Thursday, February 20, 2020

"NEW" AUTHORS: mysterious women (1 of 2)

Another installment of telling you a bit about the 100+ new authors added to my main list last October. Those authors included at least 16 who wrote one or more volumes of mystery or suspense, some of them quite intriguing. I would say I'm surprised to still be finding so many interesting authors at this stage of the list, but after six years of making fairly regular updates and additions I'm not really very surprised at all!

The biggest mystery in this post is the identity of JANE BOYD herself. This was the pseudonym used on a single mystery novel, Murder in the King's Road (1953). The publisher noted that this was the pseudonym of "a crime writer of distinction," but no one has yet determined which one. 

I enjoyed it and reviewed it here, where you can also see a sample of the writing as well as my brainstormed list of possible author-suspects. But my speculations have been to no avail thus far—can you do better?

Next up is a prolific and talented author of mysteries whose work is currently being reprinted by my friends and colleagues at Dean Street Press. MORAY DALTON wrote 29 mysteries and thrillers beginning with The Kingsclere Mystery (1924). Fifteen of these feature her series character Inspector Hugh Collier. In her non-series titles, she occasionally made forays into other genres, including the post-apocalyptic The Black Death (1934) and the wartime adventure Death at the Villa (1946). Other titles include The Shadow on the Wall (1926), One by One They Disappeared (1929), The Night of Fear (1931), The Strange Case of Harriet Hall (1936), Death in the Forest (1939), The Art School Murders (1943), and The House of Fear (1951). Curtis Evans wrote about her life and writings here when the first batch of Dean Street reprints appeared.  A second batch has just been released.

A title by MARGARET SCUTT has also been recently published. Scutt was a schoolteacher who published only two novels in her lifetime—I Do But Follow (1947) and And Some There Be (1950), the latter of which is historical in theme though details are lacking. 

But she apparently wrote several more novels that have remained unpublished. The first of these, Corpse Path Cottage, a mystery set in a Dorset village, was written in the 1960s but only published in 2018. Has anyone come across it yet?

I can find no trace of a CAROLINE COMSTOCK in public records, which makes me wonder if the name is a pseudonym (and could she have written other books under other names?). But her one and only novel (under this name at least), The Bandar-Log Murder (1956), subtitled "A Museum Street Thriller," sounds rather intriguing. The Observer said it was a "[c]hattily readable little London mystery set among the futilitarian, un-dead, neo-delinquent, mews-dwelling, contemporary youth." One hardly knows what to think of that description, but the book's cover is also eye-catching and a bit bewildering, so I might have to sample the book to ease my curiosity.

And then there's FELICITY SHAW, who published 25 mysteries under her pseudonym Anne Morice, most featuring her actress sleuth Tessa Crichton. Curtis Evans wrote about her family history here and discussed her mysteries here. Her sister Angela was an actress and, having married actor and agent Robin Fox, produced a line of successful actors, including Laurence Fox of Lewis fame (who is now working with great determination to destroy his career by making an ass of himself on British talk shows). 

Shaw had earlier published two satirical novels under her own name. The Happy Exiles (1956) is a sendup of dying British colonialism set in an apparently unspecified tropical colony—the Philadelphia Inquirer said, "For all its sting, Mrs. Shaw's way of telling a story is witty, her eye for detail devastatingly observant, her commentary on the social aspects of British colonial policy shrewdly apt. The Happy Exiles is wondrous summer entertainment." Her second novel, Sun Trap (1958), also has a tropical setting.

BERYL SYMONS also started out writing non-mysteries. Her first three novels—A Lady of France (1910), The Roses of Crein (1912), and Prince & Priest (1912)—were all set in medieval France. She then fell silent for well over a decade before returning with a cheerful romance, Daffodil Jane (1928), and then turning her hand to thrillers, which included The Leering House (1929), The Opal Murder Case (1932), Haunted Hollow (1934), and Through a Glass Darkly (1938). It's her five final novels, however, that sound the most intriguing, and feature spinster detective Jane Carberry (and perhaps some wartime settings as well?). Those titles are Jane Carberry Investigates (1940), Jane Carberry: Detective (1940), Magnet for Murder (1941), Jane Carberry and the Laughing Fountain (1943), and Jane Carberry's Week-End (1947).

And finally, last but not least (or possibly least as well for all I know), comes JOAN MACKENZIE, who published five novels—The Homeward Tide (1935), The Deadly Game (1939), Linda Walked Alone (1944), All for the Apple (1948), and The Wayward Heart (1951). From a short review, Deadly Game is clearly a thriller, and a blurb explains that All for the Apple is "about a girl who takes up a job in a country house down in the Scottish Borders, owned by a famous and wicked surgeon." Ooh, famous and wicked!

