Thursday, December 31, 2020

The Furrowed Middlebrow Dozen 2020

I've been an absolutely abysmal blogger this year (assuming I get this posted by New Year's Eve, it will be my 36th post of the year—my most sluggish year ever, and a far cry from the 90-odd of my first two years blogging), but as most things have been abysmal this year, I guess I can't be too hard on myself.

Work since March has been steadily hectic, which slowed me down a bit. I work in a legal office that represents social workers in child dependency cases, and sad to say the stresses and strains of 2020 are readily apparent to us—though on a happier note, I can hardly lose sight of how lucky Andy and I are in view of the suffering others are going through. Sure, our planned trip to Portugal and Spain in October went kaput, and sure we are missing a more active social life and getting a little stir crazy now and then, but we are healthy and employed and have the luxury of working from home part of the time. Plus, I have a very high tolerance for staying home and reading, though perhaps I never thought I'd have quite so much of it as I've had this year!

Oddly (or not), the pandemic seems to have inspired me to get back to some more experimental literary fiction this year, in addition to my more blog-centric reading. I discovered the brilliant Mexican novelist SERGIO PITOL, for example, whom those of you who enjoy literature about literature should certainly sample. And MARIA GAINZA's Optic Nerve, which was on several year-end "10 best" lists around this time last year, was similarly addictive for me. In my misspent youth, I was addicted for years to Latin American literature, inspired by the likes of Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Jose Donoso, so I'm happy to have updated my reference points a bit this year. Along those lines, I should also mention EDGARDO COZARINSKY, whose understated and deceptively simple stories in The Bride from Odessa were a high point. Cozarinsky is Argentine but of Ukrainian ancestry, and writes brilliantly about both his own family history and his efforts to recover the past. We urgently need more of his fiction translated.

In slightly more blog-relevant areas, I re-read, for the first time in over a decade, one of my all-time favorites, VIRGINIA WOOLF's To the Lighthouse, and while I know she's considered a behemoth of difficulty and elitism, I can't recommend a peaceful, leisurely reading of her masterpiece enough—its revelations about childhood events and perceptions and the hold they keep over us as adults are well worth the effort. This in turn led me, a mere 24 years after it first fruitlessly graced my TBR shelves, HERMIONE LEE's breathtaking bio of Woolf. Wow. The voluminousness of Woolf's writings—fiction, essays, memoirs, letters, diaries—can be overwhelming, but Lee seems to have memorized it all, and uses it elegantly to give one the next best thing to sitting in a room with Woolf herself. The best bio I've read. And still keeping, in part, to a Woolfian theme, FRANCESCA WADE's Square Haunting (2020) (what?! I actually read a book published this year?!), about the liberating role Bloomsbury (the neighborhood, not the literary/artistic movement) played in the lives of Woolf, Dorothy L. Sayers, H.D. and the less-widely-known but no less fascinating Jane Harrison, Hope Mirrlees, and Eileen Power, was revealing and page-turning. (And Power is on my TBR list now for her largely forgotten historical work, Medieval English Nunneries, which—how things link up!—provided inspiration for both Woolf and Sylvia Townsend Warner's The Corner That Held Them).

But enough digression. What you really want is the dozen, right? And although I read a few more non-blog-related books than usual this year, I still had considerable difficulty narrowing my favorites down to 12, with the result that I'm cheating a couple of times (as usual) in mentioning additional titles as well.  Here goes!


12) MARY LE BAS, Castle Walk (1934)

It's annoying that I didn't get round to a proper review of the debut novel by Le Bas, after expressing some disappointment with her followup (and final novel), Second Thoughts (1935), here. Castle Walk, streets ahead of its successor, follows two sisters who make a sort of wager—one will stay demurely and morally at home and try to make her way while living with their mother and stepfather, while the other will head off to London and make her way, as immorally as necessary, by hook or by crook. Unsurprisingly, all ends happily. A thoroughly charming read.


11) DOROTHY CLEWES, Summer Cloud (1951)

I wrote about three grownup novels by Clewes, who is much better known as a children's author, and it was tough choosing between this one and The Blossom on the Bough (1949), but ultimately this compelling story of ordinary people in the postwar years won out. I said it was like a cross between D. E. Stevenson and Dorothy Whipple, and that's pretty high praise.


10) EMMA SMITH, No Way of Telling (1972)

One of the first books I reviewed in 2020, but one which still lingers in my memory. A wonderful book for those who enjoy winter stories—marketed as a children's book, but really as effective for adults, it's vivid and beautifully characterized and ends up as quite an effective thriller as well.


9) MARGERY SHARP, Fanfare for Tin Trumpets (1932)

I'd darn well better mention the inimitable Margery Sharp here, since Dean Street Press and I are releasing six of her best novels in the next few days! I had read most of her books before this year, but she was a shoo-in for this list for either The Foolish Gentlewoman (1948), her cheerful novel of the immediate postwar, or this one, both finished just after the first of the year. I opted to include Fanfare here because it's such a delightfully frivolous, joyful, funny bit of froth that it's perfect for our troubled times.


8) SUSAN TWEEDSMUIR, The Rainbow Through the Rain (1950)

Another shameful omission in my reviewing this year, this novel by the wife of novelist John Buchan (see below as well) was a highlight. It's a perfectly delightful village story, set more or less from the beginning to the end of World War II in Dash-shire, Tweedsmuir's imaginary county not too far from London but far enough to be out of the direct path of bombs. My inadequate notes about it highlight that it strikingly portrays something that should be obvious to us but isn't always—that in a pre-cell phone, pre-internet period, one would have spent much of the war with an aching, low-level anxiety for all of your friends and loved ones in dangerous areas.


