Friday, July 23, 2021

‘"Bombs?" she gasped’: DOROTHEA TOWNSHEND, A Lion, A Mouse and a Motor Car (1915)

"Can it be me! Can it be me!" murmured Delia, as the train slowed and stopped at the private station. "This is a girl in a book, it isn't me at all!"

Delia Gwyn had spent the last ten years of her life in mothering her widowed father and two small brothers. She had vast experience in managing the village butcher and in planning the boys' winter garments--she had more than a slight acquaintance with Early Church Councils and the theories on the authorship of Homer, but of England in the nineteenth century she knew little. Still she had read the foreign correspondence of The Times to her father, and she knew something of European politics. Although she had never seen a play or danced at a ball, she knew that Sir Roger Bertram had so distinguished himself at the Courts of Vienna and Petersburg, that he had returned to England with all the éclat of a conquering hero. His mingled courtesy and audacity had distracted the diplomatists of Europe, but had averted more than one dangerous complication.

Delia Gwyn has had a distinctly uneventful life as a rector’s daughter, so when her well-to-do neighbor Lady Polwhele, at the suggestion of her gung-ho son Victor (nicknamed Polly), invites her to accompany her as her “spaniel” (general companion and dogsbody, though Lady Polwhele is too kind to take much advantage of the position) for a weekend house party at Bertramstone, family home of world-renowned diplomat Sir Roger Bertram, Delia is thrilled. And it seems that we are firmly in the realm of Jane Austen at Bertramstone, complete with its guardian ghost and a group of rowdy youngsters of whom Ms. Austen would surely have disapproved.

Dinner on the night of the Delia’s arrival is made memorable by the arrival of a Duchess:

The party was assembled, but one guest was lacking. The Duchess of Daventry was late, The Duke wandered up and down among the groups of guests evidently anxious for his dinner. The Bishop had engaged Lady John Kerr with half-whispered confidences, but the rest of the company had lapsed into the uncomfortable silence of people who do not want to waste good conversational openings before sitting down to table. The silence was broken by a crash and a scream. Instinctively every one in the hall wheeled towards the glass doors that shut off the grand staircase. A series of bumps, each bump accentuated by a shriek, followed the crash, and before any one could move, the swing doors were burst open, and into the midst of the petrified company dashed a large mat on which was seated a plump lady, gorgeous in satin and diamonds. She tobogganed in one long swoop down the hall, and from the crowd a wild voice shrilled out: "Achtung!" No other word broke the silence with which the petrified crowd stared at the apparition till the mad career suddenly came to an end at the very feet of the Bishop.

“Your dreadful stairs, Sir Roger! I slid down the whole length and landed on the mat!"

But otherwise, it’s rather rough going, as she’s ignored by her dinner companions and becomes the sworn enemy of the dreadful Miss Forbes, who resents Delia for having aroused Sir Roger’s kindness. Not only that, but she finds that high society can sometimes be rather dull:

Delia began to wonder if a Quaker's meeting might not even be livelier than Bertramstone for the younger ladies had all vanished, to drive to the meet, or to hunt, or to walk up to lunch with the shooters; and when Lady Polwhele announced, "Now we will have a nice quiet afternoon and you shall write all my letters for me," Delia felt she might better have been at home.

But she needn’t fear, as her life is about to get quite a lot more exciting. Through a series of utterly implausible yet perfectly entertaining events and more than a few coincidences, Delia’s friendship with Sir Roger sweeps her into international intrigue, complete with Russian princesses, a short stint in a Spanish prison, a near miss of an assassination attempt, and a dramatic rescue from a kidnapping attempt (most of these instigated by none other than the terrible Miss Forbes). Delia, with her practicality, intelligence, and unflappable presence of mind, finds that international intrigue isn’t that much more difficult to handle than managing a household, and Sir Roger, of course, soon finds her irreplaceable.

A Lion, a Mouse, and a Motor-Car is, with a few exceptions, not riotously funny (despite its Beverly Cleary-meets-Narnia title). It’s largely just plain silly. But its daft plot is so surprisingly well-done that it was genuinely difficult to put down, even though I was on our recent little jaunt to Carmel, California and was theoretically supposed to be “doing stuff” instead of “just reading”. (Fortunately Andy knows me better than that.) It’s pure escapism, and though published in 1915, it is set some years earlier to avoid any of the seriousness that World War I would have required.

It’s also terrifically rare, with no copies currently showing on Abe Books or on Bookfinder, so I have to give warm thanks to Kathy Reed, who managed to acquire a copy and was willing to lend it to me by mail. I'm sharing pics here of the lovely book itself, which was apparently presented to the Oxford Union Society by Townshend herself. Having spent its formative years in Oxford, the book now lives in Colorado, to where it has safely winged its way back now, none the worse for a whirlwind vacation in the City by the Bay.

