Saturday, May 21, 2022

COVER REVEAL: 13 new titles by Elizabeth Fair (!!) and Noel Streatfeild writing as Susan Scarlett, coming in August!

It's that exciting time again when I get to reveal the covers of our next batch of Furrowed Middlebrow titles from Dean Street Press! So thrilled to be doing these 13 titles (see announcements here and here), and if I do say so myself I think we've done them justice with our covers.

If you're on Twitter, you've actually been seeing these covers getting rolled out day-by-day, but it's only fair that those of you who aren't on Twitter get a bit of an exclusive yourself, so this post is the first appearance anywhere of our cover of Elizabeth Fair's The Marble Staircase, only coming to Twitter on Monday! Please don't spoil the surprise!

Original covers weren't really an option for this batch: The Marble Staircase, of course, has never been published before, and the Susan Scarlett original covers are, for the most part, a mystery, since of the twelve I have only ever seen a bad sideways pic of one and a heavily mildewed and discolored cover of another. But I think we found worthy and fitting substitutes. 1930s and 1940s women's magazines are a treasure trove of illustrations!

So, without further ado, here are our thirteen new covers. Hope you like them!

Saturday, May 14, 2022

"The boned corsets of the mind": KATHLEEN FARRELL, The Common Touch (1959)

Perhaps it was the Marc, or the cherries flambées, or both, or merely a selfish desire to hear my own voice, which urged me to try to explain: suddenly I wanted to share my bewildering realisation that no one is set in a mould, that each of us is capable of behaving wildly, temporarily out of character: that occasionally the limiting constrictions move away. All the reasons why this or that cannot be considered are no longer present, or no longer relevant. The railings, the boned corsets of the mind which keep the body in check may be replaced tomorrow, or the day after, but just now and again, miraculously, the strings are slack.

The trouble for Marianne, the narrator of Kathleen Farrell's rather brilliant fourth novel (of five), is that the boned corsets seem to snap back into place too quickly for her wild behavior to have a lasting impact. Marianne is in her late thirties and has seemingly led a rather ordinary, uneventful life. When the novel opens, she is in an attic room in a Paris hotel, wondering if she has missed her chance. 

We then flash back to a few weeks before. Marianne is traveling in Switzerland as companion to Lucy and Arnold, an older pair of siblings who might be her aunt and uncle (she says she was told to call them that as a child, but the relationship is never made explicit). No other relatives seem to be mentioned, which may explain the sense of isolation around these characters. 

Lucy and Arnold have spent their lives together, in what can only be called a codependent relationship, snarking and nagging at one another, each complaining that the other has stunted their life but simultaneously relying on and enabling each other. We only learn the truth of their situation (if truth it is) late in the novel, though a careful reader is likely to guess some of it well before Marianne learns of it, but their secrets, such as they are, aren't really the point of the novel. It's more the way that their suppressions and damage, the ways that they have limited their lives, cause Marianne to reflect on her own and the decisions she makes in the novel, as she engages in a mild fling with a distinctly unglamorous Swiss tour guide.

It's really very much as if a Jean Rhys character, in rather less disrepair than usual, has ventured into an Anita Brookner novel, haunted by shades of biting Barbara Pym wit. And despite the fact that very little happens except a lot of conversation and some melancholy mulling of the past and present, I was more or less engrossed throughout. Farrell's prose is elegant and funny even as it makes clear that the characters and situations are not elegant at all, at times even sordid.

There are some breathtaking (if sometimes harsh) insights into life and the way folks live it, including the quotation at the beginning of this post and this doozy spoken by Lucy, which made me stop and ponder a bit:

'When I said that Arnold "stopped" my marriage, it was not quite in the way you think. Apart from that it is all very well,' she said, 'to make other people an excuse for what one has not done, but that is seldom true. We are all selfish, if one considers precisely—although I know I am contradicting myself—and if we are certain of what we want we shall try to get it, no matter who stands in the way.'

