Friday, April 26, 2019

Schoolgirls and Nazis (but not quite what you might think): JOSEPHINE KAMM, Nettles to My Head (1939)

Publicity photo printed with review of
Kamm's previous novel, Disorderly Caravan

"One must have a few compensations," said Enid, "for being beyond the pale.''

"I don't see why," said Molly amiably. "After all, you did kill Christ."

"Molly, how can you say things like that! And anyhow it's not strictly true." Phyllis was flushed with embarrassment. "What must Enid think of you?"

"Enid doesn't mind." Molly handed her a biscuit. "You don't mind, do you, Enid?"

"Not a bit," said Enid, who knew that Molly's comments were never animated by malice. "It was rather a good remark when you come to think of it."

Nettles to My Head is a part school, part widening world story, but with a difference made fairly obvious from this quote early on. Enid Abel, who is sixteen when the novel opens, is the only Jewish student in her school, and is never allowed to forget the fact for long. Her classmates are mostly indifferent, even if constantly aware, as seen above. She has to sit out prayers, and can't even attend occasional talks about missionary opportunities (in which sense she is surely rather luckier than the other girls, really):

"I have to stay away from missionary talks, but I'm not exactly out of them because some of the girls are always praying for me. Phyllis Johnson has a prayer list at the end of her Bible which starts off with cannibals and ends up with me. I don't mind, you know; but I believe I'd be a tougher customer than a savage when it came to converting."

And the rather pathetic headmistress of the school never hesitates to remind Enid that she doesn't quite fit in:

"Poor Miss Farrow, she just can't help being anti-Semitic. We hardly ever have any Jews here, but in the scholarship exam last year Enid's papers were so undeniably better than anyone else's that she had to accept her. She takes it out of her in small ways, though."

Ultimately, this is a surprisingly enjoyable tale, even if it's a bit uneven here and there. Its themes of the anti-Semitism encountered by a young girl at boarding-school and then, in the second half of the novel, in the "widening world" could have become preachy or obvious, but in Kamm's hands it's explored with humor and some striking depth. Enid is spunky and more or less unbothered by the obvious biases she encounters, and she also encounters good people and those who are simply oblivious. One of the latter being Mary Cross, the school's new matron, who takes Enid under her wing as best she can against Miss Farrow's resistance.

The first half of the novel is really quite as entertaining as any school story, but with an added depth and intelligence not always present. The girls are often funny, and much is made of the foibles of some of the mistresses—particularly Miss Roberts, the history mistress, who fawns over Miss Farrow and dreams of retiring to a shared home with her, but is repeatedly shot down, and Miss Wheeler, the earnest French and music mistress, who lives in a romantic dream world of unrealistic fantasies about her quite run-of-the-mill fiancé, whom she rarely sees in the flesh. The latter is often the butt of the girls' jokes, especially the following passage which for some reason made me giggle more than anything else in the book. The school is on a field trip to Silbury Hill, mostly chattering away and ignoring the illustrious professor discussing its historical significance as they make their way to the top:

"Whew!" breathed Molly. "There ought to be an ice-cream man up here. I could just do with a tub."

"Sssh!" said Enid. "Let's watch Miss Wheeler seeing things."

Helen had taken off her hat and was fidgeting with one of her plaited coils of hair. Her eyes were half-closed and her lips moved silently.

"What do you think she's saying?"

"Something about a centuries-old habitation of a savage people, or earth piled upon earth as a monument to mankind. You know the sort of muck, Molly."

"You'll write a really juicy essay if you put things like that in it."

"I shan't. They make me squirm."

"Miss Wheeler's going to make an intelligent comment to the professor," said Molly. They sidled up behind her to listen.

Oh, that last comment keeps getting me every time I read it.

The second half of the novel, when Enid leaves school, becomes more serious and a bit more uneven, but Enid is always a delightful character to spend time with. She is pressured by her grandfather to only consider dating Jewish men, and is repeatedly thrown together with David, a friend of the family, who is obviously her grandfather's ideal grandson-in-law. But she makes her own way, dating Stephen, a glib young man who, it gradually dawns on Enid, loves her in spite of her Jewishness.