Sadly, Townshend, about whom I know very little, seems to have written nothing else along these lines. She published a few children’s titles, a biography or two, and some historical fiction, but no other “fantasias” (as this book was subtitled). It’s a shame, as I could certainly have done with a few more silly, joyous adventures like this one.

I’ll leave you with a little nugget of wisdom from Sir Roger himself, which struck me as very true, about imagining the situations of others:

“It is a very awkward thing to try to wear our neighbours' shoes. We pity them if we are pinched; it doesn't strike us that the shoes may just fit their own wearers."

Friday, July 16, 2021

"Yon spinster body": DOROTHY LAMBERT, Scotch Mist (1936)

"I'll set my face against all female society, if that will reassure you. But," he added firmly, "Miss Fairlie is different. She'll give us no trouble; you can depend on that, Mrs. McCaig.'

Mrs. McCaig looked at him with withering scorn. "I'm no' so sure. Have a care, Glenlochart."

When Alison Fairlie, on holiday from her decorating job in London, winds up at Glenlochart House, the family home of Neil McPherson, now being run as a quiet hotel primarily for gentlemen fishermen, he assures his surly housekeeper she'll be no bother.

Little does he know.

After a lovely day or two of making Alison fall in love with the house and its environs (and perhaps a little bit with Neil himself), things grow more complicated with the arrival of other guests. Mrs. McCaig refers to 34-year-old Allison as "yon spinster body", but despite her advanced age (!) she quickly attracts the attention of young Roddy Tosh, the appropriately-surnamed, shallow and spoiled son of a wealthy businessman, whom Allison finds ludicrous but entertaining:

She enjoyed him as one enjoys a farce which makes no call on one's intelligence and is an excellent after-dinner entertainment. She placed him in the same category as a performing seal, and threw him encouraging remarks as if she were throwing small fish to a seal.

Roddy's attentions lead to misunderstandings, but this is nothing compared to the chaos which ensues with the arrival of Alison's freeloading mother, a distressed (and utterly selfish) gentlewoman, who takes regular advantage of the proceeds from Alison actually working for a living, and her sister, an irresponsible flirt who has had to cancel a planned cruise with friends due to an exposure to measles.

Before long, Neil is regretting ever having had the idea of a hotel to save his family home:

"The sooner every one clears out and I have my house to myself, the better pleased I'll be; and let me tell you, it's my last effort at running a hotel. I'm through! A hotel is all very well, but I didn't bargain to find myself running a lunatic asylum."

Naturally, it all works out in the end (though one might quibble with one of the matches made—on the other hand, it might be a dodged bullet for the young man who is passed over).

Although Dorothy Lambert was clearly marketed as an author of "romances", and I suppose in many ways that’s an accurate classification, her novels are always more than mere love stories. Witty and well-characterized, peopled with both the admirable and the gloriously irresponsible, they tend, at their best, to be rollicking good times, hard to put down and wholly escapist in theme. You won't have any profound philosophical epiphanies reading Scotch Mist, and it doesn't offer a design for living, but it just might inspire a trip to Scotland, or at least allow the armchair traveler to enjoy some really luscious scenery. Have a gander at this, for example:

He wished Alison were with him to appreciate the loveliness of the morning light over the panorama of mountains, the blueness of the hills, the freshness of the birch woods in the sunshine, the gleam of silver where the loch sparkled in a setting of dark pines, the purple shadows where the big, slowly-piling clouds passed across the sun. The nearer hills were very stark and rugged in the bright light; every water-course was scarred on their steep sides, and the big rocks stood out clear against the skyline. The whaups swooped overhead, uttering their weird calls, and the air was fresh on the wide moor. The silence was immense, although it was actually full of noises. The larks' song, when one listened, filled the air; the bees hummed over the broom that grew in golden masses on the hillside above the road; the sheep bleated in the pastures and where they roamed the moor. The murmur of falling water in a deep glen added to the various mountain sounds that were all part of the silence of the high moors and mountainy country that spread in every direction as far as the eye could see.

Can't you just see (and hear) it?

Scotch Mist was just the kind of read I needed recently, when the weather in San Francisco was grey and my mood was a little overcast too. And it has reminded me that (thanks to Grant Hurlock, for the umpteenth time) I still have some other Lambert novels to explore.

