Friday, October 8, 2021

'It's rather like an English village': FELICITY SHAW, Sun Trap (1958)

As Isobel waited with the small group of passengers on the sunbaked tarmac at Beirut, to embark on the final stage of her journey, she thought, as she invariably did in such circumstances, that she had been provided with some sad specimens to accompany her through the last hours of her life.

This is the opening paragraph of Felicity Shaw’s second novel, and her last for more than a decade until she returned to publishing in 1970 as “Anne Morice”. I love this opening because I have that exact sense of dread every time I fly (though it has somehow lessened a bit as a get older--maybe I just figure "eh, I've had a good life, if we crash we crash"). Also:

At the end of every runway she visualised a high brick wall and, during each take-off, sat frozen into immobility as the plane raced towards it.

Isobel Pawley and her daughter Fiona are flying from Beirut to an unspecified island in the Mediterranean, to which her estranged husband Adrian, a painter, has retreated, and where her old friend Noel works in some vague form of colonial or diplomatic service. Isobel, nervous and insecure, is visiting purportedly to ask Adrian for a divorce, but really in the hope that he will suddenly discover that he can’t live without her. Noel, concerned about keeping up appearances in their small, village-like community, urges his fearful, slightly ditzy wife Laurette not to reveal their guest’s true identity, with the unexpected result that she, in a moment of panic, tells the wife of the “commissionaire”, the wonderfully officious Mrs Hancock (one of those delightful Lady Boxe-like characters that I adore, even if she’s very much a stock character), spontaneous lies about Isobel that further complicate a fraught situation. Rounding out the cast, and frequently adding to the confusion and misinformation, are Hugo Lessing, a wealthy friend of Adrian’s and Noel’s, Grizelda Blaikie, a sophisticated, alarmingly self-possessed guest of Hugo’s who, it emerges, wreaks havoc wherever she goes, and Mr Reed, a journalist who turns out to be a well-to-do nob.

Isobel hopes to encounter Adrian in a controlled situation, where her poise and elegance will impress him with how much she’s changed from the clinging, controlling wife he remembers. But her plans are gloriously foiled when, believing Adrian safely out of the way, she arrives with Noel and Laurette at an elegant party given by the Hancocks, only to find Adrian standing across the room with the glamorous Grizelda. Spoiler alert: she does not react in a poised and elegant way:

For a second, she stared, rigid and almost insensible. Then, in the next instant, noticing the outstretched hand and struggling to regain her poise, she grasped it with an eagerness more excusable in a drowning woman, clutching at a raft, than in a guest being welcomed by her unknown host.

Mr. Hancock, who could barely have expected that his hand would be called upon to bear her full weight, had not put forth sufficient strength for the burden and, instantly, she was in the position of a drowning woman who has clutched at a raft, which has turned out to be made of paper. She lurched a little, tried desperately to recover herself, lost her precarious balance on her spindle heels and reeled forward on top of her astonished host.

The situation gets more complicated (and rather less plausible) when Adrian is accused of thievery…

Sun Trap seems to me not so outright hilarious as Shaw’s earlier novel The Happy Exiles (reviewed here), though it’s still quite funny and perfectly addictive reading. But it is also perhaps a more polished work, Shaw having fine-tuned her plotting a bit with her second effort. The atmosphere of colonialism is less prevalent here too, and there’s barely a mention of the actual work Noel and the Hancocks do or of “the natives”. It’s simply a rather daft romantic comedy that happens to take place on a Mediterranean island.

And although Shaw clearly wasn’t setting out to write Madame Bovary, I think there’s a bit more subtlety and even poignance in some of her characters, particularly Isobel, who does evolve in the course of the novel (though just possibly in the wrong direction, judging from the rather double-edged ending), and poor Laurette, who is a rather sad figure despite being the highly effective butt of a good many jokes:

She was a small, fragile creature, with huge, dark, haunted eyes, and it was reasonable that they should be so, for Laurette, as far as anyone could tell, was a haunted woman. She was haunted by the fear that her children would contract rare and fatal diseases, that she would be snubbed by Government circles, that her husband would run away and leave her penniless and disgraced, that her servants were laughing at her behind her back and by a great many other true and baseless terrors, to all of which she gave constant and eloquent expression. The only fear to which she had apparently become reconciled was that of boring her friends.

It’s all quite entertaining, at any rate, and although one wouldn’t want to have had to do without the Anne Morice novels, one does also rather wish Shaw had also kept writing novels like this one--Jane Austen crossed with Evelyn Waugh.

Finally, a comment from Adrian on what he thinks Isobel wants from him as a husband and father:

'She wants me to have a season ticket and vote Conservative and run in the father's egg and spoon race.'

'What on earth is that?'

'A terrible thing that occurs at the school sports. It has been specially devised by man-hating schoolmistresses for the purpose of degrading fathers before their wives and children.'


Friday, October 1, 2021

"We all have our troubles": MONICA STIRLING, Journeys We Shall Never Make (1957)

I won’t keep doing a blow-by-blow of all my recent Monica Stirling reading, but if you click the tag at the bottom of this post, you can see all my reviews about her. Having read three of her novels now, I decided it was time to sample her short stories. Her first collection, Adventurers Please Abstain (1952), will have to wait till my library access improves again, as used copies are not within my budget, but I tracked down this, her second and final collection, and became even more enamored with Stirling than I already was.

