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!


  1. Well, not that it was likely to come my way, but even before you laid it all on the table, it was clear from the get-go that not one iota of Joanna (the book or the person) felt in any way appealing.

    Doesn't it feel great, sometimes, to just tell it like it is when a book doesn't make the grade?

  2. I've only read the Persephone, but have a couple of my shelves - and it sounds like I should be judicious with them!

  3. I really liked The Half-Crown House, though, and am going to give Bricks and Mortar a try. Glad to find that Tadpole Hall isnt worth the struggle it would take to inter-library loan it! SO many other good books to be read instead!


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