During the black hole last year and early this year when I was barely capable of blogging (to the extent that I ever am), I actually read two other Lamberts—Emergency Exit (1937) and Travelling Light (1935). The former was an absolutely daft but quite enjoyable crime farce set in Cornwall, and the latter was a charming romantic comedy about a young woman on a driving holiday in Ireland. I'm wishing now I had made more thorough notes about those. Much Dithering, Lambert's thoroughly delightful village comedy from 1938, which we reprinted last year, may well be the pick of the litter so far, but Scotch Mist has made me realize that other treasures may still lurk…

Friday, July 9, 2021

The hospitality of parenthood: BARBARA WILLARD, Winter in Disguise (1958)

It was her father's turn to offer Clare the hospitality of parenthood.

As intriguing, concise opening lines go, you could do a lot worse than this one. A "widening world" novel focused on Clare Saville, 15-year-old daughter of divorced parents—father a film star just past his sell-by date, mother an icy diva who has remarried and prefers her younger children—Winter in Disguise at its best reminded me of a masterpiece of this genre, Pamela Frankau's A Wreath for the Enemy.

Most of Clare's childhood has been divided between her convent boarding-school and her grandmother's home, as both parents were too indifferent to bother with her. But now, following her grandmother's death, she has spent an uncomfortable time in her mother's home in London, and is now being shipped off to Ste Amélie in France, the set of her father's latest film (in which he has been unhappily relegated to playing second fiddle to a child star). She has rarely seen her father, and her slightly romanticized recollections of him soon fade against the more cynical reality, which Willard effectively conveys in his first encounter with Clare:

Steve glanced over Mr Hyams's head and saw Clare frozen halfway down the stairs. He was still. His face was instantly wiped clean and he prepared for the re-take. Grouped about the hall, the rest stood waiting for him to play his big scene. Newcomers entering noisily were shushed into silence.

The novel focuses primarily on Clare—who soon begins to plot how to get back to the safe haven of her boarding school—but a significant role is also played by the uneasy, ambivalent three-way friendship she forms with Essex Dorincourt and Michel Durand. Essex, the child star, is part enfant terrible and part the vulnerable victim of a vulturous, hysterical mother and a mentally unstable father, who has previously kidnapped Essex (at least according to Essex) on multiple occasions. Michel, meanwhile, is Essex's stand-in, whose mother runs a hotel in a nearby village, and is the grounded, down-to-earth, responsible vertex of the triangle, despite the tragedy of having lost his father in WWII and the responsibility of providing financial support with his film work.

Clare and Michel get swept up in Essex's fantasies that his father will soon kidnap him again, an event he eagerly awaits—both to rescue him from his mother and for the publicity it will provide for his career. But as it turns out, his fantasies have a disturbing tinge of reality, which will influence the lives of everyone involved. (By which I don't mean to suggest that the novel becomes a thriller, but there is a certain amount of emotional tension and uncertainty surrounding the events that unfold.)

I previously read and reviewed Barbara Willard's earlier novel Echo Answers (1952) here, and I enjoyed it a lot but wasn't completely raving about it. However, it has had the odd effect on me, which some books do, of staying firmly in my mind nevertheless, and its recollection evokes strong positive feelings. As someone who can usually quite easily forget every detail of a book I've only read once (a second read tends to solidify my memory), this makes me think there's more to it than I first thought, and Winter in Disguise too is leading me to think I must read more of Willard's work soon.

Willard is of course best known for her historical Mantlemass children's series and for her other children's books, but she also wrote 14 novels for adults, of which Winter in Disguise is the last. All of the characters are believable and vivid, but the great strength here is Clare, who came alive for me in a poignant, witty, and sometimes vulnerable way. Clare has learned a defensive "pertness" that can be irresistible—she may be only just realizing some of the complexities of life and relationships, but she already has a striking awareness of (and confidence in) her own perceptions, as in this encounter with her mother from late in the novel (no spoilers):

'Shall I tell them to send Clare's breakfast up to this room, Mrs Heathcote?'

'I'm not at all certain that Clare deserves any breakfast, Miss Dunbar.' She stood with her chin tilted and her eyebrows slightly raised. 'Do you intend to kiss me, Clare?'

'I'm not at all certain that you want me to,' Clare replied, pertly echoing.

And Willard has a flair for summing up complicated emotional situations with concision—as in the passages above, and especially in these two brief sentences:

Her mother meant nothing to her, nor her father. It was their lack that meant too much.

If you enjoy widening world stories, or vicariously visiting film sets, or just unsentimental, carefully-delineated, and well-written dramas of mixed characters in a more or less confined setting, this one might well be for you.

Wednesday, June 30, 2021

COMING SOON: Eleven new Furrowed Middlebrow titles from Dean Street Press, coming January 2022!

Time really does fly, doesn't it? Our Molly Clavering and Ruby Ferguson titles are available and the reaction has been lovely, it's already almost July, it's year 30 or so of COVID, and we might as well start looking forward to 2022 and the new titles we have set for January.

