Friday, May 28, 2021

In almost every village in England...: F. M. MAYOR, Miss Browne's Friend (1914)

In almost every village in England a Miss Browne is to be found; in every town several Miss Brownes; in London they must be almost too many to count. We all know them, spinsters from thirty onwards, who are cheerfully devoting their lives to be of use and comfort to their families, their friends, their village, their town, and their country. Sometimes these objects of their goodness patronize them, sometimes they laugh at them, and sometimes they writhe a little under the benefits they are receiving; but they could not possibly get on without their Miss Brownes.

With this opening, there can be little doubt that we are back in the rich, slightly melancholy world of Flora MacDonald Mayor, who deserves, despite her relatively sparse output, to be considered one of the major authors of the 20th century. She's best known for her three brilliant, poignant novels of the lives of unmarried women in the early years of the century— The Third Miss Symons (1913), The Rector's Daughter (1924), and The Squire's Daughter (1929)—the second widely considered her masterpiece, though the others are lovely as well.

Apart from her three novels, Mayor seems to have published only three other works, which are almost entirely inaccessible. In 1901, she published her first book under the pseudonym Mary Strafford, Mrs. Hammond's Children, which has been referred to variously as a novel, a children's book, and a story collection for adults about children. Janet Morgan, in her intro to the Virago edition of The Squire's Daughter, refers to it intriguingly as stories “based on the relations among children and the kindnesses and cruelties they practise on one another.” (For what it's worth, the Glasgow Herald referred to it uninformatively as "A delightful set of pickles.") Regardless, unless you're in the British Library, you won't be able to read it.

Following Mayor's 1932 death of influenza and pneumonia, a volume of stories, mostly of ghosts and the supernatural, The Room Opposite, appeared in 1935. A small British publisher, Sundial Press, announced a reprint the better part of a decade ago, but it has never appeared and the original edition is hard to find indeed.

The third of Mayor's other works, described as "an exploration of a friendship between a suburban lady and a prostitute, published serially in the Free Church Suffrage Times”, Miss Browne's Friend had achieved more or less the level of myth for me. I was making plans, when the pandemic abated, to drive two hours to a University of California library that appears to have the Free Church Suffrage Times to attempt to copy it, when Michael Walmer emailed and announced the joyous news that he was reprinting it as the latest volume in his Zephyr Books series of classic short works (see here). Eureka! Rather a lot easier to retrieve it from the mailbox than to drive halfway across the state and fetch it off of microfilm.

Divided into four chapters (presumably the parts in which it appeared in serialization), the book could be described as a novella, though it's really little more than the length of a short story. But it's not the size that matters (in this case at least), for it's a fascinating little work that offers insights into Mayor's feelings about the role of unmarried women—including herself, whose engagement, at around age 30, ended tragically after a few weeks with the death of her fiancé in India in 1903. (Another thing which makes Mrs Hammond's Children a work I would sell a kidney to get hold of is that it's the one surviving work of Mayor's which pre-dates this tragedy—is it therefore a more cheerful, optimistic book, or was a practical, slightly melancholy perspective on the world always Mayor's? It's a crime that there are still these missing pieces in the ouevre of such an important author.)

Ethel Browne, perhaps a bit bored with her role as unpaid servant for her mother and two married brothers, and with keeping "all responsibilities from a younger sister who went to the Slade", reads an article one day about a Rescue Home (presumably primarily dedicated to prostitutes, though in 1914 Mayor had to be a bit coy about her descriptions) and decides to volunteer as a friend to young Mabel Roberts. I love Mayor's description of the Sister who greets her on her first visit to the home:

A Sister in nurse's dress greeted her: a Sister who somehow put one in mind of angels, although one surmises that angels are as a rule radiant and victorious, and this little Sister was tottering not very far from the brink of a nervous breakdown.

Ethel is shocked, in her very sheltered way, to find that most of the downtrodden are not nice-looking, but she is pleased that Mabel is the exception, which will soon remind Ethel not to make assumptions about appearances. Mabel has lots of difficulties, moving from job to job, and one begins to wonder if she isn't merely telling Ethel what she wants to hear.