In some ways, Stirling’s talents--her knack for precise observations of both the micro and macro of her characters and settings, her offhand wit, and her flair for dialogue--are perhaps even better suited for short stories than for novels. And her particular interest in postwar Europe, in ordinary people piecing their lives back together during the advent of the Cold War, make this a particularly intriguing collection. Reading it, I could almost have believed that Hemingway, rather than sinking into narcissistic dreck by the 1950s, had remained in Europe (sans bullfights and misogyny) and kept writing incisive stories that allow us to be flies on the wall at a time of chaos and glamour.

There are 18 stories here, in less than 200 pages, so I obviously can’t mention them all. Some I liked more than others, but there were no duds to be found. The first story, from which the collection takes its title, is particularly reminiscent of Hemingway: Isabelle, a rather posh Parisienne is brought up against the realities of life behind the Iron Curtain when she is tasked by her husband with meeting the train of a Yugoslavian acquaintance, Madame Slanica, at the Gare du Nord and helping her navigate to the Gare de Lyon as she returns home from a visit to England:

As the train began to move she said brightly:

"My husband tells me you have been visiting friends in England."

"That is so."

"How delightful."

"Yes. That is just what it was."

The subdued violence in the woman's voice aroused Isabelle's interest. It suddenly struck her that what she had taken for an ill temper was nothing but a contraction of the facial muscles against tears.

Isabelle learns how difficult it has been for Madame Slanica to get a visa at all:

Isabelle's voice was as low as she felt existence would be with no Paris, no Rome, no London, no New York, no Madrid. Lives without pictures, she thought--and, for the first time since her girlhood, it occurred to her that what she considered romantic love was not the only thing in life worth having.

And it emerges that Yugoslav policy is that a husband and wife can never be granted visas at the same time. Hence the title of the story:

"What about your husband? Does he care for travel?"

"He loves to travel." The sallow face flushed unbecomingly. "As a student he travelled very much. And of the books left us more than half are travel books. Every evening almost we look at them, and at the maps--planning journeys we shall never make--"

It’s quite an opening for the collection, and a perfect distillation of Stirling’s themes--the glamour and sophistication of the haves confronting the losses and complications of the have-nots.

Even more gut-wrenching is the collection’s final story, “Lili Marlene,” which traces the very different fates of three French sisters during WWII and in its aftermath. One marries an officer in the Vichy government, one becomes a heroine of the Resistance, and the third is doomed by her vulnerability to love.

We also get the usual glimpses of theatre life, no doubt drawn at least partly from Stirling’s own family and early life. In “The Old Turtle”, a dresser observes the love life of the actor he has served for thirty years. And in “The Prisoner”, a young prisoner of war finds his future while putting on a play with a fellow prisoner who is a professional actor.

There are several stories about changes in romantic feelings triggered by music, random reminiscences, and ordinary behaviors. In “Bread Alone”, a selfish wife’s eating of her husband’s sandwiches may well determine their future as well as that of another couple. In “The Labyrinth”, an error involving letters to two different women saves a young man from inevitable disappointment. And in “Love in the Third Person”, a French woman reluctantly agrees to have dinner with the American soldier she had befriended ten years earlier.

The most humorous story in the collection is “The Night the Nurse Got In”, about a young wife and mother who suddenly and dramatically falls ill with polio. I know, it doesn’t sound like much fun, but the narrator’s sensibility is often so funny that it’s hard to recall what a near-miss she has. My favorite line is when she is first falling ill:

It had been a nasty day and the cold with which I'd gone to bed was worse. There were spots in front of my eyes, eerie whistles in my ears, and I no longer loved my children.

Not long after, her children arrive home:

At tea-time my children burst joyfully in with the news that their petite camarade Camille had been sick during arithmetic. I eyed them wearily. Tomorrow I had better ask Unesco about homes for backward children.

And then there are her observations about her smug, knitting nurse:

"We all have our troubles," click, click, "don't we?" she said with relish. "Rich or poor, young or old, we can't escape indefinitely, can we?"

Again I was reminded of school: preparations for examinations, references to the ubiquitious examiner who might trip us up on this or that sly question. Was life a series of booby traps? Looking at the nurse, I felt that it was--and it struck me that the popular conception of the knitting revolutionaries around the guillotine was inaccurate. They had not, probably, been furious harpies, driven by conviction to yearn for blood, but comfortable, knitting home-bodies, anxious to convince the severed heads that we all have our troubles.

Most of the stories aren’t as funny as this, though there is very often a wry sensibility that charms.

I’m really looking forward to Stirling’s other story collection now. And perhaps it would be wise to do some digging for any stray stories that appeared in magazines and never got collected? Add that to my things to do list. But for now, it will be on to another of her novels. I’m thinking it might have to be Lovers Aren’t Company, her 1949 debut, set in immediate postwar Italy...

Friday, September 24, 2021

"The plot thickens": H. S. (HILDA STEWART) REID, Emily (1933)

"The plot thickens," said Charles Robertson. "It's so thick at present that you'd need a lot of strength to stick an ordinary tablespoon into it."

There's a story to be told about my acquisition of this book. It's a sad tale, oft told, of a book blogger with an utter lack of self control. I tell it here as a cautionary tale. Those who follow me on Twitter may know it already, but it bears repeating as a warning, in the words of "The House of the Rising Sun", not to do what I have done.

Once upon a time (actually August 24th), I was benignly going about my incessant research, doing a search on Abe Books for books by Hilda Stewart Reid, an author I knew little about. Sometimes you can learn a surprising amount from just seeing the covers or the book listings, even if you don't purchase. Among the results, I found one listing for Reid's only novel with a contemporary setting, Emily. I was charmed, but the price was of course beyond any rational consideration.

