Sunday, September 18, 2022

Apologies, condolences, and OMG!

Although you wouldn't know it from the state of this blog, I have actually been quite busy lately, but that's no excuse for having simply vanished. I've been half-expecting to see my face on a milk carton. So, apologies for having, as the kids say, ghosted you! More about what's been keeping me so busy below.

Of course, there have been some changes in the world since I last posted. Condolences to those who feel a little bereft at the loss of Queen Elizabeth II. For an impassioned Anglophile, I've always been a bit oblivious to the doings of the royals (by contrast, I have co-workers who, not notably Anglophilic, are obsessed with the royals), but I have to admit that she was an inspiring figure and a rather needed point of stability in an increasingly crazy world. It's hard to imagine the UK without her, and it will be startling indeed to see Charles' face on currency and coins in the near future. (I was naive enough—or, if you like, had sufficient faith in British efficiency—to think that the new currency and coins would have been prepared in advance and would roll out immediately from a vault somewhere deep beneath a Scottish loch. I confess to being a bit disappointed that this bit of drama and stagecraft hasn't come about.)

This is all not to mention that, in a way specific to my own interests, Queen Elizabeth was just about the last surviving link with the world of many of "my" authors. I couldn't begin to count all the references to her in the novels I love: the Princesses in London during the war, Elizabeth's time in the ATS, her coronation—all garner mentions from various perspectives, not to mention that several instances in which debutantes were presented at court would have featured her as the presentee (at least for a few years, until she did away with the process altogether). 

In short, rest in peace Elizabeth II, and best of luck to Charles III, who has an impossible act to follow.

I should also confess that, although I wish Queen Elizabeth could have lived forever, I am simultaneously relieved that she didn't wait three or four more weeks to enter the Pearly Gates. Andy and I have rather spontaneously planned a trip to the UK in October (hence the OMG), and it would have been a bummer indeed to arrive at Heathrow to discover that much of the country was shut down for two weeks. Of course, observances must be made and they're being beautifully done, but it would not have been ideal from a tourist standpoint.

As you might imagine, the trip has been occupying much of my time of late. We're always ambitious in our vacation planning, and if I gave you the list of places we're planning to go I know I'd get a chorus of "Oh, that's ridiculous!" and "You'll never get to all those places!". But we'll be happily trotting along, seeing as much as we can, and enjoying "the English air" (hopefully not too much of the English rain…). On our last trip, we had a car for three days and survived—Andy in the driver's seat, NOT me!—with only a little bit of shrieking here and there on narrow country roads. So this time I asked if he'd be up for a bit more. Just a bit—like maybe, three times as much? Poor Andy. But he's a trooper, and it will be such fun, and opens up our possibilities considerably. Wish us luck!

I'm considering doing some tweeting of the trip, though I also may get distracted and forget some of the time. So if you are on Twitter and haven't already connected with me there, you may be able to get some laughs from the two geeky Yanks abroad @FurrowedMiddle. 

One very important stop (perhaps two) on this trip will be the British Library, at which I hope to so some actual research and glimpse some books I have only ever dreamed about reading. It's just possible that I'll end up doing a morning's research at the Bodleian as well (assuming they don't laugh me out of the building), so I will be quite pompous and unbearable in my Serious International Researcher mode by the time I return. I still can't quite believe that it will all work out, but wish me luck there too…

Finally, in addition to travel planning, I have been hard at work on a very special FM/Dean Street Press project, which I hope you'll be hearing about soon. My day job (you know, the one that pays the bills?) has also presented some challenges lately, but everything is fine, just busy. However, I haven't been able to focus much on writing reviews of late.

Thus, apart from an announcement at some point of our next FM releases (likely coming in March 2023 this time instead of January, due to various logistics), for which I will need no encouragement to come out of hiding, I'm going to make my unintended hiatus into a more or less official one, at least until early November. (Am I the only one who thinks it's mad that we're approaching winter again? It really does sometimes seem, as Edwina once said on Absolutely Fabulous, that I hit an oil patch at 40 and am now just skidding toward the grave.)

In the meantime, take care of yourselves, perform copious self-care as needed (possibly with an FM/DSP reprint or two), and I'll see you back here in a bit.

