Friday, September 28, 2018

PREVIEW: Covers and introduction authors for the new Furrowed Middlebrow titles, coming in January 2019

I posted last month about the long-awaited new batch of Furrowed Middlebrow books from Dean Street Press, set to be released in January. I was busting to tell you more at that point, and now I finally can. Yay!

First, the new books will, like their predecessors, contain newly-commissioned introductions, and I'm excited to announce who will be writing them. 

For the Elizabeth Eliot books, I'm very happy to say that scholar and researcher Elizabeth Crawford will once more be taking the reins. Elizabeth previously wrote wonderful intros for our editions of Rachel Ferguson, Winifred Peck, and Elizabeth Fair, and I can't wait to see what new information she is able to unearth about the elusive Eliot, about whom very few details are available. She's a somewhat mysterious figure at this point, but if anyone can shed light on her, Elizabeth will! Thank you to Elizabeth for her willingness to do the honors again.

And for the D. E. Stevenson titles, most of you will immediately recognize our illustrious intro writer. I still can't quite believe it, but worldwide bestselling author (more than 40 million books sold in 46 languages according to his Wikipedia page!) Alexander McCall Smith will be doing the honors for DES. For those who have been living under a rock, McCall Smith is the author oThe No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency series, as well as numerous other titles for both adults and children. Check out his website here. I'm very much looking forward to reading his intro!

But now, on to the covers!

First off, as an aficionado of classic dustjacket covers, which you know I am, I'm particularly excited that all three of our Mrs Tim titles, by the inimitable D. E. Stevenson, will make use of cover art from earlier editions of the books. (Thus, you actually had a sort of preview of our new covers in my previous post without knowing it!)

I think Dean Street Press did a beautiful job with all three of these, don't you? And a renewed thanks to Jerri Chase, whose scans of covers of her copies of these books provided us with the images in the first place!

Then we have the two additional D. E. Stevenson titles, with wonderfully evocative images that feel like they should have been used on previous editions:

Those are both from vintage travel posters of Scotland, and I'd happily walk right into either image if I could.

For our Elizabeth Eliot titles, we drew from more disparate sources.

When I was searching for cover images for some of the titles from our last batch of books, I came across several breathtaking portraits by Rex Whistler of Lady Caroline Paget. They didn't work for any of the titles I was working on at the time, but I remembered them when I was looking for something appropriate for Eliot's novels. And thus we got our rather gorgeous cover of Alice—elegant, melancholy, and yet somehow playful (look at that dog!).

I love our other Eliot covers too, which include a striking interior by Francis Cadell and two lovely period illustrations that Rupert at Dean Street Press discovered:

The ambivalence between the two women in that last image simply oozes off the page—as it should for the cover of a novel focused largely on the fascinatingly ambivalent relationship between two women.

So what do you think? Did we do these books justice? I hope you like the covers as much as I do!

Friday, September 21, 2018

Miss Pettigrew it ain't: WINIFRED WATSON, Odd Shoes (1936)

Here's a book I had come to believe I'd never have the chance to read. It appeared, along with four of Watson's five other novels, on my first Hopeless Wish List back in 2013 (the fifth being, of course, the wonderful Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, reprinted by Persephone). None of Watson's other books are available much of anywhere outside of national libraries, and copies come up for sale only rarely and at extravagant prices (a copy of Watson's debut, Fell Top, recently came up at just over $100—somewhat tempting, even at that price, I confess, especially with its intact dustjacket, but I resisted).

So thrilled doesn't half describe my feelings (not to mention astonished) when Kelsey, a very kind and generous reader of this blog, emailed me a few weeks ago and asked if I'd like to borrow her copy of Watson's second novel, Odd Shoes (1936). Wouldn't I just! Although my TBR list as it stands will take about 20 years to read through, I had to bump this right to the top, and Kelsey's book had a nice little jaunt to San Francisco out of the deal. (By the way, you can read Kelsey's own Goodreads review of the book here.)

I wasn't sure what to expect when I started reading. Watson's Guardian obit, one of the only sources of information about her work, called Fell-Top "a steamy, rustic novel in the Precious Bane mould" and referred to Odd Shoes as "similarly racy." And racy it must indeed have seemed in the mid-1930s. In its way, Odd Shoes makes Lady Chatterley's Lover look tame (except that Watson avoids the four-letter words Lawrence enjoyed so much). But in fact it's far more subtle, intelligent, and compassionate than any ordinary potboiler, and it's one of only a handful of novels I know of from the period that focus in any explicit and honest way on female sexuality. For the most part, women in Watson's story are the desirers, not merely the objects of desire as they are in so many other authors' work.