Folks on book Twitter were suitably intrigued and suitably horrified by the price. I continued with my research, bemoaning the fact that the book was not available in any accessible library, but it did keep nagging at me. 

The exact amount of self control I have might be measured by the amount of time it took until my follow-up tweet.

A few weeks later on, I've come to terms with my decision, though it's not one I plan to repeat soon, and I can at least report to you that the most expensive book I've ever bought did not turn out to be a dud. Whew!

The Emily of the title is Emily MacPherson, all of nineteen years old and formerly residing in the Lodge in Hinton Tankerville, for which she sometimes still yearns. She is now "employed" (to use the term loosely) on the outskirts of London by Pankhurst and Euphrosyne Skinner, for whom she helps manage the household and care for their children, Health and Lenin and little Gandhi. Today, the Skinners would surely be called "woke" (socialist, vegetarian "non-fired feeders", who conveniently refuse to make Emily a wage slave by actually paying her--she is a sort of guest who is expected to work), though they're really only superficially so. As their friend Cyriack Ponting puts it to Emily:

"I always think that Lenin's name should be regarded as a gesture, rather than as an actual confession of faith. Pankhurst and Euphrosyne are charming people; but, as Mark Appleby says, they are not so much Left Wing as Left Overs from that most delightful of all ages; I mean of course the Age of William Morris."

The drama all begins when Cyriack (not so radical himself really) invites Emily to a concert of Soviet music. She finds it all rather dull, sneaks out to explore London, and ends up at a Fun Fair, where she wins what appears to be a cheap Woolworth's necklace by her hoop-la skills. This is the first move in an utterly daft game of "necklace, necklace, who's got the necklace", for it turns out to be a sort of Hungarian national treasure, stolen from Hungary by the Romanians as a result of the injustices of the post-WWI Treaty of Trianon.

On her way back to the concert, hoping that Cyriack hasn't noticed her absence, a man steals her purse with the necklace in it, though not without considerable difficulty:

Emily was not the sort of girl to see her bag snatched without a struggle. In her earlier years at Hinton Tankerville, she had played Rugby football with the Vicarage children: also Trench Warfare, Sardines and Chinese Pirates. She had introduced Trench Warfare to the guides, and another game called Chicago; so she was well prepared.

She ends up at a police station with the man, a handsome and charming Hungarian whom she refuses to identify as the thief because the police (she has suddenly come to believe--surely nothing to do with the thief's good looks) "were meat-faced ogres. They were oppressors of the Proletariat, minions of the Boojwahzee." 

Not long after, Emily encounters the ravishingly beautiful Princess Radioski, who rescues Emily from embarrassment when her clothes are stolen while trying on dresses at the Sales. The Princess turns out to be a friend of Emily's purse-snatcher, whose name, it emerges, is Calman. Rounding out our cast are Olga, a passionate communist who tells Emily she is exploited (as, indeed, she is!); Charles Robertson, an old crush of Emily's from Hinton Tankerville, who by the time he appears in the novel has lost some of his appeal by comparison with Calman; and Laszlo, a Hungarian butler who, ridiculously but hilariously, learned to speak English during a stay in the U.S. and now speaks like a Chicago gangster (or like Reid apparently thought a Chicago gangster might speak).

It's hardly necessary to summarize more. The necklace has a very lively time of it, changing hands as quickly as a basketball in a playoff game (look at me with the sports reference!), and we get glimpses of London's Depression-era bohemian culture, some highly amusing characters, and a thoroughly silly but charming adventure plot, ending up with Emily actually in Hungary. It all reminded me a bit of another recent read, Dorothea Townshend's A Lion, a Mouse and a Motor Car, which I reviewed here. Emily is perhaps not quite so tightly plotted or so laugh out loud funny, but offers other charms instead.

It's impossible to get a very firm grasp on the politics involved in the novel, but that is unlikely to bother most readers (with the possible exception of Hungarians and Romanians, who might resent their real struggles being turned into farce), and the fact that Emily has barely any grasp of them at all makes the nebulousness almost a humorous strength rather than a weakness.

In one of the genuinely hilarious scenes, Emily and her little gang of incompetent helpers stage a robbery at a party, and poor Cyriack doesn't quite come across as the brave hero:

At that moment Cyriack, who was greatly incommoded by his mask (a Mickey Mouse one, which made him, to Emily's eye, rather grotesquely sinister), and who did not in any case quite know what was expected of him, suddenly let off the revolver. The teapot in the humorist's hand was shattered into a thousand pieces. The burst of sound was followed by a burst of silence. This was broken by the voice of Cyriack, muffled by consternation and his Mickey mask: "Oh, I say. I'm frightfully sorry. I didn't--" 

A short while later, Emily comments:

It seemed to her curious that, by nature, he would have been, at that very moment, at a disarmament meeting. He had certainly proved to her that there were people who should be disarmed as completely as possible; she would never again encourage him to carry so much as a pea-shooter.

There's also a quite amusing description of an earnest, socialist-leaning play to which Cyriack drags Emily:

At last they reached the theatre and settled down to watch the play. It was a play about a typical bourgeois English family. The son was blind, and he did not try to run a publishing business like the Robertsons' uncle, but sat sadly doing tatting and listening to his mother who was dying of cancer. One daughter was married to a drunkard, who made love to the youngest daughter, who ran away with an old millionaire for fear of getting like the eldest daughter, who had gone mad because she was not married to anyone. Luckily the father never noticed this; but even he grew rather depressed on account of a friend of theirs who shot himself, after having accidentally forged a cheque because, having been a commander in the Navy, he did not of course understand about cheque-books. Cyriack was solemn but elated. He said, "And that is England." But Emily did not really think it was; at least it was not the England she knew. She started arguing about her Aunt Monica who, though never married, had always stayed sane; and Cyriack said darkly that not marrying was not altogether a proof of sexual repression; and Emily said, "There you are then"; and he said, Not at all, he did not mean that. But he would not say what he did mean. So she had to amuse herself by admiring the beautiful clothes of the three blighted sisters, and by wondering why they furnished their house like old-fashioned seaside lodgings.