I love old library cards, and both of these were in the copy of Nettles
that I read, but...what's wrong with this picture that tells us that
the card on the right had been mistakenly placed in the wrong book?

There are occasional passages that might jar some readers today. For example, I simply can't hear the word "Jewess"—even spoken by a Jewish character in a novel by a Jewish author and intended, as here, to benignly refer to a Jewish woman without any suggestion of anti-Semitism—without cringing, but it does makes me wonder if other uses of the term in other books of the time might have been more benign than I have assumed?

And I'm not sure that many readers looking back with the benefit of hindsight instead of merely anxious about the Nazi threat would laugh very much at Enid's mother's joking to Mary about her terrible brothers-in-law:

"They were quite odious; as different from my husband as they possibly could be. Enid and I call them Crime and Punishment, and we've decided that if ever we had to choose between a concentration-camp and marriage with one of them—which luckily isn't at all likely—we should choose the concentration-camp."

In part, she's obviously using humor to dispel some of the anxiety of an increasingly disturbing situation, but it's probably safe to say that any joke involving concentration camps hasn't been funny since, well, not long after this novel was published!

The overall effect of Kamm's story, though, is to highlight some of the conflicts and pressures faced by Jewish characters that others might find hard to imagine, however unbiased they might be, and to do it in an entertaining and amusing way. Enid can be blasé about most of the casual racism she encounters, but there's also a sort of darkness in her personality, a tendency to dwell on troubles, especially that rising horror of Nazism unfolding in the novel's background. And those fears can't be reassured away, even by well-meaning Mary blandly assuring Enid that such things could never happen in England. (Undoubtedly they're exacerbated, too, by the dawning realization that Stephen is a jerk.)

This is the third of Josephine Kamm's five novels for adults. I wrote about the fourth, Peace, Perfect Peace (1947), back in 2016 (see here), and I just announced last week that Dean Street Press and I will be reprinting it as a Furrowed Middlebrow book in July! 

Some time after that I read the last, Come, Draw This Curtain, but never got round to reviewing it. After the many high points of Peace, I was a bit disappointed by Curtain, which is probably why I never managed to post about it. But Kamm always seems to be an earnest, socially-involved author, not unlike Ruth Adam, and is therefore always interesting and thoughtful even if the overall results aren't great literature. Based on the blurbs for them in the front of my library copy of Nettles, I may very well have to add Kamm's first two novels, All Quiet at Home (1936) and Disorderly Caravan (1938), to my new Hopeless Wish List. They sound lighter and funnier, perhaps, and would undoubtedly be great reads, but seem to be nonexistent in the U.S. [Cue sad violins.]

Clearly, too, Nettles to My Head belongs on both my Grownup School Story List (half the book qualifies, at least) and in the "approach and early days" section of my World War II Book List. It's a two-for-one deal!

Saturday, April 20, 2019

THE ANNOUNCEMENT: Nine new, WWII-themed Furrowed Middlebrow/Dean Street Press titles, coming July 2019

It was actually Rupert at Dean Street Press who floated the idea—based on my obvious passion for World War II-themed novels and memoirs—that we might publish an entire batch of nothing but. I was suitably thrilled at the idea, and proceeded to obsess for months about books I had already read, books I knew about from reviews, and a fair number of books published during the war that I knew nothing whatsoever about, just on the off chance that they might be wartime treasures. As you who know me might expect, I even managed to stress myself out a bit, before realizing that it really wasn't possible for me to read every single WWII-oriented book ever written. I covered quite a few of them though!

And finally, I was able to whittle it all down to a list of titles I most wanted to see in print. One got eliminated because a reprint was already in the planning stages from another publisher, and one or two more got eliminated because the list was, predictably, a bit too long to be feasible. But we settled on nine books that I absolutely love and that indubitably deserve to be in print (not that I'm biased or anything).

And I've actually reviewed every last one of them! True, I only rushed in the last couple of reviews in the past month or two, but still. So the titles of each book below link back to my review, in case you missed them before. I'm also including some fun blurbs, photos, covers, etc., some of which I've come across in delving into my new subscription.