7) EDITH TEMPLETON, Summer in the Country (1950)

Surely one of the only times I've been called upon to compare one of "my" authors, writing a sharp, funny social comedy about eccentric village in Bohemia, with the likes of Dostoevsky. But it also evoked Barbara Pym, making it one of the most unique reads you'll ever come across. The story of an impoverished family of landowners and how they cope with the potential collapse of their daughter's marriage to a wealthy businessmen, upon whose wealth the family is completely dependent, it's rather more "red in tooth and claw" than the standard village story, and all the more irresistible for that.


6) WINIFRED PECK, The Skies Are Falling (1936)

My Fairy Godmother inspired me to return to my long-time favorite Peck by making it possible for me to read this extraordinarily hard-to-find treasure. It has all the charms that would be apparent in Bewildering Cares in a few years' time, and in House-Bound a couple of years after that. I then plunged ahead and read Facing South (1950), which I've had on my TBR shelves for a couple of years, and finally acquired (at perhaps the largest price I've ever paid for a book) A Garden Enclosed (1941), which I've long coveted. Neither live up to Skies, but both have their charms. Hopefully I'll get round to writing more about all three…


5) SUSAN TWEEDSMUIR, Cousin Harriet (1957)

This one—along with Tweedsmuir's two subsequent novels, Dashbury Park (1959) and A Stone in the Pool (1961), which together form a loose trilogy set in Victorian years in Tweedsmuir's fictional county of Dash-shire—I will be reviewing here soon. (I can promise this because I've already drafted it.) Having read Rainbow, mentioned above, I was inspired to go back and re-read this one, which I read and enjoyed before I started blogging. On a second reading, I absolutely loved it. My review begins: "If Jane Austen had ever thought to write a novel about an unmarried mother, it would surely have looked much like Susan Tweedsmuir's Cousin Harriet." Now who could resist that?


4) MAUD BATCHELOR, The Woman of the House (1934)

Next up are two of my proudest discoveries of 2020. A chance eBay search led me to the first, this delightful Provincial Lady-esque diary of a rather posh London lady and her five precocious and irresistibly nicknamed children—Soup-plates, Binkie, Toodles, Patch, and, well, Dorcas (whose name suits her so perfectly that she was never given a nickname). Not often as laugh-out-loud funny as E. M. Delafield, The Woman of the House has a charm and a delicious sang-froid of its own.


3) ELENA SHAYNE, Everyday (1935)

And then, the most fascinating discovery of the year (and I nearly placed it at #1 for that reason alone)—this diary/novel also owes something to Delafield, but takes her inspiration into completely unique territory. A lively and unconventional young woman records the events of one year, but the result is rather more intriguing than it sounds. My review made some speculations about Shayne, but brilliant researcher Elizabeth Crawford took it much further in the ensuing weeks, not only identifying Shayne, her aunt, and their village, but actually making contact with Shayne's daughter and other relations and locating a delightful photo of Shayne and her husband along the way. Check out Elizabeth's post about her research here.


2) MOLLY CLAVERING, Susan Settles Down (1936)

1) MOLLY CLAVERING, Touch Not the Nettle (1939)

And finally, 2020 has been the year of many things—mostly bad—but it was also, for me, the year of reading more Molly Clavering than I ever expected to be able to, thanks to the generous Grant Hurlock and his astonishing library. This friend and neighbour of D. E. Stevenson has become a favorite on her own merits. It all started with Susan Settles Down, a very very lucky eBay find I reviewed back in February. In May, I read and reviewed Because of Sam (1954) here, but since then I've also read (and failed to review) Dear Hugo (1955) as well as Clavering's other three novels of the 1930s (published under the name B. Mollett)—Yoked with a Lamb (1938), Love Comes Home (1938), and Touch Not the Nettle (1939). All delightful—funny, rustic, earthy Scottish romances that are as bracing as a dash of Glenfiddich—and all as rare as finding a diamond in your tea. But the most exciting part was that the last of these turned out to be a sequel to Susan Settles Down—I was as giddy as a schoolgirl when I came across it and got to spend a few more hours with familiar friends from the earlier book. Clavering is a charmer.

And that's it from me! What were your favorite reads of the year?

Oh and Happy New Year!

Tuesday, October 27, 2020

COVER REVEAL: 11 new Furrowed Middlebrow titles coming January 2021

Only a bit over two months now until the release (see announcement here if you missed it) of the next batch of Furrowed Middlebrow books published by Dean Street Press! These include 11 titles in all from two of my favorite authors, Margery Sharp and Stella Gibbons, and I can't wait any longer to reveal our covers to you, which are rather wonderful if I do say so myself.

One reason these covers are standouts is because eight of the eleven cover images are by prominent illustrator Leslie Wood, whose enticing images graced the covers and pages of numerous books for both adults and children. In particular, fans of the Little Red Engine books by Diana Ross will notice that three of the Gibbons covers look familiar. Wood was the artist behind two of the original covers of these books, Gibbons' The Swiss Summer and Sharp's The Foolish Gentlewoman, which we have of course re-used here, so it's lovely to be able to use his beautiful images for other of our titles as well.

