"But you're the only person I—"
|Some rather impressive critical |
blurbs for Stirling's work
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.
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.
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"???
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?
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.
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.)
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.