Saturday, August 27, 2022

"You'll be the talk of the town": ANITA CAMPBELL, Shades of Lil! (1957)

People had been dragged out of retirement all over the place because of the event. Lily inherited worn-out patience, a worn-out nursery, a worn-out nanny, and a worn-out governess yanked back from Worthing. She had retaliated against the general resentment with stubborn hatred of all the family stood for. The stuffiness, the arrogance, the pride.

As the story opens, the incorrigible Lily de Veaux-Cracey, youngest daughter of an age-old aristocratic family, has just been dubbed "the Dizzy Deb" by the media. Just back from a year on an American ranch, where she caught deadly snakes, roped cattle, and enjoyed wide-open spaces, she had made an unfortunate demonstration of her cattle-roping technique at a formal gathering, which results in the inadvertent hoisting of a Russian ambassador and a resulting international scandal. The family forbids her to draw any further attention to herself, and Lily responds by leaving high society altogether, moving to London, incognito, to go to work like other young women.

She is perhaps in part inspired by the shade of Drury Lane Lil, another black sheep in the family—rival of Nell Gwyn for King Charles' affections, now a cheerful ghost wandering the house and occasionally making mischief. Once a year she re-enacts her fatal leap from from the battlements (perhaps due to having lost His Majesty's affections, or perhaps merely because in a careless moment she believed herself a butterfly), and she occasionally comes along to provide comfort and inspiration to Lily, who is truly a chip off the old block:

She crouched in the Round Room, desperately seeking a way of escape. Escape of course, from the family. There was no indignity such as locked doors inflicted upon her. She sat now, her head on her arms on the table by the narrow window. Lil seeped through the door, fluttered invisibly to her side and sat on the high window sill.

"La, sweetling," a ghostly voice trilled, "you're inconsolable! Fie, for shame! Where's your spirit, Lily? A year or two from now and you'll be the talk of the town."

Once in London, Lily tries her hand as a secretary, after (perhaps possessed by Lil) performing spectacularly on a typing test, a feat sadly not to be repeated. She has to exert considerable effort dodging her monstrous, posh sister Phoebe, as well as Jeremy, a solicitor (or do I mean barrister?) at the Inns of Court, intended by the family as a perfect spouse for Lily, though the Dizzy Deb herself finds him stuffy and drab (however often he seems to come to her rescue).

Among her other adventures, Lily makes a bumpy attempt at romance with a Bolshevik at her boarding house, which leads to a hospital stay after she joins him in his attempt to break up a meeting of fascists. The hospital stay in turn leads to further complications (not to mention headaches for hospital staff), including a criminal prosecution against the Cockney husband of a salt-of-the-earth fellow inmate, who helps her escape but gets caught outside her building in what looks very much like a burglary. 

It's all pretty far-fetched, and not the very best of this kind of farce, but it was quite entertaining and occasionally giggle-inducing, and plausible or not Lily is an entertaining heroine. Despite the title, Drury Lane Lil doesn't appear very frequently—it's just an extra touch of comedy that was perhaps exaggerated a bit by the publisher to give the book a fresh angle—but it might be just as well. It's hard to believe that Lily grew up in the de Veaux-Cracey clan, or that, having done so, she would be so violently opposed to them, but if you can just accept her, implausible as she is, she's great fun to hang around with for a time.

Also, having spent a number of years now as a secretary myself, I rather relate to the tortures Lily faces in her new job:

There is something peculiarly destroying, to those not temperamentally suited to it, in the esotericism of office work, particularly at its first, mysterious introduction. Its deadly demands on those unfit for it can produce chaos, heartbreak and sheer farce. Lily produced all three. Her ignorance of commerce was abysmal. Her training nil. With each successive disaster her terror mounted, her courage ebbed, and the exacerbation of her nerves increased.

Her adventures with carbon paper and stencils goes even beyond the horrors that I've ever encountered—technology has, while apparently bringing about a likely armageddon, at least rid us of such minor inconveniences…

Shades of Lil! was the fourth and final novel by Australian author Anita Campbell (thus not on my list of British and Irish women writers). Her first three books, Apostrophe to David (1944), Whither Thou Goest (1945), and Dawn Is a Signal (1946), all seem to have been published only in Australia, and were described by Campbell herself as "angry young woman stuff". Only Lil, more than a decade later, appeared from Peter Davies in the UK, though an article about her in the Sydney Morning Herald suggests she had completed another novel since and was working on yet another. The article also mentions that she had been an actress in Sydney, and she added "In fact I always consider myself a better actress than a writer."