A beautiful photo of Watson from
the Persephone Post a few weeks back

Set in the mid 19th century, Odd Shoes focuses centrally on Ann MacDonald, whose illegitimate birth, as well as the preachings of a fanatical Scotch minister in her youth, have constrained what is otherwise a passionate nature. In the course of Ann's story, more or less from birth until old age, we come to know Ann as a challenging, conflicted, often difficult, but ultimately lovable character. But we also get vivid portraits of an array of other women. There is, for instance, a brief glimpse, just at the beginning of the novel, of Ann's unrepentent mother, who thoroughly enjoyed the lovemaking that made her an unmarried mother. And there's Mrs Lorton, the gruff but soft-hearted woman whose companion Ann becomes in Newcastle, and whose eventual legacy helps Ann—along with her tame but loving husband Edward—set up their business.

Ann's daughter Elizabeth figures prominently, married off at age seventeen to a wealthy man more than twice her age, whom she initially adores (and has wonderful times with in the boudoir, we gather) but whose jealousy and dominance wear thin over time. Despite having been raised for strict moral standards by Ann, Elizabeth has a mind of her own and, like the grandmother she's never known, sees no shame in her sexual enjoyments.

There's Emmeline, Elizabeth's sister-in-law, who, frustrated to be denied the freedoms her brother has, retreats into a loveless marriage of prestige and prudery. And there's Lil, Ann's daughter-in-law, a vividly sexual former prostitute who falls in love with Ann's son Ned, but whose love is based at least as much on Ned's physical beauty as on his personality, a kind of physical passion often portrayed in men but rarely in women. Intriguingly, Lil embraces the opportunity to seize on the peaceful respectability Ned offers and maintains a stubborn affection for Ann even in the face of Ann's disapproval.

The style of Odd Shoes is surely intended to evoke the novels of the 19th century in which it's set. George Eliot, radical as she was for her day, might have been shocked by Watson's oversexed heroines, but she would have been perfectly at home with the novel's style and scope. But although the novel is set in the mid 19th century (presumably to allow Watson to show her extraordinarily liberated women rebelling against the oppression of their time—there's a fabulous and unintentionally [or perhaps not?] double-entendre reference to one of the women being "damned by her period"), there is remarkably little historical detail to anchor the story. Apart from some references to the American Civil War late in the book, one knows nothing of what's going on in the outside world, except that society is moralizing and prudish.

Along the same lines, it's not entirely realistic that all of these lusty, independent-minded, self-aware feminists were grouped in a single family in the middle of 19th century England. But Watson certainly seems to be having fun with her fantasizing, projecting the sensibilities of a 1930s author (fairly radical even for the 30s, really) onto women of an earlier period and imagining how they would have disrupted and disturbed everyone around them. And although her prose is a bit dry at times, especially in the early chapters, with lots of summarizing of events that keeps the reader at a distance rather than part of the action, something kept pulling me compulsively forward. There are some glimpses of surprising wit (even just a touch of Miss Pettigrew's wit and energy in a couple of spots) and a general sense of the joys of life, even when the characters are experiencing sorrow or pain.

There's also a really satisfying, if slightly melancholy, ending that involves significant growth for Ann, who has tended throughout the novel to set herself rather narcissistically at the center of everything—first as the self-righteous guardian of everyone else's morality, and then, following a pivotal event, as the martyr who sees other people's failures as entirely due to her own influence. It's delightful to meet, at the end of the book, a rather more subdued and cheerful Ann who doesn't have to be the arbiter of the world.

When I was first bemoaning the lack of availability of Watson's novels, Nicola Beauman assured me in an email that I wasn't missing much, and I can quite see why. Odd Shoes is not a novel many people would find a "must read," and it's nothing like the effervescent joy of Miss Pettigrew. But it's nevertheless a striking novel and perhaps a significant one in the history of feminist fiction, and it's one I'm terribly glad to have had a chance to read. Consider these snippets:

Ann first discovering the sensual pleasures of married life:

Inarticulate in her exaltation and bitterly ashamed and fearful in the aftermath, she uttered no word to Edward, nor ever tried to. She may not always be strong enough to conquer the urgings of sin when the flesh was weak, but never could she shame herself by admitting by word that such sinfulness could be condoned by being acknowledged to its partner. Furthermore, though her normal workaday self retained its maternal affection and solicitous respect for Edward, this secret, terrifying self of hers harboured increasingly a vague hostility to its bedmate, a resentment verging in her blacker moments of reaction almost on hatred and compounded of a shrinking from a contact which, even when it roused her to response, could seldom sweep her onward to satisfaction, commingled with a morbid horror of the tempter who could lure her wanton body into the paths of sin.