Of the other three covers, we've been waiting for years to find the right book on which to use Eric Ravilious' gorgeous boarding house image, so I jumped at the chance to use it for Sharp's Harlequin House. For The Stone of Chastity, we adapted a delightful early cover image, and for Gibbons' A Pink Front Door, Rupert at Dean Street came across a rather breathtaking Hampstead poster.

Before leaving you to peruse at leisure, I must also mention that the brilliant Elizabeth Crawford has provided intros for all eleven titles, with background information and tidbits that will prove fascinating even for long-time Sharp or Gibbons fans. I don't know how she does it, but I'm very glad she does!

And now, the covers. You'll have some extra time to enjoy them on the main blog page, as I'm planning to take a short blog break between now and the books' release in order to work on other projects... 

I hope you love these as much as I do!

Monday, October 12, 2020

Love and hate, in more ways than one: EDITH TEMPLETON, Living on Yesterday (1951) and The Island of Desire (1952)

My love/hate relationship with Edith Templeton is continuing to evolve. First, I read her debut novel Summer in the Country (1950), discussed here, and absolutely loved it. Beyond love, really, I think it's a masterpiece. Then, I jumped to her quite (deservedly) forgotten fourth novel, This Charming Pastime, discussed here, and frankly rather loathed it.

Now, with her second novel, Living on Yesterday, I am firmly back in the love camp. From the quite rustic Czech countryside of Summer in the Country, we arrive in this novel in the glittering world of Prague society, undoubtedly led (at least in her own mind) by the imposing and dominating Baroness Kreslov, whose quiet, awkward daughter Hedwig is but a pawn in the Baroness' attempts to marry her off to the penniless but prestigious Hungarian Count Szalay, who has arrived in Prague after an astonishing series adventures (at least, according to him), having been thought dead along with the rest of his family following political unrest in Hungary. Fortunately for Hedwig, however (and for us, the readers), Hedwig has learned considerably more from her mother's machinations than her passive demeanor reveals, and she sets in motion her own strategy to get exactly what she wants while apparently fulfilling the fondest wishes of the Baroness.

Also featuring prominently in the plot is the Baroness' brother Richard Marek, a widower with whom she has had a troubled relationship (to say the least—he occasionally manufactures mad tantrums to avoid seeing her) since he married, in her view, beneath him, and his friend Steffanie Smejkal, a former Court beauty who holds a sort of salon to which the returned-to-life Count Szalay makes himself known. This is not to mention some of the staff of these grand houses, who view their employers with considerable irony.

There are lots of lovely little tidbits here. I love this brief exchange between Richard and Steffanie:

'But what does he look like?' asked Richard Marek and helped himself to bread and butter and cherry jam.


Steffanie Smejkal put her cup down and made a vague gesture. 'He looks like a man,' she said. 'And because he looks like one, he thinks he is one.'

 And there's Richard's views on women: 

'But I often wished women were more like horses—you see your horse when you want to see it, and then you shut it up in the stable when you've had enough of it. You don't trail it with you, round to parties and all day long, if you see what I mean.'

But my favorite element are the subtle seethings that one could often miss if one didn't read carefully, as in this exchange between Hedwig and her mother:

'Well, we shan't put the world to rights. Not this evening, in any case. I am going upstairs now. I want to have a last look at the Stock Exchange bulletin.'


Hedwig got up as well. 'I am sorry, Mama,' she murmured and gave her mother a sidelong glance of hatred. The Baroness looked fondly into her face and kissed her on the forehead.

If it all sounds very much like an English society novel, spiked with breathtaking humor, spite, and dark motives, it's because it almost might be. If Muriel Spark or Barbara Pym had possessed a rather fiery Czech background, one might imagine them writing something like this. But even that doesn't quite capture the joyful and occasionally horrifying oddness here. There's a wonderful atmosphere and mood, with lots of brooding and plotting under the surface and few characters being exactly what they seem. And Hedwig's final victory was a delight, particularly as she is the only character here who might come within shouting distance of being "likable".

So, yes, Living on Yesterday can definitely be a mark in the Love column of my relations with Edith Templeton. But what about her third novel, The Island of Desire (1952), to which I immediately progressed?

What indeed. Well, here we seem to have a potent mix of Love and Hate.

It all starts out wonderfully well. This is, like Living on Yesterday, a sort of mother/daughter story, in which the tempestuous and promiscuous Mrs Kalny, with her long-suffering wealthy husband and her ongoing series of lovers, provides a powerful image for her naïve, insecure daughter Franciska to rebel against. When we meet her, Franciska is still at school, but already being forced into a rivalry with her mother, who has determined never to grow old and, most importantly, never to lose her desirability for men. Even the dressmaker treats her as an accessory of her mother: 

Franciska would have liked to say something rude but nothing occurred to her. She left the room. Louise's words always annoyed her because they brought it home to her again and again that she merely existed in the maid's eyes as a sort ofliving dummy, created for the purpose of serving as a foil to her mother.

In her effort to rebel, Franciska is led into publishing a poem which reveals the luxurious conditions at her exclusive school, while the rest of the nation suffers under postwar austerity. She is expelled and soon after that forms a hasty marriage with the principal idea of escaping from her mother. But she is disappointed with love and with sex, particularly after all of the fuss her mother has always made about it: 

It was, she felt, a case similar to the tale about the Emperor's new clothes: nobody has ever seen them because they do not exist, yet everyone goes through the motions of feeling their texture and admiring their cut, for fear of being thought stupid.

