Friday, January 28, 2022


When one delves into as many forgotten novels as I do, panning for gold, one inevitably accumulates some detritus in one's pan. I've got two of these "misses" for you here—both apparently overflowing with potential but sadly not living up to it for me.

Cottage on the Green
(1967) is the third in a loose series of novels set in the idyllic village of Pennycress, perhaps marketed with an eye toward Miss Read's Fairacre novels. They seem to each focus on different characters, but characters from earlier novels do make appearances here and there. Toms actually started writing not long after 1960, so she doesn't even get an entry on my main list, but the books sounded so charming I couldn't resist checking her out anyway.

In Cottage, Jacqueline Kerr, a young widowed mother of two who works as a translator (of unspecified manuscripts), returns to Pennycress, her daredevil husband having died 18 months earlier in a climbing accident. There she is comforted by her charming mother Mrs. Dennison, and has her problems added to by her rather obnoxious egomaniac of a father, who is of course humored and doted upon by his poor wife and who is obsessed with his descent from local hero Richard Henley, an 18th century naturalist, whose home the cottage once was. A prominent subplot of the novel is Mrs. Dennison's donation of a highly valued cup believed to have belonged to Henley to a church sale, Mr. Dennison's temper tantrums about said donation, and the efforts to retrieve the cup, which makes the rounds of the village in the course of the novel (perhaps having a livelier time of it than the reader).

There's also a drab, melodramatic subplot involving Celia Turner, a teacher at the village school, who is loved by her students but who harbors a bitter passion for the local potter, Patrick Miles, who is indifferent to her (and to most other people, until Jacqueline appears) and who apparently has a secret hidden in his past which makes him a bit bitter as well. Plenty of bitterness to go around.

There are some charming moments, as in Celia's fellow teacher Miss Anstey's efforts to harness the children's creativity in painting a mural of the Battle of Hastings, and restrain them from including a number of severed heads, which they feel sure should figure prominently. And there's a meeting of the Rural District Council in which local tensions come to the fore in humorous ways. Sadly, though, there is mostly hand-wringing: about Mr. Dennison's criticisms of Jacqueline's parenting skills, about his ridiculous cup, about Celia stalking and harassing Patrick, about Patrick being a jerk to everyone, and, eventually, about the obvious but not-very-interesting romance developing between Jacqueline and Patrick. Ultimately, the novel just reinforces my belief that, to paraphrase Virginia Woolf, on or about 1960 middlebrow fiction changed irrevocably to something far more angsty and melodramatic, and far less interesting to me. There are exceptions of course, but sadly, this one isn't among them.

I feel a little bit bad about my second "miss". The Spellbound Village (1951) was actually a surprise New Year's gift from the wonderful Kathy Reed (along with a vanishingly rare Ruby Ferguson title that will no doubt turn up here some time soon), who knew I'd be interested in its intriguing American twist on D. E. Stevenson's Miss Buncle's Book. So it's rather churlish including it in this post, but I would of course be nothing without my hard-as-nails, just-the-facts-ma'am critical integrity, and I think Kathy will understand that I can be enormously grateful to her for sharing the book with me and at the same time gleefully point out its failings. And of course, other readers' experiences of the book might differ, so I am selflessly pointing it out to you just in case. (It also helps that I have another post coming up about another book Kathy kindly sent me a while back, which I absolutely loved.)

Julia Truitt Yenni was apparently from Alabama and published four novels in all, of which this one was the last, following a nine year gap after her previous work. Thus, it's a final novel about a first-time novelist, 27-year-old Faith Goodbind, who, having had a happy but meandering type of childhood with her late father, moves to the small New England town of Two River Junction, hoping to build a stable home for herself at last. Unbeknownst to the locals, she has already written a novel, Summer Brave, and sent it off to the publishers Redfield and Carson in New York. 

Naturally, the publisher recognizes a masterpiece when he sees it, and the book appears in due course, only to provoke considerable consternation in Two River Junction at the suspicion that its characters are based on local residents. Tawdry affairs, financial secrets, and other intrigue have been, they believe, callously revealed, the local brothelkeeper is enraged that her brothel has been presented in the novel as a … er, brothel (how dare she!), and, perhaps worst of all, a young ne'er-do-well's girlfriend suddenly becomes convinced that he's a tormented soul whom she must comfort. Of course, most of the villagers' "secrets" were already known by everyone anyway, but this doesn't stop the rage from building, nor various confrontations from taking place.