Friday, August 5, 2022

"People whom one knows will not say 'serviette'": KITTY VINCENT, Lipstick (1925)

I do not mean that being a duchess bestows beauty upon a plain person, but up to now at any rate our dukes have married suitable women, people whom one knows will not say 'serviette.' Personally the strain of expecting to hear the words 'serviette,' 'week-end' and so forth completely destroys for me the possibility of appreciating any beauty that the speaker may possess.

I've meant to check out the humorous 1920s work of Lady Kitty Vincent for some time, but of course time is short and the TBR is long. She was later known for her spy thrillers involving British Intelligence, but among Vincent's earliest works are Lipstick (1925), Sugar and Spice (1926), and Gin and Ginger (1927), which poke fun at the upper crust of which she was herself very much a part.

is composed of a series of monologues by the posh and conservative middle-aged Lady Carstairs (conversations really, but we only get her responses to an unknown interlocutor), weighing in on issues of the time and telling anecdotes about the trials and travails of high society life. In one interlude in Scotland ("Carstairs and I were staying with the Whiskies at Castle Whiskie, by Whiskie, near Whiskie. You know, really, those Scotch addresses are absurd."), she becomes stranded overnight on an island due to a sudden storm, accompanied by a handsome young man of Native American origins, and frets about the scandal it will surely cause, only to be greeted unflatteringly the next morning:

"'My dear, you must be hungry,' my hostess said, 'and so cold and tired. This is always happening to our guests … "

"Of course Lady Margaret is a very tactful woman, and I was most gratified to her for the way in which she handled the situation. Carstairs looked at me and burst out laughing: 'You look a bit of a wreck—what! You're too old for these escapades, my dear…'"

There are the inevitable servant problems, and the infidelities of Carstairs, not to mention her own near seduction in Switzerland as a result of mistaking room 155 for 135, and one hardly knows what to make of the final chapter in which Lady Carstairs utters the immortal line, ""My dear, you have never tried to get out of your stays under the seat in a railway carriage."

Not every chapter is equally successful. I did a bit of eye-rolling as well as a bit of giggling, but the most effective might be her tale of a lavish dinner party at which her butler Henry turns out to have been the Staff-Captain of her guest General Monckton, who promptly invites Henry to sit down and start mapping out wartime maneuvers using the table settings:

"'No, sir,' Henry's voice seemed quite different, 'the 6th Brigade were out of the line.'

'God bless my soul, you're right,' and believe it or not, as you like, my dear, but Monckton became so excited that he knocked the port decanter off the table. The parlour-maids looked simply flabbergasted, and at that moment the door opened, and the Dean of Ditcham was announced, with his daughter. I didn't know what to do; Henry and General Monckton were sprawling across the table, throwing the spoons and the rolls about: Carstairs was standing first on one leg and then on the other, and I became so nervous that I introduced the Dean as 'Captain' Ditcham to 'Dean' Monckton.

When the Dean's daughter saw Henry, she went quite scarlet. 'God bless my soul,' Monckton shouted, 'aren't you the young lady who served in the canteen at Etaples? Ha! ha! Martin, you haven't forgotten that canteen, have you?'

"I tried to carry off the situation lightly."

That one is pretty priceless, I admit (and happily Henry is able to move on to greener pastures). But I should reiterate that not all of Lady Carstairs' tales are equally entertaining. Plus, the book is slight in more ways than one—with really charming illustrations by popular Vanity Fair illustrator "Fish"—Anne Harriet Fish when she was at home (see here for info about her)—Lipstick still only weighs in at 80 pages. So you might hesitate before going in frantic search of it…

That said, I wouldn't be the obsessive reader I am if I didn't already have an ILL copy of Sugar and Spice in my hot little hands, so we shall see how that one compares!

Saturday, July 30, 2022

PUBLICATION DAY APPROACHETH!: Elizabeth Fair and Susan Scarlett (Noel Streatfeild) titles almost here!

