had arrived. This novel seems to have had a slightly odd history.

In 1938, Moore published They Knew Her When: A Game of Snakes and Ladders, the third of her six novels and possibly the first in what might be termed her "mature style" (her ODNB entry asserts that she "wrote six romantic novels between 1932 and 1959," but in fact the term "romantic" doesn't apply in any significant way to any of the four novels I've read so far). A search for "doris langley moore they knew her when" brings up this blog as its top result, which, though flattering, is not terribly helpful to me and suggests that not a lot of information about the original version of the novel is available.

With her non-fiction book The Vulgar Heart in 1945, Moore switched publishers, and her new publisher, Cassell, seems to have more actively promoted her fiction than previous publishers had. After Cassell had published Not at Home and All Done by Kindness, which presumably found some success, they published A Game of Snakes and Ladders in 1955, which seems to be a reprint of They Knew Her When. However, at least a few revisions must have been made in the new edition, as the opening paragraph makes reference to World War I and World War II, which could hardly have been the case in the 1938 edition. I'd love to have a look at the earlier book to see what other changes may have been made, but alas, copies of They Knew Her When have virtually ceased to exist. (If anyone has a copy, I'd love to compare notes between the two editions.)

Publishing history aside, the story begins with two young women, Lucy and Daisy, performing with a theatre company in Egypt shortly after the end of World War II. They are young and attractive; Lucy is sturdy and unflappable, Daisy is charming but primarily self-interested. They are friends, but of the most casual kind:

Daisy always found it easy to feel affectionate towards people who were being actively useful to her, and Lucy could not help liking one for whom she had done so much: and the fact of their having been chorus girls in London together was glorified in recollection until it assumed the importance of a bond.

Having fallen in love with a well-to-do businessman (or as close to love as such a practical, in-it-for-herself kind of girl can get), Daisy decides to stay on in Alexandria after the show closes. Lucy, on the other hand, is eager to return to England as soon as possible. But her plans are shot when, shortly before the end of the show's run, she suddenly falls seriously ill. Daisy shortsightedly has her placed in a private nursing home rather than a (free) public hospital, with the result that by the end of many weeks of care, Lucy is heavily in debt. Daisy's businessman pays her bills, and is generously prepared to write off the money, but Daisy, forever worried about her position with him, makes a muddle of things by assuring him Lucy will repay it, and promises that she'll stay in Egypt working for him until it's paid off. This plan is presented to Lucy as a fait accompli, so that despite her homesickness she is effectively trapped in Egypt.

And there, over the course of nearly 20 years, she and Daisy both remain, while Moore's intricate, lovely plot unfolds, building tension and frustration as frivolous Daisy, the cause of Lucy's problems, ascends the ladder of wealth first as her businessman's mistress and finally as his wife (though she has a more difficult time on the social ladder), while Lucy, depressed and downtrodden but diligent and philosophical about her fate, slaves and toils. Misunderstandings, deceptions, and self-deceptions abound. Lucy befriends a silly teenage girl whose father neglects her, and rescues her from her own naïvete in a fling with a young Italian, a course of action (like many in this novel) that will have repercussions in Lucy's future.

If this description sounds a bit like it could apply to Moll Flanders or Clarissa, this turns out not to be coincidental. On the front flap of the Cassell edition of the novel is a letter from Moore herself to the publisher, in which she explains the themes of the novel and sums up her inspiration:

Fanny Burney would not approve of some of my chapters, but it was my affection for the novels of her school, in which the heroine goes through all kinds of distresses but emerges in a sweeping triumph at the end, that made me long to try my hand at the same theme—treating it, however, in our down-to-earth twentieth-century way.

It's been a long time since I've read Evelina or indeed Moll Flanders, though I enjoyed both at the time (Clarissa I'm sorry to say intimidated me too much to even attempt), but as soon as I read this explanation I felt I better understand not only this novel, but Moore's later work. It helped to bring into focus something that I now see is a central focus of all of her fiction—the complications and vicissitudes inspired by social niceties, repressed impulses, the avoidance of unpleasantness, things that are simply "not done," and—by no means least of all—trivial events and decisions that lead to completely unexpected results.