This announcement will necessarily be a bit shorter and sweeter than most, since there aren't too many ways I can be coy about announcing eleven more titles by a much-beloved author who already has eight other titles on our backlist. 

Hmmm, who could that be?!?!

Most of you can handily guess that this author is none other than the divine D. E. STEVENSON, and I'm overjoyed that, having thought at one time that we would be unable to release any more of her books, things have worked out so that we can now move forward with eleven more.

We're also making an unprecedented move with some of these. Of the eleven books, six are currently completely out of print and we'll be releasing those in both paperback and e-book editions, as per our norm. But the other five, fan favorites all, are actually already available in e-book format only from "another publisher", and we will be releasing Furrowed Middlebrow paperback editions of those only. Ordinarily, we only consider titles that are out of print in all formats, so that we can do our own editions of both. (People are sometimes confused by this, urging us to reprint books that are in fact already in print in e-book editions.) However, if there were ever an author to make an exception for, it is surely D. E. Stevenson!

Without further ado then, but with some of their original or previous reprint covers (some perhaps to be adapted for our covers???), and with the details of what formats we'll be publishing after each title, I give you, in chronological order, our eleven new titles:

1) The Fair Miss Fortune (about 1938),
e-book and paperback

Written in the late 1930s around the time of Miss Buncle Married and Miss Bun the Baker's Daughter, The Fair Miss Fortune was originally rejected by her publisher. It was finally brought to print only a few years back by the wonderful Shirley Neilson at Greyladies Books. It's DES in her most playful mode, writing of the chaos caused by two sisters in a small village, and we're very excited to make it more widely available.

2) Green Money (1939),
e-book and paperback

From just about the same period, and likewise DES in playful mode, this is the tale of young George Ferrier, who is swept into a series of rollicking adventures when he agrees to act as trustee for a wealthy man's overprotected daughter.

3) The English Air (1940),
paperback only

A fan favorite set during the final days of peace and the early days of World War II, about the son of a Nazi official sent to stay with his English cousins in order to assess English morale, with unexpected and entertaining results.

4) Kate Hardy (1947),
e-book and paperback

A successful novelist retreats to the village of Old Quinings to write, but finds herself taken for a witch, becomes the target of a poison pen campaign, and fields rumors that her house is haunted. A delightful glimpse of English village life in the years immediately after WWII.

5) Young Mrs Savage (1948),
e-book and paperback

Likewise set in the time of postwar rationing and austerity, this one has become a favorite of mine, the story of widowed Dinah, raising four young children on her own, who is sent on holiday to Scotland where she and her brood find adventure, misunderstandings, and the tentative beginnings of a new lease on life.

6) Five Windows (1953),
paperback only

DES in somewhat more contemplative and nostalgic mode, as she traces the early life of David Kirke via the five windows through which he has looked out on the world.

7) Charlotte Fairlie (1954),
e-book and paperback

Previously published as Blow the Wind Southerly and The Enchanted Isle. Charlotte, headmistress of a prestigious girls' school, finds her day-to-day challenges exacerbated by a desperately homesick Scottish student and a trip to the beautiful isle of Targ.

8) The Tall Stranger (1957),
paperback only

Barbie France, a successful young decorator, comes home to the Cotswolds following a breakdown, but that's just the beginning, and of course a trip to Scotland is in the offing. I first read this one just a couple of months ago and fell completely in love with it.

9) Anna and Her Daughters (1958),
paperback only

The tale of Anna Harcourt and her three daughters, whose world is turned upside down by their father's death and their mother's decision to move them from London to her home town in Scotland. One of DES's more poignant, wise tales of human nature and healing.

10) The Musgraves (1960),
e-book and paperback

Following the death of her beloved husband, Esther believes she will never be happy again. But soon, her "natural buoyancy" and the problems and adventures of her three daughters bring her pleasure and purpose anew. A really lovely and addictive tale of family and village life.

11) The Blue Sapphire (1963),
paperback only

Recently read and raved about here. Another recent discovery for me, and another of DES's best.

And that's that! More details of course to follow. We have lots of work to do before they're ready to release, but what a lot of fun it's going to be. Hope you're as pleased about these new titles as I am!

Friday, June 25, 2021

Barbara Pym on steroids?: ISOBEL STRACHEY, The Perfectionists (1961)

[S]he bought the latest Vogue, and was sitting reflectively turning pages of gowns which distorted the human shape hanging on women as thin as rakes, posed with straddled legs and wasted bellies thrust aggressively forward, when Lawton came in from the farm.