Next time, eight more "new" mystery authors, including one I'm planning to sample very soon.

Friday, February 14, 2020

A vanishingly rare pleasure: MOLLY CLAVERING (writing as B. MOLLETT), Susan Settles Down (1936)

A few years back I wrote a fairly extensive post about Molly Clavering's writings (see here), compiling lots of details kindly provided by one of her cousins. I also wrote about two of her novels—the best known, Mrs Lorimer's Family here, and, a bit later, Near Neighbours here, the latter again thanks to said cousin. Happily, Near Neighbours was reprinted by Greyladies not long after. Then, predictably, I wrote no more about her, because most of her novels, and most especially the early works from the 1920s and 1930s, are simply impossible to track down if you're not in a reading room at the British Library or the Scottish National Library. They just do not come up for sale. Ever. Anywhere.

Except, apparently, this past December, when a random e-Bay search provided me with this treasure, one of four titles Clavering published in the 1930s under the pseudonym B. Mollett (see the first post linked above for more details about her complete bibliography and other pseudonyms). Easily my luckiest find of the year. I felt like I'd unearthed a vein of platinum while strolling through the park. And although it wasn't exactly cheap, it was also not the most expensive book purchase I've ever made. And happily, it was well worth the investment.

Many D. E. Stevenson fans will recall that Clavering was, in later years at least, a friend and neighbor of DES's in Moffat, Scotland. And those who have read Near Neighbours or Mrs Lorimer's Family (originally Mrs Lorimer's Quiet Summer in the UK, but the US edition was chosen by the "People's Book Club", operated by Sears-Robuck, so copies of that edition abound) know that her style has some things in common with DES's—a predilection for Scottish settings, often lightly humorous tales involving families and friends and at least a touch of romance. But I've learned from experience that comparisons to better-known authors often do considerable injustice to their lesser-known cohorts, and that might be particularly true in Clavering's case, since she had already published several novels before DES got properly started (leaving aside—as most fans are willing or even eager to do—the early Peter West).

As Susan Settles Down opens, the titular Susan Parsons has relocated from England with her unmarried brother Oliver to a new home in the Scottish Highlands. Oliver has inherited the house and its accompanying property, and rather than selling it off they've decided to move in. Susan writes to a friend:

"Don't, please, write and tell me that we're mad. I know it already; and even if I didn't, every friend we possess has pointed it out. My spirit is quailing at the prospect of life at Easter Hartrigg, because I know what pitiful figures we shall cut as landowners in a country quite strange to us. Oliver talks blithely of shooting and fishing, and has told me to buy a smelly Harris-tweed suit and clumping brogues and a walking-stick, but these outward semblances won't make country-dwellers out of us. I feel just as the children of Israel must have felt when Moses dragged them into the uncharted perils of the wilderness out of the land of Egypt—a place in which, however unpleasant their lot, they were at least at home!"

The neighbors are welcoming enough, including the local vicar, Mr. Cunningham, and his family, and Jed Armstrong, who "marches with" the Parsons:

"My name's Armstrong. I march with you."

"Oh ... why?" was all that Susan could find to say in reply. Was this some Scottish form of leave-taking ? Apparently not.

"Why?" he stared at her; then a slow smile began to spread over his wind- and weather-beaten countenance. Looking down at Susan who, a tall young woman,  was accustomed to meet the eyes of most men on a level, he explained with an indulgent grin: "I have the place next to Easter Hartrigg."

But things are nevertheless a bit bumpy at first, particularly with a rather disagreeable cook, who rejoices in the name Mrs Bald, and her nincompoop daughter Bernice as their only domestic help:

"I've sometimes wondered," Susan wrote later to Charles Crawley, "how the principals in a Greek tragedy felt towards the messenger who is always popping in with tidings of fresh woe. Now I think I know. If the messenger wore the look of half-terrified delight in bad news which is plainly to be seen in Bernice's protruding eyes, death, instant and painful, would have been his portion. In fact, I really believe that only the lack of a handy weapon prevented me from killing her on the drawing-room hearthrug!"