One could probably make a considerable list of the plays (not to mention novels) that Reid might have had in mind when writing this caricature, which makes it all the more amusing.

There are unfortunately a few insensitive references to "dagos" and one to "wops". I had to look both up, because though I think I've heard them before I had no idea what groups they referred to. The former apparently indicates the slightly darker-complexioned southern Europeans--Italians, Spanish, and Portuguese--who (from my own experiences in Spain and Italy) presumably distressed the Brits by being better looking than everyone else? The latter is more specifically Italian, though I was intrigued to learn that it evolved from an acronym meaning "without papers". Who knew? At any rate, these references are irritating, but I suppose comparatively mild for this time period. 

Reid published four novels in all, including this one, Phillida, or, The Reluctant Adventurer (1928), Two Soldiers and a Lady (1932), and Ashley Hamel (1939). Of Phillida the Times wrote: "Miss Reid contrives to write as a contemporary of the seventeenth century and of the twentieth century at once, and it is to this perhaps that the reader's pleasure is largely due. She is at home in the seventeenth century, and takes it so much for granted that we are soon persuaded to do the same." Of Two Soldiers the Guardian said: "Scene and costume are subordinated to character, for the interest one feels in Miss Reid's two soldiers and the lady whom they served is due to them individually and not their (Cromwellian) period". And of Ashley Hamel, set in a Dorsetshire village from the 18th century to the novel's present, the Guardian said: "Miss Reid has a keen sense of the general ideas dominating English life at particular periods, and she is particularly successful with her eccentrics, such as Mr.Finch, the curate in charge in the days of pluralism, who, having conceived a boyish devotion to Marie Antoinette, holds himself partly responsible for her death because of his revolutionary opinions". As reluctant as I usually am to engage with historical fiction, if these books have anything like the cheerful energy and amusing characters of Emily, I may have to put aside my bias. And in fact, Phillida is already waiting patiently on my TBR. Thankfully, Phillida is a much less extravagant girl than Emily was, since her novel was available for downloading (in the U.S.) from Hathi Trust. I like her already.

After I'd tweeted about my extravagance, a kind Twitter follower, Tina Woelke, shared a link to a bio of Reid written by her nephew, packed with information and lovely photos (including two I've used here). See here. Thanks Tina!

All told, then, is this really a warning against spontaneous, extravagant book buying, or a seductive hint at its possible payoff???

Friday, September 17, 2021

“The plants were silent”: MONICA STIRLING, The Summer of a Dormouse (1967)

The US cover is bland, but...
The driver got out of the taxi and opened the door for his passengers. There were two of them, an elegant dark woman, apparently in command, and a flaxen-haired girl in white. Her face was almost as pale as her coat and her great dark eyes had a drowned look. A shock went through me. I was sure I had seen that face before, that face and that expression. Inside the house a bell tinkled. I wondered why the girl was crying, since she was in time for tea.

My Monica Stirling odyssey is continuing unabated. Having started with her fourth novel, The Boy in Blue (1955), then stepped back to her second, the very charming grownup school story Dress Rehearsal (1952), I’ve now leapt forward to her eighth and final (and oddest) novel.

The Summer of a Dormouse (1967) is set at the Manor House, a surely rather idealized Swiss psychiatric clinic where the patients seem to live idyllically--properly medicated, free to socialize and to come and go as they please, and without any major restrictions (though some patients have anxiety about being sent to “the Villa,” a more secure and stringent facility across the park, if their conditions worsen).


...I rather think it's better
than the UK cover

The main focus here is on Karen, a young actress who has attempted suicide as a result of the a fraught relationship with Louis, the Svengali-like film director who has molded her screen presence, and his wife Ingrid, who checks Karen into the clinic. But there’s also a compelling array of supporting characters. There’s Carlos, the eccentric narrator of some sections of the novel (including the quote above), and his friend Maria-Pia, a Spanish woman with religious delusions, who has been “rescued from a nauseating asylum in another country in which she had for years existed rather than lived”. There’s the Signora, the oldest patient, believed to have been a famous dancer in her youth, and Sidonie, “being treated for a breakdown caused by having borne five children in seven years and raised them with little domestic help”, who is now understandably terrified of sexuality.

There’s Willi, a brilliant biology student who has had a breakdown, Ross, a surgeon overcome by the stress of his profession, and Herr Pilsner, an impossibly boring man who talks continuously, spouting dubious facts and doubtful ideas. And there’s the staff of the clinic, who are largely ideally brilliant and compassionate, with the exception of Klaus, the predictably sadistic German nurse who decides to supplement his salary by robbing the wealthier patients (but who of course gets his comeuppance in the end--albeit very much at the expense of another character).

is one of those novels that doesn’t have a great deal of plot in the ordinary sense, though it’s no less entertaining for that. We follow this intriguing cast of characters over the course of several months, with a particular focus on Karen and her gradually renewed interest in life via her friendships with the others. Stirling manages to find the humor in their situations, but always with sensitivity and compassion. Herr Pilsner perhaps comes in for a bit of mockery, but then, he really is quite boring… Otherwise, the humor grows naturally from the characters’ interactions, rather than in any way making light of their problems. Not a small accomplishment for the mid-1960s, I think.