I won't go into further details about the vicissitudes of the women's friendship, but I will say that we get lots of lovely, subtle comment on class and morality and the position of women in the early part of the 20th century. And the reactions of Ethel's mother and sister to her new friend are worth sharing:

"I really think," said her mother on her return, "it's a waste of time trapesing after that girl, and in the rain, too. Besides, it doesn't seem to me quite what one likes—and when there are so many excellent societies just for that purpose."

"And it's so foolish, Ethel, because those girls like that sort of life."

This consolation came from her younger sister, who was just as ignorant as girls of twenty-two in the protected classes have always been, but was so pathetically anxious not to be Victorian.

Those sorts of sentiments can of course still be heard today among those who don't find it worth their time to understand the complex causes of the problems described on the evening news.

At any rate, Michael Walmer has done us a wonderful service in making this crucial missing piece of Mayor's career widely available again. He publishes lots of other marvelous books as well—see his main website here—so please do support his efforts and encourage him to do more. Perhaps Mrs Hammond's Children and/or The Room Opposite will be coming along soon???

Friday, May 21, 2021

Not as easy as you think: D. E. STEVENSON, The Blue Sapphire (1963)

'Surely you can sit on a seat for a few minutes without getting into conversation with a perfectly strange young man!'
Julia smiled. 'It isn't as easy as you seem to think.'

Continuing my recent reading of some lesser-known D. E. Stevenson novels, I turned to this gem (get it?).

Julia Harburn is a somewhat sheltered young woman at a loose end following the remarriage of her chilly, distant father and her own redundancy in the couple's home. She has never been close to her father, who desperately wanted her to be a boy and whose somber reserve she thinks of as his "big brown blanket": "He was wrapped up so tightly in his big brown blanket that the real man was invisible; he seldom spoke, quite often he did not hear what was said to him." She has therefore resolved to rent a room and find a job, though the details of the latter remain vague in her mind.

As the novel opens, Julia is heading to Kensington Gardens to meet her fiancé Morland Beverley, whose stuffiness and bossiness perfectly fit his name. Morland is also a chilly man, very much her father's type, and their chilly engagement has dragged on as they wait—very practically if not very romantically—for him to make partner in his law firm. While waiting for him on a park bench, Julia encounters Stephen Brett, a young man who works as a mining engineer in Africa, who is in London on some exciting business involving an abandoned mine and the perfect blue sapphire of the novel's title.

Julia finds her room, in a boarding house "quite near Kensington High Street" belonging to the theatrical Miss May Martineau (real name Eliza Potts), a classic DES woman-of-a-certain-age-with-a-heart-of-gold. And May in turn finds her a job in a hat shop with her friend Madame Claire, and memorably demonstrates to Julia the art of selling hats:

with that she leapt from her chair, seized an antimacassar, twisted it into a sort of turban and crossing the room to a gilt-framed mirror arranged it carefully upon her head. Then she turned, and suddenly she was a different person, languid and affected.

'The very latest from Paris,' she drawled, bending her head from one side to the other and patting her curls with the tips of her fingers. 'So chic, so becoming ... the line so original, so intriguing! Let us see if it becomes Madame,' she added, removing it from her own head and settling it carefully upon Julia's. 'Beautiful!' she cried in sudden ecstasy. 'What could be better? It is Madame's colour; it enhances the loveliness of Madame's eyes ; it shows off her delicious complexion! Let me pull it this way a trifle—no, that way! Exquisite!' cried Miss Martineau, clasping her hands and rolling her eyes.

But just as Julia is settling happily into her new life, she receives an unexpected letter from Randal Harburn, a hitherto unknown uncle in Scotland, who writes out of the blue asking her to visit as his health is failing and he hopes to heal the rift between himself and Julia's father. Her father is traveling in Europe with his new wife, and she knows he would dislike such a trip—as does Morland, of course—but she cannot refuse an ill man's request. Her decision, naturally, reaps all sorts of complications

As in so many D. E. Stevenson novels, a journey to Scotland transforms our heroine's life (though she has already begun the transformation process in London under her own steam), and in many ways Julia herself is transformed, as well as released her from her melancholy past. It's a story DES has told before, but she tells it so well that readers are unlikely to care if it feels familiar. And Julia's development is so convincingly detailed, and she so likeable and spirited and sincere, that it would be curmudgeonly to make too much of the fact that I wanted much more of the delightful Miss Martineau, who surely deserved a novel all her own.

