Friday, July 26, 2019

Three early Carola Oman comedies: Mrs Newdigate's Window (1927), The Holiday (1928), and Fair Stood the Wind (1930)

When I last wrote about Carola Oman, raving at some length about her wonderful World War II novels Nothing to Report and Somewhere in England—which are among my all-time favorites and which are also, not at all coincidentally, coming very soon as Furrowed Middlebrow reprints—I mentioned that I had happily discovered that another of her earlier novels, Fair Stood the Wind, also had a contemporary setting, unlike most of her fiction which is historical in subject.

Now, it turns out that I get to revise that statement: There are actually a total of three more Oman novels which were set in the present day of the late 1920s, when they were written. (All, for whatever reason, published under her married name, unlike much of her historical work.) And, following a flurry of obsessive interlibrary loan requests, I can now report that, with one caveat about the last, they are similarly delightful, sweet, fun social comedies, each with at least a bit of Austen-esque romance.

The story of Mrs Newdigate's Window centers around the titular middle-aged Marianne Newdigate, her husband Colonel George Newdigate, and her two young goddaughters Marianne (Mollie) Delahaye and Marianne (Mary) Ripley. We follow various charming vicissitudes as Mrs Newdigate assists and advises both girls in their romantic pursuits, while Colonel Newdigate looks on stoically and supportively. In terms of finding husbands, glamorous, perky Mollie is undoubtedly the sure thing, while smart, quiet Mary is rather more of a long shot. But once they are successfully married off—Mary to a diligent, hard-working, older man (42 to her 28) and Mollie into an aristocratic family with not quite as much money remaining as they might hope—their odds of happiness shift rather more in Mary's favor.

And that's pretty much the plot really. But what gives it tremendous charm is the wonderful dynamic between Mrs Newdigate and her husband. As an example, this scene just a couple of pages into the story will ring a bell with any married couple:

As they entered the drawing-room this evening Colonel Newdigate was for the second time in the midst of the description of a motor accident that he had seen in Oxford Street that afternoon. His eye lighting on the silver-table, he seized the elephant to impersonate "a Rolls-Royce, moving a not a whit less than twenty miles an hour." His wife, with her back to him, was taking a couple of parcels out of her escritoire.

"They met," said he, smacking the elephant against the lady of the loving-cup, "like that! And the next moment that corner was hailing glass. Marianne, you're not looking!"

Mrs. Newdigate came hastily towards him and bent over the table with an expression of concern.

"I am, George, I am. I saw when you showed me with the pepper-pots at dinner that it must have been 'a peculiarly shocking encounter,' as your great-aunt wrote of the Battle of Waterloo. Tell me, what did you do?"

And most readers of this blog will love Mrs Newdigate for no other reason than a letter she writes to Mary, who, determined to take some action in her life rather than merely waiting for a husband, has gone off to do nursing training. She has written to her godmother that no one at the hospital is a reader and there are no books:

It was with great pleasure, my dear child, [wrote Marianne], that I received your letter containing your request for books. I have just returned from searching our shelves on your behalf, and am sending off a first parcel this morning. I blame myself that I did not think of this before your departure, for I remember when I was about your age I once found myself quite unprotected by literature, and I suffered intensely. The occasion was a visit to some distant cousins in the north of England, shortly after our marriage. They had excellent hearts but no conversation. They bore your Uncle George out hunting every day, and when he returned in the evenings I had forgotten what he looked like, and scarcely dared to try and see in case I did not like him after all. I did not break down, I remember, until the fifth evening—they were his cousins—and then I wept in his dressing-room. I could only sob—'No books! no books!' which he could not understand, and he became dreadfully distressed and wanted to send for a doctor, or take me back to my mother (who, by the way, would not have been at all pleased to see me arrive thus unceremoniously). However, in the morning he wired to Mudie's and also rode eight miles to the nearest town whence he solemnly brought me back Good Words, over which we had a touching scene of reconciliation. You need not smile, Mary, The Little Minister was coming out in monthly instalments in Good Words that year.

