Friday, August 14, 2020

Yes, she also wrote for grownups: DOROTHY CLEWES, To Man Alone (1945), The Blossom on the Bough (1949), and Summer Cloud (1951)

Most of you who recognize the name Dorothy Clewes at all likely know her only as a children's author, best known for The Adventure of the Blue Admiral (1955) and other adventures and mysteries featuring the Hadley family, or perhaps for a series of "wild wood" stories beginning with The Cottage in the Wild Wood (1945). She continued to write children's fiction until at least the late 1970s, more than half a century after her one and only school story, The Rivals of Maidenhurst (1925), which Sims and Clare call "an extraordinarily bad book" but nevertheless delineate its unintenional delights. (That book, published under her maiden name, Dorothy M. Parkin, was written when the author was only 17, so she can be forgiven for her lack of polish.)

But in fact, in the 1940s and 1950s, Clewes also published as many as eight novels for adults (there are two I still can't locate details about, but based on the publisher I assume they are novels): She Married a Doctor (1943, aka Stormy Hearts), Shepherd's Hill (1945), To Man Alone (1945), A Stranger in the Valley (1948), The Blossom on the Bough (1949), Summer Cloud (1951), Merry-Go-Round (1954), and I Came to a Wood (1956).

I don't recall why I suddenly took an interest in Clewes recently. I know she hadn't been on my endless TBR list for long, which probably means I either stumbled across an ad or review that intrigued me or decided to give her a try after one of my occasional shuffles through my author list. I actually first read Summer Cloud (1951), because I came across a reasonably-priced copy with an intact dustjacket, but here I'm going to mention the three I've read so far in chron order.

Clearly Clewes started her forays into adult fiction with romance, and by her third novel (or possibly second, as Shepherd's Hill was also published in 1945), To Man Alone, she was still using the formulas of that genre but was already rising above it with the vividness of her background and careful attention to her characters.

It's just after the beginning of World War II. Margaret English is 36, unmarried, living at home caring for her supposedly "delicate" mother, and feeling frustrated to not be doing her part in the war effort. Then, of course, fate steps in:

There was something lying on the seat when she opened the door. It was a paper—an advertisement. She picked it up, got into the car, and read it as she settled herself behind the driving wheel. YOU DRIVE A CAR, it said, WON'T YOU DRIVE AN AMBULANCE? DRIVERS ARE URGENTLY NEEDED. ENROLL TODAY. OFFICE: 34, THE HIGH STREET, BROOM HILL.

Against the wishes of her mother, who wants to keep her as an unpaid servant, Margaret volunteers, just in time for the Blitz. Soon follows a bumpy relationship with Harvey Stevens, a doctor at the hospital to which Margaret often drives patients, who is slightly disabled to a childhood injury and ridiculously defensive as a result. A charming family friend, Mrs Mallory, puts Margaret up when her parents choose to evacuate, and is also conveniently equipped to facilitate Margaret's romantic life. I liked her description of her maid Sarah's reaction to her decision not to evacuate:

"She's so thankful we're staying here, she'd walk on the ceiling if I asked her to."

"She doesn't mind the raids, then?"

"She gets mad at them, but she's not afraid. It takes me all my time to get her to take cover when it's right overhead. I think she thinks that by defying it, she's winning the war all on her own."

Ultimately, To Man Alone is a fairly run-of-the-mill romance raised up by its Blitz setting and some surprisingly effective and suspenseful scenes of air raids. Clewes' talents are already on display here, though she's a bit too restricted by the traditions of the romance genre to give them free reign yet.

Better work was to come. By the time Clewes published her fifth novel, The Blossom on the Bough, she had happily left formulaic romance behind.

I didn't know what made me look down the property column of The Times. Perhaps it was that the 'peace' news was too depressing to read. I knew that I was sick to death of the food arguments, and of the long, dreary articles on what the Big Three said and to whom they said it, and of hearing how some sinister so-called iron curtain was spreading its shadows farther and farther across Europe.

From this opening, Lydia Meredith, a middle-aged single partner in a publishing house, sets out on a path which will lead her through memories of her earlier life, including family relationships and hardships, an ill-fated romance, and the tragedies of war. Longwood, her old family home in Kent, has come on the market after years of use by the military, and she feels compelled to go for a visit, which brings back a flood of nostalgic memories of her (mostly) happy life there, and the difficulties that led to the home's sale before the war. There was, of course, much of this sort of nostalgia at the time, particularly during and after the war when so many families had had to "downsize" (as we would call it today). Rachel Ferguson's Evenfield, written just a few years earlier, though stylistically quite different, details a similar compulsion to reclaim the past.