It's only while traveling with her finicky, repressed husband, when she meets an American man and his lover in a hotel, that she begins to suspect there is more to it. And this is where what started as another delightful Templeton comedy of manners started to go a bit awry for me. The portrayal of the passionate Mrs Kalny is often quite entertaining, and I love some of the pearls of wisdom she shares with Franciska, such as:

'She is quite wrong, you know, about what she said about men, that it's easy to imagine what's coming. One can never tell what a man is like till one has gone to bed with him. One can get a tremendous surprise sometimes in this way, good or bad. Remember this for life, Cissy.'


'Yes, Mama.'

And later, discovering Franciska reading a salacious novel:

Mrs. Kalny had been very annoyed for a few minutes. 'Really, Cissy,' she had said, 'that sort of reading is stupid, because it gives you wrong ideas. You get things like: "and he picked her up in his arms and carried her to the bed." It's idiotic. In real life you'll damn well have to walk to the bed yourself.'

She really does have valid points in both instances…

But once we shift our focus onto Franciska's sexual awakening, the novel becomes a bit more uncomfortable. It begins to seem that The Island of Desire is a transitional work for Templeton, from the joyful dark comedies she began with to the fantasies of sexual subjugation she wound up with.




And the final scene of the novel, in which Franciska's sexuality is apparently finally awakened with a vengeance when an official on the Orient Express virtually rapes her in her cabin and she suddenly (touchingly?) recognizes herself as her mother's daughter after all, is quite troubling in the age of #MeToo. I don't want to oversimplify the scene—Templeton is a truly literary author and deserves the benefit of the doubt, and there are undoubtedly multiple ways of reading and interpreting this scene. In addition, Anita Brookner, who wrote the intros to the 1980s Hogarth editions of these novels, clearly felt that Island was Templeton's best work. So every reader must decide for him- or her-self, as with any book. I can only say that for me it was quite offputting.

In some ways, then, The Island of Desire sums up my love/hate feelings for Templeton. It's odd that a woman of such intelligence and talent, so vividly on display in all of these novels, seems to have spent much of the rest of her life engaged in Fifty Shades of Grey­-esque fantasies. More power to her, of course, she had a right to explore her sexuality as everyone else does, and there's no reason I should be comfortable with it. But I can't help feeling that, unlike with many of my favorite authors, I would have had a challenging time chatting with Edith Templeton over tea!

Nevertheless, I do now at last have a copy of her Italian travel book, The Surprise of Cremona, and I am intrigued to see what I'll find there. Published in 1954, after the first three novels but before the very offputting This Charming Pastime, what type of personality will come through from her record of her travels in Italy? Despite my ambivalence, my love/hate impulses will surely drive me to find out.

Monday, October 5, 2020

And now for something completely different: EDITH TEMPLETON, This Charming Pastime (1955)


I wrote recently about my re-reading of Edith Templeton's marvelous, glorious debut novel, Summer in the Country (1950), which I absolutely loved (see here). I also described the somewhat unusual trajectory of her career, and mentioned that I had just started to read this, her fourth novel, and the only one of her four novels from the 1950s that wasn't reprinted by Hogarth in the 1980s. I said then that I was already beginning to sense why, and now I know beyond any doubt.

What a contrast! Summer in the Country is an absolute feast of vivid characters and original perspectives, combining English-style comedy and extravagantly dark Bohemian drama into a brilliantly unique delicacy.

This Charming Pastime is not.

The plot here begins with Helen and Ann, two thirty-ish friends traveling in Italy, Ann because she has accepted a job there, Helen to help Ann get settled in and to do some traveling herself. At first, it's charming enough. Ann is the more uptight and traditional, Helen a bit more adventurous. A darker tone is introduced when it emerges that the latter's husband has committed suicide a year or two before, and the trip is perhaps a sort of opening out for her, an embracing of life again. Clearly, right from the beginning she sees herself becoming a rather shady lady, as when she bemoans her friend's choices of women to socialize with:

It was just like Ann, she thought, to collect any dull and decent women in the place. It had been the same in Verona and Bologna, in Venice and Vicenza, in Perugia and Assisi. Whereas, when she had entered into conversation with strange women during those last six weeks, they had always been, oddly enough, not women of her own age but those overwhelming old ladies of about seventy, raddled and rouged, scented and tight-laced, tinkling with jewellery and haloed by curls, who smoke, drink and gamble till the small hours of the morning and who will tell you between the pear and the coffee why at least three of their marriages went wrong.

I'm certainly with Helen in her choice of amusing company. Then, the women meet Mr Larson, an oil company executive whose company they both clearly enjoy. They also enjoy his wining and dining and the use of his car and driver. Plenty of potential so far, right?

But then, Helen goes off on her own to travel in Sicily, where it so happens that she encounters two of Larson's employees, Oriano and Conti, but not before spending an uncomfortable night learning about the peculiar Sicilian attitudes toward women. As the two men later explain:

"It is like this," he said, "they only know three kinds of women. The first is the married woman or the young girl and she is respected and never allowed out alone. They respect them so much that they don't even look at them when they see them. The second is the prostitute. She, too, is respected because she gives love for money. But the lowest of the low is the woman like you, who is not a prostitute and who travels alone. They think they need not respect you because, if you were decent, you would not travel alone. But, as you travel alone, you will give them your love for nothing."