One of my favorite bits of humor comes from one of the sections narrated by Carlos:

We were so absorbed by our conversation that we did not realize we were not alone until we heard other voices. At first I was afraid they came from the plants, which had not addressed me since Maria-Pia came. But no, the plants were silent.

The Summer of a Dormouse appeared just two years after Stirling’s acclaimed biography, The Wild Swan: The Life and Times of Hans Christian Andersen, and as critics were quick to point out, it’s more than a bit permeated by Anderson and his tales. It’s an odd sort of fairy tale version of Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain, but with more glamour and wit. (Just try to picture that!) It’s probably not the best of Stirling’s novels, but it is genuinely intriguing. One feels that she rather let herself go here more than in her other work, following her own fancies regardless of their commercial appeal, and such books are always interesting entries in an author’s oeuvre.

Friday, September 10, 2021

Empire builders of the island race: FELICITY SHAW, The Unhappy Exiles (1956)

Where Eleanor led, sooner or later others followed and, from that hour, Sophie became part of the normal social scene, or rather, of the most exclusive corner of it; for when the invitations began to filter in, it was soon found that only a very few of them were ever accepted. The very people who had been loudest in disclaiming their intention ever to set foot in her house soon made the mortifying discovery that there was little danger of their being asked to do so.

As some of you will know from Dean Street Press’s recent reprints, Felicity Shaw is much more widely known as Anne Morice, author of more than two dozen mysteries, most featuring her actress sleuth Tess Crichton. Years before she kicked off her highly successful career as a mistress of murder, however, Shaw published two early novels which stemmed from her own life as the wife of a British documentary filmmaker and “visual aid expert” for UNESCO who traveled extensively in the British colonies during and after WWII. With this bit of background, I realize how perfectly positioned Shaw must have been--witnessing the life of foreign service personnel and the sometimes ludicrous administration of the colonies, without however being part of it, and therefore not dependent on pleasing or being liked by the local authorities--to write The Happy Exiles, a very charming and funny, sharp-witted social comedy set in an unspecified colonial outpost (somewhere with a warm climate, not Africa, so presumably Middle East or Asia).

After a slightly sluggish beginning, largely from the viewpoint of Judy, a rather shallow young woman staying with family friends Margaret and Harry Fordson for a few months in a nice warm climate following a bad bout of influenza and an even worse heartbreak, things pick up quickly with the introduction of Sophie Lefroy. Sophie is the source of some uncomfortable scandal within the insular community, as she is a married woman, of independent means, whose husband is conveniently and apparently permanently absent but who is happily engaged in longstanding extramarital activities with the colony’s Chief Secretary, Tom Langley, who may well also be the father of her several children. Although many in the colony initially swore to snub Sophie for her scandalous behavior, her acceptance by Eleanor Cross, a mover-and-shaker in the community (who periodically seethes with rage and frustration at her situation and her husband in particularly but carefully manages everyone anyway), leads to her grudging acceptance, a fact to which Sophie is delightfully indifferent:

Some decided to cut Mrs. Lefroy whenever an opportunity should present itself, but this turned out not to be very often and, on the rare occasions when they did come face to face, they were never certain that she had recognized them.

We meet various other members of this more or less closed community, and witness the gossip and spying and manuevering for position. Into this group comes a new couple, Alan and Daphne Roberts, the latter a rather dense and “not out of the top drawer” but ambitious young woman ready to use her looks to benefit her husband’s career, but also at risk of sabotaging it with her temper and inferiority complex. As the novel progresses, we are also introduced to Robin McClelland, a spirited young man who is invited to a party at the Chief Secretary’s in a case of mistaken identity by Tom’s under-utilized and somewhat bungling secretary, and Simon Cornelius, a fairly clearly gay friend of Sophie’s who just might also be a sort of incognito spy whose report on local colonial doings may have lasting impacts. More romance, scandal, and outrage follow.

I found it all completely addictive and delightful. I’m not
totally unconflicted about it, because colonial life, from the perspective of the colonialists, is not the most relatable subject matter these days. Shaw is clearly making light of the bizarre circumstances of colonial life and critiquing many of its absurdities. Even the slightly oblivious Judy ponders amusingly on this in her diary one evening:

The Governor was there with Lady Digby. It was an honor because he hardly ever goes to private parties. Everyone calls him H.E., even his wife. I was introduced to them both and she was charming to me. She told me that they have a daughter of about my age, but she is in England now, training to be an air hostess. I couldn't help being struck by the funny side of this, because, out here, the Digbys are treated more or less like royalty. Perhaps one of her father's "subjects" may one day be ringing for her to bring him a glass of lemonade.

And Shaw certainly has fun highlighting the officiousness of the local society, as in these two passages from a sewing club meant to improve relations between the British and native staff and their wives:

They met every Friday afternoon in Eleanor's drawing room, and the conversation was always conducted in English. This was considered to be good practice for the foreigners, and it was certainly more convenient for everyone else. Although some of the British wives spoke the native language quite fluently, many of them were unable to do so in any but the imperative mood. As the visitors could only  understand the most slowly delivered and simple phrases in English, there was no curb on conversation.


Immediately after that, tea was brought in and all was confusion and bustle. It was served in accordance with local custom, for the convenience of the native visitors, whose tastes were always carefully deferred to in matters of no importance at all.

