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?


  1. Indeed, Scott, nothing makes me drop a mystery or crime story quicker than the entrance of the Mob.

    And as for a school story...? My mind boggles.

  2. School stories remind me of a couple of summers ago (probably more, now) how you got me into reading English girls' school murder mysteries, starting with Christie's "Cat Among the Pigeons," and LeMarchand's "Death of an Old Girl." THAT was a fun little excursion!


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