If you enjoy quiet little domestic tales sprinkled with likable characters and good humor, Mrs Newdigate's Window might be right up your alley. And even better, I thought—in fact my favorite of these three novels—was The Holiday.

Here we begin with a different pairing. Instead of a happily married older couple, we have Georgine Ross-Preston and her widowed father George, a former general (thus referred to as "the General"), who are sometimes mistaken for a married couple. Georgine is in her early 30s, happily living with her father in their flat in London, with occasional excursions to their country cottage. They are both quite contented, and generally they spend their summer holidays together as well. This year, however, the General has made plans to go fishing in Norway with a friend, leaving Georgine at loose ends.

But not for long. Georgine's old friend Claire Woodruff soon visits with a favor to ask: Will Georgine consider going to her family's home in Scotland, Stobblie, for several weeks to care for Claire's two young sons while Claire herself heads off for a Mediterranean cruise? Claire's mother, Lady Dunree, is a classic malingerer whose loyal housekeeper has had to go to care for an ailing sister, so Georgine will be serving, effectively, as nurse, governess, housekeeper, and general dogsbody—not necessarily an irresistible holiday festivity. However, some of the happiest summers of Georgine's youth were spent at Stobblie, and the news that Claire's unmarried brother Frank, with whom Georgine was once infatuated, is returning from many years in India and will be present as well helps tip the balance. Later, Victor Gates, a "St Bernard type" whom Claire is considering making husband number three (the first two having died in World War I—one at the beginning, one at the end), shows up for a visit as well. Then one of the boys has appendicitis, and Georgine's holiday goes downhill from there—or so it seems.

It's all great fun, and although there are happy endings for all (except, I have to note, for one bizarrely sudden tragedy involving a minor character, mentioned in passing near the end of the book, which is odd but doesn't tarnish the overall effect), they don't come about in quite the way the reader might expect, which is always fun. Just a couple of little samples. First, Georgine's first impression of Victor Gates gives us such a clear notion of how he comes across:

Georgine did not yet know whether he was stupid or not. He looked as if he might be, or at any rate as if he would have little to offer in the way of light conversation. She felt sure that he belonged to the type of man who interrupts himself when telling a funny story to settle whether the incident occurred on Monday or Wednesday.

And then, I have to share a passage from near the end of the novel. I won't say a word about why Georgine is at her breaking point, so no spoilers—suffice it to say she has been under considerable stress—but the kind understanding of her prim and proper Aunt Isabel is enough to push her over the edge. Aunt Isabel's polite euphemism for her hysteria is one of my favorite lines in the novel:

Miss Ross-Preston looked up, and saw to her utter confusion a light of understanding spreading over the features of Lady Robinson. At this her misery seemed to become more hopeless and more complete than she had ever realised. Her voice failed, and the storm without was nothing to the storm within, as she indulged at last in the good cry she had denied herself for five days.

Aunt Isabel did not betray alarm. She proved rather a good person to weep upon. After all, as her daughter had declared, blood is thicker than water. "Run away, Millicent," she said presently in quiet but grim tones to her nineteen-year-old daughter. "Your cousin has a headache."

The Holiday reminded me a bit of one of D. E. Stevenson's Mrs Tim novels, which in itself is high praise, and even to the extent that it's quite different from DES's style, it's very much the kind of novel that would be perfect for holiday reading, or else for when you desperately need a holiday but don't have one scheduled. It's a real delight.

And finally, Fair Stood the Wind was actually the first of these three novels that I read (from no lesser source than the Library of Congress!).

An initial casual suggestion of a motoring jaunt in France quickly expands to three cars and a party of nearly a dozen. The ringleaders are Elizabeth Woodhead and her friend Mrs Oliphant (Olly), a middle-aged widow who seems to attract tragedy but always faces it with the proverbial stiff upper lip and makes the best of things. Elizabeth's husband Christopher (Kit), formerly of the R.A.F., is happy to commit, and invites his cousin Denis, and Elizabeth invites her spinsterish friend Margaret and, more or less against her will and with some foreboding, their diva-ish mutual friend Cynthia. Olly invites her niece Pamela, who invites her own friend June and June's brother Jock, and her nephew Patrick, who brings along his friend Cedric. Whew!