But, in part due to their growing friendships with Peggy Cunningham and Jed Armstrong, things begin to smooth over after a time, they become involved with local dramas, and of course a bit of romance seeps into the story. And what would a village story be without the judgy local gossips, in this case the three spinster Pringle sisters, whose pompous belief in their own superiority and eagerness to find dirt on their neighbors let them in for dislike and occasional mockery, including regarding their chosen means of conveyance:

A small governess-cart had come into sight over the nearest rise, drawn by a donkey which appeared to have some difficulty in keeping its fore-feet on the ground.

"They'll have that miserable brute going on two legs soon," growled Mr. Armstrong. "And it wouldn't look as much of a donkey as they do, anyway."

There's nothing really remarkable about Clavering's tale, and great literature it certainly ain't. But entertaining it certainly is, and the setting is vividly evoked, the characters entertaining if unsurprising, and the tone pleasantly vibrant and spiced with humour. And for all that Susan Settles Down might sound just the kind of story DES might have written, I'm actually rather delighted to have Clavering's version, which I bet is a bit rowdier and rougher-around-the-edges than DES's would have been. 

I might put it that I'd be delighted to be friends and neighbors with both women, but I rather think I might choose DES for kind, upbeat, heart-to-heart talks and Molly for those times when one feels like hitting the pub and being snarky and whinging about all that's wrong with one's life. Both essential functions for friends to serve. And I feel I can almost see how the dynamic between the two might have gone, with Molly perhaps loosening DES up and making her blush now and again and DES keeping Molly from becoming too disreputable. It must have been a happy mix.

Naturally, this book is even more impossible to lay hands on than most that I write about, but I thought as there is no information about it online I might as well share a bit. Happily, the inimitable Grant Hurlock is making it possible for me to lay hands on three more of Clavering's 1950s novels, about which I am ecstatic and thankful. If only it were possible to get hold of more, it's not out of the question that she would be a fun author to reprint, but alas it's not looking terribly likely. If anyone has any one or more of her other novels and would be willing to lend them, do let me know!

Meanwhile, my reading of this one just makes the others more tantalizing. Which is the way it always works, isn't it?

Friday, February 7, 2020

"NEW" AUTHORS: wartime settings (part 2 of 2)

Continuing on with nine more new additions to my main author list who all wrote at least one book dealing with World War II. They'll thus also likely all make it to my revamped World War II Book List, currently in process.

One of the most interesting of this batch comes to me courtesy of Gil (aka Cestina), who read the second of MARJORIE HESSELL TILTMAN's three memoirs of farm life, A Little Place in the Country (1944), which covers the early war years. Gil reckoned it was right up my alley, and I reckon she's right, but at the moment it's waiting on my TBR shelf. Hessell Tiltman's other two memoirs are Cottage Pie (1940) and The Birds Began to Sing (1952). She also published several novels. 

Her father was a successful art dealer and presumably influenced her debut novel, Quality Chase (1939), which was, according to the Guardian, "as convincing on the human side as it is brilliant in its evocation of bustling Birmingham and the policies, the humours, and the drama of the antique trade." Quality Chase's Daughter (1955) is presumably a sequel. Goodbye to Lilly House (1948) is a family saga: "The background is first the heterogeneous art world at the turn of the century, then theatrical circles as the stage first met the challenge of movies, and finally a Fleet Street scene of English journalism." The ending seems to take place during the Blitz. Details are sketchy about her wartime novel Mrs Morel (1942), but it appears to deal with village life before and during the war. She and her husband traveled extensively in Asia, and she used those backgrounds in Born a Woman (1951), about women in Japan in the aftermath of World War II, and Master Sarah (1959), about the opium wars in China.

Although your standard run-of-the-mill romance novel is not usually my cup of tea, I wonder if ELIZABETH FRAYNE might be one of the charming exceptions. Certainly some of her settings seem interesting enough: Her debut, Change of Hearts (1936), is set in a London movie studio, while Marvell's of Mayfair (1937) is set in a beauty parlor. Champagne in Spring (1938), meanwhile, deals with a woman whose artistic success threatens her marriage. But it was a short review of Life Goes On (1941) in the Guardian that really put her on my radar: "The four Brooke sisters in 'Life Goes On' are a bit 'awful and girlish,' to quote one of them—or three of them are—but their loves, which begin on a holiday in Cornwall from flower-shop keeping in Bayswater and 'go on' in spite of the war, are brightly told." Now if only it were possible to obtain a copy…

Alas, MARGARET BUTCHER is similarly inaccessible. She was a journalist and author of four novels. Details are lacking about Destiny on Demand (1938), except that it is included in some checklists of science-fiction and fantasy. Comet's Hair (1939) is described in a publisher's blurb as "A perfect picture of all that is good and bad in a typical English village … The ideal novel for those who require a skilfully told story full of life-like characters and charming pen pictures." 

