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.


  1. What an interesting sounding novel. It certainly sounds thought provoking and makes one wonder how much is fiction and how much memoir. Unfortunate that the author doesn't seem to have written more and that this volume is so difficult to obtain.

    Thank you for the review.


  2. Gosh, fascinating - sounds like a mixed bag. Like you, I would of course hunted down any book compared to Delafield and Nichols, and am still quite intrigued to read this. Though I can never hope for such a wonderful and odd drawing!!

  3. Argentine dancers (in the less clumsy way of putting that) presumably refers to the charms of then-new Tango beguilers.


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