It's Jock who issues a warning before their departure:

"Well, what are we going to do that we shall regret? You may as well warn us."

Mr. Somers smiled at the pacific heavens above, stretched his athletic limbs and uttered the single devastating word:


"Quarrel!" echoed Mrs. Oliphant in bewilderment. "But, Jock dear, how vulgar you are! I am sure I never quarrel with anyone."

"Neither do Kit and I," said Mrs. Woodhead through clenched teeth.

"Oh, you won't mean to quarrel," continued the oracle soothingly. "Women never do, but they just can't help it. They get on one another's nerves."

And of course, Jock's predictions come true, at least to an extent: there are certainly quarrels here and there, though it's hard to imagine any group of people together for several weeks and driving considerable distances most days who wouldn't have their quarrels. Plus, it must be said that most of the quarrels here are mild indeed, though no less amusing for that.

Unsurprisingly, there is romance along the way as well, as the riders in the three vehicles shift places from one day to the next and likes and dislikes grow. It's an entertaining cast of characters who offer much cheerful conversation and some pleasant chuckles. It's enjoyable, for example, to dislike Cynthia, who is rather a stereotype of all the irritating, overbearing acquaintances one has ever had. She is perfectly fluent in French (of course she would be), and never fails to correct the pronunciation of her fellow travellers:

Poor Miss Oliphant now had to avoid referring to cul-de-sacs, chauffeurs, garages, matinées, blancmanges, negligées, déshabillées or fiancés. She was even nervous of mentioning her crêpe de Chine pochette in Cynthia's hearing. It was awful how many French words there suddenly seemed to be in the English language.

There's also some enjoyable armchair travel here and there as the entourage makes its way from Havre down to Avignon and the French Riviera, then over into Italy, Lake Como, and back through France by a different route. For some reason, the dialogue here seemed just a bit too much on the flapper-ish side for me, unlike the two earlier novels, and the humor here is a bit broad sometimes, but it's still pleasant enough.

For the most part.

There is, however, one chip in the veneer near the end of the novel. For most of the story, Margaret, the young-ish friend of Elizabeth who is beginning to give up hope of ever marrying, is a quite likable sort of secondary protagonist for the novel—as in this passage about having to sleep alone in her home:

"How foul!" said Elizabeth. "I should be scared to fits. When Kit is in London I go and sleep in the little room next to nurse. Your nerves must be frightfully good."

"If you're thirty-three and what the evening papers politely describe as 'one of our superfluous women,'" said Miss Godby in rather a brave voice, "your nerves have got to be pretty good."

But then, bizarrely, toward the end of the novel, she lets rip with an unfortunate burst of virulent racism, which rather put a damper on things for me. It's utterly ridiculous and ignorant, of course, as all racism is, but I found it hard to root for her ultimate happiness afterward, and it's hard to imagine what Oman was thinking in including such a passage. It's a brief anomaly, though, and otherwise the novel is quite enjoyable—just a bit hard to wholeheartedly recommend.

That caveat aside, however, I'm so glad I kept poking around among Carola Oman's less well-known books and came across these three!

Friday, July 19, 2019

Dustjacket porn: Familiar children's titles

Any excuse is a good one to share beautiful or interesting dustjacket images. This post focuses on books I've already read and/or reviewed here. Of course, all the images are courtesy of my Fairy Godmother. (If you click on the images, you should be able to see them in their larger form.)

One of the rarest titles here is LORNA LEWIS's Tea and Hot Bombs, which I did write about here in 2017. This was one of the many books Grant Hurlock has shared with me in the past few years, a fun and wonderfully detailed Blitz story from a young girl's perspective.