Now if a description like that doesn’t make you sit up and take notice, I don’t know what will. And there are rather brilliant, dark, misanthropic descriptions like this here and there throughout The Perfectionists, the final novel by the eccentric Isobel Strachey, author of seven highly-praised novels 1945-1961. Having read the first few chapters, I thought, as I’ve put in my title, “Barbara Pym on steroids.” A bit darker, a bit more cynical, a bit more over the top than Ms Pym, but very much of the same species. But I haven’t quite been able to figure out how I feel about the novel as a whole.

So … naturally, I took shelter in digression, did some additional research on Strachey, and found some interesting tidbits.

She was a Strachey by marriage to the eminent Lytton’s artist nephew John, whom she then divorced, and she was herself a painter of some merit. She spent some of her youth in Argentina, where her father worked on the railroads, which clearly influenced her novel A Summer in Buenos Aires. During WWII, she worked as a translator and decoder for MI5, which one obit suggests inspired her to begin writing. It’s quite striking, as forgotten as she is today, that her novels were sufficiently famous that in 1963 a Guardian critic could suggest that Margaret Drabble was "by Elizabeth Bowen out of Isobel Strachey" and assume her readers would understand the reference. (Not certain of that comparison with Drabble, but that’s what she said.) And Strachey may also have had in common with Pym the difficulties of being an author of “comedies of manners” in a publishing world turning toward the more jaded, psychological fiction of the 1960s and after, as another obit mentions at least one additional novel, called The Dressing Gown, which she finished in 1986, the year before her death, and which remains unpublished. Other sources also suggest she continued writing after the book publications ceased. Could it also have been a factor that her final two novels were published by her son-in-law, Anthony Blond, from whom her daughter was divorced before the last appeared?

And, because I rather think from reading
The Perfectionists that she would have found it hilarious, I’ll share that novelist Simon Raven (whose Wikipedia page says he was “known for his louche lifestyle as much as for his literary output”, so it could be a case of pot and kettle), in a book of essays and memoirs that was later withdrawn, said that in her youth Strachey’s legs “opened as easily and as often as a pair of scissors.”

Indeed, Strachey doesn’t seem to have been any more shy in writing about sex than she was in having it. There’s nothing explicit or pornographic in The Perfectionists, but it must, even in 1961, have raised a few eyebrows with its portrayal of a gay couple of long standing, Paul Musgrave and Claude Garland, whose domestic peace is shattered by the marital difficulties of their neighbors Lawton and Susan Cheke. And while the portrayal of the gay couple couldn’t be described as positive, none of the other characters are portrayed positively either, so there’s no real homophobia about it (beyond the use of some outdated language), even if there is considerable misanthropy.

Strachey must surely have had some gay men close to her, and a short review by Marghanita Laski of one of her earlier novels suggests (if I’m not misreading Laski’s coyness) that gay men may feature prominently there as well. (Laski says of Quick Bright Things that it’s a “charmingly silly--bit of chit-chat about a gay, feckless, divorcee, and a gawky daughter, and some perfectly delightful men”.) At any rate, whatever their shortcomings, Paul and Claude are entirely plausible--Claude a die-hard misogynist disgusted at the mere thought of women and their parts, who occasionally attempts to convert handsome local lads to his way of thinking, while Paul leans toward bisexuality (though indeed quite sluggishly, as it has taken him 20 years to feel the urge).

Susan’s problems, during which she comes to rely on--and seduce--Paul, are based on having married a farmer, Lawton, who is really in love with a London society lady old enough to be his mother. Eleanor Locke is a well-to-do manipulator who has kept Lawton on a leash as her lover since well before her husband died, but refuses to marry him for the sake of appearances. She gives him the farm to keep him handy, but a couple of years after his marriage begins to regret letting him get that far and begins to tug on the leash. Crises and tragedy ensue (though the tragedy, in Strachey, is viewed as cynically as everything else, so there’s no need to shed a tear).

Strachey is undoubtedly a writer--some of her descriptions, as dark and threatening as any midnight mire, are breathtaking. Check out this description of the local fair:

The tent where the beer was sold was slushy with black mud. Country people stood sturdily about, some bursting with glee like ripe, rosy apples, others grim, lined and dour like cadaverous cheeses, glistening in the lamplight. The soft greyness outside faintly pricked with stars and seemingly transparent to all eternity had suddenly turned to inky blackness enclosing them tightly in a little glittering cave. All seemed aware of each other's perspiring faces and eager to communicate either good cheer or gloom; or held proudly apart with shining eye-balls and a flashing ring displayed on brown fingers curved round the smooth column of a glass. A man in corduroy trousers and a thick jacket, tilted his battered felt to the back of his head and bravely began to sing above the hurdy-gurdy din.

Apples and cadaverous cheeses, oh my.