There are some wonderful exchanges, particularly between Marianne and Lucy, and even when they're about the most trivial things, they're often laced with deeper implications, as in their discussion of Marianne's unaccountable liking for "Marc" (always capitalized here, but according to Google, which explains that it is much like grappa, generally written "marc"):

She took such a small sip of the liquid that there was none for her to swallow. 'It's so bitter and hot,' she said. 'Where did you learn to like such stuff?'

I reminded her that at my age one does not remember learning; that I had lived years enough to happen to acquire a taste for many things—and Marc was one of them.

'It has never happened to me'—Lucy wiped her mouth with a scrap of handkerchief—'and I must say that I am glad it has not, and I can't see how it could. And when I think how you were brought up, it seems so ... so out-of-the-way.'

But that was a long time ago.

'Surely those are the formative years? When one is a child, I mean—and then at school—and the convent you used to attend—no, it does not fit.'

Fortunately, or unfortunately, one seldom knows which, those were not the formative years for me.

Which reminds me, readers who are particularly hung up about quotation marks might be annoyed by Farrell's use of them for other characters but not for her narrator. I found it interesting, though, because it forces the reader at times to question whether the words are spoken or only thought, which in turn forces the reader deeper inside Marianne's consciousness. On the other hand, who can say what is portrayed accurately here, in view of this crème de la crème sample of Marianne's quotable moments:

No doubt I said something, but what I cannot recall. All these conversations are more or less what was said, although much I have forgotten, and more misinterpreted, perhaps.

I first read, and wrote about, Kathleen Farrell so much longer ago than I thought—back in 2013 not long after starting this blog (see here). I reviewed her third novel, The Cost of Living (1956), and enjoyed it quite a lot (and I see I compared her to Barbara Pym there too!), so it's shocking I've only now followed up with reading another of her novels. I'll have to make time for another one a little sooner this time!

As an aside, Farrell's "longtime companion", Kay Dick, has seen a bit of a revival this year, with the reprinting of her 1977 novel They by Faber in February. Perhaps the same sort of revival will soon follow for Farrell?

Friday, May 6, 2022

"Go forth and see the sights": OONA H. BALL (as BARBARA BURKE), Barbara Goes to Oxford (1907)

A merry young woman sat on Mr. Bent's right hand. She owed her exalted position to the fact that she was 'a last Term's Bride.' I heard her tell Mr. Bent that she has chosen her maids for apparently irrelevant reasons—her cook for her sweet smile and her housemaid for her sense of humour.
'And has your plan answered?' he asked.
'Oh yes, excellently!' she answered. 'I have given cooking lessons to the cook, but I never could have taught her to be sweet-tempered; and I can instruct the housemaid in her duties, but to train her to see a joke would have been impossible.'

A wealthy young woman from Ireland determines that she will spend three weeks in Oxford with her friend (her father's former secretary, who has a break between jobs), but do so as the ordinary, less well-to-do folk would do ("We shall take very little money. Brownie because she has so little, I because I have so much."). She keeps a diary of her excursions for her Aunt Camilla, who is off on a Continental jaunt of her own. It's out of term time during their stay, so they are able to room in the lodgings of one Mr. Enderby, and feel that they can picture him quite well from his books and belongings. They meet the friendliest people imaginable, who are willing to show them all the special spots of their lovely city, and Barbara describes the events in some detail. They encounter a don, Mr. Bent, who had known Brownie in her childhood, and the mythical Mr. Enderby unexpectedly returns, requiring that they change to another student's lodgings instead (among other repercussions).

The novel (written by the wife of an Oxford don, no less) is about 70% travelogue and only 30% plot, but it's really quite extraordinarily addictive and enjoyable. Criminally, I have still never been to Oxford myself (it was a choice between Oxford and Cambridge when we were there last, and I'm afraid I'm beyond the pale for Oxfordians for having chosen the latter), but the sightseeing in the book was nevertheless very like having a holiday there myself. (It did make me wonder how things have changed in a bit more than a century, and I was genuinely worried whether there was still anything like a field and a dramatic view from Childsworth Farm, but I find from Google that in fact there is?)