ELFRIDA VIPONT's books aren't so terribly rare, but their original dustjackets are hard to come by. I've only mentioned in passing, I think, what a fan I am.

The Lark in the Morn and The Lark on the Wing were, as many of you know, followed by The Spring of the Year, Flowering Spring, and The Pavilion in Vipont's series about the Haverard family. The three later books were reprinted by Girls Gone By, so their original covers are at least familiar thanks to those.

Then there's Vipont's lesser-known trio of books about the Conyers family and their home, Dowbiggins. They're not as polished as the Haverard series, but I still found them entertaining, and I love getting to see the original covers. I had the U.S. edition of the third book, retitled A Win for Henry Conyers

I have the Girls Gone By reprint of DORITA FAIRLIE BRUCE's The Debatable Mound, which I reviewed with her other Colmskirk novels here and which, on its own, I made part of that year's Furrowed Middlebrow Dozen. But the original dustjacket is still lovely to see.

I reviewed KITTY BARNE's Family Footlights last year (see here), and enjoyed it very much, but I didn't have any example of the cover art at all. Voila!

I mentioned having acquired MOLLIE CHAPPELL's The Sugar and Spice, along with a zillion other books, here (yikes, book shopping posts are a bit demoralizing to look back on!), but I never got round to reporting on it. It's a lovely little book, and perfect if you, like me, have a strange fixation on stories of girls or young women starting or operating a business.

In 2017 I mentioned here very much enjoying DOROTHY SMITH's Those Greylands Girls and I commented about the rather lovely illustrations, but I didn't have the quite eye-catching dustjacket at that point.

And finally, I would have sworn I had mentioned NANCY BREARY's charming, funny school story It Was Fun in the Fourth here somewhere, but if I did the blog's search function is failing me. It's great fun, though, and it's lovely to have a better dustjacket image for it.

Thanks as always to F.G. for her generosity in providing these lovely images!

Friday, July 12, 2019

The ups and downs of GWENLLIAN MEYRICK: The Disastrous Visit (1956) & Shed No Tear (1961)

"Come along in, Gilbert, and tell Mrs. Blair you're sorry we're late!"

Everyone watched her turn aside at the doorway, which now awaited the entry of her brother. A shadow fell across the little light-painted passage, and a man stood in the doorway. At that moment, the sun slipped finally behind the houses opposite: the warm gold of the indolent summer afternoon drained away, to be replaced by the first chill of the imminent night. The room, suddenly dark, became darker as Gilbert Fell, a dark man in a dark suit, stood there.

This wonderfully portentous (and, presumably, a bit satirical) passage could almost come from a Muriel Spark novel, or even a Barbara Pym. Alas, however, despite some other charming elements, The Disastrous Visit doesn't live up to this potential. Since last August, I've read all six of Gwenllian Meyrick's novels, which typically combine a dash of humor, some light melodrama, likeable and believable characters (particularly women), and much domesticity in a recipe that I've obviously found irresistible despite some ambivalence (see my previous reviews of Meyrick here). Sadly, however, The Disastrous Visit proved to be, for me, the dregs of her work.

Susan Lockhart works in an antique shop, where she is devoted (at least) to her married employee, and has lived for eight years with her widowed father William, a Civil Servant with a genealogy hobby, in a house owned by William's sister-in-law, Bertha Blair, a businesswoman who has been conveniently out of the way in Australia for many years. Susan also occasionally spends time with Robert Neville, a close friend and occasional flirtation.

A bad photo of a terrible cover: is it
just me or does Bertha look rather
like a beekeeper here?

As the novel opens, Susan and her father have just received the news that Bertha is moving back to England to open a new business and will be living with them. She arrives almost immediately after, well before they expect her, and Susan frets about the disruption to their contented lives. And disruption it turns out to be, as Bertha remodels the house, dividing it into three flats, and invites Kitty Fell and her ominous brother Gilbert from the passage above to live in the basement and be partners in her business. At a party, she also spontaneously invites Branwell Swift, a pompously bleak and self-righteous bestselling novelist (and, pseudonymously, magazine romance writer), to take the upstairs flat with his wishy-washy son Adrian.