One thing that struck me looking back at the opening scene in Kensington Gardens was how unexpectedly relevant it is to conversations happening today. Although it's largely played for laughs, as in the quote I used to open this post, there is something eerily familiar and disturbing about Julia's experience while waiting for the unpunctual Morland:

Julia herself was greeting the sunshine in a simple white frock and large straw hat with a sapphire-blue ribbon round the crown (it so happened that the ribbon matched her eyes; perhaps she was aware of this fortunate circumstance). She had dressed to please Morland, of course, but soon she became aware that quite a number of people were taking pleasure in her appearance. In fact it began to be rather uncomfortable sitting here all by herself . . . she wished Morland would come.

An old gentleman stopped and stared at her …. He stopped and stared and made a movement as if he intended to sit down beside Julia on the seat; but she returned his stare in such a forbidding manner that he changed his mind and walked on.

Three youths who were strolling along arm-in-arm looked at her hopefully, but Julia took no notice so they nudged each other and giggled and left her in peace.

It's a striking thing for an author like D. E. Stevenson to have delineated so clearly—the fact that a young woman alone in public must always be on the defensive, must be prepared to stare in a forbidding manner to avoid harassment, and must always be alert to what's happening around her in case it leads to danger.

Who says middlebrow fiction isn't political and doesn't speak to relevant issues?

Friday, May 14, 2021

Just the facts ma'am: Short takes on SUSAN ALICE KERBY and D. A. PONSONBY

I am not widely known for my concision, but I'm going to do my best here as I have a number of books I've read in the past several months about which I want to share some impressions (since it's quite possible no one else has read them in a few decades!).

First up, Grant Hurlock made it possible for me to read Fortnight in Frascati (1940) by SUSAN ALICE KERBY, who is of course also the author of the Furrowed Middlebrow book Miss Carter and the Ifrit. Fortnight, set in Italy (presumably a couple of years before the book was published, since there are mentions of Hitler and Mussolini but not of war), follows an eccentric duchess and her wry niece, Marian, as they play host to an array of guests from the U.S. and England in reponse to the Duchess's advert in the Times. It's her unusual form of entertainment, and perhaps also her outside-the-box method of marrying off Marian, and the resulting guests include a psychologist, a American dancer who has just been jilted, a young shipping clerk, a middle-aged woman who has always lived in the shadow of her father, and a rather pompous young Poet.

At first the guests don't really click, but the discovery in the garden of what might be an ancient statue of Pan (or might have been ordered buried in the garden by the Duchess herself) brings them all together. From there, the story rollicks along enjoyably if unremarkably enough, and there's some fine good humor, some definitely bad humor, some enticing armchair travel, and a reasonably fun cast of characters. The Duchess is certainly an entertaining eccentric with rather a flair for matchmaking. I got a chuckle from her assessment of contemporary Germany: 

"No, my dear, that's no country for me. I'm too much of an individualist. Besides, with my rheumatism, I couldn't go about heiling all over the place and raising my arm."

And one interesting tidbit in view of the profession of Kerby's heroine in Miss Carter

"A feeble joke is better than one in bad taste," the Duchess said, with some acerbity. "Really, Marian, you should try for a post in the official censorship department, you have such a brilliant faculty for taking even the most innocuous bit of spice out of life."

Could Kerby have already, when writing this novel, have had some connection to the Censorship office? Elizabeth Crawford could find no information on Kerby's wartime work, but she seems to have had some sort of interest in this particular line of work, even if she didn't engage in it herself.

All in all, a perfectly pleasant novel, if a bit rough around the edges.

