Friday, January 25, 2019

Her wish is his command: SUSAN ALICE KERBY (aka ELIZABETH BURTON), Miss Carter and the Ifrit (1945)

To look at Miss Georgina Carter you would never have suspected that a woman of her age and character would have allowed herself to be so wholeheartedly mixed up with an Ifrit. For Georgina Carter was nearing fifty (she was forty-seven to be exact) and there was something about her long, plain face, her long upper lip, her long, thin hands and feet that marked her very nearly irrevocably as a spinster. That she wore her undistinguished clothes well, had a warm, human smile, was fond of the theatre and had never occasioned anyone a moment's trouble or worry, were minor virtues which had never got her very far.

I had a feeling, from this opening paragraph, that Miss Carter and the Ifrit might be just my cup of tea. A smart, kind, middle-aged spinster whose humdrum existence needs a bit of shaking up, a wartime setting (late in the war, complete with war fatigue and food yearnings), and a bit of a fantasy element to complicate matters—what could be better? And although Susan Alice Kerby's style of writing is quite different from Sylvia Townsend Warner's, it couldn't help but bring back happy memories of my first reading of Lolly Willowes.

In fact, I'd been meaning to read this novel for several years, precisely because it did seem a suitable supplement to my favorite novel. But with my recent resurgence of interest in World War II fiction, I finally tracked it down and read it and it was well worth the effort. It doesn't have all of Lolly Willowes deeper meanings or witty commentary on the position of women, but it's a delightful little wartime frolic.

That Miss Carter is feeling a bit dispirited and resigned to her bland life is made clear as the opening passage continues:

Georgina herself now accepted her state and age without apparent hatred or remorse; in fact she assured herself she was rather glad to be approaching fifty. It was, she felt, a comfortable age, an age past expectation, hope or surprise. Nothing very shattering, nothing very devastating could happen to one after that age. It was a placid, safe harbour. One could indeed then spend the rest of one's life fairly comfortably with a job in the Censorship for the duration, a smallish private income (which, unfortunately, tended to get smaller) and a flat in an old-fashioned block in St. John's Wood, untroubled and untormented by any violent emotion or gross physical change.

But then she buys some wood blocks from a blitzed roadway to burn in her fireplace, one of which contains an imprisoned Ifrit (quite similar, it seems to me, to a genie, but don't tell him I said so). The Ifrit—whose real name is Abu Shiháb but whom Georgina nicknames Joe—is released from the wood by the fire, and appears in a dramatic explosion (she at first thinks her apartment has been bombed), offering to fulfill her every wish. And although it takes some convincing for Joe to make her believe he's not a parachutist or housebreaker, we begin to see that there's still an adventurous spirit under Miss Carter's ordinary façade:

Well, perhaps this was all a dream. Perhaps she was insane. Perhaps even she was dead and wandering in that strange limbo of those half-forgotten things that one had always desired and never achieved. But—and she made up her mind suddenly and firmly—but this present situation she would accept … and enjoy it, as far as possible. That was perhaps not sensible, but sense be hanged, it was at least interesting!

She continues to worry about the reality of her situation, though back at work she concludes that she couldn't possibly be dead "for even Hell itself couldn't be as dismal as the Censorship."

As one might expect, Georgina also has some initial difficulty in accepting Joe's generosity, feeling guilty about the lavish food and travel he offers her because "during the war, being in sole possession of an Ifrit was a little too much like having a private black market at one's fingertips." But nevertheless the excitement enlivens her and makes her begin to question the life she has settled for. Her friend and co-worker Margaret Mackenzie suspects that the pressures of wartime life have led her to become a secret boozer with a live-in foreign refugee lover. A dizzying hurtle through the atmosphere takes her to visit her beloved (and quite astonished) nephew in Canada.

And then an old flame visits and Joe senses possibilities…

It's all perfectly silly but great fun—a bit like Margery Sharp writing with a mild fantastical bent. It's also very much a "late war" novel, with an emphasis on the drab bleakness, dirt, hunger, and surliness of characters who have already been at war for several years. And it's fun getting a glimpse or two of Georgina's job censoring correspondence:

Georgina found it very difficult to keep her mind on her work next day. As a matter of fact, the censoring of letters which had always before seemed interesting and vaguely romantic (for one might really be the means of uncovering a spy ring), now appeared extraordinarily flat and devoid of all meaning. In fact she found herself wishing that a law would be enforced to compel people to use either a typewriter or block capitals. No longer did the sight of a tortured and indecipherable calligraphy fill her with the peculiar zest and delight commonly known to crossword puzzle fiends. And how could so many people write so much about so little!

There's not a huge amount of information out there about Kerby, whose real name was Alice Elizabeth Burton, married name Aitken, changed back to Burton after her divorce. One online source had her dying in 1952, but the redoubtable researcher John Herrington found she was born in Cairo in 1908, lived for a number of years in Canada (in fact, it's possible she really belongs on a Canadian iteration of my Overwhelming List!), where she married and divorced, then lived in later life in Witney, Oxfordshire, until her death in 1990.

She published six novels, of which Miss Carter is the third. The sixth, Mr Kronion (1949), is apparently about "a Greek god defending English village life," by which I now find myself quite intrigued. Regarding her other novels—Cling to Her, Waiting (1939), Fortnight in Frascati (1940), Many Strange Birds (1947, aka Fortune's Gift), and Gone to Grass (1948, aka The Roaring Dove), I know nothing but titles. After Mr Kronion, she seems to have abandoned fiction, but in the 1950s-1970s she published several works of popular history, including The Elizabethans at Home (1958), The Jacobeans at Home (1962), The Early Victorians at Home (1972), and The Early Tudors at Home (1976). The histories seem to have been published as Elizabeth Burton, but it's difficult to determine for certain which of her novels appeared under which name, as libraries seem to classify her in multiple ways.

Certainly an author to earmark for further investigation, and it happens, rather strangely, that Miss Carter and the Ifrit was reprinted in the 1970s as part of a "lost race and adult fantasy" series (many of its readers must have been disappointed, if they were seeking anything like a traditional sci-fi/fantasy story), so it's not impossible to track down, should you be so inclined! But what about her other fiction? Hmmm…


  1. Well, great. Another title you make sound so enchanting - can I find it? Well, it's a drab Monday morning, chilly and overcast, even here in Southern California, so I needed a challenge! Let's see what I can do - this sounds so intriguing!

    1. I think it might be possible to find this one, Tom!

  2. This sounds wonderful. A book with my name on - I am a Miss Carter - a comparison to STW and then you mention Margery Sharp. I think a quest is about to begin ...

    1. Thanks, Jane. It's not quite so hard to find as my usual favorites. If you track it down, I do hope you enjoy it!

  3. Just finishing this one and thanks SO much for bringing it back into print! Love it! And how amusing if she actually did live in Witney, as that's where I work now.


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