One might well wish that the proportions were a bit more in favor of plot, or at least character and dialogue, because Ball is really quite good at these, and when she rises to the occasion, her sense of humor can very nearly rival E. M. Delafield's Provincial Lady:

Mr. Bent introduced me to an alarmingly grave and silent man. I attempted to open a conversation by saying that the day was exceedingly fine; he pondered for a long minute, and then said, 'That is a very just remark.' I was too chilled to venture on anything more likely to promote an interesting discussion, and, as he really seemed to think that being at a party was an excellent opportunity for a little quiet meditation, I deemed it better and kinder to let him meditate while I listened to those who talked.

That same difficult dinner companion, however, provides a memorable description of his efforts to entertain visitors to Oxford, and I have to say he's a man after my own heart in this (though I don't usually meditate at parties, not generally attending them at all):

We would go first to the top of the Sheldonian Theatre, whence we might look over Oxford and all the towers thereof.

My silent friend at the luncheon had told me that this was the way to begin to see Oxford.

He uttered so few words, and this made those that he did utter seem particularly worth remembering.

'When I have visitors,' he said, 'I take them up to the top of the theatre and I say, "There is Magdalen and there is Christ Church, there is New College and there the Bodleian Library. Here is half a crown. Go forth and see the sights and trouble me no more until evening." The man who can't amuse himself in Oxford must be a fool.'

When I do finally visit Oxford, I rather hope some of you might trouble yourselves a bit more than this on my behalf. On the other hand, I'm not completely certain how much a half crown would have appreciated in value during the past century, so perhaps the equivalent would be just as well...

Much of what plot there is is concerned with some very pleasant, slow-building romance, which isn't handled quite as obviously (or as sappily) as one might have expected from the time period. But as I said, even the more travel-focused sections seemed quite charming and entertaining to me.

Barbara Goes to Oxford was the first of three novels by Ball. The second, Their Oxford Year (1909), appears to be similar in structure, but from the point of view of a scholar's wife writing to her grandfather in Canada. And A Quiet Holiday (1912) appears perhaps to be more of a full-fledged novel, dealing with an orphan girl's stay on a remote Cotswolds farm and the people she meets there. The first two of these are available from Hathi Trust in the U.S. (and I would think in the U.K. as well, since Ball died in 1941 and is public domain under U.K. copyright law as well). I think Barbara, at least, would prove irresistible to anyone who either has experience of, or fantasizes about, living in Oxford.

Finally, for those of you who do currently work or have in the past worked in bookshops, a passage that will likely ring bells in your memory. I haven't worked in one since 1992, but I distinctly remember meeting this woman then:

We sympathised with a forlorn woman in a most strange quandary: she had come to buy a book, but as she seemed unable to remember either the title or the name of the author, hers was but a bootless errand. She appeared to be most pathetically surprised that the very intelligent shopman was powerless to help her.

'You really don't think that you know the book I mean?' she said.

'Indeed, madam,' said he, 'I'm afraid I do not.'

'My sister-in-law said that it was such an interesting book,' said she. 'I thought that you would have been sure to have known all about it.'

Disappointed and disconsolate she wandered off into the rain.


Friday, April 29, 2022

'Unfortunately they're already here': ROSE ALLATINI (as EUNICE BUCKLEY), Family from Vienna (1941)

"I'm afraid she wasn't lucky to-night in selecting me as one of the ingredients for her mixture," Erich laughed; "but then I'm not much good at any of these functions—even the more exalted ones—held by hostesses eager to show hospitality to us unhappy refugees. Refugees," he repeated the word bitterly; "how I detest the label! I always feel like a performing seal made to do its tricks .... 'Now do tell us your experiences, dear Baron Weissbach .... Did you have to clean out latrines? Was your mother made to scrub the pavement with her sable cape?' … It seems quite an anticlimax when I have to say I didn't and she wasn't." His voice trailed off into silence.