The novel begins well, in humorous tone, and the scenes in which Joseph Stafford, Faith's publisher, and Barclay Hampton, a well-known critic & journalist (who "can get positively exalted over little old ladies. Especially if they have a Hidden Vein of Ribaldry"), venture to Two River Junction to meet her and observe the locals, rather like beasts in a zoo, are thoroughly entertaining. But it seemed to me that Yenni was uncertain whether her story was a comedy or a melodrama, and sadly she ended up veering way too far in the latter direction for my taste. There's lots of handwringing and agonizing, a possible suicide, and only a bit of entertaining comedy scattered in between.

Yenni is a skillful enough writer, and her description of the town's carefully manicured front yards vs. the back yards where everything hangs out is a skillful metaphor of the town's public vs. private business as well:

But along the alley, from which the back yards could be seen, all restraint ended, like that of a fat and dignified woman who had borne her corsets as long as she could and burst out of them into a flowered wrapper.

But overall, it seemed a rather humdrum tale to me, veering more toward Peyton Place than Miss Buncle. And what particularly got my goat here was the fact that, with the exception of Faith herself and perhaps one or two others, the characters are neatly divided into two types: the irrational hothead gossips (women), and the rational and practical (men). Yenni partakes just a bit too much of misogynistic stereotypes, to the extent that by the end I was getting some cynical, exasperated giggles out of counting how many misguided women had to be set straight by their calm, logical menfolk. I could perhaps have forgiven this if it had all been more amusing, but alas.

Although The Spellbound Village is interesting to compare and contrast with Miss Buncle's Book, for most readers I'd recommend a re-read of that classic instead.

And perhaps what we've learned from this post is that Furrowed Middlebrow is simply not a fan of handwringing…

Saturday, January 22, 2022

'Hellish dark and smells of cheese': ISOBEL STRACHEY, Suzanna (1956)

Not (alas) the cover of my copy

Juliet glanced at her figure in a long mirror hanging beside a print of horses at full gallop, uncertain whether she accepted the probability of reflected beauty, and quickly sank into the hot water, her mind still fermenting with a host of tiny worries.

Everyone has thoughts about how they see Juliet Tancred and what she should do with her life, but she can't seem to see herself at all. She's a "stone nymph beside a fountain" or, for her long-suffering presumed fiancé, "the Madonna, the pale moon goddess and the lily-maid of Astolat" (the last better known to us mortals as the lady of Shalott).

Timothy Harper, a neighbour who has given up a promising career as a musician to take over the family estate from his hard-working mother Prim, has long been in love with Juliet, and there is considerable pressure from family and friends to finally make their relationship official. But Juliet can't bring herself to commit, perhaps in part due to the way Timothy idealizes and worships her ('Timothy gives me a sad feeling of inadequacy as if I were a damp squib which wouldn't go off.') She decides instead that she must take a flat in London and establish herself in a career.

In the meantime, she becomes intrigued by Edgar Dunn, a 40-ish friend of her family, who is married to the older Lady Suzanna Chalisfont, an elegant, attractive woman who fears her hold on Edgar is slipping as she grows older and more frail. Edgar, increasingly obsessed with Catholicism, is also regretting that he passed over a lovely young girl (of whom Juliet reminds him) to marry Suzanna, but his religion won't allow for divorce, so he contents himself with mentoring Juliet during occasional semi-clandestine meetings in London.

If that's not a complex enough stew of potential drama for you, we also get the sudden reappearance of Suzanna's first husband Stanislaus, presumed dead for over a decade, who reappears and expects to resume their old flame, which Suzanna manages to do while keeping both her husbands in the same house. And we have Tara, a friend of Juliet's from her office, upon whom Juliet more or less foists Timothy to take the pressure off of herself, then wonders if she has made a mistake when Tara falls for him hook line and sinker.

It's quite the soap opera cast, really, but of course in the hands of Isobel Strachey (of whom I've wrote a couple of times recently—see here), it becomes quite a lot more than melodrama, though—unsurprisingly if you've read those earlier posts—I wasn't entirely sure exactly what it was. Unusually for me, I waited a week or two after reading it before attempting this review, and as happened with the other two Stracheys I've read it has affected me almost more in retrospect than in actually reading it.

Ultimately, it's a story of two women, at opposite ends of their adult lives, navigating the clichĂ©d "man's world" in their own ways. As a gay man, I think I was initially attracted most to Suzanna, who—though she would undoubtedly be irritating as hell to live with—has a glamour and pinache that seems to appeal to my people… But even with her wealth and social position, Suzanna has, quite literally, built her life around men, and around being the irresistible object of their affections. So that, on reflection, it’s the confused, awkward Juliet, whom one often wants shake, who is surely the real heroine here—even in her lack of self-assurance and inability to clearly see a future for herself, she decides she doesn't want to be a stone nymph or a madonna. Her way of avoiding it is messy, but it's the 1950s and avoiding domination by men would surely not have been easy for any woman.

