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?

Friday, August 20, 2021

COVER REVEAL: New D. E. Stevenson titles coming January 2022 from Dean Street Press

As those of you who have been paying attention will know, I've already announced (see here if you haven't been paying attention) that come January 2022 there will be eleven new Furrowed Middlebrow/Dean Street Press editions of D. E. Stevenson titles, many of them among her hardest-to-find and most-loved books. I said at that time that we hoped to use many of the original covers for our editions, and now it's time to show you what we've come up with. (Those of you on Twitter may already have seen these previewed there but this is the first time they've all been shown together.)

Are you ready? Brace yourselves!

All but one have original covers (though in a couple of cases we went with U.S. first edition covers rather than U.K. firsts). As a reminder, our editions of The English Air, Five Windows, The Tall Stranger, Anna and Her Daughters, and The Blue Sapphire will be paperback-only, as e-book editions for those are already available from another publisher. We will release the remaining titles in both paperback and e-book, as per our norm.

Big thanks, as so often before, to Jerri Chase for providing scans of the covers of her copies of Green Money and Five Windows!

And, last but certainly not least, we have the one title that couldn't make use of an original vintage cover image, for the simply reason that it wasn't ever published until the lovely Greyladies Books did it a few years back. I had excellent good luck with The Fair Miss Fortune, as I'd only just begun looking for possible cover images when I came across a vintage advertising image that, in my opinion, perfectly captures the frolicsome tone of the book and subtly suggests its theme and the cause of all the rollicking confusion in the plot.

I hope you're well pleased with these. We'll also have some news about exciting bonus materials to be included in these new editions. Coming soon!

Friday, August 13, 2021

"You must hear our siren, it's the loudest in London": NAOMI ROYDE-SMITH, Outside Information (1941)

At Truslove and Hanson's, where I bought a pocket Bible, only to find later that the Club had added a larger copy of this anthology to the telephone books by every bedside, the voice of the siren was not unwelcomed by the assistants, who retreated carrying armfuls of the newest books and browsed on them unmolested by customers.

The full subtitle of Naomi Royde-Smith's diary/memoir of the Blitz reads "Being a diary of rumours collected by Naomi Royde-Smith, together with letters from others and some account of events in the life of an unofficial person in London and Winchester during the months of September and October 1940." Whew! It's a slightly unusual approach to a diary, so perhaps Royde-Smith or her publisher felt the need for some explanation, or perhaps she just found it amusing to go into such detail on the title page. Either way, it's an irresistibly entertaining book with new perspectives and new revelations even for someone like me, priding myself on having read a substantial amount about the Blitz.

Because the author set out to keep a "diary of rumours", or an "accurate account of inaccurate information", we are given a unique localized perspective on how people were reacting to the stresses, anxieties, and confusion of the earliest days of the Blitz. Early on, for example, we get her account of a morning spent repainting chairs, during which an odd odor of frying onions reached her; she later learns the aroma had triggered a gas alarm and the town's air raid wardens had been mobilized, only to discover that it originated from a fire at a pickle factory.

Sadly, of course, not all the rumours have such benign origins, and of course in between Royde-Smith's reports of rumours we get quite a lot of factual detail, some humorous, some distressing, of the early days of the Blitz. Her own experiences are supplemented by the inclusion of various letters from friends—all with a flare for detail—including in one case novelist Margaret Kennedy, reporting from Cornwall. And although the author is living, during the months of her diary, in Winchester, her husband is working in London, so she makes a couple of harrowing trips to visit him. Thus, in addition to rumours, we get some powerful descriptions of London and "the strangeness of a city—not in ruins, but holding ruination in its arms":

The silhouette of Chelsea, South Kensington and Westminster remained intact in spire and dome and solid mass of steel and concrete mansions. The dome of the Tate Gallery had a rather shattered but quite unbent air; Dolphin Square and the Imperial Chemical Building stood pink and white in their customary blandness; not a shred of the mysterious cage which has shadowed the Victoria Tower for the last eighteen months had been displaced, only St. Thomas's Hospital showed any sign of the bomb which had wrecked the Nurses' Home and the dispensary and medical store and left the whole vast organization without a drop of iodine or a roll of lint to cope with the worst emergency in its history. The whole effect was of devastation, awful in degree, but unexpectedly limited in extent. I had not realized that the highest explosive bomb had so definite a bound set to its destructiveness: that it was less deadly to human life than the microscopic bacillus of typhoid or influenza.

Royde-Smith's surprise at the limited extent of the damage reminds us that many people had expected London to be effectively decimated within the first few weeks of bombing. (And yet Naomi still went to London to visit her husband!)

Here we encounter some of the common tropes of the blitz. There's ruins sightseeing and children collecting shrapnel. And there are some examples of "blitz spirit", as when a friend shares a letter she received from the mother of her evacuees, just returned to London from a visit to her children; she begins "Just a few words to tell you we arrived home safely Monday" and only then mentions that their home was bombed soon after: "We had five high explosive bombs around us, one took our house and buried us in the shelter in the garden, the police and A.R.P. men were wonderful."