The bulk of the novel is a flashback to Lydia's earlier life, a structure I tend to find irritating but somehow didn't at all in this case. Clewes's characters come to life. They are mostly just ordinary people going about their more or less ordinary lives, but somehow Clewes makes the story compelling and lovely. Her novels are anything but rollercoaster rides, but for readers who like vicariously experiencing the ups and downs of likable characters' relatable lives, she is superb. The Blossom on the Bough is a completely charming light drama, and I suspect many of you would enjoy it.

But even better, in my opinion, is Summer Cloud. This lovely, addictive little drama—almost a soap opera but without the usual overstated melodrama—begins with Dr Charles Hamilton having a home consultation with Grace Soames and asking her to come to the hospital for x-rays. From there, the story expands—to Grace's husband and daughter Monica, who works for a dentist, Monica's sometime beau Fred, Fred's sister Lesley, an actress, and other friends and neighbors, as well as to the doctor's own personal dramas, including a bit of a scandal which threatens his practice.

Clewes' tale, again, is just about ordinary people living their lives and facing their fears and problems (really just about my favorite sort of story). But of course, some writers handle this type of story so immensely better than others. For example, I love how Mrs Soames copes with her daughter's choice of job:

She was a receptionist for a dentist in the town. While this elevated her above the masses who poured from the shops and the offices, it also demanded longer hours for very little extra pay. Monica didn't mind this: the job carried advantages that couldn't be paid for in money, such as putting her on speaking terms with the best people in Millington, and giving her a sense of responsibility and importance, which was what she needed. Mrs Soames was proud of Monica. She had only once called at Mr Watkyns' to leave a message, and Monica had opened the door. The white linen coat and the crisp cap had reduced Mrs Soames to speaking to her own daughter almost in a whisper.

One feels one quite knows a part of Mrs Soames' personality after this. Clewes makes us feel that we know her characters and are as involved with them as if we were discussing their lives over tea. Although I often get into trouble when I make comparisons, I can say that, in her best work at least, she's rather like a cross between D. E. Stevenson and Dorothy Whipple—a bit more serious than Stevenson's best works, but for the most part without the melodrama that Whipple sometimes sinks into. It's a lovely blend, and I certainly plan to read more of her work—and perhaps I should sample some of her children's fiction as well? Any recommendations?

Monday, August 3, 2020

Dodging the doldrums: MARGERY SHARP, Fanfare for Tin Trumpets (1932) & Harlequin House (1939)

Oh I do let myself be distracted from my good intentions. Months ago I was starting to renew my humble adoration for Margery Sharp, and posted reviews of her lovely debut, Rhododendron Pie (1930), here, and her postwar delight, The Foolish Gentlewoman (1948), here. Then, as far too often happens in my life, I got distracted. But surely there are darned few authors who are more perfect for escaping from these strange times than dear Margery, and I've been fortunate to be able to make enthusiastic escapes recently into two more of her glittering, witty little worlds.

Fanfare for Tin Trumpets (1932) was the follow-up to Rhododendron Pie, which Sharp was rumored to have written in one month while living in a Paddington flat with two other girls. Presumably, she spent a bit longer on Fanfare, but its plot perhaps reflects a bit of her own experience of starting out, as it deals with a young store clerk, Alistair French, who upon the death of his somewhat distant, unaffectionate father takes his small inheritance and escapes from the humdrum to a flat in London with his friend Henry, in order to Write (Sharp doesn't capitalize the word, but one feels that Alistair would have, at least at this stage).

The two friends take cheap lodgings in Paddington (just imagine!) in a boarding-house, whose other inhabitants include the spunky, starstruck Winnie Parker, often accompanied by her army of admirers, and Winnie's mother, who shares Winnie's passion for films if not her admiration for Garbo ("'Olds 'erself like a sack of potatoes," she elaborated. "You'd think she'd be able to buy a pair of stays out of all them 'undreds a week."), and whose vocal cords can make themselves heard anywhere in the house.

I've only just come across this very early author
photo of Sharp, from the Illustrated London News
when they reviewed Rhododendron Pie

Unsurprisingly, Alistair has considerably difficulty getting any actual writing down, what with the many distractions of London. Among other things, Alistair makes the acquaintance of Miss Tibbald, who invites him to join the unfortunately-named Embryo Club, which exists for the purpose of encouraging young writers, but which, on close examination, seems far more discouraging. And then there's the biggest distraction of all—a lovely young actress named Cressida who is determined to marry only in such a way as to further her career.