If I've made this novel sound like a feminist diatribe, it's certainly not. Strachey is, for all her occasional flamboyance, far too subtle for that. She just gives you the characters, in all their imperfections, and expects you to put the pieces together, and the ending is nothing like a triumphant win for Juliet—and it's a downright tragic one for Suzanna.

When I was reading Suzanna, I was disappointed at first. It seemed rather lackluster by comparison to the other two Stracheys I've read. The bold, striking metaphors are not as prevalent here, and apart from Suzanna herself the characters seem relatively ordinary, real people you could see anywhere. I thought perhaps Strachey wasn't so inspired this time around, but now I wonder if it wasn't rather that she felt this novel more personally than most. From the few descriptions of Strachey herself that I've come across, I wonder if she didn't identify herself a bit with both her hopeful young heroine and her tragic older sophisticate. At any rate, I think this might now be my favorite of the three Stracheys I've read—like fine wines, I'm beginning to realize that Isobel Strachey novels require some aging to fully appreciate. And I now have a complete set of all seven of them to be getting on with...

But it is not the case that Strachey's brilliant figural flares are entirely absent here. I mean, what of this portrait of Timothy's mother Prim:

Prim bent over him in consternation, taut and frail, not daring to touch him, her face pinched with suppressed emotion; then laid her hand for a moment bravely on his shoulder and proceeded gently and sadly along the passage, her narrow head drooped forward on her long neck like a tulip too heavy for its stalk.

And then there's the following, in which Juliet, in a tense moment whose details I won't reveal, nervously babbles a story which may just be intended to represent her own limited perspective on life:

Her white complexion took on a high colour; she talked twice as rapidly as usual and insisted on a long exchange of funny stories including a description of somebody called Mr. Jorrocks who looked into a cupboard in mistake for a window and being asked what sort of a night it was, replied 'hellish dark and smells of cheese,' which she repeated several times with differing emphasis.

Indeed, how many of us sometimes think the world is hellish dark and smells of cheese simply because we're looking in our own cupboard instead of at reality? (That sounds rather like a sappy greeting card, though, doesn't it?)

Thursday, January 13, 2022

'Maud had been a thoroughly nice, if elderly, girl before she had taken up bull-fighting': VIOLET TREFUSIS, Hunt the Slipper (1937)

If ever a house was endowed with a personality, it was Ambush. Its moods were many and peculiar. It could frown, it could smile, it could look sentimental, it could look so innocent that butter would not melt in its mouth. Nigel was in the habit of bringing it back a present each time he absented himself. You could tell at once if the present was considered appropriate or not. In the former case it would be instantly absorbed, becoming part and parcel of Ambush, looking as though it had always been there. On the other hand, if it failed to please, try as he might, Nigel could not find a place for the damned thing. Wherever he put it would be wrong, comical, clumsy. Ambush had a fine sense of parody. 'What! Me in that curtain!' it would exclaim, holding the offending drapery at an impossible angle, playing buffoon, courting laughter.

Somehow, when I prepared by 2021 Furrowed Middlebrow Dozen recently, I was laboring under the delusion that I had already read all six of the marvelous Violet Trefusis' novels in 2021. Soon after, I realized I had forgotten this one. True, I had read this before, way back in 2008, but for all I can remember of a book 14 years after reading it, it might as well have been completely new. And now I'm in a bit of quandary, because in the FM Dozen I said that Tandem was my favorite Trefusis novel, but now Hunt the Slipper is giving it a run for its money. Certainly I suspect that HTS is Violet's best novel in terms of structure and literary polish. This wonderful farce about two lovers who are star-crossed as much because of their personal idiosyncrasies (and idiocies, perhaps) as because of the fact that he's an aging playboy and she's married to his friend and neighbor, is perfectly structured to reflect the circles in which the two lovers go round, not unlike the parlor game used for its title.

Nigel Benson, approaching 50, is said to be an aging Lothario (which undoubtedly strikes me differently today, over 50, than it did 14 years ago), who has never really doubted his attractiveness to women before but is suddenly beginning to feel that he's approaching his sell-by date. Nigel lives with his sister Molly, who has seen the ups and downs of many of his previous love affairs, at their country home called (appropriately given Nigel's past) Ambush. And now, his neighbor, Sir Anthony Crome, the closest thing Nigel really has to a friend, has brought home a new young wife, Caroline, to his nearby estate. Although they get off to a bumpy start, Nigel soon finds himself obsessing over Caroline and the will-she/won't-she of her restless discontent.