And as Royde-Smith was already a very successful and widely-known novelist, there is just a little bit of tantalizing name-dropping:

When the All Clear sounded E. went across the street to his own room to sleep and I set out to have tea with Rose Macaulay at her flat. That dauntless woman's small second-floor drawing-room has very large windows overlooking a square. Elizabeth Bowen and Dorothy Nicholson came in before the second of the afternoon's raids began, but our hostess did not appear to have heard it. It was not her week on Ambulance duty. So we sat on talking, as writers will, of sales and royalties and of the books we wanted to write and couldn't and of how far the Catholic Church was responsible for the present muddle in Spain. E.B., who is worried about her Irish home, explained that Eire was perfectly ready to fight the Nazis so long as she could do it quite by herself. It's the idea of having to be anybody's ally that gets her down.

Not till the All Clear sounded did Rose take any notice of the outside world. Then she flung all the windows open and said, "You must hear our siren, it's the loudest in London."

Oh to be a fly on the wall during that tea! What, for example, were "the books we wanted to write and couldn't"???

I should mention there is one bit of casual anti-semitism about the author's involvement with an "enemy alien" who arrived late one night having "lost her luggage and her passport and, being an Austrian-Pole, as well as a Jewess, was more than temperamental about these and other misfortunes during the ensuing months". Ummmm. Perhaps her being "dramatic" in such circumstances had much to do with having left her home and country under terrible conditions and little to do with her nationality or race? One knows more or less what Royde-Smith probably meant, and she is perhaps speaking from her experiences with the woman over "the ensuing months", but one would still rather like to give her a couple of good squirts with a water pistol for the insensitivity.

One final tidbit that I'd never come across or thought of until reading this book. The author shares a letter from a friend living in neutral Switzerland, who tells of the Swiss growing tired of all the air raid alerts there because of RAF planes flying over on their way to Italy. Indeed, according to Wikipedia, " over 7,000 siren alarms were initiated in Switzerland during the war." Who knew? I wonder if there are any good memoirs of life in Switzerland during the war, or would they have been seen as too anticlimactic compared to memoirs from most other parts of the world?

This is a book of more or less spontaneous reportage from some very dramatic times, and so it lacks the polish and the considered perspective of a masterpiece like A Chelsea Concerto. But for the same reason, it has a certain immediacy and rawness, and the irresistible fly-on-the-wall perspective of people who couldn't know what their future would hold and nevertheless went about their lives in much the same way as always. And whatever her faults might be, it's hard not to be charmed by someone who, having declined to go to the shelter of her London club, decides to enjoy the view of the barrage from her 5th floor window:

Why, since I had refused to take a pillow and an eiderdown to the basement, as all the other residents had done when the barrage grew noisy at bed-time, should I cower alone and not see what those were missing? It was worth it and indescribable. Sights like sounds; sounds like the long, steel-bright swords that crossed one another; a buzzing as though each visible star not like an angel but a demon sang; little white scratches that flicked in the patch-work and did not synchronise with the tearing noises which came and went amidst the general din, and, low and far to the east, a peach-red leaping where the docks still beaconed to the returning pilots who had lit the fires two nights ago. I gazed at it with no more thought for the skill and courage, the agony and daring, behind, above and below these portents, than you or I ever give to the scene-shifters, the electricians, the dressers, property men, stage hands and noises off, who work behind the scenes when we watch Grand Opera or a pantomime.

Clearly, I need to finally pull the trigger and sample Royde-Smith's novels (26 in all, I believe!). Any recommendations of the best place to start?

Friday, August 6, 2021

“As if a mountain had not simply moved but positively minced”: VIOLET TREFUSIS, Echo (1931)

Mrs Campbell seemed to be descended from a race apart. She was a giant of a creature, vaguely human but by no means womanly; her features were tiny, and her gestures also disproportionately small. It was surprising to see in this extraordinary face the same shapes and configurations as in others. The nose, for example, was recognizably a nose and the mouth a mouth, but the curious thing was that they were so much less sharply defined than normal; the mouth was a mere button, the nose a kind of fold; the flat, tiny ear was like a pheasant's and her character too was timid, bashful and unformed. Her appearance and demeanour were therefore as terrifying as if a mountain had not simply moved but positively minced, or as if a tall bell-tower had suddenly blushed.

If there’s one thing at which Violet Trefusis particularly excels, at least in her second novel Echo, it’s descriptions of women, and this is my favorite of the bunch. Mountains mincing and bell-towers blushing, oh my!

Echo is one of four novels that Violet Trefusis, who lived in Paris much of her adult life, originally wrote in French (two of them apparently still never translated, which seems like a publishing oversight), but it was apparently inspired by her happy memories of childhood holidays in Scotland. It’s the tale of Sauge (your guess is as good as mine how to pronounce that), an elegant young Frenchwoman who has grown fatigued by her Parisian social life and is sent to stay with her aunt and twin cousins in the Highlands. The cousins, Malcolm and Jean, are however rather like wild animals, uncivilized and antisocial, roaming the countryside and violently resenting the incursions of any strangers into their shared world. 