And Elizabeth's similar discovery, accompanied by a shockingly immodest discontent that Ann hadn't prepared her for it:

Richard's delicacy had been rewarded. Sex had come to her as a miraculous discovery, and she had thrilled to the attainment of heights of emotional intensity and nervous ecstasy unsuspected hitherto. Her outlook was free of the taint of prudery and unsullied by the sniggers of pubescent ignorance, and in her tranquil daydreams she had been aware of a feeling of puzzled protest against what seemed to have been a conspiracy of silence. She had come to the opinion that it would have been better had she known a little about it. She dimly realized Richard's forbearance and knew that had she known only a little of what her own body was capable, she might have been a less difficult bride. Ann's surprising recoil of shock was the first suggestion she received that people might consider wicked what she had discovered was an enchanting, experience. She did not mean to be condemnatory. She merely sought an explanation for the failure to enlighten her beforehand. She thought about so important an experience she should have been warned.

Here's the status quo of the Wainwright family, into which Elizabeth marries:

The women opened bazaars, visited surrounding country houses, held afternoon 'At homes' and were pillars of the church. The men had their professions and Richard had his business. The men had also, be it added, their hours of privacy, never questioned by their womenfolk, when they moved in spheres remote from the ken of well-bred ladies and when they indulged in the more refined vices of the town. But always in a gentlemanly fashion; and only in sufficient degree to gratify the robust desires of manhood and never, of course, in such a manner that the ears of their women could catch any distasteful echoes. The Wainwright women of the thirties and forties were hardly supposed to be able to understand the words which described the various shades and meanings of immorality, and the men knew what circumspection befitted the dignity and respect of their family status.

And here's the rather wonderful Lil—how often have you seen, in this time period, a woman taking this sort of pleasure in a man's body, as opposed to the other way around?:

She rested her hands on his hips and stood a moment looking at him. His body was so beautiful it was pure delight only to gaze at him. Necessity had forced her into contact with so many that were the reverse of enchanting that it was sheer joy to her that her lover should be perfect.

'You are so beautiful. See! Your hips, your thighs, your chest, your arms. I love every bit of you.'

She touched, with a slow, caressing movement, each part of him as she spoke, then ran her hands slowly up his body and over his breasts till they linked round his throat, when she reached and gave him a last kiss.

Here are complex, conflicted, passionate women who could walk right off the page, as opposed to the male fantasies of women usually portrayed in "racy" fiction.

So, am I still ready to seek out Watson's other four novels? I think I can leave Fell Top alone for the time being, and as I've never been able to find out anything about her third novel, Upyonder, I'm not actively pursuing it either. But I think, when I finally get round to a new Hopeless Wish List (I'm working on it—really I am) I'll have to leave the other two in place. The Guardian called Hop Step and Jump, published in 1939, the same year as Miss Pettigrew:

another variant on the Cinderella theme, in which a young, working-class woman abandons her husband, becomes a kept woman to better herself, and finally marries a lower-middle-class man, the upper-middle-class ex-lover having, meanwhile, arranged her divorce and taken on the ex-husband as a chauffeur.

Hmmm. I think I'm game. And although it could be a delight or a trainwreck, I'm definitely game for Watson's final novel, Leave and Bequeath (1943) which, the Guardian said, "marked another change of direction, being part murder-mystery and part psychological study." If it's set at the time it was published, it's practically worth a trip to the British Library...

Persephone's bio of Watson mentions that she "stopped writing not long after the birth of her son in 1941." Her Guardian obit provides additional detail:

But then disaster stuck. By now happily married, and with a small son, Keith, Winifred was bombed out of her home, and had to move into cramped conditions in her mother-in-law's house, where she found it impossible to write. "One cannot write," she said to me, "if one is never alone."

What other treasures might we have had if child-rearing and war hadn't got in Watson's way?

Thanks so much to Kelsey for sharing this fascinating book with me!