I don't know how long I've been meaning to read Rose Allatini (most of whose novels appeared under the pseudonym Eunice Buckley, though one crucial one, Despised and Rejected [which I also still haven't read but which was reprinted by Persephone], was published under the pseudonym A. T. Fitzroy), but it's quite a long time. And my attention was particularly caught by her books about Jewish refugees from Hitler in the early years of World War II. Most of these are difficult or impossible to track down, but ILL came through with Family from Vienna, with its theme of refugee experiences that's painfully relevant again, and which I recently read in rapt fascination and enjoyment (though not without some slight qualms). 

On the one hand, it's such an utterly delightful and fascinating family story, focused on a well-to-do Jewish family, some of British nationality, others refugees from Austria following the Anschluss, forcibly reunited in London. They're a varied and vivid bunch, from loving but slightly dotty Annushka, a widow who lives in genteel but not unlimited wealth in London with her daughter Camilla (surely a stand-in for Allatini herself), having married a wealthy Spaniard; to her awful son Ernest, "a Jewish-born anti-Semite", who focuses all his attention on trying to be taken for a Gentile. There's also an easily-offended cousin, Minna (die meschuggene Minna), with whom Annushka has a jealous, competitive relationship which is a delight to read about, and Annushka's three newly-arrived, once-glamorous sisters, accustomed to Austrian high society but now determined to make the best of a flat in Bayswater. And there are some unexpected arrivals (or, in one case, a tragic failure to arrive) of other old friends and even old beaus.

It's largely played as a middlebrow social comedy, albeit with dark edges, and it's a sometimes uneasy but overall terribly entertaining and amusing tale, and its Jewish characters live and breathe very nearly as vividly and irresistibly as those in Isaac Bashevis Singer or Grace Paley. Although they're not all lovable, they are all entertaining, and one would dearly love to be an invited guest at their gatherings.

On the other hand, one hardly knows what to make of the novel in retrospect. Allatini, of course, writing around 1940 or early 1941, couldn't have known just how horrific things would become, though she certainly knew of concentration camps and that they were terrible places from which one might well not return. It's an eternal question just how much was known about the camps when, but they seem to be thought of here like Soviet gulags or prisoner of war camps, rather than as systematic tools of genocide. Regardless, the reality is that we can't really imagine how the novel would have been read on its release in 1941—history overtook it and permanently changed our ability to relate to such a tale.

For example, this post-Anschluss Jewish joke is quite funny from the point of view of how irritating one's family can be, but perhaps a little harder to giggle at in retrospect?:

"So now you are all three here," she commented wonderingly, "it seems really a marvel. . . . "

To her surprise this was greeted with a shout of laughter. "Forgive me, Nushka darling," Toni cried, "but that reminds me of such a lovely story that's going about. ... Two Jews meet on the bridge in Prague three days after the Anschluss. One says to the other: 'I say, have you still got any relatives left in Vienna?' The first answers: 'Unfortunately, no.' 'What do you mean—unfortunately?' 'Unfortunately they're already here.'

Although most of Annushka's relatives are well-to-do or at least well-connected enough to make their escape from Austria, some acknowledgement is made of those in more serious difficulty:

There was no denying that this whole refugee question demanded endless gymnastics and adjustments of one's point of view; a perpetual juggling with, and comparison of, relative values. The homeless Jewish cobbler stranded on some river bank in no-man's-land would account himself blessed if he might spend a night in these rather sordid little rooms in Bayswater; but members of the erstwhile prosperous and leisured classes, suddenly precipitated out of their habitual environment, might well feel that such rooms represented the final word in exile and social degradation.

