Thursday, December 26, 2019


Hope you're all having lovely holidays doing whatever constitutes a lovely holiday for you! After a festive Thanksgiving with Andy's family in San Diego, Andy and I spent a delightfully mellow Christmas at home reading, snoozing, watching Shetland, and working a jigsaw puzzle of our next big trip destination, Spain. As we're nearly finished with this puzzle, we also have a Scotland puzzle to dive into, so here's hoping a Scotland trip will also be on the horizon soon!

Around New Year's I will, as usual, be posting my Furrowed Middlebrow Dozen for the year. But in the meantime, I'm catching up with two more books from my recent reading, both highly enjoyable in very different ways.

I don't even recall for sure why I had flagged DIANA FORBES-ROBERTSON's A Cat and a King (1949) as a priority to read, but I'm happy I did. It's certainly nothing we haven't seen and read before—young woman starting out in life meets middle-aged superstar stage actor, gets a job at the theatre, is pulled into the dramas of his family's life, becomes hopelessly enamored of him, and winds up a saddened but stronger and wiser heroine in the end. Dodie Smith might well have written it, though Forbes-Robertson has the advantage of coming from a well-known acting dynasty herself, so she certainly knows whereof she speaks. Her parents were actors Johnston and Gertrude Forbes-Robertson, her aunt was Maxine Elliott—of whom she wrote a memoir, Maxine [1964, aka My Aunt Maxine]—and her sister was Jean Forbes-Robertson, who played Peter Pan on the London stage and wrote a children's book. Another aunt, Frances Forbes-Robertson, was a novelist, and she and Jean are both also on my author list.

Even though there's not a lot to surprise the reader here, however, it's all done quite charmingly and I found it hard to put down. Gill, sitting in a pub with her shiftless boyfriend Oliver, recognizes young actor Jonathan Gregory very much the worse for alcohol and arguing with the bartender who doesn't want to continue serving him:

"You see, I've been working all day with the greatest actor since Garrick and the strain's got me, and I need my drink. He's been teaching me all about it. It's wonderful how lucky I am to get all that expert advice."

As you'll have guessed, the "greatest actor since Garrick" is Jonathan's own father, Luke Gregory, who has proven to be too much for Jonathan to live up to. Gill, against Oliver's arguments, takes time to chat with him and let him vent, then agrees to see a more or less unconscious Jonathan home in a taxi. And of course, once he's safely tucked up, Luke asks Gill to have coffee with him as a thank you, and then, because it's so late and she has missed her last train, he provides her with an elegant bedroom for the night.

I don't think that I'm any more overly impressed with celebrities than most people. I could probably meet all but my most passionately loved celebrities without doing anything more embarrassing than falling down a time or two, knocking over a table, or making incoherent attempts at humor until they call security… But it was nevertheless very difficult not to be seduced by Gill's inadvertent advent into Luke's glamorous orbit. The next morning over breakfast, she meets Luke's wife, and makes all the arrogant assumptions of youth:

Luke Gregory rose to his feet and went to meet her, taking her hand loosely and kissing her lightly on the cheek. With some ceremony he presented me to her, Mrs. Gregory, his wife, and I had to check the cry of protest that wanted to rise in my throat. How could she be his wife? She might have been his mother and yet that did not fit either because she was more like a woman from some quite different world. His vigour seemed to blot her out and as he placed her in her chair at the end of the table she appeared drained of strength.

A slightly distorted bookseller pic of
the back cover author pic, the only picture
I could locate of Forbes-Robertson

Luke does help her rid herself of Oliver once and for all by telling her, "Don't be a fool, girl; don't be any man's doormat." But she has more difficulty applying that same wisdom to her relationship with Luke himself. Later, a journalist friend, Nick Carradine, warns her of getting too close to Luke:

"You see he'd always elude you and that's pretty heart-breaking. It'd be like one of the myths or fairytales ... lady loves statue, or lady loves merman, or lady loves half-god-half-man. It always ends in trouble for the lady. I'm getting to think that he's a case of split personality, but he's living one half of the split, the unreal half, so hard that the other is sunk deep down far enough to be beyond the touch of anyone by now, except possibly himself. The performance is pretty perfect by now. The unreal has become real, and if you start coming at him with a real snarling emotion it'll be you that'll get hurt."

"Well, there isn't any question of it, anyway," I said lightly.

But of course, there is, and Nick's predictions come true, as we know from the beginning that they will. It really is all great fun, however, smoothly written and hard to put down. A Cat and a King is, alas, Forbes-Robertson's only novel, but she did collaborate on The Battle of Waterloo Road (1941), in which her narrative of the Blitz and its effects on the people of working-class Lambeth is accompanied by the photographs of Robert Capa, and she also wrote one theatre-related children's book, Footlights for Jean (1963).

Footsteps in the Night (1927) by CICELY FRASER-SIMSON has also been on my TBR list for ages. A Bookman review of it said:

Mrs. Fraser-Simson has drawn real and likeable characters who behave and speak with a delightful naturalness, often very amusingly, and the strength of her plot depends on the fact that the happenings are probable and the explanations perfectly convincing. For this reason the book is much more exciting than the average one of its kind, and to say that you cannot put it down until you have read every word of it is, in this instance, no exaggeration.

I don't know if I would put it quite so strongly—I'm sure I must have put it down a couple of times, and I'm not sure most readers would find it all entirely plausible—but it was certainly fun and no one is likely to care if it stretches credibility a bit. It's a bit like a lighter, more frivolous John Buchan adventure, featuring a likeable husband and wife in entertaining intrigue surrounding some top secret documents the husband, Peter, has for some reason brought with them on vacation to Scotland and then, through a series of mischances, left there with wife Eve as he heads to London for a crucial meeting. If the papers aren't there for the meeting, his career will be ruined, but a rival has decided to make sure of just that.