But now, without further ado…

I mentioned in my teaser that I had tried to represent all the phases of the war, so we have two titles focused on the approach and/or the earliest days of the war, two of what could definitely be called "blitz lit", two from the later days of the war, two set in the days and months immediately following the end of the war, and one very special memoir.

I try not to play favorites with the titles we publish—obviously I love them all or we wouldn't be publishing them—but ROMILLY CAVAN's gorgeous Beneath the Visiting Moon (1940) is something special no matter how you slice it. My review compared it to Diana Tutton's Guard Your Daughters and Dodie Smith's I Capture the Castle, and I stand by that bold claim. An eccentric family tale and a poignant widening world story, it's a witty novel richly peopled with delightful characters yet also permeated by the ominous approach of war.

You had to know that CAROLA OMAN's Nothing to Report (1940) would be on this list. Tied for the top spot in my Furrowed Middlebrow Dozen last year, this hilarious novel is the story of upper-crust village life beginning to come to terms with the approach of war. I made another bold comparison of this one to E. M. Delafield's Provincial Lady novels, and I stand behind that claim too!

I reviewed MARJORIE WILENSKI's Table Two (1942) almost three years ago, and I always knew I'd love to reprint it given a chance. Obviously, here's the chance. A rare portrayal of women office workers, the novel follows an office of women translators at the fictional Ministry of Foreign Intelligence. It's as biting and funny as Barbara Pym at her crankiest, which is not inappropriate, since Pym herself mentions reading it in her diaries!

Interestingly, although our other blitz novel doesn't feature an office of women, it was written by an author who was later known, in Persephone's words, for "presiding over a very happy all-women office" when she became an editor at Doubleday. What BARBARA NOBLE offers instead in The House Opposite (1943) is a riveting, extraordinarily detailed and vivid drama of life during the Blitz, drawn undoubtedly from her own experiences living and working in London throughout the war. I think it's one of the most important social documents to come out of the war.

Moving on to the later years of the war brings us to our second CAROLA OMAN title, Somewhere in England (1943), an irresistible sequel to Nothing to Report, mentioned above. Here, familiar faces from the earlier novel, as well as new acquaintances, are shown doing war work, engaging in new muddles and romances, and encountering bombs with their own unique flair.

Elizabeth Burton, aka Susan Alice Kerby

Works from late in the war are often a bit darker than the gung-ho stiff-upper-lip stories of its early days. By 1945, the end of the war was in sight, but meanwhile the fatigue, deprivation, and frustration dragged on. Which is why SUSAN ALICE KERBY's Miss Carter and the Ifrit (1945) is such an extraordinary pleasure. We clearly see and feel that the war has become an endurance test for the novel's charming heroine, but then we have the fun of seeing her freed from some of her constraints by the sudden arrival of an energetic, well-meaning, but slightly overenthusiastic Ifrit in her living room.

And then we have that utterly unique, brief time just after the war ended, when people were adapting to the radical changes in daily life that peace brought in its wake. In many cases, their old lives were gone or irrevocably changed, and they themselves had often (perhaps especially women) been changed in the process. It was a fleeting period, and almost immediately authors and publishers began to focus on books that made little or no mention to the war. Only a few novels appeared in this climate that were specifically focused on documenting these adjustments and this way of life. Fortunately, we're reprinting two of the very best!

BARBARA BEAUCHAMP's Wine of Honour (1946) focuses particularly on the experiences of women who have been in the services and are now returning to their more ordinary home lives in a quiet English village. It's an incomparable, fly-on-the-wall vision of a fascinating time and place.

Some of the women in JOSEPHINE KAMM's Peace, Perfect Peace (1947) are also returning from the services, and here at center stage are the difficulties of a young mother whose children have lived with her mother-in-law for the duration and who now finds her relations with them strained. Like Wine of Honour, Peace, Perfect Peace is packed with fascinating details about life in the months just after the war's end—rationing, barbed wire entanglements on the beach, and the omnipresence of dust from bombed out buildings (not to mention the difficulties of buying a dress!).