By the time new titles are actually released, we've been working on them for months and I at least am already deeply enmeshed in our next batch (just wait until you hear about January!!!), but even so, the anticipation and excitement build. I'm always so eager for you all to be able to get your hands on the books and start enjoying them (hopefully) as much as I have.

Our thirteen titles being released August 1including a "new" previously unpublished novel by one of our most popular authors, Elizabeth Fair, and 12 charming, funny, setting-rich romances from "Susan Scarlett", better known as one of the most famous children's authors of all time, Noel Streatfeild—together comprise perhaps our most buzzed-about batch ever, which only adds to my enthusiasm.

You've already seen the front covers of these new titles, but here, to further tempt and tantalize you, are the full paperback covers. Hope you like them, and hope you love the books themselves!

Friday, July 22, 2022

The Seventh Commandment: ANN STAFFORD & JANE OLIVER, Reluctant Adonis (1938)

Gerard said: "I shall never be able to hold up my head in Baronbury again."

Julia went on turning her patience cards over in neat groups of three. But she cheated just enough to bring the king where she wanted it, and slapped it complacently on top of the queen. "Then go and hold it up somewhere else," she said.

Gerard Munro is, first and foremost, a gentleman, and (at least at the opening of Reluctant Adonis) a rather stuffy one at that. He's not having nearly as much fun as his friend Julia Taunton, taking the high road by spending the night in a hotel room so his philandering wife Daphne will be able to divorce him without getting her well-manicured fingers dirty. Julia sees it all as a lark—"I came here to break the seventh commandment as a purely friendly gesture, I admit, but I wish you could see your way to being a little less disheartening about my company"—but Gerard is comically upset and offended by it all. 

Think Katherine Hepburn or Irene Dunne as the wry, cheerfully maneuvering Julia, and surely Cary Grant was made for the role of the easily flustered, stuffy-but-with-potential-to-loosen-up Gerard. It might not have been quite on a par with masterpieces like Bringing Up Baby or The Awful Truth, but surely Reluctant Adonis the film would have been a couple of hours enjoyably spent—as indeed was the novel. Perhaps Ann Stafford and Jane Oliver were even hoping to make their fortunes in Hollywood, as they are certainly rather in screwball comedy vein here, if perhaps not quite so irresistibly as in Business as Usual and its sequel Cook Wanted, which I discussed here.

One of my happiest achievements while reading Reluctant Adonis was to finally actually look up and come to to understand (I think) just what the heck a "decree nisi" actually was. After Gerard and Julia spend their awkward and (on Gerard's part) grumpy night together, we skip ahead to Daphne getting hers, but then there are all sorts of complications and potential complications. I think I'd always assumed that a decree nisi was basically the finalization of a divorce, but no! I was underestimating the extent to which silly bureaucracy has seen fit to attempt to regulate the emotions. In fact, a decree nisi merely defines a period of time (often six months) after which, if no offensive behavior has occurred, a divorce will become final. Ironically (and idiotically), this means even offensive behavior on Daphne's part, though she was (officially) the unoffending party. Fortunately, I've never needed personal knowledge of such things (though Andy might wryly note that there's still time).

The logistics of a 1930s divorce might be unbelievable to today's readers, but it's nothing compared to the implausibility of Gerard receiving, on the day Daphne gets said decree nisi, a letter from his uncle's solicitors informing him that he's inherited his uncle's fairly impressive fortune and house in the country. As Gerard finds himself, a soon as word of his divorce spreads, absolutely under siege from single women frantically setting their caps at him, he seizes the opportunity to retreat to his new country estate, complete with an impeccably proper, woman-loathing butler. Once there, however, his blissful peace is shockingly disturbed by the realization that his uncle, a fan of airplanes, had leased neighboring land to a Flying Club, with the result that planes are regularly roaring overhead. Gerard soon comes into conflict with the band of eccentrics who use the club, which includes—who would believe it?—Julia herself, an efficient and enthusiastic pilot. Determined not to be outdone by the annoyingly competent Julia, Gerard himself takes up flying, and the rest is, if not surprising, at least solidly entertaining.

Ann Stafford and Jane Oliver were themselves both licensed pilots, so part of the fun of this novel is its entirely believable descriptions of the experience of learning to fly, and the exhilaration of actually doing it. The humor of the story is a bit exaggerated and strained at times, but I have a high tolerance for silliness, so I enjoyed it, and there are some genuine chuckles, particularly in regard to some of the oddballs at the Flying Club and the death match that develops between Gerard's misogynistic butler, Burtenshaw, and his housekeeper Mrs Rossiter, whom Gerard brings down from London with him:

"Thank you, Burtenshaw, thank you."

