Sunday, July 26, 2020

They're (very nearly) here!: New Furrowed Middlebrow titles from Dean Street Press

It's almost time! Back in May, I announced our six new "cheerful village comedies" to help alleviate coronavirus and other stresses (well, originally planned to be happy, page-turning holiday reads for the summer, but now more likely to be used as antidotes to the news and to thoughts of cancelled summer travels). And now they're finally here, as of August 3. To tantalize you just a bit more in these final days of waiting, I'm revealing the full covers (complete with cover blurbs extensively agonized over by yours truly, who always makes very heavy weather of them indeed). I also have to mention our brilliant intro writers, as I neglected to do before.


First up, for the incomparable Miss Mole, we have a lovely new introduction by author and novelist Charlotte Moore, who has introduced other of our books, including Romilly Cavan's Beneath the Visiting Moon and E. Nesbit's The Lark. She has a marvelous way of summing up what makes a novel special, as in this brief excerpt:


Her sense of place is impeccable, her seasonal details exactly right. She knows for certain what her characters wore and ate, how they walked and talked. You won't get anywhere with this novel if you don't respond to Hannah - but who could fail to feel sympathetic interest in "a woman for whom repentance had no practical results"?

Who indeed!


Next is the wonderful Ruth Adam and her humorously autobiographical A House in the Country. Adam always reveals—even when making us laugh—a keen social awareness, as she did in her most famous work, her second novel I'm Not Complaining, which was reprinted in the 80s by Virago. It's only fitting, then, that her intro should be by journalist Yvonne Roberts, who brings her own incisive social consciousness to the intro and gives us some irresistible peaks at the reality behind Adam's novel. If her summing up of the house in question doesn't pull you in, nothing will:


The house is in Kent built in Tudor times by Flemish weavers with the curved gables of their homeland. It has 33 rooms, a resident bat, a temperamental insatiable geriatric boiler and five kitchens. It is home to lilacs and roses and swallows in the stable. Over the years, its powers of seduction ensnare not just the small band of Londoners but also a succession of domestic staff, weekend visitors, foreign paying guests and tenants. The whole is presided over by the magnificent figure of Howard, the head gardener. 


Now we come to Dorothy Lambert's frothy, funny Much Dithering, which is not only the title and a fair description of what goes on in the story, at least among some of the characters, but also, delightfully, the name of the village in which it all happens. Scholar and researcher Elizabeth Crawford is our go-to introducer for our least-known authors, and she never fails to find delicious tidbits (as when she was able to quote from Elizabeth Fair's unpublished diaries, or when she has enriched our readings of previously lost authors like Marjorie Wilenski or Barbara Beauchamp by unearthing hitherto unknown details of their lives and histories). We really put Elizabeth to work this time around, writing intros for all four of our remaining new titles, and she didn't let us down. It's amazing what she has unearthed about Dorothy Lambert, and not only that, she was able to trace the origins of some of Much Dithering's most notable characters in a Christmas play written by Lambert four years earlier! 


I don't like to play favorites with our books, since all of them are by definition favorites or we wouldn't be reprinting them, but Dorothy Evelyn Smith's Miss Plum and Miss Penny might have to be an exception. One of my earliest "discoveries" as a blogger (though obviously some savvy soul had discovered it before me since it had already been suggested as "possibly Persephone" at one of that publisher's events—happily for me, they didn't pick up on the suggestion!), it will always hold a special place in my heart. And Elizabeth Crawford again uncovers fascinating details about this rather private author, and I can't resist sharing this wonderful summation of the novel's characters via a tidbit about Smith herself:


Dorothy Evelyn Smith does not seem ever to have been interviewed by the press and, 50 years after her death, family memories are fading. But recollections that survive are of a woman who, besides listening to and making music, loved reading poetry, in particular Dylan Thomas’ 1954 publication, Under Milkwood. Knowing this, we can derive added pleasure as we encounter Alison Penny reading it at intervals throughout the novel, ‘faintly worried’ by some of the ‘confusing passages’. ‘It was rather more outspoken than she had bargained for...So very Welsh.’ Sly Miss Plum confesses to have been reading the book in bed, the implication being that no passages would have confused her. 