But again, it's Vacant Possession (1940), a wartime novel about a group of neighbors living near the Fulham Road, that piqued my interest, but it appears to be hopeless to obtain. Her final novel, and the only one that's relatively accessible, is Hogdown Farm Mystery (1950), apparently a thriller.

NORA LLOYD is a bit more readily available. I've got my hands on her second novel, Sea Winds (1936), about a teenage girl who accompanies her doctor father to an isolated lighthouse island off of Ireland and creates complications for the handful of keepers living there. Glancing through it, it looks like a rather more grown up Mabel Esther Allan tale, with highly promising atmosphere. Her only other novel for adults was The Young May Moon (1935), which describes the Irish troubles of 1916-1917 through the eyes of a young girl. The Manchester Evening News said, "The haunting beauty of the Ireland of other days fills this first novel with a silvery light." 

Cover courtesy of my Fairy Godmother

Lloyd also wrote two children's titles, and it's the latter of those, The Young Liberators (1949), which made me sit up and take note. According to a blurb, it's "about an Anglo-French family's wartime exploits in the Savoy Alps."

I love a good research challenge, as you all know, and it's a great feeling when one finds a clue that allows for the identification of an author who has been a mystery at first. Lloyd was initially a challenge to identify. Desperately googling away, I finally came across a blog post here. The blogger mentioned having met Nora Lloyd during her later years, and also noted that she had written a novel about her aunt, one Alice Mary King, who was killed in the Irish War of Independence (presumably The Young May Moon). King, unlike Lloyd, is quite well documented, and some poking around on Ancestry led me straight to Lloyd. On the 1939 England & Wales Register, her occupation is shown as a publisher's reader as well as "research chemist".

FRANCES HARRIS has definite potential as well. She published four novels, which appear to be family comedy-dramas with some romantic elements. Fain Would I Change (1937) is about a family with two grown daughters, coping with the girls' romances, a cousin's elopement, and the mother's empty nest syndrome. The Sydney Morning Herald said: "[Harris] writes in the Jane Austen tradition, with sympathy and insight, and a shrewd sense of humour in regard to human weaknesses which enlivens the pages and often brilliantly illuminates her studies." 

Her fourth novel, June to September (1941), is the one of interest here, set among French, English, and Russian residents of a village in the South of France on the cusp of World War II—the Guardian called it "a simple, delightful book." Here's hoping, since it's on my TBR shelf as well. Her other titles are Villa Victoria (1938) and In Sleep a King (1939). Harris was married to Cyril Patrick Hankey, a Dean of Ely.

Another Frances, FRANCES GRAY, published only two novels, which seem to be fiercely satirical. B.U.N.C. (1938) sounds like it could have considerable relevance today, since it deals with industrial war profiteering: the Guardian said, "British and United National Chemicals sell virulent gas to a foreign Power and initiate an advertising campaign at home to sell gas masks and anti-gas to a torpid British Government." Perhaps it sounded far-fetched in 1938, but today it sounds sadly plausible. Her other novel, Period Piece (1941), is about the leisured classes, "seen with so merciless a comic eye and presented with such diabolical suavity that Period Piece will give sophisticates a couple of hours of pure pleasure" (Observer). I'm guessing that it must be set in wartime, but I haven't found additional details to confirm.

It's possible that MARGERIE SCOTT belongs on a Canadian women writers list. She definitely spent time there both before and after World War II but returned to England to organize a first aid post in Chelsea and remained for the duration of the war. She was a stage actress and author of five novels. Life Begins for Father (1939) was humorous in theme, but other details are lacking. Mine Own Content (1952) and The Darling Illusion (1955) both utilize flashbacks to tell women's lives—in the latter case, an actress who has been shot and killed as the novel opens, whom we then see growing up in Canada and in London during the Blitz. Return to Today (1961) dealt with a rekindled romance from wartime, while Mrs Tenterden appeared published posthumously in 1975.

I know just enough about MARJORIE SCOTT JOHNSTON to include her in these posts, but frustratingly little about her books. She published three novels in all, and a blurb from the Daily Telegraph called the second, Pilgrim and the Phoenix (1940), "one of the most absorbing novels produced by the war," but unfortunately gave not the slightest indication of its plot. Her other novels are The Mountain Speaks (1938), about a young woman running away from an unhappy love affair to an isolated Alpine village, and The Ghost in Galoshes (1941), which follows a young woman through the ups and downs of work in Fleet Street, publishing, and the BBC. I did find that Johnston was an enthusiastic Alpine climber and worked for a time with the Woolfs at the Hogarth Press.