But the rather upper class perspective of the novel, though important to acknowledge, didn't particularly detract from my enjoyment of it. Zany upper crust characters are a staple in many of my favorite novels after all. What might be more distressing for today's readers is an occasional sense of implicit apology, on the part of even the most likable characters, for the behavior of more uncouth Jewish relatives, and even for the race as a whole. An example from the wonderful Annushka:

When Annushka stopped to consider what refugee-relatives from the Continent were capable of being like, she realised how fortunate she was in the possession of these sisters who socially were so eminently presentable; spoke such fluent even if—she was constrained to admit—not always quite correct English; and above all, were titled. Which, she sagely concluded, was always a good thing for any foreigner to be in England.

This type of passage (and there are others) may have been Allatini's way of seeking compassion for the refugees that were becoming so common in England (and also poking a bit of fun at England's own elitism). And it's also true that Allatini is working to tease out all the varied attitudes, from Ernest who is utterly self-loathing in regard to his race, to Annushka who loves her family but sometimes wishes they behaved in less "foreign" ways, to a younger generation that includes both anti-Semitic Jews and young Isabel, passionately in love with a Jewish man, and Susan, who despite a Gentile upbringing finds herself irresistibly drawn toward her previously little-known, thoroughly Jewish relatives. And there's a rather hilarious scene in which various refugees attempt to correct each other's English, which reveals all sorts of things about the need to fit in and the insecurities that refugees (indeed all immigrants) must face.

It's a difficult tightrope that Allatini walks, but all things considered I think she handles it rather brilliantly. Not perfectly, but extraordinarily well, and she must have felt in some ways that writing this novel was important "war work" —surely no one reading about such a wild and wonderful family could have failed to be moved by their plight—however genteel that plight was compared to those less affluent and well-connected. 

I wasn't expecting to find a rather cheerful middlebrow family comedy lurking in a novel about Jewish refugees from Hitler, and it remains an open question how most readers today would react to it. But then Singer made comedy out of the lives of Holocaust survivors and Paley inspires giggles about the troubled lives of impoverished New Yorkers. At any rate, Family from Vienna strikes me as a delicious slice of life in a very specific time and situation, though one distinctly haunted by the events that soon followed its publication.

Friday, April 22, 2022

Starke raving mad: KATHLEEN MACKENZIE, The Starke Sisters (1963), Charlotte (1964), & Kelford Dig (1966)

At first he did not ask her to dance, but at last, in a temporary lull in her attendant males he said, blushing beetroot colour:
"I say, I'm a hopelessly bad dancer, but I suppose you wouldn't dance with me?"
"I don't dance very well myself," said Charlotte honestly. She might have added, "Except in the gavotte, the lancers, and the old-fashioned waltz", for in such dances she and her sisters had received instruction.

I came across a mention of Kathleen Mackenzie's trio of books about the Starke sisters a couple of years ago, and a review comparing some of the dialogue to Ivy Compton-Burnett forced me to buy a copy of the first book. But it will not surprise you to learn that I've only recently managed to actually read the book, and then supplement it with its two sequels. These are, purportedly, children's books, but I can't help feeling that many young readers would have been a bit bewildered by some of the humor.

The three novels focus on Charlotte Starke, who is 16 when the first novel begins, and her two younger sisters, smart, rational Selina and clumsy but cheerful Georgiana (nicknamed "Duch" after the Duchess of Devonshire, the only other Georgiana they had heard of). The three girls, orphaned at a very early age, have been raised by their great-grandparents, the imperious Lady Starke and her husband Sir Cuthbert, and Lady Starke's particular quirk is that she believes that time and culture stopped (or at least
should have stopped) prior to World War I, in her delightful Edwardian girlhood. She therefore insists upon the girls wearing clothing from that time, being smotheringly overprotected until they have been "brought out", having their dinner in the nursery each night. Naturally Lady Starke doesn't believe in modern education for girls either, so although they have had governesses here and there, they are appallingly ignorant of the world, though no less spirited and determined for that.