It seems like The Disastrous Visit couldn't quite decide if it was a comedy about the disconcerting disruptions of an eccentric aunt, or a crime novel, or a romance (though the ending very much comes down on the side of the most gushing, rather embarrassing romance). The attempt at a vaguely suspenseful subplot involving the Fells didn't work at all for me—it reminded me a bit of one of Agatha Christie's late novels about vague conspiracies and vague dastardly deeds. Plus, by comparison with most of Meyrick's other heroines, Susan comes across as a bit shrill and intolerant in her superiority over everyone else, and Bertha is certainly not one of Meyrick's strong women characters, so one of the main strengths of her other novels is completely missing here.

About the only highlight here is Meyrick's implicit commentary on Branwell Swift's style and methods of writing. This passage, for example, surely reflects some of Meyrick's feelings about the grittier types of fiction that had come into fashion in the 1950s:

"I start with a character," said Branwell, warming to his favourite subject, "someone who is maladjusted or mentally twisted or unhappy or perverted. Then I think of another person with a different abnormal characteristic, throw them together, add one or two more characters, and let the book write itself."

"You don't ever write about normal people?"

"Oh, no, my dear girl. Ordinary people are of no interest to intellectuals."

"Nor happy people?"

"Of course not!" Bran well was shocked. "There is nothing to say about them. Besides, I should never get any reviews."

And surely that little comment about not getting reviews must have been a bit of Meyrick's own frustration coming out, as it seems that her books only rarely got significant critical attention.

Fortunately, Shed No Tear, the last of Meyrick's novels (both the last that I hadn't read and the last she published) was far more satisfying. It might not be on a parr with some of the very best of her work, but it was great fun anyway. It has all the elements of a romantic melodrama, which ought to have been irritating and dull for me, but as in most of her books, Meyrick's characters are so well-defined and wholly realistic that it all seems surprisingly fresh. Again Dorothy Whipple came to mind as the closest comparison, though it's not a precise one, but there's a similar sort of surprising depth brought to even very basic, somewhat clichéd plots.

The novel opens at the wedding of Catherine Lane and Hugo Thornton, at which we overhear some of the wedding guests discussing what a mistake Catherine is making. Hugo, it seems, is a slightly shady character, who has been carrying on with a married woman while flirting with other girls. Everyone seems to be in agreement that she should have married Richard Gibson, a young man who's clearly in love with her but also thoroughly cowed by his mother.

After the wedding scene, we flash back to 20-year-old Catherine's first meeting with Hugo, when she first moves to London to attend art school and share a flat with two girlfriends. Hugo is a charmer, who quickly flits from one of Catherine's roommates to Catherine herself, causing bitterness that lingers well into the novel, but Catherine also hears (and ignores) rumors of his married lover. The two marry, quickly have two children, and are blissfully happy. For a time. But of course the "other woman" lingers in the background.

In part the reason that Shed No Tear is so much more entertaining than The Disastrous Visit is that here we do get the interesting women who are such a wonderful characteristic of most of Meyrick's work. There's Catherine's mother, an acclaimed artist who is perpetually absorbed in her own work and disarmingly unconventional in her perspectives, and Milly (Mrs Mills), who was evacuated with two young daughters during World War II and has remained ever since, her daughters long since married and moved away. Milly is Mrs Lane's staunchest ally and protector of her sacred artistry ("Mrs. Lane's a real artist," says Milly. "You see, she's got no conscience"), as well as a sort of second mother to Catherine. To some extent, when we finally meet her near the end of the novel, the ubiquitous Mrs Seymour, the "other woman", also qualifies. All are intriguing women (of a certain age) who think for themselves, are practical and motivated, and do not define themselves by their relationships with men (even when, as with Mrs Seymour, they quite enjoy such relationships). And I have to add that even Catherine, who at first seems like rather a wet dishmop and an unfortunate choice of heroine, finds some surprising strength of will by the end of the novel, and there is some real satisfaction in seeing her development

The ending of this novel is not entirely satisfactory—Meyrick does seem to have trouble with her "happy ever after" endings, which in today's climate aren't always unproblematic. Many readers would likely find it difficult to be completely ecstatic for Catherine here. On the other hand, plot-wise, Meyrick manages to be just a bit surprising in the end, and it's hard not to think that Catherine has come a long way in an intriguing direction. I rather wish Meyrick had revisited her in a subsequent novel to show us where she gets to.