And by 1961 her perspective on her youthful indulgences must have soured a bit, judging by this hilarious but distinctly unromantic kiss:

She shivered with wet and cold and he put his arms round her and they sat pressed cheek-to-cheek gathering warmth like a connected radiator. Presently she gripped his hands as he felt for her breasts and they were drawn to rubbing their rubbery, soft lips together.

In her descriptions and her unforgiving perspective on human frailties, then, Strachey is undoubtedly brilliant and entertaining. But her characters, almost entirely portrayed as selfish, weak, vain, manipulative, or destructive (indeed sometimes all of the above), did begin to wear on me and even bore me well before the end of the novel. And the plotting as well seems a bit aimless, with perhaps the most intriguing character of all, the local vicar, featuring prominently only in the last 20 pages or so, rather a waste of some glorious description and an almost-actually-likable character.

On the other hand, as I’ve gone back and looked over marked passages to write this post, I’ve been a bit wowed all over again by Strachey’s language and daring, and have been inspired to order three more of her novels. So I'm not sure it's appropriate to say that I either loved or hated The Perfectionists? But I may have been a bit seduced by Strachey herself.

Friday, June 18, 2021

Naught but ravening wolves: DORITA FAIRLIE BRUCE, The King's Curate (1930)

The best I could do for a cover pic

It is, perhaps, not easy to be haughty towards a man whom one has recently saved from a ravening mob.

This is perhaps a misleading opening for a review of a novel that hardly shows Dorita Fairlie Bruce in her most humorous form. But it’s peculiarly difficult to sum up The King’s Curate in any one quotation, and “ravening” is a darn good word (Bruce uses it at least one other time in the novel, from which scene I took this post’s title).

Dorita Fairlie Bruce is of course best known as one of the best-beloved authors of girls’ school stories, along with the likes of Elinor Brent-Dyer and Elsie Oxenham. The King’s Curate is the first of Bruce’s loose series of nine Colmskirk novels, only actually a series by virtue of being set in roughly the same area of Scotland over the course of several centuries. Later volumes occasionally echo earlier ones, and in those with contemporary settings (the five I discussed here back in 2015) there are a handful of cameo appearances by characters from one novel in another. All or most of the nine novels sort of straddle the line between adult fiction and girls’ stories, with some veering more toward one side and others veering the other.

The five “modern” Colmskirk novels are the most widely known today as a result of having been reprinted a few years ago by Girls Gone By. For whatever reason, GGB declined to reprint the four historical volumes from the series, and the first two, The King’s Curate (1930) and Mistress-Mariner (1932), have achieved an almost mythical status of being both unfindable and, for some readers anyway, unreadable. The first is certainly well-deserved, and I wouldn't be reading them myself if it weren't for my Fairy Godmother. They almost never come up for sale, and when they do it's for the price of a downpayment on a London flat. (Thank you FG as always!)

But is the latter judgment accurate? 

As I mentioned, the first four Colmskirk novels are all historical in subject matter, but these first two in particular are written in a self-consciously old-fashioned style. Though Curate was published in 1930, readers would do better to pretend they're reading a slightly less formal Sir Walter Scott or Emily Brontë, as that's the sort of style Bruce seems to have been aiming for. And probably more the former than the latter, as there is also a fair amount of Scots dialect.

But don’t change that dial just yet! Let me first note that, undoubtedly in common with at least some of you, I tend not to read historical fiction much, I tend to avoid dialect of any kind like the plague, and I tend to prefer literary stylistics that match the time in which they were written. Yet, despite those tendencies, I somehow fell immediately under the spell of The King's Curate and didn't want to stop reading. This is surely because, whatever her faults, Bruce is first and foremost a cracking good storyteller.

The King’s Curate is set in the years following the massive upheavals of the English Civil War (late mid-1600s, for those of you as vague on history as I was). A fascinating period, and one the ins-and-outs of which I readily confess I couldn’t possibly summarize. But one needn’t have studied one’s history books terribly well, as Bruce escorts you effortlessly into the thick of things. Patrick Mellish, who has been a Royalist soldier during the war, accepts a posting as curate in the parish of Kirkarlie in Ayrshire, a bittersweet return to the land of Braidheugh, the estate occupied by his family for hundreds of years but confiscated from him to be given to one of Oliver Cromwell’s cronies. The cronie is now deceased, but his daughter, the formidable Anne Carstairs, is carrying his torch as a passionate Covenanter and a force to be recognized in her primarily Covenanter community.