Friday, September 14, 2018

A touch of wartime melodrama: HELEN ASHTON, Joanna at Littlefold (1942)

The U.S. edition of Joanna at Littlefold,
published in 1944, was called simply Joanna

I seem to have rather an ambivalent relationship with Helen Ashton. I've now read or attempted to read four of her novels. I wrote fairly enthusiastically in 2015 (see here) about her 1956 novel The Half-Crown House, and I recall enjoying her late-WWII novel Yeoman's Hospital (1944) even earlier than that, before I started blogging—in my War List I called it "a melodrama set at a village hospital, but I found it entertaining and its portrayals of the war effective." Ali at Heavenali reviewed that one several years ago (see here).

But I seem to be having less luck with her earlier wartime titles. I'm going to come back to that below, but first some details about this book.

We're in the thick of the war here. As the novel begins, Joanna Shearwater, a rather bitter and unhappy woman in her early forties, living in France with her philandering novelist husband Adrian, receives the news that the French government has fallen to the Nazis. She and Adrian, along with Adrian's secretary, Miss Partlet, and his latest mistress, the Brazilian Madame da Cotorra, rush to make their way south to catch a boat, staying just a few steps ahead of the German forces. They arrive first in Spain (having abandoned Miss Partlet to her own devices on a ship back to England), then in Portugal, at which point Adrian decides to accompany Madame de Cotorra to the U.S., while Joanna determines to return to England to see her son Tim, stationed with the RAF in the provincial village of Littlefold.

Helen Ashton in the 1930s

As luck would have it, just a short distance from Littlefold is the home of Joanna's former fiancé, Mark Raven. Many years before, Mark abandoned her just a week before their wedding, leaving her for a nurse at the hospital where he and Joanna's father practiced. As the nurse was already pregnant with his child, Mark had to leave his promising career at the hospital in disgrace and settle into a none-too-successful country practice, where he has remained to this day. We can see immediately that, despite the considerable number of years that have passed, Joanna has it in mind to visit Mark and revisit the heartbreak she's never been able to leave behind. Indeed, she blames Mark for driving her into the arms of Adrian, whom she is now convinced she has never really loved.

Thus, the first part of the novel is a bit darker and more jaded than some of Ashton's other work. Understandable enough in a novel written in 1942, probably one of the darkest periods of the war. But rather oddly, we then get a fairly cozy section once Joanna arrives in Littlefold. Realizing the hopelessness of finding a house of her own in the area, what with the wartime housing crunch exacerbated by the military base nearby and a flood of refugees from London, Joanna settles in as a boarder at The Old Rectory, a large and impractical house run by young Kate Merlin, whose husband is serving overseas. Kate is in some ways a classic stuff-upper-lip-ish character, forever toiling to maintain the house, but staying pleasant and humorous throughout.

From there, Joanna meets various neighbors (including, briefly, one Colonel Heron, who was the lead in Ashton's previous novel Tadpole Hall—see below), has her ill-fated reunion with Mark, meets Mark's surly daughter Clarissa, to whom she takes an instant loathing, observes her son's flirtation with the daughter of the local gentry, and has pleasant conversations of her own with a French RAF pilot whose wife has been killed by the Nazis.

It's all quite pleasantly readable, and Ashton is undoubtedly a good storyteller. Her description of Madame da Cotorra during the frazzled escape from Paris is unforgettable—"In all the distracted confusion about her she preserved her usual air of having just been unwrapped from cellophane"—and Miss Partlet is so efficient in the moment that she "might have escaped a dozen times before from an advancing army."

There's also an excellently evocative scene in which Joanna pours out her heartbreak to Kate during an air raid:

She stopped there, because she could hear the sound of danger coming through the sky. The whining roar of aerial combat echoed in the clouds, and she heard the fighters snarling to one another and the laden bomber droning over. Hammer and tongs was the word for it, a clang and rattle, right overhead, then a crash of machine-gun fire that shook the windows. The screaming noise went over the house, while the two women stared at one another with white faces. Joanna's heart was in her mouth, Kate bit her lip and clenched her hands. "I wish they'd go and do that somewhere else," she complained in an absurd small voice, like a child. The bump of an explosion seemed to make the walls move. Then the noise of the fight roared away into the distance, as quickly as it had come. It went down the valley like an express train, going over the river and chasing south towards the downs.