"Thank you, sir," said Burtenshaw, as he watched his master stride away, rather more slowly now that his greatcoat was flapping about his legs, towards the Flying Club. Then he squared his shoulders and went back to prepare Gerard's lunch behind locked doors, while Mrs. Rossiter clucked over the dust in her employer's bedroom, and took down all the pictures and moved out all the furniture, so that she could be sufficiently overcome by fatigue to make Burtenshaw spend the afternoon moving it back again.

Reluctant Adonis was the fourth and final novel published jointly under Stafford and Oliver's real names, following Business as Usual, Cook Wanted, and Cuckoo in June. These four works, the first two published by Collins, the latter two by Chatto & Windus, seem to be unique among the authors' oeuvres—light, charming, romantic frolics. Sadly, Adonis, alone among the four, is not illustrated by Stafford's charming line drawings. The two authors went on to publish numerous novels separately as well as a number of romances written together but published under the name Joan Blair. I've managed, of course, to read the books completely out of order, but this means that I still have the third, Cuckoo in June, sitting expectantly and very prettily on my TBR shelves. I anticipate that it will, like Adonis, be a delightful way of passing a few hours, even if it's not necessarily a masterpiece of the genre!

Friday, July 15, 2022

Recommended dosage: JOYCE DENNYS, Mrs Dose, the Doctor's Wife (1930), Repeated Doses (1931), and The Over-Dose (1933)

A Doctor's Wife must wear a False Nose to disguise herself, and thus persuade her husband's patients, and even more, the people who are not her husband's patients, but who might be, that she is like Caesar's Wife, above suspicion.
She must, if possible, however dark her thoughts and evil her intentions, persuade people that she is a model of wifely devotion, motherly love and womanly yearnings.

One can't help but wonder exactly what dark thoughts and evil intentions Joyce Dennys—herself a doctor's wife—must have concealed beneath her own False Nose. But I for one won't judge her because her three volumes of sketches about the triumphs and tragedies of doctors' wives surely outweigh her misdeeds, however horrific.

Full disclosure:
Back in 2018, I reviewed the first volume of these sketches and was a bit condescending about it. But recently, with the world burning down around us, and because I adore Dennys' other work so much, I decided I would check out the second and third volumes and see how they compared, and promptly became infatuated with them. I then went back to re-read volume 1, and loved that one too. One would have thought the world would have felt pretty doomed in 2018 too, but somehow in 2022 my perspective on Dennys' playfully silly humor—and its undoubted source in her own life experience—made it just what the doctor (or, more aptly, the doctor's wife) ordered. I even noticed, looking back at my original review, that I particularly pointed out as unfunny a passage about doctors' training including a long course on dealing with the fallout from killing their patients, which, on my recent re-read, I marked down as particularly giggle-inducing! What a difference four years (and a bad memory) makes…

The books are undoubtedly rather slight—130 to 150 pages each of short sketches, most under 10 pages of fairly large print, dealing with an array of doctors' wives and the absurd problems they face through wearing, misplacing, losing, or even refusing (gasp!) to wear the False Noses so essential to their husbands' success. There's Dr. Tonsil's wife, who takes him from provincial poverty to the prestige of Harley Street by providing invaluable advice as to his medical strategy:

So after that, whenever he was in Doubt, and sometimes even when he wasn't, Joshua took out people's Tonsils. Anyhow, it didn't do them any harm, and sometimes it even did them good. And the patients really seemed rather to like it.

There's Mrs. Plexus, who, while her doctor is neglecting his patients because he's distracted by another woman, takes a postal course on medicine and surgery in order to treat his patients herself and save his practice. There's the impoverished Dr. Valvular from Plymouth, who benefits from an Indian Rajah's confusion of him with his wealthy uncle Sir John Valvular. There's the dramatic tale of the Great False Nose Rebellion. Not to mention the tale of Percy Mugwell, whose "trouble was that he had been born with a lot of money and hardly any brains, and that he started every morning with a double brandy instead of early morning tea, and continued throughout the day in a crescendo, and was finally carried upstairs by the butler and the valet at bedtime":

He hadn't even got neurasthenia, unless you can call seeing pink rats in beach pyjamas neurasthenia. Some people do of course.

