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…


  1. Miss Pike and her Pupils *is* fun. I must have liked it enough to keep it. Now I want to read Chestnut Court!

    1. I've also been reminded that Tyrrell actually wrote two school stories, the other being Victoria's First Term. Clearly I will have to read more of her books.

  2. I also read Miss Pike and her Pupils a few years ago. I can remember nothing about the story, but know I enjoyed it!

    1. Thanks Michelle Ann, I'm planning to read it when the opportunity arises!

  3. JULY 13: Happy birthday, dear Scott! You have given so many of us such please AND EDIFICATION over the years, and I do thank you!

  4. What a joy to find this site during a time when reading is almost a necessity to calm one's anxieties. I might discover another Miss Read!


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