Tuesday, October 27, 2020

COVER REVEAL: 11 new Furrowed Middlebrow titles coming January 2021

Only a bit over two months now until the release (see announcement here if you missed it) of the next batch of Furrowed Middlebrow books published by Dean Street Press! These include 11 titles in all from two of my favorite authors, Margery Sharp and Stella Gibbons, and I can't wait any longer to reveal our covers to you, which are rather wonderful if I do say so myself.

One reason these covers are standouts is because eight of the eleven cover images are by prominent illustrator Leslie Wood, whose enticing images graced the covers and pages of numerous books for both adults and children. In particular, fans of the Little Red Engine books by Diana Ross will notice that three of the Gibbons covers look familiar. Wood was the artist behind two of the original covers of these books, Gibbons' The Swiss Summer and Sharp's The Foolish Gentlewoman, which we have of course re-used here, so it's lovely to be able to use his beautiful images for other of our titles as well.

Of the other three covers, we've been waiting for years to find the right book on which to use Eric Ravilious' gorgeous boarding house image, so I jumped at the chance to use it for Sharp's Harlequin House. For The Stone of Chastity, we adapted a delightful early cover image, and for Gibbons' A Pink Front Door, Rupert at Dean Street came across a rather breathtaking Hampstead poster.

Before leaving you to peruse at leisure, I must also mention that the brilliant Elizabeth Crawford has provided intros for all eleven titles, with background information and tidbits that will prove fascinating even for long-time Sharp or Gibbons fans. I don't know how she does it, but I'm very glad she does!

And now, the covers. You'll have some extra time to enjoy them on the main blog page, as I'm planning to take a short blog break between now and the books' release in order to work on other projects... 

I hope you love these as much as I do!

Monday, October 12, 2020

Love and hate, in more ways than one: EDITH TEMPLETON, Living on Yesterday (1951) and The Island of Desire (1952)

My love/hate relationship with Edith Templeton is continuing to evolve. First, I read her debut novel Summer in the Country (1950), discussed here, and absolutely loved it. Beyond love, really, I think it's a masterpiece. Then, I jumped to her quite (deservedly) forgotten fourth novel, This Charming Pastime, discussed here, and frankly rather loathed it.

Now, with her second novel, Living on Yesterday, I am firmly back in the love camp. From the quite rustic Czech countryside of Summer in the Country, we arrive in this novel in the glittering world of Prague society, undoubtedly led (at least in her own mind) by the imposing and dominating Baroness Kreslov, whose quiet, awkward daughter Hedwig is but a pawn in the Baroness' attempts to marry her off to the penniless but prestigious Hungarian Count Szalay, who has arrived in Prague after an astonishing series adventures (at least, according to him), having been thought dead along with the rest of his family following political unrest in Hungary. Fortunately for Hedwig, however (and for us, the readers), Hedwig has learned considerably more from her mother's machinations than her passive demeanor reveals, and she sets in motion her own strategy to get exactly what she wants while apparently fulfilling the fondest wishes of the Baroness.

Also featuring prominently in the plot is the Baroness' brother Richard Marek, a widower with whom she has had a troubled relationship (to say the least—he occasionally manufactures mad tantrums to avoid seeing her) since he married, in her view, beneath him, and his friend Steffanie Smejkal, a former Court beauty who holds a sort of salon to which the returned-to-life Count Szalay makes himself known. This is not to mention some of the staff of these grand houses, who view their employers with considerable irony.

There are lots of lovely little tidbits here. I love this brief exchange between Richard and Steffanie:

'But what does he look like?' asked Richard Marek and helped himself to bread and butter and cherry jam.


Steffanie Smejkal put her cup down and made a vague gesture. 'He looks like a man,' she said. 'And because he looks like one, he thinks he is one.'

 And there's Richard's views on women: 

'But I often wished women were more like horses—you see your horse when you want to see it, and then you shut it up in the stable when you've had enough of it. You don't trail it with you, round to parties and all day long, if you see what I mean.'

But my favorite element are the subtle seethings that one could often miss if one didn't read carefully, as in this exchange between Hedwig and her mother:

'Well, we shan't put the world to rights. Not this evening, in any case. I am going upstairs now. I want to have a last look at the Stock Exchange bulletin.'


Hedwig got up as well. 'I am sorry, Mama,' she murmured and gave her mother a sidelong glance of hatred. The Baroness looked fondly into her face and kissed her on the forehead.

If it all sounds very much like an English society novel, spiked with breathtaking humor, spite, and dark motives, it's because it almost might be. If Muriel Spark or Barbara Pym had possessed a rather fiery Czech background, one might imagine them writing something like this. But even that doesn't quite capture the joyful and occasionally horrifying oddness here. There's a wonderful atmosphere and mood, with lots of brooding and plotting under the surface and few characters being exactly what they seem. And Hedwig's final victory was a delight, particularly as she is the only character here who might come within shouting distance of being "likable".