Finally, we have another author I stumbed across early on, Celia Buckmaster, and her two delightful comedies with a bit of an edge, Village Story and Family Ties. In her research for these intros, Elizabeth was able to track down no lesser source than Buckmaster's daughter, Loulou Brown, who provides wonderful insights into her mother's work and life, but also revealed (bestill my pounding heart) that the family possesses the manuscript of an unpublished third novel! Music to my ears, of course, and if the world ever returns to any semblance of normal, we hope to have a look at the manuscript and see what's what.

And that's all for this slightly smaller batch of new titles, but hopefully enough to keep you happily thinking for some time of eccentric village life with no trace of COVID anywhere!

And I just can't resist noting that we have, just this week, finalized plans for our next batch of titles, coming in January 2021, and oh boy! I can't reveal them yet, but I can say that I'm perhaps more excited than I've ever been before. Eleven titles, two authors, both new to our list—I can say no more, but stay tuned…

Sunday, July 19, 2020

"Simple, uneventful happenings"? Well, sort of…: ELENA SHAYNE, Everyday (1935)

Regular readers will know that, while my taste undoubtedly centers around a very particular type of fiction, I also enthusiastically embrace the oddities that here and there sprinkle my genre of choice. And none have recently (or, perhaps, ever) proven more odd than this seemingly quite ordinary novel, the one and only book by one Elena Shayne, whom I've only just come across and know little about.

I don't recall what I was actually researching when I came across, in a 1935 issue of the Observer, a short review of Everyday. Here, in part, is what that reviewer had to say:

Miss Elena Shayne's "Everyday" is a different sort of book. It is a quiet, gentle record, in the form of a diary, of simple, uneventful happenings. There is a reminiscence in it of Miss Delafield without the coruscation of arrows, and of Mr Beverley Nichols's rural manner without the mawkishness. … Miss Shayne seems to have set out, in this her first novel, deliberately to charm us, rather in the style that Argentinian dancers are reputed to do. Perhaps in her next book, now that she has proved her mastery over sugar-and-water, she may try something a little more emotional.

I don't know what Argentinian dancers have to do with anything, but, leaving aside the undoubtedly masculine condescension of this review, I ask you, could your curiosity have failed to be aroused? There was, it turned out, exactly one copy of the book available on Abe Books, but I had to wait for several months to acquire it as it bore a "Temporary Unavailable" notice which apparently indicated that the bookseller was on vacation or otherwise unavailable. But I kept a close watch on the listing (as if anyone else would have been likely to know of the book's existence, let alone be competing with me to acquire it, but I know many of you are familiar with the kind acquisitorial paranoia I'm referring to), and finally, a month or two back, it was in my hands, complete with a dustjacket I hadn't expected it to have. And not only that, but the book is also signed by the author (on the undoubtedly tense date of 28 Aug 1939, no less!) and inscribed with a somewhat inscrutable drawing of a creature (duck? squirrel?) shouting, appropriately enough on such a day in history, "Pace!!!" What a delightful, odd, and slightly melancholy thing to find on opening the book!

Author signature & drawing of a ?????

(Indeed, delightful, odd, and slightly melancholy might well describe the content of the novel as well, but more on that below.)

At first, I was in total agreement with the Observer reviewer. It was, in the beginning, indeed a vaguely Provincial Lady-ish sort of diary of "simple, uneventful happenings." Elena (the narrator bears the author's name) is a young, unmarried woman, full of zest for life but somewhat restrained by the kind of vague "heart condition" so well-known in fiction of this period. She lives near a rural village called Grebe with the beloved aunt who adopted her after her Socialist mother, disowned by her parents, died when Elena was only three. Unsurprising, perhaps, that Elena's own views are decidedly—and delightfully—unconventional:

Grebe etiquette decrees that new residents appear in church when ready to be 'called on'. Visits are then exchanged, and, after careful consideration by the conduct committee (which body, though unofficial, is one of the strongest forces in Grebe) the newcomers are accepted or rejected. Acceptance entails the going to and giving of bridge parties; attendance at church; membership of Sandon Golf Club; and participation in all social activities acknowledged by the committee as correct. Rejection means freedom, not only from its obligations but from the friendship of its accepted members.