In many ways, then, this novel should be right up my alley—wartime women in a village, a rather dark, jaded sensibility, and so on. From this point in the novel, we descend firmly into melodrama, never my absolutely favorite type of fiction, but the wartime setting might compensate for that. And the ambivalent "happy" ending is certainly appropriate to such a bleak and uncertain time—in fact, it might well be the kind of ending readers needed at the time. But somehow none of this makes the novel work for me, and this brings me back to my ambivalence about Ashton.

The immediate problem here is simple: I don't like Joanna. At all. I could comprehend and sympathize with her unhappiness (she certainly moans about it enough, so I could hardly not comprehend it)—the philandering husband, anxiety that she has lost her appeal to men, the fact that her son is now grown up and doesn't need her—if it weren't for the feeling that she really has created all the drama herself. She has allowed a youthful heartbreak to drive the rest of her life, and blames anyone and everyone except herself for her continuing unhappiness. Stiff upper lip indeed!

Perhaps an additional clue lies in my attempt last year to read Ashton's earlier Tadpole Hall (1941). There's a positive review of that book at Reading 1900-1950 here which will give a different perspective than mine here. I never wrote a review of it, because I couldn't make it beyond the first 80 pages or so. Here are my notes from that attempt, which make clear my frustration:

Just too obvious, too propaganda-ish, and too focused on an unlikely romance between the novel's main character, Colonel Heron, and his Austrian refugee housekeeper, who, it is painstakingly asserted, is not in fact Jewish, but merely married to an unappetizing, unsympathetically portrayed Jew who also works in the house in his disgruntled, resentful way, while his wife cheerfully (and unrealistically) slaves and is endlessly grateful for what she's been given. Not realistic and not interesting. There are a few scenes of description and characterization that showed Ashton's strengths, but not enough to keep me reading.

Yikes. I also happened to notice just now that the book is mentioned in a scholarly work, Journeys from the Abyss: The Holocaust and Forced Migration from the 1880s to the Present (2017), by one Tony Kushner (not the author of Angels in America—I checked), which also critiques this caricaturish portrayal of a Jewish refugee.

As a result, I've always sort of inwardly cringed at the mere thought of Tadpole Hall, so I wasn't as delighted as Ashton presumably intended me to be to hear Kate telling Joanna how Colonel Heron and his housekeeper are now happily married following the death of her "queer sort of husband".

There's nothing quite so jolting in Joanna at Littlefold, but when I looked back at my noted passages I was surprised to find that even Kate, who is clearly meant to be a likeable, cozy sort of character, sometimes jarred a bit. For example, in what I first took as a humorous litany of her problems with "the help", Kate tells Joanna:

"I can't tell you the troubles I've had here. There'll always be servants for rich people, I suppose, at a price—if you keep five or six and pay them enormous wages. In a big house they keep one another company, but out here the girls get moped. I tried a married couple, but the man drank and beat his wife, because he said she was carrying on with Blackcap the postman—Well, I daresay she might have been; she was a pretty woman, a good deal younger than the husband,—and Blackcap always did have a way with him. Anyhow they quarrelled so frightfully that Henry said he couldn't stand it any longer, so in the end I got rid of them. Then I had a Hungarian refugee with a small son who was fearfully destructive; he ran all over the garden and tore up the vegetables, and when I found him dancing on the asparagus bed just as the tips were coming through it was more than I could bear. After that we had an evacuee girl who'd been bombed out of Shoreditch. She went about in a pair of green corduroy trousers, with peroxide hair and red fingernails, and she couldn't cook and wouldn't be shown anything. And after her," said Mrs. Merlin, barely pausing to draw breath, "we had a madwoman who drank three bottles of Henry's whisky and was taken off to the County Asylum, raving. It was such a pity, because she really could cook. She made the most delicious game pate out of rabbits. Strasbourg wasn't in it. I've tried it myself several times since, but it never comes out quite the same as hers."

Clearly, this is a recognizable and oft-repeated complaint in novels of this period, and I assume we're meant to laugh at Kate's difficulties. But when I re-read the passage, what jumped out at me was the fact that these workers were, respectively, a victim of domestic violence, a refugee who has faced who knows what traumas and displacements (not to mention what the son who destroyed her asparagus has gone through), a bombed out girl probably likewise traumatized, and an alcoholic with mental health issues. Perhaps this humor just doesn't work so well in wartime circumstances? Or am I merely being overly sensitive about it all? At any rate, Kate's attitude seems a bit too blasé and self-absorbed about it all, feeling terribly inconvenienced by the tragedies of other people's lives.