So, yes, Living on Yesterday can definitely be a mark in the Love column of my relations with Edith Templeton. But what about her third novel, The Island of Desire (1952), to which I immediately progressed?

What indeed. Well, here we seem to have a potent mix of Love and Hate.

It all starts out wonderfully well. This is, like Living on Yesterday, a sort of mother/daughter story, in which the tempestuous and promiscuous Mrs Kalny, with her long-suffering wealthy husband and her ongoing series of lovers, provides a powerful image for her na├»ve, insecure daughter Franciska to rebel against. When we meet her, Franciska is still at school, but already being forced into a rivalry with her mother, who has determined never to grow old and, most importantly, never to lose her desirability for men. Even the dressmaker treats her as an accessory of her mother: 

Franciska would have liked to say something rude but nothing occurred to her. She left the room. Louise's words always annoyed her because they brought it home to her again and again that she merely existed in the maid's eyes as a sort ofliving dummy, created for the purpose of serving as a foil to her mother.

In her effort to rebel, Franciska is led into publishing a poem which reveals the luxurious conditions at her exclusive school, while the rest of the nation suffers under postwar austerity. She is expelled and soon after that forms a hasty marriage with the principal idea of escaping from her mother. But she is disappointed with love and with sex, particularly after all of the fuss her mother has always made about it: 

It was, she felt, a case similar to the tale about the Emperor's new clothes: nobody has ever seen them because they do not exist, yet everyone goes through the motions of feeling their texture and admiring their cut, for fear of being thought stupid.

It's only while traveling with her finicky, repressed husband, when she meets an American man and his lover in a hotel, that she begins to suspect there is more to it. And this is where what started as another delightful Templeton comedy of manners started to go a bit awry for me. The portrayal of the passionate Mrs Kalny is often quite entertaining, and I love some of the pearls of wisdom she shares with Franciska, such as:

'She is quite wrong, you know, about what she said about men, that it's easy to imagine what's coming. One can never tell what a man is like till one has gone to bed with him. One can get a tremendous surprise sometimes in this way, good or bad. Remember this for life, Cissy.'


'Yes, Mama.'

And later, discovering Franciska reading a salacious novel:

Mrs. Kalny had been very annoyed for a few minutes. 'Really, Cissy,' she had said, 'that sort of reading is stupid, because it gives you wrong ideas. You get things like: "and he picked her up in his arms and carried her to the bed." It's idiotic. In real life you'll damn well have to walk to the bed yourself.'

She really does have valid points in both instances…

But once we shift our focus onto Franciska's sexual awakening, the novel becomes a bit more uncomfortable. It begins to seem that The Island of Desire is a transitional work for Templeton, from the joyful dark comedies she began with to the fantasies of sexual subjugation she wound up with.




And the final scene of the novel, in which Franciska's sexuality is apparently finally awakened with a vengeance when an official on the Orient Express virtually rapes her in her cabin and she suddenly (touchingly?) recognizes herself as her mother's daughter after all, is quite troubling in the age of #MeToo. I don't want to oversimplify the scene—Templeton is a truly literary author and deserves the benefit of the doubt, and there are undoubtedly multiple ways of reading and interpreting this scene. In addition, Anita Brookner, who wrote the intros to the 1980s Hogarth editions of these novels, clearly felt that Island was Templeton's best work. So every reader must decide for him- or her-self, as with any book. I can only say that for me it was quite offputting.

In some ways, then, The Island of Desire sums up my love/hate feelings for Templeton. It's odd that a woman of such intelligence and talent, so vividly on display in all of these novels, seems to have spent much of the rest of her life engaged in Fifty Shades of Grey­-esque fantasies. More power to her, of course, she had a right to explore her sexuality as everyone else does, and there's no reason I should be comfortable with it. But I can't help feeling that, unlike with many of my favorite authors, I would have had a challenging time chatting with Edith Templeton over tea!

Nevertheless, I do now at last have a copy of her Italian travel book, The Surprise of Cremona, and I am intrigued to see what I'll find there. Published in 1954, after the first three novels but before the very offputting This Charming Pastime, what type of personality will come through from her record of her travels in Italy? Despite my ambivalence, my love/hate impulses will surely drive me to find out.

Monday, October 5, 2020

And now for something completely different: EDITH TEMPLETON, This Charming Pastime (1955)


I wrote recently about my re-reading of Edith Templeton's marvelous, glorious debut novel, Summer in the Country (1950), which I absolutely loved (see here). I also described the somewhat unusual trajectory of her career, and mentioned that I had just started to read this, her fourth novel, and the only one of her four novels from the 1950s that wasn't reprinted by Hogarth in the 1980s. I said then that I was already beginning to sense why, and now I know beyond any doubt.