How I'd love it if this were my copy!

Following an auto accident, Mugwell finds himself at a health farm known as Vitamin Towers with rather unique strategies for promoting "Nature's Way".

And if the story of Vernon Glucose, the husband of Dr. Kathleen Glucose, who places his ambitions of being a composer ahead of his False Nose, grates just a bit from its portrayal of him as effeminate because he's good at the domestic side of things (and his wife, of course, is masculine and dominating), I nevertheless found it inducing a giggle or two—and at least it does acknowledge that women can be doctors as well!

The vignettes are often so ridiculous as to almost partake of the avant-garde interest in absurdity as a high-falutin' intellectual concept. But this time I saved them for bedside reading, for which they really are perfect, each chapter requiring 10 minutes or less, so I could really fine-tune when I was just tired enough to need to stop. But
of course, as much as anything, the appeal of these books is Dennys' delightful illustrations. It's high time she is acknowledged as one of the great humorous illustrators of all time.

And helping to make that happen was the publication, last year, of a catalogue of her work, compiled by Sarah Bussy,
which provides details of Dennys' life and also reproduces some of her really delightful paintings, which aren't as readily available online as her book illustrations. I ordered it a while back and have loved perusing it and learning more about a favorite author. I was all ready to link to the website of the Fairlynch Museum in Budleigh Salterton, and recommend that those interested in her work snatch up a copy right away, but alas, it no longer seems to be listed there. I hope they'll print more copies, as it's really delightful.

And of course, if you haven't read Dennys' humorous fictional correspondence about England in wartime, Henrietta's War and Henrietta Sees It Through, then you should run, not walk, to get hold of them. These letters originally appeared in The Sketch while the war was being waged, and are irresistible, often hilarious looks at the lighter side of the Home Front. In fact, I've just been launching a much-needed comfort re-read of them and have discovered that the two volumes (compiled in the 1980s by publisher Andre Deutsch) are not, in fact, the complete original articles but a "selection". Of course, you know me, so I've already downloaded most of the original articles from the British Newspaper Archive. Seems like quite a lot of material was not included in the books, which is sad but also, woohoo! I get to read "new" Henrietta episodes! More to come on that soon, I imagine...

Wednesday, July 13, 2022

We interrupt this program... (and a Facebook page!)

Well, really, we don't so much interrupt the program as explain why the program has been interrupted for the past week or two.

COVID, of course. It finally made its pernicious way into our apartment, and for the past couple of (very, VERY long) weeks Andy and I have been isolating. Together. In a one bedroom apartment. The COVID was not so bad (like the flu for a couple of days, then a lingering annoying cold for a week or so), but the cabin fever! Good heavens, indeed.

But we are finally cleared to return to the outside world now, with only very slight lingering congestion, and lingering laziness from not having exercised in two weeks (not that I'm EVER lazy as a rule...). It also happens to be my birthday today ... so you can little imagine the wild revelry taking place in celebration.

This is, however, why I fell more silent than usual here, and largely silent on Twitter as well, and why I might owe some of you emails (although let's be real, I am so slow with emails at the best of times, you may not have noticed). 

Back to regularly scheduled programming soon!

But in the meantime...

If you need more bookish content re both Furrowed Middlebrow reprints and Golden Age mysteries, Dean Street Press has set up a Facebook group here, to aid and abet your book socializing. I'm still getting a feel for it myself, but the group already has an impressive 372 members (!!), so there are definitely going to be some enjoyable and informative discussions. Do join if you do Facebook! (Right now, you'll discover my current obsessive research involving Joyce Dennys... You will very likely learn about it here eventually too, but why wait?)

And while we're at it, a reminder that we're on Twitter too, @FurrowedMiddle and @DeanStPress.

Sunday, July 3, 2022

"When I was young, and had no sense": SYBIL RYALL (later BOLITHO), A Fiddle for Eighteen Pence (1927)

Oh for a copy with this original jacket!