Even so, Shaw is also “of her time” in her willingness to indulge in some mild stereotyping--the native servant who humorously holds any other native visitor to the house in utter contempt, or Daphne’s lackluster servant who only needs Margaret’s stern bossiness to fly into action and become happily contented again--and she casually notes that Judy is as constitutionally incapable of falling in love with a married man as with a “man with colored skin”. None of it is any worse (or even as bad) as Lawrence Durrell or Evelyn Waugh however, of both of whom this novel occasionally reminded me.

Indeed, my overarching feeling about the book is just that it’s quite funny. For example, Tom’s bureaucracy-addicted secretary, Miss Plum, could surely come straight out of Waugh:

It was disappointing, in these circumstances, to realize as she was often forced to do, that her singular talent was being allowed to wither away from sheer inanition. Things had never been the same since Mr. Langley took over the reins. He simply would not, or could not, play the game according to the established rules. His methods were completely unorthodox. When he had an important letter to send, he dictated it in the form in which he desired it to be written, and he became quite impatient with Miss Plum if, in her attempts to infuse a little ambiguity, she altered a word or two here and there. When he wished to speak to one of his colleagues, he was not above taking the telephone in his hand, making the connection and saying what he had to say in the fewest and plainest of words. The thing was done in five minutes which might, by the judicious use of the proper channels, have been stretched into three days.

And the scene which probably made me giggle the most is one in which a delegation is invited to a reception on a Navy ship and must board a launch in the midst of rough seas:

[H]e proceeded still further to damp their downcast spirits by telling them that the forecast showed an improvement and that there would be no danger, only some discomfort, in making the trip out to the ship. He seemed to feel that none of them would be deterred by this, though he did throw in a casual warning about the difficulty that any lady wearing high heels might encounter in the smooth transfer of her person from the launch to the ladder. He concluded by saying that the first launch was now ready to leave. As every lady, with only a single exception, had put on high-heeled shoes, there was naturally a little hanging back, but of course it was not a challenge that could be refused. Not for nothing were they empire builders of the island race, and besides they spent so much of their leisure in going to the most abominable parties that the added risk of drowning, being seasick, or making spectacles of themselves did not daunt them as much as might have been expected.

At any rate, I have Shaw’s second novel, Sun Trap, sitting on my TBR now, and I doubt I’ll be able to resist it for long. Here’s hoping it’s as much fun as this one was!

Friday, September 3, 2021

"A simply ripping dorm with a simply topping set": MONICA STIRLING, Dress Rehearsal (1952)

Stiff upper lips are not usually encouraged in actors' children: they deform the face and suit only a limited range of parts. So when, at eight years old, I set out for an English boarding school, my face was as revealing as that of Eleonora Duse—whom I unfortunately resembled in no other respect.

I seem to be on quite a little Monica Stirling reading kick these days, and this is, if not the most elegant and fully-developed of her novels, certainly a favorite for its subject matter and cheerful good humor. Stirling is not generally a hilarious writer, though she is always witty, but writing about her school days (the publisher simultaneously tells us the book is not at all autobiographical and that it clearly reflects in most details Stirling’s own upbringing) apparently brought out her playfulness.

Jocelyn Melisande Julie Scott is (like Stirling) the daughter of actor parents, and has spent her early childhood traveling about the Continent, educated in a catch-as-catch-can way by various short-serving mentors brought in now and again by her parents when they fear she is growing up “simply heathen.” She has seen it all, including some amusing theatre tales that surely stem from Stirling’s own recollections:

After all, it hadn't been half as bad as that time in Marseilles when they forgot to put the telephone on the stage and, as the bell rang and the unfortunate actress looked round, a hairy arm passed the telephone through the nearest window. Nor as bad as that time in Germany when a local pianist, engaged to play off-stage for the unmusical actor portraying Wagner, was so overcome by zeal that he started playing, fortissimo, well before the appalled actor could get to the piano.

But when Jocelyn is seven and her distinctly theatrical sister Henriette is five, when their parents are both uncharacteristically stationary in long-running London productions, the sisters are sent to boarding-school. Following after their bohemian early years, the transition is, not surprisingly, a bumpy one, and it’s the bumps that are the central focus of Dress Rehearsal.

We meet the kind headmistress of Heath Towers, Miss Whiting, and a startlingly gung-ho Matron. We meet Jocelyn’s entertaining but rather vague school friends (one wonders if Stirling didn’t fully recall her actual childhood friends, or if she just didn’t want to alienate them by recalling too much). And, most significantly, we meet Jocelyn’s arch-nemesis, the officious but perhaps slightly tragic Miss Willis, whose antipathy Jocelyn’s unconventional upbringing and continental ways particularly arouse.

The novel is somewhat episodic in structure. There’s the time the girls, learning about politics and government, are inadvertently taken to a meeting of British fascists (after which Jocelyn gives her week's allowance to join the Anti-Fascist League). And there’s the time (most entertaining if you’re a wee bit familiar with classic French literature) when Jocelyn gets permission for the girls to attend the rather scandalous La Dame aux Camélias by Alexandre Dumas fils as being educationally relevant because they’ve been studying The Three Musketeers (by Dumas père), and even the headmistress can’t punish her without admitting that they didn’t realize the difference. Then there’s the senior, about to be expelled for sneaking off to meet a boy, who escorts Jocelyn a bit further down “the primrose path” while they’re both stuck in the infirmary together.