But that only makes eight books, you say? Well, how about if we throw in one of the most charming memoirs to ever come out of a war? 

By turns hilarious, poignant, and harrowing (and occasionally all three at once), VERILY ANDERSON's Spam Tomorrow is—alongside Frances Faviell's A Chelsea Concerto, which I was also thrilled to be able to reprint—one of my absolute favorite World War II memoirs. Verily married her husband Donald in the days just before the war, and the book takes her through an impromptu wedding, a bout with German measles in a hospital evoking a medieval torture chamber, and the birth of her first child in the midst of a bombing raid, all the way to V-E Day. It's the cherry on the top of this new batch of Furrowed Middlebrow books.

And that's that. I hope you're half as excited about this selection of books as I am!

In the next few weeks, I should be able to share the cover art for these books. I've already caught a glimpse of a couple of them and I can tell you I'm pleased as punch with how they're turning out. Rupert and the other folks at Dean Street Press are outdoing themselves! Stay tuned!

Wednesday, April 17, 2019

A Furrowed Middlebrow teaser

Well, if Taylor Swift can have a mysterious countdown clock on her social media, I don't see why I can't do a teaser of my own. Hers might be in reference to a new album, which is all very well and good, but surely nothing to compare to a new batch of Furrowed Middlebrow titles, right?

So this teaser is to say that an announcement is coming, hopefully this weekend. We've been working hard on putting everything together, and I just got word that all the permissions and contracts are in place, which means I've got the "all clear" (so to speak) to tell you about this very special batch of books, coming in July.

What makes it so special, you ask? Well, I'll tell you that part right now: This is our first themed batch of books, and if you've been reading the blog in the past few months, you probably won't have great difficulty guessing what the theme might be…

Yes, there is, it turns out, a reason that I've been so focused on reading and reviewing World War II novels. And although we might well have done it even if the timing wasn't so right, the fact that 2019 is the 80th anniversary of the beginning of the war (yes, my fellow Americans, those of us who were taught that WWII was 1941-1945 were merely the products of a faulty, U.S.-centric education system—I can't tell you how many people have looked confused when I've made reference to World War II beginning in 1939!) made it completely irresistible. And one of my goals was to represent all the major subdivisions I described in my WWII Book List here. (The list needs updating, but most of the books we're publishing are already included there.)

A final tidbit—the new batch includes a total of nine books by eight different authors. Our previous batches have included 2-3 authors and thus 2-3 sets of heirs and permissions, so we've had our work cut out for us!

The big reveal is coming soon!

[Imagine a countdown clock here—perhaps with Big Ben alongside a barrage balloon in the background.]

Friday, April 12, 2019

'They **** you up, your mum and dad': MONICA REDLICH, No Love Lost (1937)

(To give credit where due, I was drawing a blank on a name for this post until I recalled Philip Larkin's rather wonderful if slightly profane "This Be the Verse," which fits this novel like a glove...)

I owe acknowledgements and enthusiastic thanks to no fewer than three other kind souls who contacted me regarding my recent Hopeless Wish List and each made it possible for me to read one or more of the books I didn't have a snowball's chance of getting hold of on my own. You'll certainly hear about them all in due course, but this one, like the Mabel Esther Allan titles and dustjackets I wrote about recently here, comes to me courtesy of my Fairy Godmother, and there are still other odes to her generosity to come...

I've been a casual fan of Monica Redlich since happily stumbling across her first children's title Jam Tomorrow a few years ago (before I started blogging, so I didn't write about it here). After that, I was hot on the trail of her second and final book for children, Five Farthings, which turned out to be a delight when I finally tracked it down and reviewed it here. By that time, I knew that she had also published The Young Girl's Guide to Good Behaviour (1935), which was reprinted in 2010, as well as a handful of travel books, including Danish Delight (1939), The Pattern of England: Some Informal and Everyday Aspects (1947), and Summer Landscape: Denmark, England, U.S.A. (1952). But I was extraordinarily dense about coming across her adult fiction, which includes no fewer than four novels, now mostly buried beneath the sands of time.