What a contrast! Summer in the Country is an absolute feast of vivid characters and original perspectives, combining English-style comedy and extravagantly dark Bohemian drama into a brilliantly unique delicacy.

This Charming Pastime is not.

The plot here begins with Helen and Ann, two thirty-ish friends traveling in Italy, Ann because she has accepted a job there, Helen to help Ann get settled in and to do some traveling herself. At first, it's charming enough. Ann is the more uptight and traditional, Helen a bit more adventurous. A darker tone is introduced when it emerges that the latter's husband has committed suicide a year or two before, and the trip is perhaps a sort of opening out for her, an embracing of life again. Clearly, right from the beginning she sees herself becoming a rather shady lady, as when she bemoans her friend's choices of women to socialize with:

It was just like Ann, she thought, to collect any dull and decent women in the place. It had been the same in Verona and Bologna, in Venice and Vicenza, in Perugia and Assisi. Whereas, when she had entered into conversation with strange women during those last six weeks, they had always been, oddly enough, not women of her own age but those overwhelming old ladies of about seventy, raddled and rouged, scented and tight-laced, tinkling with jewellery and haloed by curls, who smoke, drink and gamble till the small hours of the morning and who will tell you between the pear and the coffee why at least three of their marriages went wrong.

I'm certainly with Helen in her choice of amusing company. Then, the women meet Mr Larson, an oil company executive whose company they both clearly enjoy. They also enjoy his wining and dining and the use of his car and driver. Plenty of potential so far, right?

But then, Helen goes off on her own to travel in Sicily, where it so happens that she encounters two of Larson's employees, Oriano and Conti, but not before spending an uncomfortable night learning about the peculiar Sicilian attitudes toward women. As the two men later explain:

"It is like this," he said, "they only know three kinds of women. The first is the married woman or the young girl and she is respected and never allowed out alone. They respect them so much that they don't even look at them when they see them. The second is the prostitute. She, too, is respected because she gives love for money. But the lowest of the low is the woman like you, who is not a prostitute and who travels alone. They think they need not respect you because, if you were decent, you would not travel alone. But, as you travel alone, you will give them your love for nothing."

They go on to explain that the Sicilians also seem to enjoy killing one another, often over matters of love and sex. And if I hadn't already begun to find Helen a bit unbearable by this point, her reaction to this would have clinched the deal:

"Now, perhaps," said Conti, "madame will understand why the Sicilians hurl themselves on any lonely unprotected woman."

"Yes, yes," said Oriano, and he made a movement of disgust.

"In a way I like it," said Helen. "It must be very flattering for a woman to know that she is as precious as all that. And then, if every kiss carries death, surely love becomes more worthwhile."

This combination of masochism and unvarnished narcissism would be a tough sell for me in any supposed protagonist, though perhaps Elizabeth Eliot might have made Helen into one of her hilariously ridiculous heroines. As it is, however, Templeton seems to treat her—and her subsequent ridiculously obsessive affair with the aforementioned Oriano—as if it's completely relatable and, even more unlikely, as if it were remotely interesting. By the time the drab, agonizing plot works itself to its somewhat tragic conclusion, I'm afraid that I was simply happy that it was over.

It's hard to imagine a sort of reader who would really love this book. Those who like romance will be put off by its harshness and hand-wringing, and by the fact that Oriano is a dullard of the first order, and those who just want to be entertained will likely find it all as dull and depressing as I did. Perhaps it might be of interest for one who researches evolving portrayals of female sexuality and liberation as the 20th century progressed, but it can't be said that this is a particularly admirable example of a sexually liberated woman. It's rather as if a Jean Rhys character took a rather tedious holiday in Sicily and became hopelessly and masochistically enamoured of a totally useless, boring man. Now it's not impossible to imagine a Rhys character doing just that, of course, but one imagines Rhys would have found ways to make her story come alive a bit more than Templeton did here.

By the way, the enigmatic title, which certainly doesn't adequately describe the activity of reading the novel, is from a children's song about a rocking horse—going backwards and forwards, backwards and forwards, oh what a charming pastime—suggesting the play of emotions in the story.

So there, mystery solved. Having always wondered why Hogarth would have published three out of four of Templeton's early novels, I no longer need to wonder. Perhaps Templeton was attempting to distance herself from the Bohemian subject matter of the first three novels? Helen is certainly very clearly identified here as an Englishwoman. While Bohemia seems to have provided Templeton with ample inspiration, however, here that inspiration seems sadly lacking.

Happily, though, this still leaves me with her second and third novels for me to revisit, which I fully expect will be more worthwhile and enjoyable, and her story collection and Italian travel book as well!

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