On a sort of side topic, the portrayal of Catherine's mother—like that of Branwell Swift in The Disastrous Visit—is intriguing for what it might suggest about Meyrick's view of creative artists. For her, her work is above virtually all else (though in the end we do see her maternal instincts kick in as well, so she is by no means inhuman). I was entertained by her arguments against Catherine's marriage:

"You are twenty," she said. "You have the makings of a good artist. You have the ability, the temperament. You want to give it all up to become a suburban housewife in a little box of a house."

"Perhaps you'd rather I just lived with him then," retorted Catherine. "It's quite an ordinary thing to do nowadays. I'm always hearing of it."

"That certainly might be less disturbing for your work," said Mrs. Lane thoughtfully.

Catherine was shocked. If one of her friends had said it, she would have accepted it as typical of their generation. But mothers were different. Her friends would laugh indulgently at their limited outlook and their old-fashioned approach to life, but she herself envied girls who had such mothers. It gave them stability and something to fight against when they wanted freedom. Catherine had always had freedom. There had never been anything for her to fight against, and she often felt that this was a big gap in her life.

Catherine pushed her fingers through her hair restlessly. "At least we're more natural," she said.

"Certainly. But it's not particularly difficult to be natural. Even the most elementary forms of life are quite good at it."

One wonders how Mrs Lane would have coped had Mr Lane not been killed in the war when Catherine was just a baby, and had Milly not come to live with them around the same time—a baby doesn't tend to wait till a painting is finished before demanding its dinner!

And then there's Milly's observation later on in the novel:

Milly sighed. "Seems to me," she said, twisting the gaudy beads round her neck, "that there are two sorts of artists. There are the ones who recognise they've got obligations towards other people—husbands to look after, or wives to support, or children to bring up—and they're always in a state, trying to follow their art and do what they should for other people. The other sort are the lucky ones who don't have a choice to make. Ones like your Mum, who just go straight for their art and never think of anyone else. No worries for them, no cutting themselves in two all the time."

This passage particularly struck me because I can't help wondering if Meyrick was, to some extent, bemoaning the fact that she is not one of those people. She was, I suspect, one of those people for whom continuing with their art is a struggle and a balancing act. And just perhaps this passage gives some insight into why Shed No Tear wound up as Meyrick's final novel, though she lived another 36 years. Against the Stream, her earlier novel, was focused on a woman trying to balance a satisfying career with her family life, so we know she had given it all considerable thought. Perhaps the "cutting themselves in two all the time" finally became too much?

So, that's that as far as my reading of Meyrick goes. Always rather bittersweet when I finish reading an author I like.

One of the things that first attracted me to Meyrick were some of the distinctive dustjackets her publisher created, and I'm happy that my copy of Shed No Tear came complete with a beautifully-preserved example of them, but that's not really the most exciting part. My copy also arrived with Meyrick's signature on the title page, which is a lovely added touch. And, as I'm one of those people who enjoy old inscriptions inside the front cover, I also liked the original gift inscription from 1961.

And on the topic of Meyrick's lovely dustjackets, after I wrote recently about what I can now say is my favorite of her novels, The Morning-Room (see here), Ann, a very kind reader of this blog, sent me a lovely scan of the dustjacket from her copy of the book. 