They go on to explain that the Sicilians also seem to enjoy killing one another, often over matters of love and sex. And if I hadn't already begun to find Helen a bit unbearable by this point, her reaction to this would have clinched the deal:

"Now, perhaps," said Conti, "madame will understand why the Sicilians hurl themselves on any lonely unprotected woman."

"Yes, yes," said Oriano, and he made a movement of disgust.

"In a way I like it," said Helen. "It must be very flattering for a woman to know that she is as precious as all that. And then, if every kiss carries death, surely love becomes more worthwhile."

This combination of masochism and unvarnished narcissism would be a tough sell for me in any supposed protagonist, though perhaps Elizabeth Eliot might have made Helen into one of her hilariously ridiculous heroines. As it is, however, Templeton seems to treat her—and her subsequent ridiculously obsessive affair with the aforementioned Oriano—as if it's completely relatable and, even more unlikely, as if it were remotely interesting. By the time the drab, agonizing plot works itself to its somewhat tragic conclusion, I'm afraid that I was simply happy that it was over.

It's hard to imagine a sort of reader who would really love this book. Those who like romance will be put off by its harshness and hand-wringing, and by the fact that Oriano is a dullard of the first order, and those who just want to be entertained will likely find it all as dull and depressing as I did. Perhaps it might be of interest for one who researches evolving portrayals of female sexuality and liberation as the 20th century progressed, but it can't be said that this is a particularly admirable example of a sexually liberated woman. It's rather as if a Jean Rhys character took a rather tedious holiday in Sicily and became hopelessly and masochistically enamoured of a totally useless, boring man. Now it's not impossible to imagine a Rhys character doing just that, of course, but one imagines Rhys would have found ways to make her story come alive a bit more than Templeton did here.

By the way, the enigmatic title, which certainly doesn't adequately describe the activity of reading the novel, is from a children's song about a rocking horse—going backwards and forwards, backwards and forwards, oh what a charming pastime—suggesting the play of emotions in the story.

So there, mystery solved. Having always wondered why Hogarth would have published three out of four of Templeton's early novels, I no longer need to wonder. Perhaps Templeton was attempting to distance herself from the Bohemian subject matter of the first three novels? Helen is certainly very clearly identified here as an Englishwoman. While Bohemia seems to have provided Templeton with ample inspiration, however, here that inspiration seems sadly lacking.

Happily, though, this still leaves me with her second and third novels for me to revisit, which I fully expect will be more worthwhile and enjoyable, and her story collection and Italian travel book as well!

Sunday, September 27, 2020

Rediscovering Edith Templeton: Summer in the Country (1950)

I don't remember now where I came across my Hogarth Press paperback copy of Edith Templeton's first novel, Summer in the Country (1950, published in the US as The Proper Bohemians, which seems to have confused whoever created her Wikipedia page). I know that I read it in late 2009, just as I was starting to expand my horizons, post grad school, into lesser known women authors. It was then a bit more than a year before I proceeded to her second and third novels, Living on Yesterday (1951) and The Island of Desire (1952), also in pleasant Hogarth Press editions from the 1980s. And finally, it was two more years until, just on the verge of beginning this blog (which explains why I've never written in any depth about her before), I tracked down her hard-to-find fourth novel, This Charming Pastime (1955), which Hogarth had declined to reissue. Later on in the 1950s, Templeton began publishing stories in The New Yorker, some of which were gathered in the 2002 collection The Darts of Cupid, which received considerable acclaim and was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award.

That Templeton's earlier fiction has remained sadly in obscurity is surely at least in part due to her activities in the intervening decades. In 1966, she published, under the pseudonym Louise Walbrook, an erotic novel called Gordon, which appears to have been a precursor to Fifty Shades of Grey, about the pleasures of female subservience to a dominant male. The book, published by the famous Olympia Press in Paris, gained some notoriety, and was finally reprinted under Templeton's own name in 2003. After 1966, it appears that Templeton, apart from her periodical fiction, fell silent until 1992, when she tried her hand at a mystery novel, Murder in Estoril, which appears to have rehashed some of the sadomasochistic themes first explored in Gordon, and which seems to have had little success.

Edith Templeton, from the jacket of
The Surprise of Cremona

It's perhaps a little bit odd that Random House, having succeeded very nicely with Darts of Cupid, and deciding to proceed with reprinting Gordon, didn't see fit at that point to reprint Templeton's earlier fiction, but it appears that they were very much focused on marketing her as an erotic author and titillating readers with the books' covers, so perhaps the earlier works didn't fit their marketing scheme. And indeed, what a contrast! One has to assume that her obscurity is partly due to the fact that not many publishers could readily consider issuing all of her books in one group, since those most loved by one reader may well be unsatisfactory to another.

A recent sort-through and weeding-out of my bookcases, combined with the extra time allotted to me by COVID-19, brought Templeton back to mind. The three Hogarth paperbacks have held pride of place on an upper shelf of my bookcases since I first read them, but I realized I had forgotten just about everything about them except that they were something special. Glancing through them, I couldn't resist diving in, beginning logically with the first.

I remembered loving Summer in the Country in particular, and that it dealt with an eccentric family in Bohemia, but I certainly didn't recall how shockingly brilliant it was—or indeed just how shocking it is, period. It's an absolutely unique sort of animal, I think—rather like if a Barbara Pym novel had had an illicit love child with one of Dostoevsky's! That might be difficult to imagine, but it should make clear just how unique the book is.