The first two, Consenting Party and Cheap Return, both appeared in 1934. No idea, therefore, which of these was properly her first novel, but of Consenting Party I've been able to find only an intriguing but not terribly informative advertisement from Hamish Hamilton, which appeared in the Observer late in 1934. 

Perhaps it's time to add this one to my Hopeless Wish List as well (particularly if E. M. Delafield seems to have enjoyed it)?

And perhaps Cheap Return too, based on a promising review I came across: The Age, Melbourne called it "clever and amusing, though it is impossible to approve of the lax moral standards of the central figure." That heroine attends a girls' college at London University, and the novel seems to concern the tribulations of her love life, but The Age does go on to say "the book is entertaining because of its gentle satire and its lively presentation of life in a girls' college."

By fourteen years later, when Redlich published her final novel, The Various Light (1948), she had progressed to what sounds a very odd plot indeed. I previously knew nothing about it except that Carl Jung, of all people, had recommended it to a colleague, but when I mentioned it in my wish list Grant Hurlock (who has apparently read everything) explained that Jung's interest was likely because "its adultery-minded ensemble of characters exist simultaneously in two different realms, one earthly and the other astral/heavenly that resembles a collective unconscious." Hmmmm.

1937's No Love Lost, then, falls between those two early works and the much later, more experimental one, and all I knew about it before was a blurb calling it "a simply-told story of the reactions of a schoolgirl to the unhappy marriage of her parents." More or less accurate, but perhaps just a bit reductive. As the novel begins, Hilary Leighton is leaving school for the last time (so she's only a "schoolgirl" for the first few pages—which also means this title doesn't belong after all on my Grownup School Story List, alas, though it could fit on a "widening world" list, if I ever got around to that), and finds that her parents are moving to the country.

Hamish Hamilton blurb in the Observer, 1937, with praise
for No Love Lost just above a blurb for Ursula Orange
(featuring more praise from E. M. Delafield, no less!)

The first part of the novel reads a bit like a less clever Guard Your Daughters, as here when Hilary is coming home from school for the last time, full of youthful enthusiasm:

Even a bus-ride, to-day, was different from any she had ever taken before. She was not a schoolgirl, checked off on a list and anxiously waited for until, at some stated time, she should reappear. She was a grown-up, a young woman, going where she chose to go in her own good time. The swayings and rockings of the big red bus filled her with delight; it might have been a ship, plunging into uncharted oceans.

It's not long, however, before the darker undercurrents of tension between her parents, Edmund and Francis, come in, along with what certainly appears to be some form of mental health condition in Francis—touchiness and paranoia, self-destructive behavior, much time spent in bed, and, of all things, compulsive gardening. And this part, describing what it's like for a young person to deal with a parent's mental illness, is one of the strongest bits of the novel. Redlich seems to know very vividly of which she speaks:

Hilary nowadays divided all remarks into three categories: those which were certain to start things off, those which looked risky, and those which, as far as she could see, might be perfectly safe.

As far as she possibly could she censored every remark before allowing herself to make it, and permitted none that had about them the slightest suggestion of danger. Not that one could ever be certain, of course.

Early in the novel, Hilary introduces her parents to Cynthia, a former schoolmate who is now a successful actress in London, and this too has important repercussions later on.

It's hard to discuss this book much without spoilers, so consider this my SPOILER ALERT.

Monica Redlich (second from right) and family

In short, Hilary's mother dies fairly suddenly (following a particularly excessive bout of gardening—no kidding), and the handling of her illness is odd indeed and takes away slightly from the power the scenes could have had. The doctor mentions both "hysteria" and some form of kidney ailment, but it's rather confusing where one stops and the other begins, particularly as we are also given to believe that she has simply stopped wanting to live. Subsequently, Hilary's mild romance with a school friend's brother ends because he fears her mother's instability could be hereditary, and thus begins the obsessive analysis of her parents' relationship and of her own personality that occupies much of the rest of the novel.

Later on, there's another effective passage about the haunting that Hilary can still sometimes feel even long after her mother's death:

She opened the front door and walked into the hall, her mind busy with some detail of housekeeping: and, in the instant while she pushed the door shut behind her, she was shaken violently from her preoccupation back into the present. Or was it the present—or was it perhaps the past?