I had never so much as glimpsed a copy of that book's cover, and it's absolutely gorgeous, even if Ann and I are in agreement that the characters don't quite look like we imagined them (and we're also in agreement in our enjoyment of that novel). Thanks for sending this along, Ann, and for letting me share it here!

Friday, July 5, 2019

A sultry week's reading: ALETHEA HAYTER, A Sultry Month (1965)


The heat had begun in the very first days of the month. Already by 2nd June Browning was complaining that it was very warm, and warning Elizabeth Barrett to be careful of her health. By the 5th the temperature in her room was 80°, and though she loved the heat she could do nothing but lie on the sofa and drink lemonade and read Monte Cristo. … A week later it was still "too hot to laugh"; even the mornings burned and dazzled in white heat; it was so overcoming that even Flush was cross, and Miss Barrett had to take him out in the carriage at half-past seven in the evening to get a breath of coolness by the silvery water of the Serpentine in the dusk of Hyde Park.

It just happened that I was reading A Sultry Month during a recent heatwave in San Francisco, which was surely some kind of literary kismet and provided the appropriate background to give me a sense of how heat and discomfort would have permeated the events of the book. It's an unusual book for me, and indeed a rather unusual book, period. But a couple of years ago when I was first researching Alethea Hayter for my list, this innovative historical work caught my eye.

In Hayter's Guardian obit, Harriet Harvey-Wood said of it: "In its ingenuity and insight, it was an experiment in the art of biography that has seldom been equalled and never bettered." It's also completely perfect for fans of Thea Holme's The Carlyles at Home, reprinted by Persephone, which was (in an apparent flurry of interest in this time period and some of the same personalities) published in the same year. I didn't read the latter book until I happened across a cheap copy, probably at a library book sale, because I wasn't sure it would be my cup of tea, then I started reading and absolutely couldn't put it down. It's now one of my favorite Persephones.

Hayter's experiment works beautifully: she focuses on an entire group of literary and artistic figures, many of whom are at pivotal moments in their lives, and follows them through the interlinked events of an unusually hot month in London, from June 18 – July 13, 1846. Hayter had a few years before published her first full-length work of non-fiction, the acclaimed biography Mrs Browning: A Poet's Work and Its Setting (1962), so one can speculate that she had unearthed so much interesting material in studying, for example, the reactions of Elizabeth Barrett's friends and fellow writers and artists to her escape to Italy with Browning that she felt it simply couldn't go to waste.

Interestingly, though, the main "character" here is the painter and author Benjamin Robert Haydon—not exactly an iconic name in art history—but it works well, as Haydon was clearly a character in both senses of the word, and he had interactions with all the other main figures. He was a man with problems, but in 1846 he was particularly in crisis mode, buried under debt and overwhelmed with frustration at not being better appreciated as an artist. He organizes an exhibition of his own work, with the intention of bringing the acclaim he deserves, but it fails humiliatingly, in large part due to being mounted in the same building as P. T. Barnum's Tom Thumb, who garnered huge crowds to Haydon's sparse trickle. In a memorably (and hilariously) devastating letter, no lesser figure than Charles Dickens reported after Haydon's death on the exhibition and Haydon in general:

All his life he had utterly mistaken his vocation. No amount of sympathy with him, and sorrow for him in his manly pursuit of a wrong idea for many years—until, by dint of his perseverance and courage it almost began to seem a right one—ought to prevent one from saying that he most unquestionably was a very bad painter, and that his pictures could not be expected to sell or to succeed. I went to that very exhibition at the Egyptian Hall, of which he writes so touchingly in his Diary. And I assure you that when I saw his account of the number of visitors he had had in one of the papers, my amazement was—not that there were so few, but that there were so many. There was one picture, Nero entertaining himself with a Musical Performance while Rome was burning—quite marvellous in its badness. It was difficult to look at it with a composed and decent face.

Probably not how Haydon would have wanted to be remembered by Dickens.