Peter is kidnapped, and when the kidnappers fail to find the papers with him, a shady character named Creason shows up at Eve's door. He bears a note from Peter asking that she let Creason stay with her for a short holiday, but Peter has cleverly included a subtle warning in his note, which tells Eve he's not really a friend. Creason keeps close tabs on Eve while she behaves as if nothing is wrong, and one of the high points of the novel is when he insists on accompanying her on her shopping and she exacts her own subtle revenge:

They spent a long, to Creason a very long, morning, during which Eve had a mild revenge. She left the car in the main street in her usual place, where all the shops knew it would be, and so generally sent their parcels out to it. But today, finding Creason meant to follow her from shop to shop, she waited for each parcel, and these he had to carry.

With a sirloin under one arm, two bottles of whiskey under the other, a parcel of fish—mostly kippers, to judge from the smell—in his hand, and another of butter hanging from one of his fingers, he cut a sorry figure. And Eve at length, repressing her merriment with difficulty, led him back to the car and let him deposit his burdens. But this was not the end, for she now took him round to collect more.

His well-merited discomfort amused her so much that she purchased many more things than had been her original intention. All the odds and ends that had been left over from week to week she now remembered. A fishing-rod that had been sent to be repaired had to be fetched, likewise an inordinate amount of cartridges. She thought he was going to strike when she suddenly remembered two large new hampers were needed for sending game and vegetables down to them when they were in London.

Of course, everything comes right in the end, but there are some effectively suspenseful moments along the way, as well as a few more chuckles. Footsteps was Fraser-Simson's first novel, and was followed by four more novels—The Swinging Shutter (1927), Danger Follows (1929), Count the Hours (1940), and Another Spring (1953). After that, she turned to children's fiction and published several more books.

Saturday, December 21, 2019

A battle of the brows: MARGERY SHARP, Rhododendron Pie (1930)

It was indeed very difficult for the Laventie children not to be a little priggish.

Ann Laventie, the youngest of three children of the latest in a long line of anti-social Sussex gentry, doesn't quite fit the mold of her intellectual, elegant, ultra-modern siblings—Dick, an artist, and Elizabeth, a high-brow writer, both surely destined for greatness. Mr Laventie is scholarly and just wealthy enough to focus all his attention on his reading and other highbrow pursuits. Mrs Laventie is loving and patient, disabled since a riding accident years before but stoical and attentive. The family's highest standards are aesthetics, individual freedoms, and distinction, standing out (and above) others. They even readily discuss and accept such concepts as free love. Ann, on the other hand, worries about being plump, is what might now be called a "people person," and as the novel progresses she begins to come to terms with her more traditional beliefs and pleasures.

The initially rather bewildering title of this novel—the delightful Margery Sharp's debut and the most vanishingly rare of her titles, inexplicably never reprinted in the UK or the US since its first edition in 1930—is a symbol of its theme. In a short prologue, we first meet the Laventies when Dick, Elizabeth, and Ann are only children. It is Ann's sixth birthday, and her "birthday pie" is being unveiled, a family tradition which stems from Elizabeth's own sixth birthday, when she had demanded an inedible but aesthetically lovely pie filled with rhododendrons. Never mind how one could possibly create such a pie, not to mention how the blossoms would actually look after having been crammed into a crust. The point is that artistic Elizabeth has initiated the tradition of a beautiful but eccentric and non-functional birthday pie. And as the prologue ends, we see the more pragmatic Ann regretting the fact that she couldn't have had a lovely, edible, apple pie instead.

Despite the markup and watermark, I love this pic of Margery and husband
Geoffrey Castle, snagged from the Baltimore Sun archive a few years ago

The theme comes into sharper focus with the introduction of the disorderly and distinctly middlebrow Gayford family, neighbors who persist in inviting the young Laventies to tea and other gatherings. First, here's Mr Laventie's attitude toward socializing with his neighbors (which I confess rather echoes my own, a fact that perhaps should induce some soul-searching…):

Here it was that Mr. Laventie entertained his kind neighbours of Wetherington, marvelling greatly at their persistence … They never stayed long, however, the record of endurance being held by Miss Medlicott, the Vicar's sister, with a visit of nine minutes. The others were frozen out, as Miss Finn put it, within the first five. She herself held the record at the other end of the scale, and had told Mr. Laventie quite frankly that his colour scheme nauseated her. He could smile even now at the recollection of her thin beaky face and bristling hair as she scuttled down the drive to that preposterous yellow car; and the smile deepened as he thought of all the other backs he had watched from that same window. … Colonel and Mrs. Foster-Brown, red and angry; the local M.P., with his witless, connoisseur-to-connoisseur small-talk of first editions; Lady Spencer and her lank daughters; Sir George Bowman; poor Miss Medlicott, Christian forbearance in every line of that distressing raincoat. If only people would stop selling their houses and lose their taste for visiting the sick it would be quite a peaceful neighbourhood.

I do find it hard not to relate just a little to Mr Laventie, though I am perhaps redeemed a bit by the fact that I also find the gruff Miss Finn, an aunt of the Gayfords who has painted every available surface of her home with just the kind of realistic, pretty flowers surely calculated to make the Laventies cringe, to be pretty irresistible. To digress for a moment, here's a sample of Miss Finn, encountering a guest of the Laventies at the train station:

'Well, if it's Hobden's car,' observed Miss Finn, eyeing Miriam's bright suitcases, 'he'll never get all that in. What possessed you to have them that unwholesome colour?'