She did not know. All she knew was that, as she stood there, the hall was full of foreboding, and fear, and unhappiness—not her fear, and not her unhappiness. The house was very still, but it was not the stillness of a winter morning. From upstairs, faint but utterly unmistakable, came the one sound that she would never, never forget. Francis was sobbing.

No Love Lost is ultimately a wild and woolly, intriguing mess of a novel. It undoubtedly fails on all kinds of levels as a novel, and yet somehow manages to be entertaining, readable, and even moving at times. In a way it's a rather traditional kind of novel, a bildungsroman even (how's that for a bit of lit-crit memorabilia?!), tracing a young girl's development from careless youth to maturity, via her mother's tragic death, failed romance, eventual marriage, and her subsequent coming to terms with her fears of her own emotional weaknesses. That the novel's tone varies with each stage of the plot—from the perkiness of a school story to melodramatic family angst to gushy romance to soul-searching and philosophizing—is only one of the odd elements here. At 320 pages, it's too long for the story it tells, and the last 30 pages are rather ridiculous and a bit tedious, as Hilary chews (and chews, and chews, and chews—like that bit of stubborn gristle you struggle to make swallowable at a public dinner because you don't know what else to do with it) over her parents' relationship and compares it with her own.

Most of it isn't very elegantly done, either, so by rights none of it should work…

And yet strangely it kind of does. Most of the time I found it surprisingly hard to put the novel down, and I think this has to come down to the charm and sincerity of Redlich's writing. I don't know enough about Redlich to be able to say for sure that No Love Lost is autobiographical, but it's hard to believe it's not. There's an author's note at the beginning:

Of the characters of this book two have been drawn in part from real people, both now dead. The others are imagined. - M.R.

Now, a bit of searching on Ancestry reveals that Redlich's mother Matilda died in 1927 at age 52, when Monica was only 18. That could match the details of the book, and Matilda might be one of the two real people mentioned. But Monica's father in fact lived until 1960, only five years before Monica's own death, so he can't be the other. Redlich's husband, Danish diplomat Sigurd Christensen, whom I thought could have influenced her portrayal of Hilary's husband, outlived Monica, so he can't be the other one either. Perhaps Cynthia is based on a real friend of Monica's? But her father's second wife, according to an Ancestry tree, though indeed 40 years his junior, as Cynthia is far younger than Edmund, lived until 1980. The trail goes cold.

At any rate, it's clear that at least some of the novel's events come from Redlich's own life. Much of No Love Lost has the immediacy and urgency of a letter from a close friend, and as such it's a rather special novel despite its many flaws. Thanks again to F.G. for the opportunity to read it!

By the way, it's odd to think that this novel was published the same year as Redlich's first children's book—perhaps that partly explains the varying tone of this book? But one mention in No Love Lost that caught my eye was of the "lovely church that deserves to be by Wren, only it isn't," pointing the way directly to her second children's book, Five Farthings, which, as some of you will know, is much concerned with Wren churches…

Thursday, April 4, 2019

Wish fulfillment indeed!: MABEL ESTHER ALLAN, The Amber House (1956), a fairy godmother, and a plethora of rare MEA dustjackets

Cover art by Geoffrey Whittam

At the beginning of March, I posted (at long last) my new Hopeless Wish List, and I've already been amazed by the extent to which many of my greatest hits of hopelessness have already been dispelled by hope. (And heaven knows we all need, on both sides of the Atlantic, to have some hopelessness dispelled these days, don't we?!)

Cover art uncredited, but signature is clearly Geoffrey Whittam

You'll be hearing more about the formerly hopeless titles in upcoming posts. You'll also be hearing more about one particular, very generous reader, who prefers not to be acknowledged by name and who will therefore henceforth be known here as my Fairy Godmother. The wonderful F.G. has not only given me access to several titles from my hopeless list, but she's also been fulfilling my wildest Mabel Esther Allan fantasies by making it possible for me to read some of MEA's rarest titles. She has also kindly provided me with scans of numerous glorious dustjackets from her amazing collection. Since I'd never seen many of these covers, I'm including the first few in this post (there will be more down the road) and discussing the first of the rare MEA titles I dived into, which has quickly become one of my two or three absolute favorites.