Naturally, the cousins are also tall and lovely, sort of mythical giants of beauty and instinct unfettered by the restraints of society. And of course, despite their initial resistance, they both wind up falling in love with Sauge, who knows instinctively exactly how to deal with them. (Sauge surely represents Trefusis herself on some level, who seems to have been anything but shy in representing herself as sophisticated, beautiful, and irresistible--our Violet does not seem to have had difficulties with her self esteem!) The twins become jealous and turn against one another, and the story ends tragically. 

Daftly, but also tragically.

It’s more than a little silly and overblown, and yet I had considerable difficulty putting it down, reading the 100 or so pages almost in one sitting (after coming across it in a second hand bookshop on our recent jaunt to Carmel). On one hand, plot is surely not Trefusis’ strong suit. On the other hand, she does somehow manage to keep things moving intriguingly enough to keep the pages turning. But what makes it worth the price of admission is her flair for description and her ability to intriguingly sum up a character. There are some glorious descriptions of Scotland here for the armchair traveler, even if her summing up of life there seems to come straight out of some romantic mythology all her own. Even Walter Scott might have difficulty recognizing himself in Violet’s fantasies. For example, is the following really a universal characteristic of Scotswomen?:

Inside their vast and largely ugly, sprawling castles, with their myriad squinting embrasures and watchtowers, the lives of these women flow gently and monotonously on. It is her own imagination that supplies the Scotswoman with the adventures of life. Caught between two worlds, how could she not prefer the romantic past to the materialistic present? She abandons herself to heroes long since dead. Ivanhoe-like, she stretches out her arms to Rob Roy, and from him moves on to the even wilder embrace of Quentin Durward. For this dreamy adventuress nothing is impossible. While remaining practical in her daily life, and reasonably loving to her husband, she constructs in her mind's eye the most extravagant scenarios, and in her tales nothing is too outrageous to be included. There is nothing in the least neurotic about this tendency; indeed the Scottish woman is more well-balanced than most. Yet she can say quite calmly:

- Last night, when I was getting into bed I saw the cavalier's head on the dressing-table again; that's the third time in two months, pass the salt would you please?

But exaggerated or not, you have to admit it’s quite entertaining!

There is obviously some mild symbolism of bisexuality in the story of the twins. After all, if they are so identical they can barely be told apart, what different does it make which of them one is attracted to? A few years later, Trefusis would publish her most famous novel, Broderie Anglaise (1935), in which, in veiled but fairly obvious form, she retells with her own unique spin the triangular relationship between herself, Vita Sackville-West, and Virginia Woolf. (As an aside that I found striking, I recently read that it’s entirely possible that neither Vita nor Virginia ever knew of the book’s existence--one might have thought Violet would have sent them copies special delivery, but apparently not.)

If you’re not already familiar with Trefusis, I should mention that she was the daughter of Alice Keppel, whose major claim to fame was being the mistress of Edward VII, from whom, according to ODNB, as a girl Violet would sometimes receive affectionate letters signed “Kingy”. ODNB also reports that “her friend Jean Cocteau remarked that she ‘rolled her hoop with a sceptre’”. Having eloped to the Continent with Vita Sackville-West and been retrieved by their husbands, as told by Vita’s diaries and her son in Portrait of a Marriage, they returned home to collaborate on Challenge, a novel about their escapades, though it was published under Vita’s name alone. Once her days of eloping with Vita were past and she was settled in France, Violet became the lover of Princesse Edmond de Polignac, who was previously called Winnaretta Singer, heiress to the sewing machine empire and apparently an accomplished painter, judging from her gorgeous self-portrait (which I’ve always thought would make a luscious cover for a Furrowed Middlebrow book--just need to find the right one).

Apart from Broderie Anglaise and her personal notoriety, Trefusis is probably best known for two of her English language novels, Hunt the Slipper (1937) and Pirates at Play (1950), social comedies set among the aristocracy. I know I read Slipper years ago, but I must re-read it soon, and I’ve just now ordered a copy of Pirates. Then there’s the library copies of Broderie Anglaise and Trefusis’ memoir, Don’t Look Round (1952), on my shelves. Do I expect any of them to be brilliantly structured literary works? No. Do I expect them to be fabulously entertaining, gossipy, vain, and a bit outrageous--yes indeed. Also, next up: must get hold of the brilliant Diana Souhami’s bio of Violet and her mother.

Before I sign off, one more of Violet’s irresistible flights of fancy in describing a woman--this time, a rather poignant one, a woman observed by Sauge on her train from Paris:

Next to them was another English woman but this one was the old-fashioned kind. Enormous. Travelling on her own. Wearing about ten huge, battered gold bracelets that bore the baby-tooth marks of all her children and, with hair as wild as a chrysanthemum, she chased after porters, giving orders in a peremptory but nervous voice. Her sail-like veils floated behind her and, with one hand, she clutched her wreck of a hat. No one found her the least bit funny. Nor did anyone see the pathetic side of this old and stubborn bloom.

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