Mellish, who has come to terms with the loss of his family estate, accepts the commission reluctantly, reopening old wounds for the sake of his sister Alison, who has one of those literary illnesses where one wastes away living in a city but revives miraculously when removed to the countryside. (For what it’s worth, I feel as though I too might miraculously revive if removed to the Scottish countryside right about now…) And of course, Alison’s fragile, waifish vulnerability seems to prove irresistible to every male who comes into her proximity:

It seemed, in those days, as though a sudden sight of Alison Mellish bereft men of their breath for the moment, and set them to finding comparisons whereby they might explain her to themselves.

Not long after their arrival in Kirkarlie, Patrick rescues Anne when her horse bolts, and then in dutiful fair play she rescues him from angry villagers. In due course, we also meet Master Ebenezer Baldie, a Protestant minister living in a cave and preaching to his flock in a quarry under careful security as the tides of persecution shift, and, very much on the other side, Ned Crichton, an old soldier friend of Patrick’s who arrives in town as the leader of a band of "redcoats", sent to smoke out those pesky folk who insist on worshipping in ways not prescribed by the king.

Drama ensues, quite satisfyingly, and it’s quite difficult to stop turning pages, even for the sake of a good night’s sleep.

I started reading The King’s Curate rather ambivalently, for the reasons I mentioned above, but I really was seduced almost immediately by the characters, the interesting historical backdrop, and Bruce’s skillful plotting. I actually rather wish GGB had taken the plunge and published all nine of the Colmskirk novels, as I think quite a few readers would have been delightfully surprised. And for those of you who subscribe to The Scribbler (as surely most of you do), TKC was also reviewed, with similar enjoyment, by Elaine Pyrke in Scribbler No. 3.

One small quibble. "Daft Jock, the village idiot" is a rather unfortunately described (but thoroughly lovable) character. But though his nickname and some of the descriptions of him are grating to modern sensibilities, this is partly ameliorated by the fact that Bruce makes it clear that, though the locals can’t comprehend him, he's really far more an "Eccentric Jock" than a daft one. He happens to occasionally perceive the word of God bringing him instructions and inspiring him to action, which is unusual but certainly fortunate for the happy outcome of the tale. Plus, he's a musician, playing eloquently on his hand-made flute, and musicians are surely allowed a certain amount of eccentricity--had he come along in the Sixties, he might well have been a pop star.

Oh, and as for the dialect, the majority of it is from the lips of Jock himself (perhaps this is why the villagers think he’s daft? because they can’t understand what he’s saying?), and although it occasionally takes a wee bit of sounding out and some imagination, one really gets the hang of it fairly quickly.

I’ll also mention that Bruce’s work almost always contains a certain amount of Christian content, reflecting her own sincere and practical beliefs. On rare occasions in her books, this can become heavy-handed (as in Toby at Tibbs Cross, for example, at least for me). In The King’s Curate, however, in a time and place completely enmeshed in religious conflict, it’s quite fitting and historically interesting, and perhaps even rather relevant to today. Those in the U.S. at least might pause reflectively when one character exclaims:

“Naught but ravening wolves, and an unequal war, waged in the name of religion. Religion—pah! 'tis become but another word for politics!''

Just saying.

Now it’s on to Mistress-Mariner for me, which I can only hope is equally entertaining. And, indeed, I have books 3 and 4 of the Colmskirk series, A Laverock Lilting (1945) and The Bees on Drumwhinnie (1952), queued up on my TBR shelves for after that. I’ve always meant to get round to all of these (ever since I reviewed the latter five books in 2015, in fact), and it seems like the Late Pandemic Era is the time I’ve been waiting for!

Friday, June 11, 2021

Mad, bad, and really fairly pleasant to know: NATALA DE LA FÈRE, The Mad Motleys of Swanworth (1958)

Hardly anybody who drifts into Swanworth ever comes with a purpose. After all, there is nothing to do and nothing special to see. Anyway, that is how I feel about it. It seems to be a very good place to rush through quickly in a car or a tandem, on the way to somewhere else worth while, and if the speed they whizz through is anything to go by, they cannot put it behind them fast enough.

This one’s been on my TBR for years, and it was one of many (many, many, many) books I acquired in the past year out of my purely unselfish desire to help global booksellers survive. It seems that Natala de la Fère is actually of French origin, so she’s not on my master list, though most of her books appear to have been written in English and set in England, so perhaps I need to revisit that.

The publisher really let her down
with this boring cover

The mad Motleys are, if not actually mad, a distinctly eccentric family residing on a hilltop above the small English village of Swanworth. There is the imposing and somewhat alcoholic Mr. Motley, his wife who is convinced she’s descended from the Druids, and their three children, son Bark, daughter Spot, who is never without her gun and hunting dog and keeps the family perpetually oversupplied with game, and the youngest, Boadicea, who is the narrator of their tale:

They look upon me as something that dropped into the world one dismal chilly night when my mother was not paying due attention to her actions, and my father was lying drunk and incapable under the refectory table in the 'workshop' in the yard, although what he has ever done in there but drink, I have never discovered.