Gilbert explained that they were easy to identify.

'Well, I shouldn't like to have them near me on a Channel crossing, that's all.'

Ah, what would literature have been without acerbic spinster aunts!

The Gilbert mentioned in this passage is Gilbert Croy, an artsy filmmaker who comes to stay with the Laventies and romances Ann a bit. But it's the Gayfords who, next to the Laventies, figure most prominently here. There's John Gayford, who clearly adores Ann, and his sister Peggy, who becomes her friend and confidante. And there's the slightly ditsy, lovable Mrs Gayford, as well as the other siblings. All are exasperating to all of the Laventies except Ann, who finds herself drawn to their straightforward pleasure in life.

As the story progresses, the young Laventies spend much of their time in London—Dick with his sculpture (and a bit of womanizing), Elizabeth to her writing, and Ann to her, well, her wavering between different worlds and ways of life. She befriends the lovely, immoral (or perhaps merely unmoral) Delia and admires her unflappable poise, but realizes that Delia's lifestyle, handsome men flocking around her at all times, is not for her.

Of course things must come to a head when Ann comes home with a fiancé deemed completely unsuitable by her siblings and father. She faces fierce resistance, but the climactic scene in which Ann's quiet, self-effacing mother finally takes center stage, is absolutely a thing of beauty. I do love, though, that while there's never really any doubt about who will come out on top, Sharp, and indeed her heroine too, never completely demonizes the Laventies, merely brings them a notch or two down to size. Ann loves her family, and loves some of the unconventional people she meets in London, but her own path is a different one.

If Rhododendron Pie is just a bit rough around the edges, like most first novels, it clearly displays the charm, humor, and bite that Sharp would develop even more beautifully in the next few years. She made me love Ann, of course, but also the Gayfords and even the Laventies. It's a delightful, cheerful, life-affirming novel.

And as with my recent post on Rumer Godden's Gypsy, Gypsy, I really have to thank the "possibly FM" recommendations from you lovely readers for reminding me that I've neglected Margery Sharp for far too long. I can't say yet (because I really don't know, not because I'm being coy) if it's a possibility for us to reprint this and/or other of Sharp's out-of-print works. But copies of this book are scarce and pricy indeed (prices of four copies on Abe Books as of this writing range from $210 to $500 sans dustjacket!), so it would be lovely to have it more widely available.

If you'd like other perspectives on the book, Barb at Leaves and Pages reviewed it a few years back here, complete with a pic of the dustjacket, and Jane at Beyond Eden Rock reviewed it earlier this year here. Spoiler alert: they both loved it too

Tuesday, December 17, 2019

Gothic Godden: RUMER GODDEN, Gypsy, Gypsy (1940)

First UK edition cover

"I must have a little more time. For years," she said, feeling the fire on her cheek mingling with that other inner warmth so that she flushed and her cheeks were red, "for years I've trailed along behind Aunt Barbe. Now—I'm just beginning to go on my own—to cast her off a little."

Henrietta (Henry) Castle is a classic Rumer Godden heroine whose widening world unfolds against an uncharacteristically Gothic background. Orphaned, Henrietta lives in France with her widowed Aunt Barbe, a cold-blooded aging beauty who enjoys pushing people to the limit ("I like to interfere. I like to watch what happens. … It amuses me to pinch them in their tender places."). As Godden's fourth novel opens, the pair—along with elderly Nana, who has babied and enabled Aunt Barbe her entire life—are returning to their chateau in rural St. Lieux, where Henrietta spent much of her happy childhood before the death of her Uncle Louis. There, she finds the atmosphere much changed since their last visit five years before, and the locals, who loved and respected her uncle, have come to despise her aunt. Soon, Aunt Barbe's machinations are set on a young gypsy and his family, driving them remorselessly into tragedy.

Gypsy, Gypsy lends itself to a dramatic summary.

And obviously it lends itself to wildly different evaluations as well. Rumer Godden herself, in her wonderful memoir A Time to Dance, No Time to Weep (1987), speaks of the book as one of her lesser works (she must have felt the pressure of following up her first big success, Black Narcissus, published the year before, not to mention that war was looming—and indeed starting—as she wrote). Contemporary reviews were divided. Kirkus said:

Another string to Rumer Godden's longbow, a story altogether different from Black Narcissus, built on a compelling, tantalizing theme, that of evil deliberately set in play, a theme handled with a light-fingered touch that is as distinctive as it is fascinating.

The Chicago Tribune couldn't get past the fact that Godden hadn't written a book exactly like its predecessor, and Time memorably if bewilderingly said "Gypsy, Gypsy might have been written by Emily Brontë if she and her prose had pernicious anemia but were not otherwise seriously indisposed." (It might be noted that that critic doesn't seem to have liked Black Narcissus either.) The Observer dismissed it casually, the Guardian somewhat noncommittally said it was "written with the care and devotion of one who treats novel-writing as an art." And finally, the crème de la crème: Katherine Woods, writing in the New York Times and, happily, engaging with the book on its own terms rather than comparing it to Black Narcissus, more or less raved about it, concluding:

[I]t is always a fascinating story. One is held by it, so, in reading—even before one stops to realize the subtle perfection of form, the natural awareness and troubling suggestion, the strangeness and penetration and beauty, that make it an extraordinary achievement, and leave its echoes calling in one's mind.