At first, the reader is likely to feel more or less at home, apart perhaps from the setting on a large estate in the countryside outside of Prague. Here resides a splintered family of large landowners now reduced to genteel poverty, led by Tony Birk and Ida Birk-Borovec, a brother and sister, both widowed, Tony a sort of entertaining blowhard who tells it like it is but perhaps has a darker side, and Ida rather patient and practical and philosophical about the pains of life. She sees things as they are, but doesn't always feel it worthwhile to argue about them.

Rounding out the Birk household are Ida's children, a widowed daughter Alice, whose frustrations at her fate have left her preachy and self-righteous, and unmarried Bettine, who never wants to marry (having seen the examples around her), despite Alice's constant bullying. They can still afford to have servants, including Prochazka, the elderly coachman, prone to falling asleep while driving the carriage, and Emma the efficient and all-seeing German maid. Oh, and I've forgotten (as they themselves generally do) Louise, the widowed sister of Tony and Ida, who lives on their estate, having been bought out of her share years before, but to whom they do not speak—as Tony tells a visitor:

Looks like a servant, but worse than a servant, if you know what I mean. Our maids wear black and white aprons. But she wears a black apron, black alpaca. You can't miss it. That's my sister Louise. … Well, we don't talk to her; family matters—you know how it is. But she comes up to the castle year after year and stays there in summer. She is so mean that she will not pay for holidays.

So far so good. The English country comedy transported to Bohemia, one might think. But read on.

Original cover of the 1950 edition

The visitor is Raoul Marek, a sort of fop from Prague, who met the family in town (they also have a town house, despite their financial state—they are property rich and cash poor) and was invited to stay, perhaps as a potential match for poor Bettine. As the novel opens, Tony is leaving to pick Marek up from the station, so our introduction to the eccentricities of the menage is largely through Marek's eyes. Imagine being shown around your host's home and having the following exchange:

'Still, this is a nice and sunny room you've got; it used to be a nursery once.'

'Is that why the windows are barred, Mr. Birk? Very wise, I think. Very good idea, with small children.'

'Lord no. I had that grille put in years before, on the doctor's advice. This was my wife's bedroom, you see. She was melancholic. Always talked of committing suicide. I always said it was stupid to make all this fuss to guard her. If people want to kill themselves, let them, if it gets as bad as that. And it didn't stop her, of course. She took an overdose of sleeping drugs in the end.'

'How terrible for you, Mr. Birk.'

'Well, I don't know. We've all got to die, you know; can't live for ever. Now come and look at the view. Don't get that in Prague, do you, eh?'

Though sometimes the startling revelations are for the reader alone, and Marek remains oblivious, as here a few pages later:

They were discussing the illness of one of the kitchenmaids. Mrs. Birk-Borovec had been nursing her for the past three days, giving her drugs and applying poultices. Now she had recovered.

'Mr. Marek, don't you think that mama is a saint?' asked Alice. 'She did simply everything for the girl. She is wonderful that way, you know.'

'Not at all, Alice,' said her mother dryly. 'If you don't stand over them they don't take their medicine. That's all there is to it.'

'My God, she is businesslike,' thought the young man. It did not occur to him that there was the contrast between two ways of living. Alice, the younger generation, had already been reared in town and was inclined to view everything with a sentimental eye. The old lady had been born and brought up on the estate, and she knew that it is no act of charity if the farmer helps the cow to calve, or ministers to the sprained ankle of his helper. Animals and people alike have to be kept fit.

The test of whether you find this novel as delightful as I do might well be whether you laugh out loud at these two passages or gasp in horror. Not quite a cheerful English drawing-room comedy (as much as I adore those too). This comedy is very much of the "red in tooth and claw" category. But the real story is only just beginning, and gains momentum with the arrival at the estate of Alice's married daughter Margot, who has, we discover, been to all intents and purposes sold off to a wealthy businessman, Oscar Ritter, in exchange for the essential influx of cash to turn the fortunes of the Birk estate around.

One may come to feel, as I did, that Oscar, a needy, unbearable prig who finds everyone terribly lacking except himself ("The old lady raised her eyes and looked at him. An old Army joke, beloved by her brother, flitted through her mind. The whole squadron was out of step; only our Jamie wasn't."), may simply have married the wrong member of the family. Alice the self-righteous martyr might have found him right up her alley, but Margot is much more free and easy—perhaps the only really likable character in the novel. She and Oscar had planned to visit the family together, but Oscar has been held up on business, so rather than waiting devotedly at his side, Margot has come ahead without him. The dangerous element of this is that she is threatening to refuse to go back to him, which in turn threatens the future of the estate that depends so much on his investments. How this tension plays out among this extraordinary, unforgettable cast of characters is brilliantly executed—in fact, amazingly so for a first novel. I've certainly remembered why, more than a decade ago, I felt this was one of the best "lost" novels I'd come across.

If you won't accept my word for it, however, I have someone to back me up. The Hogarth reprints contained new introductions by no lesser figure than Anita Brookner, who certainly knew good fiction when she saw it and who compared Templeton's work to that of Turgenev, Jean Rhys, and Theodor Fontane (whose Effi Briest is a Persephone reprint). She goes on:

Yet although these novels are essentially novels of manners, they are also something more, for running beneath the social comedy, so beautifully conducted by all the principal players, there lie acts of madness, of revenge, and of revolt, resorted to in extreme moments, but—and this is the singular thing—never regretted. It is the strange completeness of these acts, and the density of the context in which they are committed, that give Edith Templeton's novels their unusual savour.