But the fun really gets going when first Nigel and Molly, and then Caroline and Sir Anthony, set out on Continental excursions, so that the lovers' only communication is by letter. Nigel is needy and insecure, Caroline not very good at letter-writing, and all sorts of passionate motives get attached to their every written word. We get snippets of their letters, but largely the focus is on their failure to communicate and their occasional crankiness to each be traveling with the wrong companion. Here's Caroline in Florence venting her frustration to the boring Sir Anthony:

"'I hate a view,' she complained to Anthony, 'it's like a tyrannical old relation with an ear-trumpet. You're hardly inside the house when off you're dragged out to look at it, and the View strains its ear to catch what you say about it. How I approve of the young man who was in Florence for a week without making any comment on the View. The day before he left, he pointed to the Duomo and said: "What's that hump?"'

As much as I adored every moment of our trip to Florence a few years ago, one can quite see how romantic discord could spoil it.

And here too, as in her other novels, Violet gives us some unforgettable supporting characters. My favorites this time are certainly the hilarious Miss Ryder and Mrs Simpson, two aging Englishwomen whose friendship is being strained by Miss Ryder having been recently to Spain and become an aficionado of everything Spanish, to the immense boredom of those around her: 

"She brandished a nicotine-stained forefinger. Mrs Arthur Simpson fidgeted. She had not brought Maud here to talk about bull-fights; she had brought her to talk about antirrhinums. Maud had been a thoroughly nice, if elderly, girl before she had taken up bull-fighting. Now she was off again … 'You know, you'd never believe it, but I'm often taken for a Spaniard. The other day, in Sevilla, a man asked me if I wasn't a relation of Pablo Casamuerta. It appears we have the same nose … ' She paused for controversy, but no one knew Pablo Casamuerte, and no one was interested in his nose"

Hunt the Slipper is really Violet's most sustained and consistent comedic performance, though I do still think Tandem might just squeak ahead as my sentimental favorite of her work. As always in Violet's fiction, too, there are links to be made with real life. According to the foreword to the Virago edition I read, written by Violet's good friend and biographer John Phillips, Nigel is indubitably a stand-in for Violet herself, and Ambush is clearly Violet's Tour de Saint Loup. He also notes how Violet's (in)famous mother, Alice Keppel, society lady extraordinaire and mistress of Edward VII, informs her fiction:

Mrs Keppel's real importance to Violet's fiction, however, lies in the fact that the world it portrays is the kind of world she enjoyed, a world her daughter failed to re-invent, but inhabited in an ironic and parodic spirit. The game, in Hunt the Slipper, is fixed in advance, Violet is, by now, as much in complicity with pusillanimous Nigel as with passionate Caroline.

This is no doubt why Violet understands this world so well and is able to mock it so delightfully.

On a side note, this novel was dedicated to Violet's close friend, French novelist Princess Marthe Bibesco, who made a surprise appearance on my first Unfurrowed Dozen list a little while back.

Now this post really does complete my reviewing of Violet Trefusis' novels, at least until some savvy publisher translates those other two into English. And while I have had difficulty picking a favorite, I have no difficulty at all recommending her to those with a taste for the sophisticated skewering of sophisticates.

Monday, January 3, 2022

THEY'RE HERE!: 11 new D. E. Stevenson titles from Dean Street Press

Today's the day at last! Our eleven new D. E. Stevenson reprints, some of them previously very hard to find indeed, are officially released today. It's always so exciting when the months of effort come to fruition and new books are finally available for all. I hope you enjoy them as much as I do. Some of my all time favorites are included here.

Each of our reprints includes an autobiographical essay from 1950 by Stevenson, originally written as promotional material for her novel Music in the Hills (also available from Dean Street Press), and there are additional extras included in our reprints of The Fair Miss Fortune (correspondence between DES and her agent regarding the initial rejection of the novel by her publishers), The English Air (previously unpublished correspondence between DES and publishers, which provide a glimpse of the historic moment at which the novel was completed), and Five Windows (a very short piece by DES about the writing of the novel).

Our full covers are shown below, all making use of the books' original vintage covers (except for Fair Miss Fortune, which was never published at all until 2011). Also, a reminder that six of these are being released in both paperback and e-book, while the remaining five are being released only in paperback (e-book versions of those five are already available from another publisher). Details noted under the images below.


The Fair Miss Fortune (1938)
paperback and e-book

Green Money (1939)
paperback and e-book

The English Air (1940)
paperback only

Kate Hardy (1947)
paperback and e-book

Young Mrs. Savage (1948)
paperback and e-book

Five Windows (1953)
paperback only

Charlotte Fairlie (1954)
paperback and e-book

The Tall Stranger (1957)
paperback only

Anna and Her Daughters (1958)
paperback only

The Musgraves (1960)
paperback and e-book

The Blue Sapphire (1963)
paperback only

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