Well, exactly. You may have guessed by now that I'm very much in agreement with the Times reviewer. You might say, of course, in hindsight, having read Godden's later work, it's easier to appreciate the best qualities of an early work even if her later brilliance hasn't quite developed yet. But the one modern-day review I found online (which, be warned, gives away the entire plot), written by a Godden fan, is pretty packed with vitriol. The reviewer (see here if you don't mind the spoilers) seems to be personally offended that Godden was trying her hand at something different.

First US edition cover

And indeed Gypsy, Gypsy is different from much of Godden's later work. Perhaps influenced by a world descending into war, Godden's vision is a bit darker here than usual, though the charming Henrietta is, as I mentioned above, as quintessentially a Godden-esque heroine as could be imagined. She could comfortably have danced in A Candle for St Jude, plotted against her parents' divorce in The Battle of the Villa Fiorita, or shimmered like a ghost in the timelessness of China Court. She is only just finding herself and learning to resist her aunt. She is surely scarred by Aunt Barbe's behavior, both in the present and the past—among them repeated love affairs, which Uncle Louis endured stoically—but she also retains her compassion and love for others, becoming more mature and wiser in the course of the story, and consciously strives to become a very different kind of woman from her aunt. There's a subplot about her uncle's will, which contained a clause suggesting she should marry his nephew and eventual heir, René (no blood relation, though they are cousins by marriage), and Henry's shifting views of this prospective marriage are the feelings of any Godden heroine. There are many passages, too, that could have come from any better-known Godden novel. For example:

She sat down on a bench worn shiny with people sitting and the rubbing of their hands. Now she rubbed hers there too, and once again she had the sense of being one of many, of doing as other people did, and she sat there, dreamily happy, watching the candles.

Then there's Aunt Barbe herself, perhaps the darkest character Godden ever created (maybe the name is short for "barbarian"). And yet, she is a fascinating character, not simply an evil villain, but a woman with peculiar vulnerabilities and damage of which we catch glimpses now and then. Perhaps her behavior is a bit exaggerated, but Godden is too compassionate and subtle to create a Cruella de Vil. Readers will be hard-pressed to find any redeeming qualities in her, but at least they'll get some glimpses of how she turned into such a monster.

Ghastly ghastly ghastly paperback cover

There are other intriguing characters too. There's Monsieur Juneton, the new Abbé (who replaced an older one who caught pneumonia rescuing victims of a shipwreck—indirectly caused by Barbe, no less), who thinks Barbe pure evil until he actually meets her, and then falls under her spell, convinced he can save her. There's various servants and tenants and villagers, virtually all of whom hate Barbe for her cruelty or insensitivity or simple incompetence in running the estate after Louis' death. This is summed up by poor Madame Quibel, whose property was auctioned because she couldn't pay her rent, including her donkeys, now grazing uselessly in one of Barbe's fields. She has carefully skimped and saved and comes to buy back one of her own donkeys so her son can sell fish from a cart around the countryside. Barbe refuses merely "to teach her a lesson". Yikes.

Last but not least are the gypsies themselves. In 2019, of course, the whole "gypsy" terminology—which apart from its derogatory associations also derives inaccurately from "Egyptians", though genetic studies have shown the group originated in India—is being replaced by the more neutral "Roma" or "Romani", but Godden didn't, I think, have any ill intent in her portrayal of the Roma family here. There's neither idealization or demonization here. They do, however, remain solidly at a distance in this novel, unlike in Godden's later children's book The Diddakoi. Henry initially fears the gypsies, due to the superstitions of the locals, but comes to admire them as she learns to judge for herself. Aunt Barbe delights in attempting to subvert their traditional habits, luring the children with candy and giving the oldest daughter (whom she calls "the Object") a glamorous makeover. But we can only really guess at what they themselves are thinking and feeling. In that sense, they all remain the "objects" of the anxieties and egos of others. And in a way, this perhaps makes the story more poignant, as we can only imagine what they're suffering as Aunt Barbe leads them to destruction.

Rumer Godden in Kashmir, 1943

In Gypsy, Gypsy, Rumer Godden hasn't quite got the hang of her effortless later style, which at its best manages to combine past, present and future events in such a way that they all come alive at once. Likewise, there's not the same depth of characterization here. It's not a perfect novel, but it's a good and compelling one, with a powerful sensibility and a wonderful eerie, disturbing atmosphere that could almost have come from Daphne du Maurier.

As I mentioned in another post, one of the best things to come out of my recent "possibly FM" post and the many brilliant suggestions I received in reply is that it reminded me of some of my absolute favorite authors whom I've sometimes neglected in favor of new discoveries. I'll be writing about Margery Sharp and a couple of others here soon for the same reason, and indeed I'll be writing more about Godden, who every time I return to her seems more like the most underrated of 20th century authors. Her best work may well deserve to be read alongside Virginia Woolf or Elizabeth Taylor, and certainly all her books should be in print…

Wednesday, December 11, 2019


Progressing a bit further through my backlog of books read over the past few months but not yet blogged about, here are three novels that I very much enjoyed, even if I don't feel a need to shout about them from the rooftops.

MYFANWY PRYCE is yet another of the authors I've had flagged as "possibly of interest" ever since I added her to my author list. I don't have a lot of information about her, apart from assuming that there must surely be a connection to Wales somewhere, judging from her name. She published nine novels, of which A Life of My Own (1946) is the last, though she lived on until 1976. I was really most intrigued by her 1928 novel, Blind Lead, from which a bookseller gave the following quote (presumably the opening sentences?): "'Mr and Mrs Whitehorn strolled slowly up and down, a dignified couple in the dress of the early nineties. They had brought their four children to Nannies home in the Welsh mountains for a change of air after measles." Not a lot to go on, but enough to intrigue me. Blind Lead proved impossible to track down, however, but the Boston Athenaeum, bless their hearts, provided me with this one instead.