Now, having seen the delightful cover of D. A. PONSONBY's Dogs in Clover (1954), and knowing almost nothing about it, I know most of you will agree I had no choice but to purchase it. Ponsonby's main genre was historical fiction, often set in the Regency period. Of Bow Window in Green Street (1949), set in 18th century Bath, Twentieth-Century Romance and Historical Writers says "all the hopes and excitement of Regency living are wonderfully captured. One feels one could again knock on the door of the very house in which they all lived." Not being a big aficionado of historical fiction, however, I went with one of her very few works with contemporary settings.

Novels about "fallen women" abound, but this might be the first about a fallen dog (or, more accurately in this milieu, a fallen bitch). The proud owner of a line of Chow Chows, who has paid dearly to have her pride and joy bred by a champion, is horrified to find, when the new litter arrives, ample evidence that the champion hadn't been, so to speak, first in line. Only one of the puppies looks like a proper Chow, but that one is magnificent, so the owner begins to show the dog despite her knowledge of its imperfect lineage.

Drama includes several dog shows, the Chow owner's arch-rival in competition who isn't above stooping to hanky panky to win her cups, romance between the owner's daughter and a shower of Irish setters, and difficulties in that shower's own family. It's mostly silliness, and there's some genuine fun in reading about the obsessions of the dog fanciers, though the ending is a bit weak.

Moreover, there's one scene early on in the novel that will be a deal-breaker for many of today's readers. The Chow owner, fresh from her dog's new litter of puppies, blithely returns to the house to fetch a bucket to drown the four puppies who don't have the right look. Her daughter, reacting to this, merely notes that she is glad she has not seen the puppies beforehand as she might then have felt sad about it.


One reviewer of Doris Langley Moore's Not at Home, reprinted as a Furrowed Middlebrow book, complained of the treatment of a dog in that novel. There, however, the dog's fate was meant to show its owner's terrible irresponsibility, and Moore obviously disapproves. Clearly, no actual dogs were harmed in the writing of the novel. In Dogs in Clover, by contrast, it is one of the main characters who drowns the inconvenient puppies with seemingly no authorial disapproval whatsoever. Add to this that we are told on the book's jacket that Ponsonby herself was a dog fancier, and one begins to wonder if she herself made a habit of inserting puppies into buckets of water.

All told, although drowning dogs might not feature prominently in her historical fiction, I don't think I'll need to be bothering with Ponsonby again any time soon. (I'm not sure if it's possible to "cancel" an author no one reads anyway, but I'm looking into it...)

Friday, May 7, 2021

Revelling in misfortune: MARY CLIVE (as HANS DUFFY), Seven by Seven (1933)

"For pity's sake don't try to abolish vice over here," said Lady Cadmium. "Nowadays the only decent house maids one can get are fallen women. Of course in my service fiat it doesn't matter so much, but"—her imagination swinging along,—"when we lived at Crashams I quite gave up the local registry and applied to the hospital instead."

Most readers, if they know Mary Clive at all, know her as the author of the much-loved Christmas with the Savages (1955), a part novel/part memoir tale of a very prim, anti-social 8-year-old girl's Edwardian Christmas with a horde of other children she considers beneath her. That book has been perennially popular since it first appeared, and is even in print now (!) from Puffin. Many fans of Savages don't realize that Clive (née Pakenham, sister of Pansy Pakenham, who also published two novels, and biographer Violet Powell, who was also the wife of Anthony Powell) had earlier published four novels under the pseudonym "Hans Duffy". And those who do realize likely find it impossible to get hold of any of them. They are mostly nonexistent outside the British Library or the Bodleian, but for whatever reason, the second, Seven by Seven (1933), is available in the U.S. for reading or downloading via Hathi Trust here

The novel follows the mostly cynical, jaded, superficial Sexton family through darkly funny trials and travails over a number of years. Led by the shallow Lady Cadmium ("Daisy, Lady Cadmium, had three sons and three daughters, their father dying when the youngest was born. This effeminate action shocked her."), the family has seen better days. Her children include Kate, who marries an aspiring politician; Orange, who believes (literally) that the world only exists when he is present (and feels he did a particularly fine job creating Oxford); Dan, who marries a wealthy American with a healthy sexual appetite, whose fortune saves the family home; Susie, who marries a charming good-for-nothing, is abandoned, and becomes a bestselling novelist; Wilfred, Susie's rather tragic twin; and Frankie, the youngest, largely ignored.