Everyday begins with Elena's announcement to her aunt that she is about to begin her masterpiece:

This morning as I lay on the veranda, with Gentle Alice Brown (my mongrel sheep-dog) seated beside me in a state of the most lively anticipation as to what part, if any, he would get of my breakfast, I called to my Aunt, 'I'm going to write a book'. My Aunt, who was busily thinning seedlings in the rather inadequate borders of our small garden, looked up remarking pleasantly, 'Yes, dear. I wonder what I've done with my small trowel?'

Fortunately, Elena perseveres, and decides to "write it just of the things that happen to me for a year. I've often heard people saying they wish someone would write a book of everyday."

Based on an invitation, early in the book, to lunch with an editor from Poetry magazine ("a dear little man who looks as though he never got what he wanted, yet made the best of things in spite of that"), Shayne may well have been a poet herself, although she doesn't appear to have published any collections of poems. There's certainly a poet's sense of language that brings joy to many of the book's more mundane scenes, as when she attempts to help a farmer with his haymaking, or even just in her description of her attic retreat:

This shell—Chez-Nous—is full of my own treasures. Books, musical instruments, painting materials, and my hammock slung across the room. In the dim winter evenings there I lie, swinging above my rush mats and oak table, seeing my bookshelves come and go again, watching my big arm-chairs invite and fly me, hearing my gramophone until the needle jars at the record's inner rim, and often then, against my uncurtained windows, the trickle and swish of rain.

Elena also records some lovely descriptions of rural village and farm life, with wonderful details—surely of historical and sociological interest—of day-to-day rural life too mundane to have been documented by most authors. And her poetic sense also notes some wonderfully peculiar turns of phrase, or examples of local color, as when she notes, "I felt tempted to ask what had occurred; then thought I had better leave them to dree their own weird." (I can't wait to use that in conversation with some poor bewildered soul.)

Elena's home life is considerably more rustic even than Delafield's Provincial Lady, and although there is, as shown above, some delightful humor, there is also an underlying seriousness in Elena's tale that doesn't always fit the coziness with which the novel begins, as well as one or two jarring elements, such as a strange minor subplot in which several neighbours' dogs are shot and killed by an unknown local terrorist, a mystery that is never solved, at least in the novel. One can imagine such a thing happening, however, so if Shayne took her task of accurately describing a year of her life strictly to heart, then it fits her theme.

The middle section of the book, too, forms quite a contrast with the quietly rustic first and final thirds of her tale. Following a frightening collapse (her generic "heart" again), Elena and her aunt take off, on doctor's orders, for the Continent. (Why my doctor never orders such things is beyond me—today's medical professionals just aren't what they used to be.) They travel in various parts of Spain and France and have various entertaining escapades, as well as, on Elena's part, a romantic interlude with a handsome German doctor (more on her romantic inclinations below). It's hard to see how Elena's rather unrestrained exertions on vacation could have proven more restful for her heart than her usual quiet rural life, but then I'm no doctor.

The most striking of Elena's escapades on the Continent gets into some slightly risqué territory (by middlebrow standards, at least) when Elena accompanies a male acquaintance for a night on the town in Paris, including—at her own insistence—a visit to a brothel. The scene is not sexually explicit in any way, but a young woman who insists on visiting a brothel and then on carrying on, unperturbed, a conversation with two stark naked women about whose lives she is curious, is not, one might safely say, a typical middlebrow heroine. I will say that the scene has a distinct ring of truth, though, and it's certainly great fun to read.

Finally, there's one last unusual element in this novel which I find particularly fascinating. The main underlying sadness in Elena's otherwise cheerful tale is that she is grieving the somewhat mysterious loss of her dear friend Lilian—not in the sense of Lilian being dead but in the sense that something has come between the two of them, presumably Lilian's relationship with a man:

Just at this time Lilian fell in love with an exemplary young man named Phillip. An event which caused me concealed and unspeakable grief, for a friendship like ours could not happen twice, nor in such circumstances continue to be.

Elena's tone when describing her friendship with Lilian, and a suggestion of deeper feelings unspecified, leaves open the possibility that what we're subtly privy to is a lesbian relationship threatened, as so often at a time when same-sex relationships were not accepted as viable options, by Lilian's temptation to marry a man in order to better fit social expectations. For Lilian remains a melancholy presence in Elena's mind throughout, even when, as mentioned above, Elena appears to have a romantic interlude with Karl, a German doctor, and indeed a flirtation or two with other men along the way. What is striking is that, even with Karl for whom she seems to feel a real connection and affection, Elena assiduously assures Karl (and the objects of her other flirtations as well) that she "could never love" them and sends them on their way. One wonders. And then there's the novel's happy ending, in which Lilian, whose near-husband has retreated from the scene, is welcomed with open arms back into cozy Chez-Nous (not, one might note, Chez-Moi).