A Life of My Own traces the young womanhood of Celia Tardy, who as the story begins is bemoaning her situation. She feels stuck, living at home with her fretful but likable widowed mother Jasmine, though in truth we soon see that she doesn't really know what else she would want to do. The titles of the book's seven sections make clear that Celia's development will be the focus of the novel: first, "Daughter at Home," then, when Jasmine remarries a widower with three children of his own, "One of the Family," followed by "Seeing the World" (Celia travels with two of her stepsisters and their friends to Haute Savoie in the Alps), "Having a Job," "Falling in Love," "Falling Out of Love," and "A Life of My Own."

The job Celia finds is as secretary to a married couple, both writers—Blossom, who writes serials and stories for women's papers, and Edgar, who writes dry, rather dull novels. Poor Blossom is the very epitome of a middlebrow "women's writer"—or at least of the popular image of them:

"I didn't publish my first book till I was well over thirty, and in it I put quite a lot of references to the seamy side of life, though without dwelling on it, of course. And then the reviewers all referred to my fresh wholesome outlook. Well, it was a blow, of course, but I came to see that perhaps that was my mission. I suppose I have the heart of a child still." She gazed at the mountains before her over the roofs of the village street and quoted poetry softly and the others were suitably embarrassed.

The novel is ultimately a bit too sentimental about love and happiness for my taste, but it's quite charming and perceptive too, as well as lightly humourous in a low key kind of way. The characters are all allowed to be flawed and even at times irritating, but I came to like almost all of them and felt perhaps more affection for them because of their faults, and found them more like real people who might walk off the page. Celia seemed to me like a slightly bland heroine, and I might have had more fun if the focus had been on Jasmine instead. I could have used more of the self-effacing, hesitant Jasmine, as when she sums up the psychological effects of aging:

"In the twenties," she went on, "you feel, can I do it? In the thirties, I can, I can. In the forties, I've done it. In the fifties, but other people do it better. In the sixties, I don't do it as well as I used to."

"But, Mummy darling, you're still in the forties."

"Oh, I know. Just feeling a little melancholy looking forward, that's all. And perhaps in the seventies it's worse still and you wonder, was it worth doing anyhow?"

Even Jasmine's skills as a hostess become a wee bit melancholy:

Jasmine was on the steps to welcome them, with her look of polite delight. She had set flowers in all their rooms, ordered their favourite dishes, chosen the library books she mistakenly thought they would like. Jasmine always remembered to do little things like this for people, much more than they did for her, so that indeed she often felt ashamed, thinking what much more important things they had to think about than she had.

But it's all quite enjoyable. I'll definitely try to track down other of Pryce's novels.

Up next is an author I have sought out to the extent possible, but whose work is, shall we say, variable? I raved about HILDA HEWETT's 1948 novel So Early One Morning here, very much enjoyed Kaleidoscope (1947), was lukewarm on A Week at the Seaside (1955, reviewed here), and found her debut, Farewell Solitude (1942) quite disappointing (see here). So it's nice to be able to say that Dancing Starlight (1945) is a strong entry in Hewett's oeuvre—perhaps not quite at the level of the first two, but streets ahead of the latter two.

The heroine of Dancing Starlight (or one of them, at least) is Louise Heron, one of the many young girls in fiction of this period who yearns to be a ballerina. She is bold, determined, smart, and sensitive, just like all the best such heroines:

Suddenly, devastatingly, she awoke to a realisation of her own presumption. It was unthinkable that a callow, ignorant little English girl should attempt to follow, however distantly, in the wake of the beautiful, exotic Russians. Karsavina, Pavlova, Baronova; the lovely, romantic names came crowding into her mind; great artistes, sprung from a long tradition of beauty and culture.

It was perhaps fortunate that Louise's restricted view permitted her to see the situation only in part. It is possible that if she had fully understood the differences which lie between the tradition inherited by most of the great ballerinas and her own childhood and early adolescence spent in a conventional English boarding school, her despair might have been yet blacker.

It's a bit like a Noel Streatfeild story, or Rumer Godden's A Candle for St Jude, but combined with a grownup romance between Louise's uncle and the head of her ballet school and theatre, Lindsay Lestrange (perhaps a cousin of Dame Beatrice?). Lindsay is haunted by a secret and throws herself obsessively into her work to avoid thinking about it, and the secret threatens to destroy her chance at happiness at last. The balance of adult romance and Louise's growth of a dancer is perhaps a slightly uneasy one at times, but Hewett is clever and skilled enough that I was mostly engrossed in both plotlines. Hewett spends a bit too much time chewing over the emotional aspect of the romance, and the ending is definitely a bit off, tying up only some of the plot strands and leaving Louise's future rather in limbo, but it was a thoroughly entertaining tale, so I can't quibble much.

By the way, I should mention that despite the novel's publication date, it actually takes place in that well-known alternate literary universe in which no war has happened or is even approaching.