Artist uncredited

Rye, on the south coast of England, was one of my favorite spots on our trip to England a couple of years back, and I wish we could have spent much more than one night there. So what could be a more perfect wish-fulfillment fantasy extraordinaire than The Amber House, about a young woman bravely facing the hardship of spending a year living in an historic house there while helping her prickly great-aunt write a book about the house's past and exploring the town and its surrounding areas?

Cover art by Shirley Hughes

Helen Brierley is happily preparing to accept a job as a secretary at Cloud Ridge School (an institution MEA fans will recognize) when her great aunt, Mrs Rossett Somerton (even the name sounds cranky), writes to Helen's mother and proposes that she serve as her own secretary as she puts together a long-planned history of the Amber House. Said house, described as the most famous building in Rye apart from the Mermaid Inn itself (no mention in the book of Lamb House, rather oddly, which undoubtedly is the second most famous building in Rye), is so named because it was once the home of a very valuable Bronze Age amber cup, which has now been lost for many years. Before that, the house was the Neptune Inn, a "noted smugglers' haunt" with lots of secret passages and enticing nooks and crannies, so perhaps MEA intended it to be a sort of fantasy alternative version of the Mermaid Inn itself, transformed into a seductive old house?

Cover art by Betty Ladler

Helen is reluctant to accept the job and is nervous of her great aunt (properly her grand aunt, as anyone who does genealogy—but no one else—knows), but her parents feel the experience will be good for her. She therefore makes her way by train to Rye, encountering along the way a handsome young medical student named Peter Glynde, who lives just across the marsh in the similarly ancient and scenic Winchelsea. Rounding out the novel's cast are Anderida ("Derry") Brown, the daughter of a well-known archaeologist, who has made it her mission to track down the lost amber cup, Mrs Pelham, the kindly housekeeper, and Basil Ingworth, a clunky, clingy, and generally annoying schoolboy who is Great-Aunt Rossett's ideal as a social companion for Helen—but not Helen's.

Artist uncredited, but I think it has to be Shirley Hughes? (Especially
considering that the girl on the left is the spitting image of the girl on the
Lost Lorrenden cover above!)

There aren't a lot of surprises in dear Mabel's handling of these plot elements, but oh what charming elements they are. The Amber House is an effective widening world novel as well as one of MEA's best-ever bits of armchair tourism. There's also a bit of a romantic element that doesn't become sappy or angst-ridden, as a few of her later titles are prone to do. Even the ordinary subplot of the difficult relative being loosened up (at least a bit) by contact with a spunky young girl works well here. And Helen IS spunky, and stands up for herself when necessary, which also puts her streets ahead* (see bottom of post) of some of MEA's later romantic heroines. She's eager to please, smart, capable, and competent, but she refuses to be a doormat (for which, of course, her aunt ends up admiring her).

Artist uncredited

The middle-1950s seem to be a high point in Mabel Esther Allan's career, at least as far as the elements I most enjoy go. When reading The Amber House, I thought of two of my favorite Allan books, Changes for the Challoners, another great armchair travel story, and The Vine-Clad Hill (aka Swiss Holiday), one of MEA's best widening world stories. Looking at the complete list of MEA's titles, I see that Changes appeared the year before Amber House, while Vine-Clad Hill appeared the same year, so I'm now eager to get a closer look at some of her other books from those years. Glenvara, perhaps? Lost Lorrenden? Ann's Alpine Adventure? Hmmmmm.

Cover art by Terence Freeman

I owe a major debt of gratitude to F.G. And you haven't heard the last of her!

* I've heard this expression on British telly a million times, but wanting to be meticulously accurate (as always—ha!) I googled it before using it and found this extraordinary blog entry in which several Brits or folks who have lived in the U.K. deny all knowledge of the expression. Surely none of my readers would be among them? I then stumbled across this article and felt rather chuffed (!) that I knew almost (but not quite) all of the terms listed.
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