Although it's certainly not presented with the "shouting from the rooftops" explicitness of a Well of Loneliness, what I think we have in Everyday, just a few years after Well, is a fascinating, quirky, subtle lesbian romance that was able to "pass" as a benign idyll of "simple, uneventful happenings" and therefore avoid both the condemnation of literary moralizers and the unhappy endings that were then seen as de rigueur for such scandalous characters. It also makes the undoubtedly male Observer critic's conclusion that next time Shayne "may try something a little more emotional" amusingly ridiculous!

Mind you, I'm not claiming that Everyday is a great novel per se. As already noted, Shayne's assiduous detailing of exactly what happens makes the overall work a bit misshapen, and it does drag a bit here and there. There's also some racist language, particularly during that same night out in Paris with Colonel Ellis, when they visit a jazz club (referred to using the n word), but the usage seems intended as innocently descriptive, judging from the a few lines later when Colonel Ellis has to forbid her from happily joining in a dance with a handsome black man (Colonel Ellis might therefore be a racist, but Elena doesn't seem to be). She also refers, in the same scene, to "a superbly handsome Jewess" apparently with entirely complimentary intent. And, one more slight weakness for me, there's a somewhat dizzying array of local characters that I found it hard to keep straight (so to speak).

But even if Everyday is not a perfect novel, it's definitely one of the most fascinating oddities I've ever come across. What it is, too, is completely extraordinary in its perspective. Whether or not Elena is in fact a lesbian, she is certainly an unusual, intriguing, and irresistible heroine.

Thursday, July 9, 2020

Girls and ghouls: MABEL L. TYRRELL, Chestnut Court (1929) & MARY LUCY PENDERED, The Uncanny House (1929)

I just happened to lump these two recent reads together in a single post, not noticing initially that they were published in the same year. But they both have that cheerful, chipper, Roaring Twenties sort of middlebrow appeal, despite telling very different stories, so perhaps it was meant to be.

Chestnut Court was a very pleasant surprise recently. I had thought, from misreading a snippet of a review, that it was an adult novel, but in fact it's a "girl's" story, a widening world tale set in and around a sort of magical Paris courtyard, wherein a giant chestnut tree sheds blessings as well as blossoms on the hand-selected residents. I could have done without the tree's apparent mystical powers, and some of the sentimentality that went along with that, but otherwise this is a perfectly charming, humorous, engaging story with some unique elements.

The story focuses mainly on fifteen-year-old Serena Southcott, an English girl who lives with her widowed father, and on her French best friend, Jeanne Dubois, only sixteen but already a dressmaker taking care of little brother Pierre and her elderly grandmother. Among the other inhabitants of the court are Monsieur de Villerose, a violinist and composer, Papa Delplace, a wigmaker, and Madame Girard, known as the "Duchess of Chestnut Court", an impoverished gentlewoman with extravagant attire, a sassy parrot ('"Long live the king!" shouted Coco. "Down with the reds! Sapristi! Taxi-taxi-taxi!"'), and a giant diamond (presumed to be fake) on her hand. Serena occasionally begs the Countess to take their "extra" food, as she is too proud to accept charity.

The drama begins when a mysterious stranger is found lurking outside Madame Girard's flat, and soon after that her fabulous ring disappears. The intrigue is predictable enough, and the chestnut tree sees that everything works out for the best, but it's the tone of the book that is charming, such as this snippet:

Serena was feeling quite depressed. A most unusual symptom for Serena to experience but quite common and natural to anyone who has just taken her first lesson in shorthand.

The most striking scene in the book for me is the one in which Jeanne, struggling to make ends meet, fills in for a friend who tests parachutes for a living. Let that sink in for a moment. But as someone for whom skydiving has sometimes seemed tempting but who can't imagine actually stepping out of an airplane into thin air (I'm up for ziplining, or perhaps even a bungee jump, but I'm afraid they'd have to shove me from the plane scratching and clawing in a most undignified fashion), the scene was great fun:

"Then step off," he snapped out. "Let yourself go without fear. There's nothing to be afraid of."