And to end on even more of an anticlimax, ELIZABETH GORELL came to my attention because of an ad for her 1941 children's title (I think), So Early in the Morning, which was apparently based on her own children who had been evacuated to America and so therefore (presumably) deals with evacuated children (?). Her other titles include Miss Fairitch and the Little Greenes (1943), Fay's Croombe (1944), The Bear Garden (1945, illustrated by Dorothy BURROUGHES), and The Captured Stream (1950). Earlier in her life, she had apparently acted as a medium as part of William Butler Yeats researches into the occult.

On that vague note, that's all for this post. There are still quite a number of new authors to mention from the last update, however, including "new" mystery writers, children's authors, and more, so stay tuned.

Friday, January 31, 2020

"NEW" AUTHORS: wartime settings (part 1 of 2)

I'm finally getting round to writing a bit about the 100+ new authors added to my main list last October. Better late than never…

Perhaps my favorite books to unearth in my research are those with World War II settings, and in this post and the next I'll mention 18 authors added to my list who wrote at least one war-related novel.

Were all of my discoveries of the quality of HAZEL PYNEGAR, I would surely pack it all in and start reading medieval poetry or ancient philosophy. And she sounded so enticing too. A 1940 article said that Pynegar, "apart from her work as an actress and running her own repertory company, has travelled the world, hiked through China' and Siberia, and is considered a novelist of great promise." This was presumably based on the reception of her first and only solo novel, Stationary Journey (1940), about a group of characters trying to escape from a Chinese village as Japanese invaders approach. That one could be simply brilliant for all I know, but Pynegar then collaborated with screenwriter and novelist Noel Langley on three humorous novels (to use the term loosely). There's a Horse in My Tree (1948) is described as a "comic novel set on the coast of Cornwall," while Cuckoo in the Dell (1951) is set in the days of William the Conqueror and deals with the the disillusionment of an idealistic Norman knight at the hands of a group of Saxon women.

The Observer reviewer didn't think much of it either

But naturally, the title that caught my eye was Somebody's Rocking My Dreamboat (1949), about a group of women and children being evacuated from England on a tramp steamer at the height of the war. Could anything have been more carefully calibrated to excite me? So of course, I worked hard to get hold of a copy, and for what? Now, disappointments go hand-in-hand with the kind of literary excavations I do, but this one was absolutely dire (and I'm happy to report that my Fairy Godmother also sampled it—her copy had a dustjacket, of which she sent the above scan—and her assessment was the same). It's a distasteful mish-mash of postwar cynicism and adolescent humour, and the authors seem to have absolutely loathed all the characters (as did I). It also seemed to me a distinctly masculine novel, so one gets the feeling Langley may have had more impact that Pynegar did, or else Pynegar herself was someone I wouldn't want to have known. Ugh. Awful.

But fortunately, I have better luck much of the time. For example, I have hopes for DOROTHY M. LARGE, who wrote several novels focused on Anglo-Irish life in the country. The last of these, The Quiet Place (1941), is set in an Irish boarding house among English folk fleeing German bombs. 

That one is in my hot little hands now, and I was surprised to see that my copy arrived with dustjacket as well. Stay tuned on this one.

Phyllis Livingstone (aka Naomi Ludolf)

And although I can't really claim to have discovered her (Neglected Books wrote about her here), PHYLLIS LIVINGSTONE could pay off as well. The alluring title is In Our Metropolis (1940), set at least in part in London during the Phony War and humorously following the ups and downs of young married life. But I did discover in my research for her list entry that Livingstone had also published an earlier novel, Loose Covers (1931), under the pseudonym Naomi Ludolf, which was also the name she used as a stage actress. Livingstone's early life was, we discovered, a bit complex: she appears to have been born to an unmarried mother, who then married another man when she was 4, leaving Phyllis to be raised at least in part by her grandparents. It's always tantalizing to find little tidbits like that about an author, but it's almost impossible to fill in any more details short of a relative turning up.

A quite different tidbit turned up about our next author, L[ILIAN]. F[AITH]. LOVEDAY PRIOR (sometimes just credited as Loveday Prior). On the invaluable 1939 England & Wales Register, searchable on Ancestry, we see Prior working as an assistant mistress of Latin and French at Raven's Croft in Sussex, the same school at which mystery author Edith C. Rivett (better known as ECR Lorac, some of whose books have been reprinted by the British Library recently) was a visiting art teacher, having (presumably) been evacuated from London. A small world. Loveday Prior published five novels, of which two, The Valley of Exile (1939) and its sequel These Times of Travail, deal with the rise of fascism in the South Tyrol region of Austria.