But it is Frankie who, becoming an observer in her inability to join in with the others, is ultimately perhaps the "main" character of the novel, though she appears less frequently than some of the others. She is often bewildered by her siblings and by the cynical high society around her, and decides to isolate herself in a cottage with her former governess. She is also, perhaps not coincidentally, the only one who can see the family ghosts the others are always bragging about. Her character is hilariously summed up by her favorite childhood game:

It was her own invention and she played it by herself. The rules were simple, you pretended you were a bear and sat under the writing-table motionless for hours on end with the waste-paper basket over your head. Through the bars of the basket you could see everyone perfectly while they probably never noticed you were there.

I can relate a bit to Frankie, I'm afraid…

Mary Clive looking rather irresistible,
photographed by Cecil Beaton,
from the National Portrait Gallery

Clive seems to be having a lovely time skewering the Sextons' continuing pretensions and social uselessness, but whether or not a reader will have the same fun will largely depend on how much one enjoys dark humor. For instance, here's Lady Cadmium gleefully commenting on the family home's remarkable terrace:

"It's a good twenty to thirty foot drop, and the masonry at the top is very rocky, so you're quite liable to fall over any time you lean against it. If you do it's certain death, of course, as there's a paved walk at the bottom. I believe someone was killed there once, but only a housemaid and her baby or something."

These are the classic monstrous gentry that we've met in Rachel Ferguson or Elizabeth Eliot, but the influence I felt most hovering over Seven by Seven was Evelyn Waugh, whose Vile Bodies had appeared only a couple of years earlier, his own skewering of the upper classes making giddy light of everything from car crashes to white slavery. It's hard not to see Waugh's influence in the following passage, for example:

"My eldest daughter," said Lady Cadmium, "is the only human being I ever met who literally tears her hair. She says she finds it such a comfort when she's worried."

Kate never said anything of the sort, but she certainly had a great many worries. Levington-Boyle was not such a catch as had been hoped. In one year the business in which he had been getting on so nicely closed down, he fell seriously ill with internal disorders and their first baby died. Since then they had been left two properties, to both of which he was attached by memories of early childhood and family ties. One was in Cumberland, the other in Co. Cork, but they resembled each other in that neither carried quite enough money for the upkeep. Their surviving baby, Nigel, had an accident which affected his spine. "I believe Kate revels in misfortune," said her mother.

Or for that matter in this passage later on about getting out the vote for Kate's husband, who is now running for Parliament:

"Tell Mrs. Wilfred Sexton when she comes in. She is keeping a special list for the weak-minded. We're making a strong push with them. The Liberals may have a few but I don't think Labour can have any. After all, there must only be a limited number, even in Crashington."

Which sounds a lot like the present-day playbook of certain political players…

The structure of Seven by Seven is a bit loosy-goosy, jumping across years from one chapter to the next with a sometimes bewilderingly large cast of characters that had me paging back and forth to remember who someone was. I found it was also a book to be best enjoyed in smallish portions, as the jaded cleverness and black humor became just a touch tiring in too large a dose. (The critical blurb Gollancz chose for the cover of the book could indeed be double-edged: "It is not often one can complain that a book has too much wit in it, but such a complaint might be justified, if ever, here.")

But all told it's a rather fascinating piece of literary history. One wonders why a Vile Bodies gets remembered and treated as a classic while a Seven by Seven fades into complete obscurity. Apart from the obvious fact of its author being a woman, I mean.

I'd love to be able to read Clive's other early novels—In England Now (1932), Lucasta's Wedding (1936), and Under the Sugar-Plum Tree (1937). But alas, that doesn't look terribly likely, so for now I'll be adding them to my Hopeless Wish List. Alas and alack.

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