Moore actually highlights her classic influences here and there throughout Snake. How often in fiction of this period do you find ominous foreshadowings like this one?:

The whole affair had occupied so short a time that one could not imagine anything serious had been happening. Nor would she have guessed, even if Daisy had confided in her, that the foolish little drama was destined to affect the lives of everyone involved in it, herself not less than the others.

And here's my favorite bit of philosophizing, pertaining to Daisy's attempts at social climbing, which might have been lifted right out of Jane Austen or Elizabeth Gaskell:

If we compare the fashionable world to a skating rink where only advanced performers are encouraged to disport themselves, we may say that money will purchase a spectator's seat but will not give you the ability to skate. Supposing you have thoroughly mastered the accomplishment in some other arena, you are welcome to step out of your seat and take the floor, and the skaters already there will accept you as one of themselves and even clear a space for you to cut figures; but unless you are proficient—or can at any rate flounder very amusingly—you had better keep your place, or you will suffer peculiar humiliations. Mosenthal never tried to skate. He preferred to sit in a good ringside position making fun of the people on the ice. Daisy, on the other hand, was constantly impelled to try her skill, but she was so afraid of falling that she had a stilted, mincing style which soon gave her uncertainty away.

With all four of Moore's novels so far, I have started off not entirely certain, a little doubtful of whether the magic would happen this time. But I see this now as one of her great strengths. She seems never to have done the same thing twice, and when you start one of her books you can never imagine quite where she's going to take you.

But Lucy's "sweeping triumph" in A Game of Snakes and Ladders, and the ecstatic high I received from the novel's final 40 pages (not to mention the occasional maniacal laughter Andy heard from the next room), were absolutely on a par with anything I've encountered in the classics mentioned above. Fanny Burney might have been shocked, but she would surely also have been proud.

Happily, I've now managed to track down the two most obscure of Moore's novels, her first two, A Winter's Passion (1932) and The Unknown Eros (1935), though I haven't yet got round to reading them. Are they really only "romantic novels"? Or do they have that inimitable Doris Langley Moore touch? 

AND, having fallen so much in love with the later novels, I decided a slight splurge was in order (it's my birthday next week, after all), and I gave in to the temptation of an inscribed copy of Not at Home, complete with dustjacket. (It's not the most lovely of dustjacket images, I confess, though it is appropriate, as ceramic cats play a surprisingly large role in the novel.) The images of the front and back of the book that I shared above are thus from my very own copy of the book, and here's an image of the book's inscription.

The name Margaret Canning sounds tantalizingly familiar, but she's not one of my authors and Google is playing dumb about her as well. But I'm delighted to have Moore's signature and to have a physical copy of the book to go next to Snakes and Ladders on the very top shelf of my bookcase!


  1. What a lovely treat for yourself, that copy of Not at Home. This does seem to be quite a find of an author.


    1. Thanks, Jerri. Not exactly the cover I would have chosen, but the book itself is lovely, and it's wonderful to know Moore herself inscribed it.

  2. These novels sound perfect for the next set of Furrowed Middlebrow publications!

    1. Don't think that hasn't occurred to me, Mary Anne! Hoping that there will be some movement soon on the long-awaited next batch of books...

  3. You got "The lark" from the University of Saskatchewan"! I know because I also got it from there and I work at the University of Alberta!

    1. I love that you can keep me honest about my borrowing, Donna! And now that you mention it, I definitely recall the Univ of Saskatchewan (I always have fun spelling that--even better than Mississippi). I'm sure I recall borrowing something else wonderful from Alberta though. Hmmmmm, now what was it?

      So nice to know someone at UA is reading my blog. I hope you don't work in ILL--I'd hate to think I was making extra work for you!

  4. Just had a look back at this blog post because I am re-reading A Game of Snakes and Ladders.
    Have you read 'A Winter's Passion' or The Unknown Eros? Were they any good?

    1. You're the second person to ask about this lately! I did sample both but didn't finish, though I'm always intending to go back. They are a bit more romance-ish and a bit philosophical, but interesting.


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