In all three books, the girls' adventures are really quite mundane—merely doing the sorts of things girls their age would want to do, even as simple as going to a dance or the cinema, obtaining a dress in a modern style, going to town unaccompanied by a chaperone, or getting a ride from a boy—but the joke is in their often extravagant efforts to avoid detection by their stern, joyless grandmother, or to manipulate her into allowing them what they want.

The jokes are also, sometimes hilariously (if perhaps implausibly), in the girls' complete ignorance of how normal children behave in the real world, so that when Caroline exasperatedly promises to kill Lady Starke if not given permission to go on a London excursion, Georgiana can quite calmly begin weighing the pros and cons of committing the murder (she ultimately decides it wouldn't pay off). It's in these exchanges that one can see the Ivy Compton-Burnett comparison, and if it's not the first comparison that would have leapt to my mind, let's say it's not out of the question that Mackenzie would have read ICB and identified with her themes.

In the second book, the girls manage to see their first movie, a Western, aided by Lady Starke's elderly maid who sometimes takes pity on them, and their reactions are displeasing to the other filmgoers:

"I can't think why they always gallop off in one direction, pull up and then tear off in another," she said. "That's what must tire those horses, because they make them gallop much further than they need. It looks as if they didn't know where they were going, but as they live there you'd think they must."

"I think she's loopy," exclaimed Georgiana. "There are all those trees and rocks she could ride through, and there she is dashing about in the open, and stopping every few minutes. I wish we could tell her to get on with it. She'll be caught for a cert. There she is stopping again. Go on, you idiot."

"If I couldn't shoot better than that," said Georgiana disgustedly and flatly, "I'd go and have lessons. Not that I'm not jolly glad they didn't get her, but it was piffling shooting."

And in Kelford Dig, there's an incisive discussion of small talk that, I must admit, echoes some thoughts I've had myself:

"I wonder why one always wishes people good morning and good evening," said Georgiana, as they came away. "It's rather stupid, really. I don't wish Grandmamma a good morning at all. It would be much more sensible to say bad morning, or dull morning, when you would be quite pleased if they did have that."

"I think it would be rather a bore. You would have to stop to think every time what you did wish people. And after all, if we wished Grandmamma a bad morning and she had it, every single other person in the house would probably have a bad one too."

The three books take place over the course of a few months, and their beginnings and endings seem rather random, one merely taking up where the previous has left off, though Charlotte does have a rather marvelous climax that unites (however temporarily) the girls and their formidable grandmother against a common enemy in circumstances that force the girls to admit a grudging respect for Lady Starke's complete unflappability.

I don't think these books are any kind of lost masterpieces, and by the third book, when Mackenzie relies on a young house guest from the U.S. and some minor intrigues around an archaeological dig on the Starke property to keep things moving, the joke does start to wear rather thin. There's a bit of "neither fish nor fowl" about them too, as they are perhaps too sophisticated for young readers and too focused on mundane adventures for most adult readers. But nevertheless I found them entertaining to pick up and put down in between other books, or for bedtime reading, and there are some very amusing bits here and there. I would recommend picking up any of the books if you happen across them, though not necessarily an all-out pursuit of them (galloping from bookstore to bookstore and tiring your horses, I mean).

But I'll leave you with Selina's reactions to Coral, their sophisticated, boy-crazy American visitor, and her concerns with popularity, which might almost be out of my own mouth:

"Everyone wants to be dated up as much as they can be, of course."

"Do they? Why?"

"Oh, don't be crazy. It shows you're a success. That you're popular, of course."

"Well, we never have been popular—except perhaps Charlotte a bit—so we don't know how nice it would be. But if it meant going out with people you don't like much I should have thought it would be better not to be."