And Jeanne did as she was told; she had the courage to obey. She felt something pulling hard at her whole being, she saw an immense space of greyness beneath her, she was swinging hither and thither, but still she obeyed some shouting voice which told her not to struggle. Ah, the parachute had opened! Jeanne did not see it, but she knew it. It was a long way to the ground, but there was no bumping like that horrid scenic railway. Should she shut her eyes? Blue skygreyness. Tree tops in the distance. The Chestnut Tree was in bud. Pierre must have a bicycle—oh, dear!

Jeanne stumbled; it was really so funny to have one's feet on the grass. She could not stand upright because the grass was not at all firm! It wabbled about much more than the air, and was not solid. She clutched at somebody's shoulder; oh, it belonged to one of
those girls in brown overalls who made aeroplane wings. There were quite a number of them round her, laughing, and making a great noise; she had come down near their shed.

"A very beautiful descent! Bravo, Mademoiselle!"

Such a scene is surely not completely unique in girl's stories—some of the many tales of girl pilots, for example, must have similar happenings—but it's the first such I've come across it in a non-wartime story, and it's great fun.

Chestnut Court isn't an all-time favorite, but it was a very charming read, and I'm rather excited that, thanks to Grant Hurlock, I now have another Mabel Tyrrell book, Patchwork Palace, a boarding-house novel for grownups, that I have to make time for soon. She also wrote a number of other books for children and adults, as well as a school story, Miss Pike and Her Pupils, published the year before Chestnut Court, which could be great fun as well.

And next up is a book I added to my wish list ages ago, which just happens to have turned up in a very reasonably-priced copy during a recent idle splurge on E-Bay. I can't recall now whether it was specifically recommended to me or if I flagged it just because of a general interest in Pendered. I also have Pendered's earlier novel At Lavender Cottage (1912) flagged, which seems to be a very different kind of tale.

At any rate, not only did I spontaneously buy The Uncanny House for under 10 dollars, but I also spontaneously read it as soon as it arrived. It's a light-hearted ghost story with lots of meanderings about life in the country, housekeeping, and child-rearing. Peggy and Percy (Perks) Dacre, a young couple with four young children, have finally settled on a delightful (and delightfully affordable) house, which, as Peggy writes to her friend Joan in the opening chapter, has in recent years gained the unfortunate moniker Hell Cottage, though it was previously known as The Beeches. They move in, only to find that the house may still be occupied by its eccentric, anti-social former resident, an elderly man who kept neighbors away with vicious dogs and whose dedicated, long-suffering housekeeper has been left impoverished by his sudden death without, apparently, having left a will with her long-promised legacy.

Well, from there the story practically writes itself, doesn't it? Peggy and Perks find the neighborhood congenial and are soon in a social swirl. Peggy befriends the former housekeeper, who is utterly convinced that her employer did indeed make a will, and further that his ghost will remain in the house until it is found. Peggy begins hearing noises and seeing a figure, suspiciously similar to descriptions of theire predecessor. The children casually mention the old man who sometimes watches them playing. Furniture seems to be moved around. Peggy is terrified, but Perks, staunchly rationalist, refuses to allow for any possibility of a haunt, and swears her to secrecy about her beliefs for fear of scaring off the domestics.

Naturally, everything works out for the best. There's a bit too much argument about the possible science behind hauntings, which causes the novel to drag a bit in the middle, and all told it seems a bit like a clever short story stretched to novel length, but it's fun nevertheless, with charming enough characters and situations. Despite Peggy's terror, the story remains light-hearted, so that none but the most easily alarmed readers are likely to experience any real suspense. On the contrary, many readers are likely to think Peggy a bit hysterical in light of the fact that the ghost turns out to be perfectly benevolent and rather like a pleasant apparition to have around—and is obviously only trying to help them locate his will. We don't get his perspective, but he must have occasionally felt exasperated that they wouldn't stop being so irrationally nervous and just pay attention to what he's trying to say.

I should mention, though, sadly, that the fate of those vicious dogs is likely to be far more distressing to modern readers than a friendly ghost…
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