It’s all delightfully good fun, and gives a slightly different perspective than gung-ho school stories on what life in an English boarding-school circa the 1930s must have been like. Stirling clearly makes light of such stories when Jocelyn first arrives at Heath Towers and is shown around by a walking stereotype:

Rosemary was much older than I was. Twelve if she was a day. She had a big face the color of the moon at night and red knuckles and she told me I was awfully lucky for a new bug as I was in a simply ripping dorm with a simply topping set.

Surely she has tongue a bit in cheek too when describing how the girls’ were warned about romantic relationships:

Quiet Talks were to Heath Towers what Fireside Chats are to America and Sentimental Friendships played in the former the ambiguously dangerous role assigned to Russia in the latter--showing indulgence towards them was definitely an un-Heath Towers activity.

This is mostly a grownup school story—a favorite genre I haven’t written about a lot recently, so I’m happy to get back to it—but there are glimmers here and there of the European unrest which would soon rock even the smug world of Heath Towers. It ends with Jocelyn, having finished school, just on the cusp of romance with a journalist on his way to cover the Spanish Civil War. We can only wonder at what Jocelyn will encounter in the coming years, but we do get a glimpse of the fate of Heath Towers itself:

And from the moment Matron opened my trunk the school buildings seemed to me to shrink. I didn't guess how much smaller they would seem nearly twenty years later when a chance drive through Heatherton showed me their empty shell standing alone in a bombed avenue marked Men At Work, but they already looked remarkably unlike the impressive mansion I'd entered years ago with my hand in Mamma's.

Happily, my copy of Dress Rehearsal came complete with an intact dustjacket, which gives me more information than I had hitherto been able to find about Stirling. And quite interesting that the book warranted an intro from the likes of Colette in its French edition!

Because I'm such a giver, here's the complete bio:

Monica Stirling belongs to a theater family. Her father, the late Edward Stirling, founded the English Theater in Paris and took his company all over Europe, the Middle East, and South America. Her mother, Margaret Vaughan, is an actress, and her sister, Pamela, who trained in Louis Jouvet's class at the Paris Conservatoire, was the first English actress to be admitted into the Comédie-Française company.


Miss Stirling started writing during the war and was encouraged by Edward Weeks, of the Atlantic Monthly, who bought her first stories. In I944 the Atlantic sent her home to France as their war correspondent. A Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer grant enabled her to go to Italy where she wrote her first novel, Lovers Aren't Company, which was translated into Italian and Danish. She has had stories published in the Atlantic Monthly, Harper's Bazaar, New Story, Glamour, Life and Letters, House and Garden, Argosy, The Evening Standard, and The New Yorker.


Dress Rehearsal is her second novel and is being published simultaneously in a French edition with an introductory foreword by Colette.

Friday, August 27, 2021

Rhapsody in Paris (and Italy): MONICA STIRLING, The Boy in Blue (1955)

 "But you're the only person I—"

"I'm the only person just now, yes. That's natural—when one's in love one loves no one—"

"Who said that?"


"Was he in love with you?"

"Not in the least. Well, I was just ten the only time he saw me. But he most certainly wouldn't have been, anyway.

Although Monica Stirling is not, by and large, a hilarious writer, this humorous snippet of conversation between Laurent, a somewhat socially-stunted young Frenchman only just beginning to recover from the terrible losses he suffered during the Nazi occupation, and Marie-Louise, the glamourous, well-to-do older woman with whom he falls in love for the first time, gives a hint of the level of sophistication, tinged with both sentimentality and worldly-wise cynicism, of the universe of Stirling's novels.

Stirling herself seems to have led a wildly varied and sophisticated life. In her youth, she seems to have worked as an actress (her parents Edward Stirling and Margaret Vaughn [real name Flora Rose Parsons] were stage and silent film actors), and traveled extensively. She worked as a journalist, and was living in Paris in 1940, a regular customer of Sylvia Beach's Shakespeare and Company (see below). She published eight novels and two story collections, as well as biographies of Ouida, of Napoleon's mother, and of Hans Christian Anderson.

Some rather impressive critical
blurbs for Stirling's work

I first encountered Stirling two or three years ago when I read her 1953 novel Ladies with a Unicorn. I remember liking it very much, but then (the story of my life) I got sidetracked onto other things. The Boy in Blue is my first encounter with her since, but it certainly won't be my last.

Laurent Tenand is twenty-three, a serious composer who has, to his own dismay, made a small fortune from several pop songs written in collaboration with a friend. Those profits have allowed him to remain, in adulthood, as isolated as he has been ever since his entire family was killed in a Nazi massacre in the French village of St. Roch. Laurent, too, would have been killed that day had he not chosen to remain at home that day to finish his homework. Instead, he spent the remainder of the war with an uncle in Paris, who also took in an elderly Jewish music-teacher who set Laurent off on his musical education.

As the novel opens, Laurent is in limbo (at times, he reminded me rather of a Patrick Modiano protagonist, for those who have read Modiano—and if you haven’t, do), but he is perhaps just on the brink of rejoining the world around him. He is invited by a friend of his who works in television to contribute music for a documentary about a historic house, and goes to see the house for inspiration, in the process meeting its owner, the lovely, elegant, and oh-so-chic Marie-Louise de Brévanne. Marie-Louise is considerably Laurent's senior, by nearly two decades, but Laurent is fascinated and Marie-Louise is flattered and intrigued:

He didn't seem to her to belong to what she thought of as her world, but nor was there anything she could trace to another. … A noble savage, in fact, she thought, smiling to herself because she had never had to do with one before and was devoted to novelty.