"Do you mean you would rather be treated as a grand visitor even if it did mean being bored to death?" asked Selina. "If you do it is you that must be mad, I think. I don't mind what people think of me so long as I can go on doing the things I want to do."

Amen, Selena.

One might also think she was talking about Twitter… :-)

Wednesday, April 13, 2022

SURPRISE!! (maybe?): Twelve more Furrowed Middlebrow titles from Dean Street Press, coming August 2022

A couple of weeks ago, when I absolutely played it cool and made the very restrained, understated announcement that we'd be releasing (no big deal) a previously unpublished, long-thought-lost novel from ELIZABETH FAIR in our summer batch (see here if you missed my laid-back reveal or want to relive its mellow subtleties), I mentioned that although it was taking a bit longer than usual to finalize our other summer titles, that additional announcement would be coming soon.

Well, "soon" has arrived.

And I'm certain that the announcement of these 12 new additions to our list will come as an enormous surprise to you all. It's not like I've mentioned them here and on Twitter a million times lately or anything.

Ready? Brace yourself.

That's right. Come August, we're releasing new FM editions of
NOEL STREATFEILD's 12 delightful "romances" under the pseudonym SUSAN SCARLETT, originally published 1939-1951 and subsequently out of print for decades until the brilliant Shirley Neilson at Greyladies Books rediscovered them in the early 2010s (yet another thank you I owe to Shirley for her astonishing knowledge and prescience in unearthing treasures). As many of you have pointed out in the past couple of months when I've written about the novels' charms, even those reprints, now out of print as well, have become challenging (and costly) to track down. But in August they'll finally be available again at the click of a mouse—and (lucky you) for rather less than I had to spend to get hold of them myself!

As I mentioned in my intro to the books a few months ago, Streatfeild seems to have felt considerable embarrassment over these "romances", as opposed to her sixteen other "literary" novels for adults (currently available in e-book from Bello Books). But she certainly needn't have. In these books, she promptly mastered yet another genre, the cheerful romance, and proved herself adept and irresistibly entertaining at it. The books overflow with charm and cheer, and feature marvelous detail about everything from department store detectives and holiday camp theatricals to the film industry, a wartime munitions factory, and (of course) the ballet. All accompanied by rich supporting characters, entirely believable and amusing families, and page-turning romance. Not to mention the fashion!

You may not gasp with surprise at how these novels' plots unfold, and you won't be likely to mistake them for Dostoevsky, but I can think of no better brain candy to give you a break from the bleak world news. Which, I might add, is what led me back to them a few months ago. Although all my posting and tweeting about them the past couple of months might make it seem as though I was already premeditating reprints of these, I actually had no such idea at all initially. I needed escape, remembered how much fun I'd had with a few of these when Shirley first released them, and my motive was purely medicinal. It was only after reading several and seeing how they had managed to brighten even the darkest days, that I thought perhaps some shiny new Furrowed Middlebrow editions of them might be in order. Rupert at Dean Street Press got on the trail of the rights, and voila!

However guiltily and inadvertently, Streatfeild here raised shameless, delicious escapism to the level of an art form. And come August they'll be just what the doctor ordered for your much-needed holiday from reality.

Friday, April 8, 2022

A "fine" romance: JANE SETH-SMITH, Suite in Four Flats (1957)

But Tansy, although she had of course noticed the young man scowling on the seat and then, surprisingly, smiling into her eyes as she went by, knew that one did not look back. At least, one ought not, though she could not help wishing that some fortuitous circumstance—such as being suddenly attacked by a savage dog, for instance—could have cropped up, so that she might have been able to thank the young man for saving her.