The figures in the mirror hardly matched, and I could only hope that we complemented each other; Mattie so straight-featured and wistful, and I, large-eyed and long-legged, without enough repose. Well, there would be plenty of time for repose later on. All my life after the trip, and then more of it when I lay mouldering in the grave. 

There seems to be something in the air right now that's helping me come across charming travel novels. I recently reviewed Barbara Goes to Oxford, by Barbara Burke (Oona H. Ball), and had a lovely time with it (see here). A Fiddle for Eighteen Pence is along similar lines, though rather more eventful, dealing with two young women on a road trip through France, with sightseeing, periodic car trouble, run-ins with local residents, and occasional tension between the women, who understandably get on each other's nerves now and again. 

Nina Linton, 27, a clerk/secretary in London firm that imports fancy foods for the well-to-do, has always planned to get away and travel after 5 years of work in the City. On the day of her 5-year anniversary with the firm, despite being still a bit shorter of funds than she'd hopes, she makes a fatal error (ordering 1,000 cases of truffles from a supplier in Périgueux in southern France instead of 10), and this is the impetus needed to take her plunge. Rather absurdly, she vows to set out for Périgueux in order to personally explain the situation to the supplier and save her firm's reputation. (Word of warning: The next time I have the slightest misunderstanding with a reader in the U.K., I'm planning to use the same logic and show up at their door—particularly if they live in one of the more scenic areas.)

Conveniently, Nina has a well-to-do friend, Mattie Bird, a bit older and perhaps more conservative than she, who has time on her hands and is game for the journey. They head for Paris, and there Nina buys a car and takes lessons to learn to drive. Disappointingly for auto enthusiasts (of which I am not one—if it has four wheels and goes, I'm happy), she never specifies the make and model, only gives a description:

I walked around a low-swung body on slender, glittering wheels; a lightweight, and painted bottle-green, for hope; an enquiring bonnet and a delicate tapering tail; crisp black upholstery; tucked-away places for boots and coats and books, and a hood that rolled up as neatly as a silk umbrella. A sturdy engine lay beneath all these beauties, the model of the year, big as my typewriter, but good for a spin round the world.

With an occasional shriek of protest from the gears, the women set off, and the reader gets to accompany them on their eventful and entertaining journey. There are some fun descriptions of the French countryside, and there's a pleasant feistiness in Nina's narrative:

The daily fare here, she assured me, as we passed through sturdy, affable villages, was once made up, as everybody knew, of murder, seduction, love, intrigue. In reality or in romance, Touraine was no less thickly peopled with the undying dead, than with those who had never lived at all save in a poet's brain. You fell over them, Mattie said, and I drove timidly, afraid to knock down Quentin Durward, or stumble up Gargantua's toe, or sully the languid skirts of Madame de Mortsauf.

And of course, there's a man who keeps popping up along the way, at first irritatingly and then perhaps less so… One might think there could have been two men who kept popping up, for the purposes of happy endings all around, but alas. And they do finally make it to Périgueux, though perhaps Nina's explanations aren't quite so relevant by then.

isn't a hilarious book, but it is thoroughly enjoyable and perfect as bedside reading or to take one away when a real getaway to France isn't on the cards. And it's interesting, too, in the context of other road trip tales, which were coming into their own around this time. In my neck of the woods only, there's also Rose Wilder Lane's account of her 1926 drive across Europe with her friend Helen Dore Boylston in Travels with Zenobia (only published much later, I think?), and there's Carola Oman's Fair Stood the Wind in 1930, which I mentioned here. No doubt there are many others. They're of interest partly because they capture a moment in time, when auto travel was still relatively new for ordinary folks, highway systems weren't fully fleshed out, and many parts of Europe were yet unvisited by tour buses and throngs of selfie-takers.

Oh, and by the way, the title comes from a variant of the song "Over the Hills and Far Away" that I hadn't come across:

"When I was young,
And had no sense,
I bought a fiddle for eighteen pence,
And all the tunes that it could play
Was over the hills and far away!"
NOTE: The comment function on Blogger is notoriously cranky. If you're having problems, try selecting "Name/URL" or "Anonymous" from the "Comment as" drop-down (be sure to "sign" your comment, though, so I know who dropped by). Some people also find it easier using a browser like Firefox or Chrome instead of Internet Explorer.

But it can still be a pain, and if you can't get any of that to work, please email me at I do want to hear from you!