So, although I obviously don't enthusiastically recommend this novel, there are some high points, as I mentioned above, and if you don't mind a navel-gazing heroine, a fair amount of melodrama, and a callous attitude toward the victims of war, it all reads smoothly enough. As for me, though, I'm thinking I might be able to cross Ashton off of my TBR list as just not my cup of tea. Unless there are other of her titles which are absolutely "can't miss"?

Regardless, there are about 600 other authors I'd still like to read more of, so one fewer is no tragedy!

Friday, September 7, 2018

A vivid slice of postwar life: BARBARA BEAUCHAMP, Wine of Honour (1946)

I help myself to some home-made plum cake—Laura is an excellent cook—and I wonder how many women today are back in their pre-war ruts. For how many was the war merely a temporary disarrangement and for how many others has it meant complete re-adjustment, an entirely new set of circumstances? This is a stupid thought for me to have when, even in my own case, I don't know the answer.

With the possible exception of Josephine Kamm's Peace, Perfect Peace, which I reviewed here, this fourth of Barbara Beauchamp's seven impossibly obscure novels (most of her others are going on the next iteration of my Hopeless Wish List) may be the closest you can get to time travel back to an English village (with an occasional foray into London) in the days just after the end of World War II. As such, although it may not be the most polished of novels, it will surely earn a place on this year's Furrowed Middlebrow Dozen and should probably find its way onto every historian of the postwar's bibliography.

As was the case with Kamm, it's as if Beauchamp somehow realized—unlike most authors—how unique and how fleeting were the details of life in those brief weeks and months just after the war's end, when both men and women were returning from service and readjusting, often with difficulty, to some approximation of their old lives. She seems to have realized, too, that, among all the patching up and rebuilding, the intense desire by most to put the realities of war behind them meant that many of those details would be irretrievably lost. And she decided, bless her heart, to carefully document it all, with a particular focus on women who have served—particularly in the ATS (Auxiliary Territorial Service) and the WAAF (Women's Auxiliary Air Force).

Helen Townsend, who narrates occasional sections of the novel, and neighbor Helen Watson are unlikely friends as a result of having served together in the ATS. Helen is married to Gyp, the local doctor, but has spent much of the war in an affair with Brian, and both men are now due back from active service. ("As a married woman I re-allocated myself two months ago when I knew Gyp was on his way home. Otherwise I think I should have stayed on.") Laura, meanwhile, stuck caring for her domineering father since her mother died in 1943, is already missing the war.

Then there's Mary Cross, the widowed mother of an RAF pilot, who has determined to be both father and mother to her son while supporting him by writing the "Aunt Jennifer" advice column for a major magazine:

Even as 'Aunt Jennifer,' who now dealt almost exclusively with demobilization and re-settlement queries, she was sometimes startled at the problems confronting her readers. In some she detected a dangerous apathy to existing conditions and in others a too fanatic desire to go on fighting—anything and everything, without seeming reason or purpose.

There's Angela Worthing, a well-to-do woman determined nevertheless to have a career, who tries to help out Brian's troubled brother Peter. There's John and Maggie Cobb, the owners of the local pub the Cock and Pheasant, wherein a fair amount of the novel's action takes place; the Cobbs' son Dick, who thrived in the service and was made an officer, but now gets harassed by police when he wears his medals because they assume they're fake; and their daughter Lily, who was a corporal in the WAAF and is now an unmarried mother, since her fiancé was killed on his final mission.

Other characters come in for attention too, each well-defined and convincing, and the plot is comprised basically of their efforts to adjust to the dramatic changes in their lives and the society around them. But what made the novel deliriously readable for me was the sense of being a fly on the wall witnessing vividly authentic scenes of ordinary life, with details I've never encountered anywhere else. So many wonderful scenes I'll have difficulty restraining myself, and they need little explanation, since their point (for Beauchamp, it seems, as well as for me) is documentary. There's Laura on the train:

Seated between a man in a neat blue suit and a harassed-looking mother with a baby and a small girl sprawling about her, Laura began to assimilate the other occupants of the carriage from behind the barrier of selfconsciousness which always encompassed her in the presence of strangers. In the corner opposite was a W.A.A.F. in an incredibly faded and spotted uniform, her bleached hair carefully bunched above her forehead and straggling into untidy curls round her clean starched collar. She looked a baby behind a façade of lipstick and mascara and was identical with thousands of other girls of her generation, a monstrous regiment of maidens who had marched through six years of war: good girls, bad girls, clever girls and stupid girls, who remembered little before the reign of Bevin.