Along similar thematic lines, AVERIL MACKENZIE-GRIEVE's second novel, A Gibbet for Myself (1941), is set in Italy just before the rise of Mussolini. Her first, Sacrifice to Mars (1940), was described in advertising as a "novel of Nazi Germany from the inside!" Mackenzie-Grieve was also a historian, biographer, and travel writer whose non-fiction included The Last Years of the English Slave Trade: Liverpool, 1750-1807 (1941) and The Great Accomplishment (1953), a collection of short biographies of prominent women.

I'm not sure if Prior or Mackenzie-Grieve will prove to be my sort of authors, but one more I have high hopes for is E. M. (EDITH MARJORIE) WARD. She wrote around a dozen novels and was known for her Lake District settings. 

The Guardian's snippet about an earlier
Ward novel

Of those novels, Forest Silver (1941), Isle of Saints (1943), and Voices in the Wind (1944), at least, are set in wartime, and the first is now in my hands, so I'll soon know if she lives up to her potential. Unfortunately, I haven't been able to definitely trace her in records so far. It's possible that she's the Edith Marjorie Ward 1898-1968, daughter of John and Beatrix Ward, but there's no definite confirmation so far.

I'm not sure I'll be rushing to read the books of D. (DOROTHY) GAINSBOROUGH WARING any time soon, but some of her books do fit the theme of this post. She published ten novels, at least some of them thrillers and most featuring Irish characters or themes. Several also presented the approach of war or the war itself, but perhaps rather problematically. According to ODNB, she was a member of the British Fascists for several years, and her early novels "made clear her continued admiration for Hitler." She had earlier been a controversial figure in Northern Ireland too, where she and her father were strong Unionists. In later years, however, she became a regular on the Northern Ireland Home Service's radio quiz Up Against It.

At the other end of the political spectrum is IRIS MORLEY, a journalist, historian, and author of seven novels, some historical in subject. Morley married Communist journalist Alaric Jacob and her books have distinct Marxist leanings. Nothing but Propaganda (1946) was a partially autobiographical novel about a young woman who lives in the U.S. for a time, marries unhappily, divorces, then marries, ahem, a Communist journalist. The story ends in England during World War II. 

The Guardian on Not Without Fantasy

Morley spent some of the war as a correspondent in Moscow, as did her second husband, journalist and novelist Alaric Jacob, out of which experience grew Not Without Fantasy (1947), a satirical tale of journalists in wartime Moscow. According to newspaper accounts of her death, Morley was terminally ill with cancer but was not told of the severity of her condition. She fell ill during a vacation in Cornwall, intended to restore her strength, and died a few days later.

But finally, to end on a more intriguing note, ELIZABETH WHITEHEAD, not yet definitely identified, apparently wrote only a single children's adventure title, Adventurous Exile (1946), about a party of English schoolgirls and teachers trapped in France during World War II. But it does sound like fun!

Next time, nine more "new" authors and more wartime stories.

Friday, January 24, 2020

The show must go on: BARBARA WILLARD, Echo Answers (1952)

Having read Barbara Willard's very fun Snail books, which I mentioned briefly in my Furrowed Middlebrow Dozen post at the New Year, I became curious about her novels for adults. She wrote more than a dozen adult novels from the 1930s to 1950s, before turning her attention for most of the rest of her career to children's books, in which realm she became by far best known for her historical Mantlemass series (1970-1992), which follows one family through more than two centuries of English history.

Willard's adult novels seem to gravitate toward the theatre world, which is not surprising since, according to her Wikipedia page, she was "the daughter of the Shakespearean actor Edmund Willard and the great-niece of Victorian era actor Edward Smith Willard." I wouldn't know either of those actors if they stood up in my soup, but suffice it to say Willard's knowledge of actors and the theatre comes through in Echo Answers and adds an extra interest to its story.

We meet Sarah Philmore, a young woman whose lover was lost in the war, at the wedding of another ex-flame to another woman. She is, clearly, unlucky in love. At the wedding, she runs into an old friend, a war widow herself, and spontaneously agrees to fill in for her for six months as secretary to Arnold Chater, a bestselling novelist quickly moving past his prime. As part of her role, she moves in with Chater and his family—kind, unflappable Elsa, his wife; Elsa's mother, Dame Lucia Peverell, a famous retired actress; son Barney, who has written a play with all the artistic integrity Arnold himself sold out long ago; and daughter Rosalind, who has decided to be an actress as much to gain Lucia's love as out of any calling.