One thing that jumped out at me, having recently read Francesca Wade's delightful Square Haunting (I'm sure some of you have read it as well?), was a nicely evocative description of Bloomsbury in the very early 1930s:

Henry meanwhile was becoming more and more wrapped up in the life of the Training College, where he had made many interesting friends. They were all rather prominent people, genuine Bloomsburyites as opposed to the brown-baggers who went home every day on the five-twenty-three. Most of them seemed to live round Torrington Square, in which congenial atmosphere they had built up a queer, acutely self-conscious student life of their own, neatly grafted on to a sound middle-class upbringing and centering round one or two cheap Italian restaurants.



[Alistair] envied them because, however they might appear to the detached observer, they did really and truly feel that they were leading a genuine vie de boheme, and therefore enjoyed themselves as much as any one out of Murger. To defend the League of Nations over sixpennyworth of spaghetti left both body and soul in a state of grand complacency, while the reading of Villon in a gallery queue exalted the spirits like new wine. They also had the sort of love affairs in which each party continued to pay for his or her own meals, and often became engaged in their third term. In short, they were for the most part extremely happy, and Alistair had just received his first disillusionment.

Fanfare for Tin Trumpets is surely as rollicking a good time as anything Margery Sharp wrote. One knows everything will work itself out in the end, but one doesn't always know exactly how Sharp will pull it off. It's delightful good fun all round.

And so, in my own humble opinion, is the slightly later Harlequin House (1939). Some readers have claimed that this novel, written just as political tensions were making clear that war was irrevocably on its way, reflects that anxiety (though there's little or no explicit indication) in a slightly darker-than-usual sensibility. I can't say I noticed any such thing, though undoubtedly Sharp was evolving as an author and some of the works which would soon follow Harlequin House, such as Cluny Brown, Brittania Mews, and The Foolish Gentlewoman, would indeed wrestle a bit more with the fact that real life doesn't always provide cheerful happy endings. Some of that evolution might be reflected here, as opposed to the whole-hearted frivolity of Rhododendron Pie and Fanfare, but to me Harlequin House seems as fundamentally joyful and daft as most of Sharp's other early work.

Here, we first meet Arthur Alfred Partridge, a middle-aged widower with a drab job in a twopenny library at Dortmouth Bay, a seaside resort, and a frustrated sense of romance and adventure. On this day, Mr Partridge has spontaneously decided to play hookie, leaving the library closed and going for an idyllic stroll instead. As a result of this seemingly benign but ultimately fateful rebellion against dullness, Mr Partridge meets first the charming Milly Pickering, and then her irresistible niece Lisbeth Campion, who is, when we first see her, "engaged, as usual, in resisting advances".

Lisbeth is, of course, our heroine, in classic Sharp style—kind and generous to a fault, but not one to always take the moral high ground—and it emerges that Lisbeth has greater worries than her numerous suitors. First and foremost she is gravely worried about her wastrel brother Ronny, who has recently been released from prison after six months, charged with peddling cocaine (he thought it was baking powder, really he did!), and has promptly disappeared. Lisbeth determines to find him and help him, but this is complicated by the fact that her rather stern, upright Army fiancé, Captain Hugh Brocard, expected back from India soon, has forbidden her further contact with the disgraced Ronny.

A gloriously implausible but entirely entertaining sequence of events gets Mr Partridge swept up in Lisbeth's unusual and sometimes misguided efforts to find Ronny and get him safely squared away before her fiancé's return. In the process, the three set up makeshift housekeeping in London and work at odd jobs (some of them very odd indeed) to make ends meet. Along the way, they meet an array of odd and wonderful characters, including Lester Hamilton, a charming young man in the film industry, who finds himself helping the trio (and, in particular, Lisbeth) in their increasingly odd adventures. Of course, when Captain Brocard finally does arrive, things reach a climax…

It's all such good fun that one never minds the implausibility, and Lisbeth is a charmer like so many of Sharp's heroines. The passage mentioned above, in which she's resisting advances as per her norm, continues delightfully, and could surely just as easily be describing Julia from The Nutmeg Tree or Cluny Brown in the novel that bears her name:

She was resisting them without harshness. That was the trouble. The earnest young man at her side meant so little to her that she could not even remember his name; she knew only that for the past two days, ever since he arrived, he had been following at her heel with a gun-dog's perseverance and a gun-dog's good manners; and indeed his whole personality was so amiably canine that Lisbeth could not help feeling it was not his fault: someone had trained him to do it. (In a sense she was right, the trainer being simply the Life Force, or—more classically—Venus Urania, or—more familiarly—Mother Nature. Lisbeth took up a great deal of the Life Force's attention.)

Who could care that Sharp's heroines have much in common when they're as entertaining as that? And both of these novels are packed with Margery Sharp's quintessential joie de vivre, and have proven to be powerful antidotes to the doldrums of a drab and depressing pandemic summer!

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