In addition to Dickens, who makes a couple of cameo appearances, A Sultry Month features a wonderful supporting cast, including: Elizabeth Barrett, still living at home with her dominating father, but already secretly engaged to Robert Browning and plotting her escape; Thomas and Jane Carlyle, in the midst of one of the periodic rough spells in their marriage, and deeply involved in the others' dramas as well; Mary Russell Mitford, author of Our Village and other popular books of the time; entertaining lesser figures like the eccentric German novelist Grafin Hahn-Hahn (as Jane Carlyle puts it, "Countess Cock cock! What a name!"), actor William Macready, poet and art collector Samuel Rogers, and art historian Anna Jameson; and with other cameos from the likes of William Wordsworth and Alfred, Lord Tennyson.

Also unfolding in that sweltering few weeks was a political drama that evokes today's Brexit turmoil—the proposed repeal of the Corn Laws. I had to Google them, but basically they were tariffs on imported grain, and, in the wake of the beginning of the Irish famine, it was believed that repealing them would help ease food prices for lower income families. There was fierce argument both in the government and in society, and the political turmoil ultimately led to, among other things, the resignation of Prime Minister Sir Robert Peel (though not before he successfully got the laws repealed). Here's Hayter's evocative description:

The House and the public were agog with expectation of the next night's debate. The political situation, like the weather, was in full heat wave. Sides were taken over the Corn Law question with a violence exceeding any normal political reaction. Fathers and sons quarrelled about it and did not speak to each other for years afterwards. Milnes' father was a Protectionist, and took an active part against his son in Yorkshire political activities. It was not only the old landowners like Robert Milnes who were dismayed; all the old men felt that their world was crumbling. "As to public affairs I cannot bear to think of them. Sir Robert Peel is infatuated; he is playing the part of that weak man, Necker, in the beginning of the French Revolution" wrote Wordsworth from Westmorland.

It's at least slightly reassuring (very slightly) to realize that such fierce divisions as we see today were not unknown a century and a half ago.

There are all sorts of interesting details in Hayer's book. Some of my favorites are the way she evokes details of London as it would have looked and felt at the time, as in this description of a walk Haydon takes:

Haydon walked on to the village of Hampstead through the burning heat. North of Regent's Park the way to Golders Hill was almost all through open fields, with a few scattered farms and large houses, such as Belsize House in its great park. West across the fields ran the new Birmingham Railway from Euston. This was the area, beginning to be devastated by the railway and its accompanying streets and warehouses, that Dickens was just about to start describing so vividly in Dombey and Son, the first words of which were written at Lausanne six days after this hot Sunday morning. The tentacles of Camden Town were stretching out along the railway into the fields, which were rutted with cart-wheel tracks and defaced with heaps of bricks and streaks of lime. Cow-houses, and summer-houses, and the foundations of new little streets of dwellings for the railway workers, were all jumbled together on the edge of the open country, and the jangling Sunday church bells and the roar and rattle of the trains jarred the baking dusty fields as Haydon walked on to Hampstead.

Amazingly for a book I'm writing about, it's not terribly difficult to get hold of a copy of A Sultry Month!

In the 1940s and 1950s, Hayter had published five novels under the pseudonym J. C. Fennessy, but once she turned to non-fiction with Mrs Browning, she seems to have found her niche. Having read A Sultry Month with such pleasure, I'm particularly intrigued by Opium and the Romantic Imagination (1968), which looks at the drug's impact on Coleridge, Keats, Poe, and five other authors, Horatio's Version (1972), which "takes the form of a commission of inquiry by the lieutenant of Fortinbras into recent events at Elsinore, interspersed with comments from Horatio's diary, which provides an alternative reading of the plot of Shakespeare's Hamlet, based entirely on the facts as given in the play," and her final work, The Wreck of the Abergavenny (2002), which looks at the effects of an 1805 shipwreck on the people connected to it in some way, including William Wordsworth, whose brother was the captain of the ship. I'd also love to get hold of her early Fennessy novel, The Siege of Elsinore (1948), which apparently imagines what a marriage between Hamlet and Ophelia would have looked like, but that one looks hopeless indeed!

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