Sarah becomes enmeshed with the family's problems, and when her friend returns sooner than expected to take back her job, she is at a loss. She begins an affair with Barney, whose play, about a girl he loved who died, is about to be produced. She is attracted to him largely because he reminds her of her lover lost in the war, but this "echo" is in turn overshadowed by Barney's own, when his play's lead is perfectly cast with a young actress who reminds him vividly of the past. Rather interestingly, this also casts a shadow back over Sarah's earlier love affair, as she wonders if that lover, too, would have become similarly distracted with time.

It's a very pleasant and enjoyable little melodrama with bits of humor scattered throughout and with interesting, life-like characters and enough literary and theatrical glamour to keep things moving along nicely. It lacks the cheerful joie-de-vivre of the Snail books, and there's a bit too much emotional navel-gazing here and there for my taste, but what makes up for this are some very striking passages that show Williard to be a sophisticated observer of human nature. For instance, I'll always remember this observation when the circumstance arises:

She ran up the steps and stood shaking herself just inside the door, while an elderly woman crossing the hall paused to watch her with disapproval and just that shade of contempt the dry have for the wet.

I had never thought of it before, but isn't this precisely how dry people do look at wet people?

There are also enough poignant references to the war years to validate this novel's inclusion on my WWII list in the Postwar section. Here is Sarah recalling her wartime love, and the unique pain that must have been experienced by many women with no socially or legally "legitimate" standing with a man:

No one had known that she and Tim were lovers and she had heard of his death at second-hand. She had gone home for a twenty-four-hour leave and been told by a friend met outside the station of the latest loss in the neighbourhood. He was mourned by his family and there was no suggestion of any other claim. Well, there was nothing very distinctive about that; unofficial widowhood could hardly have been more common. But of all the wretchedness of bereavement there was probably none more poignant, more difficult of acceptance, than this secret grief that could never be displayed…

And here is Willard somewhat evoking Barbara Noble's The House Opposite in her description of the undramatic reaction to bombs:

She looked round the little theatre and remembered the ambitious, not quite intelligible poetic drama she had seen here with Tim during one of his leaves. In the middle of the performance there had been an air raid; no one had taken any notice. It all seemed a very long time ago, but the subject of Barney's play linked the two periods with a firm insistence that was almost frightening. How did we manage, she wondered for the hundredth time; how did we manage to live at all with the bombs falling and that incessant threat  hanging over us, the perpetual uncertainty whether we would see the morning? She smiled to herself. That undramatic acceptance of drama seemed almost melodramatic now.

But one of my favorite passages here has nothing to do with the war, but rather with the theatre, and demonstrates Willard's personal knowledge of theatrical life. Julie, Barney's leading lady, has retreated to her home following a conflict and is threatening not to appear on opening night. Dame Lucia takes matters into her own hands to save Barney's production and the talking-to she gives Julie is a classic of "show must go on" philosophy:

"I don't know what Barney's done to you," she said, "and frankly I don't care. But if he had spat in your face and insulted you at the moment you were making your entrance, if he had broken your heart and laughed at doing it, you should still be able to go on to the stage and play your scene, and play it with all the power and the feeling in you, right to the end, to the last word, to the final gesture, tears or laughter, death or life, as it was written."

Julie swung on her heel with a sharp, shrill laugh.

"It sounds very impressive."

"It is very impressive," Lucia said.

Echo Answers is not an absolute favorite for me, but it's intriguing and entertaining enough that I'll be on the lookout for more of Willard's adult novels. One of her earliest novels, Joy Befall Thee (1934), is about three generations of theatre costume designers, which could be an ideal use for her theatrical knowledge, and The Dogs Do Bark (1948), set at a seaside resort, seems to have potential as a postwar novel. And although I don't generally read historical fiction, perhaps I should have a gander at the Mantlemass series?

Friday, January 17, 2020

The young girl and the snow: EMMA SMITH, No Way of Telling (1972)

Anyone who has read this blog for very long at all will know that my TBR list is very long and I'm about as methodical in approaching it as a fruitfly. So, to have come across a fellow blogger writing about a new-to-me book in early November, and to have actually read said book over our Christmas break only a few weeks later, is astonishing timing indeed. Ordinarily, I would be saying here that so-and-so mentioned this book back in 2012 and I've just now got round to it. But this time, I can say that Kirsty at the Literary Sisters wrote about this book here on November 7th—practically yesterday in blogger time—and here I am already seconding her enthusiastic recommendation.