Turgenev, Jean Rhys, Fontane: I would add Schnitzler, for that dash of Viennese concentration on intrigue. All these strains add up to a world of great complexity and apparent simplicity, a world in which everything is foreign and everything has enormous style.

How could you resist? Well, obviously, you shouldn't. Summer in the Country is often hilarious, but also deliciously wry and dark and morbid, and I defy any reader not to gasp in surprise—and, perhaps, in delight, whether they admit it or not—at the ending. It's also rather telling that no one seems to comment on the extraordinary bad luck that's apparent from the fact that just about the entire family is widowed. One may find oneself pausing to consider this when one turns the final page. One might also find oneself inclined to go back and start reading from the beginning.

But I've now turned, rather illogically, to Templeton's fourth novel, This Charming Pastime, to see why it would have been left out of Hogarth's reprints in the 1980s. I think I can already sense why, but that will have to wait for another post. Meanwhile, I've also placed orders for the aforementioned Darts of Cupid and for Templeton's one other published book, which I neglected to mention above: The Surprise of Cremona: One Woman's Adventures in Cremona, Parma, Mantua, Ravenna, Urbino and Arezzo (1954), a highly praised travel book about Templeton's own journey, after her husband's death (widowhood again!), which seems to have become somewhat collectible despite having been reprinted a couple of times. I'm not sure I'll ever be quite desperate enough to sample Gordon or Murder in Estoril, but the travel book and the New Yorker stories sounded too enticing to pass up.

Friday, September 18, 2020

Never a dull moment (get it?): MARGERY SHARP, The Stone of Chastity (1940) and Four Gardens (1935)

Back in November of 2013 (it doesn't seem possible that it's been so long), well before I ever dreamed I'd be doing anything more than fantasizing about publishing, I did a post here listing 20 books I felt should be in print but weren't. The post is hopelessly outdated now, and I can very proudly and happily say that it's partly outdated because of me. As of January, when our next batch of Furrowed Middlebrow books are released by Dean Street Press, I will have been responsible for no fewer than eight of those 20 titles being reissued (and it's just possible that I'm not finished yet). Of the remaining 12, at least five more have now been reprinted by other publishers.

And one of my favorites of all of these is undoubtedly Margery Sharp's delightful 1940 novel The Stone of Chastity. Sharp wrote lots of wonderful books, and I've written about a number of them here. I'm pleased as punch, as I've already noted here, that we're publishing six of her criminally neglected early novels in January, but Stone holds a special place in my heart as perhaps the daftest and most purely joyful and silly of all of Sharp's work, and it's truly bizarre that it hasn't been reprinted long before now. In 2018 in the New York Times, scholar and author Perri Klass named Stone, along with better-known Sharp classics Cluny Brown, The Eye of Love, Britannia Mews, and The Nutmeg Tree, as the five titles in her Sharp "starter kit", calling it a "bucolic comic masterpiece." I can't disagree!

"It's in my mind to put an end to this heathen wickedness that's stalking abroad through Gillenham. It's in my mind to terrify that evil man from his morrow's sinful doings."


"We'll be going to Old Manor, then?"


"Not yet," said Mrs. Pye grimly. "We go first to the village. To rouse the women ... "

The novel opens with Professor Isaac Pounce, freshly arrived in the idyllic country village of Gillenham, along with his sister-in-law, his young nephew Nicholas, and Carmen, his voluptuous assistant, who seems quite well-paid for doing no one is quite sure exactly what. The Professor is in hot pursuit of a legendary Stone of Chastity, reference to which he has stumbled across in an old diary. The stone was one of those placed as stepping stones in the local stream, and the legend went that no unvirtuous woman could cross the stream without losing her balance at this particular stone and getting a dowsing.

Professor Pounce is cold-bloodedly scientific in his approach, but his researches, including a survey distributed to all villagers and a plan to put all the village women to the test and record the results for posterity, arouses not unforeseeably hostility among the more pious-minded locals, particularly the Vicar's wife, who enlists the Boy Scouts to help suppress his efforts, and stern Mrs. Pye, a moralizer who might have given Savonarola a run for his money.

Ultimately, it's aimless young Nicholas, popular at Cambridge but without much ambition since, who must attempt to assuage the villagers' outrage. In the process, his own amorous impulses get directed first in the direction of Carmen, who when not helping his uncle works as a nude model for artists, then toward the Vicar's perky daughter, and finally toward a Bloomsbury composer staying in the village, who enthusiastically volunteers for the Professor's study. We also meet numerous other villagers, both in favor of the professor and against him, though my favorite by far is the unflappable Mrs. Jim, who runs the local pub and commiserates with Nicholas after he sours on the promiscuous Carmen:

"As a matter of fact, I suppose I was a bit of an ass about her…"


Mrs. Jim looked at him kindly.


"Like stealing jam, ain't it? You feel a bit sickish afterwards."


"That's it exactly. Especially … "


"Especially," finished Mrs. Jim, "when there's so many others have had their fingers in the same pot." Nicholas felt slightly sick in truth.


"You don't know how you could have done it," he said, "afterwards, when you wish you hadn't."


"I shouldn't let it worry you," said Mrs. Jim. "I don't suppose it was more than kissing behind doors, and where there's a door handy and a piece like her behind, no young man's to be blamed. Jam's jam."

Of course, the entire concept of women's chastity and society's concern for it is a profoundly misogynistic one, but have no fear, as Sharp has tongue firmly in cheek throughout, and by the end of the novel manages to delightfully undercut the whole concept. One would expect no less.

