Friday, July 30, 2021

Pennies or penises: ISOBEL STRACHEY, First Impressions (1945)

A woman was sitting bending over Barbara's hand spreading colour on to her nails with a tiny brush. Her fingers were quickly and neatly busy, her mind busy also with anxiety about money or chewing the cud of some sexual experience. Pennies or penises.

Ahem, now that I have your attention with that title and quote, I’ll remind you that having read Isobel Strachey’s final (of seven) novels, The Perfectionists, a while back and not completely knowing what to make of it, I was nevertheless intrigued enough to immediately order three more of her books. And thank heavens I did!

Having read her last, I decided I should next read Strachey’s first novel, the short but potent tale of Barbara Weatherby, a distinctly aimless girl from a high society family, from her final days in school to her rather ambivalent and surely perilous marriage to the first man she becomes infatuated with in the days just before World War II (the approach of war barely figures at all, perhaps appropriately since it's Barbara's rather shallow perceptions which are the focus). The first two chapters feature some lovely, bleakly funny scenes of boarding school life, which make it quite clear why someone like Barbara would loath it, though her friend Rosemary takes it all as seriously as a gothic tale of doom--here’s Rosemary having been scolded by the gym mistress:

'She said I'd shown signs of being unpunctual for gym lately. She said I wasn't a child any longer, and why wasn't I quicker at getting up to open the door for her when she comes through the classroom. She said she noticed that l was generally one of the last girls to get up. I can't see there's much use in my living any longer.'

Soon enough, Barbara runs away from school, and convinces her mother not to send her back. She drifts from one spot to another, or rather from a tennis party to a ball, and becomes wildly infatuated with a young man, Francis Holland, who is already engaged to one of Barbara’s friends. In the end, she marries him, but this is no Jane Austen story of a well-deserved happy ending, for by the time she succeeds in conquering Francis (he having been dumped by his fiancée for his wandering eye), she seems to have fallen out of love with him, but can’t quite extricate herself from the belief that her future is tied up with his.

First novels have a tendency to be autobiographical, but if
First Impressions is, then Strachey was surely just as bold and uncompromising in her own self-examination as she routinely is in dissecting her characters. It’s a delightfully dark, cynical world Strachey has Barbara move through, but Barbara, driven by boredom and lack of motivation, isn’t allowed to see it clearly enough to save herself from her fate. And if any reader has missed all the copious foreshadowing that Barbara and Francis won’t live happily ever after, perhaps Barbara’s observations about a relative as she's walking down the aisle at her wedding will make it clear:

Beside her sat another relation, Blanche Poole, wearing a huge black velvet hat swaying with feathers and sparkling with jet bugles, but more picturesque than the hat her face below it appeared carved in magnificent lines from a grey desiccated substance with eyes dull opaque mysterious like those of an ancient statue, but unlike a statue little twitching movements which had once been the voluntary and fiery movements of an impatient nervous temperament, now become utterly involuntary and meaningless, still raked her bony frame from head to foot, as though unseaworthy and abandoned by her crew an old ship was still tossed at random upon waves she had once proudly navigated.

Perhaps not the ideal mindset in which to be saying “I do”?

First Impressions seems to me to have some of the same rough edges, as a novel, that I found in The Perfectionists. It feels a bit fast and loose (or perhaps I’m just being a fast and loose reader). But just as in the later novel, what’s absolutely fascinating is Strachey’s incredible command of metaphor and striking, unusual, and generally quite jaded description. A couple of rather gorgeous random examples:

Lady Rachel Morley, the vicar's wife, had a definite square face, a definite authoritative way of speaking, she wore such quiet mousy well-worn clothes that compared with her the other women looked as though they were dressed up for the stage. She welcomed Mr. Langford-Keyes' effusions steadily like a rock receiving the impact of a frothing phosphorescent wave of sea-water. The wave recoiled and left her unaltered and sensible as ever.

The curate stood beside him in a curious toppling position. His clothes looked as though they were being blown off him although there was no wind.

What a talent Strachey had for this sort of figural language! You would think, this being a first novel, that it was mere precociousness and would surely run out of steam in later work, but I can attest that the talent is still thriving in her last novel. And, having quoted a passage above from just one page after Barbara’s arrival at her wedding, here is the arrival itself:

As she entered the church Barbara breathed in a heavy smell of flowers and was aware, on either side of the aisle, of light coloured dresses and hats swaying on craning and bending necks as closely packed as plants in a herbaceous border, and heard a whispering like the twittering of insects and birds, soon overwhelmed by rolling waves of organ music which filled the building to the brim with a mighty reverberation of long deep notes powerful as bugle and trumpet blasts, seeming to wrestle with each other in the confined space like invisible giants or atmospheric elements.

Let me just say, if sometimes Strachey’s plotting and character development seems to have been along the lines of a literary Hunger Games (drop some odd characters into an intriguing situation and let the chips fall where they may), I can forgive her just about anything for the vividness of her language. And fortunately, I have two more of her books on my shelf...

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.

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