Some of you already know Emma Smith as the author of The Far Cry (1949), a novel reprinted by Persephone, and of Maidens' Trip (1948), about her WWII adventures on canal boats, as well as several other memoirs and works of fiction. I've read none of these, so I can't make comparisons, but I'm certainly going to rectify that soon.

No Way of Telling, which was a runner-up for the 1973 Carnegie Medal, is a wonderful winter story, which may have been part of the appeal for me, since despite a bit of a cold spell in San Francisco (i.e. lows in the mid-40s, highs in the high 50s, hardly cold at all by the standards of anyone who didn't grow up in Dubai), it never really feels wintry or, therefore, Christmas-y to me here. Winter books are a reasonably good substitute, and don't require any shoveling.

Although the book was marketed by the publisher as a children's book, it's really very much a novel for any age that happens to be about a young girl's harrowing adventures during a terrible blizzard in a remote part of Wales. It could almost be called an Old Man and the Sea from a young girl's perspective—a Young Girl and the Snow, as it were, with the sharks transposed into shady characters darkening the otherwise cozily snowbound setting.

Emma Smith in 2013

Young Amy lives with her grandmother, Mrs Bowen, in a fairly remote part of Wales. As the novel begins, Amy has been sent home from school early due to the approaching storm. Smith does a wonderful job of setting the scene as Amy makes her way through the snow—you can sense the isolation:

There was nothing to see; nothing but a white swarming nothingness. The hill that rose up in front of her was invisible and the snow itself had altered. The flakes were smaller now and driving harder. She was uncertain of how far she had come, uncertain of exactly where she was; and as she realized this she felt a curious movement inside her, the sudden squeeze of sudden fright. It was not that she was afraid of losing herself, for the track was clear enough yet and she had only to keep on walking ahead until she reached a path turning off that would lead her down to the stream and across it on a narrow wooden bridge and up the further side to the Gwyntfa, the cottage where she lived with her grandmother, Mrs Bowen. If instead she had had to follow the track, an old drovers' road, on up the valley, up and up and still on for miles over a waste of grass and fern and boggy patches and outcroppings of rock where curlews nested in the spring, that would have been another matter. Anyone might get lost up there.

But Amy's fear was not of losing her way home. What frightened her was being unable to tell where she was on a path she knew so well. An entire hill had disappeared, and the familiar track was not familiar any more, and the snow was increasing, and there was nobody with her. Then she noticed close by her feet a large squarish boulder, its shape already altered by the snow blown against it but still recognizable as a rock on which she often paused when she was coming from school and the weather was sunny and she was not in any hurry. Her panic evaporated. After all everything was where it had always been—not gone, only concealed. She shifted the milk-can to her other hand; the weight of it dangling from its wire handle had numbed her fingers. Head bowed, glove to cheek, once again she set off.

We also get lovely details of the household and their daily lives, including the supplies Mrs Bowen has on hand, which will have to see the two through the storm, as they'll be completely cut off. One of the things that makes this, for me, such a lovely book, is that Smith allows it to start at a leisurely pace, taking time to bring the setting—the house itself and the surrounding hills and cliffs and paths—vividly to life. While impatient readers might wish things would pick up, it's this preliminary detail that pays off so richly as the pace quickens to a near-thriller, the landscape comes into dramatic play, and the reader is right there with Amy, able to picture every move, every hill, and every precipice.

For it's not long until Amy and Mrs Bowen, sitting at night by the fireside, are disturbed by an enormous, burly, dangerous-looking man who speaks no English and has a terrible wound on his arm. This stranger bursts into the isolated home, grabbing blankets and supplies, including a raw leg of lamb a neighbor has just given them. He disappears back into the night, leaving them shaken and not knowing what to expect next. But he's soon followed by two more men, who claim to be police seeking a murderer, but who somehow make both Amy and her grandmother uneasy. They have "no way of telling" what the truth of the situation is, and likewise, even when they begin to figure it out and realize they are in danger, they have "no way of telling" their neighbors or friends because of the blizzard.

This is a book that offers vivid setting and situations, beautiful writing, two rich main characters with a completely believable and compelling relationship, and an increasingly tense, page-turning plot. It was a delicious surprise for my holiday reading, and I'm thankful to Kirsty for having unearthed it and written about it.

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