And finally (and probably least) is just a brief mention of Lath and Plaster (1952), a more or less autobiographical novel by ANGELA JEANS about the trials and tribulations that she and her husband had in restoring an old home in order to resell it at a profit—effectively, in today's terminology, flipping. It's a brief mention mainly because I didn't take good notes at the time and my memory's a bit flaky, but I recall having fun with it. There are the usual renovation-related misadventures, eccentric neighbors, unpleasant visits from prospective buyers, and the like. I do remember thinking that some readers would be a bit wide-eyed at some of the joking exchanges between husband and wife, which were sometimes just a bit acerbic even for me (and Andy and I often call one another "ee-jut"). The narrator frequently imagines murdering her husband over some impractical behavior or other. But fortunately there is also plenty of love in their relationship, so the volatility just sets the book apart a bit from most such similar "cozy" stories.

Jeans published five other novels in the 1930s–1950s, as well as a handful of children's books. According to a bookseller blurb, her followup to this one, For Worse (1954), may also have to do with home renovation: "Making over houses was nothing new to Beppo, wife of an intermittent playwright. Now she had to move from a lovely country home to a house that shook by passing trains." Interestingly, during research for my last list update, we discovered that she is indeed the same Angela Jeans who, in the 1970s, published three lesbian-themed novels that were rather ahead of their time—Image of Joy (1970), To Cherish a Dream (1976), and A Kind of Death (1976).

So that's that for now, but stay tuned as I still have well over a dozen bits of recent reading to be catching up on!

Friday, December 6, 2019

Re-reading a favorite: RUBY FERGUSON, Apricot Sky (1952)

I'm always a bit conflicted about re-reading old favorites. On one hand, what could be more lovely than going back to revisit old friends in a book one knows won't disappoint? It's like having a favorite restaurant where you know and love the food and feel completely comfortable. On the other hand, I have around 3,000 books on my TBR list, some of which may become old favorites if I only find the time to read them. And what's more, some of those could become old favorites for other people too once they've been unearthed. Oh, the weight of responsibility!

But sometimes a strategic re-read just becomes absolutely necessary. I had been yearning for another holiday under an apricot sky for awhile, and when a couple of people suggested it as "possibly FM" in my recent posts, I had the perfect exc—er, reason. So I seized the day.

Like a whole slew of other favorites, I read Ruby Ferguson's Apricot Sky before I started blogging, so the only writing I've done about it was a lone paragraph on this deeply-buried post from back in 2013, about 20 books I felt should have been in print but weren't. (At that point, I was only fantasizing about publishing, but I'm delighted to say that Dean Street Press has done a few of these now, a few others have been reprinted by other publishers, and it's just possible that two or three future FM titles will be plucked from the list as well.)

Apricot Sky is a treasure. Although Ruby Ferguson is better known as the author Lady Rose and Mrs Memmary, reprinted by Persephone and a really lovely book itself, I actually prefer this joyful, charming, funny holiday story. It's 1948 in the Highlands of Scotland, in a village not too far from Edinburgh. There are all the usual postwar difficulties with food and clothing and rationing, but Mr and Mrs MacAlvey and their family and friends are too irrepressibly cheerful to let it get them down. There's daughter Cleo, just back from three years in the U.S.; Raine, her younger sister, newly engaged to the younger brother of a local farmer and landowner; and their brother James, married to neurotic, overprotective Trina, with two sheltered, meek children, Armitage and Angela. The MacAlveys, we learn, have lost two other sons in World War II and are raising three orphaned grandchildren—Gavin, 16, Primrose, 15, and Archie, 10—who are very often the funniest part of the novel. There's Vannah, a sort of housekeeper who—as in all the best stories—has become a member of the family. And, partway into the summer holidays, two prissy cousins, Cecil and Elinore, arrive for a visit, to the immense displeasure of the wild and woolly grandkids.

Ruby Ferguson

We also meet Ian Garvine, Raine's intended, and his brother Neil, who makes Cleo's heart go pit-a-pat but seems barely to know she exists. He does, however, take an interest in a neighbor widow, Inga Duthie, who is thoroughly silly and superficial but adept at flirting and difficult (for anyone but Cleo, at least) to dislike. We also meet some of the neighbors, which apparently include a number of Mackenzies ("It was just that practically everybody in Strogue was called Mackenzie.")

What's the plot, you might ask? Well, there are preparations for Raine's wedding, and the children's sailing adventures (wonderfully realistic for the most part—no death-defying stunts, though there is one very funny discovery of buried treasure), a memorable visit by the Leighs, family friends from London, and an adventurous hike. But really, the plot is, simply, life, as lived by a group of irresistible people who know how to live it with energy, humor, optimism, and affection. Which is honestly my favorite plot of all, and even on a re-reading I found it terribly hard to put down, and at the same time I kept trying to slow myself down because I never wanted it to end. What more could one ask?

It's also very, very funny, sometimes in very off-hand ways that I may not have appreciated fully the first time I read it. Some brief, unrelated samples (no spoilers):

On the station at Inverbyne where the single-track line came to an end, Mrs. MacAlvey was engaged in an interesting conversation with two tourists, the station-master, and a calf in a sack, when the train came in.

"I remember you as looking much younger," said Trina, leading the way down the narrow hall which had a little pathway of white drugget to save the carpet. Practically everything in Trina's house was covered up with something to save something that was underneath.

"I don't know why we're all standing," said Mrs. MacAlvey, on whom her daughter-in-law always had the effect of a crocodile on a weak swimmer. "Won't s-s-some of you sit down?"

"I'm haunted by an awful dread," said Raine. "It was a wedding Mysie once went to. The bridegroom never turned up and the bride swooned at the altar."

"Have you practised swooning?"

"Your old father was always the worst shot in Ross, Inverness, and Argyll," said Lady Keith calmly. "If he ever did shoot any stags, which I doubt, they were led up to him blindfold."