Although it's complete coincidence that I got round to writing about the two novels in this post at the same time, it's an interesting juxtaposition, for while The Stone of Chastity is probably Sharp's most pure farce, with nary a thing to take seriously from beginning to end, Four Gardens is probably the most restrained and emotional work of Sharp's early career. So get ready to switch gears…

The old names still echoed in her ears, drawing her thoughts back and back, past Lily and Leonard, past Henry, to even shadowier figures yet. Cousin Maggie Platt, who had money in Consols; Ellen Taylor, so fortunately an orphan; and Vincent in the terraced garden, and her own widowed mother, with that striking resemblance (though from the back view only) to Alexandra Princess of Wales…

As Four Gardens opens, we meet happy middle-aged Caroline Smith (née Chase), receiving birthday presents from her children, Lily and Leonard, and her devoted husband Henry. Her reflections on their gifts lead her to reflections about her earlier life, and soon we are back in the village of Morton as young Caroline and her widowed mother make their way towards an evening church service. However, not unusually, we are given to understand, Caroline hesitates and her mother asks her if perhaps she has a headache and should take a walk around the common rather than attend services. Caroline acquiesces, but instead of the common, she makes off to an abandoned house and garden which has caught her imagination. She has a passion and instinct for gardening and a love of the earth.

This lush but neglected and overgrown garden is the first of the four gardens which represent the stages of Caroline's life. This one, along with the young man she meets there, who awakens her romantic feelings but is ultimately of too high a class for her (this is Victorian England, after all!), represents perhaps her naïve, youthful dreams of simple happy endings. Instead, Caroline's life moves ahead, and she marries Henry Smith, who is devoted to her and whom she loves but is not in love with, an ambitious shoe factory assistant. They settle into a quiet little house, have two children, and make their way contentedly, despite the lack of anything more than a tiny garden, which Caroline at any rate has little time to think of.

Of course, ambitious Henry makes good, particularly with the arrival of World War I and the resulting increased demand for boots. Their fortunes rise, and soon Caroline has a much larger home with a lavish garden—this one too large to manage without a gardener, who takes charge of it all and ignores Caroline's suggestions and advice, thereby depriving even such lushness of any deep pleasure for her. She's now in the realm of keeping up appearances and moving in "Society", however uncomfortably. One of the funniest passages in this distinctly un-riotous Sharp novel is that in which Caroline goes to view the house Henry has selected for them, complete with its imposingly regal departing owner: 

She announced herself, rather self-consciously, as Mrs. Henry Smith, and he replied that Mrs. Cornwallis was expecting her. To Caroline, following him through a wide shabby hall, the whole episode was beginning to feel like a nightmare. She was intensely conscious of herself-of her dress, her voice, the way she placed her feet. She felt like a cook-general going to be interviewed.


"Mrs. Henry Smith," said the butler contemptuously.

It's hard to imagine that the butler was really contemptuous (or at least that he revealed it in his manner of speaking) but of course it's dead on that Caroline, feeling awkward and out of place, would have perceived that he was.

I can't say anything much about Caroline's fourth garden because I don't want to give away the ups and downs of her story once the flashbacks are through. But suffice it to say it may be the most satisfying of all.

Four Gardens is by far the most sentimental of the Margery Sharp novels I've read, and I have a troubled relationship with sentimentality. But Caroline is such a charmer, tough and sensible beneath her rather passive and insecure exterior, that it was impossible to resist, and I have to confess to having tears in my eyes at more than scene (don't tell anyone). She is anything but a feminist, assuming along with her mother that her husband must always be right, but we do see a progression in her as the story progresses, and her attitude toward Leon and Lal when they are grown and romance in the air shows a plucky openmindedness. It's in these young characters, with their modern attitudes and bohemian sensibilities coming into gentle conflict with Caroline, that we get a taste, in later sections of the book, of more typical Margery Sharp storytelling and a bit of her usual comic relief. 

There's also a lovely, balanced summing-up of Morton's reactions to the outbreak of war:

On August the fifth a booking-clerk at Morton Station, leaving his post to distribute cigarettes among a trainload of Territorials, was arrested as a spy and marched off to the police station. A troop of Boy Scouts, guarding the railway bridge, arrested an ex-colonel and one of the linesmen. An elderly stockbroker, flying a kite for his son on Morton Common, was arrested on the charge of signaling to the enemy. The German Charcuterie, owned by a Welshman named Evans, had its windows broken and its stock scattered in the street.


Also on August the fifth the local M.P. and his wife moved out of their house on the Common and handed it over for the use of the Red Cross. Dr. French threw up a now flourishing practice to join the R.A.M.C. Mr. Brodie, the estate-agent, who was forty-five if a day, enlisted in the London Scottish. The youngest Macbeth boy enlisted as a private. Every shop in the High Street was out of khaki wool. A first collection for Belgian refugees brought in seven thousand five hundred and eighty pounds. In this manner—in these manners—Morton confronted the fact of war.

As I mentioned in my announcement post, two of my fellow bloggers have also written enthusiastically, several years ago (I'm late to the party as usual), about Four Gardens—Barb at Leaves and Pages here, and Jane at Fleur in Her World (now at Beyond Eden Rock) here.

So there, two quite different sides of Margery Sharp, both from the first third or so of her career, but both quite delightful and informed by Sharp's incomparable instincts as a storyteller!

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