In one comfortable London house reside three generations of the Ardant family. Middle-aged Patrick has sworn off of women since the tragic loss of his wife late in the Blitz, so his mother, Lady Ardant, manages the house and benevolently watches over its inhabitants. These include Patrick's two grown sons (whom we rarely see), two daughters, Robin and Tansy, both lovely and charming in their own ways (though Robin is distinctly a dolt when it comes to romance), Great-Uncle Arthur, ex-miltary and a bit unhinged, whose favorite hobby is accompanying his friend to communist party meetings and heckling the speakers, very often triggering brawls, and Dordie, Patrick's widowed sister, clinging to her fading looks and prone to be a bit bewildered.

The entertaining, sometimes funny plot of the novel is set in motion by Lady Ardant's decision to hire a companion. Mary Drury, a widow with limited means, is hired for the post—coincidentally at almost the very same moment that Tansy meets a charming young man in Regent's Park (in a little known garden near the Institute of Archaeology, in case that rings any bells with anyone, or if you wish to seek it out), who turns out to be Mary's son, Tim. If this perhaps strains credibility just a bit, well, we do know that London is a charmed place, right?

In parallel with the complications this meeting causes, there's the complicated relations between Charles Legge, a charming gadabout who's always falling in love, and lovely Robin, who is simultaneously being courted by a doctor at the hospital in which she works—who just happens to be an ex-schoolmate of Charles. Well, someone would inevitably have been his schoolmate! Why not Charles?

Naturally, too, Mary is a sensitive and efficient woman, perfect for advising the girls on the twists and turns of their romances, and indeed for making others think of romance too… And Charles manages to rescue Great-Uncle Arthur from a brawl, though apparently no one can rescue Dordie from her fixation on a shady Eastern European princess with whom she hopes to travel round the world.

I only came across Seth-Smith recently in researching new authors to (finally) add to my main list. I came across a short blurb about Suite in Four Flats and I was so disposed in its favor that I didn't post the (perfectly charming) cover on Twitter when I received it for fear that the handful of copies of her other three novels (the temptingly-titled Three Suitors for Cassandra, Love Thy Neighbours, and The Laird and the Loch) would sell out before I had the chance to compulsively acquire them. And I did enjoy it—a charming family situation, likable and/or absurd characters, some humorous dialogue, plausibly silly misunderstanding and complications. What's not to like? But have I leapt onto Abe Books, eyes beady and greedy, to acquire Seth-Smith's other three novels, no expense spared? 

I have not. 

I certainly recommend picking up any of her books that you happen across at reasonable prices. She's a solidly "good" writer, and this is a perfectly fine, entertaining, nice novel. But as I read the final pages of this one, I had to admit it was missing that certain "je ne sais quoi"—charming, slightly rowdy local color in the case of Molly Clavering, masterful storytelling in D. E. Stevenson, intricate plotting in Doris Langley Moore, a delicious daftness in Margery Sharp, profound understanding of character in Stella Gibbons. Suite in Four Flats has much of the same framework that those authors utilized so brilliantly, but without that something extra, that flare that comes from the author's own personality and engagement with her story, it's really only all those slightly condescending adjectives that male critics used to use way too lavishly about most women writers—pleasant, nice, charming, likable, etc. 

One random detail did strike me and I have to mention it in closing. It's a description of the hospital where Robin works:

St. Ann's Hospital is, as everyone knows, right in the middle of London, with miles of corridors and swing-doors down which and through which trolleys, stretchers and wheel-chairs are forever being pushed. It has a large main hall and subsidiary halls, a flower-and-fruit stall, a bookstall and a number of balconies upon which T.B. patients lie out in their beds, inhaling the soot and dust-laden air of Central London and not always making the progress their relatives might wish .....

I've encountered tuberculosis patients in fiction ailing on Swiss balconies, swathed in blankets with a stack of good books beside them (which always sounds rather ideal to me, though I prefer not to have to have TB in order to indulge). But I somehow hadn't realized that of course patients who didn't have the resources to retreat indefinitely to the Alps would have had to make the best of a balcony in smoggy London. I mean, a balcony in London now sounds like heaven, but in the 1950s perhaps not so much?
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