I giggled more at this book than I have in a long, long time (Andy's eye-rolling at my guffaws and snorts notwithstanding). And one of my favorite set pieces in the entire novel is when Cleo accompanies Raine to her soon-to-be home to offer her expertise about décor. Here's a snippet of a much longer scene:

"Would there be a bathroom down below?" asked Cleo. "I quite forgot to notice."

"There would. Just the one, and practically inaccessible. I mean, it is tucked away at the end of a little passage all by Itself, and you go up a step to go in and then fall head-first down another step as you enter the door. The arrangements must be seen to be believed, and there is a cistern in the corner which makes gulping noises all the time like somebody being strangled. Surely you remember it, Cleo, when you were here in the old days?"

"Yes, I remember now. It was dark and I opened the door and fell flat on my face, and while I lay there waiting for the end I heard the cistern gurgling in the darkness and thought it actually was somebody being murdered. You'll have to do something about the bathroom."

And on top of everything, it all culminates with one of the funniest romantic misunderstanding finales outside of Sense and Sensibility (I'm actually thinking of it as written by Emma Thompson for the film, though I do realize that Jane Austen had some part in it as well).

I wish Ferguson had written an entire series dedicated to the MacAlveys—I miss them all already—or at the very least written this sort of "cheerful village comedy" more often. I confess that the other of Ferguson's novels that I've dipped into have not lived up to the standard of Apricot Sky and Lady Rose and Mrs Memmary. Our Dreaming Done (1946) was a rather dreary melodrama about a war widow, and her late sort-of mystery, The Wakeful Guest (1962), was excruciating. But I recently ordered an inexpensive copy of For Every Favour (1956) to give it a try, and the amazing Grant Hurlock has shared his copy of 1957's Doves in My Fig-Tree, which sounds promising indeed and has the added interest of being set on the Channel Islands. There are some others that could be promising but are vanishingly rare. Does anyone have other recommendations?

Sunday, December 1, 2019

Recent reading: Three "new" authors (FRANCES MARTIN, MARGARET CARDEW, & MARY LE BAS)

Among the many things I've intended to do but haven't yet got round to is preparing my usual "update" posts to highlight the 100+ new authors added to my main list back in October. The road to hell, etc. However, this can perhaps count as the first of those, as I've now actually read a novel by each of these three new additions to the list. Sadly, though all of them enticed me, none of the three quite lived up to my hopes, but some did better than others.

Oh dear, FRANCES MARTIN. I first came across her quite a long time back, actually, from a blurb for Summer Meridian (1956) on the back cover of Elaine Howis's All I Want:

Summer term was beginning at Brading Manor School and Mrs Thornley gathered her staff together for briefing before the bedlam of exuberant children descended upon them. Mrs Thornley was a "modern" educationalist; her co-educational school was devoted to the development of individuality and self-expression in the young; her staff was constantly changing.

I should perhaps have been warned by the vagueness of this blurb. "Her staff was constantly changing"? Seriously? But alas I wasn't. And for a long time this was a much-coveted title which seemed to be truly hopeless. Somehow, however, my incomparable hubby, with his library connections, managed to obtain it—all the way from a UK (or vicinity, shall we say?) library. Don't ask me how, but you can clearly see why I keep him around!

Sadly, though, as delighted as I was to have the chance to sample it, it was not a favorite (at all). It was entertaining enough, and it had its moments (none of which I specifically recall, since I neglected to make decent notes on it), but it very strangely veers off in the direction of pure melodrama with (and I should say SPOILER ALERT here, though since virtually no one will ever be likely to have a chance of reading the novel, it might be irrelevant) the murder of one of the schoolmistresses—apparently by mobsters, of all things. It's quite ridiculous, and quite tone-deaf, to set a novel in a boarding-school and then bring in the mafia, for pete's sake!

Surely Martin had experience of a girls' school. That's clear from the details of relations between the mistresses, attitudes toward the headmistress, and the portrayal of some of the students. But oh, would that she had been satisfied to record and lightly mock the real-life goings-on she must have observed, rather than jazzing them up with potboiler material. Alas.

The other two new authors are far superior. I doubt if any of you could have resisted the temptation I felt when I first came across MARGARET CARDEW. A short review of her first novel (of two), A House in Venice (1941), in the Guardian concluded:

"A House in Venice" is a first novel with a delicious sense of comedy, not bubbly but grave and seeking to convey its flavour.

Add to that Mrs Ogilvie's own explanation for her jaunt to Venice:

"My husband was a lecturer and a man of letters. He wrote poetry and articles for reviews and was connected with a publishing firm, and I made a whole new circle of friends. He died two years ago," she added, "and now I am trying to take up the threads again, and to make a new life for myself. It is harder as one grows older and less resilient, but I believe it is still possible."

And I ask you, who could resist?

snippet from the jacket flaps

Alice Ogilvie is a middle-aged widow spending a month in Venice, which she used to visit regularly with her father. Her husband Francis had always claimed to loath Venice and would never take her. Alice soon discovers why when she meets his first wife Grace, a successful decorator, and his abandoned son Barry, with whom Alice immediately forms a bond (in part because of his striking resemblance to the young Francis). Barry has romantic difficulties in the form of a Russian dancer, Donia, whom he has secretly married against his mother's wishes. While attempting to help Barry navigate his problems, Alice befriends Gwenda, an emotional young British woman staying at her pensione, attempts to avoid another, nosy and overbearing fellow guest, visits her old friend Magdalen, an aging social butterfly, and navigates her own romantic challenges when Sir Herbert Rawson, a friend of Francis, first proposes to her via letter, then arrives unexpectedly in Venice to state his case.