The “novel” is really more a collection of stories of the Motleys’ various misadventures. Our introduction to the family is by way of the delightfully morbid tale of eccentric Aunt Bessie who, utterly convinced of her impending death, orders her own coffin. She then survives for several more years, keeping it carefully polished in her bedroom, until one day picking dandelions in the hills she treads on a landmine left over from Army exercises, and there’s nothing left of her to bury. Nothing else in the book is quite so Barbara Comyns-esque, but de la Fère might be considered a somewhat tamer Comyns cousin.

In other chapters, we meet Old Mrs Sprout, the village herbalist, whose cottage is purchased by an American and disassembled with the intent of moving it to the U.S., but then for some reason it’s rejected, brought back to the village and reassembled again. There are visits from an insurance company fraudster who gets nabbed by Mr Motley, overbearing Cousin Ontario from Canada who wants to get in touch with his roots (though his roots aren't enthusiastic about the prospect), and a film crew eagerly capturing the village eccentrics. Then there’s the flood that covers all of Swanworth but for the Motleys’ hill, and the unlikely appearance of an elephant in the Motleys' backyard.

Since each chapter of The Mad Motleys is basically self-contained, this is an easy book to pick up and put down, which can sometimes be a good thing. It does make it less of a book to really sink into and lose yourself, but Boadicea makes a charming narrator and there are certainly some chuckles here. For example, I don’t really bake, but if I did I’m sure it would look something like Ma Motley’s efforts:

My mother was in the kitchen swathed in the torn-up sheets she keeps specially for the one day a week she bakes the bread. Before she thought of the sheets she went about the house dripping flour all over the place, because when she bakes bread she might just as well get into the flour bin to mix the dough instead of half breaking her back bending over it.

I haven’t found a lot of details about Natala de la Fère, but I have found that she published four books in all, beginning with a memoir/travel book called Italian Bouquet (now in my hot little hands—I couldn’t resist the dustjacket). Two additional novels followed The Mad MotleysAll My Fathers (1959) and A Mess of Potage (1961, published in the U.S. as Soupe du Jour). In the latter, a French family accidentally eats their grandmother…

Although Mad Motleys isn’t an absolute favorite, I might just have to check out more by this writer with a quite unusual sensibility!

Friday, June 4, 2021

They're almost here!: New FM titles due June 7th

You all know by now that I'm always a bit giddy about the rollout of a new bunch of Furrowed Middlebrow titles from Dean Street Press. Although our first batch of titles was back in 2016, there's still some part of me that can't quite believe I've really gone from fantasy publishing to the real thing (thanks of course to Rupert at Dean Street Press, who made it all happen). 

But even so, for a sort of literary archaeologist like myself, there is something particularly satisfying about the books we're releasing on June 7th. We've published a whole slew of lost and forgotten authors and books, but rarely have we been privileged to restore to circulation a body of work that was previously so completely and utterly unavailable as the novels of MOLLY CLAVERING. Apart from Mrs. Lorimer's Quiet Summer, which has remained fairly readily available since its wide US release (under the title Mrs. Lorimer's Family) in a People's Book Club edition, and Near Neighbours, which was reprinted by Shirley at Greyladies Books a few years ago, these books have been completely inaccessible to readers outside of a few major libraries for quite a few decades. (And of course, even those two will now be available for the first time in e-book format.)

What's more, as I (very luckily, and with huge thanks to Grant Hurlock, as always) read more and more of her work, Molly Clavering has become a favorite writer, and a perfect comfort read in times of stress. When life was decidedly hectic and trying for a few months there, I was frequently clinging to Molly (I rather feel we're on a first-name basis now) like a lifeboat as I laughed and cheered and vicariously escaped to Scotland while reading these books for the first time. She clearly shares some themes and storylines with her better-known friend and neighbor D. E. Stevenson, but she is very much her own writer—a bit feistier, a bit earthier.  And I can't resist pointing out again that, while I initially assumed that Molly had been influenced by Stevenson's style of writing, the discovery of Molly's novels from the 1920s and 1930s, already in spirited romantic comedy style while DES was still experimenting (not very successfully) with melodrama, suggest that perhaps the reverse is true!

At any rate, I couldn't be more thrilled to be bringing Molly back into circulation and sharing the joy with all of you. And none of this is for a moment to take away from my pleasure at finally getting RUBY FERGUSON's divine Apricot Sky back into print (it has been on my wish list since the beginning of our imprint, but there were some rights vicissitudes to navigate).

So, after that considerable ado, I give you, as one final teaser before the books' release, their full covers. I hope you enjoy!

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