Laura sighed. She would have liked to have been the W.A.A.F. and to have begun the peace in her early twenties.

And there's Angela with a unique perspective on the lifting of the blackout:

She felt better as the taxi passed through Portland Place. The B.B.C. had discarded its blast walls. Funny how one had never really noticed that it had been camouflaged. So much of London had gone unintentionally grey during the war.

Once at the club, her exhilaration returned. She had a tiny room at the top of the building and she began to unpack her belongings with a sense of excitement. It reminded her suddenly of the feeling she had experienced when the black-out was finally lifted. A daredevil feeling because you could leave your windows uncurtained for all the world to look in. You were safe from V. weapons and at the same time protected because other people could keep an eye on you.

Narrated by Helen, there's this startling tale about mussels:

I am glad we have mussel soup because it is one of his favourites. I got the mussels in a jam jar from Mary Cross who was up in London today. She says that the woman in her market who sells them is quite the rudest woman she knows, but the mussels are first class. Mary says the woman has every right to be rude because of the queues, and her son being killed at El Alamein, and being blitzed out three times, and having a murder committed on her doorstep on V.J. night. The police even searched her cellar for the weapon. Mary says the mussels are a miracle.

But my favorite is this glorious little walking tour—also from Angela's point of view—of postwar Bloomsbury, which is particularly of interest to those who have visited Persephone's shop, since Angela must surely have gotten a mysterious shiver of anticipatory pleasure passing by what would someday be a lovely grey shopfront:

She walked round by Lansdowne Place where, since May 1941, they'd been patching up the blitzed corner. She noticed, with methodical satisfaction, that yet another gleaming yellow brick building was nearing completion. You could date the devastation and the rate of repair from the lighter brick walls down to the grey black of the house on the Guilford Street corner.

Yes, spring was certainly here. The ladies of Guilford Street had discarded their utility furs for brighter and shorter jackets. Pale sunshine gleamed on the darkening partings of bleached heads. They are feeling the draught, poor dears, Angela thought, and noted the complete absence of American uniforms from the street scene. That was the big transformation—apart from spring and scaffolding—there were no Americans.

Poor Americans. Angela almost regretted their departure. They'd been good time fellows and the good time girls in London had taken them up in a big way, gum and all. Individually, Angela had liked them. In herds, they'd been a little overpowering. They'd had too much money and they looked so dreadful in those uniforms—all bottom somehow. She remembered someone in a pub who'd once told her that the trouble with American men was that their own women treated them like dirt, which was why they ended by behaving like dirt. It made you think. She thought about Peter.

The blitz scars of Guilford Street were healed with fresh green weeds. In a few months' time they would be carpeted with the yellow of dandelions and speared with the tall bright pinkness of fireweed. She turned into Lamb's Conduit Street to do her shopping. The tradesmen's sons were beginning to filter back from the services. They were easier to buy from than their fathers and mothers, less fractious and exhausted by five years of rationing and form-filling.

It's amazing, with so many authors writing about the war, and surely a whole slew of novels and memoirs published just after the war, that so few writers thought to so carefully document this exact moment in time. I get a little ghostly frisson reading some of these passages (and there are more I could share if I thought it wasn't just ridiculously overdoing things), as if I'm really witnessing these past streets, buildings, thoughts, and tradesmen's sons first hand.

If any of Beauchamp's other six novels are as enticing as this one, then she is a treasure indeed. But even if the others pale by comparison, I'm thankful to her for this incomparable snapshot of a place and time.

By the way, Beauchamp was apparently for many years the partner of a more successful author from my list—Norah C. James, who is probably still best known for her scandalous bestseller Sleeveless Errand (1929), which happens to have been described in a New Republic blurb as "a story of post-war London"—the war in that case, of course, being World War I. Although James continued publishing into the 1970s, Beauchamp's last book, The Girl in the Fog, appeared in 1958. The two also wrote a cookbook together, 1949's Greenfingers and the Gourmet. Sadly, any other details of Beauchamp's life are so far lacking, so if anyone suddenly realizes she was your great great aunt, do please get in touch.

Meanwhile, if I can't get my grubby little hands on more of Beauchamp's work, perhaps it's finally time to sample James's?
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