How to explain a
small surge of interest
in Cardew in 1995
and 1996, I wonder?

It's all quite enjoyable and entertaining, and there are some glittering moments when Cardew really fulfills the potential of her tale. For example, this exchange (no spoilers) between Gwenda and Alice late in the novel, which wonderfully captures Alice's ambivalence in regard to her own youth:

"You never did anything so silly as this," said poor Gwenda. "I'm sure you didn't." And Alice was silenced, for indeed she never had. She had never been weak or uncertain, and so she had never had to endure life's worse miseries. As she looked back at youth far away, it seemed to her that she had never really been young at all. From the time that she had left Newnham till her marriage at over forty she had spent her time serenely in a contented round, a routine of sober pleasures, of lectures and intellectual luncheon parties, and occasional scholarly dinners, of travels in Italy and Egypt and Greece, until that summer when all those silvery days were transmuted by the coming of Francis.

Alas, however, there are also the times when it all gets a bit swamped by sentimentality, and Cardew doesn't always seem to have a firm grasp on her plot. It's a perfectly pleasant bit of silliness, but not the treasure I was hoping for.

Cardew wrote one more novel, 1943's The Judgment of Paris, about an American inspirational speaker who has rather more difficulty uplifting the women of Paris. The Guardian called it "a delicate morsel of literary confectionery," so it is certainly on my TBR list. After that, Cardew published A French Alphabet (1945) for children, and The History of Mère Michel and her Cat (1953), a retelling of an 18th century French tale. From sampling House, I certainly wish Cardew had written more books and further developed her skills and potential.

And finally, the author for whom I cherished perhaps the fondest hopes. MARY LE BAS, too, published only two novels, but how could I fail to be seduced by an ad for her first novel, Castle Walk (1934), with blurbs from E. M. Delafield ("Very fresh and amusing") and Francis Iles ("Fresh, unsophisticated, pleasant … the struggles of a charming young woman to earn her living in the big city.") And soon after I found a publisher's blurb for her second novel, Second Thoughts (1935): "Miss le Bas's heroine finds it harder to stop writing novels than it had been to begin. Elizabeth, her brother, and her friends are delightful people, and Miss le Bas once more writes with charm and a sense of humour."

I snatched up, for rather too high a price, a distinctly grungy copy of Second Thoughts, with visions of a lost cross between the Provincial Lady and Miss Buncle's Book dancing in my head. High expectations indeed, and so perhaps I was foredoomed to disappointment. Rather than perfectly delightful, Second Thoughts was perfectly … pleasant.

Elizabeth is a successful young novelist with what one might think is a rather perfect life—a flat in London, a perfect housekeeper/friend, a rather rollicking social life, plenty of money, no man to cater to, a fond family in the country, and entertaining literary events galore. But is she happy? Well, of course not, or there wouldn't be much of a novel. Instead, she looks a gift horse in the mouth and begins to wonder if she's not missing out on true love. In large part, this seems not so much an emotional urge as simply a fear of turning into that terrible demon, a spinster, but she nevertheless decides to give up her writing for the sake of love. Only to encounter considerable obstacles to her literary retirement.

It's an enjoyable enough storyline, with some lovely moments, as when she's catching up with an old friend:

"And now you write. H'm. Papa is always exclaiming that he's seen your name in the papers. We have a neighbour who writes." He reflected for a moment. "She has a neck like a hen, and gold pirice-nez, and her hands are always wet."

Or when Elizabeth gets material from her books out of a trip to the British Museum:

To travel by bus was an indulgence that Elizabeth could seldom resist allowing herself. She could have reached the Museum in half the time by tube; but she loved the life of the busy streets, and the shops, and counted the half-hour's journey as one of the pleasantest parts of her day. Up the wide slope to Hyde Park Corner; uphill again through Park Lane, with the Park on her left and the huge hotels on her right; three-quarters of the way round Marble Arch (she could never get used to this one-way traffic), and then into the shouting, surging, intensely living clamour of Oxford Street: she knew it all, intimately and with affection, and she seldom climbed off her bus to walk down Great Russell Street without some vivid memory, some glimpse of a woman's face or snatch of overheard conversation, to be stored in the back of her mind.

And there are some entertaining details about the literary world and Elizabeth's social life in London (which, alas, will make some readers not entirely sympathetic about her desire to give it up), likable characters, and a charming style.

Just not very much pizzazz.

There's too much back and forth and melodrama involving Elizabeth's brother and her former casual romantic interest, which becomes rather tedious, not to mention that things get a bit cheesy and Mills & Boon-ish in the romance department. It just didn't quite add up to the gold I was hoping for, though it's enough—as with Cardew and a number of other authors who published little—to wish that Le Bas had kept at it and written more.  I felt she might have been getting a feel for how to tell a really good story. As we have not yet been able to identify Le Bas, we have no clues as to why she stopped writing when she did. Perhaps she, like her heroine, ended up happily married and otherwise engaged?

But I have to wonder then, is her first novel, Castle Walk, the one which Delafield praised, better perhaps? Well, whenever time allows, I'll know, as I happened across a copy of that one as well, purchased in the hopeful giddiness of my reading of the first few chapters of this one (and you saw it in my ridiculous stack of new purchases and library loans last week).

Alas then, none of these three "new" authors quite lived up to their potential. But that still leaves around a hundred more newly-added authors to explore. Are there treasures there?
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