The meeting seems to further awaken Laurent, but their flirtation has only begun when Marie-Louise sets off for a planned trip to Spain. Left to his own devices, Laurent, stimulated by his infatuation into seeking rare social interaction at a Paris bar he had occasionally frequented as a student, meets Mounette, a young woman who has worked as a model (naturally, men in novels always meet models, don't they?) but wants to be a photographer. Mounette is charming, quite different from the superficial Marie-Louise:

Her attitude towards people had some of the unacquisitive keenness of a bird-watcher's towards birds.

Her charm is enough to make Laurent speak of his personal tragedy for the first time since it happened—and enough to make him spend the night with her (men are pigs, obviously)—but not enough to dampen his ardour for the teasingly absent Marie-Louise.

It's not necessary to go into detail about the rest of the plot, and I'm sure most of you won't have a great deal of difficulty guessing more or less how it plays out. At times, it can read almost like a romance novel, and contemporary reviews (mostly by men, naturally) tended to dismiss Stirling's work as mostly glittering but sentimental facade. In the beginning, I wondered if they were right. Sentimentality there may be, in moderate amounts, but there is surprising substance too. In much of her work, Stirling concerned herself particularly with trauma and how it is overcome, making her in some way uniquely worthy of rediscovery in our age of memoirs of abuse, bad parenting, and loss.

And yet, she's much more entertaining than most such tales, because she seems to have been determined to combine what at first seem disparate elements—the traumas of our modern age, in particular the scars of WWII, and the elegance and glamour, the creative ferment and sense of adventure, of the postwar European scene. Though I make no bold claim that she shares the brilliance of the New Wave or the New Novel (just as well, perhaps), she does seem tuned in to the same frequency—the agonies of the recent past transmuted into new creativity and new ways of wrestling with life. If some middlebrow authors of the midcentury give one to believe they had no awareness at all of the experimental rush occurring in the edgier realms of art and literature, Monica Stirling by contrast seems to be right there in the middle of it, digesting it and adapting it to her own (admittedly less radical) purposes. Indeed, Princeton happens to have online Stirling’s Shakespeare and Company library card from the early 1940s [see here], from which her reading habits give me an eerie sense of déjà vu—Stella Gibbons, Djuna Barnes, Compton Mackenzie, Elizabeth Bowen, Christopher Isherwood, Ernest Hemingway, Henry Green, Rosamond Lehmann—if not for the fact that she only died when I was 15, I’d wonder if I could be her reincarnation.

In addition to Modiano here and there, The Boy in Blue also made me think of Pamela Frankau's A Wreath for the Enemy or The Willow Cabin, of Breakfast at Tiffany's, even here and there of a slightly less jaded Tennessee Williams (who did certainly love his melodramas about fading beauties and their love affairs—but I would point out Stirling is far kinder to her fading beauty than Williams usually was). In fact, The Boy in Blue might have worked just as well as a play, since it's rather talky as a novel—the long passage in which Laurent tells Mounette his story is crucial and gripping, and skillfully done, but not every author would think of putting such drama into a conversation (albeit with some actual flashbacks).

That aside, however, I found myself more than a little moved by The Boy in Blue, and fascinated by the combination of glamour and the pain beneath it that Stirling seems to enjoy stirring up. The theme of love as a force that can help us heal from our traumas might verge on sentimentality, but in Stirling’s hands it’s also quite plausible. I'm even beginning to wonder if Monica Stirling actually is the author I had hoped March Cost might turn out to be (see here for what I've written about another "glittering" and "sophisticated" author). At any rate, you'll certainly hear more about her here soon, as I'm already on to more of her work.

In the meantime, though, two more tidbits to help show how entertaining it all is. Here's a snippet of dialogue intended, I suppose, to show Marie-Louise's superficiality, but which I have to confess I sometimes relate to:

"Oh dear, oh dear. Whenever I come up against the fact my life's completely selfish I wish I could—I don't know—save someone's life without—without—"

"Without being late for lunch?"

Now, let's admit it: to whatever extent we help worthy causes or work toward change in areas we're passionate about, don't we all also feel like this sometimes?

Finally, because we've all been cooped up too much for the past year and a half, I have to mention that a portion of the novel takes place in Naples, on the Amalfi Coast, and at Pompeii. And to show you Stirling's gift for scenic description, I'll leave you with a long passage describing Laurent's first views of Italy from the train:

Clear gold light rose like water over sharply defined bluish hills. A pair of milk white oxen plodded towards a tumbledown pink house with bullet-pocked walls and blue shutters. Alongside the flowering laurels of an otherwise abandoned village square strode two Carabinieri with cocked hats. A barefoot child in washed-out-blue rags waved, its fingers outspread like those of the fig trees beside which it stood. A row of women, their hair tied back by coloured handkerchiefs, knelt on a river bank and laundered, white sheets taut beside them, a stone at each corner. Groups of men in dark clothes clustered at the end of an otherwise empty street in a small town of pale block-like houses. A priest drove by on a Vespa, his skirts billowing. And then, at last, there was a glimpse of the sea.

There was yellow sand, as he had hoped there would be, and it was spread with rust-coloured nets and wooden boats of faded greens and blues. It was bright blue as he'd expected, and there were palm trees with metallic-looking leaves, pickled by the moist, salty air. Laurent stared and stared, excitement churning in him. He would have liked to stop the train and rush to the beach to touch and smell this marine world of which he'd so often dreamed. Marie-Louise had no part in his emotion, but as soon as he remembered her he credited her with it, and his longing to reach her increased.

Anyone ready to head off to Italia with me?

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